Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Vantage Point

What is your vantage point?

Technically speaking, there are only 23 minutes of action in the movie Vantage Point. But what makes this film unique is that it replays those 23 minutes over and over again from different perpectives, so we can better understand what happened.

Here is what we know from the start: the President of the United States (William Hurt) is shot while giving a major address on terrorism in Spain, after which a bomb explodes, injuring and killing many bystanders in the same plaza as the shooting.

After seeing it through the lens of a CNN camera and a news production crew (led by Sigourney Weaver), we see it again and again through the eyes of a secret service agent (Dennis Quaid), an American tourist with a video camera (Forest Whitaker), a Spanish cop (Eduardo Noriega), a rogue secret service agent (Matthew Fox), the terrorists (Said Taghmaoui, Edgar Ramirez, and Ayelet Zurer), and the President himself in a bizzare twist of fate.

By telling the story from the perspective of different characters, Vantage Point gives us the whole picture. If we just saw the movie from one vantage point, we would only get one side of this complicated story.

Life is like that. God blessed us with eyes to see, but if we are blind to other points of view, we might as well be blind altogether.

We live in a polarized world today, more so than ever before. As a people, we have also grown more fundementalist and immobile in our perspective. There are more and more people saying "We're right and they're wrong" with a cocksure attitude, with no room for discussion. Whether it's our politics, religion, sports, style, sexuality, nationality, or business decisions, it's a fatal flaw that is spreading rapidly.

At the end of each 23-minute vantage point in this movie, I was so certain of what happened, only to have my presumptions challenged and overturn in the next go-around.

Do we find ourselves doing that in our lives? Are we open to seeing more points of view other than our own? Do we see the world through another's eyes, just so we know where they are coming from? Are we willing and humble enough to admit that we don't have all the vantage points in this world (and only God truly knows it all)? Would we have the courage to say to someone else, "I might be wrong about this"?

These are the questions that I ask myself before I get too proud of the decisions or the beliefs I have in this world. These are good questions to keep asking myself. It is a goal I like to set for myself, so that I do not become immobile and fundementalist in my life.

God gave us each a vantage point to see the world. The question is what we will do with it. Will we use it to work with others to complete the puzzle of this world, or will we hoard it like a diamond or a million dollars, never sharing it with anyone and even become enslaved to it? Let us pray that we will each use our vantage point wisely and responsibily.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Spiritual Popcorn Oscars

Deep and dark... with glimmers of hope.

Yes, "deep and dark." Those are the spiritual themes of many of the Oscar nominees this year. With No Country for Old Men's death-incarnate Anton Chigrugh (Javier Bardem) and There Will Be Blood's incredibly sinister oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), plus the depressing nature of both of those movies and others, I am starting to wonder if anyone in Hollywood is happy anymore. Perhaps those writers who striked needed more than a good contract. Perhaps they just need a hug.

That said, my picks for The Spiritual Popcorn Oscars this year (meaning my choice for the most spiritually uplifting, inspiring, and moving movies) are NOT the ones that will probably win. Then again, Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock never won any Academy Awards, so even if the Spiritual Popcorn Oscars aren't chosen, at least they're in good company.

Best Picture & Best Direction: Juno
This wonderful film is probably among my top five for the whole year, and as for spiritually-powerful, this movie packs a great punch. This is a story of the sacredness of all life, from conception through every twist and turn of our teenage and adult lives. And on top of the great message, this is a fun film to watch (kudos to the director for balancing a very serious subject with lighthearted comedy). You can't help but smile, and for that reason alone it deserves a prize. Among the five Best Picture nominees, there is none better than Juno.

Best Actor: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd)
In this dark movie, Johnny Depp plays the vengeful killer with such passion and energy. His performance convinces you, as you leave the theatre, that vengence is always the wrong choice. While the Sweeney Todd character is not an admirable chap, Depp gives us a good look at how sin and avoiding forgiveness can eat away at someone's soul until there's nothing left.

