Girl With a Pearl Earring

Recommended with qualifications. A fictional story of the historical Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and the occasion of his famous painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The girl is portrayed as a maidservant hired by Jan’s wife, whose beauty becomes the inspiration for said masterpiece. It is a story about adultery. But not your classic tale of physical infidelity. There is never a consummation. But rather, it is about the reality of adultery of the heart. Jesus said that to even lust after a woman who is not your wife is considered adultery of the heart by God and is just as serious. Boy, that one doesn’t go over too well in modern society. But it is treated with exquisite subtlety and profundity here. Using an artist to do so is the most believable because artists are obsessed with beauty. They can spot and adore minute sensual details: the curve of a neck, the delicacy of an eyelash, every hair on a woman’s head, even to the perfect placement of a single strand. We artists can really worship every detail of beauty and thus can be the perfect metaphor for the reality of inner lust. Colin Firth plays Vermeer with understated poise and passion. Scarlett Johannson is hauntingly perfect for the role as Griet, the Girl with a Pearl Earring. This movie is like a dutch painting in many of it’s scenes as well as the minimalist dialogue with an emphasis on repressed passion. It is powerful. I have a couple problems with it. First, the ending is very Bridges of Madison County selfishness. It sets up the ravishes of adultery of the heart, but plays for the passion of lust over the passion of love. Griet is let go when Vermeer’s wife discovers she is the apple of his eye. That the girl can understand beauty and color and light like a painter. Because Griet has more in common with Jan than his own wife. The pearl earring is a powerful metaphor for the heart’s treasure as it is Vermeer’s wife’s favorite most exquisite and treasured piece of jewelry, the act of wearing alone which proves a violation of the marriage intimacy. It’s all really quite spiritual without capitulating to mere symbolism or allegory. I mean you really sense what is going on in the hearts of these people between the lines of their outward behavior. It’s brilliant storytelling that incarnates the theme in the behavior of the characters, not merely their words. And the last shot shows Griet receiving the treasured pearl earrings from Vermeer as a gift, indicating very clearly that she has his heart even without the physical consummation. This is the typical Existentialist or Romantic ethic that places passion as the highest value over honor. Follow your heart over do your duty. (And yes, another topic I write an entire chapter about in my book, Hollywood Worldviews). It had such good potential to end tragically for the moral high ground, but chose selfishness as virtue. Ah, will we ever be rid of self-obsessed selfish Romanticism? My second problem has to do with it being a fictional speculative interpretation of a real person’s life. I have a real love/hate relationship with this postmodern fictionalizing of non-fiction. On the one hand, I don’t have a big problem with telling a speculative story if you remain true to the spirit of the historical people or event (Witness Braveheart). But on the other hand, if your story impugns someone’s character as does this story with Vermeer (It accuses him of previous infidelity and suggests it as an ongoing character trait), and you have no evidence of such failings, then you are instilling unfair prejudice against a person. I am not aware that there is any knowledge of such behavior in Vermeer’s life, but if there was, even rumors of it, then that would be fine to portray it as a possibility, but if there isn’t any indication of such licentiousness, then to suggest there was is more than unfair, it is libelous.

21 Grams

Hard to say whether I Recommend or Not. Great for conversation about the meaning of life. This is a powerful hard hitting story of intersecting lives written with depth and acted brilliantly by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. It is an Existential movie that raises questions but gives no real answers, or shall we say, proposes a toothless redemption in a nihilistic world. Let me explain. It’s about an ex-con Jesus Freak (Benecio), who is trying to overcome his “bad luck” life by living a Christian life, rather alien to his nature. While speeding home, he accidentally kills a father and his two daughters and hides from the law. The father was also the husband of a woman played by Naomi Watts, whose life is now shattered by her loss. In the meantime, Sean Penn is dying of heart disease and a diseased relationship with an Englishwoman. Penn gets the heart of the father killed by Benecio in a transplant and seeks out his donor’s wife out of gratitude and curiosity, and of course, falls in love with Naomi and plans with her to kill the guy who killed her husband and kids, ala Benecio. Well, first off, it’s edited non-linearly to be oh so pomo. This hurts the film because it confuses the storyline which is strong enough on its own to carry interest. It’s okay for a gimmick like in Memento, and it worked well in Pulp Fiction, but the technique just adds unnecessary confusion here. And a gratuitous sex scene makes it difficult to recommend this one.

