Knowing

This is a story of a widowed astronomy professor played by Nicolas Cage, who has a young son that receives upon a cryptic pattern of numbers from a grade school “time capsule” written by a young school girl fifty years earlier. Cage stumbles upon the key to the numbers as a prophecy of important disasters around the world and their death tolls for the next fifty years up until this very year, when it indicates everyone will die in the last catasrophe. He soon realizes that it is a prophecy of the end of the world that will occur from a freak solar super flare that will burn up all life on earth.

The story is Cage’s spiritual journey from one of unbelief to belief in a purposeful meaning to life. I am careful not to add “God” in the equation, because even though the movie uses Christian concepts and imagery, I believe a convincing argument can be made that the movie is ultimately a humanistic demythologizing of the Faith similar to what Stargate and Planet of the Apes did.

The story begins with Cage unable to get over his wife’s recent death. He masks his own unbelief when he tells his son that he never said there was no heaven, “but if you want to believe there is a heaven and mom is there, that’s fine.” Of course Cage’s statements about the size of the universe and how “we are all alone” indicates his real belief and we soon see him in class addressing the classic question of randomness versus determinism in the universe. He brings up the galaxy and the anthropic principle of how life is so finely tuned to the precision of the universe that some people say this indicates a purposeful design. When he concludes with the other view he indicates that it may all be chance, “the result of a complex yet inevitable string of complex biological mutations. There is no grand meaning, there is no purpose.” It’s clear, the death of his wife has brought him to this conclusion and when a student asks him what he thinks, he says, “I think shit just happens,” indicating his despair.

We also learn that Cage is estranged from his pastor father because of his father’s religious beliefs. Cage tells his sister not to pray for him. Meanwhile, Cage’s son, Caleb is being stalked by strange men in trenchcoats, as if they are waiting for just the right time. When Cage figures out the prophecy is about the solar super flare, he calls his religious pastor father and talks about the gift of prophecy and that the end is near. Cage brings his son to a safe place, only to discover the trenchcoat beings are angels, with what appears to be wings who shed their human disguise, and come from an object that resembles the spinning wheels of Ezekiel’s visions in the Bible (This Ezekiel passage is clearly referenced in the film). We hear the kid explain that he and others are “chosen” to be taken away to start a new world. “Only the chosen can go. Those who heard the call.” Obvious New Testament language. We then see Caleb and other children from around the earth “raptured” off the earth as the solar super flare burns up all life in an apocalyptic “judgment” scenario reminiscent of Revelation.

Cage explains that he now believes and knows that he will be in heaven with mom and Caleb someday. He drives out to his parent’s home, makes his reconciliation with them. Dad says, “This isn’t the end, son.” Cage replies, “I know,” and he is now spiritually reunited as they burn up in a ball of fire. We then see Caleb and another little girl arrive on a pristine new planet like an adolescent Adam and Eve and run over to a huge tree that is an obvious metaphor of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden spoken about in the Book of Revelation at the end of the world. At least this is what one interpretation of the Bible says it means. Anyway, the Christian imagery is blatant throughout the film, making this an outright Christian metaphor.

But is it a Christian worldview? Or is it a humanistic demythologizing of Christianity? I think that there is enough indication for one to argue that the “angels” were actually aliens in physical starships just as Stargate argued, making religion a superstitious interpretation of scientific facts. This of course is a very common cliché in movies ever since the book “Chariots of the Gods” in the 1970s that posited that the angelic manifestations in the Bible were actually “ancient astronauts” in flying saucers that were misinterpreted by ignorant religious people as spiritual beings. The fact that the “angels” in Knowing are in very physical spaceships seems to indicate this secularizing demythologizing. But of course, one may argue that it is simply the same “wheels within wheels” that Ezekiel saw in his heavenly vision (and pointed out in the movie), making it ultimately biblical. I think there is just enough ambiguity for either interpretation.

In the DVD special features a documentary about apocalypticism in history addresses it as an element of all religions and an anthropological phenomenon of coding society’s fear. An anthropologist claims that the nuclear age created the “Rapture theory” in the Bible and birthed the UFO craze out of our social fears. They try to show commonalities in all religions regarding the deity and destructive identity of the sun and then explain the scientific possibility of solar super flares. They end on the “alien mythology” of aliens bringing us out of our self destruction to give us another chance, so the documentary at least is more a demythologizing than a scientific support for religious belief.

The Director, Alex Proyas seems to deny the imagery used in the film as being exclusively Christian. He explains on the director’s commentary that to him, the Christian mythology in the film is a part of our cultural imagery, but are more symbolic shorthand for a “bigger story” of humanity coming to peace with its mortality and finding hope beyond it. Anthropologized faith. Proyas addresses the presence of physical spaceships in the film as aliens and that the Ezekiel vision would be exactly how an ancient religious person would interpret an alien. Proyas, claims he is definitely showing the religious impulse as an interpretation of scientific reality, yet was deliberately making it ambiguous so that anyone could bring their own interpretation to the imagery. When the interviewer exclaims that the religious interpretation (over the alien science one) is the central image of the story, Proyas balks and says that that is what the interviewer brought to the film, rather than the film exhibiting.

