Thursday, June 01, 2006

Typhoon

An Awful Price

Typhoon wasn’t the movie I was wishing for. What I wanted to see was a modern day Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but Typhoon just didn’t measure up. Unfortunately, the technical aspects of the movie almost destroyed it from the beginning. The first fifteen minutes or so were so incredibly hard to follow that I couldn’t be sure that I understood the plotline and wished that I had been at home watching the DVD so that I could restart and watch again. The action jumped all over the place and the subtitles were long and complex and didn’t stay on the screen long enough to get to the end of the last sentence. (I’ll have you know that I am an excellent reader and of above average speed without Evelyn Wood, thank you!) Eventually, though, I was able to adjust and, thankfully, the storyline calmed down and began to make sense as the flashbacks to the main character’s past answered the questions of the present. I’m pretty sure what director Kwak Kyung-Taek was trying to do was open his film in high James Bond-esque style, and while there was plenty of shooting, exploding, and dying, there needed to be more information as to why this was happening at this time.

However, even a weakly constructed movie contains elements that prevent it from being a completely forgettable total dud. Director Kyung-Taek uses the camera in a way that completely envelopes the viewer in the confusing, desperate, despairing hatred that defines the life of the chief antagonist and pirate, Sin; likewise, we are enveloped by the contrasting noble and righteous life of the protagonist, Gang—a Korean naval officer sent to stop Sin before Korea and much of Asia is destroyed. What develops is an achingly haunting story of a man so consumed by hatred and the need for revenge that his life is literally wasted, and in the end it is given away to a man who understands his passion but cannot allow him to live it any longer.

Sin is a deeply pious man. His devotion, however, is not to God or any noble cause, but to a profound and conspicuous desire to punish his country (Korea) for the brutal murder of his parents; the separation from his sister, the only living relative for most of his life; and the personal betrayal he has experienced—becoming a man without a country (for all intents and purposes). Sin’s mantra could be exactly what I saw voiced on a bumper sticker as I left the parking garage after the screening: Stop whining… plot revenge. From the moment that Sin’s sister points out to him that continuing to cry over the death of his mother negated the sacrifice that she had made to save them (she had used her body to absorb the bullets meant for them all), Sin purposes to survive and avenge himself and his family. This goal, of course, is not what his sister had in mind—and I am sure that if they had not been separated, Sin’s sister would have helped him to make better choices, tempering his hatred into a redeemed life. In fact, Gang recognizes the depth of the man, Sin, and in a letter to his own mother before he leaves on his mission to find and kill him, acknowledges that under different circumstances he would have welcomed Sin as a friend. There is great strength in Sin, but it is all wasted in self-pity and hatred.

As the movie progresses, however, it becomes clear that there is only one way out for Sin. He has lived his life so wrapped in the cocoon of hatred that he not only cannot, but will not, break out into the freedom of forgiveness and fly off into a new life. Even the restoration of his sister after 20 years of separation is bittersweet because he learns that she is dying, which only refuels his anger and absolute faith that, “this world is Hell.” He continues on his course to punish both North and South Korea by releasing balloons—carrying boxes filled with radioactive reactor dust from the Chernobyl disaster site—into a typhoon coming inland that will disseminate the radioactive dust over a wide area. All of the little cases have individual detonators that Sin will arm with his master detonator. But Sin dies; the detonator drops into the hold of his ship, the ship is blown to shrapnel, all but three of the containers never open, and Korea and Asia are spared. In the end we find out that Sin never armed the detonators, but it isn’t clear whether that was because of a reformed character or because he just gave up. Perhaps the hatred just got too heavy to bear.

On the drive home, I again found myself ruminating on the seemingly fickle winds of fate that many of the people I know believe determines the direction of their lives. I wondered again how people who lack a sense of purpose and hope can survive from day to day and deal with the pain, hurt, and disappointment that comes at each of us from every direction. I also thought about how easy it is for people to brood over wrongs done to them (some just imagined), blowing them up into hatred that last years and even lifetimes. How can people carry a burden like that? The answer is that just as Sin couldn’t, we cannot. This world is not what God intended it to be, and this life is only a preparation for a new and better world that He has prepared for those who seek and find Him. Metaphorically, Sin became sin by refusing to give up his own self-will and recognize that vengeance was not his meal to deliver. Despite his piety, he had no power to exact the price hatred demands; it would never be enough. And so… my conclusion? Sin was neither reformed nor did he just give up. He merely, in despair, paid with his life.

