Maleficent (2014)

Maleficent Let’s get this out of the way. Disney’s Maleficent was no where as good as we were made to believe. The character of Maleficent has captured the imaginations for decades. The film goes from Once Upon a Time moments to more, darker Grimm moments. To finally see her in a live-action film was an opportunity to create an amazing film. However, the film, while good, is not amazing. In short, it could have been better – I had hoped it would be better.

Maleficent attempts to be an origin story of its title character, which seems to be the post-Wicked norm. The story begins with Maleficent as a young girl, complete with horns and wings. She is a peace-maker in her world. When the other creatures have disagreements, Maleficent (played by Angelia Jolie) finds resolution. There is a great concern when a human child is discovered in their world. Maleficent is the one who shows the child, a farm boy, grace, even though he was trying to steal a crystal. The two children become friends and as they grow into teenagers, the fairy and the human share a kiss – “true love’s first kiss.” At this moment, it is like any other Disney film.

But as the two get older, they grow apart. The boy stops visiting the forest. The boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), as an adult works for the king. He overhears the dying king promise his throne to the one who kills Maleficent. What was that about true love?

Stefan becomes a trickster as he woos Maleficent into his arms and then gives her a sleeping potion. While in a deep sleep, he cuts Maleficent’s wings off. He returns to the castle with the wings as his bounty to the dying king. And upon the king’s death, Stefan takes the throne.

The moment when Maleficent awakens to find that her wings – her freedom – has been torn from her, is possibly the most deeply disturbing scene while also the most captivating. Even though your gut tells you to turn away, you cannot take your eyes off the screen as Maleficent screams out in anger and sorrow. Something that was so precious to her and apart of her identity was violently taken from her while in a vulnerable state. The allusion to sexual violence may not be a mistake.

The assault transforms Maleficent into a villain. But this villain is not soulless. We have seen her extend grace to those who are different, welcoming all. While Maleficent literally gets darker, the grace in her soul never really escapes. That part of her never really leaves her. She places a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning).  On the edge of the forest one day, Aurora encounters Maleficent and says, much to Maleficent’s dismay, that she knows who the fairy is.

Aurora: I know who you are.

Maleficent: Do you?

Aurora: You’re my Fairy Godmother!

Maleficent: What?

Aurora Aurora senses that some being has been watching out for her during her childhood. She believes, and rightly so, that Maleficent is the being who has been doing so. Aurora, instead of seeing the evil villain all of us have come to see in Maleficent, sees a somewhat holy and innocent being who is filled with compassion and grace.

This isn’t quite the 1959 Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. But, this is one reason why Maleficent is fascinating. It is rich with themes about things not being quite what they seem, which I think may have attracted Jolie to the film. There is talk about evil throughout the film. Maleficent tells Aurora a time or two that there is a great evil in the land. She is, of course, talking about herself. She knows the evil that dwells within her. Yet, at the same time, Aurora sees the grace in Maleficent. The grace she cannot see in herself.

It raises the issue that films like The Dark Knight Rises rose before it. What is the face of evil? Is evil as black and white as we want it to be? (I don’t have answers to these, just want to raise the questions.)

evil in this worldAngelia Jolie is able to make us fear Maleficent, while also extending empathy. We connect with her conflicted feelings of doing what is right and doing what is wrong (Romans 7). And while at first she is pretending to go along with Aurora’s assumption that she is a godmother, she plays into the role. Aurora’s love for her is strong enough to melt away the rage, hate, and sorrow at being mutilated by someone who declared love for her.  This is true love, love for another that knows no boundaries. It is not romantic in the classic Walt Disney sense. It is authentic and real. It is Christ-like love.

Once Maleficent realizes what she has done, placing a curse that can never be broken because true love does not exist, she feels remorse. She is responsible for Prince Philip coming to the castle to awaken Aurora from her deep sleep. Yet, the kiss does not work. Maleficent stands over the sleeping beauty’s bed and whispers an apology:

I will not ask you for forgiveness. What I have done is unforgivable. I was so lost in hatred and revenge. I never dreamed that I could love you so much. You stole what was left of my heart. And now I’ve lost you forever.

She kisses Aurora on the forehead, and the princess awakes. Like in Frozen, Disney boldly transforms what true love means, as well as the face of evil. It is a more realistic portrait of the human condition. We are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) who strive to resist evil, but often times fail. At the same time we are created in the image of the Creator, and as such we are grace-filled beings. We don’t need magic kisses from princesses and princes. No, the only “magic” we need is the Christ-like love we share with one another.

 

Jaws (1975)

Jaws_MovieCoverBased on the best-selling novel by Peter Benckley, Jaws did something that no other film had done. In the careful and deliberate hands of director Steven Speilberg, Jaws is an action flick and a scary thriller, making use of a real shark as well as a mechanical shark. At times, you don’t know the difference. To our benefit, Speilberg made the thriller part more than on-screen blood and guts. It was in the context of a well developed story with well developed characters.

While all the elements are there for a typical archetypal story, Speilberg is careful not to draw too much attention to it. He leaves that work to the viewer.

Brady (Roy Scheider) moves his family from the streets of New York to a New England beach community (think Martha’s Vineyard). It is his first summer there as their chief of police. The Mayor and other locals are getting ready for the town’s big Fourth of July parade and events. It is a high tourist time of year, and the community relies on those tourist dollars for their economy.

Which is why when a teenage girl goes missing, and parts of her are found on the beach, that the Mayor and others are not happy that Brady wants to shut the beach down. The ME who first told him it was a shark attack, changes his mind to say that it was a boating accident. The biggest fear for the town leaders was not what might or might not be in the water, but losing money.