But I have a major issue with this movie. It is a story that attempts to portray Christianity as without any real transformative power in changing a life. Benecio is sincere in his attempt to be religious, but we can see that he is really just the same kind of man underneath. He is harsh on his kids and wife and others. He almost beats up a punk rebel for not himself repenting for the good life. What irony. He is portrayed as having no real victory in his life over his old ways, but more of an avoidance mechanism. And Benecio seems to just draw trouble to himself. His wife tells him that since he became a Christian, she doesn’t know him anymore, that he’s not himself, it’s like he’s been body snatched. So, his faith does not draw him closer to his family, but farther away. While Jesus did say that a family would be divided over such faith, he meant that those who are changed by their new natures of faith, truth and goodness are often rejected by family members unwilling to leave their own selfish wickedness. But the movie portrays Benecio as the one at fault here. His faith has not made him better, but has merely alienated him like a cult member. His unbelieving wife is more of a “real person” than he is. He comes to believe he is cursed by God with all his “bad luck.” He ends up leaving his wife and kid because he does not want to bring his cursedness upon them. He is not good enough for them. The filmmaker seems to consider Christianity a mere façade that tries to cover over an unchanged nature. Although it is very interesting that Benecio turns himself in because of his “duty to God” for the guilt of his crime, something 9 out of 10 movies would never even touch. For that I praise it. This has the potential of being a powerful victorious moment of moral character, but in the context and hands of the storytellers, seems more the negative pressure of guilt induced fear than godly repentance. His faith commitment is portrayed as alienating him from family rather than building his love for them. A truly godly man would weep over his love for his family, but do the right thing out of moral character. But Benecio yells at his wife and alienates her, storming out of the room.When Benecio goes to jail for the hit and run, he gives up on God because Jesus “betrayed him” for giving him all the trouble. But this is the conclusion of a long string of “bad luck” problems in his life. What Benecio neglects to learn is the lesson of Amadeus, Signs, Magnolia and Simon Birch, and that is that GOD IS IN CONTROL, not him. But instead, in this film, Benecio dumps God and goes back to his family, presumably as his old nature. Faith seems to be portrayed as a tool rather of avoidance or ignorance of true issues. Now, I have no problem with showing honest struggling with such issues, even the pain of a suffering life and a person who gives up on God because of his struggle. What I cannot forgive is the lack of understanding of the nature of true transforming power of Christianity. You see, the character who hates God for his suffering has the problem of CONTROL. Remember the story of Job? Rather instructive here, I would say. That is, what he needs to learn is that the very source of his problem is his unwillingness to accept God’s sovereign governance of his life. A humility and brokenness before one’s Creator, like in the movie Signs, where Mel Gibson learns that his rejection of God was selfish blindness to the wonders all around him. He merely had to open his eyes and yield to God’s greater wisdom. 21 Grams reminds me a lot of another indie movie, Levity. Similar idea of a man, Morgan Freeman, living a double life in the inner city as a Christian helping troubled youth. Another excellent story written well that fails to understand the true deliverance of Christianity. Faith becomes a cover for a double life. Why? Because, evidently, to these filmmakers, people do not change, or at least genuine transforming faith is not possible. Now, granted, there are some frauds or failures out there, I would not contest that. But my point is that these people who made these films obviously have not experienced or seen the kind of transformed lives that are in these inner city ministries. For every failure, there are a dozen successes of lives forever changed for the better because of faith. Hardened men humbled to the point of true repentance and a changed NATURE. Sure, they may still even have hard edges, but they are changed, truly changed, and people in their lives see the difference – FOR THE BETTER. I know, it happened to me. Okay, one qualification: I’d prefer movies like this that try to criticize Christianity, than ignore it all together, which most movies do. So for that much, I am grateful for this movie. At least it deals with something that is so important, it is a sin to ignore it.

I do have a caveat to my negativity though. When Sean Penn finds Benecio to kill him, he realizes he cannot kill him and fires the gun into the ground, telling Benecio to go and never come back. But Benecio tracks Penn down to his hotel room and tries to force Penn to go ahead and shoot Benecio. In other words, Benecio wants to die, accepts the wages of his sins. But Penn cannot and instead shoots himself in the shoulder to get it all to stop. Why? I don’t get it, other than a possible “atonement” theme. It is because of this event that Benecio ends his self-imposed exile of self flagellation and returns to his wife and kids. I’m willing to acknowledge that this might be a self sacrifice notion of substitutionary atonement, the innocent for the guilty, a man finding forgiveness in the sacrifice for another on his behalf, but the movie makes everything so guilt-ridden that it is hard not to see it all as a cynical retreat from true goodness.

At the end, the Penn character muses that 21 grams is the amount of weight that a person’s body loses when they die. The weight of a soul? He asks a bunch of questions but gives no hope of an answer: “How much is lost. Where do we lose 21 grams? How much goes with it? How much is gained? 21 grams. The weight of a stack of nickels, a hummingbird, a chocolate bar. How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? How much of life fits into 21 grams?” Well, these are very thoughtful questions, but the context seems to emphasize the insignificance of life and the inability to determine its value in light of the irony of life’s inequities and tragedies. Great questions. Great issues raised. Too bad no real hope is provided, and faith is discouraged as inadequate or ineffective. Contrast that with the redeeming nature of faith in the true Jesus Christ found in the Gospels and in Christian’s lives. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). And, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and YOU SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. “For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Recommended. This is a great historical action story. It is not quite as rich or deep as say Braveheart, but there is a lot about courage and leadership and friendship that makes this story worthwhile. The central dramatic premise is the hunt for a French war ship, the Acheron, by the British naval Commander, Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). But the meat of the story is in Jack’s leadership with his men, and in his friendship with the ship’s doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin. The naturalist is a man of science and Jack is a man of war. In the film, science always seems to take a back seat or supporting role to war rather than the pursuit of knowledge itself being primary. There is a sequence where they pass by the Galapagos Islands, the famous site of Darwin’s finches, but about 50 years before Darwin would go there and write his book, On the Origin of the Species, that would change the world. The doctor wants to stop for some research, but Jack pushes on because the imperatives of war outweight the “useless” examination of species. An obvious irony in light of the impact of Evolutionary theory to come. This is intended to show the blind-sided nature of military hegemony. The centrality of war may win battles but may also keep us from “great achievements” that will change the world far more than war. Stephen also challenges Jack’s leadership as proud at times and power-driven rather than by compassion or understanding for his men. This tension is brought into focus when Jack places his men in needless peril in order to achieve his objective. The men become expendable and so his leadership becomes heartless. But when the doctor is injured and needs to get to dry land for surgery, Jack decides to forestall a possible capture of a vessel to help heal his friend and express the value of his men. He takes him back to the Galapagos Islands to heal, which allows some scientific exploration to be done as well. It is a powerful moral choice of humaness and shows the effect that the naturalist has on bringing balance to Jack’s military leadership. In other words, science becomes the balancing power of compassion and reason for the overarching power of the military. Well, this is a rather pretentious claim to make since the morality of compassion and understanding is not really a scientific issue, it is a spiritual one. Science is really not a tool of morality, it is a tool of power. In the hands of moral people, science has helped extend life and help people more effectively, but in the hands of immoral people, it has been used to kill and destroy more effectively. Witness the fact that the 20th century, the century of science and modernism, has increased the life span of the average human being by many years, but it has also killed more people through genocide than all the rest of history. Both medicine and genocide have science in common. The difference between the two is not science, but morality. It is not men of science that bring compassion or humanity, but men of spirituality or character. And a man of science may have character, but he did not get it from science, but from appropriate spiritual understanding. One moment in the movie has Stephen telling a young kid that God made all the animals with their strange and interesting characteristics but that they change on their own too. This ambiguous nod to theistic evolution keeps the science from itself being a monstrosity of oppression as atheistic materialistic evolution has indeed become in our lives.

