Monday, November 07, 2005

Top Five Prison Movies

#5 The Last Castle

This Film gets on the list for it’s take on an alternate prison. The prison in The Last Castle is a military penal institution. The protagonist, Lt. Gen. Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford), is a legendary war general, most famous for his time spent in a P.O.W camp and his book on modern war tactics, who is stripped of his life earned rank for his stint in prison. The antagonist, Col. Winter (James Gandolfini), is a R.E.M.F (I probably shouldn’t expound on this acronym) officer school graduate who has an affinity for war theory and history and runs the prison. Of a collection of war artifacts in his office Lt. Gen. Irwin has this to say. “Any man with a collection like this is a man who's never set foot on a battlefield. To him a miniball from Shiloh is just an artifact. But to a combat vet, it's a hunk of metal that caused some poor bastard a world of pain.” Thus beginning the poor relationship these two would share.

We come to find out that Col. Winter is a shoddy warden at best; at worst diabolical. He orders a man to be killed at one point. The story develops to be about the conflict between two leaders, one with unlimited resources, and one who relies solely on the will of his men. The men in the prison are stripped of rank, but Irwin gives them back that respect and rallies them against the unfairness of the warden.

#4 The Hurricane

The Hurricane is the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington), a pugilist wrongfully imprisoned for murder, and the folks that help him to be freed. Rubin Carters story is one of those like so many others in the throws of the racially charged revolutions of the sixties. He wrote a book while he spent half his life in prison, and Bob Dylan even wrote a song about him. It’s a moving story, but its utter reliance on the emotional performance of Denzel keeps it low on the list.

#3 The Green Mile

This film almost made my theology movie list. It’s the story of a death row block called the green mile. An extremely large, mildly retarded and wrongfully accused black man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) comes to live on the mile. We find out that he has an ability to take away the damage of injury and sickness. The film almost made my theology list because I see a bit of a parallel between John Coffey and Jesus Christ. It’s happenstance though that they have the same initials. Stephen King says he picked the name based on a professor he met once.

King released this story in six or seven volumes; I waited for the compilation. When I read I was hoping to read a good little story. What I got was a feeling of defeat. No good deed goes unpunished. I felt like Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) when he said, “On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That is was my job? My job?”

#2 Escape From Alcatraz

Escape From Alcatraz is one of Eastwood’s best. It tells the story of a prisoner with a superior intellect, who figures out a way to escape the inescapable prison. The cool thing about this story is that it may have actually happened. It is the retelling of one of the documented escape attempt stories. No bodies were ever found in conjunction with the investigation. Recently the Myth Busters proved that the way the prisoners are said to have escaped is possible. (Paul Benjamin), a gimped former escape attempter who offers advice and knowledge from years spent in prison. At one point Frank Morris (Eastwood) asks English how he can weld in his cell. “For stabbin’ or for diggin’,” answers English.

This film is well directed and well acted, so it earns its place at number 4.

#1 The Shawshank Redemption

What most people don’t know it that this film is based on a short story by Stephen King called “Rita Haworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” You may remember the poster of Rita that Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) hung on his wall to hide an escape whole. I like that this movie exposes the basic penal institution’s main problem. Red (Morgan Freeman) says it best in narration, “These walls are kind of funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That's institutionalized. They send you here for life, that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyways.”

Speaking of Red’s narration, it makes the film. Eloquently written and poignant of the reality of life in Shawshank. The film also offers, in motif, the antidote to institutionalization. Red narrates, “I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.” Hope, in a word. Andy says it’s the only thing they can’t take from you unless you let them.

To close I’ll share my favorite scene from possibly my favorite movie. At his parole hearing Red has this conversation with the guy in charge.

Red: Rehabilitated? Well, Now let me see. You know, I don't have any idea what that means.

Parole official: Well, it means that you're ready to rejoin society.

Red: I know what you think it means, sonny. To me it's just a made up word; a politician's word. So young fellas like yourself can wear a suit, and tie, and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?

Parole official: Well, are you?

Red: There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then, a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Top Five Theological Movies

I like movies too much to have a top five movies list, so over the next few weeks my blog will be a series of top 5 lists on different movie topics. Leave me a suggestion if you would like to hear my top 5 ______ movies.