Brady has a fear of water. He does not swim, and sits patiently and anxiously on the beach watching the waters after the missing girl is found in pieces. While he is watching, other town’s people are coming up to him asking him when he is going to take care of this problem or that problem. It is not so much that the people are missing the immediacy of a shark attack, it is that they are not aware. There is a lack of awareness.

Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) comes into town and is another voice of caution and awareness. Hooper is a rich kid who has found his niche as an oceanographer. In a quick, to the point tone, Hooper tells the town people that they are not safe until they rule out what is out there in the water. He knows all there is to know about sharks, and is even willing to get in the water with them.

Quint (Robert Shaw) is a typical crusty old seaman. He is the kind of guy you don’t want to mess with after a long day at sea. For most of the beginning of the film, Quint is part of the background. He tells the town during a town hall meeting that he can catch the shark, for the right price. And we see him glide by as other locals and non-locals board their boats to go out and catch the shark for the award money. He snickers at them, because he knows what they do not.

This isn’t just a shark, it’s a great white shark.

In a five-minute monologue while the three men are at sea hunting the shark, Quint shares his story and why he hates sharks. Quint has faced his fear and triumphed. But there were many of his comrades who did not, and for them he hunts this shark.

Brady has a fear of water. He does not – will not – get into the water. But he does get into the boat with Quint and Hooper in search for the great white. At point, while shoving raw meat into the water, Brady comes face to face with the giant of a shark, and says, “We need a bigger boat.”

Each man has boarded this boat in search of the great white that is holding a community in the bondage of fear

2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  These three men – Brady, Quint, and Hooper – live this verse. They have their own fears, but they overcome them. God did not give us a spirit of fear, God has empowered us with power through the Holy Spirit and love and self-control. We are in control of how much we fear. We are in control of how much we love. And we are in control of how we use the power from the Holy Spirit. All three men, wise men in their own way, are hunting the shark because of the people they love, where the other shark hunters were hunting for the prize money.

These three men use their power to overcome the great white shark.

Jaws is a modern day parable reminding us that we decide how much fear controls our lives. We have to choice to love others as we have been loved, using the self-control that God has given us, and we have a choice to use our power for good. Let us all be hunters of great white sharks.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Pirates_of_the_Caribbean_movieA ship sails across the Atlantic from Great Britain to the Caribbean. The ship is transporting the new governor of Port Royal and his young daughter, who is fascinated by pirates. The others on the ship, however, are not. As the young girl gazed out over the Atlantic, she notices something drifting in the water. It is a boy, about her age. They rescue the boy, who is wearing a locket. Worried that the adults will think the boy is a pirate, the young girl takes it to save his life.

Skip ahead eight years, the young girl is now a young woman, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and the young boy is now a young blacksmith, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). The high seas adventure of this Walt Disney summer blockbuster based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Johnny Depp is Captain Jack Sparrow who has a deep affection for his blessed ship the Black Pearl. Sparrow’s trouble begins when he stops in the process of stealing a British ship to rescue Elizabeth Swann after she falls into the ocean. From there, Sparrow is at the top of the most wanted list.

Right away, one of Sparrow’s nemesis is the British commander, Norrington, who has made it his vocation to bring Sparrow to justice. Even though Sparrow saved Elizabeth’s life. Norrington wants to send Sparrow to his death. Elizabeth protests, only for Norrington to respond, “One good deed is not enough to redeem him from a life of wickedness.” To which Sparrow replies, “But enough to condemn me.”

Redemption is the theme of the film. Jack Sparrow is searching for redemption. Elizabeth, here in the rescue scene and throughout the movie, is the one who consistently raises the need to see others in a different light. People are not always so easily labeled good and bad.

Sparrow’s other nemesis in the film is Captain Barbossa, played by the brilliant actor Gregory Rush. Barbossa leads a mutiny on the Black Pearl which leaves Sparrow stranded on a deserted island. But because Barbossa leans heavily on a dark power, he and his crew are cursed leaving them among the Undead. They look like any other normal pirate, until they are exposed to the light of the moon, where their skeletal cadavers are revealed. Which all seems like a silly plot point, until you realize that even though they are dead (and not killable), they are searching for the cure from the curse.

Elizabeth is the source of Norrington’s other self-determined vocation – marriage. But Elizabeth has been in love with Will Tuner ever since she first met him. When Sparrow finds out who Will is – or more importantly, who his father is – Will becomes very important part of Sparrow’s plan to reclaim the Black Pearl.

Barbossa, believing that Elizabeth is a Turner, thinks that she is the one who will break the curse. But she is not. Sparrow tells Barbossa that he knows whose blood he needs to break the curse. Blood is needed to break the curse. For Barbossa and the crew to be redeemed, to come back to life again, blood is needed. The blood of the only son of Bill “Bootstrap” Turner – Will. At first, Will believes that his father was a salesman, killed by pirates. When he finds out that his father really was a pirate, he struggles to come to terms with who his father is and who he is.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, would talk about sin as a disease (curse) of which grace was the cure. Grace is possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer.

We know the cure for the curse, but what caused the curse of the Black Pearl? No doubt, Pirates was intended to have a summer blockbuster sequel from the beginning. Who would have thought it would have four?

Noah (2014)

noah-poster2At the sound of his name, Noah has become quite a controversial figure these days. The film has been declared “unbiblical” by many, while deeply theological by others. (For example, there is this YouTube video that someone thought I needed to see after posting a comparison chart and some discussion questions.) What follows is a theological reflection on the film. I know that there will be some readers who will disagree with me, and that is okay. I am assuming that you have seen the film. If not, I recommend reading this spoiler-free review.

