Highly Recommended (Did you have any doubt??) What can I say about this movie to do it justice? It clearly should win the Oscar for best picture. It is the conclusion of the series and has all the best battle sequences, as well as pinnacles of honor. The themes of friendship, honor, loyalty, courage are at their height. And the overarching theme that we must fight and even die to save a civilization from evil is certainly not a well-loved idea by many who hate the freedom of Western civilization created by a Judeo-Christian worldview. And yes, that is exactly what the foundation of this mythology is, and I know some people just hate to admit that, but it’s true through and through. Those who would try to paint this series as racist because supposedly villains are “of color” in the film are themselves racists and bigots. Their racist hatred is blind to the fact that one of the biggest villains is white, as well as a host of other wild men and evildoers who joined Sauramon. I guess these racists would not be satisfied unless all the villains are white and all the good guys are of color. These racists must also be bigoted against small people since Gimli and Hobbits are heros and they are calling the story racist. And they must be against the environment since trees and ents are good guys. I guess facts don’t matter when someone is trying to stir up hatred and prejudice. You can be as balanced as you can and agenda-driven people will still see their conspiracy theory. The funny thing is, the whole point of Tolkien’s mythology is precisely multicultural — in the good sense. That is, all the races of men, dwarves, elves, ents etc. should stand together and fight evil in every form, no matter what race it comes from. The metaphor for race and color in this story is obviously dwarf, elf, man, ent, etc. Duh!
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.
Recommended. A Farrelly brothers comedy about a pair of conjoined twins (NOT Siamese! Conjoined!) played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. For those concerned, this is probably the least offensive of the Farrelly brother movies, Me, Myself and Irene being the most offensive. It’s the story of these brothers who are total opposites in personality yet they find a harmony in sacrificial love for one another and the ability to work together as complimentary opposites. Matt gives up his freedom because he decided against the operation that would separate them. Why? Because he had most of the liver and that would jeopardize Greg’s life, so he chose his brother’s life over his freedom Wow, what sacrifice. Then Greg wants to become an actor in Hollywood and Matt is horrified since he has major stage fright. Not to mention the obvious impossibility of conjoined twins actually acting in movies. But of course, the impossible happens and Greg gets to costar with Cher in a TV show ( A wonderfully surprising self-lampooning by Cher as a snippy, self-obsessed, image obsessed, spoiled has-been superstar). Eventually, Greg decides to push for the separation operation because he sees that Matt is miserable in Hollywood and wants to go back to their small town. So Greg sacrifices and risks his safety so his brother can find his dreams since Greg got to find his. It’s all really rather touching and a great tale about brotherly love and self sacrifice for the happiness of others. It’s also about finding harmony in complimentarity, opposites can find interdependency as well as independence in a harmony, if we only compromise with giving love for one another. It’s about how true deformity and inhumanity lies in the Hollywood abuse of people and themselves. The people around these brothers are more disabled than they are. It’s ultimately about connectedness and interdependence, those things we all look for, but for which few are willing to pay the price. Also, what I love about the Farrelly brothers is that they use real people in their films who are otherwise discriminated against in Hollywood: the untouchables, the handicapped. Not just the actors playing handicapped, but actual handicapped actors playing roles. And they use them in loving ways without patronizing them. They address the ridicule that these precious people receive with a straight up honesty, but always have them rise above it with their own dignity. This is genuine and authentic human filmmaking. Tons of laughs and tons of beautiful humanity.
Recommended. Okay , this is “Dances With Samurai,” not a Cruise Braveheart, but it is very good. Brilliantly written script, great acting and directing etc. Should win some Oscars for sure. It’s the story of an American Civil War Hero, Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, who has fallen into drinking and despair because of his involvement in military atrocities against American Indians (namely killing innocent women and children). He gets a lucrative offer by a Japanese industrialist to come over to Japan and train the Emperor’s troops to fight against the Samurai. Turns out the Emperor loves all things Western and wants to “modernize,” eliminate the ancient ways of tribalism and the Bushido Code. But when Cruise is forced into leading the Emperor’s troops into battle before they are ready, they are decimated by the Samurai, who are born and bred warriors. Cruise is taken captured by the General of the Samurai, Katsumoto, played elegantly by Ken Watanabe. In an effort to understand his enemy, Katsumoto keeps Algren alive and has conversations with him. As Algren gets well, he is drawn in to their disciplined living, and learns the way of the Samurai. In a strange and confusing twist, the Samurai “fight for the Emperor” even though the Emperor does not want them to. And so the final battle arrives where the government troops descend upon the Samurai with Howitzer cannons and gattling guns and a regiment of 2000 men against the 500 Samurai. By now, Cruise has sided with his captors and decides to join them, sealing a sure death.
