Monday, June 1, 2015

I Am Starting A New Blog

Since I talk about movies so much on this blog, I just decided I would cut to the chase and do a blog just about movies.  I will try to update it at least once a week (Sundays probably).  My posts could be any of the following things I've done on here:

-Top 10 lists (or whatever number fits)
-Spiritual Commentaries on movies

Or, I could just simply review movies.  Maybe pull a PluggedIn and talk about why they are/aren't good for Christians.  I am also open to suggestions about what to talk about, so comment to me either on here, there, or Facebook.  Okay?  Okay.  See ya.

I'll still talk about things on here.  Just no more movie posts.  This blog will focus on the other types of things I've discussed on here.

The new one is here.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

10 Christ Figures in Movies (That I Haven't Mentioned Already in my Plethora of Spiritual Movie Posts)

I love movies.  Did you know that?

I also like looking for spiritual symbolism in movies.  Did you know that, too?

I'm just going to move on before I go into self-aware humor overload...

But I do like it when I'm watching a movie, and I'm like "Hey, this could apply to Christianity."  I've already discussed this before in a few other posts, so this list will not include Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption or John Keating from Dead Poets Society.

Also, please don't get angry with this post and say that I'm trying to put any of these characters on an equal level with the Creator of the universe.  When I consider somebody in a movie or book a Christ figure, I only mean that they display certain characteristics similar to those of Jesus.  This could mean inspiring hope among a group of people, showing an extraordinary amount of benevolence, or committing a significant personal sacrifice for the good of others.  And like I said, these characters are NOT perfect pictures of Christ by any means.  All humans are called to be Jesus in the world, but we all inevitably have flaws, just as most, if not all, of these characters do.  So here we go.

1.  Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

"You talkin' to me?"

You probably weren't expecting to see this guy on the list.  He's just a violent, mentally unstable taxi driver, right?  Well, partially true.  But, a lot of people don't take the time to delve deeper into his character.  This man was disgusted by the sinful things he saw on New York's mean streets (hey, that would be a good name for another De Niro film), and he wanted to do what he could to transform them. He was particularly interested in saving a young prostitute from the life she was trapped in.  He became willing to help somebody that was considered the lowest of the low in society, similar to how Jesus reacted to a lot of the sinners he met.  He ends up charging into the house where she stays, eliminating anyone in his way.  He rescues her, but gets shot himself.  (I don't think it kills him though.)  

Actually, Jesus was a manly man.  I'm not saying He would be like this guy, but He was definitely no pansy.  

2.  Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront

It took him awhile, but he came through.  Malloy is a guy who's owned by the town's crime boss, Johnny Friendly.  Terry comes to do the right thing, and makes the decision to testify against Friendly in court.  He boldly speaks the truth at personal risk.  As a result, all of the people he thought were his friends betray him.  But, he still wants to deliver them from his control.  He has a showdown with Friendly, which does not end well for Malloy.  The cowardly villain has his goons beat up Malloy when he's getting the upper hand.  This example, though, inspires the other men to refuse to work for Friendly anymore.  The best is the end when Malloy, despite having been beaten within an inch of his life, still gets up and walks away, and the men follow him, leaving the enemy with nothing.

3.  Batman in The Dark Knight

Yes, I am serious.  And don't call me Shirley.  Basically, he allows himself to be hated and hunted by the people he loved and wanted to protect.  After Harvey kills a bunch of people, Batman decides to take the blame for the crimes.  He takes Harvey's sins on his own shoulders, leaving Harvey Dent spotless and pure in the eye of the public.  And he rises in the third movie...

4.  Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I know, I know.  McMurphy was a dishonest, disrespectful, foul-mouthed fellow.  How could he be a Christ figure?  Well, he did turn his attention away from himself and to helping the other inmates of the asylum.  He took certain risks, such as hopping the barbed wire fence, so that he could show them a good time outside the walls of the institution.  He taught the men how to play basketball.  Ultimately, he taught the men to think for themselves, rather than letting the tyrannical Nurse Ratched tell them what to think.  Most significantly. he had his brain fried for his "unorthodox" behavior, a sacrifice which inspires at least one of the other inmates to bust through the wall and run to freedom.

5.  Luke in Cool Hand Luke

(See what I did there?)

Like other stories I've mentioned, this is about a man who goes to prison that everyone immediately knows is different from the rest.  He challenges any sort of authority, earning the respect of his fellow inmates.  He continually attempts to escape, but he keeps failing.  In spite of that, he never loses the loyalty of his men or his resolve to not conform to the mindset that the jailers would like.  They beat him worse every time they catch him. They beat him so badly at one point, they have to lay him out on the table in the crucifixion pose you see before you now.  Finally, in the end, it looks like he will finally escape, until he's turned in by the Judas in the story.  Luke tries to escape, but gets shot.  It's unclear as to whether he died, but we do know that he never gave in, as he still keeps his perpetual smile while the police are driving away.

