Sunday, March 30, 2008

Coming soon -- The Incredibles on 4/12/08

The next movie for our Mosaic Connect Group is The Incredibles. Becca Baggs will be providing her excellent child-care as usual. We welcome your teens to join us if they are going to participate in the post-movie discussion.

If you want to invite a friend, click on this link for a printable invitation. Come see a fun movie, spend some time hanging with friends, eat a simple dinner, and share your insights on the movie. We hope to see you at this event.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Into the Wild -- a spiritual journey

We are surrounded by hypocrites. If we are honest with ourselves, we are hypocritical much of the time. Yet, how do we respond to hypocrisy?

Chris McCandless responded to the hypocrisy he saw in his parents' lives by departing on a spiritual journey leaving no forwarding address. Without telling his parents, he got in his old Datsun, after graduating from Emory University, and drove west. He disappeared. "Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness . . . give me truth," he said and went looking for truth. "The core of man's spirit comes from new experiences" and he sought the experience of nature apart from mankind.

Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, Sean Penn directs this unusual episodic road-trip movie. Emile Hirsch stars as McCandless and plays him so well. He makes him believable, and you see him physically change through the movie just as he matures emotionally. When he leaves at the beginning he figuratively rejects society, cutting up all his credit cards and burning his social security card and dollar bills. In an act of cleansing, he renames himself Alexander Supertramp, figuratively putting his old self to death, and becoming a new man. As he travels west he is searching for something, and as he continues his quest becomes clear -- Alaska. "You don't need human relationships to be happy, God has placed it all around us."

On the way, he meets several interesting characters. Vince Vaughan shows up as a wheat harvester, and a foil for Alex. It is in their discussions that we learn more about what is driving Alex away from his parents. Later, he befriends two aging hippies on their way to a trailer park in the middle of Arizona. Through his initial brief interaction with them, he helps them heal a wound in their relationship. He later reacquaints with them, at the trailer park, and spends a season with them preparing for his wilderness adventure. Everything is pointed toward that.

It is when he eventually gets into the wild in Alaska that Into the Wild moves towards its climax. It is beautifully filmed here, and the wildlife shots and stunning landscapes evoke a solitude seldom experienced though often longed for. Here Alex really begins to understand himself. He discovers an abandoned school bus which becomes his home. Through the separation from all forms of society, he finds himself and he finds a truth. As he runs out of food and must desperately rely on the land, he misnames one of the plants. In so doing, he eats an inedible plant. This leads to a slow starvation. Hirsch plays out this starving, harrowing death so well you can see the pain and loss in his eyes and in his person.

At the end, realizing the importance of calling things by their rightful names, he signs his given name. No longer is he Alex Supertramp; once more he is ready to call himself Chris McCandless. And the truth he discovers he writes in his journal: "Happiness is only real when shared." Throughout his trip Alex had been bringing joy and happiness to those he met and befriended. In return he was experiencing happiness, though he did not understand this until too late. It is sad that the truth he was seeking was only found in dying, and then in the loneliness of total isolation. Not even knowing if his parents would discover his body, he died with a smile knowing his quest was fulfilled.

Into the Wild is a sad yet uplifting film that reminds us of some key truths yet asks some important questions. True happiness, true joy cannot be found in things, in toys. All the iPods, all the Wiis, all the Beemers in the world will not bring eternal joy or satisfaction. They are momentary pleasures that do not last. We were made for relationships. Even from the start, man was made for relationship with his creator (Gen. 1:27). When God saw Adam was all alone he made woman for him (Gen. 2:18). We are relational beings. We cannot run from this without denying our true nature, and that leads to inner dissonance. So, Into the Wild reminds us of the importance of our relationships, with our God, our spouse, our children, our friends, our acquaintances. Are we taking the time to experience the happiness that these bring? And are we bringing joy and happiness to those around us?

As Alex wandered the country, he not only brought happiness to those he encountered, they offered insight to him, though he did not always "hear" it. One character told him, "To forgive is to love." Though seeking truth, Alex was really seeking love. We all seek love and to be loved. What was hindering Alex was his unwillingness to forgive . . . he would not forgive his parents for the pain they had caused him. But if he had forgiven them, he would have found it possible to love them. Paul tells us likewise to "forgive as Christ forgave us" and in so doing we become conduits of Jesus' love.

And then Into the Wild raises questions about society. Are things right with our society? Are we in America too tightly wrapped up in our careers? What do we want from society? Better yet, what are we giving back to society? How are we working to make it better? Human society is God-ordained, but how we choose to implement it can be good or bad, better or worse. God does call us to champion social justice in the midst of whatever society we live in. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament were voices calling for social justice, so we, too, must call for social justice and the betterment of society. We do this as we spread the love of Jesus and the good news of the gospel. We do it as we serve the poor in elementary schools. We do this as we live authentic lives in authentic community.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

He was a Quiet Man -- Disappointing office violence

The plot line (and DVD cover) is intriguing -- Bob (Christian Slater), an office worker in a "cubicle farm," has had it and is ready to "go postal." He has the gun, he has the bullets, he even has the list of coworkers as his targets. Yet, when the day comes to do the deed, his cubicle neighbor beats him to the punch . . . or the shots in this case.

Having killed several people, one woman, Venessa (Elisha Cuthbert), lies wounded and he prepares to kill her. Bob steps in and shoots the killer instead of his coworkers. In doing so, he both saves Venessa's life and becomes a hero, a celebrity. The movie develops from here. Venessa winds up a quadriplegic, hating Bob for saving her life, and asks him to help her die. Throw in William H Macy as the CEO and a talking fish, and you have this quirky movie.
Despite the intriguing plot line, He was a Quiet Man is disappointing and not to be recommended. It does not really know if it is a comedy, a tragedy or a serious drama. And that is its downfall. It tries to be all three and falls flat. It takes its title from the common statement given by a neighbor when asked to comment on what happened. Bob is a quiet man, keeping himself to himself.
The movie does raise the issue of living as a quadriplegic or dying via assisted suicide, but this was better addressed in such recent Oscar-winners as Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, so I won't address this issue here. A better issue, more apropos to the direct plot line, is how we deal with the frustrations of work-life. All work has the capacity to boredom and frustration. All jobs have their share of grunt-work. How do we handle this frustration?