One of the themes of this film is “discipline and determination.” These are two warriors, one fallen, one noble. They learn from each other (but mostly West learns from East). The Samurai are disciplined and worship honor. The American is determined, he does not give up even when he has lost and he does not kill himself in shame. (Although he lives in his shame and in a way “kills himself” with his drinking). I loved this theme. The Samurai, with all their “nobility” and code of honor and pursuit of perfection do not know the sheer will of American determinism. We don’t give up. The disappointing thing about this film is that it is predominantly the typical “East meets West and West has a lot to learn” movie. Is American filmmaking the only self-loathing enterprise? I am sick and tired of the postmodern accusation that western civilization corrupts everything. “Western civilization is what is wrong with the world.” Anti-Western bigotry is unfortunately a part of this film. The Emperor’s problems are depicted as arising from his desire to modernize and go “western.” In the very beginning of the film, Algren muses sarcastically about American Westward expansion, “Thanks to those who died in the name of technical advancement and commercial opportunity.” Even the bad Japanese guys are the ones who are westernized “capitalists,” seeking profit from their participation in backing the Emperor. Westernism is shown as without honor, honor that is being destroyed by eliminating the ancient way of Bushido. The Emperor is shown as an adolescent, waffling over his decision of whether to eliminate Samurai or not. He is becoming westernized, which is depicted as bad, but finally at the end, when he receives the honored sword of Katsumoto, who was killed wastefully in the last battle, he “becomes a man,” with a “mature” resolution and rejects the treaty with the West that everything was building toward. He finally makes a stand, and grows up by rejecting the West. He says, “We are westernized. But we cannot forget who we are or where we come from.” So its okay to criticize western European feudalism like the movie Timeline and others, but Japanese feudalism is somehow any different? And to top things off, Algren offers himself to the Emperor as his subject by offering to kill himself if the Emperor sees fit. This is an action of ultimate dedication and worship to the Emperor that reflects the mind of a Samurai. It shows that the hero too has rejected his evil western ways and become an Eastern disciple. Interesting that western filmmakers tell a story that reinforces a belief that would negate the very freedom and rights that they treasure.
This is where the imbalance of the movie comes in. I’ve learned a bit about the Bushido Code and the Eastern worldview, having done some research for my own movie. What I didn’t see in this movie was the negatives of the Eastern way of life. Sure, they worship beauty, peace, perfection and harmony, but they also are cruel and uncompassionate because of their Buddhist belief in karma. Seeking to better people’s lives is wrong and punishable with violence because they are supposed to work out their own past life “sins.” Under their calm demeanor lies a deceiving duplicity of brutality against individual’s rights and freedom. But we don’t see that. Where is the revelation of the evil oppression of the masses by the caste system of hierarchy? And their idol worship of the Emperor also feeds despotism that enslaves the masses in a have/have not system of power and oppression. (The movie shows that the Emperor is very human and imperfect, but it does not show the evil of this belief) And by the way, the Bushido Code is no better than the Western code of Chivalry. And boy, you know, women don’t fair well in this system either. Women as servants of men. It’s funny, that movies must show the oppression of women by men in a western patriarchal society, but when it comes to Eastern society, then all of a sudden, it’s “oh, let us respect their different culture.” Oh? So it’s terrible when the west subjects women to men, but it’s somehow “unique and appreciable” when the East enslaves women to men’s power? The notion of the individual in the East is entirely negated in favor of the collective (and in this case, The Emperor as god). This results in cruelty and feudalism and ultimately Fascism that Japan resulted in during the 1930s. When the individual is negated, freedom is non-existant and tyranny results. This is the philosophical problem of the one and the many. Yes, the western mindset is individualistic and negates the community in many ways, resulting in the tribalism and tyranny of modern special interest groups. This is the many over the one. But the One over the Many in the East results in tyranny and slavery. I’ve got news for self-loathing American Westerners and America haters the world over: It was the “cruel Western America” that saved the world from the “peace-loving, harmony-worshipping, oh-so-noble” Eastern Japanese who wanted to enslave the world in the 40s. It was the “evil western technology” founded on the Christian worldview that stopped the oppression of the ancient Bushido warrior code as it plundered Europe and freedom. Yes, the “quiet and gentle” Japanese just happened to think that white boys and blacks, as well as ALL non-Asian races were inferior. America is not perfect. It’s got PLENTY of problems with it. But so does every other nation and culture. Western modernism is loaded with evils. But so is ancient Eastern monism. To neglect that two-edged sword of reality is irresponsible and a double standard. None of the Kingdoms of Man, East or West, North or South, can find the peace and elimination of war. They all either favor the One or the Many and cannot find the true balance between them. Only the Trinitarian Creator of Christianity has the philosophical foundation to maintain that perfect balance. Without the living God, they all of man’s philosophy end in tyranny, the worship of the state as god. Only the kingdom of God can bring an end to all wars and usher in the peace and harmony we say that we desire.
