Monday, December 31, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

"Blessed is the man who fears the Lord. His family will be highly regarded upon the earth and every generation will be blessed. Wealth and riches wil be in their house, and their generosity will endure forever." Psalm 112:1-3

In National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Benjamin Gates (Nicholas Cage) is a true family man. More than riches or love, he values his family and its reputation more than anything else.

As we catch up with Gates in this second installment in the National Treasure franchise, he has moved out of the estate he bought at the end of the last movie and lost the affections of his girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). But he still continues to defend his family's name alongside his father Patrick Gates (Jon Voight).

Once again, Benjamin and his dad are off on another chase; but instead of finding a lost treasure, they are on the move to restore the reputation of the Gates family name (which another sinister character played by Ed Harris has tied to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln).

To clear any implication that the Gates family has involved in the dirty deeds of America's past, the family (along with Abigail - who seems to love the adventure as much as Benjamin - as well as the trusty sidekick Riley, played by Justin Bartha, and Benjamin's mother, played by Helen Mirren) head off to Paris, London, Washington DC, and Mount Rushmore to find the book of secrets which will clear the family of any wrongdoing.

National Treasure is a fun thrill ride of a movie that leads you from one adventure to the next. But the core of the film lies in a converation that Benjamin Gates says to the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood). He tells him that it is only right to honor, not ignore or destory, those who give the last full measure of devotion to a noble cause. This is why Gates does what he does: to honor his ancestors for their service and righteousness.

We, too, are called to honor our family, and to create a legacy for future generations to be proud of. Like the Psalmist says: "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord. His family will be highly regarded upon the earth and every generation will be blessed. Wealth and riches will be in their house, and their generosity will endure forever." (Psalm 112:1-3).

My grandmother was saint of a woman. She was generous to all who came to her, and she invited so many people into her family, whether they were blood-related or not. She was a humble, prayerful woman who lived in service of those around her. It makes me proud to be in the same family as her, and it is my goal to keep her legacy alive in my own actions and words.

Perhaps you have someone in your family that you are proud to claim as your own. Perhaps there is someone who inspired you, who loved you unconditionally, or who raised you to become to the person you are today. Like Benjamin Gates, we are challenged to honor their legacy - not just defending the family name, but by letting the great spirit of our ancestors live within us.

Thomas Gates was the man Benjamin was proud to claim; he, too, was willing to give the last full measure of devotion, as Thomas did, for what he believed was right and honorable in this world.

How can you and I live up to and become the embodiment of the spirit of those who have gone before us? How will our own actions today inspire future generations tomorrow? I pray that each of us will find greater purpose to our lives through the great and honorable lives of our family members who have made us so very proud.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

I Am Legend

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone."
Isaiah 9:1

When I watched I Am Legend, my heart raced, my hands shook, and my teeth rattled a bit, never knowing when something would jump out at our hero in the dark.

I Am Legend is basically a story of the daily survival routine of Army captain and scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith), who appears to be the only man in New York City (perhaps also the world) in the year 2012 who is immune to a deadly virus that destroyed humanity in 2009.

In the three years since the virus mutated the human race into rabid creatures, Neville has been trying to investigate and potentially cure this plague. It's not an easy task, though; he must seek out animal and human subjects by night to test his theories. And at night, in the bleak darkness, these creatures rabidly feast on blood, making this much more difficult than your average science experiment. (it seems the mutants cannot live in the light; their skin burns alive when exposed to any light source).

Regarldess of the threat to his life, Neville remains stationed at his post in Manhattan, determined to save humanity from the virus that destroyed it. Even though he has lost his faith in God, he stays committed to helping the very creatures that want to eat him alive.

As I watched the film, my own survival mode kicked in. As I said before, there were times that I was truly frightened of the world in front of me on the silver screen. I was hoping that Robert Neville would pack up, forget the medical station, and go elsewhere. But he didn't. Even when another non-infected human finds Neville and tries to get him to join them in their run to a survivors colony in Vermont, he refuses to leave his post.

One might call this man suicidal, but I Am Legend shows that this is the life of a true hero.

