Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Lion King (1994)

     Today’s article is going to be a little weird. You see, after re-watching “The Lion King” a couple years ago for the first time since I was a kid, I noticed something about the movie that I never would have thought of when I saw the movie as a boy. I made a connection to a well-known story in Scripture. I haven’t read any other critics talk about this, so I’m just going off of my own comparison. So this article is going to probably be a little weird for most of you who have seen this movie repeatedly and probably not thought of the connection. But hopefully, we can look at it together and see something cool.

     Most of you reading have probably already seen “The Lion King”, so I won’t go into too much detail here. In the beginning of the film, following the iconic scene of Simba’s baby dedication of sorts, young Simba is taught by his father Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) all the ways of the Circle of Life. (I’d explain it, but there’s already a song about it, so go take a listen.) Simba is heir to the “kingdom” of that land in Africa following the death of Mufasa. This is upsetting to Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons), who wants to be king and thus hates Simba.

     So one day, Scar sends a group of hyenas stampeding through the Pride Lands, and he ends up running into Mufasa, who is running with Simba for safety. When Simba is not around, Scar lets Mufasa fall from a cliff to his death among the stampeding hyenas. After the stampede, Simba finds himself alone and fatherless, and Scar tells him that because he is still alive, the pride will now blame him for Mufasa’s death. Grief-stricken, Simba runs away and disappears from the Pride Lands for many years.

     Soon, he meets Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), a meek rat and warthog in a jungle who teach him their own way of living: the laid-back way of “Hakuna Matata.” (I’d explain that, too, but there’s also a song about this, so go listen to it.) After several years, Simba (Matthew Broderick) grows up to be a mature lion himself. Then one day, he finds another lion there in the jungle: his childhood friend, Nala (Moira Kelly). She tells him that Scar told the pride that he and Mufasa were both killed in the stampede, and being re-acquainted, the two start to fall in love. (Again, there’s a song, so I won’t go in much detail.)

     But Simba, though Nala tells him that he must go back to the Pride Lands, is fearful, angry, and hesitant to return home. He doesn’t want to face his dark past, but Nala tells him that it is his responsibility to go back home and reign as the lion king. Then that night, Simba runs into another familiar face: Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), the monkey that performed Simba’s baby dedication. Rafiki, it turns out, has spiritual connections and tells Simba that he can still speak with his father. Simba then looks into a pool’s reflection and eventually sees Mufasa: it seems that Mufasa’s legacy (or something) lives in Simba still. And afterwards, Rafiki tries to teach Simba by whacking him in the head with his staff.

SIMBA: What was that for?!

RAFIKI: It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.

SIMBA: Yeah, but it still hurts!

RAFIKI: Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the from way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it.

     Long story short, Simba returns to the Pride Lands, faces off with Scar, reveals the truth of what happened to the pride, and the film ends with Rafiki dedicating the lion cub of Simba and Nala as the future lion king after Simba’s reign.

     So yeah, you’re probably wondering where this Bible story connection comes in. Well, maybe it’s just me, but I immediately started thinking of the story of Moses. After Moses kills an Egyptian and it is made known among the Hebrews, he flees his home in Egypt and tries to start a new life. But after an encounter with God, he decides to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” It’s sort of like the situation Simba finds himself in. He’s accused of killing his father, flees for a time, and then has to return home to face Scar after his father’s image appears to him in a pool. Not quite unlike how God made himself known to Moses in the form of a burning bush!

     And along with that, Simba had doubts about returning home in the same way that Moses had doubts about returning to Egypt. But in Exodus 4, the Lord revealed to him that he had nothing to fear: “‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’” (4:11-12) With the help of the Lord, Moses had nothing to fear.

     I love being able to watch a movie and then out of nowhere make a comparison to a story in Scripture! That’s the reason I started “Reel Christianity”, and I’m thankful that God blessed me with this discernment. My prayer for you today is that if you feel God wants to take you in a direction you do not want to go in, you would be at peace knowing that the Lord will be with you always.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Life of Pi (2012)

     In February, I reviewed four 2012 movies nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. But there was one movie that many of you probably noticed that I didn’t write about: “Life of Pi.” And this may have seemed strange, because that film was probably one of the most likely films that I would have written about because of its spiritual content. Well, the reason I didn’t write about it was because I hadn’t seen it yet. But a few months ago, I finally got to see it, and I feel led to do an article about it on “Reel Christianity” because I feel it’s very important to talk about.

