The Bachelor: Before the Final Rose...

As you're all well aware, I'm a reality TV junkie. I watch Top Chef, Project Runway, Little People Big World, Dirty Jobs, Mythbusters, Dinner: Impossible, Ace of Cakes, What Not to Wear, and even (gulp) The Hills. But, of course, the class of the reality shows, at least as far as Gospel theology goes, is The Bachelor. Clearly, it's not the best hour of TV entertainment on this list (in fact, other than The Hills, I prefer ALL these other shows), but it so clearly illuminates the Law vs. Gospel distinction that we talk about in these pages.

Picture it: A man and a woman go on a date. Will it work? Is there chemistry? On the old-school show Blind Date, the climax was always when the participants turned to the camera and said whether or not they would go out on another date. As you might imagine, the men almost always said they would, and the women almost universally said that they wouldn't. On The Bachelor, the question is, "Will he give her a rose or won't he?" This is how a bachelor lets us know that he wants to go on another date with this woman. The wrinkle is that if he DOESN'T give her a rose, she has to go home immediately. She has to be packed and ready to go before the date.

The hilarious (and profound) addition on the Bachelor is that they turn the ethereal pressure of a date into a physical object: a rose. And then, they have the rose sitting there for the whole date! Both people comment about how the rose ruins the evening. They can't stop looking at it, wondering what the outcome will be.

We've said before, and in fact, we say often, that judgment kills love. It's one of the maxims that we live by. The presence of the rose is the embodiment of judgment. The sword of Damocles (will he or won't he) hangs over the date from the very beginning. The knowledge of impending judgment kills any possibility of love. Rather than discovering whether or not she is in love with the bachelor, the woman toils under the weight of being the kind of person who gets a rose. And, so, love dies.

The conclusion? Love can thrive only without judgment; without roses. What if The Bachelor gave the rose to the girl at the beginning of the date? Before she proves her worth? What might happen then? They could get to know one another without the pressure, without the judgment, and see if they might fall in love.

Hope, Deliverance, and a Shotgun

I saw these two posters not a foot apart in a subway station the other day. They are as stark a representation as any of the two words we hear in life: Law and Gospel (or: Requirement and Love).

The Law is the tagline of Extraordinary Measures: "Don't hope for a miracle. Make one." In other words, you are on your own. Your salvation, however you define that word, is up to you. Don't hope, for there is nothing to hope in. Make your salvation, and if you fail...when you will have no one to turn to.

The Law is devoid of hope.

The Gospel is an answer to a plea like this one: "Deliver us." The Gospel is God's answer: "I have." When we forget that miracles happen, when we believe that we must make our own, failure delivers a crushing blow.

The Gospel abounds in hope.

We can say, "Deliver us," and hope...and know...that God has done it.

I need hope. I have been crushed under the weight of the expectation that I create my own miracles. I have tried. I have failed. I have called out to someone, "Deliver me." He has done it.

Finding Nemo's Resurrection

I'm planning a Sunday evening series for the next few months called "Jesus at the Movies"... so I've been spending a lot of time standing in front of my movie wall. I've ripped a bunch of clips from my collection, ready to start some good theological conversation. But I missed one. A parishioner asked me about the movies, listened to a few that I'd chosen, and then started talking about Finding Nemo. And he's right...FINDING NEMO!

Remember the scene where Marlin (Nemo's dad, played by Albert Brooks) and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) are trapped in the belly of the whale? Aside from the obvious Jonah parallels, there is a lot of good stuff goin' on in that whale's belly. First of all, Marlin tries to get out of the whale's mouth by pushing through the baleen plates (the screen-like stuff they have instead of teeth). See, he's trying by his own effort. He can't do it. He fails. His own effort fails him.

The water begins to drain from the whale's mouth, and neither Marlin nor Dory know what is going on. Dory, who "speaks whale," tells Marlin that the whale is asking them to "go to the back of the throat." Marlin, a notorious worry-wart, says, "Of COURSE he wants us to go to the back of the throat...he wants to EAT us!" Suddenly, Marlin and Dory find themselves hanging on to taste buds on the whale's tongue, with no water in the whale's mouth at all.

The whale makes a noise, Dory (who, remember, speaks whale) says, "Okay," and lets go. Marlon refuses to, thinking he'll be eaten...but Dory tells him that it's time...time to let go. Of course, this is a story point: Marlin has to realize that he's been holding on too tightly to his son. He has to realize that he can't protect Nemo from life. But the Christian parallels are actually pretty stunning.

Marlin, by his own effort, fails to escape from the whale's mouth. In the end, if he holds on to the taste bud, he'll die. There's no water in the whale's mouth. But Marlin THINKS that he has to hold on to live. The very thing he thinks is keeping him alive is killing him. He must let go, succumbing to "certain death" in order to be blown out of the whale's blow-whole, his life saved. We try to save ourselves by our own efforts. We try to "be all we can be." We can't. We keep trying, we hold on. This holding on, the thing that we think is saving us, is actually killing us. It is keeping us from our Savior. Letting go, giving up, and succumbing to certain death is the only way we can live.