Entertainment Weekly was perhaps one of the first outlets to say that the director

faithfully follows the message of the slim biblical text in the Book of Genesis, but he fills the gaps with spectacular CG effects, Tolkien-esque creatures

The film is based on the Genesis narrative of Noah, the man who found grace in the eyes of the Lord, as found in chapters 6-9. The film’s production notes cite the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls as additional sources. These are ancient texts, which are not found in the Christian canon, but were likely widely read in the ancient world.

Ari Handel, the co-writer of the film, told Jacob Sahms of HollywoodJesus.com that they started with Genesis. “The commentaries are there to draw on to take themes and questions that people have been asking about the Noah story for hundreds and thousands of years,” he said. The Genesis account wrestles with the themes of destruction and new beginnings (or second chances) and Handel told Jacob that they “wanted to humanize those issues and make the audience empathize with them.”

DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcoverAdam Hamilton, minister at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, agrees that these are powerful themes in the Genesis account. The themes, he argues, gets overshadowed in the film and when “Christians insist that the stories be read like an historian’s report of ancient history.” I don’t disagree with Hamilton, but I have to wonder if what we carry with us when we enter the dark theater  - our expectations, our baggage, our hopes of a great film or of a horrible film – is what overshadows the themes. Yes, the director Darren Aronofky is a self-proclaimed atheist. But that fact does not eliminate the themes of the Biblical account – the themes of destruction and new beginnings. The way the story is told is different from Sunday school – not unlike Cecil B. DeMille did with the Moses narrative in the classic film The Ten Commandments. The original Noah story was told and retold through oral tradition long before it was ever written down. The fact that artist liberties were taken, should not be a surprise.

Darren Aronofky took the lead as the film’s co-writer and director. Aronofky has been thinking about Noah and the themes of his story since middle school.  The 13-year-old Brooklyn native wrote a poem called “The Dove” in which we get this theological gem:

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.

In many ways this statement is the thesis for Aronofky’s film: “Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.”

The film begins with Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family as the only descendants left of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth, unlike his older brother Cain who killed brother Abel, remained faithful to the ordinances of God. While the descendants of Cain kill animals to eat (they believe they gain power through the meat) and use up the earth’s resources, Noah and his family live a simple life.

Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?
Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?

One evening, Noah has a dream where the earth is destroyed. Unclear about what the dream is about, he packs up his family and home and they hike to the mountain of this grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah’s father was Enoch “who walked with God.” It is believed that Enoch did not die a physical death, instead he was so faithful to God that one day he just walked into eternity. These are Noah’s genes.

Methuselah mixes some drink for Noah (which has earned him the “witch doctor” nickname). Upon awaking from his sleep, Noah tells Methuselah of his dream about the world being destroyed by water, not fire. As they discuss this, Noah acknowledges that the Creator’s goal is rebirth. Water has long been the theological and spiritual symbol of rebirth. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 that he must be born again, drawing upon the images of water in the womb. The sacrament of baptism reminds us that in Christ we have a new life.

Noah follows the Creator’s instructions and builds an ark with the help of the Watchers. The closest we get to the Watchers in the Christian canon is the nephilim. These are the Tolkien like creatures that Entertainment Weekly spoke of.  These creatures of Earth’s rock each have a dim light within them. The Watchers themselves represent the thesis of the film – there is light within us – there is peace in the midst of evil.  The Watchers are fallen angels striving to redeem themselves with the Creator, which is accomplished when they are faithful in their assistance with Noah’s call.

There are a handful of images that get played and replayed through the film. The image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, both humans are glowing creatures of light. This is followed by the image of a black snake coming out of a green snake, leaving behind the skin. Then, the image of the fruit of the tree, beating like a heart, acknowledging that The Knowledge of Good and Evil is itself life. The fruit of the tree is picked and eaten, which is followed by the image of Cain killing Abel.

Peace has been engulfed by evil.

This series of images communicate a theological understanding of sin and salvation. When Noah tells his family the story of creation (remember that the bulk of Genesis was first oral tradition before it was written scripture), these images repeat themselves. Humanity was created in the image of God. But when the first humans disobeyed by eating the fruit of the tree, sin distorted the image of God. The image of God in humanity continued to get distorted until the point where the wickedness was so great (humanity was striving to be its own ruler – as Ham tells the human leader, “There is no King, only the Creator is God”) that God decided to flood the earth to give it new life. The themes of destruction and new beginnings.

Evil does not win.

But evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.

Noah ArkUnfortunately the debates about whether or not Noah is Biblical – word for word from the Bible – has overshadowed Aronofky’s thesis: Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin. If you have seen the film, you would most likely agree with me that evil seems to prevail in the film. The film is filled with darkness and it feels worse when the storms and the rain come. Peace only seems to appear at the end of the film, represented by the broad, all-encompassing rainbow.

Noah takes the call to build the ark seriously. Humanity has rejected God and this is a serious offensive. Aronofky and Handel, as they did in other films such as Black Swan, dive into the exploration of obsession. To say that Noah goes a little crazy while he is on the ark is putting it mildly. Noah becomes so obsessed with the wickedness of humanity, that he truly believes that his sons will be the last men on earth. If Shem’s unborn child is a girl, Noah will kill her. But, if the child is a boy, he will let the child live, and he would be the last human on earth.

noah-jennifer-connellyAri Handel tells Hollywood Jesus:

Noah is given an almost insurmountable job, to go build this giant ark. How could he do that? To do that and let everyone else die. What kind of power of will? What strength of purpose would you need? What weight would he have to carry? Those are things we wanted to convey through the story.