The hero takes responsibility for not only his or her actions, but the actions of all humanity. The hero must oftentimes run alone, distant and apart from the world. The hero remains committed to their mission and vision. The hero acts with unconditional compassion towards all, even those that despise, hate, and even want to destroy them. And most importantly, the hero gives their life for the sake of the rest of the world.

Our lives may not be filled with blood-feeding zombies and we may not live in a post-apocolypic wasteland, but we are still called to be a hero. Isaiah 9 speaks of the hope this world has of its heroes: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone." (Is. 9:1)

If we are to be heroes, if we are to help one another, we must be prepared to live as Robert Neville and shine brightness in the darkness. Compassion, dedication, service, and selfless sacrifice are what defines a hero. Each of us is called to live like we were the last person on earth, and the fate of the planet depended upon us. It sounds outrageous and over-the-top, but if we could point our compass towards that goal in our everyday world, imagine what we might be able to accomplish.

It's probably not going to be easy, as it wasn't easy for Robert Neville, but there is light at the end for those who dare to go there.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sweeney Todd

"Bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have with one another. Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you." Colossians 3:13

This review contains spoilers. Be warned.

All Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) had to do was forgive. Because he did not, a chain of unfortunate events led him (and many others) to a tragic death.

In Sweeney Todd, Barker was falsely accused and imprisoned for fifteen years for a crime he did not commit. Meanwhile his wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) was raped by a jealous judge (Alan Rickman), and his daughter (Jayne Wisener) was imprisoned by the same man. While it may have been hard to do, all he had to do was forgive.

Instead, Barker morphs into the vengeful, brooding Sweeney Todd, a barber whose lust for blood is perfect for the sinister Mrs. Lovett (Helen Bonham Carter) who uses Todd's dead victims for her mincemeat pies. But this bloodlust leads Todd to accidentally murder his own wife, and eventually to his own death.

But had he forgiven the injustices to him (severe though they were), he would have avoided this sad twist of fate.

Jesus said "Whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven." (Matt. 18:18). In other words, since Benjamin Barker was bound to his hatred, the very hatred was bound to him. He led a dark, unhappy, friendless life and died a tragic, loney death. Had he loosened his anger, maybe his new life would have been less tragic, perhaps even joyous?

Forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things for us to do. Anger and hatred are our human response to the injustice in this world and to ours very selves. When we are hurt, our body naturally wants to react against it; it is our primal nature. But Christ came to show us that we are better than our primal nature. Forgiveness goes against the laws of nature, for it shows us a glimpse of the laws of heaven.

Paul begged the Colossians to "bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you have with one another" just as "the Lord has forgiven you." (Colossians 3:13) I love the translation here: "bear with one another" - sometimes it simply comes down to this. We may not like forgiving each other, but we must grin and bear it - for it is the essense of the kingdom of God.

Benjamin Barker had much to be angry about. His life and all that was precious to him was taken from him in the blink of an eye. More than that, he could point to the very people who put him in this place. It is understandable why Barker become the vengeful Sweeney Todd.

But that is not our calling, if we are to be followers of God.

No matter what harm or injustice befalls us, we are commanded to forgive. For if we don't, we might be bound to the hatred that overwhelms us and our lives may never be the same. I am not saying that those who forgive will lead sunny, perfect lives; but I am saying that those who do not forgive will never lead sunny, perfect lives. Psychologists have even discovered that those who don't forgive are tortured throughout their lives, and that torture eats away at their pysche. Sweeney Todd is an extreme example of this proven phenomenon.

Jesus ceaselessly preached forgiveness. It is one of the major themes of the four gospels, not to mention countless other religious texts from around the world. Two thousand years later, we still haven't heard it enough, for vengance and hatred are still present in our world.

What freedom, what joy awaits us when we let loose our anger. Imagine what joy the world might experience if everyone did the same. What great possibilities await those who forgive!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

"If you walk amidst the burning flames, you shall not be harmed. If you stand before the power of hell and death is at your side, know that I am with you, through it all. Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me,and I shall give you rest."

- Be Not Afraid (Catholic Hymn by Bob Dufford, S.J.)

In a quiet Colorado town, "Aliens" and "Predators" have crash landed, and the humans are once again caught in the middle of their fight.

