Jimmy Cliff's Heavy Burden

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I love Stephen Colbert! His retort of "I'll take faith and grace" to Jimmy Cliff's desire to be judged on the scorecard of truth and facts is so perfect I almost can't stand it. This interview brings to mind Jesus' words: "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:29-30).

Jimmy Cliff has decided to "graduate" from religion and wants to be assessed on truth and facts. Well, what are the facts? What is the truth? When the requirements are things like, "Honor your father and mother" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength," the truth seems to be that we're not doing so well. The facts are that we're coming up a little short. Or...um...a lot short.

To be judged on the scorecard of truth and facts is a hard yoke and a heavy burden. Jesus must, then, be talking about something else. And luckily, he is. Truth and facts lead to a heavy burden because it involves a righteousness required. Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light because he's talking about a righteousness given. He's talking about faith and grace. Truth and facts mean we're judged on our own merits, or lack thereof. Faith and grace mean that we're judged on Jesus' merits, and judged righteous.

May we always rely on a righteousness that is given and never fear a righteousness that is required. And may we never EVER "graduate" from a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.

(More) Thoughts on Magnolia

I've posted about Magnolia before, but this is a film that bears further examination. One of the most beautiful modern American films, this movie won no Academy Awards, and was only nominated for three (Tom Cruise for Best Supporting Actor, Aimee Mann for Best Original Song, and P.T. Anderson (who also directed) for Best Original Screenplay). Magnolia was released in 1999, so I'm going to assume that no spoiler alert is necessary. That said, if spoiler warnings are necessary, how have you not seen this movie? It's 188-minute running time is an impediment to some, but weren't you willing to sit through Braveheart (177 minutes)? Magnolia is an infinitely better film. Anyway, Netflix it, stream it, get it On Demand, whatever you have to do.

Magnolia is a composite picture of 24 hours in Los Angeles, inter-cutting between seven stories (Anderson famously protested, "Michael De Luca (executive producer) says I'm making a movie with seven stories! I'm making ONE STORY!"), investigating the humanity of the subjects and the way in which they might relate. It boasts some of the finest actors of generation (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Phillip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina, and the list goes on...) giving some of their greatest performances. The opening sequence is one of the most brilliant ever written or executed. Watch (there is one f-word, so NSFW, and if you're going to be offended, don't watch at all):

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Surely, the narrator asserts, these things can't just be "things that happen." Surely, "oh, it's just one of those things" isn't always a satisfactory response. Magnolia is a powerful argument for a divine being (specifically God of the Bible) who gets involved. The movie's story (or -ies, depending on whom you ask) and their interconnectedness could simply be written off as coincidence or "just one of those things..." until of course, a rain of frogs begins to fall. While the rest of the story is assuredly strange and improbable, a rain of frogs is beyond that. It's impossible. We would all agree that THAT is NOT part of the set "things that happen." That's NOT "just one of those things." That's an intervention from the outside.

And it's not just intervention for intervention's sake. It brings estranged people together, it knocks sense into people, and gives people purpose. It comes to those who are in need. And if these clues aren't enough, the Aimee Mann song for which she was Oscar nominated is called "Save Me." Further, the most powerful song of hers in the movie, "Wise Up," goes from, "It's not / What you thought / When you first began it / You got / What you want / Now you can hardly stand it though / By now you know / It's not going to stop / 'Til you wise up" to "It's not going to stop / 'Til you wise up / No, it's not going to stop / 'Til you wise up / No, it's not going to stop / So just...give up."

Did you get that? It goes from "Wise Up" to "Give Up." This is the call of the Christian. Recognize that without God getting involved (which he does, spectacularly), our wising up is sure to fail. It's only in giving up that we can be saved.

Thoughts About Schmidt

About Schmidt is a about a man named Schmidt (Jack Nicholson). An insurance actuary from Nebraska, Schmidt is a normal guy. That is, he's basically selfish. He's not overwhelmingly selfish, just sort of standard-ly selfish. In fact, if Schmidt has a defining characteristic, it's his almost oppressive normal-ness. After an unseen turn in his life (spoiler averted), Schmidt hits the road to attend his daughter's (Hope Davis) wedding to the underachieving Randall (an amazing Dermot Mulroney) in Denver. He interacts with his life in the standard human way: with himself at the center. The only seeming exception to this (he financially supports an African child) actually isn't: his letters to the child, Ndugu, are full of complaints about Schmidt's situation in life, his wife, and his future son-in-law. Now, to the clip, the final sequence in the film. Schmidt has just attended his daughter's wedding, and starts the drive back home:

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So, Schmidt has realized, maybe just for a moment, that it is not "about Schmidt." His depression changes, if only briefly, to joy. And the reason? A little boy, many thousands of miles away, has loved him. Sure, Schmidt sends the money that makes the boy's life a little bit better, but you sense that it is the letters that he loves. Schmidt, of course, has been using these letters as an opportunity to vent on his own issues and to dispense ridiculous advice (at one point, he suggests that Ndugu save some of this money for college), not to build a relationship with the child.