Further, how do we interact with our co-workers? Do we belittle them, embarrass them, treat those below us on the corporate hierarchy as minions or peons? If we do so, we likely add to their frustrations and stress. So, ethically, how should we handle our jobs? If frustration mounts, should we resort to office violence? No. Paul says, "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). Even undesirable grunt work can be done for God's glory if we do it for him.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New 5-Hearts Rating System

After much discussion and being informed by my family that movie ratings are scored out of five (5 stars, 5 hearts, etc), I have been persuaded. I cannot fight it any longer. The truth is, my kids didn't know if 2 hearts meant the film was good or bad or merely mediocre. So, I have decided to move to a 5-hearts movie rating.

For the record, 5 hearts is the top rating I will give to a movie. The lowest rating is 0-hearts, though I may well not rate such unworthy movies (what am I even doing wasting my time watching such drivel?). To make it easy and for consistency (there is the scientist and anal-retentive in me), I have gone through all my older reviews and re-rated them to this new 5-heart system. Thanks for bearing with me! Enjoy.

Upcoming movie reviews, over the next 10 days, include He was a Quiet Man, Into the Wild, Michael Clayton, and We Own the Night.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 24, 2008

In the Valley of Elah -- Listening but not Hearing

In the Valley of Elah is a reference to the valley where David fought Goliath. He stood his ground as the giant warrior approached until he could cast the stone from his slingshot into Goliath's forehead. He faced the monster and in doing so conquered his fear.

Tommy Lee Jones, playing Hank Deerfield, a retired Army sergeant, tells this story to a young boy as he puts him to bed. He has to face his fear of not finding out and facing what happened to his son, Michael, who has disappeared. Sometimes finding the truth is easier than facing it. He was serving in Iraq, and his troop is home on leave but he is missing. Inspired by true events, it is reported that Elah is base on Lanny Davis who mounted an investigation into the disappearance of his son, Iraq war veteran Richard David.

As he sets out on a long drive to the army base, Deerfield stops at the local high school because the American flag is hanging upside down, the universal sign of distress. He helps the janitor correct this. Later, he takes his son's cell phone and pays to have the files extracted. These include semi-garbled movies from Iraq of abuse of prisoners. As the story progresses, Deerfield links up with Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to figure out what happened. At one point in the movie, Deerfield has a conversation with his son who has just arrived in Iraq and has seen what life is like there. Michael pleads with his ex-military father to help him get out of there, but Hank hears only what he wants to hear, thinking this typical of the initial emotions from war.

Just as in Crash, director Paul Haggis brings a movie with good acting (Jones was nominated for an Oscar here) and some deeper themes. Along with post traumatic stress disorder, he shows the effects of war on ordinary soldiers. He portrays the cynicism that develops, as well as the abuse and torture of prisoners that sometimes results. This has been done better in other films. One notable statement made by an army Joe, was that he went over to bring liberty to the Iraqi people, but seeing how messed up the whole situation is he thinks the whole country should be nuked.

In light of the ongoing Iraqi war, Elah is sure to cause viewers to think about the final solution. Can the war be won? What impact are the American troops having? What impact is the war having on the troops sent over? Are they helping or hindering the situation? Toward the end, Hank receives a US flag from Michael and hangs it upside down from the high school flag pole, clearly indicating the distress that the country is in, from the war and its impact on its soldiers. Haggis is clearly giving his thoughts on this war. With Susan Sarandon in the cast, as Hank's wife, this movie has a strong anti-war message.

Much could be said and discussed about the Iraq war, and even the ethical ramifications of a just war, but I will leave that for now. (Ryan will address issues like this in his "War and the Church" class that he is team teaching with Jason Tarka later in the Spring; if you want to discuss this issue, please add a comment to this post.)

A more interesting issue for me was raised by the phone call between Hank and Michael. Michael was clearly reaching out for a lifeline from his father. But his father was not listening. He heard what he thought was or should be there and failed to hear the real message. In doing so, he missed the opportunity to bring his son home. How often do we listen but not hear? Are our kids trying to tell us something but we ignore or miss the message? Do we take the extra effort to go beyond our preconceived notions to get clear comprehension? If we are honest, perhaps not often enough.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium -- Whimsical Silliness