#5 Dogma

I'll probably catch some flak for this one. Dogma is Kevin Smith’s satire on the church. More specifically the Catholic church, but I think he wants to hit any church that believes a man speaks in absolution, hence the clever title. The film is about a couple of angles that God cast out of heaven long ago, and a cardinal who speaks an absolution that creates a loophole for the angels to get back into heaven. And if they do a decree of God (played by Alanis Morissette) will be overturened and therefore reality will cease to exist. This film is not profoundly theological, but it is a comment on the dogma of the church. Which is a topic I have much interest in, so Dogma rounds out the bottom of my list of 5.

#4 Bruce Almighty

Bruce Almighty stars Jim Carrey as Bruce Nolan, a "human interest" television reporter in Buffalo, New York who is discontented with almost everything in life, despite his popularity and the love of his girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston). At the end of the worst day in his life, Bruce angrily ridicules and rages against God, and God responds. He appears in human form (Morgan Freeman) and, endowing Bruce with all of His divine powers, challenges Bruce to take on the big job and see if he can do it any better. Of course he can’t. He does what all of us would do. In the end I think he and everyone watching learn a valuable theological lesson about judging God in human standards.

#3 The Passion of the Christ

This film makes my list based on the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is sweating blood and pleading with God, and here is Satan, “Do you really believe that one man can bear the full burden of sin?” Jesus, as if the devil isn’t even there, “Shelter Me, O, Lord. I trust in you. In you I take refuge.” The devil continues his barrage, “No one man can carry this burden, I tell you. It is far too heavy. Saving their souls is too costly. No-one. Ever. No. Never.” Jesus continues praying, “Father, Y-you can do all things. If it is possible, let this chalice pass from me - But let your will be done, not mine.” And Satan ends with this, “Who is your father? Who are you?”

One of my favorite Jesus narratives comes just after his forty day fast in the wilderness. Satan comes to tempt him and he has this amazing presence of mind to quote scripture. We don’t have a gospel representation of Satan in the garden, but if Satan was going to tempt Jesus again…. I thought Gibson’s portrayal of Satan in general was impressive. Impressive enough to earn The Passion of the Christ this spot in my top 5.

#2 The Exorcism of Emily Rose

This film is based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who suffered the same fate as the fictional Emily Rose in the 1970s. The whole film plays out like a courtroom drama, with accompanying flashbacks to the real situation. The theology of the movie, for me, comes in the verdict of the trial. The priest who performs the exorcism is on trial for criminal negligence that leads to the death of Emily. The verdict comes in and the judge reads it. Guilty. Then a small voice from the jury box says that they have a sentencing suggestion. The judge hears it over the protest of the prosecutor and the jury says to sentence him to time served. So the judge reads the verdict again and this is the kicker, “Father Moore, you are guilty, and you are free to go.”

We think of salvation primarily as penal substitutionary atonement. I can envision, if at the end of my time I stand trial and God sits as judge, the voice of Jesus from the jury box saying, “Time Served, Debt Paid.” And God may say to me, “Reno Wilson, you are guilty, and you are free to go.”

#1 The Devils Advocate

Now this movie has little to say about God and who He is, but it gives us an outright profound look at Satan’s manipulation. The first time I heard the speech that follows I almost found myself in agreement. This is what John Milton (Al Pacino), who is Satan, says to the protagonist late in the film. Please excuse the profanity; it is not my intent to offend.

“I'm here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began. I've nurtured every sensation man's been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him, in spite of all his imperfections. I'm a fan of man. I'm a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.”

“Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do, I swear for His own amusement, his own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. Ahaha. And while you're jumpin' from one foot to the next, what is he doing? He's laughin' His sick, fuckin' ass off. He's a tight-ass. He's a sadist. He's an absentee landlord. Worship that? Never.”

I almost want to join in the chorus. Yeah. “Look but don’t touch.” What’s that all about? At the very end of the movie Satan tells us what his favorite sin is, “Vanity, definitely my favorite sin.” Those of you who know me know that I think pride is the root of all sin, so this little comment rings true for me. So here atop my list is a film about the manipulation of evil.