6.  E.T. in E.T.:  The Extra-Terrestrial

E.T. is not just an alien visitor.  He is just the kind of friend young Elliot needed in his troubled time.  In Spielberg's classic, we see Elliot dealing with the pain of his parents' separation and the fact that he doesn't seem to have a friend he can turn to.  But, one shows up.  E.T. comes to Earth and becomes Elliot's best friend that helps him get over his hurt.  They seem to become one.  Of course, there are some obvious analogies that can be drawn from E.T.'s death and resurrection later in the movie.  But, the most obvious symbol comes at the very end when E.T. leaves.  His spaceship comes to take him back home, but Elliot begs him not to leave.  E.T. hugs Elliot, points to his head, and says, "I'll be right here."  Aside from making everybody in the room cry, this is also a reminder of when Jesus had to leave the disciples to ascend into Heaven and comforted them by saying, "I will be with you always."

7.  Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire

It's as simple as this.  Jamal represents how Jesus pursues us unrelentingly, no matter how hard we make it for him.  He loves Latika because he believes they're destined to be together, and nothing stops him on his quest, even when both of their lives are threatened.  This is probably the best love story I've seen in a secular film.

8.  Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino

Hey, even this guy will back me up here.

This short-tempered man also believed in standing up for the weak.  He saved the Asian girl from the gang pushing her around on the street.  He also took a special interest in mentoring Thao, the neighbor boy, so that he won't become a criminal.  He then commits the ultimate sacrifice so the local Asian gang (led by Thao's cousin) will stop harassing them.  And he went to his final confrontation with them in a completely non-violent manner.

9.  Phil Coulson in The Avengers

It's not always the main character who serves as the Christ figure.  This guy was probably the most selfless character in the movie, simply being SHIELD's humble servant.  The only thing he ever asked for was for Captain America to autograph his trading cards.  He ends up committing the ultimate sacrifice when confronting Loki.  And it was this sacrifice that persuaded the superheroes to put aside their differences and come together to save the world.

10.  John Coffey in The Green Mile

It's pretty common knowledge that this story was partially intended to be a retelling of the story of Jesus.  He has the same initials.  He heals people when he can.  And this movie specifically says that his powers are from God.  "And I do not see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child."  Indeed, his powers are what persuade the guards on Death Row that Coffey is innocent of the crimes he's been accused of.  His healing Paul Edgecomb's bladder infection could be recalling the time in the Gospel when Jesus healed the ear of one of the men arresting him.  Also, we discover that it was another character in the story that killed the little girls in question.  But, John Coffey still goes to the electric chair for the man's crime.  And he does so willingly.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

10 of the Greatest Acting Performances (In My Opinion)

You probably didn't know this, but I love movies.  I don't really talk about it much...

So, this post will give my opinion on ten of the greatest acting performances in movies.  And I just now realized that all of the actors on my list are men.  Don't worry.  It was not intentional.  Perhaps I'll do another list for the ladies someday.  Also, I do feel obligated to warn you that I'll be posting some clips some may want to avoid.  As Captain America would say, "Language!"  I'll just put an asterisk (*) at the top of the section where that will be an issue.  Finally, I want to clarify that these rankings are in no particular order, until I get to numbers 2 and 1.  (And don't worry.  This post will not say a word about The Shawshank Redemption.)

10.  Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street*

First of all, I am not saying I recommend this movie, only that I think DiCaprio did a good job in it.  I know Leo gets a lot of hate, but I honestly do think he's a very talented actor.  I think Martin Scorsese saved him from his pretty boy Titanic reputation by giving him his role in Gangs of New York, and then following up with him leading in The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island.  I also loved him in Inception and The Great Gatsby.  (He was just downright scary in Django Unchained!)  However, one complaint about Leo is that he always has at least one scene in his movies where he overdoes it.  (Think of him grabbing Tom in The Great Gatsby.)  That's why his role in this movie was so perfect for him, though.  This part was supposed to be loud and excessive, and he performed that role admirably.  In fact, the real Jordan Belfort has said that he was even more over the top than Leo portrayed him to be!

9.  Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life

I've already said before that this is one of my favorite movies, and Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor.  I like him not only for his movie roles, but because I know he was a very upstanding man in real life, as well, which is a rarity in Hollywood.  This is my favorite performance of his I've seen because he does everything I like about him:  Make great speeches, tell the people off who need it, and most of all, hold true to his values no matter what the cost.  And he does everything with such intensity, it's impossible not to be captivated by it.