When you're stuck how do you get unstuck? In Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) is stuck. She was a child prodigy on the piano, with so much potential. But at the wise old age of 23, she is still playing the song she won fame for almost 20 years earlier. She has not moved on, she has not moved forward. Her life is on pause, she has not attained her potential, in short . . . she is stuck.
Mahoney is store manager for Mr Magorium, played with a horrible accent by Dustin Hoffman. As with many aging actors whose best roles are behind them, Hoffman (Oscar for Kramer vs Kramer and Rain Man) has descended into trivial roles and goes through the motions here. Yet, despite mediocre acting, this G-rated magical fantasy is whimsical silliness that is fun to watch with your kids.
Mahoney, struggling to "believe in herself" is joined by 12 year-old Zach Mills, playing Eric, a weird kid who has no friends, and Jason Bateman as Henry the Mutant who does not believe in anything he cannot see. All have some growing to do, and all grow, as expected.
Mahoney says to the Mutant, "You're a 'just' guy. . . .A guy just like you. Same hair, same suit, same shoes, walks around, no matter what, you think it's all just a store, it's just a bench, it's just a tree. It's just what it is, nothing more! " He only sees what is there, no more. He cannot see potential. He cannot see what lies deeper. At one point, she asks him, "When you look at me what do you see?" confusing him. She repeats, "Do you see a sparkle?" or something invisible, something intangible.
Magorium's store is no ordinary toy store; it is a magical toy store. It rises to his presence. When he declares his imminent departure, like a petulant child it throws a temper tantrum. And when he declares he is giving the store to Mahoney, she refuses to accept his leaving or his leaving her the store. She is not ready.
The movie plays out the story of his departure and her arrival. She needs to find the spark of magic that will allow her to complete her first work, the symphony she has been composing for years. This adventure, this journey of self-discovery requires some unlikely tools, and Magorium provides one. And until she realizes what it is and how to use it she can only sink deeper into a youthful cynicism. She descends into the "justness" of the "just" person. But in the nick of time she figures it out, and with the help of the now "believing is seeing" Mutant she rises to the occasion. Eric gets a friend. The store lives on.
Magorium sells a humanistic message that we have a sparkle inside, a potential we have not realized. By believing in ourself we can self-actualize the magic inside. Although this message is positive and affirming, biblically there is more to achieving our potential than self-belief. To attain our fullest potential, we must first come alive. The Bible says we are all dead in sin (Eph 2:1) and need a new birth (Jn 3:16). Once we have that new birth, we can move toward our full potential as we grow in Christ (2 Pet 3;18). And growing in Christ is believing in Jesus and following him actively. So, to find the "magic" inside, we believe in Jesus to get us there, not ourselves. It is Him, not us.
But there is a positive ethic in Magorium. When we look around us, what do we see? Are we simply looking at things as they are? There is an invisible reality all around us, the spiritual realm. There is also the potential inside each of us. If we are Jesus-followers, we have the potential, which will be realized at death, of becoming like Jesus (1 Jn 3:2). If we are not Jesus-followers, we will either choose life in Jesus or death outside of him. There is that potential, and we can "see" this and hence interact in ways that reflect this future choice. How are we approaching interactions with people? Is it in ways that will affirm their potential? Or are we cynically seeing everything and everyone as they are now, with no opportunity for growth or change? Are we seeing or are we believing?
Magorium uses the four "generations" of the main characters to push a message of the value of the innate openness and wonder in children. Eric has it still at 12. Mahoney is in danger of losing it at 23. Mutant has definitely lost it (as a 30-ish accountant). And Mr Magorium clearly has it at his outlandish age. This reflects, unwittingly, the biblical truth (Matt 18:3) that we must adopt a child-like faith to be a follower of Jesus and hence to be able to "see reality."
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

No Country for Old Men -- A Portrait of Amorality

Hollywood voted this Best Picture of the Year (2007) and awarded the Coen brothers Best Director Oscar. Amid a line-up of mostly dark and cold movies (Juno was the one major exception -- I still have yet to see this), No Country Old Men is perhaps even more grim and dark, with nary a redeeming feature.

It opens with narration from Tommy Lee Jones set against several long panning shots of unoccupied Texan landscapes. Each is bleak and barren, godforsaken. Clearly, this is no country for old men. Later, Jones (playing Sheriff Tom Bell) says, "This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming, it ain't all waiting on you." This country sucks the life out of people, chews them up and spits them out.
The story is simple: Texan hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), discovers a number of dead bodies, shot-out pickup trucks, a truck-load of heroin and a cool $2M in cash: a drug-deal gone bad. What is he to do? He has an ethical decision to make, and he makes it in a heart-beat. Take the money and run. This reminded me a little of Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (1998), though it develops in an even darker fashion.
Enter Javier Bardeem as Anton Chigurh, a cold-blooded monster of an amoral killer. He is hired to find the man who took the money. And he always finds his man. One of the first scenes he is in, after we graphically find out he is a killer, is in an old gas station convenience store. "What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?" he asks the owner. This is one of the most intense scenes ever shot in such a store. Not knowing where this is going, the store owner senses something wrong, and we do too. Chigurh stares at him with eyes so cold, so calculating, so callous, often unblinking. Will he kill him or not?
Javier Bardem is a terrific, though not well-known actor (he played a quadriplegic fighting to die with dignity in The Sea Inside, which won Best Foreign Movie Oscar 2005). And he brings an intensity to his role that was totally worthy of his best supporting Oscar. Indeed, his presence dominated the movie. He is amorality personified. Not a raging psychopath, but a cold-blooded killer who claims he is a man of "principle."
As the plot develops, there are some standout scenes, filled with intensity as thick as London's famous fog. Violence abounds, as men get blown away with silenced shotguns and novel weapons. We see real men, those who do their own surgery with no thought of workman's comp. There is no romance, no love, only love for money.

There is no character with any real hope. Even Sheriff Bell, the good guy, has little hope: "I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come inta my life somehow. And he didn't. I don't blame him. If I was him I would have the same opinion of me that he does." Life has burned him out, as it did his daddy and granddaddy before him. He has given his life to his job, to bringing law to the Texan country, and he has lived it apart from God.
No Country is an interesting movie with outstanding acting throughout. But it ends as it starts: by raising questions. The ending itself is surprising, even shocking. Yet, much like There Will be Blood, this movie left me wondering if I liked or even enjoyed the experience. I still can't answer that, though it has caused me to continue to ponder. Perhaps that is a sign of a good movie. (One thing for me was that I had trouble understanding the Texan accents. I knew they were speaking English, yet it still sounded like gibberish to me. That might be how I sound to those around me, with my hybrid English-American accent.)
The Coen brothers have given us a picture of what evil looks like in its almost purest form. Looking in Chigurh's eyes is looking into a dark, deep pool of water; there is no life, no reflection. And Chigurh is motivated by a love of money and a desire to keep his word. "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." So says Paul in 1 Tim. 6:10. John Piper has said that "Money is the currency of human resources." When we bank on money to lead us to happiness, we have turned away from God.
A key line is No Country is spoken by Moss. After he has taken the money and returned to his trailer home, he says to his wife, "There's no going back." He recognized that he has crossed a line and he cannot return. There are some decisions in life which can only be made once, after which the Rubicon has been crossed. Moss looks back, not so much in regret but in recognition that this has changed him and his future forever. When has this happened to us? Are there decisions we look back on with recognition that they changes our lives forever? Coming into a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is one of them.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

New Web Links

I have recently added four new links to the Web Links Resources sidebar.

