Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Third Man (1949)

     The other day, I was thinking of my favorite movie soundtracks ever. And I came to the conclusion that if I made a list of my favorites, “The Third Man” would be at the top. A 1949 film set in post-WWII Vienna, the entire soundtrack is performed by one man on a zither, a European stringed instrument. Look it up. The film itself is a film-noir mystery, filled with corruption, murder, lost love, and ambiguity, right up to the very end. So aside from the music, and the stunning camerawork, what is there to appreciate about “The Third Man”? We’ll get to that in a second.

     “The Third Man” starts in 1940’s Vienna, where Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a poor, American writer of “cheap novelettes” has been hired by his friend Harry Lime to come work for him. But when Holly arrives, he finds that Harry has been hit by a car very recently and killed. His funeral is that day. Holly goes and finds several people that he’ll meet in the coming days: Anna (Alida Valli), Harry’s lover; Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) of the British Patrol; Doctor Winkel (Erich Ponto), Harry’s medical advisor; and Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), another of Harry’s friends. And right from the beginning, Holly starts suspecting that something’s up.

     Calloway tells Holly, to his disbelief, that Harry was involved in a racketeering scheme. The next day, Holly finds Kurtz and talks to him about the accident. But Kurtz tells Holly that Harry was able to speak just before he died; the porter (Paul Hörbiger) at Harry’s hotel told Holly earlier that Harry was killed at once. Holly then finds Anna and talks to her, and she tells him that Harry was hit by his own driver, and his doctor and Kurtz were at the scene. Holly then talks to Winkel, who says he cannot give Holly any more information. Holly gets more and more suspicious.

     But after Holly gets on Calloway’s case about accusing a dead man of racketeering, Calloway gives Holly evidence of Harry’s scheme of diluting penicillin and selling it to patients, killing them. This was one of the many black-market schemes in Vienna after World War Two. And Holly, depressed and drunk, doesn’t know what to do. Then he walks down the street and finds somebody hiding in an alley. It’s Harry (Orson Welles). Holly, after a lot of chasing, finally gets Kurtz and Winkel to send Harry to him, and they meet at a Venetian amusement park. Atop a Ferris wheel, Holly interrogates Harry about his penicillin scheme. At the very top of the wheel, Harry points down to the people below and tells Holly:

HARRY: Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? …Like the fellow said: in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed—but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love—they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!

     Bit of trivia: that last part was adlibbed by Welles. Anyway, yeah, what a pessimistic little monologue. And that pessimism sets the tone for the film’s third act. Holly, who has been slowly falling in love with Anna, is rejected by her because he has agreed to help Calloway catch Harry. And in a historic, beautiful chase sequence in the sewers of Vienna, Harry shoots Calloway’s partner, Holly shoots Harry, and after Harry’s funeral, Anna walks past Holly, never speaking to him again and causing him to miss his flight back to the United States.

     Very rarely have I written about a film on “Reel Christianity” where I picked out an idea from the Bible that contradicted what the movie actually said. This is one of them. There is a post-war, pessimistic kind of tone to this film that can be summed up in Harry Lime’s words: “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” It’s as if after World War Two, life in Vienna—even around the world—doesn’t matter anymore. People have stopped caring about others so much that they regard each other simply as dots. Now, there is some truth in that, but not in the pessimistic way.

     See, I remember four years ago when I rededicated my life to Christ at a youth conference. I had come to the realization that I was a small speck on a planet that, compared to the rest of the universe, was a small speck itself. That made me realize: “God made all this. He’s bigger than all this. And He really can fix my problems.” But what’s even better is that He doesn’t consider us just to be little specks! Back at the beginning of the year, I referenced Psalm 139 in another of my posts, and there’s another part of the psalm that applies to this idea: “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you.” (139:17-18)

     To God, we are not just little dots. We are masterpieces. And we are all worth it, in times of war and in times of peace. And my prayer for you, the reader, is that you will trust in a God today who is bigger than all of us and our problems, and that you would worship Him no matter how pessimistic the rest of the world seems.

(By the way: speaking of pessimistic movies, next month brings us another new series. And I'm looking forward to sharing it with you!)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Braveheart (1995)

     You know the really nice thing about seeing almost fifty new movies over the summer? It gives me a lot of material. Six of the movies that I’ve written about in the last four months or so were movies I saw for the first time over the summer—including this one. Yeah, I’d never seen “Braveheart” until May or so. And after the guys on my college residence hall scolding me for having not seen it last semester, I decided to go rent it. So here’s “Braveheart”.

