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?