Groundhog Day

It’s Groundhog Day! To celebrate, we should all take a trip to Punxsutawney, to see the unveiling of Phil. But since that’s not quite feasible, why not just watch Harold Ramis’ fantastic film Groundhog Day.

Bill Murray shines in this film as a man learning to savor every moment. Watch not only for the enjoyment of a fun movie, but for the profound truth that is embedded within. What truths can be found in Groundhog Day?

Another great option is to listen to The Tobolowsky Files episode 29, in which actor Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned) tells his story about working on Groundhog Day. It’s a fantastic podcast that I would highly recommend.

In honor of Groundhog Day, here is my list of my favorite atmospheric movies. Groundhog Day ranks number 2.

Top 10 Atmospheric Movies

The setting of a movie can be its own character when done well. Place is extremely important to any movie, but not all movies pull of place as character. These ten movies are extremely atmospheric – movies in which the place is suffocating, or debilitating, or enhances the story. These atmospheres are consuming. I could have filled this list with war, horror and sci-fi films, so I decided to steer clear of them.

10. Frozen River (dir. Courtney Hunt 2008)

This quiet, but powerful film is all the more powerful due to how Courtney Hunt uses the frozen river as a character. It creaks, it cracks, it is a source of anxiety, a source of comfort, a source of life and death. Melissa Leo gives an outstanding performance of a down-on-her-luck mother.

9. Insomnia (dir. Christopher Nolan 2002)

It’s a great detective movie made all the better due to the setting. Insomnia takes place in a northern Alaska town where the sun never sets. It’s disarming and Christopher Nolan uses it to great effect.

8. A River Runs Through It (dir. Robert Redford 1992)

If you’ve ever been fly fishing, you know the allure of the river. It calls your name and begs you to spend time with it. Redford masterfully captures this fact and films the river beautifully. The river constantly calls.

7. Dead Poets Society (dir. Peter Weir 1989)

The boarding school is definitely its own character in this movie. It’s an inspiring story, but the boarding school seems to suffocate.

6. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle 2008)

The slums of Mumbai are on full display in this film. They not only provide the setting, but are crucial to the plot and story of the film.

5. Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg 1975)

When a movie comes along that scares a generation out of the water, the setting must have played a part in it.

4. Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn 2007)

The topography and landscape of this film is a catalyst for change for Christopher, the main character. Without the setting, their would be no transformation; their would be no journey.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont 1994)

In this fantastic film, the prison changes Andy and provides a the suffocating force that he must escape.

2. Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis 1993)

Setting plays so much into this film. Phil has to learn to love the place he’s in before he can love himself and eventually others.

1. There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson 2007)

The vast open spaces of Texas plays a major part in this revelatory film, especially during the almost silent opening sequence.

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The Guard

Ambiguity inherently makes things more mysterious and a bit more interesting to watch and The Guard is full of it. Gerry Boyle, played deadpan by Brendan Gleeson, is a protagonist that some people would have a difficult time getting behind, but people will definitely have a good time watching him interact in his world. In America, audiences are used to hard delineated lines between good guys and bad guys. This film makes the audience guess which side Sergeant Gerry Boyle will be on in the end and that makes this film a fairly fun ride. It definitely makes The Guard more interesting, it being full of moral ambiguity.

It is a bit reminiscent of The King of Marvin Gardens, the 1972 Jack Nicholson crime movie. I had a film professor in college who loved it due to it’s ambiguity and he wouldn’t let up on how that made it such a better movie than if it would have been played straight forward. It does just that for The Guard.

Don Cheadle plays Wendell Everett, an FBI agent in Ireland trying to thwart a 500 million dollar drug deal. He’s the straight laced good guy of the film confused by the ambiguous Boyle that he has reluctantly recruited to help him in his mission. They are after four men involved in international drug trafficking in a sleepy seaside town run by Sergeant Boyle.