If Finding Nemo supports the necessity of death and resurrection, who are we to argue?

Sneaky-Good Flops

The Top 10 Sneaky-Good Flops of the '00s

These are movies that "flopped" at the box office (i.e. made less money than was spent to make them). Some were spectacular flops, and some only barely missed making it out of the red. However, I really liked them all. Usually, financial flops that people like are labelled "underrated" or "cult classics." You'll find some of those here. You'll also find some "overrated" films or films critics thought were just "bad," and not deserving of the little money they did make. I'll be interested to know your reactions and thoughts. Without further ado, they are here listed, the top 10 sneaky-good flops of the '00s.

Christophe Gans directed this piece of eye candy (released as The Brotherhood of the Wolf in the U.S.) and did not skimp. Every dollar of the $29 million budget is on the screen. The film is beautiful, the colors pop, and the action is pretty freakin' great. In a wise move, Mark Dacascos (Iron Chef America's "Chairman") was given no lines. Le Pacte des Loups grossed a meager $11 million, less than half of what was spent to make it.

#9 The Island (2005)

One of the more profound flops of all time, The Island suffered from severe Michael Bay backlash. Bay probably could have directed Citizen Kane as a follow-up to Pearl Harbor (which, incidentally, netted $60 million), and it would have flopped at the box office. The Island cost a whopping $126 million to make and grossed an embarrassing $35 million. Bay blamed his insistence on Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson (who was only just becoming the bombshell she is now...) and the curious lack of marketing for the flop. He might as well have blamed Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. The Island's first forty minutes is a pretty smart and sleek biotech thriller, followed by the standard Michael Bay chase extravaganza. Good popcorn fun.

Grossing only $12 million from a budget of $22 million, I Heart Huckabees is an odd duck. Directed by David O. Russell on the heels of his Three Kings success, Huckabees boasts an all-star cast: Mark Wahlberg, Jason Schwartzman, Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Lily Tomlin, and Naomi Watts. The problem with Huckabees is one of classification: Just what the heck IS this movie? "A local poet and activist hires existential detectives to investigate the meaning of three coincidences that could hold the key to life." Uh, what? And that's from the DVD box! By far the most original comedy of that year, and maybe the decade, and a great movie that no one got...except us!

Shane Black is the writer behind such popcorn schlock as the Lethal Weapon series, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight (the script for which Black was famously paid $4 million). This could be another case of over-saturation, but I don't know that people knew or know who Shane Black was or is. Who pays attention to screenwriters except us Mockingbird at the Movies nerds? In his directorial debut, Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a great little mystery thriller starring the always wonderful Robert Downey, Jr. and a hilarious Val Kilmer. It's smart, well-written, and an unexplainable flop. It cost the very resonable $15 million to make but still only grossed the does-that-even-count? sum of $4 million (which, if you'll recall, was the sum Black was paid for the relatively awful Long Kiss screenplay). This is one of my favorite movies to show friends. They invariably say, "I've never even heard of that!"

An adaptation of Chuck Barris' "unauthorized autobiography" (get it?), George Clooney's directorial debut is really very good. Sam Rockwell is just awesome as Barris, the creator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, and who just might have been a CIA assassin. Clooney proves that he knows what to do behind the camera as well as in front of it, starring alongside Rockwell and Drew Barrymore. Another probable victim of overwhelming quirkiness, Confessions foundered because no one could figure out how to market a film about a man no one had ever heard of and who had possibly killed dozens of people. This is a must-watch, if only for Rockwell's stunning performance and for the killer of an opening line: “When you’re young, your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really. You might be Einstein, you might be DiMaggio. Then you get to an age where what you might be gives way to what you have been. You weren’t Einstein, you weren’t anything. That’s a bad moment.” Clooney got the studio to give him $29 million to make Confessions, but the silly public only shelled out $16 million to see it.

This one, ultimately, was not that much of a flop. It grossed $133 million from a budget of $150 million. It was released soon after Tom Cruise's jumping-on-Oprah's-sofa episode, when people were in full-on "Tom Cruise is REALLY freaking weird" mode, and with an opening weekend gross of only $47 million, MI:3 was proclaimed a flop immediately. And compared to the other two entries in the franchise, which grossed $180 million from a budget of $80 million and $215 million from a budget of $125 million, respectively, MI:3 was a flop. But MI:3 is a great movie. It is everything you want in a Mission: Impossible film, headlined by an amazing villain, played with great aplomb by
Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's the best of the three, without question, and anyone who tells you differently is watching the first Mission: Impossible with "Before Tom Cruise got weird" wistful glasses. No less an august source than the A.V. Club called MI:3 "a very fine film." Done and done.

