Thursday, August 26, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

"Don't look back or stop anywhere!" Gen. 19:17

As this movie begins, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) lives a comfortable, albeit routine, life in Toronto as a bassist with his garage band, Sex Bob-omb, as a boyfriend to a high school sweetheart named Knives (Ellen Wong), and as a roommate in a cramped studio apartment with his friend Wallace (Kieren Culkin) . It's not the perfect life, but it suffices.

All that monotony goes out the window when he suddenly meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a purple-haired beauty for whom Scott immediately falls head over heels. But veering off-course in an otherwise static life has its consequences.

The crux of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a journey that the titular character must take to disrupt his otherwise uneventful existence and date Ramona, who is surprisingly won over by his normalcy after one awkward date. In fact, it is Scott's kind and laid-back attitude that Ramona desperately needs in her love life - after the experience of seven intense ex's.

Like most relationships, the past quickly unveils itself - and Scott must literally face off against those ex's to win the heart of his newfound love. While the action sequences and drama are more akin to a video game, they point to a real situation that any relationship must face: a confrontation with the ghosts of one's past.

In our lives, we are constantly comparing the present reality with the past. Since we have no way of predicting the future, the past and the present are the only realities that we know - and they often go head to head. We compare this job to our last job, this relationship to past ones, this house to the last one we lived in, or this season to last season (though as a Cubs fan, I have learned long ago that comparing baseball seasons is just futile).

That is what Ramona is doing throughout the action of the film: she is wondering how Scott compares to Matthew, Chris, the Superman-esqe Todd, Roxy, Kyle & Ken, and Gideon. To her, Scott's gentle spirit wins out over the negativity and roughness of most of those from her past; however, the deep emotional ties to her most recent ex, Gideon, are a real competition for a love that is slowly building. Risky hope vs. tried-and-tested? This is what Ramona must decide.

Comparing ourselves and others to the events of the past can be dangerous. They evolve out of a feeling of fear and uncertainty, an unwillingness to take risks with the reality that God has given us right here and now.

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the people complained, "Would that we had died at the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!" (Ex. 16:3) They were comparing their past and present - and were more comfortable with an unhappy former life to an uncertain world before them. It brings to mind the phrase: "better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

Instead, God wants us to look ahead. The past is behind us and does no one any good to spend inordinate amounts of time comparing that with the experiences of the here-and-now.

In Genesis, the angels tell Lot and his wife to flee their past in Sodom and Gomorrah: "Don't look back or stop anywhere!" (Gen. 19:17), to which Lot's wife unfortunately disobeys and turns into a pillar of salt (19:26). And in the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, "No one who set a hand to the plow and looks back to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).

How often do we keep looking back like Lot's wife? Or set our hand to the plow yet wonder what we left behind? While we cannot ignore the past, we can't live our lives constantly comparing ourselves, our relationships, or our situations with what we did before. Instead, we must trust.

We must trust that God has led us to where we need to be right here and right now. We must trust that the people God has brought into our lives are the people we need the most. We must trust that whatever ended in the past was meant to end, so that new life could grow from that loss or that conclusion.

Ramona kept looking back at those "seven evil ex's," but she had a wonderful new guy who was anything but evil right in front of her. What is it that is right in front of us that we fail to recognize, choosing instead to focus attention on what's behind? And how can we turn our heads around to what surrounds us today?

Scott Pilgrim didn't need to fight off the totality of Ramona's world. Neither should our friends, loved ones, or our own hearts have to fight the world we once knew, lest we go the way of Lot's wife and turn to an immobile pillar of salt. Let us pray that we have the strength to keep our eyes focused and our hearts grateful for the world we have right before us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Expendables

"Woe to the bloody city, all lies, full of plunder, whose looting never stops! The flame of the sword, the flash of the spear, the many slain, the heaping corpses, the endless bodies to stumble upon." Nahum 3:1,3

From a religious perspective, watching The Expendables is like listening to darkest warnings from the Hebrew prophets like Nahum, Joel, and Zephaniah or the Book of Revelation: the blood, the bodies, and the warfare are incredibly intense and truly harrowing.

This film, directed by and staring in the lead role Sylvester Stallone (as Barney Ross), is an ensemble of Hollywood's most infamous action heroes: Jason Statham (as Lee Christmas) with Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, and camero appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of these characters are members of The Expendables, a covert team of operatives hired by government agencies to do their "dirty work" so that those same agencies can claim plausible deniability for such actions.

From the outset, realizing such a set-up, audiences should realize how bloody things can get. If a job is too much for the CIA, the Navy Seals, or the Green Beret, then anything we see is not going to be pretty.

The primary mission in the film is to overthrow the military dictator (David Zayas) of Vilena, a small island country, and free its people from death and destruction. On a reconnaissance mission there, Ross and Christmas discover that a rogue CIA agent (Eric Roberts) and his henchman (Austin) are behind all the mayhem, hence the reason for the secrecy of their mission.