For Proyas, the meaning lies in Cage’s son surviving him as the hope of how we survive our mortality. Humanistic demythology. Proyas wanted the movie to be relative in its meaning to the viewer. He explicitly says he deliberately wanted the imagery to be ambiguous so that they could be interpreted as either angels or aliens. Angels or Aliens? You decide.

The Great Raid

Partially recommended. This is the true story of the greatest rescue of American POWs in history. An elite force of newbie Texas Rangers were sent in to rescue about 500 POWs in a Philippine POW camp held by the Japanese. These were men who survived the Bataan death march and were wasting away from starvation and beatings by the Japanese. Colonel Mucci and his men rescued all the POWs, with but one POW death and a couple of fatalities in the squad. A truly miraculous story. For that and for the fact that the story shows SOME of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese soldiers and police against the Americans, this movie should be seen. The problem is that because of the Nuremburg trials and the obsessive focus on Nazi war crimes, the Japanese war crimes were all but overshadowed and ignored by the public and the resultant consciousness of history in this country. So see it. But unfortunately, it is not a very good movie in storytelling and filmmaking terms. It reeks of television writing and the characters are not nearly as engaging as they should be. With terrible choices for leads like Benjamin Bratt and James Franco, it just cries out for good acting. And the Japanese are cardboard villains, and apart from the atrocities, you just don’t feel for these guys. They are flat characters and there are too many of them. The only good story is the doomed love story between a Major in the camp, played by Joseph Fiennes and an American woman in the Filipino underground, played by Connie Neilson. They are the only ones who have an interesting and dramatic past and connection in that she was married to his commanding officer who was killed and now they live to be together with each other. This is also the story that they brilliantly play as the tragic element in the otherwise victorious story. Not everything was happy results in this realistic story of human pathos and the triumph of the spirit. But I must admit, I am a bit biased in my observations for a couple reasons. One, this is the movie that I discovered Miramax was developing when my movie, To End All Wars came out. Turns out they tried to buy the distribution of our movie, and it is clear now, that they wanted to shelf our movie so they would be the first out with their POW movie. Thank God the producers didn’t go with them. The Great Raid lacked the epic transcendence and memorable characters, scenes and lines that a good epic should have. But also, I was rewriting the miniseries for this same exact story for Disney Touchstone when the Weinsteins discovered the production and literally strong-armed our production into the trash can because of their power (We were both under Disney distribution). Ours was based on the Hampton Sides bestselling novel and it was clearly superior. I was hired to bring in a stronger Japanese element like I did in TEAW. I was also rewriting other elements of it. And it was going to include a bit of the Bataan death march, which is a story that needs to be told as well as some amazing other historically true stuff. Oh well, water under the bridge. But all that said, still see the movie because these men died for your freedom. We owe it to them to know their story, regardless of the fact that oafish trolls may have ruined the movie.