The first is "Film-Think," a new blog offered by Michael Leary, a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament Literature at the University of Edinburgh. This is a deep and thoughtful blog collection. In addition, he has two essays posted there, “What On Earth is Christian Film Criticism?” and the follow-up: “How Should We Then Review?

The second is the link to an article called "The Moment of Clarity," by Blake Snyder, author of the Save the Cat books. This article addresses the hero's journey in movies and shows how the moment of clarity links to the theme stated at the beginning of the movie.

The third is "The Numbers," a web-site that offers all kinds of statistics on box office receipts and DVD sales. It is a wealth of information that is invaluable as backgound and backstory.

The fourth is the link to the Mosaic Future Movie Recommendations -- your input for future movies. Check out all four links . . . you might find them useful!

Coming soon to this blog: my reviews of No Country for Old Men, Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, In the Valley of Elah, and He Was a Quiet Man.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 17, 2008

Death at a Funeral -- British Black Comedy

If you like English comedy, like Monty Python, you will probably love this film. Unlike Four Weddings and a Funeral, a light romantic comedy, this film is dark and crude.
It is set at a funeral in an English country home. Filled with a cast of mostly lesser known English actors (at least this side of the pond), it is a riot. (As English solicitor Simon, it does include Alan Tudyk, the Texan who looks familiar because he has been in a number of good movies, including the recent 3:10 to Yuma.) The first scene, even before the opening title credits, where the responsible son, Daniel (Matthew MacFadyen), looks into the coffin was so hilarious it had my wife crying tears of laughter!
Death at a Funeral is filled with eccentric British characters, from a straight-backed older father, to a drug-dealing pharmacy-student son, from a pain-in-the-ass "favorite" uncle, to a clock-driven reverend. Throw in a famous, expat novelist brother, Robert (Rupert Graves), now living in New York and you have a terrific comedy full of surprises.
Some of the comedy comes from the presence and use of drugs. Some comes from a dark secret that is surprisingly shared quietly at the funeral. Some comes from simply family dynamics. A running joke throughout is that the brother coordinating the funeral is going to deliver the eulogy, though the other brother is the novelist.
A classic line I enjoyed: "A cup of tea is good for many things, but it won't bring back the dead." That is so English -- tea is the opium of the masses for the Brits. When I was in Asia for a week recently, I had no (count that, zero) cups of English tea. I came home with withdrawal pangs!
Despite being filled with course language, this superficial comedy had a couple of lessons we can ponder. First, the movie has a recurring theme of acceptance. This becomes clearer as the movie develops, and culminates in the final (third attempt) eulogy from Daniel, the son. We can judge, we can be judged. But we really want to be accepted. And as we judge others, so will we be judged (Matt. 7:2). The call for the funeral-goers as it is to us is to refuse to judge others.
The second lesson comes also from this final eulogy. As Daniel speaks on being a son, he says "We all need to grow up." Our parents can do only so much, but it is our responsibility to accept our adult responsibilities. There are areas in all our lives where we still hang on to the childish ways. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:11, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." And as a parent, it reminds me that I am not totally accountable for how my children turn out. It is my job to do my best to raise them; it is theirs to grow in adulthood as responsible adults.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lust, Caution -- Love and Betrayal

After his Best-Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain (2005), Ang Lee's latest movie is the Chinese (with English sub-titles) Lust, Caution. This overlong epic (157 mins) is a beautifully filmed espionage erotic thriller set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Playing against type, Tony Leung plays Mr Yee, a powerful and cruel Chinese collaborator who has risen to be head of the secret service. And Wei Tang, in her debut movie role, plays Wong Chai Chi, a Chinese student sympathetic to the Chinese resistance movement.
In the early part of the movie, Wong joins a Hong Kong student drama troupe and finds her natural talent in acting. The troupe initially wants to rouse the Chinese into supporting the war effort, but decides to take more direct action by trying to get close to assassinate Mr Yee. Wong goes undercover as Mrs Mak to befriend Yee's wife and hence get close to him. Through a series of events, the first half of the movie ends in a violent murder, which sends Wong running away from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

In the second half of the film, Wong is now in Shanghai, and is found by the resistance and once more asked to become a spy, getting close to Mr Yee. This time, she moves into his home, and his interest in her becomes physical. As head of secret service, he mistrusts everyone, and he captures, interrogates and executes any spies and Chinese resistance members. He is a person standing at the edge of a nihilistic abyss. After forcing himself on her, it is clear he wants control of her. She hates him, but continues to play her role to perfection, giving him no cause for suspicion. As time marches on, he continues this "affair;" the movie is explicit in its showing of this sexual activity. Though this is critical to the plot, it is really not necessary for the acts themselves to be on camera.

The turning point comes in a Japanese brothel, where he has her brought to meet him. Here she sings him a love song, and uncharacteristically, Mr Yee weeps, he is so touched. At this, it is clear his feelings for her are deep. So deep in fact, that he will buy her a huge diamond ring. This causes Wong to understand the depth of their relationship. What started as rape becomes love. And with this discovery, she says "Go now." This is the third movie this year where this phrase is a critical plot development (the others are Away from Her and Dan in Real Life). The movie ends with an unexpected twist that causes Lust to be a tragedy.