In this instance so many of us can relate to Noah in a way or another. Noah is obsessed with his mission, that he becomes blind. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) pleads with him to see the good in their sons – in humanity – which she does. But Noah is clear that the task is for humanity to cease in its existence.

Why does this happen? What causes Noah to become this way?

When Noah goes into the human camp, what we assume is to find wives for two of his sons, he is encountered with a wickedness that is overwhelming he cannot handle it. This scene, of animal tossing, cave man like behaviors, and the air filled with cries and hissing, is a pivotal scene. Under the cloak of darkness, a raw piece of meat is thrown over the fence. A longhaired, bearded man, walking like an ape, grabs the meat. He scuttles off, passing in front of Noah. Noah watches him as his chipped teeth bite into the raw meat. As the ape-like man turns to face Noah, he hisses. In that moment the man’s face looks an awful lot like Noah’s. (I only caught this the second time I saw the film.)

Noah sees wickedness in himself. And it changes him. It hardens his heart. And he becomes obsessed with his own wickedness. He is not worthy to be saved, so clearly God’s intention is for him to perish as well.

Is this in the Bible? Literally, no. The Genesis writer provides no account of what happened while Noah and his family were on the ark. But, it is Biblical? We can argue that it is.

We believe that God created the world, and it was good. We believe that God created humanity in the image of God, and God declared that it was good. We believe that sin entered the world and it distorted the image of God within humanity. We believe that the journey we call faith is a journey of redemption, restoring the image of God back to its original beauty. We believe that in the midst of this journey, evil exists. We believe that we all have fallen short of the glory of God. We believe that through accepting the power of Jesus Christ, we reject the spiritual forces of wickedness.  And we believe that the day will come when there will be no more violence, no more crying, no more pain and suffering, only the peace of the Kingdom of God.

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.

Superman III (1983)

600full-superman-iii-posterRoger Ebert called Superman III a “cinematic comic book,” and he didn’t necessarily mean that in a good way. Richard Lester’s direction took the film series from complex, thoughtful elements to more campy, silly moments. Ebert is correct in his assessment: this third film is not nearly as good as the first two. On one hand, Superman III can stand alone and can be watched without the foundation of the first two films. Yet, it does nothing to support the story-line that the first two films worked so hard to develop. Perhaps this is the cost the studio had to pay when they shifted direction in the second film from Richard Donner to Richard Lester (who directed Superman III as well).

One of the areas in which there is a disconnect from the first two films and the third, is the complex relationship between Kent/Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Lois leaves for a vacation at the beginning of the film, and it is clear that Clark didn’t know anything about her plans. Clark, meanwhile, heads back home to Smallville for his high school reunion and to cover a story about small town life. It is at the reunion that he begins to spend time with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), his high school crush. And so begins a relationship between Clark and Lana that includes picnics.

Richard Pryor plays the brilliant, yet befuddled, Gus Gorman. At first, this may seem like a brilliant casting move in 1983. And it is. But Lester doesn’t seem to tap into the smartness of Pryor. Pryor seems limited and reserved. He pretends to be a liquor salesmen and General, which Pryor does well, but seems so out-of-character for Gus. When we first meet Gus, he is in the unemployment line to get his check for the week. But he is denied because the thirty-two weeks are up. When he asks someone for a light for his cigarette, the matchbook is from the company owned by Ross Webster (Robert Vaughan). He suddenly feels that he can be a computer programmer, even though he could not keep a job at a fast food restaurant and other such places. And he gets the job.

It is his job that introduces Gus’ secret gifts to Webster, who wants to use them to gain power and control of the earth’s resources. First, he sets his sights on coffee, and then on oil. There is only one problem: Superman (Christopher Reeve). Webster and his colleagues recall that there is one thing that will destroy Superman, kryptonite. That small, green rock that can bring the Man of Steel down. But they have no such rock. Webster has Gus use a weather satellite to scan kryptonite that is floating through space to see what it is made of. One of the elements is “Unknown.” Gus, worried to submit such a report to his boss, fills in “Tar” for “Unknown.”

The tar-laced kryptonite results in Superman becoming a big ole meanie. At first, it appears that Superman is being selfish, wanting to spend more time with Lana Lang, and arriving at an accident too late. “If only you had gotten here sooner,” the rescue workers say to him when he finally arrives. We watch as the transformation happens. Superman’s tidy hair and clean shaven look disappear. Even his uniform appears darker and dirtier than it usually does. It is obvious that even Superman is not exempt from the struggles of this world.

It gets so bad, that in one scene a crowd that includes young Ricky, Lana’s son, is gathering outside a bar, watching Superman get drunk and smash bottles with peanuts. Ricky is the only one who can see Superman beyond the meanie he is acting like. In a pivotal scene to the messy plot-line, Superman lands in a salvage yard. He begins to destroy junk, frustrated that he is behaving the way he is. In the midst of destroying junk, Clark Kent emerges from meanie Superman. The two then fight. The scene is filled with very little dialogue, which at first may seem odd, but is actually quite brilliant. It is not a fight between meanie Superman and good Superman, it is between meanie Superman and Clark Kent—the humanity of the Man of Steel.

The scene captures well the struggle that Paul describes in Romans, “I do the things I know I should not do, and I do not do the things that I know I should do.” Oftentimes when we struggle with making good choices or bad choices, we too struggle with ourselves. The scene depicts what many of us feel when this struggle takes place; the struggle between living in the Light and dwelling in the Darkness; the struggle between holiness and sin. The dark, dirty look the film gives meanie Superman reminds us of the ways in which sin leaves us dark and dirty, while the clean, bright Superman reminds us of how grace leaves our dark and dirtiness bright and clean.