8.  Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull*

De Niro is Scorsese's main man (at least, he was before Leo).  Known for playing hardcore, tough guys in movies like Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, this movie actually focused on how his toughness caused his downfall.  De Niro plays a boxer who just wants to make it to the top.  Unfortunately for him and everyone who knows him, he is just as violent out of the ring because of various frustrations too complex to fully delve into here.  He loses his temper with family and friends on a regular basis, usually out of jealousy over his wife.  He abuses her and later his also-violent brother (played by Joe Pesci, go figure).  He eventually lands in jail where he cries out that he is not an animal.  (Is it just a coincidence that this came out the same year as The Elephant Man?)  By the end of the movie, he has turned his life around and is giving motivational speeches, but he has become hopelessly out of shape.  Ever the method actor, that weight gain was not an illusion, but actual weight that De Niro put on just for that role.

7.  Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbit in Rain Man*

Dustin Hoffman totally convinced me in all the roles I've seen him in, so far.  He's been serious (Stranger than Fiction), silly (Hook), naive (The Graduate), and even sleazy (Midnight Cowboy).  All of them seemed real to me.  (Okay, I haven't seen The Graduate yet, but I assume he was good.)  In this movie, he took on what would be a challenge for any actor:  playing the part of a mentally challenged man.  But, he pulled it off like he always does and I totally believed that he was the way he was acting when I watched Rain Man.

6.  Robin Williams as Jack Powell in Jack

A lot of people think of this movie as one of Robin Williams' flops, and to a certain extent, it's true.  It certainly isn't as good as some of his other movies, like Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting, but I still think it's an enjoyable picture.  Playing the part of a boy in a grown man's body sounds like one of the most complicated things I've ever heard of, but he did it with the perfect amount of innocence required.

5.  Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump

I thought of a couple other movies I could have put for Tom Hanks.  I could have said Saving Private Ryan where he plays the stern army captain that slowly reveals more of his human side to his men.  I could have said Cast Away where he plays a man marooned on an island who struggles to keep his sanity.  (I miss Wilson, too.)  But this performance always stands out in my mind because he plays the part of the dim-witted, but loving everyman so well.  This was the first Tom Hanks movie I saw (not counting Toy Story or Polar Express), and I have seen him play other more serious roles since then, and that just makes his convincing Gump performance here all the more amazing to me.

4.  Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest*

Jack Nicholson steals the movie no matter what he's in.  The Shining blew everyone away.  His Joker is the reason Tim Burton's Batman is good, in my opinion.  Even if he's playing a part that you're supposed to be rooting for his downfall (A Few Good Men, The Departed), it's still impossible to hate him.  But his role in Cuckoo's Nest set the precedent for all of his movies that came after it.  He doesn't play a crazy man.  He plays a guy pretending to be a crazy man to stay out of prison.  But that's not all there is to his character.  He wants to help the other crazy people, let them see that they can think for themselves, and free them from the control of the dictator Nurse.  He pays a big price to do so, too.  He gets his brain zapped and becomes a vegetable, and he played that part very nicely, as well.

3.  Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

Playing the part of one of our great scientists is hard enough.  But throw in ALS into the mix, and you've got one tall order.  He remarkably portrayed Hawking as his body slowly deteriorates.  It's especially amazing when you consider the fact that movie scenes are usually not shot in chronological order.  This means he had to go into each scene at a completely random stage in the deterioration and know how to act for that stage.  But, he somehow pulled it off.

2.  Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

I have said before that I think The Dark Knight's Joker is the best super villain portrayal there is, and I still believe it.  People actually doubted that he would be able to pull this off.  But, as soon as they saw him in the movie, there was no doubt in anybody's mind that he was the psychopathic serial killer he said he was.  He actually used some interesting method acting.  Apparently, he locked himself in a room for six weeks and kept a journal as if he were the Joker.  Tragically, his method worked a little too well, and he couldn't live with himself afterword...

Before I reveal my top pick, here are six honorable mentions (3 serious, 3 comedic)

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List


Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather

Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas*

Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski*

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in Anchorman:  The Legend of Ron Burgundy

George Clooney as Ulysses Everett in O Brother Where Art Thou?*

Here we go...

1.  Peter Sellers as Capt. Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove in Dr. StrangeLove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Sellers is probably better known for playing the original Inspector Clousseau in the Pink Panther films.  But, his performance in the legendary Stanley Kubrick's satirical film was what impressed me.  It takes skill to play 3 separate roles with personalities all their own.  He plays the peaceful Captain Mandrake, the mock-serious President Muffley, and the zany man of the title.  If that wasn't enough he has to do three separate accents in this movie!  The Captain is British, the president is American, and the doctor is German.  And we already know he can do French from his Inspector Clousseau role.  So, I believe that this man is one of the most unsung comedic actors there ever was, God rest his soul.

So, do you have an opinion on this matter?  What are some of your favorite performances?

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Tears of a Clown

There's this song that's helped me through some dark times about how you have value and nobody can tell you different:  "Beautiful" by Eminem.  I wish I could share it here, but some of the lyrics are pretty vulgar.  Oh wait....

You're welcome.