Lust, Caution is certainly not for everyone. It is a strong movie for those who can see beyond the violence and sexuality. And it makes us think about the long-term effects of playing a role in real life. After a while, can we remember who we really are? When we hide behind a mask, does that mask morph our face until we actually become the mask? Such role-playing can cause habits, good or bad, to form and to become permanent parts of our character. So, what masks do we wear in public? Even in private? Are they molding us into their image contra Romans 12:2?

Lust, Caution also asks the question of what love really is. How do we know when we really love someone? Can we move from hate to love in a relationship? And if we do love someone, are we prepared to sacrifice for them, even if that sacrifice is all that we have? This inscrutable Chinese movie opens its masks for us to challenge our own ethic.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 14, 2008

Your Movie Suggestions for Group Screenings?

As we wind up this first session of the Mosaic Movie Connect Group, we want to solicit your input. What are some of your suggestions for movies we might watch together? We are looking at up to 3 suggestions in 7 distinct categories:

  1. Action
  2. Adventure
  3. Classics
  4. Comedy
  5. Drama
  6. Foreign
  7. Other

You could either email these to me, or use the Word document form that is downloadable. We are looking forward to hearing from you so we include your suggestions in the summer/fall line-up.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Brave One -- vengeance is unsatisfying

The Brave One is reminiscent of the 1974 Charles Bronson movie Death Wish. Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a radio DJ who captures the sounds of New York, "the safest big city in the world." Engaged and planning a wedding, when she and her fiance walk their dog in Central Park one night, they are brutally attacked by three muggers. Her fiance is killed. She is left for dead and the dog is taken.

Erica recovers after three weeks in a coma, but she is no longer the same person. Physically, the bruises have disappeared, but mentally she is still broken. She cannot leave her apartment. The same Jodie Foster who walked the mean streets of New York as child prostitute Iris (an Oscar-nominated role), in Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver, can now only stand in fear looking out her apartment window at these same streets as Erica.

Finally, she summons the courage, but only to look for a gun. Lacking the required license, she is denied a weapon, but cannot wait 30 days. So, she buys an illegal gun. Never having handled one before, she is given a short talk-through a box of bullets. Now she is ready to face New York again.

Nominated for a Golden Globe award, Foster communicates the fear that can enshroud a person after experiencing violence. Erica says to her radio listeners, once working again, "I always believed that fear belonged to other people. Weaker people. It never touched me. And then it did. And when it touches you, you know... that it's been there all along. Waiting beneath the surfaces of everything you loved."
One evening, she witnesses a murder in a convenience store. When the killer hears her and knows a witness is present, it is kill or be killed. She uses her new gun for the first time. She rushes home to wash off her guilt in the shower, clothes and all. But this killing turns the tide for her. No longer the fearful victim, she becomes the night-walker vigilante, hunting criminal low-life. Since the police are not finding her fiance's killers, and literally have no time for her, she becomes a vigilante, taking the law and justice into her own hands. As the tag-line for Tombstone (recent movie review) said, justice is coming, only this time it is to New York and in the hands of suddenly strong Erica Bain.

Terence Howard enters the picture as Detective Mercer, called into to find this new killer. As Erica begins a "cleaning up" of the city, Mercer finds more and more clues. And, of course, their lives coincide. They become acquantances, and slowly friends. But as the dead mount, they do speak, pointing fingers and clues. It becomes a game of cat and mouse as Mercer suspects Erica is more than she claims.
The movie moves to a climax where the result is known but how it will leave Erica is unclear. There is a twist that is implausible that closes the movie in a "too-neat" way. Life is simply not this clean. An interesting movie, it has too many unrealistic plot points. How can Erica go from never handling a gun to sharp-shooter in a couple of days, without any practice? How can she befriend the only cop in New York who seems to care about crime and its victims? How can she become a stranger to herself, yet embrace this stranger and come to live out the stranger's desires?
The Brave One raises some great ethical questions, though it does not really answer them all, and those it does it seems to answer in a superficial manner. How many wrongs does it take to make it right? If the law is hindered or even hand-cuffed from getting the bad guys, shouldn't it be OK to execute justice as a private citizen? Unfortunately, Erica is not a private citizen. She puts herself outside the law when she buys an illegal weapon. She crosses a line, and then continues on this path. She does have a conscience, and when she succumbs to the guilt of her crimes and goes to confess to the police, they do not want to listen. So, ethically if your confession is not heard is that a sign that you can, should or must continue? Biblically, to kill a person in self-defence is not murder. But to put yourself in a position to have to take such action is questionable. To go looking for trouble with intent to kill -- is that murder?

The bigger question raised here is, Is vengeance OK? According to Paul, who addresses this very question, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' " (Rom. 12:19-20). As much as it may feel frustrating to see justice thwarted, it is unethical to take it into one's own hands. We cannot be judge, jury and executioner. Eventually, God will enact justice on all unjustice done on earth. It is His right and position to do so; it is ours to leave Him room to do so.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sophie Scholl -- courage and sacrifice

What would you do if your country was in a war you thought was wrong and no one was doing anything about it? That is the question that faced Sophie Scholl in Nazi Germany in 1942. She joined the White Rose, a student-led pacifist movement aimed at spreading the truth.

Based on a true story derived from German transcripts (the real Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst are shown below respectively left to right), Julia Jentsch stars as Sophie. Although unknown in America, she won numerous international awards for this role. The movie itself was nominated for the 2005 Oscar for best foreign movie, but lost to Tsotsi.

After planting leaflets calling for Germans to turn away from Hitler, Hans and Sophie were arrested. Apparently a minor issue, this was viewed as high treason. The crux of the movie is the interrogation of Sophie by Herr Mohr of the gestapo. Unlike stereotypes in other WW2 movies, this interrogator is portrayed as a thoughtful, non-violent German who is sold on national socialism. This is a prolonged (through multiple scenes) two-way interaction that stays with the characters. Initially, Sophie lies about her involvement and appears quiet, though worried.
Once she sees her brother's signed confession, she changes her approach and confesses herself. She will not let her brother take the fall on his own. From here, her spine visibly stiffens and she starts to get into more heated discussions with Mohr. Although she signs her own confession, he wants her to name names. As he tries to get this information from her, she starts to display her Christian faith and worldview. This in turn, causes Mohr to get angry, even hostile. The truth will do this.

