This blog informs you of future Connect Group events, and provides a forum to share insights on other movies from an ethical and biblical perspective. I encourage respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Le Gamin au Velo (The Kid with a Bike) -- absent fathers, needy kids

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011 (PG-13)

A recent movie I saw at the cinema (Philomena) focused on a mother desperately searching for her son. In this film, we find a boy desperately searching for his father. Both are poignant dramas. Both were nominated for awards (Philomena in 2013, Kid with Bike in 2011). But there is where the similarities end. Kid with a Bike is a French movie from the Dardenne brothers, that plays out in slow fashion, quite the opposite of a typical Hollywood film. Refusing to use a musical score to pluck the viewer's emotions, the Dardennes use a powerful device to catch attention. Four times they play a 15 second segment of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, almost the only music in the film, and in so doing force us to see the bigger picture and transitions of the film.

Kid with a Bike opens with the kid, Cyril (Thomas Doret) without a bike. More than this, though, he is a kid without a father. We meet Cyril at the group home his father has dumped him in. As an 11 year-old, Cyril needs his father, and wants the bike his father still has. So he goes searching for his dad. He ends up in a doctor's office being chased by the director of the foster home. He grabs hold of a woman, Samantha (Cecile De France), to avoid being taken back. This is Samantha's first brief and unexpected encounter with Cyril.

After this meeting, and having witnessed Cyril's passionate desire to get his bike back, Samantha buys it back for him and delivers it to the foster home. On a whim, Cyril asks her if she will let him stay with her on the weekends. Surprisingly, she agrees. This sets up the context for the rest of the film.

The Dardenne brothers show normal life for this hairdresser and her weekend foster child. He embarks on a quest to find his father. He also encounters a bully who leads him into a gang whose leader seduces him toward a criminal life. Along the way, minor violence occurs which forces both Cyril and Samantha to face up to the consequences of Cyril's choices.

Several themes emerge. First, Cyril's father refuses to take him back: "It's too much. I can't look after him." Further, he refuses to tell Cyril the truth, cowardly trying to make Samantha tell Cyril this unwanted news. Here is a father who walks away from his responsibilities. Is there a smaller coward than this? Becoming a father is a small act that bears huge consequences. A man who fathers a child must act like a father. To do otherwise is a violation of familial function. There is no excuse. A man must think before he acts, and count the cost of his intended actions (Lk. 14:28).

Cyril, on the other hand, acts like a child would. He needs his father. He desperately wants someone there for him. (We never know about his mother.) Cyril even goes out of his way to give his father what he seems to want in hope that he will want his son back. He simply does not understand how his father could not want him, could discard him like a used wrapper. God has shown us what a father should be, in his role as our father. He has also told us, "Fathers, do not embitter your children" (1 Col. 3:21). As a father, I can and do make many mistakes. But failing to love my children, even abandoning them, would be the way to most embitter them. It is perhaps the worst thing a father could do.

Finally, Samantha the hairdresser begs the question, why. Why would she take on a stranger, particularly a very troubled boy? She did not count the cost. And there was a cost to her: emotional, relational, physical and even financial cost. Why would she do this? The Dardennes never give us a clear answer,  although she seems almost as needy as Cyril.

Yet Samantha reminds us of another parent who took on troubled children: God. Yet, he did count the cost and realized it would be huge: it cost him his only son. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). His love changes us from troubled people, caught up in our own issues and sins, to those who become like Jesus, loving others. Selfishness turns to selflessness. Perhaps with Christ central in our lives, we might look to help the Cyrils we run into in our daily lives.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Talented Mr. Ripley -- deceit, lies and lostness

Director: Anthony Minghella, 1999 (R)

Two years after winning an Oscar for Directing the hugely successful The English Patient, Anthony Minghella helmed this vehicle and was nominated for another Oscar, this time for Best Adapted Screenplay (from the book by Patricia Highsmith). Like his previous film, this movie moves slowly but methodically, merging suspense with drama to form a low-key thriller with a terrific jazz score and decadent mood.

From the opening scene we find Tom Ripley (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity) a man who wears masks. In this scene, though, it is simply a borrowed blazer to allow him to play piano at a party. But this mild deception causes the lavatory attendant with delusions of grandeur to be mistaken for a Princeton grad. When Mr. Greenleaf approaches him with this mistake, Tom plays along and finds himself being offered $1000 to go to Italy to find Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, Side Effects), another Princeton grad. But Dickie is a rich kid who enjoys wasting his father’s allowance on jazz records and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). A cut to the Mediterranean scene and we see Dickie sunning himself with Marge, lazily lounging on the beach.

En route via luxury liner, Tom meets Meredith (Cate Blanchett, The Hobbit), another rich kid off to enjoy Europe. She is travelling under a different name and will later bump into him and set off a chain of events that will cause Tom to grow ever more deceptive.

Deception is one of the themes of the film, along with moral degeneration. In one of his first meetings with Dickie, he is asked what his singular talent is. Tom replies to his supposed former college buddy, “Forging signatures, telling lies and impersonating almost anyone.” Laying out the truth here allows him to be accepted by Dickie and lays the groundwork for future deceit.