But while there, the two meet Sandra (Giselle Itie), the leader of the resistance and also the daughter of the murderous general controlling the island. When given an opportunity to escape with the Expendables, she decides to stay and continue to fight for her people. This selfless act is a wake-up call to Ross, who has - up until now - never really understood what he was fighting for on all his crazy missions.

He begins to realize that his job should not be about killing the bad guys, but saving the innocent and helpless. The end result may be the same, but Ross understands that one is the route to emptiness while the other can give him purpose and direction in his life. By acknowledging this, he also becomes more determined to set the captives free.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God was not just angry with the rich and powerful for their actions but also incredibly concerned for the plight of the poor, oppressed, and the downtrodden. For God's love of people - not for the anger against their enemies - were the prophets inspired to speak out in such strong language:

"Woe to the bloody city, all lies, full of plunder, whose looting never stops! The flame of the sword, the flash of the spear, the many slain, the heaping corpses, the endless bodies to stumple upon. For all this... I will come against you." Nahum 3:1,3,5

"Because you have trampled upon the weak... oppressing the just, accepting bribes, repelling the needy at the gate... there shall be lamentation in every square and every street... when I pass through your midst, says the Lord." Amos 5:11,12,16

"Because of you who abhor what is just and pervert what is right, who built up Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with wickedness... Zion shall be plowed like a field and Jerusalem shall be reduced to rubble." Micah 3:9-10,12

So, with an increased sense of purpose in the mission, Stallone's character and his crew are a force to be reckoned with. To save a persecuted people, embodied by their selfless leader Sandra, is the new and improved reason for their actions. Like the Babylonians, Persians, or Assyrians, the Expendables rush in to punish those who rule with corruption and hatred.

While the body count in the movie might be quite high (and sometimes unnecessary), so too were the battles and the destruction in the Bible. And when studying the Scriptures, one might question why God allowed the Babylonians and others to crush the Jewish nation - doesn't that seem a little overboard?

But such violence was not done out of a joy of destruction, but a severe concern for the poor and the persecuted. God is ultiumately the good shepherd, doing everything in His power to save the lost sheep from harm. "I have heard my people's cry," God announces to Moses (Ex. 3:7) before he sends him forth to set the people free from slavery.

So when we feel abandoned, hurt, or mistreated by others, let us trust in God - for He will do everything to save us and set us free. God sends prophets and leaders to work on our behalf; let us be open to seeing those messangers when they arrive to take us home. Perhaps those God sends will be a loving friend, an inspiring mentor, or - just maybe - Sylvester Stallone.

No matter who or what the Lord sends, let us always be thankful for God's love of us.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

It's time to go to the movies!

"No man is an island..." (John Donne)

Is individualism undermining society today? With mobile gadgets and a sedentary work culture, there is less opportunities for people to interact and meet one another - at least in person.

But might movies be our saving grace?

The following article, while focusing on the business models of movie theatres today, does have some great points about what makes going out to the movies more important today than private mobile devices or home theatre systems:

Can movies' business model survive?

The line that really sticks out: "As it turns out, Hollywood has something special going for it: Moviegoing is an irresistable social experience. People love communal events..." While it might be profitable for theatre chains, it may also be good for us spiritually.

John Donne once quipped, "No man is an island," reminding us that we are not supposed to live isolated, solitary lives. But as personal conviniences have grown, the less necessary (so we think) it is to interact with others. Why go out to the supermarket when you can shop for food online? Why go to church when you can find spiritual websites? Why talk to someone else when you can text or instant message them?

Movies, however, have bucked the trend - and helped us keep us in touch with one another. So it's time to go out to the movies... meet someone, smile at another theatre-goer, or just spend a few moments talking to the person behind the popcorn counter.

No one is an island... and besides, you can't get electricity or good cell reception on islands. So we might as well go to the movies!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Other Guys

Fanfare for the Common Man...?

When Aaron Copland wrote his 1942 masterpiece, "Fanfare for the Common Man," he probably wasn't thinking about Will Ferrell or Mark Wahlburg, the stars of The Other Guys. But this offbeat buddy-cop comedy, regardless of its sexual innuendos and gunplay, may just be a film that celebrates what Copland was going for.

The premise of The Other Guys is that, while movies are usually made about hot shot police heroes like the ones played by Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, there is a more interesting story to be told about the people behind the scenes.

In this case, it's Dectectives Allen Gambell (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlburg) - both stuck behind their desks doing paperwork for the "heroes" instead of being out in the field.

Hoitz remains there out of punishment for accidentally firing his weapon at New York Yankee Derek Jeter (and costing the city the World Series). Gambell is there because no one trusts that a bumbling fool like him should be running around New York with a loaded gun (and because his wife, played by Eva Mendes, tells him he should remain safe when he goes off to work each day).