In the second half of the movie, the two Scholls are brought to trial, a show trial for the "people" to make their verdict. The director shows us a view of the scales of justice, the statue atop the court building, before going into these scenes. But what we see is a kangaroo court. Indeed, the judge who presides over this mockery of a court is even angrier than Mohr. He is full of Nazi propaganda and will not listen to anything that is contrary, though it might be true.

Scholl juxtaposes a young woman who stands for the truth, based on a firm foundation of faith, with two men who have no solid grounding. Both Mohr and Judge Freisler have a worldview of legalism, where the law is defined by the Nazis in power. Although Mohr is slightly sympathetic towards Sophie Scholl, having a son her age in the army, the judge is a rampant Nazi. He has no sympathy or empathy. To him, if you are not 100% in favor of total war, meaning the Aryan Germans will win at any cost, you are unworthy, and can be discarded. No doubt, this is what happened in Germany.

Toward the end, there is an overpowering scene where Sophie gets to see her parents. This still does not fail to bring tears to my eyes, though I have seen it three times. Though this scene is short, like the entire movie it is filled with a whole gamut of emotions: pride, grief, frustration, hope to name a few. The one mention of Jesus appears here and brings hope of eternal life and future reunion.
Throughout Sophie Scholl the director uses color and light for dramatic effect. Sophie wears a red sweater during the whole movie. While she is being interrogated by him, Mohr wears a red bow-tie. (At the very end, when he observes her after her meeting with her parents, he wears a black bow-tie.) The judge wears bright red robes and hat (looking like a Catholic cardinal). And, of course, the Nazi flags had a red background to highlight the black on white swastikas. Red is the color of power, of strength, and of blood, of life. This color is no coincidence. (It also reminds us of the use of red in Spielberg's fabulous black-and-white movie Schindler's List.)

In many scenes, Sophie looks out at the sky, at the sun. This appears a clear reference to freedom. But it could be more. It might be a subtle reference to her looking to the Son for her hope. She prays quietly to herself several times in this way. She seems to realize that her idea of a new democracy will survive though she might not. Her idea and ideals will see freedom and the light of a new day, though it still might take some time.

One of the strengths of Sophie Scholl is in the acting. Not only is Jentsch superb as Sophie Scholl, Gerlad Held is award-worthy in the role of Interrogator Mohr. Another strength is in the presentation of a Christian as a normal person whose faith can sustain her. Many movies made by Christian directors, use the hero as a cardboard cartoon, a two-dimensional character to voice the four spiritual laws, and whose prayers can receive a miraculous response from God. Sophie Scholl is a three-dimensional character with real-life issues, and whom God does not bail out. Her relationship to Jesus is what sustained her, and what gave her hope.

There are so many ethical issues that are raised by Sophie Scholl: conscience, God, morality, suffering, lying, accepting the consequences, worthiness of the disenfranchised and handicapped, situational ethics. The list could be expanded. More than this, what this movie does is makes you feel the suffering and pain of a person who could lie to survive and escape but who takes the moral high-ground and the cost that goes with it. Could we do the same if we were in Sophie's place? Are we doing it today in our own situations? You cannot watch Sophie Scholl and remain unchanged.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 10, 2008

WingClips . . . a resource for pastors & teachers

Through someone stumbling across this blog, I was informed about this resource for pastors and teachers in churches. Wing Clips is a web-site where movie clips can be downloaded for use in sermons and lessons. These folks have worked for several years, planning and meeting with various Hollywood studios to secure the legal rights to do this. One of their primary goals is to help all pastors more effectively connect their messages with their congregations.

There are new movies, such as Lars and the Real Girl, I am Legend, The Bucket List and Elizabeth: the Golden Age, as well as older movies. All clips are categorized thematically and vary in length from 1-4 minutes.

The medium-resolution subscription is free to people using this in a church setting. The high resolution subscription has a nominal fee. If you are teaching or preaching and are interested in using movie clips, this might be worth checking out. You can see what they are doing at I have also added this link to the "Web Links & Resources" sidebar on this blog. Enjoy.

And after my review of Sophie Scholl tomorrow, watch for my upcoming reviews of The Brave One, Caution/Lust, and Death at a Funeral over the next week or so.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Connect Group's Third Screening!

Yesterday, it was so encouraging to see about 18 people show up for our third Mosaic Movie Connect Group screening: Sophie Scholl -- the Last Days. With minimal action, the movie depends on the acting, which is stellar, and the plot which is gripping. The story is chilling in its authenticity, and so strong that when we ended and rolled the credits, no one moved or spoke for three minutes. It has that effect. This movie is profound!

After a simple bagel dinner and an ice-breaker group quiz, Ryan and I led discussion around the following topics:
  • Is it OK to lie to protect others? Is it OK to lie to evil people?
  • What would we have done in Sophie's place?
  • What would we have done and said if we were her parents? Or if it were our child in this situation?
  • How does Sophie present a model of how believers can act in the face of evil? Or simply in the presence of unbelievers?
  • What is different about this film's portrayal of a Christian than that of a typical Hollywood movie? Or even of that of a typical "Christian" movie?

The discussion was thoughtful, and everyone participated enthusiastically. I personally gleaned insight into the movie's possible "anti-American involvement in Iraq" message from Ryan's analysis. (Apparently this may have been reading more in than was intended -- see Ryan's posted comment below.) Watch for my review of this powerful movie on Tuesday. The next group screening will be The Incredibles on Saturday April 13th.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tombstone -- Justice is coming!