     The film opens with a Indian man named Pi Patel (played as an older man by Irrfan Khan) telling his life story to a writer (Rafe Spall) in need of source material. The writer has been told by a mutual friend that Pi’s story will make him believe in God. Pi tells him, however, that he will simply tell him his story, and the writer will have to decide for himself whether or not he believes.

     Pi proceeds to tell his life story. He grew up as a very smart boy in school but was also exposed to religion at an early age. He believed in Hinduism after being influenced by his mother and her faith. He found Christ as a pre-adolescent and discovered God’s love. And then later on, he even became a Muslim. So Pi is literally following three different religions—which I think is basis for false theology, but let’s keep looking at the film.

     As a young man, he falls in love, watches his family raise animals in a zoo (including a dangerous tiger known as Richard Parker), and then finds out that they must sell the zoo and move from India to Canada by boat. Pi is distraught, but he goes with his family on the boat to Canada. There, they meet a young Asian Buddhist who befriends them briefly and an angry intolerant cook. However, they aren’t on the boat long, as a heavy storm sinks the boat and leaves Pi stranded in the Pacific Ocean alone on a small lifeboat with four other animals: a zebra, a hyena, an ape, and Richard Parker.

     I encourage you to see the movie, because all the things that Pi experiences on that boat in the more than two hundred days he is stranded would sound boring on paper. But in the film, it is all so beautiful. Pi and Richard Parker eventually find themselves alone on the boat, and they have to learn to live with each other and communicate. It’s intense at times, but in the hour and a half that we see them interact, we can definitely see a relationship forming between them.

     And I hate to skip that whole part of the movie, but I need to get to the ending. When Pi eventually reaches dry land, Richard Parker walks on ahead of him without really acknowledging Pi’s presence. The boy Pi starts to cry as the older Pi explains that after spending so much time with him, he was almost expecting Richard Parker to thank him as a human would, when in fact he could not. And when Pi is approached by reporters wanting to know what happened as he was stranded, they do not believe for a second the story about the tiger.

     So instead, Pi tells them another story, about how he was stranded on the boat with his mother, the cook, and the Buddhist, and how one by one each of them died while Pi stayed alive. It’s a harsher story, but more realistic. And as the older Pi finishes telling the writer all this, he asks him a question. The writer has now been told two different stories about how Pi survived. Neither one can be proven. So…

PI: So which story do you prefer?

WRITER: The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.

PI: Thank you. And so it goes with God.

     I bet audiences watching “Life of Pi” probably wondered what this means. Well, I did too, and I think I know what Pi is trying to say here. See, earlier in the film, as Pi told about his childhood, we saw a flashback to him and his family having dinner together. There, his father told Pi that believing in three religions was the same as not believing in anything at all, and that the only thing he could believe in that actually made sense was thinking rationally. It’s a harsh truth, but it is sadly the truth in this world.

     So in my opinion, that’s what Pi was thinking as he was interrogated by the reporters. No one was going to believe the story with the tiger, so he had to think of a rational story to tell them, one that a rationally thinking world would actually believe. So he did. However, there is still no doubt in my mind that the story about Richard Parker is true. He may have told one story to satisfy the world, but that was the reason for telling it: he wanted to satisfy the world. The true story was so fantastic that no one would have believed it.

     And the same goes with God’s love for us. It is so fantastic that the world we live in cannot possibly believe in it. Only by faith can we truly see that He is real, He is true, and He is there for us. Even when Jesus performed miracles, people came to him in unbelief. In Mark 9, it is recorded how the father of a boy with demon possession came to him and said, “‘If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’ ‘“If you can?”’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” (9:22b-24)

     My prayer for all of us today is that in a rational, unbelieving world, we would have the faith to overcome our unbelief and have faith that God can work miracles in our lives.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

M (1931)

     In my International Cinema class last semester, I learned about a German filmmaker named Fritz Lang. He is most known for his 1927 silent science-fiction epic “Metropolis”, which surely influenced many of the American sci-fi films of the last fifty or more years. But his first film with sound was a thriller called “M”, casting in the main role (if you can call it that) a German actor named Peter Lorre, who was thus propelled onto the world stage, starring in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s original “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and even Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca.”

