manIn many instances, espionage movies are guilty of delivering constant, voluminous amounts of information very quickly. With a plethora of countries, characters, and political contexts to navigate, it often seems like screenwriters enjoy confounding their audience. However,A Most Wanted Man, a newly released adaptation of the John le Carré novel of the same name, is a notable exception to the norm. The superbly written script, combined with the haunting soundtrack, sparsely beautiful cinematography, a breathtaking performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the steady-handed direction of Anton Corbijn, make it one of the best recent entries into the genre and one of my favorite films of the year. A Most Wanted Man is a plodding film— one that offers the right amount of information at precisely the right time. Unlike so many films in the genre (a number of which are good movies), A Most Wanted Man invites you to carefully consider what is being shown.[1] It is, therefore, eminently and intentionally understandable–but not in the mindless, spoon-fed vein of most blockbusters. It is not just the narrative twists and turns that we are meant to contemplate either. Indeed, A Most Wanted Man is characterized by a pronounced existential angst, despair, and cynicism.

A Most Wanted Man follows Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), a German intelligence agent who must decide what to do when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim with known terrorist connections, illegally enters Hamburg. Günther is trying to build an intelligence network in Germany, but it soon becomes apparent that his higher-ups are only concerned with looking good in front of the media. The primary conflict, then, is not between Bachmann and Karpov—as one might naturally suspect—but between Bachmann and the bureaucracy. Bachmann wants to use Karpov to lead him to bigger targets. Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), Bachmann’s immediate superior, fears that such a strategy will result in “blood on the streets” of Hamburg.

Tonally, the film bears all the marks of a le Carré adaption. The world of A Most Wanted Man is thoroughly existentialist—devoid of God and any sort of telos. A recurring line of dialogue brings the film’s existentialism to the forefront. When Bachmann asks American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) why the intelligence exists, her cynical response is, “to make the world a better place.” Sadly, neither of them believes it. In truth, they do what they do only because they are good at it. And it is what they do that defines them. The results of this way of life are most clearly seen in Bachmann—a miserable man filled with despair, a man who is forced to confront the apparent meaninglessness of his existence. By the time the film arrives at its tragic conclusion, it is obvious that A Most Wanted Man has no hope to offer—only a gospel of emptiness.

The sad thing is that Günther Bachmann’s view of reality in A Most Wanted Man is not simply a cinematic invention, an unpleasant fiction. I fear there are many Günther Bachmanns in the world. There are people who have either suppressed their knowledge of the truth or rejected the gospel of Christ outright in favor of a vacuous existence. They find no meaning in work; relationships prove to be unsatisfying. And when they fail at a task around which they have built their identity, there is a sadness that cannot be removed. R.C. Sproul points out that existential worldviews provide a fertile ground for the preaching of the gospel, which is a daily reminder that life is indeed meaningless apart from Christ. It calls us out of our self-absorbed lives and tells us that our ultimate purpose is to glorify God. Christians, let us be salt and light to the Günther Bachmanns in our lives.

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[1] Among other things, the film is a criticism of the Bush administration’s reaction to 9/11, rendition, and torture. I point this out because I want to be clear that my appreciation of the film does not mean I condone the political views contained therein.

Will you follow me?  One last time.

Sorry to start your week off on a negative note, but we’re curious.

Trailer Tuesday: Left Behind

Posted: August 12, 2014 by jperritt in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
Tags: ,

[I couldn't resist]

dawn_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_poster_a_pDawn of the Planet of the Apes was an excellent film.  Personally, I have been surprised at how much I’ve liked the two reboots in the Apes franchise.  In terms of the sic-fi genre, these films have to be some of the best of their kind.  And, I would actually say that Dawn was better than its predecessor.  In my humble opinion, these films are taking a cult classic and turning it into a true classic, which is a rare feat to accomplish.

For starters everyone knows the special effects are phenomenal.  Even if you are one who doesn’t want to see apes carrying guns and riding on horses, you have to admit that the realism of the apes is unmatched by other CGI.  I will be shocked if this film doesn’t take home multiple Oscars in this category and possibly even some other Oscar nominations (Best Picture?).

In fact, you can tell the filmmakers are pretty confident about the special effects because of the opening scene.  They are so confident in their craft that the film opens with a close-up of Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) eyes.  They’re basically saying, Our special effects are so awesome, we’re going to open with a scene that highlights these effects.  And, we are going to get as close-up as possible so you can see how awesome they are.  The filmmaker’s attention to detail with the apes is something that should be highlighted and appreciated – ultimately worshipping the great Filmmaker behind the scenes.

