Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

     Yeah, you all knew this was coming. A year ago, I wrote on “Reel Christianity” about “Batman Begins”, planning to write in six-month increments about the other two movies in Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy. And last week, I got to see “The Dark Knight Rises” at a midnight premiere in Ohio (and I praise the Lord that He protected mine, as I continue to pray for those hurt in Colorado), and it was hard to believe that this franchise of movies that have meant so much to me as an amateur filmmaker was over.

     And what did I think of “The Dark Knight Rises”? Well, I’m still not really sure. Right now, I think the other two are better… but maybe that’s just because I’ve seen them many times. But I can safely say that “TDKR” was the darkest of the three movies, the slowest-paced of the three, and (don’t hurt me) the worst of the three. That may change when I see it a few more times, but as of right now, I like the other two a lot better. But one thing that “TDKR” did satisfy for me was my predictions for it. I didn’t really tell anybody (mostly because I didn’t think they would come true), but I had two main predictions for what would happen in the film. They both came true, and because of that, I can continue to make the analogy between Batman and Jesus. But more on that later.

     (Oh yeah. HUGE SPOILER ALERT.)

     “The Dark Knight Rises” starts out having what I like to call the “Toy Story 3” syndrome: there’s a lot of talking in the beginning about how things are different than they were in the previous two movies. We see in the beginning, which finds us eight years after “The Dark Knight”, that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), not unlike the latter years of Charles Foster Kane, is living aloof in his newly built Wayne Manor, having been away from the world since Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent’s sins—err, faults at the end of “The Dark Knight”. Batman, as far as Gotham is concerned, is an outlaw that killed Ramirez, Wuertz, Dent, and other innocent people, and then ran away and was never heard from again. And under a new law called the Dent Act (named after you-know-who), the criminals who Dent charged in “The Dark Knight” and put in prison have all apparently been kept there for a long time.

    But at the same time, there is still pain in Gotham. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who has kept the truth about Batman hidden for many years, has now been abandoned by his wife and kids, and is on the brink of retirement. Alfred (Michael Caine) is still with Bruce, but he longs for Bruce to move on with his life instead of just hiding from the world. And Wayne Enterprises, which has apparently been inactive for several years, is losing a lot of money. So many others around Gotham are starting to lose hope. One woman, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), makes her way through powerful people in order to get what she wants… or just steal stuff, including Bruce’s mom’s pearls. One man, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a rookie cop in Gotham who still wants to know who Batman was and where he is. And another woman, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), is starting to make her way to being the new CEO of Wayne Enterprises with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).

     But there’s still one man that is going to change everything. The film’s first real scene takes place on some plane heading somewhere, which this man basically hijacks so he can bring a scientist with him to Gotham to put an atomic bomb in the city to completely destroy it. The man is Bane (Tom Hardy, making this a full-out “Inception” reunion), another man with a mask, but this mask only covers his mouth and helps it to speak because of some attack on him years before. And once he gets to Gotham, his attack starts.

     I won’t go into much more in-depth detail about the plot now, because if I do, it’ll take too long. So I’m just going to tell you what I predicted for this movie. One: this movie was going to feel like the apocalypse. What I mean is, if Batman took on Harvey Dent’s sins in the last movie, like Jesus died on the cross for our sins, the only way for this saga to end would be an end-of-the-world kind of situation that would force Batman to come back, just like Jesus will come back at the end of the world to save His followers that are still on the earth. “The Dark Knight Rises” doesn’t have any allusions to the kind of visions that John writes about in the Book of Revelation (at least, I haven’t made any connections to that yet), but it still uses Bane’s character and his actions to turn Gotham practically upside-down. He messes with the stock market and makes Wayne Enterprises bankrupt, as Tate is getting ready to take over (spoiler: she’s in cahoots with Bane). Bane then puts Gordon in the hospital, kills the mayor and his assistants, and reveals publicly the truth about Batman and Dent. Because of this, the criminals in prison under the Dent Act are gotten out of prison and join Bane in taking over Gotham.