     The film is actually pretty simple to explain. In a quiet German city, there runs amok a murderer of children, whom no one can identify. The police are getting nowhere, the citizens argue amongst themselves about who it could be, and parents of young children are getting more and more worried. Some people in the city are even going so far as to accuse each other of being the murderer, and the whole situation is ruining the town.

     What makes the whole movie even more mysterious, though, is that we hardly ever see the murderer (Lorre). There are brief scenes in the first ten minutes where we clearly see him, but for most of the first and second acts, we don’t see him. Then one night, someone spots him, suspects him, and pats him on the shoulder as he passes him on the street. The murderer looks in a mirror suspiciously and realizes that the man who passed him left a letter “M” written in chalk on his shoulder. When he realizes he will be caught, the murderer takes off and eventually finds himself caught by a gang of other criminals, who have in the meantime gathered together to catch the murderer themselves.

     And this is where the movie gets really profound for me. For as the murderer faces this court of criminals, there is a battle of words between them. I’ll post some of this dialogue for you:

MURDERER: I can’t help what I do! I can’t help it, I can’t…

CRIMINAL: The old story! We never can help it in court!

MURDERER: What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals! …You wouldn’t need to do all that if you’d learn a proper trade or if you’d work… But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside me, the fire, the voices, the torment!

“JUDGE”: The accused has said that he cannot help himself—that is to say, he has to murder. As this is the case, he has pronounced his own death sentence. Someone who admits to being a compulsive murderer should be snuffed out like a candle!

“LAWYER”: I wish to speak! Our very honorable president, who is, I believe, wanted by the police for three murders—

“JUDGE”: That’s got nothing to do with it.

“LAWYER”: --Claims that because my client acts under an irresistible impulse, he is condemned to death. He is mistaken! Because it is that very fact that clears him. It is this very obsession which makes my client not responsible, and nobody can be punished for something he can’t help.

     The argument goes on like this until suddenly, a door opens, and light shines on the “court”. The police have entered, and every single person in that room slowly raises their hands above their head. And that, believe it or not, is pretty much how the film ends. Maybe this sounds like a strange ending, but to me, it is very profound. It is a perfect metaphor for what we all are as humans on Earth.

     You see, we are all born into a sinful world, and we are all surely guilty of at least a little sin in our lives. Romans 3:23 reads, “…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” But those who believe in Christ know that there is more to life than just this sinful world, and so we try to live for Him, but we are all surely guilty of messing up once in a while. The apostle Paul writes later in Romans 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

     But there is still good news! For as Paul writes in Romans 5:20b-21, “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Does this mean that if we keep sinning, it’s okay because God will forgive us? “By no means!” Paul writes again in Romans 6:2: “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” The book of Romans is an excellent source of figuring out the relationship between sin and grace. Maybe we are tempted to sin like the murderer in “M”, but we can be saved from sinning by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, if we accept God’s truth and His grace. I pray that you would be able to do that today!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

     I won’t hesitate to call John Huston one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived. Huston was one of those multitalented filmmakers who had a hand in making several movies successes. He wrote and directed “The Maltese Falcon”, one of the movies that gave birth to the film-noir genre. He played the antagonist in “Chinatown” and created one of the most chilling performances of that time. And in 1948, he wrote and directed “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, a movie that somewhat re-defined the “Western” and is today one of my favorite movies ever.

     The film opens with an American bum in Mexico named Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart, a regular in Huston’s films), trying to find a little extra cash. He begs from a richer white man (played by Huston) and gets enough pesos to buy a drink, a haircut, and a lottery ticket. He runs into another white man down on his luck named Curtin (Tim Holt), and the two men run into each other again as they find a job working on a derrick owned by an untrustworthy employer. When they realize they will not be paid for their work, they beat up the employer in a bar and take the money that is rightfully theirs. (Remember this scene later.)