There's a certain point in the song that really stuck with me because I can relate to it.  Minus the cuss words, that section says, "I don't need no man servant Trying to follow me around, Laugh at every single joke I crack And half of them ain't even funny like "Ha!, Marshall you're so funny man, you should be a comedian!" Unfortunately I am, but I just hide behind the tears of a clown." 

I have been thinking about this concept for awhile now.  To me the "tears of a clown" idea is about how you've become known as a joker in a group, whether it's your group of friends, coworkers, or fellow activity people.  People just know you as the guy who has the best jokes or one-liners, so they know they can count on you for a laugh when they need one.  However, it gets to the point where you start to feel that your humor is the only reason they keep you around.  I've already talked before about how insecure I can get, so maybe this is just that talking, but I'm sure anyone else who's become the group comedian knows what I'm talking about.  They like you because they make you laugh.  So much so, that they don't really know the real you.  They don't know that the comedy may be just a way of disguising things like insecurity or depression.  And, when you really do have something serious to talk about, people probably won't take your concerns very seriously.  Again, this may just be me, as I have had a problem getting people to take me seriously pretty much my whole life.  But, I'm kind of not thinking so.  There are at least two other guys that you have probably heard of that would know what I mean.  If only they were still with us...

One was Chris Farley.  He was known for being the funny, fat guy on Saturday Night Live and in movies like Tommy Boy or Billy Madison.  This man truly had some "tears of a clown," though.  This guy suffered from severe insecurity, depression, and a serious drug problem.  He never knew if people were laughing with him or at him, which I am very familiar with.  He even got in a physical fight with David Spade once because he felt left out of Spade's night of fun with Rob Lowe.  He eventually died of a drug overdose on October 25, 1997.  

The other, of course, is the Captain himself, Robin Williams.  I believe he summed up my point better than I could with this quote:  

This man is one of the funniest men who ever lived.  That's not just my opinion, that's a fact, Jack!  But, I think the world now knows at least a small part of who he really was.  He had severe depression, which his fellow actors now confirm that they were suspicious about for a log time.  Ethan Hawke, who acted with Williams in Dead Poets Society, now says that he could always tell that Robin wasn't happy, and it made him sad because Williams gave them all so much joy, but he felt like none of them were making him as happy as he made them.  He committed suicide last August, and I think his death was the saddest I've ever been about a celebrity death.

At first, I assumed I was sad because the world had lost such a great comedian and actor.  I had just seen Patch Adams shortly before this happened and wondered why he couldn't take his own advice.  But, now I know the truth.  I can relate with him being the funny man who tries to hide his pain inside.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not really sure why I'm writing all of this down.  Maybe I'm just trying to vent.  But I also want everyone to think about the people they know and think twice before they pin a label on somebody.  You probably don't know half of who they are.

Still, as a clown, I feel obligated to finish with something funny here, but I can't think of anything right now, so I'll let the master do it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My Top 10 Movies

Yes, I am well aware of the fact that I have already talked about my top 10 movies, maybe not on here, but on Facebook or something.  So, some of you may have seen the link to this and wondered why you should bother reading this long blog when you've already seen the list, you know what I like and you know how this ends.  So, why should you read this?  I have absolutely no idea.  Just listen to me banter...

So, if you don't know me, then you should know that I seriously love movies of all different sorts.  I try not watch movies that will dumb me down to the level that Hollywood would like.  I like to watch movies that are artistically done, but without becoming one of those snobs that's always like "Oh, I would never watch that movie.  I appreciate movies."  It's a delicate balance, but one I try to maintain.  I can watch a movie like Napoleon Dynamite and appreciate it for what it is.  I'm not sure where I've set the bar for what entertainment I will and won't partake in, but that's another post for another day.  I've gotten really off track here...

Moving right along here, I will list my top 10 favorite movies and why I like them.  And, yes, I am already aware of the fact that I cheated by combining movies in some of these cases, but it's my blog, so I can do whatever I want.

Before the list, here are a few (actually, quite a few) honorable mentions.

The Passion of the Christ, Star Wars original trilogy, Bruce Almighty, The Big Lebowski, Stand By Me, The Avengers, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Napoleon Dynamite, Mud, The Sandlot, The Green Mile, Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, almost every Christopher Nolan film (the other one made the list), Cinderella Man, Braveheart, Gran Torino, Raging Bull, Casino, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Perks of Being a Wallflower (shut up, it's good), Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Veggietales, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, The Princess Bride, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Chariots of Fire, Rounders, American Sniper, Slumdog Millionaire, A Few Good Men, and I am so done with this list...moving on to the top 10.

10.  Tie-Mr. Holland's Opus and Dead Poets Society

I don't think I have to explain too much about why I like Dead Poets Society.  That has been covered elsewhere on this blog.  I like this movie simply because I find it inspiring.  (And Robin Williams, of course.)  Often, when I find myself in a situation where I am reluctant or afraid to take action, I remind myself to Carpe Diem.  Sometimes, that can lead to disappointment, but at least I play a hand.  Don't settle.  If you have a chance to do something extraordinary, go for it.

