Sunday, July 23, 2006

Clerks II

"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter. He who finds one finds a treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price. No sum can balance his worth." Sirach 6:14-15

Let me confess that I myself am a huge fan of Kevin Smith. Yes, his films are crass, rude, and full of every sex and fart joke out there. But at their core, the anthology of Kevin Smith movies (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) have levels of spirituality that's relevant and brutally honest.

Many of his movies seem like Kevin Smith's own autobiography on celluloid. The writer/director and his characters are the young adults of today, men and women in their late 20s and early 30s, betwixt their youth and middle age. Like other young adults, he feels at a standstill between the high school and college years still remembered and the adult life ahead. The one constant, however, in all his movies is the incredible gift of friendship.

Whether it's between two relationship-starved guys (Mallrats), two cartoonists (Chasing Amy), two angels (Dogma), two dope-peddling slackers (Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back), or two clerks (Clerks and its sequel, Clerks II), friendship is the central theme of the View Askewniverse (named for Smith's production company View Askew).

Clerks II carries that mantle well. Like all the other films, the other factor in the mix is relationships beyond the buddy. Perhaps it is Smith's own struggles with balancing friendship with relationships, but this theme continues on in this newest movie too.

This film is about the two titular clerks Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) and their struggle with growing up. Dante thinks he's figured out the answer in the act of escaping to Florida with a rich fiancee he does not love. What he would abandon for this prize is his true loves: his friendship with Randal (and with his supervisor Becky played by Rosario Dawson), his native New Jersey, and his beloved Quick Stop convinience store which burns down in the opening act of this movie.

Like the son of Sirach states, "a faithful friend is beyond price." (Sirach 6:15a). Dante soon discovers that he doesn't need to run from his Star Wars-theorizing, go-cart running, and girl chasing past, he just needs to balance it with his adult life.

For Randal and Dante, it means understanding the value of their friendship, being true to their roots, and being at peace with their reality that being simple (i.e. clerking) is not failure; no, it's just simplicity. They don't need to live in the past, but they do need to use it to live in the future. There is a moment in the film with Randal confesses his need for their friendship, and it wakes Dante up to a new awareness.

Finding a faithful friend these days is truly a treasure beyond price. In a sense, no matter what we do in life - from being the CEO of a major company or simply clerking behind the counter at the local Quick Stop - the real goal is to have good, solid relationships with those around us. In a world obsessed with success and financial gain, sometimes we need a Jersey slacker to remind us to focus on the real priorities God has laid before us.

...even if he has to use a few sex and fart jokes to make this deeply spiritual point.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

"You yourselves know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." 1 Thess. 5:2

Garrison Kellior's A Prairie Home Companion is a simple film. No big explosions. No epic love story. No car chases or evil villians. It's a movie about endings and new beginnings showcased in the story of the last night of a small Midwestern live broadcast radio variety show.

Every now and then, we need a movie like this. The film does for moviegoers what the film's story is all about: take a moment to stop and smell the roses. It was telling that the theatre in which I saw this was squeezed between the theatres for two summer blockbusters. Through the walls of a quieter film like this you can hear the bass of the explosions or car chases on my right and on my left.

But this film was a quiet afternoon reprieve from the adreneline.

In our world today, we often go so fast we miss little treasures like this. We move with a pace never experienced in the history of our world. Not being one to point fingers, I must confess that I, too, go at this pace... and when the job is done or whatever project is accomplished, I look back and wonder if all the running around and worrying was really worth the end result.

A Prairie Home Companion, through an all-star cast (Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lindsey Lohan, Virginia Madsen, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, among others), shows us characters who spend their careers on this show, stopping and smelling the roses. One character passes on, but there are no regrets. They enjoyed each others' company while he was alive, and his passing is more of a celebration than a tragedy.

In our lives, if we run too fast, we may miss if someone passes on. We may be too busy to even care. It's harsh, but that's the kind of world we seem to live in today.

It's ironic that in the 21st century, when it is so easy to get in touch with people (email, cell phones, pagers, multiple phone numbers, faxes, blogs, whatever), I hear so many people tell me how they just lose touch with old friends. It makes no sense, except the fast pace is not helping us, it's hurting us. Just imagine if we lived life smelling roses more often - maybe we wouldn't lose touch with those old friends, maybe we would have more friends in general.

Studies just came out saying that the majority of Americans today have few if any real friends. We are so disconnected as a society. We care more about the "things" of this world than the "people" of this world. With all the violence overseas and the divisions in this very country, I think there might be a connection with that and this erosion of relationships.

We don't know when our time will come, when God will come for us like (as Paul says) "a thief in the night" (1 Thess. 5:2). So let's live life as if it might come anytime. Let's treat our friends and the people we know with more respect, even just more attention. Let's care a bit more. Let's learn about one another more than a name and cell number. We are all created to be worth more than a passing aquaintance.

So let's stop and smell some roses. I think we'll be glad we did.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest

"What profit is there if a man gains the whole world but loses his very soul?" (Mark 8:36)

In the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, the uniquely charming and child-like Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) was introduced to the British colonies in the Caribbean and to movie audiences everywhere. In this sequel, Dead Man's Chest, the Captain is back but still has yet to grow up.

It's part of the charm of Jack Sparrow that he looks at the world through a kids' eyes. But now he begins to learn that charm can't get you out of every situation.

Since it's a Disney movie, the villian must be an over-the-top 'bad guy.' Pirates 2 does not disappoint this regard. In this film, it's Davy Jones (played by Bill Nighy), a man with a squid face who has bought total control of the seas (and the monsters and other unlucky souls therein) in exchange for his very own heart.

Both the main character and his archnemesis have much to learn... but then again, they are pirates.