The story of Dawn is fairly simple, but still intriguing and kept me immersed in a post-apocolyptic San Francisco.  One criticism was the fact that the apes believed that the human race was now extinct.  One ape remarked that it had been 10 winters since they had seen a human, however, the viewers discover that the humans are about 15 miles inland in San Fran.  How had the apes not seen them there in 10 years?  Wouldn’t they have run into each other at some point?  Even though this was a bit puzzling, it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

One aspect of the film I found to be interesting was the fact that humans truly weren’t the main characters of the film.  As I said, the opening scene of the film is the apes and this continues for some time.  Several minutes into the film, and I felt like I was watching a Discovery Channel special on apes…that were dominating the world and could speak.  It felt similar to watching Star Wars: A New Hope.  If you remember, much of the beginning of that film has little to do with humans.  The main characters are two robots fumbling through space.

The filmmakers did well to cause the movie-goers to identify with the apes.  We witness an ape birth early on in the film.  This causes us to see the apes as more human than they are, and it accomplishes our love towards this “race”.  We are also drawn in to love the apes through other relationships, like Caesar’s instruction to his son, for example.  The fact that I had to keep telling myself, They’re apes, was a real accomplishment on the filmmakers part.  However, I think most people bought into the lie this film sold us.

And, it is this lie that gets us to the real hero in the movie.  Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this film.  I thought it was extremely well-done, and its excellence only assisted with the lie this film is selling.  That lie?  Apes and humans are equal.  The movie made them so human-like that movie-goers were rooting for them.  We were hoping that Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Caesar would bring their mutual “Trust” to bear in the lives of their races.  Why couldn’t apes and humans learn to love each other?  Why couldn’t we accept the fact that there are some irrational/bad humans and some irrational/bad apes and learn to work together?

At the end of the day, however, the apes can talk as much as they want but they will always lack one essential aspect of their created being.  They aren’t image-bearers of God.  And, because of that, they do not have a soul.  I don’t care if they can ride a horse, fire a gun, bake a cake, or talk – they are apes.  And, while we may have bought into a joyous reality of apes and humans living in harmony, at least one human didn’t – Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).

Some people see Dreyfus as the villain.  The irrational human who isn’t progressive enough to imagine a reality of apes and humans frolicking in an open meadow.  But, he proves to be the only rational thinker when he exclaims, “I’m saving the human race.”  He realizes what we know to be true.  He asserts what was commanded in the opening chapters of Genesis.  That command?  Humans are God’s image-bearers and they are to have dominion over creation.  Therefore, as human-like as the apes could be, a future of equality among these creatures should go against our grain.

Even though we get sucked up into the story of apes evolving into a more intelligent species, we must not forget that mankind named them “apes”.  They are inferior.  They are not created in God’s image.  I am not asserting that there was some hidden agenda by the filmmakers of Dawn.  I’m not even saying that this message kept me from enjoying the movie (again, I thought it was excellent).  I’m just saying, a man risking his life to kill a bunch of talking apes is a hero in my book, as well as, The Good Book.

 

Second-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Poster-High-ResCombining two aliens, a tree, a talking raccoon, and a man sounds like a recipe for a bad joke. To be completely honest, that is exactly what I thought Guardians of the Galaxy would be—a likable and well-executed joke. “It’s a Marvel movie, so it can’t be that bad,” I said to myself, expecting a box office disaster all the while. The results are now in, and I was wrong. Guardians had a huge opening weekend ( $94 million); and, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the film. It is the ultimate summer blockbuster and one of the best Marvel movies to date. That being said, this post will be a little different than my usual fare. First, I want to provide a few bullet point thoughts about why this movie is so much fun. Then, for something a little more serious, I’ll focus on the team of guardians themselves and attempt to show what sets them apart from other comic book superheroes.