     Mel Gibson directs the film and stars as William Wallace, a Scotsman fighting for freedom in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. But, of course, he doesn’t start out that way. The film opens with him as a young boy living in Lanark, and at a young age, the English invasion of Scotland by King Edward, or “Longshanks” still haunts him and his family. And one day, William’s father and brother go with others to attack English soldiers. Some return, but William’s family is not among them.

     As an adult, Wallace goes with his uncle to Europe and learns to read and write different languages. He returns and falls in love and marries a childhood friend named Murron (Catherine McCormack). However, they have to be married in secret: the king’s orders were that a lord in any of his territories had the privilege of sleeping with any bride living there. Many men resisted but were torn from their wives. So William and Murron marry secretly one night, but that doesn’t stop English soldiers from noticing something between the two of them. Murron is attacked one day by one of these soldiers, but William fights them off and flees. In response, the village sheriff kills Murron to lure Wallace back to catch him. However, Wallace starts a brawl, killing the sheriff and getting several other Scotsmen on his side to fight the English.

     And basically, after the tragedy of losing his new wife, Wallace decides to fight against the English. He becomes a legend among Scots, who rise up in the rebellion to fight. At one point, he ends up getting so many men together that they equal the size of the English army—but some of the Scots are afraid. They tell Wallace before the battle that they would rather retreat and live. So Wallace gives him the motivational speech that defines the movie:

WALLACE: Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live—at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance—just one chance—to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!

     And the Scots defeat the English, and they keep defeating the English. They become so much of a threat, Longshanks sends his daughter-in-law Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) to go offer Wallace land and more if he’ll stop fighting. (Why the daughter-in-law? Because her husband, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), is a coward who Longshanks doesn’t trust to do anything.) But Wallace stands firm, and Isabelle, knowing about Murron’s death, sympathizes with Wallace.

     Long story short, Wallace keeps fighting the English, impregnates Isabelle, and eventually gets captured and convicted of treason. But Wallace, even in his prison cell, will not yield to the English. And so, in front of a condemning crowd, Wallace is beaten, his entrails are removed, and he is finally beheaded. But before his death, he is given one last chance to save himself: surrender and he will be released. But Wallace shouts only one thing: “FREEDOM!” And the crowd shouts, and he is executed.

     It’s pretty easy to figure out who William Wallace reminds a lot of people of. I mean, in the Gospels, a condemning crowd shouted at a crucified Jesus, challenging him to take himself down from the cross, if He really was the Son of God. And what did Jesus say? He prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) He willingly died on the cross, and by doing so and rising from the dead on the third day, he gave us the freedom that William Wallace desired for Scotland. But the freedom we have in Jesus is so much more! Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have freedom to choose to live for Him!

     The Apostle Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 3, where he talks about how Moses covered his face with a veil when he read the old law or covenant. “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (3:15-17) Because of Jesus, we are free to know Jesus, free to trust Jesus, and free to live for Jesus.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find in Jesus the freedom to say “yes” to him, and you would love others as Christ loved you and freely gave Himself up for you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Great Expectations (1946)

     I’ve talked a couple times on this blog about movie director John Ford, known for making a lot of Western and war films. All his films, whether in black-in-white or in color, were beautifully shot to encompass not only the scenery of wherever the movie took place, which ranged from Monument Valley to the hills of Ireland, but also to display an ensemble cast with powerful emotions from each actor. But Ford wasn’t the only director to shoot his films like this. Another director who shot his films very well was a British filmmaker named David Lean, who is known for creating grand-scale epics such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”. But before he was making those grand-scale epics, he was making small, black-and-white films, many of which were based on works by Charles Dickens. “Great Expectations” is known as the best of these films.

     “Great Expectations” could be called the grandfather of films that focus all on one life, in the same way that “Forrest Gump” or “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” have done in the last twenty years. “Great Expectations”, which I assume follows Dickens’ novel very closely, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it yet myself, follows the life of young Phillip Pirrip, an orphan in Britain living with his older sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). At the beginning of the film, Phillip introduces himself as “Pip”, a name that he referred to himself as a small child when he couldn’t pronounce large words and which stuck even into adulthood. But we first see Pip as a child, played by Tony Wager, visiting his parents’ gravesite when suddenly a convict named Magwitch (Finlay Currie) comes up to him and threatens him to give him something to eat. Pip gets a cake from the house and eventually gets him back to him, who eats it very thankfully. Later, however, he and another convict are found and are captured back by the authorities. Pip almost forgets about this incident until much later in his life.