Eventually Clark defeats meanie Superman, and things go back to normal. He works to fix all the destruction he made when he was meanie Superman. And he prevents the world from being destroyed and controlled by the Big Bad of this film: Ross Webster. In doing so, Superman fulfills his calling as the messiah from another world.

The Great Escape (1963)

the-great-escape-movie-poster-1963-1020415948It is 1943. Europe is now five years into what will be known as the  Second World War. Germany establishes a number of prison camps to house the growing number of war prisoners. At the same time, there is a growing number of escaped prisoners of war. Germany responds by opening its first maximum security prison camp. Built on the promises of no prisoner escaping, officials send the most known escape artists.

One of these prisoners if Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen), who is also known as “The Cooler King,” for all the time he spent in the solidarity confinement (the “cooler”) as punishment for escape attempts. Escape, in fact, is the first thing on Hilts’ mind when he arrives at the camp. He closely investigates the fence line and guard booths, searching for a blind spot.

And Hilts is not the only one with escape on the brain. There is a whole cast of characters who are longing for escape. They see is a part of their vocational duty as military men. Among them is Hendly (James Garner) who can unearth any item you need, Danny (Charles Bronson) who is the digging champ, and Sedgwick (James Coburn) the manufacturer.

The climate on the camp changes when Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) arrives. Roger is a legend of sorts among the prisoners. They all see Roger as their leader, all expect Hilts. At least not at first. Roger empowers the men to use their skills in a huge exodus of the prisoners.

The film, released in 1963 before the country was engulfed by the conflict in Vietnam, is not like most war films. It is not as dark and gritty as most war films, like Apocalypse Now (1979) or Full Metal Jacket (1987), These post-Vietnam films, we could argue, were colored by the events that changed the world and how we viewed it.

The Great Escape has more of a light-hearted, comical tone to it for a war film. You chuckle a little bit when Hilts walks back to the cooler or when his prison-mates hand him his baseball and glove, the only two things that will accompany him. There are other similar moments, along with the kindness of the Nazis, which you do not expect. In fact, I wasn’t sure who the Nazis were when the film first started, because they were portrayed in a more kinder fashion.

World events like war remind us that we are all prisoners of sin. Our own personal sin, but also corporate, communal sin. The sins of establishment, institutions, governments, or cliques. These sins imprison us, with hopes to paralyze us. We long for escape and freedom. We work together to make escape and freedom a reality. It becomes our mission and purpose.

the-great-escape-richard-attenborough-steve-mcqueen-1963A handfull of the prisoners manage to escape through a tunnel they dug, through a hole they created, into the woods. Most of them were either captured again by the Nazis or killed. At first, it is striking to see this happen. Where is the happy ending to this true story? They worked together for a common goal and we rejoiced. They managed to trick the well-trained Nazi guards and we rejoiced. Some escaped and we rejoiced. But death? Recaptured? That wasn’t on the back of the Blu-ray cover!

And maybe that’s the reality. The return to sin, personal or corporate, is never foretold. We never see it coming, and yet it happens. Does it mean we should not attempt escape? Hilts and the others in The Great Escape would plead that we do not. We should not cease to escape from sin’s prison camps.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

In the third installment of the Terminator films, we find a John Connor (Nick Stahl) who is no longer 13, and “lives off the grid.”  John is a young adult living on the streets, no phone, no home, nothing. He is working in manual labor, recalling the past through a voice over narration. “They tried to kill me,” he says, “before I was born, and again when I was 13.”

“I feel the weight of the future,” John narrates at the beginning of the film. “So I keep running.” He is running from the vocation that has chosen him and from the terminators that may be coming to kill him. We see him next as he is breaking into a veterinarian’s office in the hopes of finding drugs. Evidence of how far he is willing to go to relieve some of the weight he is experiencing.

In the meantime, a T-X has been sent from the future. The T-X is even more deadly and destructive than the T1000 in T2. The T-X has arrived to kill not John Connor, but other resistance leaders of the future. SkyNet has taken a different approach. John Connor is no longer a priority, it is the other young adults who are his followers who will be leaders of the movement.

hollywoodjesus.com

One of these leaders is Kate Brewster played expectantly well by Claire Danes. Kate is getting married and has a somewhat estranged relationship her father. She is a vet, who answers an emergency call in the middle of the night. When she arrives at the clinic she finds a high John, whom she locks into a dog kennel. While attempting to calm a distressed cat owner, Kate comes face-to-face with the T-X.

The T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives in his usual nude way. After gleaning clothes from a stripper at a ladies’ night bar, he sets out to find and rescue Kate from the T-X.  He also has to rescue John.

T-101: John Connor, it is time.

John: Are you here to kill me?

T-101: No. You must live.

John assumes his future-self sent the terminator as he did in the last film. But it was actually Kate who sent him. While running away from the T-X, John and Kate learn a lot about their future together from the T-101. Most surprisingly they learn that SkyNet still rises to power.

As Kate runs for her life, her General father is battling an unknown virus spreading quickly through the computers. They have a “secret weapon” they  have developed that could take care of this virus. Kate’s father, General Robert Brewster, is high up in the federal government who has the ability to tell the Pentagon no, they will not release SkyNet to deal with a major computer virus. His job is actually a cover up for a top-secret security work, which will become important when our three  heroes discover that a nuclear holocaust is upon them. Eventually, though, his hands are tied. SkyNet is release, however, instead of destroying the virus, it takes over all the machines.