In the race to get a Wyatt Earp movie out, Tombstone (1993) was the victor over Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp, which ended up a theatrical flop. Tombstone is the story of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and their fight against "The Cowboys," a vicious gang of scarlet-sashed thugs. The opening scene sets the tone, and shows how cruel the Cowboys are, as they cold-bloodedly interrupt a Mexican wedding to kill several men, including the groom, and then sit down to enjoy the wedding feast. The next scene shows Earp (Kurt Russell) arriving in Arizona to start a new life. Immediately offered the job as sheriff, he turns it down flat, as he has left his lawman life behind.

Earp, along with his two brothers and the three wives, are riding into Tombstone, where they are starting over. As soon as Wyatt is told that one of the many saloons is avoided, due to the card-dealer (Billy Bob Thornton), who is loud and rude, he goes in and runs the oaf out. In doing so, it is clear that he is still seeking order. This gives him the chance to take over the gambling scene in this saloon, and sets the stage for the run-in with the Cowboys. It also reunites the Earps with Doc Holliday, a drunken, debauched, terberculosis-ridden gambler, who is also "the fastest gun in the west." Val Kilmer gives Doc the weirdest southern accept on film, but plays him well. You can feel the inner struggles of this dying man. (The words he says in the movie as he dies in a sanitorium with his boots off, "I'll be damned," are apparently historically true.)
As Tombstone, progresses, the sheriff of Tombstone is casually gunned down by a drunken Curly Bill (Powers Boothe), leader of the Cowboys. This murder, and the lack of interest by the cowardly US Marshall, forces Virgil Earp (Sam Elliot) to become the new sheriff. He deputizes brother Morgan (Bill Paxton), but Wyatt restrains himself as long as he can, but eventually the lawlessness gets to him and he, too, becomes a lawman again. Midway through is the infamous "gunfight at the OK Corral," pitting the three Earps and Doc Holliday against some of the Cowboys.

When the Cowboys murder Virgil, and wound Morgan, Wyatt deputizes several former Cowboys, who are shocked that the wives were targeted, and begins a hunt for all the members of the Cowboys. The movie becomes dark and violent as this hunt progresses. Earp becomes a wanted fuguitive, yet is determined to bring vengeance for his brother's death. As the movie taglines says, justice is coming. The climax pits the two fastest gunfighters against each other in a non-traditional gunfight with good winning out against evil.

As much as Wyatt Earp wanted to hang up his guns and live a quiet life, he simply couldn't turn his back on injustice and evil. He kept trying, but his conscience and those of his brothers pulled him back in the fight. James says "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins" (Jas 4:17), and this could be a theme for Tombstone. Wyatt knows what he must do, and though he tries to avoid it, he eventually knows he must do what is right. What do we face that we are avoiding doing? Are we working to enact justice in our lives, even if it is small justice? Are we ignoring injustice? Because if we are, we are sinning.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Martian Child -- pressure to conform

Martian Child is yet another story of a widower and a family. In this case, the great "everyman" actor, John Cusack, plays David, a science fiction writer with writer's block who thinks he wants to adopt a child. The child in question is Dennis, a boy who lives in a cardboard box and thinks he is from Mars. Needless to say, Dennis is a little wacky, and as such has been in and out of numerous homes and feels abandoned. Martian Child is a little like K-PAX, and both movies are mildly comic dramas that are skin deep.
The story is about a man becoming a father and a boy becoming a son. But it is more than this. It is also a story of human individuality and uniqueness. The box at the start is a metaphor for the box we all live in. Not only do we live in a box defining our boundaries and identities, but generally we want to put others in a box too. It is easier to stereotype them in this way and then to allow this to define our interactions with them.
David's sister Liz (John's sister Joan Cusack) gives him some "great" advice: "Parenting is hard" and "Kids come at you like mosquitoes, they suck the life out of you. But I wouldn't give mine up for anything in the world." (How many of us as parents can resonate with this.) But despite this "advice," he still pursues adopting Dennis.
When Dennis is sent to live with David, he comes out of his box but continues to want to live his life his way . . . with all the complications that ensue. His stealing and strange behavior isolate him from other kids, and even turn teachers away from him. Nevertheless, Dennis says the key line in the movie: "I'm learning to be human and to be part of a family." Isn't this so true of all of us. We are all learning what it is to be human and to be members of a family. For most, this family is the family we were born into, for others it includes the family we married into, and for Jesus-followers it even incldues the family of God. It is not always easy, and it means accepting others even as we want to be accepted for who we are.

At one point, David's publisher yells at him, "Why won't you be what we want you to be!" How often have we felt this pressure to conform to other people's expectations? How often have we fought to be unique, to be ourselves and not the fictional people others see in us?
Martian Child makes us think about our own role as parents. How hard do we really try to parent our kids? What is important to us? Is it the stuff that fills our homes, that cost us money? Or is it the lives of our children, that are more precious than all the money in the world? As David encourages Dennis to smash all the china plates in his home, because they are just stuff, we are reminded that we can replace anything except our children and our families. These are with us now, but can never be replaced. How we spend our time and money will speak loudly about our values.
Martian Child also helps us to think about what it means to be human. Is it the sameness of our features? Or is it in our differences, our distinctiveness? Is it the inner person, the soul, or is it the outer person, the body? Or is it both? Are we more human if we conform to social pressures? Are we less human if we rebel and behave in eccentric ways? Society may well answer this differently than the Bible. God's Word would say we are human, made in the image of God, in both our material and immaterial-ness.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 3, 2008

Dan in Real Life -- Family is foremost

Dan in real life is an advice columnist about to be syndicated. But though he can give advice to his readers he is not doing so well at home with his three daughters. A widower of four years, he is stuck relationally and his girls are growing up quickly.