     But until then, Pip is called by Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a broken-hearted old woman who lives in the attic of her huge mansion with all her windows covered by wood—she hasn’t seen sunlight in years. With her lives Estella, played as a child by Jean Simmons, a beautiful teenage girl who Miss Havisham wants Pip to play with and be friends with. Pip is content at Miss Havisham’s lavish house but does find Estella somewhat mean. Then, one day, he seems to earn her respect: he and another boy hiding in a tree have a friendly fight, which Pip wins easily. Pip almost forgets about this incident until much later in his life.

     But one day, Pip stops going to Miss Havisham’s house to start his apprenticeship with his uncle, at the same time that Estella goes away to the city, to learn to become a lady. But six years later, all these events that Pip saw as a child come back to reward him: one day, a man named Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), who happens to be Miss Lavisham’s lawyer, tells Pip that an unnamed patron has left Pip with a huge sum of money and an opportunity to live in London. Pip accepts, with the huge support of Joe Gargery and his wife Biddy (Eileen Erskine), whom Joe married after Pip’s sister passed away. And Pip moves in to stay with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), who happens to be the boy he fought with many years before. They become great friends, and Herbert starts teaching Pip the ways of a gentlemen. Pip also runs into a grown-up Estella (Valerie Hobson), who has become a lady but has a habit of flirting with many men, even those she isn’t interested in. Soon, Pip becomes discomforted. One day, after Joe comes to visit him and the visit turns out to be very awkward, Pip’s narration confesses: “Let me confess that if I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money. In trying to become a gentleman, I had succeeded in becoming a snob. …All that day, Joe’s simple dignity filled me with reproach.

     Then one night, everything changes. Pip had always assumed that Miss Havisham was his patron. But she wasn’t: it was Abel Magwitch, who made money in Australia and stayed there so he wasn’t caught in England and hanged. Now, he has come back to see Pip, and Pip decides to take him back to Australia, so that another convict looking for him—the other one from the beginning of the film—will not find him. And as Pip and Herbert start rowing Magwitch to safety, Magwitch reveals why he gave Pip a future of what everyone called “great expectations”: Pip reminded him of his daughter, about Pip’s age, who was lost from him when she was very young.

     But to make a long story short, I have to wrap this up now. Pip makes the connection that Magwitch’s daughter is Estella, who has inherited Miss Havisham’s mansion after her tragic death. Pip tells Magwitch this on the boat before he dies of sickness, in peace. Estella was engaged, but her lover broke it off after Mr. Jaggers told her who her father was, and now she lives alone in the mansion attic, with the windows still boarded up. So Pip goes to visit her, and when he finds out that she plans to share Miss Havisham’s fate, he is appalled. And in an incredible ending, he tears down the window curtains, breaks down the wooden boards, and lets sunlight into that room for the first time in years.

PIP: Estella, you must leave this house. It's a dead house; nothing can live here. Leave it, Estella, I beg of you.

ESTELLA: What do you mean? This is the house where I grew up. It's... it's part of me! It's my home.

PIP: It's Miss Havisham's home! But she's gone, Estella, gone from this house, from you, from both of us.

ESTELLA: She is not gone. She's still here with me in this house, in this very room.

PIP: Then I defy her! ...Look, Estella, look! Nothing but dust and decay! I’ve never ceased to love you, even when there seemed no hope for my love. You’re part of my existence, part of myself. Estella, come with me, out into the sunlight. 

     And as they embrace, the two of them leave the mansion happily, with great expectations for the future. Now, I know that this is a lot of information about one movie, but I think that’s the reason why “Great Expectations” is such an excellent film. It tells the story of a life so well, and it’s also an example of how if you do good things early on, they will be rewarded later on, even if it takes time. But the greatest lesson from the film is to not let life fly by, and not to live in the dark. God calls us to live life to the fullest. Jesus himself says in John 10:10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

     The Apostle Paul compares it in the New Testament to running a race: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Corinthians 9:24, 26) Paul says to live life to serve the Lord in everything you do: as a Christian, I can’t be running aimlessly! I need to serve God to the best of my abilities in every area of my life. Paul also writes in 2 Timothy what he wants to be able to say after a life of serving the Lord: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (4:7)

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you won’t live your life alone in the darkness, but that you would be a child of the Light, living for Jesus in every area of your life and serving Him in everything you do.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Usual Suspects (1995)

     Two words. Spoiler alert.

     Anyway, this past summer, I counted: I watched a total of forty-seven movies for the first time. Among them were films that I’ve already talked about on “Reel Christianity”: “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, “Witness”, last week’s “The Thin Red Line”, and many others. One of the last ones I got to see was “The Usual Suspects”, a mystery film from 1995 that seemed to me like a mediocre crime drama until the half third of the movie. At that point, there’s a twist. And it’s crazy.

     “The Usual Suspects” starts with a boat on fire in San Pedro, with numerous murdered bodies on the ship and only two survivors. One of them is a severely burned Hungarian criminal, and the other is Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), a physically disabled man who has been involved in schemes in New York. Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) calls Verbal into his office and asks him to tell him the whole story of what happened that led to the murders in San Pedro. So Verbal tells him, with rather specific details, the origin of a group of conmen, including himself, who were accused in New York of a truck hijacking. The group is made up of Verbal, Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).

     However, they are not the men who are responsible for the hijacking. So they decide to go after the corrupt New York police force. And after a successful robbery, they travel to California and make a deal with a man who McManus knows, who has them rob a jewel smuggler. However, it turns out that the smuggler doesn’t have jewels, but drugs. And through this—somehow, I only watched the film once so I don’t have every detail in my head, I’m sorry to say—the five of them are introduced to Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), a lawyer who gives them a job to do that will earn them altogether $91 million, but may not see all of them live. When they question him, Kobayashi reluctantly reveals that he works for Keyser Soze.

     Kujan doesn’t know who this guy is. And neither did Verbal when he heard his name for the first time. But Verbal explains to Kujan in his office who Keyser Soze is. Soze was a legendary drug dealer whose house and family were attacked by Hungarian gang members. Soze showed them the willpower he really had: he killed all but one of the Hungarians, but he also killed his wife and two kids, saying that he would rather see his family dead than live another day. So he lets the Hungarian go and attacks the mob, killing each mobster’s family and even those who they weren’t related to but had done business with one way or another. But soon, he disappeared, and was considered almost a myth.

     So long story short, the five criminals are basically blackmailed by Kobayashi and Soze to destroy the cargo of the ship in San Pedro, which apparently is carrying drugs. Fenster tries to get out of the deal, but is killed by Kobayashi. Keaton’s girlfriend is kidnapped, and Kobayashi uses this to make Keaton go through with the job. Verbal stays behind as Keaton and McManus search the cargo ship, but they find no drugs. Instead, they find somebody going around and murdering everyone on the ship, which includes several Hispanics. Eventually, McManus and Keaton are killed as well, presumably by Keyser Soze.

     So Kujan puts the pieces together and determines that Keaton must have been Keyser Soze. He murdered those on the ship, and his girlfriend, in order to protect his identity. Verbal, in tears, finally admits that it must have been Keaton all along, and he limps out of the police department. Meanwhile, the other survivor, the severely burned Hungarian, has been describing all the time the face of Keyser Soze.

     And that’s when the twist happens. Kujan, satisfied, drinks his coffee and suddenly notices what’s on the big bulletin board on his office wall. It includes names and places that Verbal referenced when telling Kujan his story. Kujan realizes: Verbal Kint made the whole story up. Even Kujan’s coffee mug says on the bottom: “Kobayashi”. And Kujan rushes out of the police department in search for Verbal, and on his way out, he picks up a fax of a drawn description of Keyser Soze’s face—which resembles Verbal Kint. Verbal/Keyser, meanwhile, has slowly started walking out the limp in his leg and his disabled hand and has secretly dropped his disguise. Kobayashi—or whoever he is—picks him up in a car and drives him away before Kujan can find him again. As this all happens, we hear clips of what the characters have said that led up to this twist ending, which ends with Verbal talking about Keyser Soze.

VERBAL: After that, my guess is you’ll never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, he’s gone.

     And with his deception, Keyser Soze has tricked the police, the conmen, the drug dealers, and the world by presenting himself as a physically disabled man that no one has confidence in. And that made me think: Keyser Soze used weakness to present himself. But in reality, because he made himself a weak man, he was able to use it as a strength to trick everybody!

     No, I’m not saying that the Bible says we can trick people. But I do know that the Bible says that weaknesses are strengths in the eyes of God. In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul says that he has nothing to boast about to others but his weaknesses: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (12:9b-10) And as a believer, I should not focus so much on my strengths, but humble myself and boast about my weaknesses. For when I make myself humble, I become stronger.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will humble yourself before Christ today and boast only in weaknesses, so that He can give you the strength to serve him.