The sad thing is the moral rationalization going on in Tom’s head, which we are privy to: “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” Tom clearly starts off thinking he is not a bad person, just one who has some odd talents. But the Bible says otherwise: “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). We deceive even ourselves with this kind of thinking. The Psalmist understood this and declared, “Surely I was sinful at birth” (Psa. 51: 5). We can convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but the truth stands out darkly in contrast. We are sinful and deceitful from the very start.

Tom is a prime example. A poor kid, he dreams of riches. More than this, though, he wants to trade in his boring identity and character for someone more interesting and exciting. So, to slither his way into Dickie’s inner circle, he learns jazz as a common interest and shows this at the ultimate moment to go from acquaintance to new best friend. And although he wins over Dickie he fails to account for two things. First, Dickie is fickle and will cast off a friend just as quickly as he takes them to his bosom. Second, there is Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catching Fire), another decadent, gastronomic friend. Freddie, unlike Dickie, is less trusting and can see through Tom’s character.

As Tom gets closer and closer to Dickie, he studies him as a predator would his prey. It even seems that Tom is confused as to whether he wants to love Dickie or be Dickie. But when Dickie spurns Tom’s casual homosexual advance and later reneges on a holiday promise, Tom realizes he wants more of the rich lifestyle than he can get as Ripley. He wants to live Dickie’s life as Dickie.

Tom’s character shows how an initial “white lie” can begin a journey of descent, into deceit, dark lying and murder. This slippery slope begins with lying lips. And “The Lord detests lying lips” (Prov. 12:22).  But it all starts in the heart: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder” (Mk. 7:21).

As the movie unfolds, Tom moves from the coast of Italy to Rome where he takes on Dickie’s identity and digs himself deeper into deceit. There are several super suspenseful scenes, centered on Tom almost being discovered in his lies. But Tom evolves, growing cleverer, learning to improvise on the fly with lightning-fast thinking. Though he is a monster, he is intelligent and charming. And since we see from his perspective we are drawn into his schemes. But we also realize how alone he is.

At one point, Tom says, “Don’t you just take the past, and put it in a room in the basement, and lock the door and never go in there? That’s what I do.” He has sealed off the past, including his sins, in a room he wants to avoid. But that means he cannot share his true being with another. He finally recognizes this: “I know. I’m lost, too. I’m going to be stuck in the basement, aren’t I, that’s my . . . terrible, and alone, and dark, and I’ve lied about who I am, and where I am, and now no one will ever find me.” His destiny stands before him: a dark bottomless chasm.

This is perhaps the best definition of lostness in movie history. As Tom verbalizes it, we can picture that dark, lonely basement, with the certainty that no one else will visit it.

Because of our sinful nature, we are all lost before God. We have our own dark basements we dwell in, seemingly safe and secure from the whole world. But this is not security and safety; rather, it is hell. Alone, separate from all humanity and even from the God of humanity. With no one to know us, there is no one to love us. We cannot share our humanity with another. This is terrible and a terror reserved for the darkest corners of hell indeed (2 Pet. 2:4).

But the God of humanity declared, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). Despite our self-righteous self-deceit, Jesus came to rescue us from our basements. He understands our plight. He came as a no one, an illegitimate son of a carpenter, born in a dirty stable. But in taking on our flesh and carrying our sins to the cross, he gives us a chance to put on his cloak. We can clothe ourselves in Jesus (Rom. 13:14). We can call ourselves a brother with Christ. We can identify with Jesus. And in so doing, we find a new identity, one that decries deception and murder, one that pours forth virtue and life. We can find ourselves talented with his divine talents. But only if we put on his blazer.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kill Bill Vol. 2 -- character growth and life/death incarnate

Director: Quentin Tarantino, 2004 (R)

The second chapter of the Kill Bill violent extravaganza opens with a fake shot of the Bride (Uma Thurman) driving, like the old Hitchcock car ride scenes. And the Bride sets the scene with a quick recap of volume 1:
Looked dead, didn't I? But I wasn't. But it wasn't from lack of trying, I can tell you that. Actually, Bill's last bullet put me in a coma. A coma I was to lie in for four years. When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements refer to as a 'roaring rampage of revenge.' I roared. And I rampaged. And I got bloody satisfaction. I've killed a hell of a lot of people to get to this point, but I have only one more. The last one. The one I'm driving to right now. The only one left. And when I arrive at my destination, I am gonna kill Bill.
Like its predecessor, volume 2 plays with the timing of scenes, so actually when this film starts there are three vipers left: Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Budd (Michael Madsen), and Bill himself (David Carradine). Unlike its predecessor, this revenge film limits the body count to three, as compared to over 40, and focuses more on conversation and character development than non-stop violence. There are several graphic scenes of violence, especially when Elle (also known as California Mountain King Snake) takes on the Bride (also known as the Black Mamba), but none are as severe or sustained as in the first movie (except for one particularly nasty body part removal).

The story plays longer and we see how the Bride became the person she is. We also meet (briefly) the man she would have married. This view of the past brings out the person in the present.