This is the basic premise of the film, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, the sequel to the first Alien vs. Predator movie, which itself is a symphony of two successful alien-monster franchises from the past thirty years.

ven though both are extraterrestial, the "Aliens" (as they are called) are a parasitic, insect-like species whose only purpose is to procreate and eat, whereas the "Predators" are a humanoid hunter species who simply enjoy the game of the hunt (and the "Aliens" are their favorite sport). They crash land on earth by accident, but the "Aliens" have no problem making Colorado their new home.

Caught in the middle is the human race.

We didn't start the fight, but we are definitely in the mix.

In fact, the devastation is so severe that the townspeople in Colorado are being eliminated one by one until there are barely any survivors. For the few that make it half-way through the movie alive, their only concern is survival.

In our world (our real world, that is), we aren't being picked off by "Aliens" or "Predators." But often, we find ourselves surrounded by chaos we didn't even start. So often, on Election Day, I hear people say they won't vote because they didn't have any say in picking the candidates; I also hear from young adults who say that they want to quit their jobs because the corporate corruption or the negative culture overwhelms them. Today we live in a war-torn world in a battle the everyday Americans like you and me didn't start, and it leads us to throw up our hands and give up. Nothing you and I can do will make a bit of difference, right?

Those few humans in Aliens vs. Predator could have also given up - they were surrounded by enemies on every side and all looked hopeless. Their story is an example for us.

I am reminded of a familiar Catholic hymn, Be Not Afraid, when I think of this movie. In the song, God encourages us to rely on Him, and when we do, we can make it through anything, and we can even come out victorious. In this film, the few brave humans let go of their fears and worked together to overcome the impossible.

We don't have to worry about "Aliens" and "Predators," but God calls you and me to never think anything is too big for us, and to never disengage ourselves from the world, even if we didn't have a hand in causing the world's troubles. Like the surviving humans in this story, we need to stick together with good people who share our vision, and trust that God will be with us through the worst of times.

That is God's promise to us: "Be not afraid. I go before you always."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Dreaming in a Postmodern World

Can a storybook romance survive in our real world?

In the cynical, postmodern world of today, the skeptics would say "no, it can't." Real life seems to indicate that "happily ever after" is an impossible, foolish dream. Prince Charming does not fall out of the tree into your lap, and true love is not something that happens overnight.

In a sense, the skeptics are right. But Enchanted, the newest fairy tale movie from Disney, shows us that in the postmodern age, we might need to redefine what we mean by a storybook romance.

In this story, Giselle (Amy Adams) is sent to a very modern New York City from her cartoon paradise. Her prince (James Marsden) chases after her, but finds her too late; she is already smitten with newfound love Robert (Patrick Dempsey), who also happens to be engaged to a lovely, real-life New York woman (Idina Menzel).

What makes Enchanted more than a fairy tale is that Giselle and the Prince must let go of certain fairy tale misconceptions (that true love requires work and mutuality instead of being an overnight sensation; that evil henchmen aren't just evil, they might also be misunderstood or neglected; or that anger and frustration aren't just emotions experienced by the "bad guys" but that we all have good and bad moments throughout our lives).

On the other hand, Robert (and other "real world" characters) learn some valuable lessons: that chivalry and romance is still honorable in our world; that we must let go of our insecurities to truly experience life and love; and most importantly, that we cannot be afraid to dream.

In a cynical world, dreaming is considered foolish. But we must remember that the world is built on dreamers. From Joseph with his coat in the Hebrew Scriptures to Joseph with his child Jesus in the New Testament, from the dreams of Columbus to Martin Luther King Jr., we are inspired to follow and look up to the dreamers of history.

Whether we dream big or small, whether we dream of career or marriage, or whether we dream about our destiny or a peaceful destiny for the whole world, we should not be afraid to dream.

"Ask and it will be given to you," said Jesus, "Seek and you will find." (Matt. 7:7).

If you call it praying, or if you call it dreaming, or both, Jesus tells us to do it no matter what the odds might be. Perhaps our answers and our dreams won't look exactly as we envisioned them (for Giselle in Enchanted, she dreamed about true love's kiss, but it wasn't from the prince she thought it would be from). We also have to be humble enough to accept the fulfillment of our dreams as God intends it to be.