Broken Flowers

Not Recommended. This is a story with a powerful moral theme that I think is hindered by an immoral element that destroys the very morality of the story itself. A great premise of Bill Murray, a lonely lifeless eternal womanizing bachelor, who receives a letter in the mail telling him he has sired a son that is now 19 years old by one of his past conquests. But the mother does not tell him who she is, so he is left wondering. He is pushed into a plan by his next door neighbor, a family man, with a loving wife and kids, to seek out his ex-girlfriends and try to figure out which one it is. So Murray goes on a cross country trip to visit each of several woman who he may have dated around 19 years ago. As he visits each one, we see each of them, living wasted lives, that it is implied HE has been of some cause. Sharon Stone, plays a white trash woman who sleeps with anything that moves, and has no real heart connection, not even with her daughter, who is a small version slut of her mom. Jessica Lange has become a lesbian kooky new age “animal communicator” who thinks she is a Dr. Dolittle with animals. Another one has become a lonely consumer lifestyle suburban desperate housewife married to a loving but empty real estate salesman. And another has become a rural crude white trash biker’s chick. And the beautiful dramatic aspect of this filmmaking is how Jim Jarmusch, the writer/director communicates the emptiness of each of these women’s lives, and indeed, Murray’s life as well, almost entirely through looks and visuals. Almost NOTHING is spoken of their misery or despair. You can see it in their eyes and reactions to him. They have all had their lives sucked out of them, and he has no life left in him. No emotion, no heart or zeal for reality. He’s a living personification of Hugh Hefner. And then, he becomes haunted by this search for a son. Every young man he sees in each town, looks as if he could be his son. When Murray gets back home, having failed to figure out which one it was, he discovers a drifter that he assumes is his son, but when he reaches out to the kid assuming he is his father, the kid runs and we see he isn’t. And Murray is left literally, on a crossroad, with nothing, and having not found his son. He is unredeemed. He is entirely alone and without any connection. It is, in fact, a tragedy. The kid had asked Murray for some philosophical advice and Murray told him, “The past is gone, the future isn’t here yet. So this is all there is, the present.” And you can’t help but think that this existential worldview is the driving force of such selfishness. Living for the moment is part and parcel of the destruction of human connection and relationship. It is supreme selfishness that destroys life in yourself and in others. It’s a beautiful testament to the despair and emptiness of a promiscuous life. A life that can find no intimacy, and therefore no human connection. A life that begins with “fun” and sexual experiences, but ends in complete isolation and insignificance. A touch of irony is thrown in, when the family man neighbor says he is helping Murray find his ex-girlfriends because he believes Murray “understands women.” In other words, the grass is greener syndrome makes the people who do know the normalcy of intimacy with a wife and family actually mistakenly assume that men who are able to bed so many women must know women. They do and they don’t. They know how to use and manipulate them, but not how to know them intimately. Promiscuous womanizers don’t really know the meaning of love and therefore the beauty and comfort of normalcy in marriage and relationships. It is the “boring” lifelong commitment that finds intimacy and true human connection. The trouble is that we too easily take it for granted, and this movie makes that point. The reason why I cannot recommend it though is because there is a full frontal nudity shot of a girl who is supposed to be a teen slut hitting on Murray. Murray runs from it, but the damage is done cinematically. I don’t have a problem with the concept of such temptation or depravity in a movie, but the filmmaker shows full frontal nudity for a girl that is supposed to be a teenager (though, obviously, the actress could not legally be a teen). So, in effect, the filmmaker imitates child pornography in the making of his movie, which effectively destroys the moral import of the rest of the movie. There are limits to the appropriate depiction of sin, and this movie, by imitating child pornography, stepped over that line. I think it is more autobiographical of the dark fantasies of filmmakers, like Jarmusch, than it is a does of “reality,” as they might claim.

Hero

Not Recommended. Tarantino is not to be trusted. This movie is boring. I walked out after the first third of the movie because it had no soul. Okay, I understand that these movies are the Chinese version of superheros. But I guess I just don’t like Eastern superheros because they think that emotionless expression is somehow “deep”, when all it really is is dramatically uninteresting. Human beings are emotional beings, so universal emotional suppression in all characters is simply boring drama. Yeah, yeah, my western prejudice. And in this case, my western prejudice is simply superior for dramatic story. And if you doubt that, just look at the worldwide gross of OUR superhero movies as opposed to these Eastern superhero movies, and well, your doubt will dissolve. Also, a movie that is a string of long 5 minute fight scenes, one after another, just doesn’t make good story. Sure, the choreography and cinematography is cool, but choreography and cinematography IS NOT STORY, they are enhancement to story. Without story, they become boring shallow style without substance. And that’s what Hero is: style without substance.

The Station Agent

Highly recommend. Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy. This is a little gem of a film. Almost purely character-driven. It’s the story of a dwarf [yes, the main character is actually a dwarf] who inherits an old train depot station from a dead friend and goes to live there. It’s out in the middle of nowheresville, that is, Newfoundland New Jersey. While there, he meets an Italian coffee truck vendor and an absent-minded female artist. The acting is superb by everyone, especially the dwarf. What a wonderful change of pace from the typical movie that uses only “beautiful people” to star. Of course, it’s not that the dwarf is ugly, but just that he is not a model for Calvin Klein underwear. He is a human being just like Tom Cruise, and this movie proves that it is interesting absorbing characters that help make a story intriguing to the viewer, not star power. Anyway, the dwarf character is moody and withdrawn, with lots of scenes of minimalist dialogue and long lazy shots (in the good sense). This reminded me of the beautiful Tender Mercies, which also gave us such small town angst with simplicity. The theme of this movie deals with friendship, alienation and rejection. The funniest scene had me laughing my head off. As the dwarf character walks home down a road, the kooky artist just happens to be driving by and loses control of the vehicle because she drops her cell phone. She almost hits the guy, and apologizes. There is chemistry here, but it is suppressed. The very next time she meets him, it is in the exact same situation as he is walking home, only, this time, she spills her coffee at that very moment, and he sees the car weaving again as it comes toward him. You can almost see the connection in his brain as he sees the car come towards him again. I couldn’t stop laughing and thinking about it. I must confess that I loved it even though there is not really much of a story. This is unusual for me. I get bored when there is no story. But the characters were so compelling.