     Along this way, they stop at a cheap hotel and run into an old man telling stories. The man is Howard (Walter Huston—John’s father), who tells about his past adventures of searching for gold in California. “I know what gold does to men’s souls,” he says, admitting that there’s a reason why a prospector like him ended up in a cheap hotel. Prompted by this, Dobbs and Curtin decide to try gold digging and ask Howard for help. When they realize they have no money for supplies, a boy suddenly approaches Dobbs and tells him he won the lottery. The men get excited, and Dobbs is more than happy to share with the other two men his earnings. (Remember this scene, too.)

     So they board a train to the Sierra Madre mountains in hopes of prospecting gold. Their train is suddenly attacked by bandits (remember them, too), but the three men make it safely to the mountains before finally finding gold after a search of several days. In what feels like a day but would have probably taken them a few months to create, the three men have created a way of getting fresh water as well as a cave to mine gold in.

     And several events happen after this that progressively change the way the men think. Dobbs gets trapped in the cave, and Curtin (after almost leaving him for dead) goes in after him and rescues him. “I owe my life to you, partner,” Dobbs tells him. (Yeah, remember this, too.) Later on, the three men have arguments about how to divide up the gold. Soon after, Dobbs and Curtin develop paranoia about whether or not the other is out at night looking for the others’ gold. After this, Dobbs becomes worse off, muttering to himself and almost shooting Curtin for accidentally going in to where Dobbs’ gold was hidden.

     One day, as Curtin has to go into town for more supplies, he meets another white man named Cody (Bruce Bennett). Cody eventually attempts to join the three men on their prospecting, but a suspicious Dobbs and an approaching group of bandits (the same group as before) prevents him from actually mining with them. In a suspenseful scene where Dobbs hides with his guns and shouts to the Mexican bandits to get away from their property, the leader shouts the immortal line: “We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” And the four white men drive the bandits away, though Cody is shot and killed in the process. Through a series of proceeding events, the three men soon finish mining, set off with their gold, and Howard is separated from the other two men to tend to a nearby village.

     This, however, leads to Dobbs’ downfall. His growing paranoia drives him to shoot Curtin one night, though Curtin is not killed and thus drags himself to the village and tells Howard what happened. Dobbs, now growing pretty much insane, tries taking the gold and the donkeys carrying it back all by himself, but he is approached by the bandits again and subsequently beheaded. The bandits take his donkeys into the town, pouring all the gold (which is just sand in their eyes) into the windy desert. In the town, they are caught as the same bandits at the train robbery a year before, and they are arrested and shot.

     Curtin and Howard find out Dobbs is dead but that their goods are safe in the town. However, when they can’t find their bags of gold, they go out into the desert to discover a windstorm. And the men can do nothing but just laugh at their situation, then sit down and talk about what’s next.

CURTIN: You know, the worst ain’t so bad when it finally happens—not half as bad as you think it’ll be before it’s happened. I’m no worse off than I was in Tampico. Only lost a couple hundred bucks when you come right down to it. Not very much compared to what Dobbs-y lost…

     And as the two men bid farewell and part ways, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” feels very satisfying… even though it shouldn’t be, because these men just lost all their gold! Wasn’t that the whole point of their expedition? Maybe that was part of it, but maybe the three men (well, at least Curtin and Howard) realized in the end that there was more to life than gold, or wealth of any kind. Maybe their friendship transcends it all.

     These few lines of dialogue Curtin has at the end really represent the movie’s theme to me. These men wanted to do good, and they probably didn’t really want to hurt each other, but a hunger for the gold drove them—or at least Dobbs—to selfish ambition. Even after he acknowledged gratitude to Curtin for saving his life, and even after wanting to share his lottery winnings with the others, there was still a desire in him to get what he thought was rightfully his: a desire that we saw in the beginning of the film that drove him to beat his employer.

     Jesus talks about this as he tells his disciples about the sacrifice of living for Him. In Mark 8:36, he says: “‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’” In this film, Dobbs was guilty of just that: he wanted the things of this world so much that he sacrificed his own soul, and he did in many ways, even being killed. I pray that as you and I may struggle with selfish ambition on a daily basis, that we might look instead to the cross and realize that the things of this world are temporary, but His Word will last forever.