Too bad no one told him Someone Else had already done that for him…

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Adventures of Ociee Nash (DVD)

While I usually enjoy the productions of Fox Home Entertainment, The Adventures of Ociee Nash is far beneath the quality that I have come to expect. The press notes tout this film as being in “the tradition of classic family fare like Old Yeller and Pollyanna” (Cleveland Plain Dealer), yet I wondered if the reviewer watched the same movie I did. For one, the dog in Old Yeller didn’t have a big ole cable rope tied around his neck so that he could be forced to stay in the action by being dragged around by the children all the time. And, if it we did see the same movie, the reviewer would have seen that Ociee Nash is a very thinly disguised remake of Pollyanna. Honestly, Disney just did it better.

Skyler Day makes her acting debut as Ociee, but, alas, she is no Haley Mills (Pollyanna). She could use a few more acting lessons, but she’s not alone—the rest of the cast seems to have difficulty delivering their lines or portraying convincing characters—even Keith Carradine (Ociee’s father) and Mare Winningham (Ociee’s aunt) struggle. Sometimes it even feels like someone is saying, “I’ve got a video camera, let’s make a movie and make up the dialogue as we go along.” Even the family golden retriever cannot act and has to be hauled around by a heavy cable collar to make sure that he stays in the frame! Everybody is always grabbing for that dog… which is totally distracting!

The film intends to show a young girl coming of age; unfortunately there is some inconsistency conveying the theme, particularly when, just before the end of the movie, someone declares that “even a young girl can make a difference.” (Is she truly coming of age, or just an extraordinary child?) Despite the confusion over her maturity, themes of bravery and selflessness do make an appearance: in the climactic scene, Ociee rescues her friend Elizabeth from her burning home. Subsequently, the town celebrates “Ociee Day,” since Ociee became a heroine by being brave and finding the courage to act—precisely the concept that she has been trying to teach others throughout the film. Sadly, the lack of clarity in the theme was only accentuated by a disjointed storyline.

Perhaps the strongest aspects of the movie are the cinematography and the costuming. (The costume designer nailed 1898 with both the rural and city dress.) The film is beautifully shot in the South and the color is rich and gorgeous; however, this is not necessarily enough to keep a viewer hooked. Other production glitches may overshadow the visual pleasantries. For example, due to some choppy editing, there is a sense of watching a series of vignettes rather than a complete movie, which feels very rushed and perhaps low-budget. Also, the actors seem to be unsure and nervous like they are off their mark and don’t know their lines well—potentially a mark of weak direction. (In fact, several times one or more of the actors does shift right or left while delivering lines.) And to make it even harder for the actors, the dialogue tends to be schmaltzy, laughable, and unrealistic in several places.

To its credit, The Adventures of Ociee Nash is family friendly. The strongest word in the film is “durn” and Ociee is severely chastised for using that. The DVD would certainly make a good “babysitting” film for a rainy day when mom and dad want to get some work done for 98 minutes, but it’s not a film built for grown-ups. Maybe a good conversation-starter with kids, but for my money, I’d rent Pollyanna.

Billy Graham Presents Collection (DVD)

Before getting too far, let me note that the five films in this collection are intended to be evangelistic tools, and I will review them as such. If this is not your cup of tea, stop here!
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First, let’s make one thing clear: I AM A CHRISTIAN—a follower of Jesus Christ! I am not ashamed of that, and (God-enabling) will never deny Him in the face of derision or persecution. However, I will deny affiliation with Christian filmmakers and screenwriters who insist on portraying Christians as simpering, sniveling, pie-in-the-sky idealists whose witness for Christ is reduced to soft, dulcet tones as all nature hushes to hear their words and the heart-rending music swells in the background. If they truly think that this is the way to engage the culture around us, these folks have not visited the real world in far too many years.

Unfortunately, the five DVDs in the Billy Graham Presents Collection (The Climb, The Hiding Place, Something To Sing About, Road To Redemption, and Last Flight Out) all share these characteristics. I can already hear the gasps: “She dares to criticize the great Billy Graham!” No, I don’t dare. First, I am critiquing films, not a man. And second, I feel compelled to ask why a man who has been called by God to preach to over 210 million people in 50 years and be the spiritual guide to world leaders would lend his name to such genuinely poor evangelistic tools as these films. It’s heartbreaking.