Mr. Holland's Opus is another inspiring, feel-good movie that holds a special place for me.  I don't know too many other people my age who have seen this, which is a shame.  For those of you who don't know, this movie is about a man who wants to write an epic piece of music but must take a job teaching music at the high school to pay the bills.  He is initially unhappy about this position, but he starts to see that he can really have an impact on the students' lives when he puts his mind to it.  This movie actually has some sentimental value to me, as my dad once used it as part of a learning experience for our family.

9.  The Departed

As strange as it may sound, I am a fan of the gangster movie genre, and almost nobody (maybe not anybody at all) can do it as well as Martin Scorsese.  This, in my opinion, is his second best gangster film.  (I'll get to his best one in a bit.)  Scorsese described this movie as his only movie with a plot when it was first released.  The movie tells the story of two rats, one in the police force, the other working with a crime boss, and their race to find the other guy out.  The suspense in this movie is non-stop, and the outcome is never certain until the end of the movie.  The movie does a good job of showing the exhausting toll that a double life can have on a person.  You will probably experience the same exhaustion during the movie, but it's a good exhaustion.  The movie also boasts an all-star cast (Matt Damon, Leonardo Dicaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and best of all, Jack Nicholson).  The soundtrack is also amazing (pretty much always playing either Irish rock or Rolling Stones songs, but it works).

8.  Fight Club

Lots of testosterone in this one.  In this film, Edward Norton plays a nameless narrator who tries to fill holes in his life by buying things and going to support groups.  Eventually, he meets Tyler Durden, an anarchist/terrorist who helps him start up a group called Fight Club, which eventually escalates to full-blown terrorism.  (Spoiler alert) Ed Norton eventually finds out that Tyler is only the other side of his split personality, so he realizes it's up to him to stop the madness.  So, this movie has become known as THE movie for the alienated males.  It does not advocate passivity or mindless rebellion, in my opinion.  It asks you to search for some middle ground.

7.  The Aviator

I've already mentioned that I am a Scorsese fan, and this is one of his most underrated films, in my opinion.  Not too many people are familiar with the story of the genius-turned-paranoid-madman Howard Hughes, but I believe Martin Scorsese does an excellent job of bringing the story to life.  I love movies, so it was fun to see a movie about a movie maker that also became a plane designer.  Unfortunately, the combination of a plane crash, and opposition from a lot of people around him drives him slowly insane.  Hughes, though, becomes somebody anyone with high aspirations continually being hampered can identify with.  So, this movie has definitely earned its spot on my list.

6.  The Dark Knight

The best superhero movie ever made and that's a fact, Jack!  Unlike other films in this genre, the movie doesn't want to be just another action-filled shoot 'em up superhero smack-down film.  This one actually has some depth to it.  It provokes a lot of philosophical and spiritual thought and could definitely open the doors to some great conversations when the movie is over.  And Heath Ledger gives the most convincing super-villain performance I have ever seen.

5.  Lord of the Rings (entire trilogy)

What can I say, really?  This is, objectively, the best trilogy of all time.  It just gets better as it goes, and the end of it is fully satisfying, albeit very long, which will make it hard to hold your pee.  This series has everything:  great fantasy action, great visuals, great characters, great story, and even some great symbolism.

4.  Goodfellas

THIS is Martin Scorsese's best gangster film.  We follow the story of real life mobster, Henry Hill, as he works his way through the hierarchy of the mob and experiences a crushing downfall in the end.  What's interesting about this in addition to its realistic and gritty portrayal of the mob life is the fact that these characters all manage to be interesting and entertaining even though you know they're evil.  The three lead actors do a great job in this film and are totally convincing.  I like how this movie purposefully plays with your reaction to it.  At first, you might think the mob life sounds pretty appealing because of everything he has, but some of the downsides will definitely make you reconsider.  Anyway, great flick.

3.  The Godfather (Parts I and II)

This was what I meant when I said Scorsese might be almost the best gangster movie maker.  These films are without a doubt the best mafia movies in existence since the beginning of humanity.  Even though both of these films are around the 3-hour mark, they still manage to keep your attention for the whole thing, which is not easy to do.  These movies probably do the best job I have ever seen of making you care about the bad guys because they continually switch from their business life to their family life, until the two finally become one.  These movies are not meant to glorify crime, though, as Michael Corleone in particular falls hard.

2.  It's a Wonderful Life

Another classic film about how your life impacts so many others, even if you can't always see that.  Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor of all time, and this was probably his best film (maybe Mr. Smith, I don't know).  Anyway, I always enjoy watching this film every year around Christmas time.  George Bailey's monologues always do it for me, and I always finish this film feeling better than when I started.