The setting is a family reunion at a big lake house. The plot is as familiar as most rom-coms. Dan (the great Steve Carrell) runs into a beautiful woman, in this case Marie, played by Juliete Binoche (La Binoche, as the French say). The twist is that she is his brother Mitch's (Dane Cook) new girlfriend. This poses some comic situations.

As the movie unfolds, there are two standout scenes. First, when the large family has a talent show, and Dan refuses to participate. Yet, he accompanies Mitch's singing by playing guitar. And just when the song is thought to be over, Dan sings a final verse . . . to Marie. That brought tears to my eyes.

And, then a terrific scene where Dan is reading the riot act to his middle daughter, Cara: "What don't I understand, Cara? Please, help me out. What is it? Is it frustrating that you can't be with this person? That there's something keeping you apart? That there's something about this person that you can connect with? And whenever you're near this person, you don't know what to say, and you say everything that's in your mind and in your heart, and you know that if you could just be together, that this person would help you become the best possible version of yourself?" Who is he really talking to, if not himself!

There is symmetry in the issues he has with his two eldest daughters at the beginning coming back to haunt him perfectly at the end. For Jane, his eldest, it is driving. For Cara, it is falling in love with a boyfriend after only three days. The plot works to orchestrate this symmetry.

As Roeper and Ebert said in their review, this is a "sweater movie" -- everyone wears comfortable sweaters in it, and it is comfortable, not challenging. Yet, I found it to contain several relevant ethical messages.

First, Dan in Real Life answers the question "what is most important to a man" by showing it is his immediate family, in this case his daughters. Though his girls find him to be over-protective, Dan deeply cares for them, and wants the best for his daughters. Second, there is strong emphasis placed on extended family, parents, siblilngs, etc. There is a real and mutual dependence among famuily members. And finally, it stresses that honesty eventually is the best policy. For a while, Dan is trying to hide things, but he finally confesses all, even when he didn't have to. Instead of spinning things to make himself look better, he tells the straight up truth, and is willing to suffer the consequences. This is refreshingly honest and biblical. We all make mistakes, but our real character emerges in how we handle them.

This is a sentimental movie, but I cried more here than I did watching Away From Her. At one point, there is even the same message given to Dan as there was given to Grant: "Go now!" This is a fun, though light movie, that does point us back to the importance of those closest and dearest to us.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Away from Her -- a study of loss

An early scene establishes what this movie is about. Fiona (Julie Christy) is putting away the dishes as Grant (Gordon Pinset) dries them. Taking a frying pan, she slowly looks at it, then puts it in the freezer. Grant sees and realizes something is wrong. And it is with her memory. She has Alzheimer’s disease. Away from Her is a dramatic study of the impact of this disease on a person and on a marriage.

At the start, Fiona appears healthy and satisfied. But little by little we see something is wrong: in the sudden puzzled look in her eyes, in the glance back over her shoulder as she tries to remember what she was looking for. Christy does an excellent job of communicating the apprehension she is feeling, yet masking. Even as she is handling the disorientation, she is reading about the progressive effects the disease is having on her brain. She begins to accept the inevitable.

Though he does not want to move his beloved Fiona into this home, understanding the enormity of the step, it is Grant who explores the nursing home. During the initial tour, when the manager wants to take him to the “second floor,” which is reserved for extended care patients who are have “progressed” in the stages of the disease, he does not want to go there. He is still in denial. But Fiona knows she needs to be there.

When Grant finally drives her there to be admitted, he is facing the harsh reality of “cold turkey” separation. He has to leave her there for 30 days without a visit, and they have not been apart for a month in 45 years of marriage. He is the one who cannot be “away from her.” It is as much his story as hers. He almost cannot handle leaving her but she pushes him, with a note that says simply “Go now.”

He must adjust to an empty home, to a life without her smile, to hours skiing in the beautiful Canadian winter landscape alone. Yet, this is not near the difficulty that awaits him when he does return after the 30-day “settling in” period is over. He finds that Fiona has grown attached to Aubrey, a wheel-chair bound man. She hovers over him, gently caressing his hand. How hard that is for Grant, who begins to feel the pangs of jealousy.

Slowly over time, Grant is losing Fiona to Aubrey. And he is not happy about this. He cannot understand why this is happening. Did she simply need a purpose, and caring for Aubrey is her new sense of purpose? She tells him, “He’s less confusing for me.” She can no longer handle the confusion that her own husband causes her. Unwittingly, she is causing him pain and suffering.

As Grant spends long hours waiting and watching his life-long love drift away in front of his very eyes, he sees his marriage dissolve before him. He sees the second-floor beckoning. He finally comes to an acceptance of his situation.

Toward the end of the movie, Grant reaches out to Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), who is in a similar position, though not due to Alzheimer’s. As their friendship develops, she tells him “You have to make a choice to be happy.” The other option is to remain angry, and Grant is quietly angry. This is indeed a terrific ethical thought. How often do we say we are not happy, when it is really a choice we have made? Paul says in Phil 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” We can choose what we focus on; we can choose our attitude. We can choose to be happy.

Grant pursues Marian and commits an infidelity with her. After the act, the viewer is left wondering if it was worth it. Is there regret? It appears that both commit this sin out of a need for physical contact, the simple touch of another person. Both have been missing this. Both need it. Together, they fulfill this need. Yet, how much of it springs from need, and how much from jealousy? Did it really make him happy?

Away from Her raises some interesting philosophical questions: if we lose our memory do we lose our identity? Are we any less human for not remembering who we are and what we have experienced? Does this impact our heavenly future in any way? And what happens to those who are “left behind?” Is their suffering worse than that of the Alzheimer’s sufferer?

At one point, Fiona says, “I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” This line sums up our hope. Whatever our situation, whether we are suffering or not, whether we are losing our memory or retaining it, all we really need and should aspire to is a little bit of God’s grace. As the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs