With Atlas Shrugged coming to the big screen this month a lot of people are wondering whether this could be the equivalent to the Passion of the Christ in the fervent boxoffice turnout of evangelicals. In recent years, Atlas Shrugged has become mandatory reading for conservatives. Its author Ayn Rand is held up as the prototypical conservative.

The problem? Ayn Rand was not a conservative. She was:

1) Strongly pro-abortion
2) Strongly atheistic (she once told William F Buckley, ‘you are too smart to believe in God”)
3) An outspoken feminist
4) Personally quite immoral (addicted to amphetamines and had a rotating cast of lovers)

Her philosophy was not that of a principled constitutional conservative, it was that of a radical individualist. Christians believe strongly in individual rights and freedoms but we are not individualists. We recognize that our lives are dependent on others and others are dependent on us. We have a duty to serve others and a responsibility to look out for those who cannot look out for themselves. We believe in individual responsibility of course but we don’t believe than any man is an island.

Further, Ayn Rand’s conception of capitalism is not the Christian conception. Christians support capitalism because it is free and allows people to provide for their family; to buy and sell according to their needs. Christians do not believe as Rand did that greed is good. Selfishness is not, as Rand said, “The only virtue” in fact it is not a virtue at all. Capitalism works because people look out for their needs at the family level, not because people are greedy or selfish. Capitalism works despite greed not because of it.

Greed is not good but freedom is good. Capitalism is simply the process of giving people freedom to buy and sell as they see fit. The best form of capitalism is for people to be selfless and serving. As John Wesley said, “Make all you can; save all you can; give all you can.” No golden facets in the bathroom. No wealth for self promotion. Remember that your treasure is in heaven.

Does this mean we should reject Atlas Shrugged and its author? No. It just means we need to be careful to remember that its philosophy is not fundamentally a Christian one.

Movie Review: Limitless

March 26, 2011

Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) is an aspiring author who is suffering from writer’s block and cannot complete the book that he has dreamed of writing. He meets an old friend who has a new drug (“NZT”)that he promises will improve Eddie’s thinking. Eddie takes the drug and his life changes. Suddenly he is a genius. He has instant recall of every fact he ever learned. He is able to use logic to solve any problem. He finishes his book and it is brilliant. But that is not enough. He goes to Wall Street and makes millions in days. But things spiral from there….. sort of.

Before I explain, let me jump to the conclusion of this review. It was a fun movie to watch and was interesting. But I hated it. Here is why. My mind thinks in terms of theology, morals, judgement and mercy. This movie had none of those. I believe it wins the award for worst moral of any movie I have ever seen. Not worst morals (nudity, violence, etc) those were not that bad; worst moral (proverb, lesson, significance etc). Here is why…

Spoiler alert – I need to tell the end to explain my issues with the movie!

The movie has a normal plot line – man has problem, man seeks solution, solution turns out to be worse than the problem….He takes NZT and it works for a while. But then he learns it is dangerous. Previous users are dead or dying. The supply is limited (his dealing friend is dead). And he blacks out occasionally (and possibly murdered someone while in a blackout). To top it off he has two different bad guys trying to kill him to get his stash.

He uses his powers selfishly. He goes after sex (manipulating countless women into bed effortlessly). He goes after fame (writing a best seller). He goes after money (anticipating the stock market with insightful analysis). And he goes after power (running for Senator).

The movie is set for a good moral. “There are no easy solutions to life’s problems.” “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” “Don’t be selfish.” Or maybe even “Don’t take mysterious drugs.”

But no. Here is the end. He figures out how to beat the bad effects of the drug. He gets money, the girl, fame and power. He wins.

The moral? “Do drugs, get girls, money, fame and power.” This will not be mistaken as one of Aesop’s lost fables.

Worst moral ever.

Stars: 1 1/2

Movie Review: True Grit

January 1, 2011

I really liked this movie. It was the story of  a 14 year old girl, Mattie Ross who is seeking justice for her father’s murder. Her mother is too distraught to think about justice and so goes out on her own to seek help. She meets Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a United States Marshall who has a reputation for killing his suspects (and for drinking heavily). Together they seek the man who killed her father.

The movie was funny and compelling. It was honest about death but didn’t glorify it. It was interesting and entertaining but not thoughtless.

The thing I liked most about this movie was the fact that Christianity was presupposed. The movie started off by quoting Proverbs 28:1, ” The wicked man flees though no one pursues”. The score and theme of the movie was a variation of the old baptist hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. It was a sort of Christian movie that didn’t preach. The weight of sin was demonstrated. Justice was demonstrated. The inability of vengeance to bring peace was shown.

When Hollywood does movies with serious themes they usually present some sentimental form of nihilism. This was quite different. It was very good.

I was interested in this movie for two reasons. First, I was told it had a Christian theme and was aimed at a Christian audience. Second, it stars Denzel Washington who, in my opinion is darn near perfect in everything movie he acts in.

Denzel Washington was excellent. But the movie was crap. It was aimed at evangelicals. My guess is that it was concieved as a project that would target the same audience that flocked to The Passion of the Christ. But it was written by someone who apparently has no clue how evangelicals think or what would make us get up to go see a movie (and recommend it to friends). The theme is that the world has been ravaged by war and the world is a post apocalyptic wasteland. After the war there was an effort to destroy all Bibles (because the Bible was blamed for the war). Eli (Washington) has the last extant copy. He has received a call from God to take the book “west” to some yet to be determined location. In the course of crossing the country he has to fight bandits, thugs, and cannibals.

But there are plenty of very silly things about this movie. For some unexplained reason Eli is a martial arts master who can disarm a whole band of attackers single handedly. Midway through, Eli befriends a young woman who looks and acts like a character from a Disney made for TV movie. The bad guys were clearly from general casting. They fit all the stereotypes (big bald guy, laughing motorcycle man, charming but evil lead character).

But the most annoying thing for me about this movie was the religion. It presented the Bible (and by extension Christianity) as a nice thing that inspires people to act nicely. This may seem like a positive portrayal (and I am sure the filmmakers thought it was) but it misses the radical and world changing nature of scripture. And the film completely lacked the presence of God.

The Heidelberg Catachism states, “When a person believes…the power of God . . . upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things, come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand” – when a person believes and cherishes that truth, they have the key to a God-entranced world view.” There was nothing like that in this movie. The disaster the wiped out civilization and almost wiped out all the Bibles? That was God’s “fatherly hand”. But this film didn’t get this point. This film seemed to think that somehow a martial arts expert who can survive bullets needs to take the Bible past a bunch of people who really need the Bible (without giving it to them) to get out west.

The other thing that bugged me is the motivation of the warlord who sought to take the Bible from Eli. This warlord (played by Gary Oldman) wants the Bible because he believes it will give him power and control. Sure. The Bible is all about allowing warlords oppress and murder people. Unless you read it. Then you find out that on almost every single page kings are being rebuked and the oppressed are being lifted up. Then you read that the God of the Bible is the God who defends the weak. No warlord would profit from having a bunch of Bibles being read by the masses. But this movie takes the bait and Eli refuses to give the warlord the Book. Why not make a copy for him? Heck, why not make copies for everyone? But instead, Eli heroically keeps the Bible for himself. Because if there is one thing Christians should do it is keep the Bible private and away from anyone who really wants to read it.

Spoiler alert:

Eli had a God given purpose. To take the Bible to the “west”. What was in the west when he gets there? An intellectual bastion of people dressed in fine linens who talk with intellectual (and almost English) accents. What do they do with the Bible when they get it? They place it on a library shelf. Next to an assortment of classic books. Perfect. Now their library is complete. Thank goodness the hoi polloi didn’t get a hold of the Bible or the intellectuals wouldn’t have a Bible to put next to the Koran, Homer, a Tale of Two Frick’n Cities.

This movie was lame on almost every front. Which is too bad. I like the fact that they are starting to recognize that there is about 40% of the population who might like to see a movie that respects their faith. Unfortunately, for all its effort, this movie doesn’t respect the faith.

1.5/4 Stars

Content Corner Provided By Plugged In

I find Ricky Gervais funny. He was funny on the English TV Show ‘The Office’ and he was funny in The Night at the Museum.  He was also very funny in Ghost Town. He was ok in this movie. He was the only thing that kept me from breaking the DVD player.

The plot is this: everyone can lie but Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais).

He is a loser before learning to lie. He gets fired from his job. He has no money for rent and the woman that he has a huge crush on, Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Gardner) thinks he is too unattractive (yes, she told him that because there is no lying in this world). Then Mark learns he can lie and life changes. He can cheat at the Casinos (and get rich). He can create fiction (and becomes the most famous writer in the world). He gets everything he wants by lying: money, fame, power. Except Anna.

The movie starts off as a movie about the human condition. Gervais is a good actor and he carried this part of the movie well. But the movie moves into a movie about getting the girl. And follows a quite predictable path for the second half of the movie. In the end, I would conclude that the story was poorly conceived and poorly told.

There is a significant subplot to this movie. One of the many lies that Mark tells is that there is a “man in the sky” who has all sorts of rules. Most of the rules can be found in the ten commandments. He also tells everyone that they can either go to the good place when they die (heaven) or the bad place (hell) depending on how well they follow the rules. In short, he creates something that looks like Christianity. But it is a big lie of course. There are a few scenes of mild mocking of Christianity as well. When he tells everyone about the rules he does so on two pizza boxes that look a lot like Moses’ tablets. Later after lying in bed for weeks, he grows his beard and long hair and wears a sheet (making him look like a traditional picture of Jesus). None of the mocking was overt. It was muted enough to keep me from turning it off.