The Passion of the Christ

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Opening in February 2004. Let me say right out that this is, for me, the most profound and true movie ever made about Jesus Christ. “true” because it captures what no other Christ movie has in regard to his suffering. And it is Christ’s suffering that is the essence of atonement for sins. It focuses on the “Passion” of suffering that Christ had to experience in his last 12 hours on earth. The reason why I believe this is so crucial to its greatness is because the depth of the suffering is a reflection of the power of the redemption. The verse that is shown at the beginning of the movie says it all and sets the context for understanding everything that follows. Isaiah 53:5 “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities, by his stripes we are healed.” This movie is about understanding just what that means. So it starts with the Garden of Gethsemane and ends with the Resurrection. Well, let me tell you. All I can say, is “it’s about time.” It’s about time someone captured the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death in a dramatic way that touches the soul beyond words. I think of all the other films about Jesus, and how they all include his doctrinal teaching along with a third act about his death and resurrection. Well, that is good and I’ve liked them all in one way or another, but for movies, I have to say that the preaching part can get a little preachy and drawn out. The teachings of Christ are just not as suited to visual dramatic storytelling. Not that there’s not a place for them. But what the Passion of Christ does is capture the essence of his teachings through a visceral experience. I wrote in my article about “Jesus in the Movies” that all Jesus movies tend to reflect the era they are made in, the prevailing zeitgeist. So, the first Jesus movies, made more in an era of belief, tended to emphasize his deity, and the later movies, made in an era of skepticism tended to emphasize his humanity or worse, make him out to be sinful. The Passion is brilliant in that it is a postmodern experience of Christ. It is gritty and realistic in its portrayal of what Christ suffered — I mean what he really suffered. Very human, very Existential. All other Jesus movies are revisionist candy coated schmaltz compared to this one. But that is good for this generation. This pomo GenY yada yada generation speaks with gritty, in your face attitude. REALITY, baby, that’s what we want. Well we get REALITY all right, we get it all, from the flesh ripping scourging to the actual nails pounded into the hands (most movies cut away at the pounding, but Gibson does not) Rather than focusing on the didactic teaching as a modernist movie would have done, The Passion has almost none of the teaching and goes straight for the gut. It captures the experience of Christ for people. This is not to say that rational teaching is not appropriate, but merely that Mr. Gibson is achieving a communication of the Gospel of redemption in a way that transcends other Jesus movies and meets the postmodern where he is at. I almost believe his original intent to not have subtitles would work, the images are that central to the story. Of course, I am thankful that he did have subtitles, because truth be told, I do believe that words fill out what image cannot. Image without word is incomplete. So the balance between word and image here is astounding and profound. EVERYONE MUST GO SEE THIS MOVIE.

Radio

Highly Recommended. This wonderful little sentimental heart-tugging true story stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as the real life James “Radio” Robert Kennedy. He’s a mentally handicapped young kid who is taken under the wing of a high school football coach played by Ed Harris in a small South Carolina town. It’s a story about what really matters in life (second most), loving your neighbor. Cuba is so good you forget you’re watching Cuba. The story is a bit weak and episodic, but it doesn’t hurt it that much because the characters are so compelling and the heart of this story rings so true. One complaint: They set up a problem with Ed Harris’ family, his daughter in particular, because he spends more time with Radio than his own daughter. She starts to get a bit perturbed at it. But then they don’t really pay it off. They never really resolve this issue. It just disappears. I can only imagine how deep and powerful this story could have been had the love of one’s neighbor been rooted in the grace of the foremost commandment, the love for God.