Isaiah 2:2-4 Now it will come about that In the last days, The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.
For more on this notion of the One and the Many as well as an examination of war movies, see my article, “War Movies: The New Trend in Themes”
Recommended with Qualification. Will Ferrel is a human that was abandoned as a baby and through happenstance ended up at Santa’s home in the North Pole. So he is raised as an elf until he discovers one day he is actually human and sets out to search for his father who lives in New York. Of course, the father, played by James Caan, is a selfish SOB who doesn’t want anything to do with Will. The laughs come from the Elf’s naieve innocence in contrast with the cynical lost people of the city. But he wins everyone’s heart, including Caan’s, and a love interest as well. Sweet, sweet, sweet. This film is funny, warm-hearted, endearing, has some good values and is totally clean. And best of all, it’s theme is that innocence wins. So why don’t I recommend it? I want to, I really do. I wanted to support a wholesome valued movie. But values are more than the lack of sex and violence. They are also about worldviews. The reason I recommend with qualification is because it is a mythology that intentionally obscures the true and sacred meaning of Christmas: Jesus Christ. That’s right: Christ-Mass. I’m not against secular mythology per se. I have no problem with using prevailing mythologies or genres subversively to communicate good values. In fact, I’m not even against all Santa Claus movies, sight unseen. It’s just that I know that the Santa Claus myth has developed with the intent to divert attention from the true and sacred source of grace and redemption, and for that reason it is personally offensive. Now, I know that the fat old man in red was based upon St. Nick who was originally a Christian. But in this case, the man in red is more like the devil because of what he has become: a smoke screen obscuring the “true spirit” of Christmas. Let’s be honest, there is nothing about “St. Nick” in this popular image as he appears in this movie (And I’m sure radical activist Ed Asner certainly wouldn’t have played Santa if there was). And I know that Christmas was originally a pagan festival called “Saturnalia” that the Roman Catholic Church took over and reinvented as Christmas. And this is exactly what the Santa Claus myth has done, stolen back the Christian holy day and redefined it in secular terms of human goodness WITHOUT God. You know, naughty and nice, which is ultimately a system of salvation by good works. Pure balderdash. Damning balderdash at that. So the pagans have stolen the holy day back and made it a mere holiday that diverts man’s attention from the one thing he needs most: A Savior. That is the sacrilege of it. That is the rape of the Christian mythology.