Again, not much of a flop, but as we get higher on this list, movies get better, and therefore tend to make more money. Stephen Frears' dark-as-hell thriller about the seedy London underworld is really not to be missed. But, as you can tell from the $8 million gross, many people did indeed miss it. Costing only $10 million to make, Dirty Pretty Things made Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man, American Gangster) a star, at least to the extent that he is a star. His performance completely overshadows Audrey Tautou (of Amelie fame). It's the kind of performance that will keep coming back to you, and the kind of movie you'll never forget. Also watch out for Sergi Lopez in one of the creepiest roles of all time. Do not miss this film, but think twice before deciding to watch it by yourself.

Paul Thomas Anderson is in a class by himself as a filmmaker. The only reason he wasn't my Desert Island Director a few weeks ago is that he's only made five feature films. It's just not enough for me to survive for the rest of my life. But the reason he's only made five is that each one is a total labor of love and an absolute masterpiece. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. Wow. Made for $25 million, the reason Punch-Drunk Love flopped is simple: "Adam Sandler in a serious movie? NO WAY!" But he did it. Unequivocally. His performance is thoughtful, esoteric, and in turn subtle and grandiose. In layman's terms: really, really, good. Love only grossed $18 million, likely due to Little Nicky blowback. Sandler typecast himself with Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, and then abused our goodwill with Nicky. The clue? Punch-Drunk Love came out just a year after Little Nicky. America was not ready to forgive. Now that the decade is over, let's proclaim it an Adam Sandler Jubilee Year: Watch Punch-Drunk Love, and enjoy.

#2 25th Hour (2002)

The aforementioned A.V. Club named 25th Hour the second best movie of the decade...period. And it is that good. But this, of course, is a personal list, so it only gets as high as #2 here. To call 25th Hour a flop is almost mean: it's just small. It grossed $13 million from a budget of $15 million. Directed by Spike Lee (jointed by Spike Lee?) and starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry Pepper, the movie follows a man taking care of loose ends on the day before he has to begin serving a prison sentence. Norton is the soon-to-be-jailbird and Hoffman and Pepper are his friends, trying vainly to help him "deal" with his situation. Brian Cox and Rosario Dawson play wonderful smaller parts, as well. It's the best thing Lee has ever done, and the relationship he develops (in one day, showing no friend-related flashbacks) between the three men is an astounding achievement, with the help of screenwriter David Benioff (adapting his own novel). A depressed post-9/11 New York movie, 25th Hour is, like Dirty Pretty Things, a movie you will not soon forget. It deals in friendship, betrayal, and love, and the lengths we go to for each.

#1 Wonder Boys (2000)

The best of the flops of the '00s, Wonder Boys is an adaptation of a Michael Chabon (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) novel. Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile) directs and Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Tobey Maguire, and Robert Downey, Jr. star in a story about academics, writing, repression, and failure. The thing to watch for here is the powerful melancholy of the characters and the honesty that each of the actors bring them. Grossing only $19 million from budget of $35 million, Wonder Boys was and remains terribly under-appreciated. Chabon's specialty is writing real people, and this film is stocked with them. These people find happiness, after a fashion, in romantic and unexpected ways. Wonder Boys will warm your heart, but it won't do it earns tears, and ultimately smiles.

Until next time...and remember, don't let the box office tell you what's good!

Thoughts on the Willow Gospel

Last week, the readings in church included the story of the Wise Men and their trip to Bethlehem to pay homage to the new-born baby Jesus. As I was preparing my sermon, it struck me: The story of the Wise Men is the story of Willow! Think of the similarities...Herod hears of a prophecy, in this case, from the prophet Micah, that a new king is going to be born, and that this new king will be King of the Jews. Herod doesn't like this, because he fancies himself to be King of the Jews! He sends the wise men to check out the baby, and to report back to him. When the wise men decide to go home by a different road, stiffing Herod of the information he wants, he decides to kill all the male babies under two years old in the area! Jesus and his family, to survive, flee to Egypt.

In Ron Howard's Willow (1988), Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) hears of a prophecy that a baby will be born to take her throne. Fearing this prophecy, she sends General Kael (Pat Roach) to find the baby. Failing, she orders the extermination of all the babies in the kingdom.
To save Elora Danon (the actual child of prophecy), her nursemaid puts her in the river (shades of Moses, of course) and sends her to the land of the Nelwyns to survive.

Startling similarities, yes? But beyond the sort-of set-up similarities, Willow offers us another window into our pop-culture vision of the Gospel. Willow stars Val Kilmer as Madmartigan and Warwick Davis as Willow as the two unlikely heroes who fulfill the prophecy, defeat the Queen, and save the day. This is the Peter Principle at work. In the same way that Peter was the one least likely for Jesus to choose as the Rock upon which he would build his church, Madmartigan and Willow are the two least likely to defeat the all-powerful Queen Bavmorda. Of course, this is a movie staple, and certainly a fantasy movie staple. Luke Skywalker is the hick from the boonies who saves the galaxy. Heroes are always found toiling on farms with no friends. Can you think of more examples? Where is the Peter Principle (God choosing to work through the weak and unqualified...i.e. Grace) at work in the movies?
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