Beyond Borders

Not Recommended. This was a potentially great idea ruined by Romanticism. It follows the path of Sarah, played by Angelina Jolie as a married woman in the English high society who awakens to the true plight of the third world one day when an activist doctor, played by Clive Owen, crashes a high falutin dinner party that is raising money for such projects. He brings a real kid who is really suffering and chastises everyone for their fraudulent “help” because the plug is being pulled on his project and lives are going to be lost. SO Sarah is inspired and gets involved in relief work. She travels around the world to the Sudan, Cambodia and eventually, Chechnya to help the suffering in the midst of political and military upheaval. Of course, she meets Clive, the doctor and they fall in love, but do nothing because she is married. The Romanticism of this movie lies in making Angelina stay with her husband for the sake of her child, even though he is an adulterer. But as she gets more involved in her work, she keeps seeing Clive and eventually falls for him. They consummate (read: fornicate), but realize they can never be together because they are in different worlds and can neither of them leave their own world for the other. So they are doomed to seeing each other every few years in different lands. This sets up the Romantic notion that doing the right thing versus following your passion leads to tragedy. Angelina and Clive are created as characters of true love and passion and connection who cannot be together because she stays with her family. Her husband’s adultery becomes the pragmatic justification for her embracing her adultery. Hey, after all, they weren’t really in love anyway, right? And hey, he’s an adulterer too, so there! This movie reminds me of the despicable Bridges of Madison County, that justified Meryl Streep’s character in her adultery as the only true experience of love and passion in her life. And even though she stayed with her husband, even though she “did the right thing,” she treasured her adultery all her life as the one true experience of life and love from which she thrived. Rather than work out the issues and grow to love her lifelong partner LIKE AN ADULT, no, she had to follow illicit passions and treasure those experiences of lust as love. What a selfish child, if you ask me. At least in Beyond Borders, her husband was an adulterer. In Bridges, the husband wasn’t even half bad. Well, same story in Beyond Borders. They even have a tragic ending where Angelina gives her life to save her lover so he can be with the baby that resulted from their union. Very epic and melancholic sadness. Great acting, good emotional writing and storytelling. It’s all very epic feeling and grand, and a compelling story. Unfortunately, it is immoral Romanticism.

The Magdelene Sisters

Not recommended. I had no interest in seeing this film. But I was stuck at the DGA because of a bad parking situation and had to stay to watch it. I just had no interest in watching yet another Catholic bashing diatribe, which ends up implying all Christianity as negative. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of the Roman Catholic church and am fully aware of it’s abuses (Hey, I loved Luther!). I think there is definitely a place for the exposé of such abuses, it’s just that this is all we ever seem to get from movies, and it is usually propagandistic. You know something is propaganda when they only show negative stereotypes of people who are part of institutions they are attacking and don’t show any positive characters to balance the bad ones (like Thelma and Louise, Titanic). That is what happened in this movie. It’s based on a true story of these reform schools in Ireland for “wayward girls,” which usually amounts to sexually promiscuous girls. It follows three girls, Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette. One of them is pregnant by accident, another is raped and the third is flirty with the boys, but never “done nothing.” Okay, so they set up all the girls as roughly innocent, who are thrown into this punishing institution because of the evil patriarchal male abuse. While there, they are forced to engage in slave labor and are deprived of food and rest. It’s supposed to discipline the immorality out of them. A girl gets raped and the father treats HER like trash when the rapist should be the one thrown in jail. SO, basically, all the women are victims, which right away sets up the entire school as unjust. Again, no doubt this stuff does happen and should be decried as wicked, but come on, who are you trying to fool anyway? And all the people in prison are innocent too? It would be less propagandistic if they showed girls who did deserve to be there to contrast with innocent ones, but you see the filmmakers cannot do that because they believe that all punishment of sexual immorality is intrinsically evil, so they are required by their prejudice to show it as only negative without showing any of the destruction of untold thousands of lives from promiscuity and rebellion. Also, all the nuns and staff are wicked stepmother types who enjoy punishing the girls with total ignorance of any goodness. NOT ONE SINGLE NUN WITH A GOOD HEART in the entire place?? Again, who are you trying to fool? That just is not reality, it is propaganda. Even one good nun would have been a redemptive element and more true to reality. But Propaganda cannot show a positive example of an institutional character because it would weaken its argument because propaganda is not interested in reality or truth, but only AGENDA. And so propaganda really on weakens an otherwise compelling story in the Magdalene Sisters.