1.  The Shawshank Redemption (duh)

I think I've probably beaten this dead horse enough on this blog, so I'll just say it's an inspiring and hopeful film with a payoff that always leaves me feeling better about life in general.  To go more in depth on this movie, I have written an entire post about it elsewhere, so go read that if you haven't already.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

How Does Dead Poets Society Relate to Spirituality?

Last year, the world was rocked by the sudden, tragic death of Robin Williams, who many consider to be THE funny man of our times.  Who would have guessed how he was really feeling all this time? It's another tragic reminder that you can't judge an actor by their characters (RIP Mr. Williams.  Your loss will be felt by all.  I kind of relate to you myself.)

 I myself have often been impressed with how much talent he had.  He was a hilarious comedian, and his movie roles could be funny, whimsical, deadly serious, and even a little scary sometimes.  One of his most iconic movies is Dead Poets Society, which I briefly talked about in another post.  And I can't talk about this movie without saying "Carpe Diem" at some point, so I'll just say it now.  There it is.

So what does this movie have to do with spirituality?  Well, uh, Carpe Diem is like Latin, I think, and, uh, Jesus was Latin, I think, and, uh, stuff...okay, I'm just kidding.  Let's start over.

I am going the Christ figure route once more.  Robin Williams plays John Keating, a new teacher at a boarding school known for its sense of tradition and conformity.  Most of the teachers subscribe to these philosophies and prove to teach very boring classes.  However, Mr. Keating takes a different approach to his teaching style.  (Once again, the whole "in the place, but not of it" principle).  He takes his class out in the hall and teaches them the lesson that makes up the crux of the film, which is to "seize the day" and "make your lives extraordinary."  (Could that include making them "fishers of men?"  Yeah, I'm really reaching here.  Don't worry.  I'll get to the good stuff soon.)  

Mr. Keating slowly but surely changes the way these boys think of themselves and their lives.  First, he tells them about a club he was once part of called the Dead Poets Society where they met in a secret cave and let poetry sink in in a way they couldn't in a classroom.  So, the boys decide to bring back the club and follow his example.  They've become his disciples, if you will.  

He manages to connect with and help some of the boys on an individual basis.  He helps the shy new boy, Todd Anderson, find the poetic extrovert within himself.  He encourages the boys' leader, Neil Perry, to pursue his dreams of acting, rather than giving into his father's dreams for his life.  Mr. Keating wasn't directly involved in this one, but it was his influence that prompted Knox Overstreet to take a risk on calling the girl he liked.

At one point in the movie, the most reckless boy in the bunch, Charlie Dalton, takes a foolish risk to try to promote his ideas for the school and is nearly expelled.  Keating reprimands him for this and tells him a wise man knows when to be cautious, kind of the same way Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden of Gethsemane.  

Unfortunately, a lot of people aren't in agreement with his philosophies, particularly Mr. Nolan, the headmaster.  He believes in teaching the boys to conform, rather than think for themselves.  So, he gets after Keating much the way the religious leaders did to Jesus.  Charlie Dalton's stunt just makes the administration all the more suspicious of Keating.  But, he always seems to have an answer for their complaints and continues on.

But, there are some people he can't handle.  Neil Perry's father is none too happy that Neil defied his wishes and performed in the play.  As a result, he pulls Neil out of the school and tells him he will send him to military school.  Feeling defeated from being forbidden to follow his dreams and frustrated by his inability to talk to his dad about them, he commits suicide (a similar fate to one of the disciples). 

The administration now needs a scapegoat for the incident because prestigious schools have been ruined because of things like this.  Their chosen target, of course, is John Keating.  (Forced to take the blame for something that wasn't his fault, when he was just trying to help.  Sound familiar?)  It is then that we see our Judas Iscariot in the story, Richard Cameron.  Cameron goes to the administrator and tells them everything about Keating and the dead poets society, and wholeheartedly cooperates with their plan to "crucify" Keating.  The other boys still want to remain loyal to Keating because of how much he's touched them, but they all do end up caving and signing the paper blaming Keating, much the way the disciples all ran and abandoned Jesus in his hour of need.  

But the story ends with a feeling of hope.  Even though, the boys were all forced to give in, they still manage to let Mr. Keating know that they stand with him by defying the headmaster and standing on their desks and chanting "Oh Captain, my Captain."  I know I've shared this scene before, but it's so awesome, I have to do it again.  

And I think it's significant that it was Todd Anderson who stood first.  Even though they had basically been forced to sign Keating's termination papers, they still decided to stand up for what they believe in in the end.  It's a choice we all must make sooner or later.  Even if we do make mistakes, it's never too late to do the right thing.  Will you?

So, maybe not the best parallel to the Gospel I've seen, but it's something...

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Where Does Evangelizing Begin?

