Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Kingdom -- violence breeds violence

The Kingdom has all the potential to be a first-rate political thriller, great actors, interesting premise, terrific set-pieces, but ends up feeling stolid and somewhat predictable. Even the prelude, a documentary-like rapid history of Saudi Arabia, presumably there to educate us Americans so we know who the Wahhibi Muslims are, feels manipulative.

When two Islamic fundamentalists dressed as Saudi police break into an American compound in Riyadh, they start gunning down innocent Americans. They are eventually killed, but this is all a plot to draw an instant response team to the location where a car bomb subsequently goes off killing hundreds and shaking the kingdom to its core. One of the killed is a local FBI agent, and that raises the emotional temperature of the FBI state-side.

Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) heads up a large team of FBI investigators in Washington D.C. who have to watch this unfold on video thousand of miles away. Try though he does, he cannot get permission to take a team to investigate on-site. The Saudis don't want the Americans to take over, and the Americans want it all to disappear, since it is just another political hot potato. But with some scheming and subtle blackmail, Fleury gains acquiescence to bring a team of four to the kingdom for five days.

When they arrive they find their investigation is ham-strung by local politics. Appointed a protector, Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), they are baby-sat everywhere they go, and cannot conduct inquiries. The real inquiry is being led by an inept and brutal Saudi soldier.

As time starts slipping away, Fleury wins first Faris to his side, and then one of the many crown princes, and they begin to do real work. At one point, interviewing a father of a murdered wife, the widower yells at Faris, "Does Allah love your kids more than mine?" A tough question, the question of why some die and others live, the movie immediately abandons any attempt at an answer. Later, before going into a room of terrorists, Fleury asks, "Which side do you think Allah's on?" Both questions are symptomatic of the film, raising important issues but dropping them unanswered.

The Kingdom shows both militant Muslims as well as pacifist Muslims. It goes out of its way to show them praying, in mosques and in homes. The message is clear, there are lots of Muslims who don't agree with the fundamentalists' terror tactics. But there are also many who do, and the movie does gravitate towards these, showing them making suicide bomb vests and suicide cars.

The finale is an extended set-piece that sees one of the FBI agents kidnapped amidst a violent car chase through the perilous streets of Riyadh (everywhere outside the compound appears scary and dangerous, with everyone being a potential enemy). With three FBI agents and one Saudi policeman, this small team ends up taking on what seems like half the city. Four guns against dozens of bad guys, some with rocket-propelled grenades. Yet in true Hollywood fashion, the good guys emerge from this firestorm with no serious wounds.

Where The Kingdom falls down is in its character development. We see Fleury with several children, one his own, but we know nothing about his family situation. And the three team members, played by Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, are cardboard characters, never drawn out. Not knowing them, we don't really root for them. We root for them as FBI agents, roles not real people. And the implication that only the US investigators are capable of solving this crime is nationalistic and patronizing. How is it that in less than five days, they are able to solve the crime, kill the radical Muslim leader, and come home unscathed? Does this happen in real life?

The issue here is violence. The terrorists' violence is deadly, dastardly, despicable, but is the response any better? The Saudis resort to brutal torture of one of their own, who seems to be innocent, and learn nothing. The FBI go to Saudi apparently to help solve the crime. But when Faris tells Fleury he wants to kill the culprits when they find them, Fleury understands, even seems to agree. And in the post-climactic scene, we learn something about both Fleury and the radical leader that leaves us wondering if Fleury is any different than the terrorists themselves.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was shaken by a bomb; in the aftermath, the initial act of violence bred more violence. Worse, it gets insidiously inside the minds of fair men and women and causes them to want to do violence. But there is a "kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Heb 12:28). That is the kingdom of heaven that Jesus spoke about and inaugurated while on earth. His methods were not those of violence. Rather, he spoke of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving your enemies, winning them over apart from violence and terror. That kingdom will come, and when it does the lion will lie down with the lamb, and there will be no more need for guns.

(For a different review of The Kingdom on this blog, see Mike Todd's thoughts: .)