The personal life of Sergeant Boyle makes audiences question his loyalty to his job and his ability to care about the case or anything else that is happening in his town. He sleeps with prostitutes; he takes drugs; he sneaks in alcohol and other drugs for his mother that is staying at an Old Folks’ Home. His character is contrasted by other police force on the case that will play people for their own gain. Most of the characters are out only for themselves; they don’t know what it is like to think outside themselves. Boyle is complex and hard to read, but he does think outside of himself. The best part of the character though, is his deadpan humor. He’s sharp and keen – he knows what is going on around him, but doesn’t give on that he does. He plays every one around him and he gets the best of them.

John Michael McDonagh, the man who wrote and directed this movie, does a deft job creating a mystery that can charm while being full of dark gray matter.  It’s a fairly impressive directorial debut. He tells the story well with the camera, but for good reason, he relies on his dialogue and his characters to truly tell the story. He has a similar writing style to his brother Martin McDonagh, the playwright that wrote and directed the wonderfully insane In Bruges, but it would be unfair to compare the two.

The Guard is rich in gray, teetering back and forth between good and evil; between hope and despair. The rumination on moral ambiguity works most of the time, but in the end, it’s just a little too much. Where is truth? What is truth? We all might just be bad men that are capable of good things. It’s a small story, and despite great work by Gleeson and Cheadle, it stays small. It’s a movie for those who enjoy dark humor. For those, it will be a great ride. For the rest, it’s best left unwatched.

2011 Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh

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Top Ten Films of 2011

Top ten lists are a tricky business. It is such a subjective list when it comes to best of’s. These are my ten favorite films of 2011. The films that I am drawn to are ones that speak to the human condition and have something to say regarding said condition. It can be said in a myriad of ways, but films that cut to the core of who we are and where we are going are the ones that appeal to the way I think. These films speak directly or indirectly to those things; to morality, God, love, forgiveness, and redemption.

Honorable Mention: The Artist, Moneyball, Of Gods and Men, Bridesmaids, 50/50, X Men: First Class, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Super 8, Certified Copy, Meek’s Cutoff, Jane Eyre, Drive

10. The Muppets

This was the most fun I had at the theater in 2011. There was redemption, hope, love, self-discovery, cooperation all rolled in to a 90 minute puppet song and dance show. It proved that deep emotional themes can be portrayed well in a fun and amusing way. Watch one of the great scenes from the movie here:

9. Hanna

This modern day fairy tale proved that Joe Wright will always be an interesting filmmaker, even if it doesn’t always work. It’s a fun, tight, and thrilling film of triumph.

 8. Warrior

This was much more than an MMA movie. The most thrilling scenes were those containing family drama. The brother relationship was an incredible display. Finding forgiveness and reconciliation in the midst of such physicality was a perfect and brilliant way to do it. It was reminiscent of the story in the Bible where Jacob wrestled with God.

7. Martha Marcy May Marlene

It’s a chilling tale of one woman’s journey escaping cult life. The dichotomy between Martha’s cult life and her life with her sister is an interesting comparison. This movie will stay with you for a long time, just like the cult life haunts Martha.

6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A cool and calculated thinking man’s spy film. The atmosphere, the acting, the way it was shot, all coalesced into a deep and complex work that stands out amongst typical spy thrillers.

5. Win Win

A fantastic little film about the lengths we will go to to look good and to have a few extra bucks in our pocket. It’s a story of redemption and growth in weakness.

4. The Descendants

We all need a lesson in taking care of those things and people that have been entrusted to us. Throw in Alexander Payne and George Clooney and you get a dark, funny and complex human drama that is complete and altogether lovely.

3. Midnight in Paris

This is for any lovers of early 20th Century artists, novelists and filmmakers or of quality filmmaking in general. This is fun from start to finish. Ernest Hemingway steals the show, just like he used to.

2. Hugo

This is the best use of 3D that has been put to film yet. Martin Scorcese gets to the heart of the matter and takes you on a journey to the past and into the future. It’s a wonderful film full of whimsy, redemption, hope, determination and grace.