At one point, though, Bill asks Bud: "Can't we just . . . forget the past?" He wants to move on. But we cannot simply forget the past. The past carries the seeds of today and the fruit of tomorrow. Our former choices convey with them consequences, as did those of the Bride and her cadre of assassins. The sins of the past move on into the present, unless they have been paid. When we trust Christ, God does take care of these sins: "as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Psa. 103:12). God forgives and forgets, and then we can forget the past, too.

One of the beauties of this film compared to volume 1 is the conversation between Bill and the Bride, and there are several. The last one becomes an extended discourse that shows Bill's true character. Although he comes across as urbane and intelligent, he is fickle, as quick to tell a story or make a sandwich as he is to shoot a friend.

He offers a thought to the Bride from a parable on superman: "Clark Kent is to Superman's critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton" (the latter being two names for the Bride). When she asks him, "Are you calling me a superhero?", he replies, "I'm calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be." To him, her nature cannot be changed. She is who she is, and will never change. This is counter to what she seeks.

This philosophy is also counter to biblical truth. We are born in sin (Psa. 51:5). We bear the corrupt image of Adam, our forefather. But we can be changed. We need not remain trapped in this destiny of destruction. By turning to Christ, we can become reborn (Jn. 3:7), a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). In him we find ourselves reconciled and remade in the image of the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Hope beckons; change remains a potential.

The Bride, aka Beatrix Kiddo, seeks revenge until she finds Bill. Then she discovers reason for a future. And with this hope she becomes changed, a new person, one with a motivation beyond vengeance. Her new motivation includes life not death.

Earlier in the film, Elle Driver gives a mini-speech on the black mamba, the Bride's alter ego: "In Africa the saying goes 'In the bush, an elephant can kill you, a leopard can kill you, and a black mamba can kill you. But only with the mamba is death sure.' Hence its handle, 'Death Incarnate.' " The Bride is none other than Death Incarnate.

The Bride contrasts starkly, in her role as black mamba, with Christ. While she is death incarnate, he is life incarnate. The son of God, Jesus Christ, came to earth as God incarnate, made into the form of humanity, in the flesh (Jn. 1:14). "In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind" (Jn. 1:4). He is the very essence of life, and he brings life to all who come to him thirsting for it. He is the white mamba who absorbs the very sting of death (1 Cor. 15:56) from the serpent of old (Rev. 20:2).

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Kill Bill Vol.1 -- mini-review: violence and revenge

Director: Quentin Tarantino, 2003 (R)

The fourth movie from writer-director Tarantino is as bloody and violent as any before, perhaps more so. The plot-line is simple: the Bride (Uma Thurman) is shot in the head by Bill (David Carridine), her former lover and leader, and left for dead during her wedding rehearsal. She emerges after four years in a coma and wants revenge on all those who involved. But the movie is far from simple and Tarantino uses all the tools in his tool-box, even splitting the movie into two volumes to spin this gory yarn.

Blending spaghetti western, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with kung fu b-flicks, throwing in Japanese anime and monochrome chapters, Tarantino pays homage to the films of his youth, and even includes a scalping. His stylized violence is excessive but clearly unrealistic, with dismemberments and lost limbs too many to count. He refuses to tell the story in linear fashion, instead interweaving chapters asynchronously and thereby retaining viewer interest.

This first volume carries an overdose of stylized violence. The Bride, an assassin known also as "the Black Mamba", realizes she has lost the baby she was carrying during her altar-walk and that adds further fuel to her revenge-soaked fire. Each chapter of this film adds more violence than its predecessor. She goes from a mano-a-mano knife fight with Copperhead (another female assassin) to a samurai sword-fight against over fifty Japanese yakuzi mobsters. She has to beat these to "earn" her right to fight O-ren Ishi (Lucy Liu), another assassin known as Cottonmouth.

We get the point from the opening title card: "Revenge is a dish best served cold." The Bride is not after justice. After all, she dispensed death with the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad Bill formed and led. No, she simply wants blood, the blood of those who left her for dead. She brings to mind the words of God in the Old Testament: "I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me" (Deut. 32:41). Like the Lord "(s)he will come with vengeance" (Isa. 35:4). But she clearly missed those Sunday School lessons from the New Testament, since the apostle Paul commented to the Romans: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, bet leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). It is not our place, nor the Bride's, to take justice into our own hands and seek to settle scores of revenge.

The Bride, though, tells us early what she is like: "It's mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack." Late in the film, she offers a bone of mercy to one enemy. But she does so with a motive: "I want him [Bill] to witness the extent of my mercy by witnessing your deformed body." In essence, this is not mercy, it is punishment and humiliation. She wants Bill, who is never really seen in this first film, to ponder what she will bring to him at the climax of volume 2.

Unlike the vengeance-seeking Bride, "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy" (Jas. 5:11). He has told us through Moses in the Old Testament, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exod. 33:19). He balances vengeance with compassion, on the fulcrum of forgiveness. He offers true forgiveness to all who seek it through Christ. We can become one of his followers, even part of his Bride (Eph. 5:25) through faith in Jesus (Jn. 1:12). The violence of his crucifixion paid the bloody price for our redemption. No further revenge needed.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs