I’ve always had a penchant for heist movies for whatever reason. Why do they tend to contain likeable characters with witty dialogue who break the law? I’m not sure, quite honestly, but I still find them quite entertaining nonetheless. Are either of them as good as The Sting or The Thomas Crown Affair (which one? Guess.)? I’m not sure, but they entertained me either way.
Gambit – This “art heist” turns out to become a mostly strange British/American hybrid comedy right from the start. Colin Firth plays an art appraiser who works for a mega publishing tycoon (played by Alan Rickman, who I must inevitably love in just about every film in which he appears) who also wants revenge for…something.
Honestly, the motivation for Harry Deane to steal Monet paintings or money besides “Shabandar is a bad person I don’t like” never quite comes through. Harry Dean seems like a small, petty man who just doesn’t like his boss all that much, and exaggerates his claims to recruit a “team” of sorts. All of this comes through for both perceptual gags and bizarre differences between appearance and reality – in other words, extremely dry humor.
Regardless of the strange mixed information, this comedy plays to its advantage of mixing strange, surreal humor (such as an incredibly great dream sequence that only hits you as humorous after about five minutes) and dumb slapstick. The “heist” itself amounts to little more than the setup presented at the beginning of the film, while the rest indulges in things like old ladies farting and a billion innuendos involving a nickname. And yet, given all that, I can’t help but like the film regardless. It entertained, relayed all the details through a combination of visuals and light exposition, while also making me laugh far more than it should.
From one perspective, this movie contains just about zero originality. We go through the motions, so to speak, in its ninety minute span, and we already know how the narrative will end before it starts. None of this means Gambit does not employ its tropes well, or that any of this comes across poorly – well, that depends on your opinion on Cameron Diaz’ acting chops. Rather, it will depend on your tolerance for familiarity and stupid laughs.
If anything surprises me at all, it’s the nature of this film’s languishing in development hell AND the lack of a proper theater release in the United States. Apparently a remake of a 1966 film starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, it received a completely rewrite and rescripting by Joel and Ethan Coen – yet, THOSE Coen brothers. Just about a billion different actors, directors, and production companies came and went trying to bring this thing to life, and I would guess the end result failed to hold up to the standards of the original script.
So, I give it a tepid recommendation for anyone who doesn’t like Monty Python-esque humor, but if you enjoy seeing such things it will not waste your time for very long, all said.
The Art of the Steal – Yet another pleasant Netflix surprise arrived in the form of a (?!) Kurt Russell vehicle in the year 2014 – not exactly something you see in this day and age. Thankfully, I found myself in just the right mood (after watching Tombstone, duh), and The Art of the Steal turned out to be a perfectly hilarious heist movie. A heist movie about a completely fake Gospel of James that supposedly is worth a whole lot of money. So yes, that part is quite dumb, but the rest of the film plays it quite smart.
The details remain exactly as you’d expect from such a film (again, art heist movie, what else?), and this one sidles toward the Ocean’s Eleven side of the coin with an R-Rated tinge. In fact, The Art of the Steal often hit the “incredibly witty” side of the coin so much, with some incredibly creative lines that didn’t go for a cheap curse word laugh (still, we’re venturing into R-rated territory, so obviously the subject matter may turn out less than savory for any potential viewers). I appreciate the effort to create exciting and interesting banter among a group of old thief hands, and at least you get that. Crunch Calhoun and his very eccentric team eke out many laughs over the course of the film, so much so that I care not to spoil any of them.
Since I know this always comes up when discussing such films, what about Kurt Russell? As far as Kurt Russell goes, he always plays Kurt Russell and always does exactly the same acting job of playing Kurt Russell; that’s just a love/hate approach, and you’ll know right away whether this works for you. It does help that they turn him into an Evel Kenevil character for no reason other than laughs, and R-rated comedy stand-by Jay Baruchel just as the innocent bystander.
Of course, we’re still talking about creative thievery, and this one mostly involves getting across the American border from Quebec City, an unusual setting for sure. Matt Dillon plays the shifty half-brother (man, does that guy always look shifty in a film or what), and both brothers of the Calhoun family have their own agenda in the steal. This makes for an exciting film that, like Gambit, also tends to succeed in spite of the overuse of “heist movie” tropes. Just about every one you could imagine turns up, and I am not too bitter about it. If they work, they work, and it just comes down to a great script.
So, do I recommend this? Yeah, sure, why not? Again, somehow this fits into the ninety minute territory, and I am glad these film don’t overstay their welcome, unlike big budget blockbusters of recent memory. I am not hard to please; just give me some laughs and a semi-intriguing plot, and you win with me. The Art of the Steal does just that, and nothing more.
As a young Christian at the time of these writings, however, he ignores some Christian doctrine to validate this conclusion. Notice the myriad number of verses in the New Testament referring to predestination. Ephesians 2:10, for example, states that
we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Archaeological Bible, emphasis added).
That God chose his true believers is obvious in many passages of the New Testament; that Christians are predestined to do good works does not aid Augustine’s case. Jn 15:16, 2 Thess. 2:13, and Eph. 1:5, 11-12 all contribute to this particular argument as well. The stumbling point with Augustine’s perception of free will and predestination lies in his desire to combine both concepts and make them fit when they cannot coexist.