1. The Tree of Life

This is definitely not a film for everybody, but Terrence Malick’s rumination on Grace vs. Nature is just like a good tone poem. It makes you feel, think, and act. It’s deep, profound, and after a second viewing is even coherent. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen.

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The Artist

The Artist, Michel Hazanaviscius’ new silent film about an actor struggling to adapt to talkies (movies with sound), is a solid effort, but not worthy of all the awards and praise that it has been getting. The novelty of watching a silent film about the death of the silent film is clever, but it’s only that. The acting, particularly the performances of Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, is fantastic, but the story is slight and fluffy.

It’s a story we’ve seen a hundred times: a man’s pride gets in the way of success, joy, love, and peace. It’s a simple premise, but one that humans continually deal with. We want to be accepted and loved for who we are and we are afraid to change to do that, so we put on masks to put on a good front and to hide what is truly going on inside of ourselves.

George Valentin, the highly successful silent film star, has put all of his identity in ‘silent film star’. He can’t see himself as anything else. That’s who he is, even in his personal life. He puts on a show for his wife at the breakfast table to win her forgiveness instead of dealing with the problem head on. He has a larger than life portrait of himself in the lobby of his home. He has decided that his mask is that of silent film star, so when that goes away, he has no way of coping with the rest of life. He doesn’t know who he is and he has nothing left.

There are three extraordinary characters in this film that stand by George no matter what. They all portray a deep loyalty and without this loyalty, George would be dead. They revive him both literally and figuratively. Peppy Miller, the first star of talking pictures, continually looks after George and she is forever grateful to him for what he did for her at the start of her career. She knows who he is and who he could be. Clifton, George’s driver, stands by him and wants to see him succeed. He spends a year working without getting paid, just out of loyalty. George’s dog, the real star of the film, will stop at nothing to protect and care for him. It’s the dog that demonstrates a loyalty and support that is needed to sustain George through the dark times.

This story about a likeable persona on top of an unlikeable man, failed to rise above the, “I’m making a silent film about silent film and it’s 2011” gimmick most of the time. When it does rise above it – particularly in the scenes involving the dog and when it deals with pride and masking – it shines. It hits home the point that Jesus made when he told the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[1]

It takes a physicality that is rarely seen in film today to pull off a role like that of George Valentin. It’s an impressive performance and should be lauded, but the film doesn’t really rise above the strength of the performances. The screenplay, nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, is slight and fluffy; clever at best. It’s a fun premise, but one that only holds up when the fun is actually stripped away to its core revealing a broken man trying to deal with his own short comings and a man that is not able to adapt to a changing world around him without help from a few loyal friends.


[1] Luke 9:14b NIV

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Stranger than Fiction: Movies through a Biblical Worldview

Sometimes it takes the voice of God to get people to live a great story. Sometimes that story takes them to unexpected and tragic places. Not knowing if life is comedy or tragedy can lead to a life of stops and starts; confusion. But knowing that life is full of truth, full of the divine everyday, life becomes meaningful and something worth dying for.

Stranger than Fiction is a film about finding truth, about seeking the divine, about living a great story, about willingly walking in obedience. Harold Crick starts out in the mundane and is focused on the everyday tasks that make up a life. He doesn’t think about purpose, or future, or how he is a piece of the puzzle. He doesn’t realize that there is a greater puzzle to fit into. Like many humans, his world starts small. It’s not until the unexpected, the supernatural happens that he realizes his world is big, he has a purpose; he is specifically destined.

Harold Crick hears the voice of God. That is his catalyst for change. It takes something that big to get his attention. Some people hear God in the small things, but Harold needs something bigger, something that would hit him over the head and get him thinking outside of himself. Specifically, he hears the voice of a narrator, but there are some specific Biblical truths about God and His nature that can be extrapolated through the relationship between Harold and his narrator. Who is God?