Best Actress: Ellen Page (Juno)
Ellen Page could have played Juno like any other typical teenager in the movies, but she honors real teens everywhere by playing her like a real person - a mix of pride, anger, temptation, fear, sadness, and love. She never overplays any of these but lets them all shine. For giving us such a wonderful glimpse into a pregnant teenager's soul, she deserves all the Oscars she wants.

Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)
In this film, Wilkinson plays a redeemed prophet, a rare character in the movies today. Here is a man who has walked the path of greed and corruption, but who has finally seen the light. He comes off like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or John the Baptist as a raving lunatic, but the truth has set him free. For this creative performance as a prophet of the modern age, he's my pick.

Art Direction: Sweeney Todd
This prize, to me, is how far a film has taken me into the soul of the movie through the set, camera work, artistic style, and overall ambiance. In no other film this year other than Sweeney Todd did I feel the scarred emotion and bleak soul of the titular character through the very "look" of the film. Even if Johnny Depp never said a word (or note), I would have known the sadness and angst of Sweeney Todd just by the feel of this dark film.

Visual Effects, Sound Editing & Sound Mixing: Transformers
In Transformers, I was overwhelmed by the rich sounds and sights that made me realize that we needed protection from some robots and that help had come through other electronic aliens. This is a movie about experiencing the power of one young man's journey as he becomes more than meets the eye, and the special effects, cool sounds, and overall sensory package here made that experience so much more powerful.

Cinematography & Original Score: Atonement
Atonement is a creative movie in which the plot, confusing at times because of the flashbacks and flash forwards, is able to move ahead thanks to the crisp cinematography and camera angles mixed with the punchy score with the undertone of a typewriter. The movie is about the atonement of one woman through her writing, and by mixing the typewriter sound into the score, we know that this is the direction we must all go for the final scenes. Image and sound is what makes this movie go from being a confusing romantic mystery to a lush Oscar-worthy film.

Best Adapted Screenplay: There Will Be Blood
Back when Upton Sinclair originally wrote Oil! (around the time of the turn of the century when he was also writing his more famous book, The Jungle), he was warning the people of the day to watch out for the rich and greedy oil tycoons who will capitalize this country to death. It was a fine social justice message then, and it is something we still haven't learned after a century of steamrolling by the corrupt oil and business leaders. For the sheer brilliance of unearthing a social justice work like this, it deserves an award for its prophetic call to action.

Best Original Screenplay: Michael Clayton
If it's not our oil and business dealings that need fixing (as in There Will Be Blood), then it's our legal system that needs a serious retooling. Michael Clayton is an original work that not only points out the problems (like Blood did), but it takes it up a notch - a far better outcome than most of the other films this year - by showing us how to fix it. Through a prophet and a reluctant honest lawyer, this film ends on a good note but still shows us that winning against evil is not a pretty business, and that it comes at great sacrifice for the few who take a stand. With such allusions to the themes of Scripture, it's a wonder Michael Clayton isn't in the adapted screenplay column. No matter, because it deserves the Oscar for its ethics and guts alone.

There are other races, but since I have not seen the majority of the films in these races, I chose not to make my selection there (or, as in the Best Supporting Actress race, I decided not to pick one because none of the nominees I saw were, in my opinion, really all that good). But there you have it. I am sure most of my choices will not be the actual winners, but I always have hope.

See you on the red carpet.

Monday, February 18, 2008

No Country for Old Men

Loving the Villian?

The most compelling thing about No Country for Old Men is its psychopathic serial killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who happens to be one of the scariest villians ever on the silver screen.

He is even scarier than Hannibal Lector, Darth Vader, and Norman Bates because this one has no redeeming value (whereas Lector had a wicked sense of humor; Vader had a sliver of a soul; and Bates ran an affordable hotel and had an good taxidermist operation going). Chigurh is not a James Bond villian, because he doesn't waste time talking his victims to death. No, this guy is mean and takes no prisoners in his neverending quest for God knows what.