But (spoiler alert) when the hot shot cops (Johnson and Jackson's characters) die in the line of duty, it falls to the other guys in the office to pick up the pieces. This means that Gambell and Hoitz start down a hilarious path toward finding the white collar criminals that have recently caused so much havoc across town.

Behind its comedic premise, though, is a fanfare for everyday people.

Too often, the world concerns itself with the goings-on of the rich and famous. From sports icons to celebrities and from politicians to newsmakers, we seem to care less about our neighbor next door or our colleagues at the office than about the seemingly "important" people out there.

Some might say that everyday people are just not that interesting. The Other Guys begs to differ - especially when we learn the backstory of Gambell and Hoitz (and get a chance to meet Gambell's lovely wife). This shows us that the lives of average, ordinary people just might be more interesting than those of presidents and popes.

This is how God sees us. And this is how we are called to see one another.

In the Scriptures, Jesus does not befriend Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and an important person to know during Jesus' ministry on earth. Instead, Jesus befriends Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza (see Lk. 8:3)... in other words, an average person (a woman no less) in the Galilean world who was married to a court servant.

Jesus also reminded his disciples that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich and famous to enter the kingdom of God" (Mk. 10:25). He extolled their worthiness (despite their lot in life) by proclaiming to them, "Blessed are you who are poor... hungry... when people hate you" (Lk. 6:20,21,22). He was reminding them that "the other guys" are so incredibly loved by God.

He also reminded them, "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt should lose its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything..." (Mt. 5:13) This is a critical point for average, ordinary folks like us. Yes, we are probably "the other guys," but we shouldn't try all our lives to strive to become the rich and famous... for us we do, we might lose our taste and then we're no longer good for anything.

When Gambell and Hoitz tried to be just like the hot shot "heroes," things went out of control. But when they remained true to who they were - and when they were proud of the simplicity God had given them, they became true heroes.

This movie (especially in the closing credit sequence) also reminds us that it was the rich and famous and the high and powerful in society that caused our economic crisis - while "the other guys" suffered. From the recession to the oil spill to political scandals, the worst things that are happening in our world are mostly brought on by those "important" people.

Sadly, this is a theme that has echoed and been repeated through the ages (think the Crusades, Napoleon, the First World War, to name a few) - and even into our own faith tradition. While Julius Caesar and the emperors of Rome were thought to be the saviors of the European world in the first century, it was actually a simple Mediterranean Jewish peasant from Nazareth who actually saved the world.

Unfortunately, this theme continues into today. But the recognition that "the other guys" are just as important as the high and mighty starts with us.

It is up to the average, ordinary people reading this blog to start concerning ourselves with the other average, ordinary people in our lives. It is up to us to care more about our neighbors, our colleagues, and the other people we meet at the store, at the restaurant, at the movie theatre, at the repair shop, while walking around the city or driving along the highway. It is up to us to focus our attention more towards those kinds of people in our lives rathan than the latest updates about whatever celebrity or newsmaker we're following on Twitter or television.

Changing our world's focus is actually up to us. We are the ones guilty of making the celebrities so powerful. Let us start focusing our eyes on the people right around us because getting to know those people will be more a hundred times more rewarding than anything we see on TMZ.

Two thousand years ago, a group of twelve apostles starting doing just that - caring more about the "other guys" than about Caesar, Pilate, or Herod. And when that happened, look at the great things that followed. Now imagine if twelve hundred, twelve thousand, or twelve million people today starting doing that same exact thing.

That's where miracles can happen.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Inception Reaction: Young Adults vs. Older Adults?

Below is an interesting article on the generational divide between young adults and older generations of moviegoers regarding the new movie Inception. The article's author, Patrick Goldstein, seems to conclude that the film is beloved by younger generations who grew up on gaming and the internet, while it might be too complicated for older moviegoers.

Why is it that the older you are the more you can't stand 'Inception'?

I am not 100% sure I agree with Goldstein, but his article makes a fascinating grounding for discussion on how younger and older audiences react to movies today.

The more I have reflected on this column, I have thought that while Inception may be enjoyed by all ages, it may be a defining movie for some young adults, just as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Rebel Without a Cause, Star Wars, and The Matrix were themselves generationally-defining films.

But what does that say about younger people? What does Inception say about the Gen Xers and Millennials that have flocked to this piece of cinema (just like those aforementioned films said a lot about their audiences)?

Perhaps Inception speaks to younger generations' internal struggles that they bury deep inside their subconscious because they're too busy to worry about that now. Or perhaps young adults are tired of old ideas of previous eras - but yearn to conceive of a new idea (an "inception") of their own, hoping it might change the world. Or maybe the whole concept of sleeping and dreaming just seems like a welcome experience for an over-stressed age?

Whatever it is, people may be talking about Inception for years to come. I look forward to that conversation...