The relationship between Schmidt and Ndugu is one-way. At first, it's from Schmidt to Ndugu, and Schmidt is unmoved. But when that changes, when Schmidt feels Ndugu's one-way love in a moment of need, he is reborn. It is when we are loved that everything changes. Like Schmidt, who appreciates one-way love that comes when he hits bottom, it is when we feel that no one could possibly love us that we are most eager for a God who says, "I came to love the unlovable."

Greatest Movie Villains of All Time

This is a list that critics more esteemed than I have worked on. The American Film Institute's list of 50 Greatest Villians is HERE, along with their 50 Greatest Heroes. My list, on the other hand, is more of a personal one. These are the villains I'VE loved the most. I can't argue that Cruella De Vil isn't a great villian, she just doesn't move me like the Predator does. Needless to say, the Predator doesn't make the AFI's list. So let's get crackin'!

Hans Gruber
My favorite. Brought to life by Alan Rickman, Gruber actually does make the AFI's list, at #46. The key to a great action movie (this one is Die Hard) is a great villain. Gruber is funny, cultured, and not playing around. His plan is sound...perfectly so. He just doesn't count on Bruce Willis' John McClane ("a fly in the ointment...a monkey in the wrench"), in town on vacation and just the person to save us.


The Predator
Another classic. Less well-known than the Alien, The Predator is its superior in almost every way. Equipped with laser firepower and heat-vision, predators are quad-jawed animals that hunt other species (who are at the top of their respective food chains) for sport. Immortalized in its battle with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Predator has made several unfortunate attempts to re-appear in films, from sequels to prequels, and out-and-out Alien battles.




The Terminator
#22 on the AFI's list, the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) is an unstoppable killing machine from the future. Well, unstoppable by anyone but Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The Terminator was James Cameron's first attempt at larger-than-life sci-fi danger. Good start.







Satan
The biggie. Committed to celluloid dozens of times, the characterization that sticks in my mind is Rosalinda Celentano's chilling performance in Mel Gibson's divisive The Passion of the Christ. Maligned by many, awe-inspiring to many others, the film was, if nothing else, hugely successful. And Celentano's pale, androgynous Satan, complete with demon-baby, is a villain that will stick with you.


The Alien
With acid for blood and a lust for human flesh, the Alien (Alien, etc.) is one of the freakiest monsters ever envisioned, and #14 for AFI. Designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger and brought to life by some of the greatest filmmakers of our generation (Ridley Scott, Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), the Alien is the ultimate there's-something-out-there-in-the-dark fright. Or the ultimate my-stomach-feels-a-little-funny worst case scenario.

Antonio Salieri
Our most human villain, it is the ease with which we identify with Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) that makes him so frightening. Denied by God the skill to do the one thing he craves, Salieri must stand by and observe the brilliance of a buffoon. Milos Forman's Amadeus is a case study in human nature, and of its tragic ends.



The Blair Witch
Our winner for least-seen villian. Never appearing on screen, the Blair Witch terrorized the kids of her titular Project via sounds, heavy breathing, and bloody handprints on walls. Seeing this for the first time was an incredibly intense experience; my friends and I went right home and watched Pleasantville, the pleasant-est movie we could think of, so that we 22-year-olds wouldn't have to dream of the Maryland woods at night.



Jame Gumb
An interesting one, Gumb (Ted Levine) never actually shares screen time in The Silence of the Lambs with Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who ranks #1 on the AFI's list of all-time villains. Unkempt where Lecter is put together, Gumb is the stuff of nightmares where Lecter is the stuff of psychology texts. Until Lecter whimpers to a captive, "It puts the lotion on its skin," Jame Gumb will be the scarier villain to me.







Hans Landa
Our newest entry, Landa is the charming Nazi. In Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz becomes something scarier than a Jew-hunting Nazi: he's a Jew-hunting Nazi who's smarter than you.

So, who scares you? Whose villainy knows no bounds? Who keeps you up at night? Discuss!