While this is not the best of the Terminator films, it is still worth watching a few times. The CGI used in this film makes the first two look antique. And the film continues in developing John Connor as a Christ-figure.

“They tried to kill me before I was born.”

As John tries to explain the situation to Kate, he tells her, “Imagine that you were going to do something important with your life.” This line sums up John’s story perfectly.  His life is at stake because he is going to do something important with his life. It is his life will save humanity, in the fullness of time. In the first Terminator film, the objective was to kill Sarah Connor in order to ensure that John Connor, savior of the world, does not come to be.  In Matthew’s gospel, Mary and Joseph are informed by the wise men that King  Herod is planning to kill all the Jewish baby boys. King Herod wants to ensure that no future leader rises against his rule. Mary and Joseph along with the infant Jesus escape the genocide by fleeing into Egypt. At one point T-101 tells John that he will die, which is why Kate is the one who sent T-101 to the past. It alludes to the fact that John gives his own life to save that of others.

“It is your destiny.”

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John Connor has a purpose in life. A vocation that the whole world depends on, whether they know it or not. He has a hard time, however, accepting the fact that he will be kept in the equivalent of a “safe house.”  As the apocalypse of the computer-age gets underway, Robert Brewster tells Kate of a secret underground weapons control facility. She and John head there. These scenes were actually filmed on location at a decommissioned federal control center in West Virginia.

This underground center could symbolize the tomb of Jesus Christ. It will be after this tomb experience that a new life will be found. Not necessarily an easier one, which speaks volumes to the human condition. While new life is apart of the journey of humanity, it does not always mean life will be easier. Life is still hard. Life is still challenging. Life is still a battle between good and evil.

The greater lesson that John learns is that the person he is now, is not the person he will become. That is the good news about new life. We are becoming into someone new, transforming the old. He is becoming the one who will bear salvation for the world.

“You’re terminated.”

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The T-X is evil, no doubt about it. She is an agent of SkyNet, which is the big bad in the film. It is not a mistake that the enemy takes on the shape and appearance of a human. She looks like one of us. “And no wonder!” Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14, Common English Bible). The T-X can take on the appearance of others. At one point she becomes Kate in an attempt to trick Kate’s father. This enemy is deadly and determined to put an end to any possibility of salvation. She does not want there to be salvation. Her mission is to eliminate the possibility of hope.

This hope, however, is not lost. It is while John and Kate are in the underground control center, with computers that are thirty years old, that voices from across the country are heard. They found a radio range that SkyNet did not affect and they call out for anyone else who might be out there. And through these radio waves, the people hear the voice of John Connor, from the walls of a borrowed tomb, offering them hope in the midst of destruction and judgment.

Dick Tracy (1990)

Dick Tracy movie poster

On June 15, 1990, Entertainment Weekly writer Owen Gleiberman wrote this in his review of Dick Tracy:

“For over a decade — ever since Star Wars, in fact — American movies have been edging closer and closer to comic books. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Warren Beatty’s attempt to ace the summer-movie sweepstakes finally takes us all the way. More than Batman or SupermanPopeye or Flash GordonDick Tracy has been fashioned as a live-action comic strip — a lavishly eye-popping Day-Glo gangster movie.”

We have come even closer to the comic book film as Gleiberman predicted. They are almost the norm, with success like The Avengers and the upcoming Man of SteelDick Tracy was a different kind of comic book movie for its time. Warren Beatty directed and produced this 1990 film adaption of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip. Beatty’s re-imagining is classic in style.

The Look

The film is shot in primary colors to reflect the comic strip which could only be printed in primary colors. The bold reds, blues, greens, purples, and don’t forget yellows, stand in contrast to the grotesque characters. The bold colors and the grotesqueness of characters is even sharper on Blu-ray. The colors had to jump off the comic strip to be noticed and to catch the reader’s eyes. They do the same here in the film.

There is rarely a scene without some kind of artificial effect. In addition it was completely studio made. It created a world that could never be, taking us away from reality into the world of Dick Tracy. It took us beyond our theater seats into the comic strip. The physical appearance of the characters in the strip and in the film, mirrored what kind of person that character is. Take, for example, Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman). Mumbles talks so fast that no one understands what he is saying. Flattop (William Forsythe) has a flat head.

Dick Tracy reminds us of the innocence of Gould’s comic strip where we did not live in suspense because Tracy always wins! In the film Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) pulls all the gangs in town together to create a unity in crime against Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty). But, there is a new boss in town. A mysterious figure with no face is working hard to frame Big Boy for kidnapping Tess Trueheart, Tracy’s girlfriend. In the meantime, Faceless has framed Tracy for the murder of D. A. Flecther (Dick Van Dyke). Tracy is arrested and put in the city jail. His buddies are “transferring” him to the county jail when they make a detour to rescue Tess.

Pacino’s performance as Big Bog steals the show. But, are we really surprised? I had totally forgotten Pacino was in this movie. Pacino is one of the greatest actors of our time. Pacino proves that his skill in acting is not always Scarface worthy. In fact the whole film proves to be a worthy film even with a PG rating. There is no obscenity, no blood, and no realistic violence. It all fulfills the innocence of the Gould comic strip.

The Kid

The heart of the film belongs to the Kid. At the beginning of the film, we see the kid pick-pocketing when he can. He steals a watch from a man in a diner that Tracy and Tess are about to walk into. Tracy runs after the kid who eventually runs home to a shanty where his abusive father is not impressed with the stolen watch and denies his son chicken. Tracy arrests the father for abuse, and takes the kid back to the diner for dinner.