That's the thing. We never really know what Chigruh's motives are. Does he want the money at the heart of this plot, or does he just enjoy killing for the thrill of it? After 122 minutes of film, I couldn't tell you much about this maniac. All I know, all anyone knows, is that he is a very scary man who kills without a second thought.

Perhaps we aren't supposed to know his motives, his past, or his future for that matter. If we knew more about him, the movie might try to get us to sympathize with this guy. He might appear human if they gave us more expostion. Instead, all we know is that he is a cold-hearted murderer with a really bad haircut.

This year, Javier Bardem has won countless awards for playing him. And there is a certain lesson in the acolades he has received for playing such a dark soul.

After seeing the blood and destruction caused by this psychopath, we wonder if anyone could stand being around him. I know I would run the other way if I came into the room with him.

But then I got to thinking about those awards.

I started to think that these awards are just like the grace and love God bestows on all of us. No matter how inhuman people may seem, God has the freedom to love whomever He pleases, like handing out celestial Oscars and Golden Globes to all people.

If we can believe that God loves even this most unlovable person, then we can never doubt that God loves us too, despite our inperfections and our mistakes.

Near the end of the film, Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tells his father that he feels God has pretty much given up on him - and he doesn't blame the Almighty all that much for doing so. His father dismisses this, and for good reason. Here the one good soul of the film doubts God cares about him.

If only Sherriff Bell could read this blog: If God can love the villian Anton Chigurh, he can love you, too. And he does.

PS: Even though God does love the least worthy, it does not excuse the actions committed by this character or any person who harms another human being. Love is a two-way street, and unless a person like Chigurh repents and seeks redemption, that love will forever be one way - which is not the best kind of love to go into the afterlife with. Up to that point, however, there's always an opportunity to repent and embrace the Gospel. The question is whether he, or any of us, will take that redeeming opportunity.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

Every relationship teaches us something.

In the delightful romantic comedy, Definitely, Maybe, we journey with young ten-year old Maya Hayes (Abigail Breslin) as she discovers the sordid love life of her father Will (Ryan Reynolds). It isn't the typical bedtime story, but it's all young Maya wants to talk about, thanks to a sex-ed class at her local elementary school.

Added to this mix is the fact that Will has just been served divorce papers from Maya's mother that same day, making the reminescence somewhat bittersweet for the two of them.

So Will tells Maya (and us) about his many relationships in life.

He begins with his college sweetheart "Emily" (Elizabeth Banks) and how they were quite the item until Will moved to New York to work on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and Emily cheated on him back in Madison, Wisconsin. The two eventually reunite seven years later.

Then he tells her about "Summer" (Rachel Weisz), a journalist with a adoration for older men (including Kevin Kline playing her thesis director and lover). Summer toys with Will and the two have their own relationship until she ruins his career and all his friendships by writing a tell-all piece about Will's boss, who is running for political office and then drops out of the race.

Finally, he shares his longtime affection (but never a real relationship) for "April" (Isla Fisher) who has kept in touch will Will since her days as a copy girl for Clinton's campaign office. The two share a deep friendship, but each holds a special place in their heart for each other even when they are in the midst of other relationships.

Through each relationship, Will learns something new - about life, about love, and about himself. With each passing affair and with every new person he meets, he grows and matures.

This is how life really is. We may think we have learned it all, but God gives us other people in our lives - from love affairs and family members to good friends and colleagues - to keep teaching us about life and about ourselves. I can think back to all the relationships I have had in life (in one form or another). Thanks to every one of those people that God placed before me (or continues to bless me with on my life's journey), I have grown and matured and become more of who God intended me to be.

Whether they know it or not, the people in our lives - past and present - have been teaching us something. The question remains: did we learn anything or did we let the lesson pass us by?

Every relationship is rich with meaning and purpose. Sometimes we need be like Will Hayes in this movie and take a night to reflect on how far we've come, and where we need to go next. It worked for him in this movie, and I think it just might work for us, too.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


Untraceable has got to be one of the scariest movies out today. Not because of any blood or violence (although there is some), but because our society today might easily allow the events of this movie to really happen.