The fullness of God cannot truly be realized here on earth, but there are some things that can be learned from Stranger than Fiction: God is omniscient. God knows the full context of where people are going and what is going on around them. Since He is all knowing, He understands people as a piece of a greater puzzle in the context of all of Creation, but also knows individuals better than they know themselves and He knows what is best for them. Once Harold Crick follows the voice, once he decides to embrace all that is in store for him, his life becomes full of truth, full of beauty, full of love, full of joy. The pain of life never leaves him, but there is joy in that pain because there is truth of a greater purpose in that pain.

God is invested and cares deeply for people. The narrator knows Harold completely and knows what is best for him. God caring and knowing people doesn’t mean that everything will be easy and that life will be full of luxury. Without the ‘hard work of the middle’¹, the story that God has planned for people will not come to fruition, it won’t be full and transformative; it will be incomplete and ‘less than’. God knows what we need for where He wants us to go. Sometimes that is a clear path, sometimes it is full of life, sometimes it is painful, but it’s all transformative. It’s a personal transformation that has an impact on the world around Harold; a transformational impact.

Stranger than Fiction is also a story of salvation, a story of redemption. Truth about what Jesus did and who He is can be found in the final act. Harold is representative of Jesus, not Jesus himself, but he acts as Jesus did at the end. He willingly goes to his death for the greater good. Harold knows that through his death, through the saving of a little boy, life will happen and because he willingly goes to his death, he becomes the type of character that is worthy to be saved; to be rescued. Like Jesus, Harold doesn’t succumb to death. He lives. Jesus died and rose again; He is alive. Jesus died for the sake of all humanity, Harold for one.

The movie also has something to say about creation about how humans were created by the words of God. God breathed, God spoke humanity into existence. Harold is created entirely from the voice, the words of the writer, the narrator. God’s voice is powerful as He speaks things into existence. It really shows the power of words, the power of speech and of breath.

Stranger than Fiction shows aspects of the nature of God and creation and it also shows the nature of humanity. Harold starts out as a self-centered man without the eyes to see the significant. Karen Eiffel, the narrator, says “Harold’s life was filled with moments both significant and mundane, but to Harold, those moments remained entirely indistinguishable.” He can’t see outside of himself. It really shows how humanity is naturally focused on self and it’s not until people start following the voice of God that they can truly see what is outside of them. When people open their eyes, take in what is around them, they can start to have a transformational impact. The problem with most is that they keep their eyes on their feet. They are able to see where they are, but lose sight of where they are going. The significant, the divine, truth happens daily in the lives of people, but it’s not until eyes are cast above, around that it is able to be seen and lived out. Sometimes people think the significant is mundane, but is it?

Harold Crick starts living a life full of truth when he starts walking in obedience. Morality and obedience just for the sake of it doesn’t make sense. Harold starts walking in obedience because of the impact it has on the world around him. It’s selfless and that is the beauty of it. It sets Harold free in a way he wasn’t previously. Harold is now free to live a life of significance, of truth, of the divine. Jesus said, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”²  Harold follows the voice in obedience and he is set free.

Harold Crick finds his purpose towards the end of the story. He realizes he has a purpose. He is created for a specific reason and he willingly goes to his death to fulfill that purpose. His purpose is to show love towards others, to help others find beauty in the divine, to die for another. He doesn’t find his purpose until he knows the voice. He has to seek the voice, to get to know the voice before he finds his purpose. Without knowing God, humanity is confused by their purpose. Harold doesn’t know what he is created for until the writer tells him. To find purpose people need to seek God, to seek His voice in their lives. People have purpose. People are created for a reason. Once they seek truth, they find purpose.