Beatty’s Dick Tracy is perhaps more human than other portrays of the hero. We see this mostly through this father-son relationship that grows between Tracy and the kid. The kid helps Tracy out of more than one situation.  The kid gets an honorary detective certificate from the police force because he helps save Tracy’s life. The certificate says “The Kid”, and comes with the promise of getting a new one when he chooses a name.

The kid is an orphan searching for meaning and purpose in life. Before Christ, we are orphans like the Kid. The writer of Ephesians writes this, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:5-6, NRSV).  John Wesley preached that through Jesus Christ we are removed from bondage into adoption. This adoption is apart of the salvation story.  The emotional heart of the film comes when the kid chooses a name for himself and shows his new certificate to Dick Tracy. The certificate is made out to Dick Tracy, Jr. The kid feels adopted by Tracy and chooses his name as his own. As Christians, we do the same when we accept the adoption of Jesus Christ. The translation for the greek word for Christian is loosely translated as “little Christ.” We become little Christs when we accept the Lordship of Jesus.

The Temptation of Dick Tracy

If you watch closely you will see the three temptations of Dick Tracy. First, Big Boy, in his words “offers you to the keys of the kingdom.” Tracy, of course declines. Later, Breathless (Madonna), the lounge singer, tempts with her seductive powers. This temptation is a little harder for Tracy to resist. He kisses Breathless and as it would happen, Tess walks in to witness this moment of weakness. Tess leaves town Tracy, and Tracy just is not himself. Madonna’s performance is possibly the most questionable one in the film. In a film of unique characters, Madonna’s Breathless seems to channel Marilyn Monroe, possibly from Some Like It Hot.

The third temptation comes when Tracy is rescuing Tess. The mysterious figure with no face offers Tracy a place of authority in his city if only he kills Big Boy. Tracy again resists the temptation and we learn that Faceless is really Breathless. (For the Biblical account of Jesus being tempted three times in the wilderness, take a look at Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 3:1-13.) While Tracy represents innocence as good triumphs over evil, we are reminded that even a hero like Dick Tracy has to face temptations. And if Tracy has to face them, we know we do too. How will we respond?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

“You’re not here to kill me?” the thirteen year old boy asked.

“I’m here to protect you,” the man said in a deadpan voice.

“Who sent you?”

“You did. 35 years from now.”

“This is deep.”

The 13-year-old John Connor is right, this is deep. Terminator 2 has similarities to it’s parent film, while being very different.  The T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has returned, but not, as the dialogue above suggests, to kill, but to protect. The Terminator and John set out to rescue Sarah from the mental ward where she has been caged in.

The T-800 is there to protect John and Sarah from the newer, advanced prototype T1000 (Robert Patrick), the new and improved terminator made out of liquid metal. His mission is to kill John Connor to prevent the resistance from forming in the future.

The mission in T2 becomes stopping Judgment Day, which is still going to happen in 1997. In the process, John and the T-800 form a bond that is like that of father and son. We could, as other commentators have done, spend some time here exploring how John never really had a father figure in his life. Cameron does an excellent job of making that theme obvious. It is clear that this relationship with the machine is going to shape who John Connor will become.

But it also gives us a glimpse as to who John Connor is. John is insistent on the T-800 not killing people, a stretch for the cyborg for sure. But because the terminators mission involves following the commands of John, he controls himself and does not kill anyone. Though, that does not limit the violence in the film. The relationship between John and the T-800 present a larger theme/question that Cameron seems to be dealing with: what is the difference between man and machine?  Or, what makes humanity human?

John asks the terminator, “Are you ever afraid?” The terminator responds, “No.” The terminator has no feelings, emotions are not a luxury he can afford. Later, the terminator notices water in John’s eyes. “Why do you cry?” he asks. John’s simple answer is, “When it hurts.” As a 13-year-old, John is coming to terms with a vocation that has been placed upon him. One that he may not have chosen for himself had the circumstances been different.  These interactions only strengthen the father-son bond (a theme that will become a foundation for the third film).

These machines that come from the future started out to be something that was suppose to improve the life of humanity.  Instead, they are destroying humanity. After the final battle between the two terminators, John ask, “Is it dead?” “Terminated,” the T-800 answers.  “It’s over,” Sarah observes.  “No,” the T-800 says. He explains that there is one more chip on earth that needs to be destroyed in order to prevent this from happening again. His chip. The T-800 gives John the signal and he lowers the terminator into the fire to be melted and the future erased.

“The unfortunate future rolls before us,” Sarah Connor’s narration at the end of the film says, “If a terminator can learn the value of human hope, maybe we can too.”  Yes, there is hope.

The Terminator (1984)

The inception of artificial intelligence in the early part of the 20th century triggered a nuclear war in 1997. The war between man and machine would progress into the 21st century and would all but leave humanity wiped out. The machines are finally losing the war due to a human named John Connor and his band of resistance fighters. The machines, to ensure victory, send a cyborg assassin from the year 2029 to the year 1984. His mission: kill Sarah Connor, the mother of John Connor.

This is the basic story line of James Cameron’s The Terminator. This low-budget B-movie was never expected to be much of a success. This was evident by the reviews it got. But it topped the Box Office for two weeks and did launch three sequels. Not to mention what it did for its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger’s size and deadpan, monotone voice give the Terminator an unnerving edge to his limited dialogue (sixteen whole lines!) and the bodies left in the wake of the hunt for Sarah Connors.

The resistance fighters send a warrior to 1984 as well, but to protect Sarah Connor. This is not an easy job for Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). Unlike the Terminator, bullet wounds hurt Reese. Yet, Reese does not give up, he continues to do all he can to keep Sarah alive. To the point of his own death.