  • Pop Culture references. Kevin Bacon, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, the MacGuffin, and The Giving Tree are just a few that I can think of off the top of my head. Oh, and if you stay until the credits are over (which you should always do in a Marvel movie), you just might get a glimpse of … I won’t ruin it for you.
  • The soundtrack. Aside from being a tremendous amount of fun, the hits from the ’70s and ‘80s remind us that, unlike the majority of characters in the film, protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)—who goes by the name Star-Lord—is an earthling. The soundtrack also provides seasoned (i.e. older) audience members with something familiar, which is important when you’re dealing with an ostensibly campy movie about a talking raccoon and tree.
  • Genre blending. Comedy, action, romance, and heart-warming moments: Guardians has it all, deftly blended and served in perfectly portioned bites.
  • The thinking audience. Guardians spends very little time explaining its intergalactic politics to the audience, and it is all the better movie as a result. Instead of giving us a five-minute monologue or title card sequence explaining the backstory, the filmmakers assume that their audience can connect point A to point B. That’s a rare thing nowadays.

 

In addition to all of these really fun aspects, Guardians of the Galaxy invites more thoughtful consideration by giving us a group of unconventional heroes. Impolite, unpolished, and socially challenged, these guardians are like the mischievous stepchildren of Steve Rogers, the straight-laced Captain America. They are, in fact, antiheroes. Why, then, do we cheer for them, stand alongside them, and sympathize with them? The answer, in part, is that in our broken, fallen, and sin-stained world, our heroes often have more in common with the Guardians of the Galaxy than they do with Captain America (I like the Captain America movies, by the way). We all love a hero we can put on a pedestal and admire without fear, knowing that he or she will always do the right thing, will always save the world. That’s one reason Superman has endured for over 75 years. But in reality, heroes are often flawed and depraved and not near-perfect pictures of Christ. After all, any good that human heroes are able to do is solely because of God’s common grace in spite of human sinfulness. In this respect, Guardians gives us some of the most lifelike heroes we’ve ever seen.

So, if you’re going to see Guardians of the Galaxy, have fun, look for the Pop Culture references, and enjoy the soundtrack. Then, think about this strange group of heroes. You can leave the theater comforted by the fact that the sovereign Lord—not Star-Lord—guards the universe.

grey26f-1-webThe trailer to this movie was released last week, so I figured some thoughts would be appropriate. I thought about coming up with ‘fifty thoughts’ for Fifty Shades of Grey in order to have a catchy title, but I couldn’t think of a greater waste of time pondering fifty thoughts about a filthy piece of trash like this film (can you tell where this post is going?).

From the outset, let me go ahead and tell you that I have not read the book and I will not see the movie.  I know many would use this to discredit me, but I think this argument is no longer valid because of a little thing called The Internet.  You can read and research a whole lot about something without having to read the book or watch the movie.  Without a doubt, one gets a greater understanding of something by actually experiencing it, but when depth and substance are lacking from a story there’s not much to experience anyway.  So, here are five thoughts:

  1. Scripture Alone:  Scripture begins with, “In the beginning God” [Gen. 1:1] and many have said these are the four most significant words in history.  They tell us many things, but one thing they tell us is the fact that God is in charge.  He’s always been in existence, he was before all things, he created all things out of nothing, and he dictates what his creation will do.  When  it comes to sex, we don’t get to do what we want.  Therefore, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele are spitting in the face of God and perverting his invention.  What does that say for those of you who’ve read the book?
  2. Faith Alone:  Because of the fall of mankind, we place our faith in everything but God.  We place our faith in money.  We place our faith in food.  We place our faith in friends.  We place our faith in sex.  Now, nothing is wrong with enjoying any one of these in a proper perspective, but a misplaced faith ends up in misplaced worship – God alone deserves that.  Fifty Shades of Grey, however, makes sex the ultimate thing and worships it.  I will say that the story seems to accurately portray what happens when anyone or anything receives the worship that is due to God – perversion.  Grey is so obsessed with sex it becomes something demented.  Sadly, many who have read the book have gone down this demented path and have adopted these practices.  Even more sadly, husbands and wives will go see this movie together and will worship this ideal and become more discontent with one another.
  3. Grace Alone:  God doesn’t owe us a thing.  The fact that you’re breathing right now is solely because God allows it.  When all of life is grace, it’s difficult to draw attention to one aspect to appreciate.  However, sex communicates a great deal about God’s grace.  The simple fact that God gives us any pleasure is remarkable.  We sinned against him.  He would be perfectly just to make all of our food bland, remove any beauty from all creation, take away emotions, the list goes on-and-on.  One clear thing Scripture communicates about sex is that God commands husbands and wives to make it a common practice – God is so harsh. [1 Cor. 7:5]  Again, God would have been just to make sex the most boring, laborious chore – but he decided to make it pleasurable.  Christian and Anastasia (as well as the readers) see sex as something deserved for their own self-centered motives.
  4. Christ Alone:  As strange as this may sound to some, sex communicates a lot about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Once again, God designed sex as properly practiced between one man and one woman in the context of marriage [Gen. 2:15-25].  This marital union points us to our union with Christ.  Therefore, whenever there is sexual distortion, there is a distortion of the gospel.  Fifty Shades of Grey distorts the gospel of Jesus Christ for your own sinful fantasies.  Why in the world would any Christian seek to see a movie that deliberately distorts the gospel for their own entertainment?
  5. Glory to God Alone:  God is Creator and his fingerprints are all over creation.  The creation – because of God’s fingerprints – displays glory because God is glorious.  Therefore, each of us are glorious in various ways, but we turn into glory thieves because of our sin.  We attempt to highjack the glory that is due to God.  E.L. James (who wrote the novel), as well as, the actors and filmmakers are attempting to steal glory from God’s creation.  Whether it’s in the act of sex, the naked bodies of actors, or the selfish fame they are all longing for, Fifty Shades of Grey illustrates selfish people pursuing their own glory.