Honestly, the spiritual content in each film is theologically solid and consistent. The technical aspects of movie-making (color quality, location, lighting, cinematography, etc.) are well applied, and it is clear that enough money was spent on each film to keep them from looking like low-budget quickies. Also to their credit, there is at least one recognizable actor or actress in each film, so that the audience won’t instantly write the movies off as art flicks full of unknowns. The structure of the films is not the problem. The problems are in both the screenwriting and the direction of the actors—problems so dominant in all five films that I am reviewing them as one.

The rather pathetic dialogue that is spoken and coached out of the actors tends to overshadow all the beautiful settings and artful action directing found in these movies, which generates a feeling of dislocation for the viewer. The background is running and the actors are in the setting, but often it’s like watching a dialogue pasted over a travelogue. Additionally, the editing is rather choppy—sudden close-ups of the actors are overused to emphasize the importance of the words they are going to speak. (Actually, I guess this is a directorial problem, too.) Ultimately, this gives a feeling of contrived get-in-your-face preaching, rather than living by an example that invites interest in what it means to be a Jesus-follower. These excessively dramatic methods also invite overacting, as well as noticeable hesitation and lack of conviction in the delivery of the lines.

But the really painful message of these movies is that the Christian life is passionless. Yes, knowing Christ and living a life that holds Him forth as the supreme example of how to live do bring a joy and a peace that really go beyond all human understanding. However, this does not mean that the follower of Christ becomes an emotionless drone with a universal flat-line personality and the same modulated holy tones of speech and pious eyelifts to heaven. The Christian characters in these movies just don't seem real. They are just what unbelievers run from and do not want to associate with—religious clones. I found it disturbing that I, personally, was unattracted to many of the main Christian characters because I just could not identify with them. What I wanted to do was to take them by their shirt collars and ask, “Where’s the struggle to be like Christ in a godless world? Where is the truth that we all have been given individual personalities and God finds satisfaction in our differences? Where is the passion of the greatest man who ever lived: who knew pain, cried tears, shouted in anger, laughed with His friends, drank at weddings, and called the religious leaders of His time ‘dirty snakes’?”

The Climb has been used as an outreach tool in many churches (even my own); the other films were unknown to me, save The Hiding Place. I would be embarrassed to invite my non-believing friends to view The Climb or any of the other three because I felt embarrassed for Billy Graham and those involved the filmmaking. I am confident that they had the best of intentions and the greatest desire to draw people to really know God, but I also know that they are capable of finding better writers, directors, and actors who could produce a product that enthralls, plants ideas that may lead to life-changing decisions, and gives an honest picture of Christ and what it means to live by faith. Truthfully, time would be better spent viewing a film like End of the Spear and discussing the examples of Steve Saint and his family—real people living real lives—rather than trying to navigate through the insipid Christianity portrayed in this collection.

(Note: In defense of The Hiding Place, it is a restoration of the original Hollywood film released in 1975 when even I believed that living the Christian life was a call to boring acceptance and quiet resignation, so consider it a great biographical story of Corrie Ten Boom and her family and leave it at that. I believe that The Hiding Place would have value in viewing just as an example of great Christians who lived and died for their faith, but not as an evangelistic tool.)

Monday, May 15, 2006

When Crickets Cry (Novel)

Author: Charles Martin
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Westbow
Format: Paperback
Pub Date: April 2006
Price: $14.99
ISBN: 1595540547

Head vs. Heart: The Crisis of Purpose

Charles Martin’s third book, When Crickets Cry: A Novel of the Heart, serves as a treatise on what happens when intellect and faith fight for domination and ultimately come to peace as a complete whole—an undeniable synergistic interdependence between commonly “opposing” spheres of influence.

At its core this book explores the difference between knowledge of the head and knowledge of the heart. Head knowledge is an intellectual endeavor. Information is found, studied, absorbed, and filed away in the proper filing cabinet of the brain to be retrieved when required. A person with a lot of head knowledge (particularly in one specific area) is called an expert and often becomes an icon of society who is sought for his or her expertise—a walking encyclopedia so to speak or, as present day terminology defines, a talking head. Head knowledge is easy to assess; the information is there or it is not. Some people are gifted in combining head knowledge with a particular skill or talent that raises them above the seemingly average person.