Sarah (Linda Hamilton) is an average, single woman working as a waitress. Sarah has a hard time understanding what is going on or why she is being hunted down by a cyborg assassin. Reese does his best to explain to her what is happening. She questions him, “Why me?” questioning why the Terminator is coming after her. Reese then explains that she is the mother of the resistance’s leader, John Connor. Without her bravery and courage, humanity is doomed.

I can’t help but think of Mary in Luke’s gospel as Gabriel comes to her and explains that she, an average, single woman, will give birth to a child that will save all of humanity. I imagine if she did not express it, she thought, “Why me?” But the questioning only lasted for a second. In what we call the Magnificat, Mary declares, “Here I am.” She becomes what the Greek Orthodox call  theotokos, or God-bearer, because she literally bore Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ would be the Messiah who would redeem the people from slavery to sin, just as John Connor would be the messiah figure who will save humanity from the machines. Sarah Connor, then, becomes a messiah-bearer in her own right. She like Mary is brave and courageous, willing to be the vessel for the one who will save humanity.

Are we willing to do as Mary and Sarah did, and be God-bearers?  When times get hard and there are there is a real and present darkness, will we join the darkness or we will be brave and courageous to bear the light?

Alex Cross Trailer

James Patterson’s Alex Cross has to be one of the best characters developed in pop-fiction.  Cross is a Washington D. C. native and detective.  In Patterson’s novel Cross, Alex investigates the murder of one of his family members.  The book is filled with suspense, a super-bad guy, and unbelievable violence. Ingredients needed to make an action-packed detective film.

Director Rob Cohen hopes to do just that with the new film Alex Cross (set to release October 2012), based on the above mentioned novel. Tyler Perry plays Dr. Alex Cross and Matthew Fox plays the villain Picasso.  When I first heard that Tyler Perry was gong to play Dr. Cross, I wasn’t sure about it. Would the man who created Madea be able to fill the shoes left by Morgan Freeman? Freeman brought Alex Cross to the big screen in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. Though Freeman was good in the role, he was too old to be Cross, who has growing children in the books. A change-up is good, but Perry?

The trailer (see below) has convinced me that it may not be a bad thing. Perry is convincing as Cross. Though Perry would not be the first name that comes to mind when you think action/suspense, he pulls it off, at least from what we can see in the trailer. In addition, Matthew Fox appears to pull off the psychotic villain, the kind that make James Patterson’s novels so good.

In short, based on the trailer, it looks like we might actually have a decent Alex Cross film in Alex Cross.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

If you have not seen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, you should before you see Rises.  Nolan brilliantly weaves themes and characters from the first two films into Rises, much to the delight of Bat-fans. Rises picks up months after Dark Knight. The lie that Batman created for Gotham that Harvey Dent was the hero, despite his transformation into Two-Face. Thanks to the Dent Act, in memory of Harvey, the streets of Gotham have been swept clean of organized crime. For the first time in decades, the city knows peace. It is a city without the need for Batman. As such, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has secluded himself in the east wing of Wayne Manor.

With the city and Bruce Wayne vulnerable, Bane (Tom Hardy of Nolan’s Inception) enters the story. Bane is quite possibly the epitome of evil. His presence alone is intimidating due to the way he carries his physical bulk.  And never mind the Hannibal Lector-like mask he wears. He speaks in a calm and thoughtful manner, that reminds you of a great philosopher, yet he can break a neck in a single twist. A mercenary who speaks of revolution, Bane exploits the class warfare already in existence for his own means; for his own power.

As Bane and his goons wreak havoc in Gotham – which looks more and more like New York – Bruce must decide if he will rise from the self-inflicted daze to regain his vocation as the Batman. The question, however, shifts from, “Can he?” to “Should he?” The answer, as is true for most of Nolan’s films, is nowhere near simple. In a Jonah-in-the-whale kind of way, Bruce is imprisoned in Bane’s prison where he heals physically and emotionally. As Bruce catapults out of the prison’s hole, he claims his mission and sets out to wear the mask and cape.

In the midst of all of this, there is a mysterious woman in a cat costume.  Catwoman, or Selina Kyle is played by Anne Hathaway.  Hathaway handles the role of Catwoman in such a casual way that it makes us think, “Of course she’s the Catwoman.” Her morality is as flexible as her body, which is no wonder she and Batman seem to have a kinship.

The Dark Knight Rises does what every great film should do – spark conversation on the drive home. And I don’t mean conversations about how awesome the special effects were. I mean conversations about the themes and statements the film is saying about humanity.

Catwoman embodies one of the many themes in this film: grace. She is searching for ways to clear her slate, erase her record. She was made promises by Bane’s people that never came to fruition. Wayne/Batman offers her the same BEFORE she does anything. As a result, she offers assistance to help him find Bane.  But, it turns out to be a trap.  Even so, Wayne/Batman offers her grace and a chance to be a part of the redeeming of Gotham.

“Born in hell, forged from suffering, hardened by pain.” That line from the film is about Bane. It could easily be about Bruce Wayne as well. Both men have been forged from suffering and hardened by pain. The difference is how the men response to this tragedy/crisis/struggle. Like Jonah, Bane prefers vengeance to those who have done wrong. Like Jonah, Bruce Wayne rises above his own struggles to reclaim a commitment he has made to do good. And like Jonah, grace is the lesson learned. We rise because we have grace.

The film is the home to many more themes and theological ponderings. Too many to name and discuss here. One question remains, though, what will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences do with the Batman?

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