There are some books and movies that should simply be avoided and Fifty Shades of Grey is easily one of those.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard many Christians are reading, or read, the books and I know many more will see the movie.  While I know there is a character named ‘Christian’ in the movie, those displaying true Christian character will abstain.

The_Debt_Poster[This post contains spoilers.]

One of the interesting (and often challenging) aspects of the espionage genre is that it often requires of the reader/viewer a certain amount of cultural/political awareness. Enter Le Carré’s world, for instance, and you need to know his particular brand of British jargon–that The Circus is actually MI6, and so forth. Still, spy films set in foreign countries find box office success with American audiences. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation from a Le Carré novel), Skyfall, and A Most Wanted Man (another Le Carré) are some recent examples. Why are these kinds of films successful? Why do audiences keep demanding them and studios keep financing them? One reason, I contend, is that while spy films may be culturally challenging, the thematic underpinnings of the genre–trust, guilt, innocence, betrayal, loyalty, and truth–are part of a universal language that translates across national borders with great ease.[1] For instance,The Debt (2010), which is set in and is ostensibly about Israel, is really an examination of guilt, sin, and the need for absolution. It is to these themes, therefore, I now turn.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of The Debt is its time-jumping narrative. Alternating back and forth between 1997 and 1965, the film is centered around a group of Mossad agents who were tasked with capturing the notorious Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, also known as the Surgeon of Birkeanu, and returning him to Israel to stand trial.[2] We are told that the mission failed–that Vogel was able to break out of the safe house in which he was being held and was subsequently shot and killed by Mossad agent Rachel Singer (we see these events take place in a flashback as Rachel reads a portion of her daughter’s new non-fiction book on the mission). As we are introduced to Rachel Singer and the rest of the heroic team of Mossad agents–David Peretz and Stephan Gold–in 1997, we see that years after the fact this now famous mission still weighs heavily on their minds; it has seared the consciences. The majority of The Debt, however, takes place via flashback, as the ill-fated attempt to capture the Surgeon of Birkenau slowly unfolds. Tension slowly builds as the young Mossad agents capture Vogel and bring him to the safe house. We wait for his impending escape and subsequent death. Finally, the time we both dread and anticipate arrives. Vogel, using a shard of a broken bowl, severs the ropes that bind his hands, knocks Rachel into unconsciousness, and starts to flee. We know all of this; we’ve seen it all before. We know that Singer will wake up, grab her gun, and kill Vogel just before he runs out of sight. With the shot focusing on the unconscious body of Singer, we wait for that moment. Nothing happens. Dieter Vogel escapes.

Back to 1997, where Rachel learns that Vogel has surfaced and is threatening to reveal the three agents’ decades-old lie to a reporter: Rachel must now finish the job. She must kill Vogel. This time, Rachel succeeds; but she incurs a substantial wound in the process. As she lies there bleeding, her final words–hastily written on a piece of paper and found by the reporter who was supposed to interview Vogel–are relayed in voiceover:

My name is Rachel Singer. Please publish what you are about to read. In 1965, I was part of a mission to kidnap Dieter Vogel, The Surgeon of Birkenau, and bring him to Israel to stand trial. We have always claimed that Vogel was killed, trying to escape. But this was a lie. A lie I have lived with for thirty years. And now I understand that I must tell the truth.