This is a story of the hunt for an internet serial killer who kills his victims by allowing online visitors to do his "killing" for him. The more people who log onto his untraceable website to view a video of a person getting tortured to death, the quicker the victim dies. The movie shows us how FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) seeks out this horrible viral perpatrator, even when the killer tries to fight back and makes it personal for her.

What is most disturbing strangely isn't the serial killer, but rather the thousands of voyeuristic web users who allowed it to happen.

Do you think that people wouldn't allow that to happen?

Sadly, it already does happen. Because the general public is addicted to reality television and celebrity gossip, so many lives are ruined. If the public wasn't willing to buy tabloid photos or log onto all-access websites, the paparazzi would have nothing to do. But it's because people are so obsessed with seeing every angle of the rich and famous that they are allowed to flourish.

The unfortunate underbelly to the internet age is our lazy ability to sit at our computers or television sets and watch the world go by in front of us. Are we that bored with our lives that we need to invade others? How responsible have we, as a society, been with the blessings of the virtual world?

As we sit and watch people getting humiliated on reality television or actors and actresses getting chased by obnoxious photographers, or even as we sit and watch YouTube videos of the strangest things, are we using the gift of the internet as we ought to? And does the laziness, lethargy, and voyeurism actually hurt people? It probably does.

In the 21st Century, we are called not only to be compassionate, loving, and aware of one another in person, but also in the virtual universe as well. We must ask ourselves how we can extend gospel values in how we deal with people through email, websites, and what we watch on our television. Let us pray that we will not be culprits in a crime in one way or another, and let us help others to avoid that fate as well.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Everything in moderation.

In the Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, we follow two main characters, the nineteenth-century oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his nemesis, an Old West fire-and-brimstone preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and their intertwined journey through life.

Plainview is the ultimate corrupt, yet powerful, businessman of his day. After discovering oil on a silver-prospecting venture in California, he builds an oil empire and thinks of nothing except grabbing more oil and more profits.

Sunday is a most fanatical, angst-driven, and judgemental evangelist. After his family strikes a less-than-fair deal with Plainview to sell their land, he uses the money to build a church for the community that works for the oil tycoon.

Plainview is annoyed by Sunday, and Sunday is equally angered by Plainview. Throughout the film, the two fuel each other's rage in their quest for temporal or spiritual victory. One might conclude that a blogger like myself - with an investment in faith and spirituality - would side with Eli Sunday in this battle, but this movie makes neither character worth a second thought.

What this film showed me was, no matter how successful a businessman might be or how inspired a clergyman might be, if they go to extremes, they betray their very cause.

Plainview was so focused on building himself up and defeating a simple country preacher that he lost all connection to those around him, especially his own son. Likewise, Sunday was so focused on building up his church and proclaiming victory over his secular rival that he, too, lost all connection with real people, including his own father. By caring more about their secular or spiritual ambitions, they lost sight of what really matters - their own families, friends, and anyone around them.

Extreme secularism (represented by Plainview) is no good. Extreme religiosity (represented by Sunday) is also no good. As in health, nutrition, and drinking habits, "everything in moderation."

If we are driven by success and career, sometimes we sacrifice what's truly valuable to us to achieve a promotion, a raise, or a pat on the back from our boss. As Christ said, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?" (Matt. 16:26). What really matters in life - no matter how great our career might be - is our relationships with one another.

In the same respect, if we are driven to be the holiest person imaginable, sometimes we end up shutting out others because we're too busy praying, doing the "religion thing," or because we have passed judgement upon those around us. Once again, even if we are focused on God, but ignore all of those God gave us in the process, are we really getting anywhere?

The middle path - where we walk with one foot in the secular experience and one foot in the spiritual experience - is the best path. The middle path is the path that allows us to tend to and nurture our relationships with others instead of shutting them out of our lives in favor of our temporal or divine ambitions.

There Will Be Blood is a warning about life's excess. Let us pray that we will avoid the extremes on both sides, and instead, walk the middle path.