     My second prediction: Bruce Wayne would die in this movie. In my article on “Batman Begins”, I talked a little about how Bruce Wayne is striving to be something more, someone beyond himself as Batman. So in being this figure, he sacrifices the fortune and fame of his billionaire lifestyle. And this sacrifice is what truly tests him at the end of “The Dark Knight”, when he ends up taking the fall for Harvey Dent. After thinking about it, I thought that the only way for Wayne’s transformation into Batman to be complete would be for Bruce Wayne to die, or even fake his death. Whatever would happen, Bruce Wayne would be no more, and Batman would be all that was left.

     And hallelujah, that’s exactly what happens. After Wayne puts on the Batman suit for the first time in a long time, he fights Bane and gets his butt kicked… and his back broken. And after taking off Batman’s mask, he somehow gets Wayne into an underground lair of sorts where Bane actually was trained as a youth… by none other than Ra’s al Ghul! Nice twist. Anyway, Wayne eventually gets his back repaired (which is pretty painful to watch), and he is able to perform the ultimate challenge of that lair: climb up. Tied to a rope, he must climb a very thin rock wall up a hole to the surface, which no one—except Tate as a child—has done. But Wayne climbs up, gets back to Gotham, dresses in Batman again, and works with Gordon, Blake, and Kyle—who’s Catwoman, by the way—team up to fight Bane, Tate, and the prisoners. Kyle, who knows the pain Batman has endured, tries to convince him otherwise:

CATWOMAN: Save yourself. You don’t owe these people anymore. You’ve given them everything!

BATMAN: Not everything. Not yet.

     You probably saw that in the trailer, and even seeing that scene there started to confirm for me that the allegory would be complete in this film. So Batman and his team go to fight and kill Bane, and they are running out of time before Bane’s nuclear bomb goes off and destroys Gotham and everyone in it. So Batman uses his new “transportation vehicle”, which Fox has named the “Bat” (it flies), to carry the bomb toward a faraway body of water, where it explodes and saves Gotham—but not Bruce Wayne. And Gordon, Fox, Blake, and Alfred join for Bruce Wayne’s private funeral, where he is buried next to his parents.

     (However, after writing the first draft of this article and then talking to some friends about the film's ending, it's more probable that Bruce, having the Bat set on auto-pilot or something, may have jumped out in time and just faked his death. I haven't really made up my mind yet. Either way, I'm satisfied.)

     Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 16:24, “‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” I think it’s safe to say that Bruce Wayne was following this commandment, even if it was just his own way. He denied his identity as Bruce Wayne and put on the mask and the suit, fighting crime, taking the fall, and sacrificing even his life to save the lives of Gotham, which he always believed was not beyond saving.

     My prayer for you this week is that in whatever situation you find yourself in, that you would take up your cross and follow Jesus daily, denying yourself and letting Him have all of you. And I also pray, on a side note, that if you’re like me and you look for spiritual connections in the world around us—in movies, books, music, whatever—that you would continue to do so. I truly believe that is a good thing. How powerful it is to know that in this sinful world, there are people making art that asks questions that a Christian may be able to answer! And my prayer for you and me is that we would indeed be able to answer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Babe (1995)

     If I ever saw “Babe” when I was a kid, I have no memory of it. But the other day, at age nineteen, I got a chance to see it all the way through, and I will admit, it’s probably one of the best “family films” ever. Aside from the special effects that make the animals talk (which I guess must have been groundbreaking in 1995), the story has a great balance of light-hearted and darker elements to it, and I honestly think it’s a pretty daring movie, considering it’s aimed at kids or young families. And, of course, I found something in “Babe” that I wanted to share with you today.

     “Babe” starts out in… well, I’m not even really sure what time period, or where exactly, but somewhere in Britain (I guess), and we see a litter of pigs in a slaughterhouse as their mother is taken away. One pig in particular (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) is saddened by this, but one day a couple men come and take him away to be put in a contest at a local fair. He is eventually won by a farmer named Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell), who takes him to be on his farm with his other animals, ranging from dogs and a cat to horses, cows, and ducks. Two of those dogs are parents to a litter of puppies, the male being named Rex (Hugo Weaving) and the female being Fly (Miriam Margoyles), and Fly eventually befriends the pig and finds out he (and all his brothers) were named Babe.

     Farmer Hoggett, however, can’t talk to animals and figure this out for himself, so he names the pig… well, “Pig”. And for some time after Babe joins the Hoggett farm, he and the other animals get into all sorts of mischief. He tries to help a duck on the farm, Ferdinand (Danny Mann), get into the house one day and consequently makes a mess in the Hoggetts’ bedroom. Later, at Christmastime, Babe, who has befriended one of the older sheep named Maa (Miriam Flynn), sees some of Hoggett’s sheep being rustled and alerts him before too many are stolen. And then, one day, Hoggett notices something strange in the backyard: Babe has organized his hens according to what color they are.

     So Hoggett decides to try something new: he lets Babe herd his sheep instead of Rex, who is getting older and cannot hear as well anymore. But nevertheless, Rex gets jealous, and he eventually attacks Fly and Hoggett because of it. He is chained up for a time while Babe becomes the new sheepherder—but one day, some angry dogs start attacking the flock, and Maa is eventually killed. Babe drives them away, but Hoggett comes in to assume that Babe is responsible for Maa’s death. Fly eventually finds out the truth from the other sheep, and she runs to Hoggett just in time before Hoggett can shoot Babe. (By the way: this movie was rated G?! It’s so dark! But whatever.)

     Long story short, Hoggett eventually signs Babe up for the local sheepdog trials, whose rules do not say a pig cannot be entered. However, even though Babe is getting more and more privileges as he grows closer to Hoggett, the house cat named Duchess (Russi Taylor) talks to Babe about his real purpose on the Hoggetts’ farm.

DUCHESS: You know, I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm not sure if you realize how much the other animals are laughing at you for this sheep dog business.

BABE: Why would they do that?

DUCHESS: Well, they say that you've forgotten that you're a pig. Isn't that silly?

BABE: What do you mean?

DUCHESS: You know, why pigs are here. The fact is that pigs don't have a purpose, just like ducks don't have a purpose. …Why do the Bosses keep ducks? To eat them. So why do the Bosses keep a pig? The fact is that animals don't seem to have a purpose really do have a purpose. The Bosses have to eat. It's probably the most noble purpose of all, when you come to think about it.

     And Babe, distraught by this harsh truth, decides to leave the farm. He is found eventually, and Hoggett not only brings him back to health, but he is also able to make Babe trust him once again. And with all the animals cheering him on (including Rex), Babe is able to go into the sheepdog trials, despite everyone laughing at him and Hoggett, and win no problem.

    I guess this is now a children’s-movie cliché, for the main character (even the common talking animal) to start somewhere low and go against all odds to do something really unique. But whatever, I will accept that cliché for this movie. And whatever the movie I see it in, I can definitely identify with the character that struggles to find his purpose in life. For Babe, he thinks that either he will be a sheepdog, or he will be Christmas dinner. (…Probably both.) But either one is hard to determine, because there’s no such thing as a sheep-pig, and he doesn’t think Hoggett would really slaughter him.

     Nevertheless, he searches for purpose. And don’t we all? What is our purpose in life? As a Christian, all I need to know when you come right down to it is that my purpose should be to serve God in whatever He has enabled me to do. For me, that could be filmmaking, music, ministry, writing, whatever. For you, it could be anything from sports to business to teaching to government. Ephesians 2:10, a verse I think of often and probably have used on this site before, reads that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

     That work “handiwork” has been translated into different words in different Bible translations, from “workmanship” to “craftsmanship” to even “masterpiece”. In Christ, we are a masterpiece! Isn’t that awesome? It encourages me to know that I can find my purpose when I serve the Lord, and I pray that as you go about the rest of your week, you would discover ways that God can use you for His purposes.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

     Before Ridley Scott’s, Kevin Costner’s, and Disney’s film versions of Robin Hood, there was “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn. Directed in part by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), this film was one of the first movies ever to be in Technicolor, which must have looked really nice to audiences in 1938. I saw this movie recently for the first time, and in my opinion, it still looks great today. Watch this movie, and you’ll see the kind of action-adventure filmmaking that influenced movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

     The film takes place in the late 12th century A.D. in… England, I guess, where Prince John, brother of Richard the Lion-Heart, has begun to take command once Richard has been captured in the Crusades. This, of course, is not a good thing, because John (Claude Rains) is a very cruel leader, keeping riches for himself and the people in the kingdom and leaving the Saxon peasants starving and impoverished. Then one day, one of those peasants shoots a deer in the woods and tries to take it away for food when he is caught by servants of the king. But who should come to his rescue but another man named Robin (Flynn), who uses his bow-and-arrow to drive the nobles away. That day, the peasant tells Robin he will follow him anywhere, and he gives him the deer carcass.

     That night, Robin makes his way into the king’s dining hall, carrying the deer carcass in protest. He and John converse very politely at first, until Robin starts saying what he truly feels:

ROBIN: I’ll organize revolt, exact a death for a death, and I'll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.

JOHN: Are you finished?

ROBIN: I'm only just beginning. From this night forward I'll use every means in my power to fight you!

     And the first of many swashbuckling action sequences in the movie commences. Robin makes it out okay, but after leaving, he cannot forget the face of a woman with John, Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland). And he never forgets about her as he continues on his quest to free the Saxons. Along his way, he picks up many other followers that want to fight alongside him, including the infamous Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette). All his men are very willing to fight with him, and even beyond his group of men, there are other Saxons spreading the word about where Robin is and where they can find him to serve him.

     To make a long story short, Robin takes some riches from one of the king’s servants, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone); he is almost hanged by Prince John until Lady Marian and Robin’s men free him and kill several of the king’s soldiers; Robin and Lady Marian fall in love; and King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter) makes his way back to Sherwood with several of his men, joining Robin Hood and his band of merry men (I guess that’s what they’re called in legend—I don’t think they’re ever called that in the movie) and fighting Prince John and his men in a final battle. In the end, Robin kills Sir Guy, Richard drives John away, and as his first order for Robin Hood, he marries him and Lady Marian.

     Not only was I really impressed with the way this movie was made, one of the first great adventure films ever made, but also something else struck me as I watched all these men join Robin Hood’s gang. Robin finds a lot of these men where they are, living their normal, daily lives, and he challenges them to fight for their freedom. Some come sooner than others. But Robin turns no one away if they are prepared to fight.

     And maybe it’s just me, but I was reminded a lot about how Jesus called His disciples. He found them all in their normal, daily lives—as fishermen, tax collectors, or whatever—and he said: “Follow me.” And it ended up that a lot of men followed Jesus around at first, not just the twelve disciples that we learn about in Sunday school. When crowds saw Jesus turn five loaves and two fish into a meal for thousands of people, they were amazed and wanted to see what Jesus would do next.

     But here’s the difference between what Robin Hood tells his men and what Jesus tells them. Robin Hood prepares his men to fight for freedom, and that they will have victory, which brings with it food, drink, shelter, and happiness that they have not experienced for a very long time. But do you know what Jesus told his disciples one day? He told them, as written in Mark 8:34: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Harsh teaching, right? If you want to follow Jesus, forget this life and die to yourself everyday?

     And because of the harshness they felt in His words, John 6:66 tells us: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” The Twelve, we read, stayed with Him because they said they knew His words were real, and they did not want to go anywhere else. And I pray that, as you go through this week, you would take up your cross and follow Jesus, even if it might mean pain for you. His Way is worth it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Intolerance (1916)

     I’m back! By the time you read this, I will have been in the United States for over a week, and it is very nice to be back home. I am kind of sad that I had to leave so soon, though, because I met a lot of really great people during my time in Ecuador and Peru and was able to do a lot of ministry with them. But now that I’m home, I will be able to do a lot of video editing for the missions organization I was with, and I’ll be able to spend the rest of my summer with friends and family in the States, which I’m very excited for.

     This also means that now, I can continue talking about movies on “Reel Christianity”. And before I go into today’s film, I have to let you know that one of my goals this summer, now that I’m back, is to finish watching all the movies on the American Film Institute’s lists of the top 100 greatest American films—both the original list from 1998 and the updated one from 2007. This may sound silly, but heck, I’m at 99 on both lists. The last movie I have to see is “A Clockwork Orange”, which I saved for last on purpose (because it’s supposed to be the creepiest of all the films on the list). On these lists, though, are several (but not many) silent films. You’ve got Chaplin’s “City Lights”, Buster Keaton’s “The General”, F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (my favorite silent movie ever), and D.W. Griffith’s epics “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance”.

     I got to see “Intolerance” back in April for the first time (it’s free on YouTube, if you ever want to see it), and I can definitely say I was blown away. “Intolerance” was made nearly one hundred years ago; but even back in 1916, filmmaking pioneer Griffith was discovering more and more new techniques to create his work. Just watch “Intolerance”—or “Birth of a Nation”, for that matter—and you can see the first examples in film history of gigantic sets, a moving camera, wide shots, and cross-cutting between different stories. The crosscutting technique can be seen in a lot of recent movies like “Babel” or “Crash” (I guess… I haven’t seen either one), so I thought this was just a newer technique to use. But nope! Griffith was doing it in 1916. Genius.

     But even beyond the technique, “Intolerance” was able to impact me spiritually as well. The film does go back and forth between four different stories from four different eras in history. But all four stories deal with the idea of prejudice or discrimination… or, well, intolerance. (This was fascinating to me, considering “Birth of a Nation” was made the year before this was, in which the KKK were viewed as heroes in the South.) The main story, in my opinion, is the present-day (well, 1916 present-day) story of a young woman whose husband is accused of a crime he did not commit, and the main reason for it is because he is a poor working-class man. He is sentenced to be executed, but his wife saves his life at the last minute. (How? Watch the movie.)

     Another story takes place in ancient Babylon. The king (don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure it’s Belshazzar) gets himself in a conflict with his people because of religious issues. (This, by the way, is the story with the most beautiful—and most recognized—sets.) Eventually, a war basically breaks out there, and it actually gets pretty violent. Another story (which I personally paid less attention to than the other three, for some reason) takes place in 16th-century France, which tells the story of the events leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre between the Protestants and the Huguenots. And by these stories, you may get the impression that a lot of this intolerance was caused by religion.

     Well, ladies and gentlemen, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. For the fourth story, the shortest of them all, takes place in Judea in the first century. The first time we are introduced to this story is when we see two men in cloaks walking down a market street. These are Pharisees, and one of them stands in the middle of the street and cries: “Oh Lord, I thank Thee that I am better than other men.” The Judeans look at him with disgust. (Sounds familiar, right? See Luke 18:9-14.)

     Later on, we see a man countering the attitude of the Pharisees, and guess who it is? That’s right, Jesus! D.W. Griffith, in 1916, re-creates John 8:1-11, where Jesus Christ tells the Pharisees, after they have brought a woman to him caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8:7b) And when they all leave, Jesus tells the woman that He does not condemn her. (And maybe it’s just me, but how fascinating is it to see a movie from nearly one hundred years ago that re-enacts stories from the Gospels? Crazy, right?)

     But that’s not all. Later, “Intolerance” not only re-enacts Jesus carrying His cross to Calvary, but it ends with what I call a spectacular final sequence. There is a short scene of what looks like some kind of war, with men charging at each other with bayonets and killing each other. But all of a sudden, the war stops as—get ready—angels appear in the sky. The men with bayonets all stop and look up. Titles appear on the screen that read:

     “When cannon and prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance—and perfect love shall bring peace forevermore. Instead of prison walls—bloom flowery fields.”

     And in another scene, we see prisoners, all dressed in the traditional striped uniforms, begging for food. All of a sudden, light appears in the prison, and the men run out. We see the prison from the outside, and it suddenly cross-dissolves into a wide, empty field. (You have to see this movie to really understand what I’m talking about. Seriously, please look it up.)

     So yeah, I was really happy that a movie from 1916—a movie, no less, that’s regarded as one of the first film masterpieces of all time—was willing to re-create historical, and even Biblical, accounts to convey this message of love against intolerance. This isn’t the first movie I’ve talked about on “Reel Christianity” that deals with the idea of prejudice, and so you can find other Scripture that talks about that. But I still think that, in terms of dealing with intolerance, we really do need to follow the example of Jesus in John 8. If the One without sin is not willing to condemn someone to death for sin, we should not be either. My prayer for you this week is that if you find yourself in that kind of situation, you would be willing to turn the other cheek and love your neighbor as yourself.