What sets Captain Jack apart from the squid-faced Jones is not only better looks, but in this movie, Jack - through the support and encouragement of his friends (Elizabeth Swann played by Keira Knightly and Will Turner played by Orlando Bloom) - opens himself up to a bit of redemption. He finally learns to be an adult pirate, and in so doing, learns that requires some selflessness and sacrifice.

On the other hand, Davy Jones has no desire for redemption, just to make sure his heart is secure in the "dead man's chest." But at what price? He is a walking, talking example of what Jesus taught in the gospels: "What profit is there if a man gains the whole world but loses his very soul?" (Mark 8:36). Jones literally loses his heart so he can gain the whole world (for a pirate, that would be the sea).

What kind of life does Jones have? He lives in constant worry of people stealing his power. He lives a life without being able to walk upon the land. He is surrounded only by other people who are equally devoid of compassion and maturity. There is no profit in this.

We, too, run the risk of becoming like Jones. When we trade our principles for power; when we offer up our morals for control; when we exchange our maturity for money.

This movie gives us an example of what life that leads to, and shows up that we all have a chance for redemption, as Jack Sparrow did. Who do we want to become? The squid face or Johnny Depp? Being innocent and wide-eyed isn't necessarily a bad thing, but every now and then we are called upon to take a step into real adulthood and maturity for the good of others. I pray we respond like Captain Jack when that happens to us.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Superman Returns

"The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world." John 1:9

From the outset, let me say that I feel Superman Returns is one of the best movies I've seen in awhile. Not only were there spiritual moments (in fact the movie could be subtitled According to St. John), but there was great comic book action and, according to my wife, a romance story that would make any girl swoon.

So I could go on for pages on its merits (and there are many), but for the moment I would like to focus on those spiritual elements to this story.

As this story goes, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to earth after a five-year break when he went to find out about the remains of his home planet Krypton. In five years, a lot has changed. Not only has his former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) gotten hooked up with a new guy and raised a child on her own, but she has finally won her Pulitzer for an article entitled "Why the World No Longer Needs Superman."

But ironically, just as she is about to get the award, the world starts to need a superman.

This film actually parallels another unlikely movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, when Jesus was tempted to focus inward, on what made him happy (namely a family and children). Superman here faces the same temptation and frustration. For both Jesus and Kal-El (Superman's Kryptonian name which, coincidentally, includes "El," the Hebrew word for "God"), their calling is to transform the world, not themselves.

Despite all the technology at our disposal and our own ingenuity, the world needs supermen (and superwomen). The world craves leaders who will, like the example of Christ and the fictional Kal-El, rise to the occasion, sacrifice their own desires and even their own lives, and in so doing, save the world. We are called to be those leaders. We are all called to rise above the fray and transform the world by our leadership and sacrifice.

We don't need to have laser beams shooting from our eyes or the ability to fly above the clouds to be a real hero. The only qualification is to be selfless enough to show others the light.

The paradox is that the world will follow a leader only when one rises to the occasion. When leaders are absent (like Superman in the past five years) or treat their leadership with selfishness (like Lex Luther, played wonderfully by Kevin Spacey), people will lose hope and grow cynical. Ironically, without a leader, people will say they don't need one. We seem to live in those times today. We seem to live in a world that says it doesn't need leaders.

But we are all capable of being those leaders. In fact, according to Martin Luther King Jr., we all have an inner instinct that desires to be the leader (the drum major of the parade, he called it). But we don't know what to do with that instinct, so we spend it on pursuits of power, prestige, and money. But Jesus, King says, gave us a new definition of greatness and leadership. If you want to be a leader, Christ said, then you must be the servant. If you want to be the greatest, then be the least. Put aside your wants and desires and rise to a new level of greatness.

Will you and I be those leaders that God wants us to be? Will you and I be able to show the world the light? The film convinced us the world really does need supermen and superwomen, but will you and I take on that role? I think we can, and I pray we will will.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Over the Hedge

I have not had the opportunity to see Over the Hedge this summer, but another blogger has. In the film, she found a valuable lesson on the meaning of family beyond blood. It recalls the story from the gospel: "Jesus said, 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' Looking around at the disciples seating in the circle with him, he said, 'Right here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my true brother or sister or mother." (Mark 3:33-35).

This is her review of Over the Hedge, which I have reprinted here:

The theme of friendship in films

If you are looking for an inspiring movie about friendship, I would recommend viewing "Over the Hedge." I think it gives a good portrayal of friends and family not having to neccessarily be blood-related, through following a group of animals, who want to know what big adventure lies on the other side of this hedge. The movie has a lot of truth to it about humans and food, as well.

In my opinion, a lot of society revolves around food. When I am riding in the car, I see a McDonalds on almost every corner, and fast food is anything but healthy for the most part.

Anyways, there is another part to the plot. One of the main characters is a raccoon, and he has to pay back this bear with food. So, he comes upon a group of animals, and pretends to be their best friend, when really he wants to protect himself. I thought the characters were just hilarious.

I have sometimes felt like one of these animals myself. I want to know what is in this big world of ours, and I find myself feeling "small."I felt the end of the film was what really puts things in perspective for me.

Here was this lonely raccoon, who had made good with a bear, not realizing that he already had the best gift in the world, right in front of him. He just wasn't looking hard enough. These animals were a family all their own, and if only the raccoon had asked, then he would not have had to be such a "con" and they would have worked together as a team to re-pay the bear.

There was one line that really stood out and that was when the turtle asked the raccoon, if he would like to be a part of their family? I find that to be just so inspiring, because so often people just don't know where to find true friendship or love within a family.

I am thankful for movies like this, that just make me grateful for the friendships and family I have. I know what it is like to be the "outcast" and I hope everyone finds someone who will reach out and encourage them.