I have no idea what possesses movie executives to alienate large percentages of their audience with stuff like this. None of it was central to the plot. It was not particularly funny (yes, I can recognize funny blasphemy). Why have it?  I can only surmise that Ricky Gervais (a committed atheist who wrote the movie) was trying to make an obvious point.

Overall, the movie was a disappointment: talented cast in a movie poorly told. The movie was a bit of a bomb at the box office ($18M domestically); not surprising when you alienate most of the audience while making mediocre movie.

1.5/4 stars

(Note: I was asked by one of my Christian readers to provide warnings on offensive content during my movie reviews. I usually focus on the big picture point of the movie . Please check out the plugged in review for content details.)

According to this movie, Communist China is sort of like Disney Land in a foreign language

I saw the new Karate Kid with my son. Here is a very brief review.

Positive elements: The whole Karate Kid underdog thing is always fun. This wasn’t told that well but  it was there. The fact that it took place in China was interesting and added something to the film.

Negative elements (there are a lot):

Acting was very bad. Sometimes it is hard to tell if obvious acting problems are the fault of the actor or the director. I think that sometimes a director can use different takes, edit more tightly, or reduce the amount of dialog to improve the way that the script flows and communicates. Whatever the issue was here, the timing seemed off, the emotions seemed fake, and the humor missed consistently.

The mother was a bad parody. What kind of a single (widowed) woman packs up her life and moves with her son to a foreign country? That is an interesting person. It implies a deep person who doesn’t act like the rest of us. Did the Karate Kid explore this person? No. The Karate Kid made the mother a sitcom character – a parody – and used her for comic relief throughout the film. Unfortunate and poorly done.

The girlfriend was an awkward and unnecessary part of the film. Immediately upon getting  to China, the kid meets a pretty girl (who looks a couple years older than him) who thinks he is cute. The whole relationship seemed to be contrived, melodramatic, and silly.

Jackie Chan was a poorly developed character. He is sulky and quiet. As the movie develops you find out that his wife and child died in a car accident. But it all seems fake and uneven.

The training time seemed too brief and magical in its results. In the original, the Kid gets good through many unorthodox but grueling exercises. In this one? There is one unorthodox training practice that makes the Kid go from being a weak and uncoordinated kid to being an overnight Kung fu master.

The movie seemed pretty positive toward Communism. The title character (Dre Parker played by Jaden Smith) wore a red star shirt. Pictures of  Chairman Mao are all over the place. Police were everywhere (without a hint of a loss of freedom). Jackie Chan even got preachy at one point noting how in China they conserve energy by heating the water for a shower with a switch prior to bathing and tells Dre Parker that the US should to “save the planet”.

Over all, the only good parts of the movie were borrowed from the previous movies of namesake and those bits were few and far between.

1.5/4 stars.

I am a big Alec Baldwin fan. I hated young Brad Pitt esque Baldwin from the 1980s but ever since he got fat and old he became really funny.

He was very funny in this movie where he costarred with Meryl Streep. The movie is about a mid-50s divorced couple who begins an affair together.For me this was the tale of two movies. The first two thirds of this movie were great. Baldwin was perfect as he attempted to win back the affections of his ex-wife (after having dumped her a decade earlier for a younger woman). Streep played the reluctant single woman who took quiet pleasure in being the ‘other woman’ to Baldwin’s new wife (the woman who had stolen him from her).

One reason I liked this movie’s first 2/3 is that it was so unlike the Hollywood’s typical narratives regarding marriage. Streep, despite being successful, is lonely and sad. Baldwin has not found fulfillment in his new life with a beautiful young wife. He looks back on the family he left and is sorry for it. So often in Hollywood divorce is final and good but in this movie there seemed to be a recognition that it is not so simple. Proverbs 5:18 says ” may you rejoice in the wife of your youth” and Baldwin remembered the woman of his youth and looked back realizing his mistakes.

The humor mixed with unexpectedly candid exploration of divorce was refreshing and interesting.

Then the last half hour came. It was as though some Hollywood exec came in, saw the project, and said, “we need to shut this thing down and get it back in line with our narrative.” The last third of the movie constituted a complete retreat from the first 2/3.

Spoiler alert…

So then, Meryl Streep starts to fall in love with another man, Steve Martin. There are some funny parts here as Baldwin attempts to disrupt the budding relationship. I was praying he would be successful. But alas. Steve Martin’s character won her heart. The last 20 minutes of the movie consist of a preachy message of how divorce is good and how a man and woman need to feel a particularly ‘spark’ to make a relationship work. The audience is left wondering, “how much of a spark do we need?” What the heck was the last hour of two people enjoying each other’s company, laughing, loving and spending time together?

What started off as unexpected and unique ended up a cliche’ piece of Hollywood moralizing.  What a disappointment.  My advice? Shut it off at the 2/3 point.

First two thirds: 3.5/4 stars….

Last third: 1/4 stars….