The movie is all about innocence lost in a cynical selfish culture. Great intentions, bad results. And you know, it would not take much for me to turn around and change everything I just said. If only the storytellers had tied in the true meaning of Christmas, even subtley, in the background, then I would whole-heartedly embrace it. And wouldn’t that be creative irony, too? The myth pointing to the reality. Alas, God is IGNORED entirely. There wasn’t even a manger at the bottom of a Christmas tree. And for that reason, this film is disingenuine and subversively negative to Christmas. The heart of the story is that people need to believe in Santa in order to rediscover the innocence or goodness within themselves, the exact opposite of the truth. This is symbolized in the idea of singing out of your heart, as in Christmas Carols. And even then, they don’t sing real Christmas Carols. Maybe Santa could have given recognition to the true meaning by noticing a manger under a tree with even a slight nod, or the people could have sung true Christmas Carols as the expression of their “belief” rather than a Santa carol as they did in the movie. Even something as small as that would have been redeeming to the story. But no, we are slaves to postmodern fideism. Believe in a “good lie” is the solution in this film. Believe in Santa. The power is in the subject of belief, not the object of belief. It doesn’t matter that something is false, if it helps us accomplish the good. Let us do evil that good may come. Believe! Believe! Believe! — Just NOT in Jesus. And don’t even get me going on the Easter Bunny…
Not Recommended. This is a very well done Ron Howard remake movie of the John Wayne movie, The Searchers. It’s about a woman in the western frontier, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchette (Isn’t she always brilliant?), whose daughter is kidnapped by some rogue Indians in order to sell as a slave in Mexico. She teams up with her father, (played by Tommy Lee Jones) an Indian convert himself, who she hates for abandoning her as a young child, to track them down and rescue her daughter. Its got it all. Excitement, suspense, pathos, great acting, good storytelling, etc. But it also has anti-Christ bigotry. The woman is clearly set up as a Christian and modernist because she is a nurse of sorts who helps people over their superstitions. The father comes around after abandoning her many years ago as a child and she cannot forgive him. Even though he is shown as in need of her forgiveness, in our politically correct culture, the judgmental exclusivist (read: Christian) is always the bad guy against the “open –minded” pluralist (read: Indian). SO casting the Christian as judgmental and contemptuous of other religions places her in an inferior position and her faith as undesirable. Her name is Magdalena, like the disciple of Jesus. Anyway, the Indian father may have a past that he is trying to reconcile, but he is shown as more sincere about his Indian religion than Cate is. She has nothing but contempt for his “savage” religion as she calls it. She is shown as prejudiced and arrogant and unforgiving. Okay, fine. Everyone has something wrong with them that they need to change. But her faith is clearly shown as without power compared to the Indian religion in the context of the movie. When the father gives her daughter, his granddaughter, who is with them, some moccasins to wear, Cate rejects them, until the little girl loses them and Cate is obliged to give in and let him give the moccasins to her. Then when he offers magic beads to protect them from the spirits, Cate rejects them also with condescension. When he scares her with a story about evil spirits, she lets him put the beads on the kid just in case. This is an obvious surrender, showing the weakness of her own religion to really truly protect. And when the Indian sorcerer who they are tracking gets a hold of a personal item of Cate’s he performs a voodoo ceremony that makes Cate sick with evil spirits. Her father and another good Indian set about to counter the black magic with good magic and they fight to heal Cate. Meanwhile, the little girl recites the Bible as well, so when Cate is finally released from the evil spirits, it is a bit ambiguous as to which religion made the difference. But it isn’t really. It’s really favored to the Indian side. It’s clear that the Indian voodoo has power over Cate, her relationship to Christ having no power to protect her (unlike the Bible and real Christian experience that indicate just the opposite). The little girl reads an irrelevant passage of “begats” in the Bible, making it words that are meaningless to the situation and ultimately irrelevent, and the girl’s words quickly blend in to sound not too different from the babbling tongues of the Indians, making her really subordinate to their magic. Also, Cate, after being healed, gladly puts on the protection beads, showing once again that her religion needs to keep submitting and changing it’s view because it has no real power. Cate’s faith is also without much conviction worthy of following when she is shown as being a fornicator, sleeping with a man who is not her husband. Meanwhile, the father is shown as happily and satisfyingly married to several woman, some at the same time, another pagan antichristian jab. Also the father’s religion is made out to make him “one with nature” as he talks to a hawk who leads him magically on to safety at one point in the film. The little granddaughter learns about dreams from the Indian father and she has a dream about their rescue, just like granddad suggested. So the little girl is helped and grows because of her attachment to Indian beliefs, not Christian ones. The Indian beliefs are shown as magical and with real power, while the Christian ones are not, and just lead to arrogance or condescension. At the end, Cate gives a cross back to her rescued daughter and says, “I thought I’d die wearing it,” another subtle negative reference to all things Christian. And you know, its funny, but you would think having Indians be the villains would be politically incorrect. But not here. You see, the bad Indians are only bad because they are US Cavalry scouts led astray by some caucasian army deserters. The Indians are only bad cause they’re hanging with white boys! So it is the white man who is really responsible for their corruption. Also, the sorcerer bad guy is portrayed as so ugly and mutated in his size and looks that he ends up being a freak oddity never to be confused with “normal” Indians. The rampant anti-Christ propaganda made this movie hard to appreciate and harder to recommend.