There are other Biblical truths in Stranger than Fiction that can be extrapolated. This is the question that I like to ask when watching a movie, a television show, looking at a piece of art, listening to music, or reading a book: “What Biblical truth(s) can be discovered in the areas of God, Creation, Humanity, Moral Order and Purpose that I can apply to my life? What is the best way to implement that truth?” Sometimes the truth is hidden in a mess of lies, but there is truth to be found. There is truth in any piece of art. Not all truth is beautiful. Sometimes truth reveals the wretchedness of humanity, but at times truth in art reveals the glory of God. Seek truth in all things.

Stranger than Fiction is full of truth, of the divine. It is a story about living a great story, about finding significance in life, about finding what is worth dying for.

¹ Taken from “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” by Donald Miller. The book is highly recommended!
² John 8:31-32 New Living Translation

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“Inception”: The Dream-Filled Reality of Guilt, Forgiveness, and Home

A refreshingly original idea from Christopher Nolan is like a virus. It embeds deep into the subconscious and blossoms into something that spreads and infects the lives of many. Inception is that virus of an idea. It’s a film that will be a cornerstone, a new entry into the cinema lexicon. Nolan takes a universal experience, pairs that with universal themes, throws in some slick action and creates a multi-layered picture that works from start to finish.

The film is mind-bending in its use of a new language about dreams and dreamscapes. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a man that, with the help of a team, can enter into the dreamland of a subject. He goes into their subconscious and steals or implants ideas. The ability to do this and how they do this is the complicated and exciting aspect of this film, but at its core, Inception is two simple things: a reverse-heist film and a film about the guilt, fear and shame that shape our dreams and take over our lives.

Guilt is a powerful force that can ruin and run our lives. Cobb is trying to erase his guilt through reconciling and changing the past in his dreams, but the past can’t be erased; the past can’t be reconciled through anything he can do alone. The film is spent trying to regain his past and learning to live in the present.

As in a lot of heist films, the protagonist is going to do “one last job”. In this case, the job will get him home to see his kids. The question the film poses though, is, what is home? Where is home? Can home be attained? What is really real? Are the dreams we dream as real as the reality of our daily life? The human brain is complex and still a mysterious figure in our lives. We still haven’t fully understood the realities of our reality.

The cast is sublime. They play their parts well and each character is superbly written. They feel fully formed and not projections of one’s subconscious. Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy and Ken Watanabe all play to their strengths and give solid, believable performances, but the one actor that steals it all is Tom Hardy. As soon as he graces the screen, the film seems to take flight. Hardy plays Eames with swagger and confidence and the audience can’t take their eyes off of him. He’s a brilliant actor.

The script and direction from Christopher Nolan is top-notch. The film is a beauty to look at. It’s visually stunning, but that works well only because the story and script are locked in solid. The exposition of the film may have been a bit much, but it was meant to orient the audience in a disorienting film and it worked, but sometimes a bit of disorientation is a good thing. It makes people want to revisit the film over and over to try and make sense of it all. Nolan makes a film that is disorienting, but sensible.

One of the most powerful aspects of life is the idea of home. We all yearn for a home and that is a big motivation in our lives. We want to build a home, create a home, feel at home, find another to be home with. This aspect is delved into in Inception. It’s the core motivation of Cobb and one of the core questions of the film. Where is home? If our home is only in our dreams, then is home attainable? Are dreams reality? When we find home, we want to hold it, keep it safe and not let it go. This is what Cobb is trying to do and his struggle mirrors the struggle of humanity.

This is a fantastic film that delivers in every aspect. The writing, direction, art direction, effects, story, acting, and themes are all excellent. Thematically, Inception gets to the core of our dilemma in life: guilt and forgiveness. Where is forgiveness found? Can we do anything to attain it? It’s also the story of a journey home. Reality is broken and dreams are shaken in this film. It’s a mind-blowing, but simple journey that all of humanity can relate to.