In a very Dostoevskyian manner, The Debt shows that the law of God, written on the human heart, has the power to assail the conscience, revealing sin.[3] This theme is most clearly visible in the character of Rachel. She is clearly and visibly tormented by her lies. Her deceitfulness haunts her. In addition, the accusatory power of Rachel’s sins are made apparent by the fact that her daughter’s book–a lifetime worth of research and labor–is founded on untruth. A tension is created thusly: Rachel desperately longs for the truth to be told–for her guilt to be assuaged, yet she fears bringing shame upon her family. Finally, she chooses to do the right thing, confessing the cover-up, telling the truth. But is her burden lifted and the guilt removed? Was it worth it? Even if she survives, we do not know the nature of the fallout with her surviving family. The implication is that a written confession to a reporter is the only satisfaction she received. This lingering note of hopelessness, is the not-so-Dostoevskyian part of The Debt. Perhaps the film is reaching down to its Jewish roots, pointing to a need for absolution and atonement in light of human depravity and the debilitating effects of sin. Debts, after all, must be paid. In the end, when you watch a movie like The Debt, you thank God that Christ’s blood, as Toplady said, saves us from sin’s guilt and power.

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[1]I do not mean to imply that the cultural aspects of spy films are unworthy of consideration or are nonexistent. It’s just that this is not a cultural studies blog.

[2]Since the film moves between two points in time, the main characters are each portrayed by two actors–one old and one young. For this reason, I have chosen not to include the actor’s name in parenthesis beside the character he or she portrays.

[3]I believe it was David Powlison who made this excellent observation. However, I do not recall a source.

miceThe Rescuers (1977) is a delightfully fun animated Disney classic. It is the story of two mice, Bianca (Eva Gabor) and Bernard (Bob Newhart), who must go on a daring mission to rescue the kidnapped orphan Penny (Michelle Stacy) from the clutches of the evil Medusa (Geraldine Page). It is a story of friendship, love, rescue, and bravery in the face of fear. It is also a story in which a mouse gives us an idea of what it means to be a man–as Bernard, throughout the film, proves himself to be a man’s mouse.

Bernard consistently puts himself in harm’s way in order to protect Bianca. When the Rescue Aid Society receives Penny’s message in a bottle, Bernard shows no interest in going on a rescue mission. However, when Bianca volunteers, Bernard, knowing that the mission is dangerous, suggests that someone accompany her on the trip to keep her safe. That someone ends up being him. Shortly after their journey begins, Bianca and Bernard find themselves taking a shortcut through a zoo. Bernard goes ahead to scout a dark and spooky pathway, making sure it it safe for Bianca. After encountering a grumpy lion, Bernard decides that they should take the long way. Fast-forward to when the villainous Medusa forces Penny down into the cave to look for the Devil’s Eye, a large diamond; it is Bernard who offers to explore a particularly treacherous part of the cave. Time and time again, Bernard puts himself in harm’s way in order to ensure the safety of Bianca.

The point is not that Bernard is a macho man, who boldly goes where no mouse has gone before–far from it. In most of the above examples of bravery, Bernard is afraid of the challenges set before him. Remember, Bernard did not volunteer himself to go on the rescue mission; Bianca chose him. Once selected, however, he was willing to give his life, if necessary, to keep Bianca from harm. Additionally, the anxiety is almost palpable (it is certainly visible) as Bernard heads into the dark part of the zoo and, later, the cave. No, the source of Bernard’s bravery is not mere machismo or some chauvinistic sense of male superiority, but an outworking of his nature as a man. His love for Bianca compels him. He has a need to protect Bianca, a deep-seated urge that overwhelms and overpowers the fear that, at times, rules his life. This sort of sacrificial leadership has nothing to do with a man’s capability or value (for men and women are equal in God’s sight), but it has everything to do with God-ordained roles. In the end, Bernard is willing to sacrifice his safety in order to preserve Bianca’s because that is what he was created to do.

The Rescuers shows, in a small way (see what I did there?), what authentic manhood looks like. A true man–a godly man–accepts dangerous challenges, leads the way into the lion’s lair, fights Medusas, and explores the unreached parts of caves. A real man slays the creepy-crawlies that strike fear in the heart of his wife, though he too is afraid of them. The authentic man goes to work to provide for his family. He gives of himself, and gives, and gives, and gives; and when he can’t give any more, he lays down his life, as Christ once did for him.