Recommended. This one is about some archeologists who go back in a time machine to the Middle Ages to rescue a fellow professor who is stuck there from an earlier visit. They get more than they bargain for when they discover that the company in control of the time machine has plans and secrets of its own. I am a sucker for time travel movies. I think it is because it is a way of creatively imagining what it would be like to be in a different world. Or as a character in the movie telegraphs, “the past helps us understand where we come from and where we’re going, so we don’t make the mistakes of the past. We understand now by understanding the past.” So really, all period pieces as well as time travel movies are merely metaphors or doorways to understanding ourselves now. This is why there is often a lot of historical revisionism going on in period pieces. People like to cast the past so much in terms of the present that they end up rewriting history to suit their own prejudices. Oh well. This movie wrestles with the romantic notion of chivalry and the medieval virtues of courage and honor in contrast with the warring brutality of the very same time culture and period. Much like our own that has great accomplishments in technology only to be abused by the greed and power-mongering of men. Crichton’s one note trumpet, a very good one at that, is precisely the scientific hubris of man. From The Terminal Man to Jurassic Park to Prey to Timeline, he writes of the dangers of scientific pursuit without moral restraint. As the lawyer in Jurassic Park says, “We’re so busy exploring if it can be done, we forgot to ask whether it should be done.” I love this motif and think it is apropos for our modernist world. The hero is a dumb California surfer type blond boy who has no real empathetic qualities, while the secondary character, Merrick, who decides to stay in the middle ages cause he studied it so well and fell in love with a woman back then, is the far more interesting part of the story, and a more likable candidate for hero.
Partially Recommended. Just why they called this Gothika, I’ll never know. It’s about a psychiatrist played by Halle Berry, who helps mentally insane criminals. One of them is a woman who killed her husband (Penelope Cruz). Halle tries to help the woman but she responds, “How can you trust someone who thinks you’re crazy?” Halle has this strange dreamlike experience with a young abused girl in the rain and wakes up in the insane asylum. All memory of her last three days has been lost to her. Turns out she has killed her loving husband, the head of the Psych ward, and she is now in the asylum with her patients trying to figure out what really happened to her, while at the same time being haunted by this girl who turns out to be dead. Although this is a formula movie, I think it is a pretty good ghost story. The great thing about modern ghost stories is what they do for the social moral conscience. Modern ghost stories are usually about the ghosts of dead people haunting because of unfinished justice for their deaths. A Ghost story is not about being scared for the sake of being scared, it is about moral conscience. It is an embodiement of the biblical principle that the blood of a murdered person cries up from the ground to God (Genesis 4:10). It is a metaphor for the repressed conscience in man (Romans 1:18). Man represses the sin he does, hides from his guilt like Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden when they sinned. But since man is created in the image of God, the truth cannot be repressed forever, so it haunts him in the form of a ghost “crying out for justice.” Ghost stories are a symbolic incarnation of the conscience. This is why they are so important to a culture like ours that has embraced moral relativism. The scariness of the haunting should be scary because of the seriousness of man’s repression of sin. And Gothika itself even refers to the nature of repression that abused people suffer as a means of survival. This movie reminds me of a few better ones with the same theme, A Stir of Echoes, The Others, and The Sixth Sense, all dealing with the same need for unpunished crime to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the glaring weakness of this story is that the heroine really did kill her husband because she was possessed by the spirit of the dead girl who was killed by that same man. So the murder is justice for the ghost. But I have a real moral problem with such vigilanteism. It places the hero in an immoral bad light. She really is guilty of a crime and no matter how evil her husband was, it does not justify her murdering him. (For more detail, read my article on vigilanteism in the movies: Vigilanteism in the Movies.
Somewhat Recommended – but for adults. Well, not heartily, but for some good fun and laughs. Silly fun. Had a few great laughs at Mike Meyers humor and his Cowardly Lion impersonation. But you know, it’s sad how these filmmakers of kid movies have to put sexual innuendo into them. I’m not against some good subtle mature jokes that might go over kids’ heads, but come on, writhing dancing babes in mini-skirts, a reference to a centerfold porn, and a few other things seem inappropriate in a kid movie like this. And a pretty poor conclusion as the mom pats her irresponsible son on the head and says, he may be irresponsible, but he’s a good boy. Hello? Nothing like outright contradictions so typical of modern raising of children. Plus I don’t think a story about a prankster cat wreaking havoc is all that good of values for children whose real need is discipline and increasing responsibility as they grow up. Fun, yes, Chaos or havoc, no. The overly neurotic controlling little sister learns to loosen up and have some fun, and the slobbish undisciplined irresponsible brother learns that actions have consequences. But his is not a very strongly portrayed redemption. Could have been more clear.
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)