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Watching Movies Through a Biblical Worldview

Movies are an influential medium. A myriad of worldviews are on display and like it or not, those worldviews seep into the consciousness of the public. Screenwriters, even if they aren’t aware of it, input their own worldview into the piece that they are writing. Sometimes characters have different worldviews than the writer, but if written well, a worldview for each character is established. How does the audience decipher between what is truth and what isn’t? There are Biblical truths that seep through in every single movie. Even if the worldview of the movie is contrarian, there is something that can be grasped and applied.

Worldview, according to Richard Wright, is “a comprehensive framework of beliefs that help us to interpret what we see and experience and also gives us direction in the choices that we make as we live out our days.” So, how do we determine what a character’s worldview is? What do they believe? Sometimes their worldview is more overt and they will actually state what it is that they believe, but other times it is more covert and their actions and choices will uncover their worldview. Here is a good way to determine worldview:

A lot of people’s worldview can be determined by what they say and do. Here is how it usually looks:

Culture

Values

Behavior

Worldview

It works this way for a lot of people. Culture, values, and behavior influence one’s worldview. Culture really can be anything from the general (American culture, Korean culture, etc.) to the specific (family culture, classroom culture, etc.). A lot can be determined about one’s worldview by the culture that they associate with. The same can be said about values (love, order, excellence, wisdom, etc.) and behavior (what people do). To get to the core beliefs of a character in a movie, one can generally look at their culture, values and behavior and determine their worldview.

If someone is a follower of Jesus and their basis for behavior and values are the Bible, then a Biblical worldview should actually influence the others:

Culture

Values

Behavior

Worldview

A Jesus follower’s worldview is determined by what the Bible has to say and their worldview should influence their behavior and values, which in turn should transform and impact culture.

Every single worldview that exists has something to say about five things: God, Creation, Humanity, Moral Order, and Purpose. These are the five worldview components.

God deals with questions such as: Is there a God? Is there one God or multiple gods? Is He a personal God or an impersonal force?

Creation deals with questions such as: Did the universe create itself, or did a Creator cause it? What is really real? Does the material world have any purpose?

Humanity deals with questions such as: Are we descendents of fish? Is human nature basically good or basically corrupt? Are people responsible for their actions? What happens to people after they die?

Moral Order deals with questions such as: Are morality and ethics human inventions or does a Creator predetermine them? Is there an ultimate standard of right and wrong? How is right and wrong determined?

Purpose deals with questions such as: Is there a purpose to our existence? Does history have any direction to it?

All worldviews deal with these five components and a fully developed character will have beliefs in these five areas that determine how they act.

Even if a character doesn’t have a Biblical worldview, Biblical truth can be found within movies. Truth will reveal itself. So, how can we find Biblical truth within movies? Here is a question to ask: What Biblical truth can be discovered that can be applied to my life in the area of: God, Creation, Humanity, Moral Order, or Purpose?

Let’s take Avatar as an example because it’s fairly simple and many people have seen it. The Na’vi love nature. That’s great. God created nature and loves nature Himself, but what do the Na’vi believe about nature? Their god, Eywa is a tree and everything in nature is connected through it. The Na’vi even have tendrils that can literally connect to all of nature. The Na’vi basically are pantheists. Pantheism is, at its core, the worship of Nature; the belief that God is the creation. The Na’vi are worshipping the creation. What are Biblical truths that can be derived from this? The Bible states that humans should be good stewards of the environment, but not take it as far as the Na’vi do. Humans should worship the Creator and not the Creation. The simple Biblical truth of stewardship can be derived from Avatar even though the screenwriter, James Cameron, and his characters do not share a Biblical worldview.

It is essential, in viewing movies through a Biblical worldview, that the viewer knows Biblical truth and to know Biblical truth, one must study and read the Bible. There are many things that sound very good, but aren’t Biblical, so to differentiate between the good and the truth, one must know the truth.

Every Thursday, The Joshua Centre will discuss a different movie through a Biblical worldview. There will be a list of upcoming movies being discussed so that you can view the movie before the discussion will be posted. It is my hope that you will join in the discussion and take your movie watching to a deeper level.

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