The foreknowledge of God must constrain anything a person will do in their lifetime; they cannot suddenly decide to not become a Christian, for example, for God already predestined them to become one, if the Bible is the resource Augustine is relying upon. An omniscient God cannot be wrong in any way; if man had free will, God could never know what a person would do next, rendering “omniscience” infallible . Free will cannot coexist with a deterministic world if God is placed in the equation. It’s not Augustine’s intent to downplay the power of God and it is assumed that he has good intentions, but reconciling the conflicting concepts is a difficult proposition for any Christian.
The main reason for all of this dialog – the differentiations between transient and immutable desires, avoiding blaming God for evil, placing the choice of man upon himself – can be attributed to several reasons. The most prominent point to consider is Augustine’s Manichean background. The Manichees were a religious sect which Augustine became a part of during his early years (Knowles and Penkett 41). Notably, their twist on the Christian faith concerned dualism – that there are two separate realms, that of good and evil, that are constantly fighting in the spiritual realm for the souls of mankind (Knowles and Penkett 52). The denizens of these two realms constantly affect the actions of people in the physical realm; thus, people are never directly responsible for any evil actions they do (Knowles and Penkett 53).
As Augustine was an evangelist for this sect for quite a long time, converting much of his friends and family to this belief, he found it his sworn duty to convert them to Christianity. Thus, this discussion was necessary for him to, perhaps, purge his inner demons about leading many people close to him to a undesirable eternal fate. That On the Free Choice of the Will is an early writing of Augustine may be to blame; Book I was written in 387-388, only two years after his conversion from Manichaeism, while Books II and III were written around 395 when he had just become a priest of the church of Hippo (L. H. Hackstaff ix). As an early Christian, Augustine was still applying his Roman philosophical knowledge in the works of Cicero to the concepts of the Bible, which initially led to his Manichee conversion in the first place (Knowles and Penkett 48-50).
Considering these facts, it is rather obvious that the dialog was written for humans, by humans – an inevitable end when theology is concerned. A flawed human will never fully understand whether free will or determinism dictates the flow of the universe; one can only piece together clues from various human methodologies to bring humans to a basic understanding of the divine. Even if what Augustine believes is truly the case (a mixture of predestination and free will), one can only discuss such concepts abstractly; practically, a person has to live as if he had free will regardless, which makes any conclusions impossible to prove by any criteria. Though a person can perceive their “inner sense” making decisions, at least in Augustine’s opinion, what appears to be the truth may not be the case after all (OFCW II.39,41).
Other Abrahamic religions have come up with solutions to these particular problems that Augustine faces. Particularly, Islam accepts the predestination of the world of the widely accepted (at least in Sunni Islam) Asharite school of thought (Esposito 73). The Mutazila, an opposing school of thought, believed that God’s justice essentially required free will for it to be just (Esposito 72). In their view, they found that predestination made God an arbitrary judge of good and evil if he was responsible for all actions (Esposito 72). The founder of the Asharite school, Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Ashari, criticized the Mutazila for using logic and reason when dealing with transcendent concepts (Esposito 72). How does one use human ideas of justice to explain divine ideas of justice (Esposito 72)? Such discussions, al-Ashari believed, were useless.
According to the Asharites, reason and logic are certainly great tools, but they are never subordinate to the revelation of God (Esposito 73). In addition to this affirmation, al-Ashari developed the doctrine of “acquisition” – that is, people acquire responsibility and thus accountability for their actions simply by doing them (Esposito 73). It did not matter to the Asharites whether the universe was deterministic or not – one’s existence was still part of God’s plan, a God that could intervene and take part in his creation at any moment (Esposito 73).
Al-Ashari, in his greater experience, revealed an aspect of faith that Augustine had not yet fully grasped – some things cannot be explained by logic and reason. Augustine does concede that some concepts – such as where the soul comes from in Christianity – are unexplainable, but he makes an exception to free will and determinism (OFCW III.214-215). Certainly, the search for knowledge about good and evil, free will and determinism and whether God is a just God or not are all commendable intellectual pursuits. However, these are the sort of questions that cannot be answered definitively; each person will come to his own rational conclusion in this life about the subject and leave their knowledge at that juncture.
To say this is an acceptance of doctrine through blind faith is not entirely accurate. Religions would not have gained the title of “faith” had they not been based around the concept of something that cannot be explained by empirical evidence. One can, however, defend the irrational with the rational, and it is here where Augustine has stumbled a bit; instead, he chooses to explain the nature of the universe with his own human understanding, a flaw that undermines his arguments to a great degree. He attempts to explain the immutable with the transient, a violation of his own logic. Predestination is the most likely argument from a Christian perspective; the key is to see that God has a plan for every person regardless. That one must live practically as if they had free will is not a problem when a person views the universe from the big picture of creation. The creator has not left any space for error, and that is a reassuring feeling for any Christian.
Saint Augustine. On the Free Choice of the Will. Trans. Anna S. Benjamin and L.H. Hackstaff. New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Hackstaff, L. H. Foreword. On the Free Choice of the Will. By Saint Augustine. 1935. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1964. ix.
The Archaeological NIV Study Bible. Michigan; Zondervan, 2005.
Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. 3rd ed. New York; Oxford University Press, 2005.
Knowles, Andrew and Pachomios Penkett. Augustine and His World. Illinois; Intervarsity Press, 2004.