Mystic River

Medium Recommended. This film is a brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, superbly directed and edited piece of nihilistic cynicism. The story of three boys tied by fate, when one day, while playing hockey in the street, they are approached by a couple of men who are impersonating undercover police. They take a kid away under pretenses of bringing him home to his mom, but instead kidnap him and sexually abuse him for several days until he escapes. The whole point of the story is how it affected each of the three kids as they grow up. The one who was kidnapped and raped becomes a psychologically troubled nobody, one becomes a criminal and tries to reform and the third becomes a cop. They are united when the criminal’s daughter is killed and the troubled friend becomes a suspect. All the clues keep leading to the Tim Robbins abused character. Abused people abuse, right? Well, an entire irony of situation is set up so that Robbins is killed by the criminal guy who lost his daughter as his revenge, but it is discovered that he did not do it after all. So there is an ironic cynical fate of victimization. Only the strong survive. No hope in this story. Nice guys finish last. Even the ending is ambiguous about whether or not the criminal will get his due for killing the victim Robbins.

Secondhand Lions

Recommend, but beware. This is a wonderful sappy, humorous little story about a young introverted kid (Haley Joel Osment) left one summer on the porch of his eccentric great-uncles (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) by his irresponsible mother. The uncles are hermit types who don’t like being around people and there is speculation that they have a secret fortune stolen from AL Capone hidden somewhere. The kid reignites their lives and they bring fascinating fantasy to his. Duvall steals the show again, as always. Worth it just to watch him. So the uncle played by Caine ends up entertaining the kid with stories about he and Duvall’s Indian Jones like adventures during the war. The tales are told and visually shown precisely like an Indiana Jones story, very romantic, with the love of a princess and fighting Arabs and all that. And Duvall is supposed to have been the adventurer. The moral of the story comes from Duvall when he tells the kid in relation to his life stories and the Romantic exaggeration, “It don’t matter if it’s true or not. Sometimes, you just gotta believe in some things like courage and honor cause that’s what it’s all about.” Or something like that. Anyway, that’s the postmodern twist in the movie that is subversive. Truth is not important, just values. This brings up the problematic question of “which values then?” If none are really true, then lies are equal to truth. While I would certainly agree that a fictional story can tell just as much truth as a true one, that should not justify lying. There is something more special about a story having really taken place that reinforces the value in a way that fiction cannot do. It’s why “true story” movies are more deeply moving to us – because it really happened, and therefore is invested with a bit more meaning than simply making something up to make a point. A perfect example of this is the Christian faith. The Bible says that if Jesus DID NOT really rise from the dead, then we are all still dead in our sins and without any hope, the Christians being the most to be pitied because they followed a lie. Lookee here:

1 Corinthians 15: 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

So some truth really is based in factual historical occurrences, which, if they did not really happen, would falsify the narrative’s values as well. So it DOES matter to tell the truth. The ends DO NOT justify the means. Lies are not justified just because the values it teaches are “good.” As it so happens, the movie hints at the end that the stories are in fact, true, as we see the son of the Arab enemy turned ally arrive on a helicopter to meet the old geezers. But this is really a throw away because the point was already made that the values were most important, not the facts, and the fact that the stories supposedly really happened is merely icing on the cake. Another subversive element of the film is the context. Is it merely a coincidence that in this movie TWO MEN are portrayed as more capable of raising a child well than a “traditional mother” with a husband? It strikes me a bit like “Heather Has Two Mommies” or “Daddy’s Roommate” as a subversion of traditional family structure, I hope that was unintended, but I tend to doubt it.