Enchanted challenges us to live our lives with one foot planted in reality and one foot on the clouds. With reliance on God to answer our dreams and prayers, we can always be assured that, one way or another, we will live "happily ever after."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass

Lyra's Sad, Sad World.

There has been much controversy surrounding the release of New Line Cinema's Golden Compass, the movie based on atheist author Philip Pullman's first novel of the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. But upon seeing the film, I am more saddened than angry.

What a sad universe these movie characters live in.

What most disturbs me about The Golden Compass is that it has a rather childish look at authority, government, and institutions.

The author projects himself into the young heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), who seems to do the opposite of what anyone asks of her - just because she has the free will to do so. What is dangerous about this is that the book and film seem to suggest that free will means having the ability and the right to refuse the advice, counsel, or instruction of anyone else, and that any teaching from authority figures is usually wrong and abusive.

Throughout the film, Lyra disobeys and ignores everyone from the evil Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to the friendly polor bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). Then the storyline seems to reward Lyra for each of her choices of disobedience and mistrust.

The plot also paints the world into two extremes: either you submit like a slave to any authority figure, or you run free, disobeying everything and charting your own course. The one extreme is represented by a malacious theocracy called the "Magisterium" while the other is represented by the plucky (and rather annoying) twelve-year old Lyra.

While the movie does not come out and blame the Catholic Church for all the evils in this world, it does have an undercurrent message that most authority figures are to be mistrusted. It also has an overly simplistic understanding of moral teaching.

When churches, governments, or institutional religion talk about ethics and morals, they are offering guidence and wisdom, not a fascist conscription, as the movie seems to suggest.

Yes, the film does warn against the abuse of authority, which is always good to remind ourselves. And while I would love to say that the movie suggests we should follow our consciences, it actually does not (Lyra's "conscience," represented in the form of her daemon or animal, warns the girl on numerous occasions to go the other way, which she quickly refuses).

There are other hypocritical and contradictory moments in the film: while Pullman has complained in interviews that killing in the name of religion is wrong, he seems to have no problem killing off a number of innocents in this movie (hence the PG-13 rating). On that particular point, the film has a number of battle sequences in which the daemons of the fallen create a spectacular fireworks display, dazzling the audiences with a great light display; but then you realize that every sparkle represents a life being taken - which is quite disturbing.

Even though the movie has stripped much of the religious references of the books, it is still sad to think how limited Pullman's world has become. Does he really think churches are designed to take away its believers' identities? Does he really think that listening to the wisdom of the church means that we have no soul? Does he really think that the church seeks out children to abuse them? How sad if he does.

I pray that those who see this movie have a deeper faith than that. I pray that this movie does not push others away from a loving, benevolent God or a welcoming community of faith.

Finally, and ironically, despite the author's best efforts to keep Him out, God does show up in this movie after all.

Perhaps not fully in Lyra, and surely not in the exaggerated "Magisterium" or the icey government operative Mrs. Coulter.

Rather, a glimpse of God can be seen in the kindly and nomadic Texan aeronaut Mr. Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) whose role in the story is to protect Lyra and the other children from harm. Despite how negative Lyra can be, he still takes an oath to protect her and her friends. Scoresby serves as the only character in this movie to scoff at war, a brave, nonviolent position amongst the battle-hungry polar bears, the vengence-minded Gyptians, the war-mongering witches, and the disobedient Lyra.

Even though our world is much nicer than Lyra's world, sometimes we feel like Lee Scoresby, all alone in our gospel values among violence, anger, vengence, and fear. Sadly, the plot of this particular story (and the forthcoming sequels) will prove Mr. Scoresby wrong, but the plot of our story - authored by a wonderful creator God - will prove that Christ-like people are always on the side of true (never haughty) righteousness.

If we could pray for fictional characters, I would pray for Lee Scoresby, that might find a home with us, in our universe, and with our God whom he seems to channel so very well.

As we approach Christmas this year, let us thank God for creating such a wonderful world, where ethics are beautiful guideposts on the road of life, not stumbling blocks as they are for Philip Pullman and his Golden Compass.