Heart knowledge, on the other hand, is a very tricky proposition. Heart knowledge is a spiritual awakening; the information isn’t just filed away for periodic use, but becomes life, permeating every aspect of existence and causing the focus of life to change. Heart knowledge is extremely difficult to assess because motives can be judged but not proven; actions and words are the only way to observe who a person is and what makes that person tick. Because of the struggle between head and heart, intellect and spirit, tangible and intangible, heart knowledge is often considered less valuable, and the person possessing such treasure often written of as either fanatical, misled, or completely unhinged. As individuals, we tend to give more credence to head knowledge than heart knowledge because we equate the latter with touchy-feely emotional nonsense used as a crutch to get through life. People want to be able to prove everything, but that just isn’t how life always works. There are things that have to be taken on faith.

As a young boy, Reese falls in love with the little girl next door, Emma, whose life is ruled by a physical heart, which has a hole. Knowing that this will eventually kill her, he vows to become her savior by learning everything he possibly can about hearts…the science. He dedicates his life to becoming the best heart surgeon known to mankind so that he can “fix” Emma when his education is complete. He believes with absolute passion that this is the purpose to which God has called him. After seven years of marriage, the completion of medical school, and the knowledge that he is the best thoracic surgeon in the present world, Emma’s defective heart decides that it is time to stop. Away from medical facilities, Reese’s attempts to save her prove futile and he plunges into a deep crisis of faith, walking away from a world who needs him, isolating himself and changing his purpose to becoming a boat builder. He couldn’t save Emma, so he won’t save anybody.

Emma had tried to balance Reese by helping him to understand that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. She tried to help him see that perhaps his purpose in life was not to save just her (or even her at all), but many. Emma more than proved to Reese that though her physical heart might be defective, her spiritual heart was more whole than his. In his singleness of purpose, Reese failed to see God’s forest of hearts for the tree that was Emma; consequently, his head knowledge never combined with his heart to make a whole person. Like most of us, Reese did not understand that he was a piece in a very large puzzle—a piece that must take its proper place or cause the picture to have a hole. He failed to understand that everyone has a purpose and that Emma’s was to encourage him and love him toward his. Eventually, it took a little girl, with exactly the same problem as Emma’s, to teach Reese the truth of meaning and purpose through the combined knowledge of head and heart. In the end, Reese does become whole with intellect and faith melded together.

This book would make an excellent summer “day at the beach” or “week at the cabin” read. Charles martin has a flair for description and an obvious love for the South, and his voice is very gentle and sincere. It conveys the mind of a deep thinking person who has probably struggled with the same issues that his characters have—which may not be so surprising since these issues are fairly universal to mankind.

The central character in the novel is a man, but men are not likely to be drawn to this book because the arrow of its compass swings just a little too far toward fodder for the Lifetime Channel and Christian romance novels. At times Martin allows himself to become a little too trite and over-stated, even overly dramatic, to the point that you can hear the music swelling to rend your heart (no pun intended). He also cannot resist the temptation to preach on subjects that he holds particularly dear. For instance, in a conversation with a young homeless man that Reese befriends, there is quite a lesson on pornography. But despite all that, it is really too bad that the market targeted seems to be Christian women who will probably feel as I did while reading the book. I found myself wanting to “fix” this incomplete man rather than look more deeply at myself, and I’m pretty sure that that was not Charles Martin’s intent.

Time provides a disorientation difficulty in several of the chapters. Martin does not seem to have mastered (at least in this book) the art of moving seamlessly around back and forth from flashback to present. Several chapters will take place in the past and then “Wham!” with a turn of the page the reader is back in the present but doesn’t realize it until a couple of paragraphs have been read. This is a bit jarring and slightly ruins the continuity of the story in several places.

Cici, Martin’s adult female main character, vacillates between portrayals as a strong, independent woman to a weak, needy woman who constantly requires rescue. It’s almost as if Charles Martin cannot decide which values he finds more attractive in a woman or perhaps he likes elements of both. But then, this novel is steeped in Southern culture (set in Georgia) where women are still believed to be of a more delicate and sensitive nature than men, and Charles Martin is a Southern gentleman.