As, Tom Cruise said in the movie, A Few Good Men, "It doesn't matter what I believe!  It matters what I can prove!"  (Or, Denzel Washington in Training Day.  Take your pick.)  I think it's a good philosophy that could apply in some ways to evangelization.  You can believe what you believe as strongly as you wish, but if you can't prove it with how you live your life, you're doing nothing.

Now, when you hear about evangelization, you probably think that's about people of faith just trying to bring the Gospel to non-believers, right?  Well, yes, that is a big part of it.  But, I think I would argue that believers need it just as much as non-believers.  Believers also often lose their way in life, and sometimes, it is the words or example of a fellow Christian that can help them get back on track.

Also, I don't think evangelization has to be overtly preaching the Gospel all the time.  Evangelization could also just mean showing love or kindness.  It has been said that "they will know we are Christians by our love," so that also needs to be taken into account.  Our kindness could change somebody's day or even their life.

Let me give you a recent example from my life.  I was on a retreat recently, and somebody I have known for awhile now gave a talk about how God has been working in her life.  But during the course of this talk, she revealed darker parts of her life where she started thinking things about herself that weren't true.  And the thing is, I knew her during this dark part, even though I didn't know what all she was going through.  But the point is, I could have refuted everything she thought.  But I never said anything.  Would her life have gotten a bit better sooner if I had said something then?  We'll never know.  Now, it's true that I didn't explicitly hurt her, but as Larry the Cucumber once said, "Sometimes, not helping is the same as hurting."  I actually apologized to this girl later on for not speaking up sooner.

So, you see?  Each of us has a responsibility to our fellow men and women to show them love and kindness.  It's not only a good idea, it should be our way of life.  Everybody needs to know that they are loved and cherished, and that should be our number 1 job as Christians.  

So, even if I were able to quote every Bible Scripture there is and pray with the best of them, it really doesn't mean a thing if I can't first do what Jesus said and "Love my neighbor as myself."  Only after I start with this step can I, as For King and Country eloquently put it, "Let my life be the proof of Your love."  

Some of you are probably reading this and thinking I've made some good points.  Others, more likely are probably reading this and thinking, "Man, if this gets any more cliche..."  Then you should probably stop reading this and go out to start evangelizing!  Seriously, go!

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Benjamins

(Special thanks to my good friend, Zach, for helping tweak this.)

Once there were two young men, named Benjamin.

The first man was a popular, well-liked young man that everybody respected.  He was very involved with his school and was a very likable fellow that had qualities about him that everyone seemed to find special.  He always seemed to have a kind word for everyone, and when he spoke, everybody listened.  Everybody felt like his friend when they talked to him.

The second Benjamin was a depressed loner.  He could never seem to find happiness, and he never felt truly accepted by anybody.  He spent most of his nights just trying to escape his emotions and, sometimes, resorting to self-harm, sadly.

Popular Benjamin was on top of the world.  He had just been elected president of the student council and was on his way to making the school a better place.  He had also just scored the winning point for his school’s basketball team that night, and there was a rumor going around that he would be the prom king.

Depressed Benjamin sat in his room all alone.  He had been there for three hours watching Netflix to try to escape the world and cutting himself, when the mindless TV comedies didn’t do the trick.  He had just recently started cutting deeper.

Popular Benjamin was elected prom king, as everyone knew he would.  The queen, of course, was the prettiest girl in the whole school, and everybody was certain that there had never been a luckier man in the history of their school.

Depressed Benjamin was fed up.  He was tired of all the hurt, the pain, and the emptiness.  He finally decided to do what he wished he had done a long time ago.  He went into his parents’ bedroom, went into a certain drawer, pulled out the item contained inside, and blew his own brains out.

The school was devastated.  Everyone had been so certain that Popular Benjamin had the perfect life and hadn’t a care in the world.  They never would have guessed that he had been dying inside for so long.  He finally revealed his true feelings with a gunshot.


This is me.  This is you.  This is everybody.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How does "The Great Gatsby" Teach Spirituality?

Thankfully, the movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo Dicaprio was pretty faithful to the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so I won't have to spend a whole lot of time comparing the two.  

The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be the great American novel.  I obviously wasn't alive back then, but from what I've heard, the story was a perfect example of the excess and apathetic attitude toward morals that characterized the Roaring 20's.  Actually, an interesting thing about the latest film version is that it uses a lot of modern music, like Jay-Z, for the soundtrack.  Yet, it still works because, when you stop and think about it, those mindless revelers we see aren't really that different from what we see now.  

That said, this spiritual analysis will be a little different from previous ones I've done.  God doesn't show up like He did in Bruce Almighty.  There are no Christ figures like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.  There are no metaphors for spiritual battles like there were in The Avengers.  This one is actually notable precisely because there aren't any role models in this movie.  Christ is actually shown in this movie by the lack of his presence!  

The story is narrated by a detached observer sort of character named Nick Carraway.  He has become a very cynical man, disgusted by the world and the people in it, and he tells us why.  He had moved to New York, close to his rich cousin, Daisy Buchanan and her husband, Tom.  This rich couple has bought into the notion that they are the epitome of self-made success, and that their wealthy position is the be-all and end-all of human existence.  Yet, they are unhappy and, quite frankly, boring people.  Tom runs off and has his affairs, and Daisy has to pretend it doesn't bother her.

Also living nearby, is this man Jay Gatsby who is nothing but a legend to most.  He throws these elaborate parties at his mansion, which many show up to, yet none of them seem to know him.  We soon discover that his house and parties are all part of his elaborate plan to get Daisy back into his life, as they had had a relationship years before and Gatsby never forgot about her.

He sees Nick as an opportunity to get to Daisy and asks Nick to invite Daisy to tea.  Nick has some issues with setting them up, as well he should, seeing as how Daisy is married, but he does it.  And they slowly start to have a relationship again.

Tom, of course, is none too happy when he finds out, mainly because he feels that Gatsby is beneath them because Tom was born wealthy.  The thing that really makes you angry in this scene is that Tom still tries to excuse his own adultery even while berating Daisy for hers.  He then sends Daisy home with Gatsby in his car as a final insult because he figures Gatsby isn't a real threat. Unfortunately, Gatsby lets Daisy drive on the way home and she accidentally kills Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson.  Tom lets Gatsby take the fall and even goes so far as to let Myrtle's husband, George, believe that Gatsby is her "other man."  A crazed George finds Gatsby later and shoots him before turning the gun on himself.

If I had to pick one emotion to describe this story it would be simply this:  emptiness.  Tom and Daisy seem to have everything a person could want, yet they are truly unhappy people who don't seem to care at all for others, including each other.  

Early in the film, Tom and Nick attend a party where people are mindlessly drinking and carousing, but it's not meant to be a glamorous scene like it would be in other movies of this nature.  We can see that these people are truly devoid of any real life and they don't have any meaning in what they do.  Their listlessness is a symbol of a greater underlying pointlessness to their existence.  Many would think what they do is all fun and games, but it doesn't really make them happy.

Gatsby has also bought into the materialistic lies of the world.  We learn during the course of the movie that he comes from a poor family, so he spends his life trying to become wealthy and become somebody that a rich girl like Daisy would consider worthy.  Unfortunately, he owes much of  his success to some very shady business dealings.  

At a certain point in the movie, he confides to Nick that even though he seems like he has it all, he truly feels empty.  He worked his whole life trying to get something and realized it was nothing at all.  It could be argued that Gatsby's longing goes deeper than just Daisy, and what he really wants back is the innocence he had back before he made so many compromises.  Nick, though, tells Gatsby that "They're a rotten crowd.  You're worth the whole d--n bunch put together."  He's partially right.  Even though Gatsby's actions he's taken in his life are far from honorable, he doesn't naturally feel the way the rest do.  He's simply bought into their lies and is now feeling the pain from them.  Nick is the only true friend he has by the end of the story, as nobody else but him cares to show up for Gatsby's funeral.  All the people at his parties were only fair weather supporters and mooches.  None of them were truly friends.

By that point, Tom and Daisy have slipped away to avoid all the trouble.  As Nick says, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."  Thus, Nick's disgust with the whole situation is complete.

Obviously, the story depicts much bad behavior from all the characters.  Even Nick isn't completely innocent by story's end, as he knew the truth about Myrtle's death, but stayed quiet about it.  But the story doesn't set out to glorify or condone these negative elements.  They're clearly there to show the consequences and emptiness of living the lives depicted here.  And F. Scott Fitzgerald knows that of which he speaks.  He too lived a life of partying and drinking like the people depicted here, and he was one of the most unhappy authors I know of.

Probably the most overtly spiritual element of the story is a billboard in one part of the town that advertises a medicine from a Dr. TJ Eckleburg.  The sign is mostly consumed by the doctor's large eyes.  These eyes are present when a lot of the bad things were happening, from Tom's secret rendezvous with Myrtle, to Myrtle's death.  It doesn't take much symbolic imagination to figure out Whose eyes those are supposed to be.  Nick even describes them once as being like the "eyes of God."  This is an important and somewhat frightening reminder that even though these people (and the ones in the world around us) may seem to be free of moral conscience, God is still watching the whole situation unfold and he knows every action they take.  And their sins are starting to find them out.

Obviously, the story is no Bible lesson.  It shows our society's problems but doesn't really offer any solutions, other than to try to distance yourself as far from the corruption as possible, like Nick does.  As Christians, though, I think we know where the solution to our emptiness lies.  The story tells us it doesn't come from money, possessions, parties, drinking, or sexual flings.  So, what then?  I think you know.  The eyes watching all of our actions belong the same One who wants to fill that void inside.

If you're a non-Christian reading this, I would strongly urge you to think long and hard on this.