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Water Horse -- Accepting reality

With some hits (Amazing Grace, Charlotte's Web, and Chronicles of Narnia) and some misses (The Seeker, and most recently Mr. Magorium) Walden Media's newest movie, The Water Horse, is a near-hit. Set in the beautiful scenery of the wilds of Scotland during the second world war, this is the story of the Loch Ness monster and a boy, Angus (Alex Etel, previously in Millions). I expected it to be a fantasy of the caliber of Magorium and was fondly surprised that it was closer to the quality of Narnia.

We meet Angus as a young lad, lonely and fearful of water, exploring the Scottish shore-line. When he discovers a huge egg, he takes it home to the large castle where his mother Anne McMorrow (Emily Watson) is the housekeeper. He hides it in the workshop that used to belong to his father, who is off serving his country in the navy. Pretty soon, the egg hatches and a water horse, a legendary creature, emerges. A cross between ET and Yoda when it is born, Angus names him Crusoe.

Shortly a troop of British soldiers led by Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), a pompous English gentleman, arrives to take up billet at the castle. They are to monitor the loch for German U-boats. And then a new handyman Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin) arrives and things become complicated. The water horse is growing rapidly and can no longer remain in the workshop. Fortunately, Lewis befriends Angus and his sister and is let into the secret, helping hide Crusoe. The movie certainly benefits from the chemistry that Chaplin and Etel bring to their scenes together.

As Crusoe grows, so does our understanding of the family. Mrs McMorrow reveals that her husband has perished at sea, and Angus is in denial. He holds onto the hope that he will see his father again. She, in turn, in her grief has buried herself in her work, and is denying her two children the time they need with her. At one point, Lewis, in talking with these two kids, causes them to burst out laughing, and Mrs McMorrow hears this. "It's a long time since they laughed," she says, and he replies, "You might try spending a little more time with them." Grief can cause us to deny reality and can cause us to lose our relational centers.

As Lewis is a centering character, Hamilton is a decentering one. He believes Angus needs more discipline to straighten him out and give his aimless life more purpose. He sets about turning him into a young soldier, unsuccessfully however. Angus' purpose is to preserve his secret and to somehow protect Crusoe.

With Crusoe growing at an alarming rate, the only solution is to let him loose in the Loch, and that initiates a series of adventures and misadventures. The cgi representation of this legendary creature is reasonable at first, but when he takes Angus on a ride underwater credibilty is strained. How long can he hold on, and how long can he hold his breath? And how does he lose his fear of the water so rapidly? This is a little far-fetched.

When the British test their cannons, shooting shells into the Loch, Crusoe is scared and turns from a semi-tame, lovable creature into a scary monster. In this sense, "we" created the monster. From almost a family member ("You're my best friend, Crusoe") to a monster, we caused the transformation. And this transformation causes us to ask what other monsters have we personally created, in our own homes, in our own families? What verbal shells have we shot at friends and families causing them to become angry and turn, red-eyed, into fearsome terrors?

In the end, this movie is a journey of acceptance. As Lewis is the human glue that brings the family together, so Crusoe is the magical spirit that causes them to face their demons. Angus, in denial of his father's death, can accept the "unreality" of a mystical creature while his mother is the exact opposite. She cannot accept a monster in the lake, but the death of her husband is plain. When she comes face-to-face with the monster, she accepts reality. And, somehow this whole experience has brought the death of his father into a reality that Angus now accepts.

The main issue of The Water Horse is that of accepting reality, and that there is something deeper, more magical. Some of us look at the "real" world and accept this, but do not accept the spiritual world that we cannot see. There are "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12). There is a God in heaven, there are angels, and "some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb 13:2). There is a spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, bursting through this present reality. Are our eyes open, like Angus, to see such unexpected things? Or are we, like Mrs McMorrow, working to avoid, even deny, this reality?

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James -- Acceptance or Betrayal?

The full title of the movie is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. You can tell from the length of the title that this is not going to be your usual western. In fact, it's going to be long and detailed, just like the title. Assassination is to the gunslinging western genre what Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line was to the WW2 war movie genre. Some will find this slow and a little tedious if action is in mind, but the power of the movie is in the visual beauty and the character exploration, especially of acceptance and betrayal.

The movie opens and closes with narration. "He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. . . .They didn't know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn't even know their father's name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard." We are introduced to Jesse James as a family man, with a home in the city.

But he is more than a simple husband and father. The narrator goes on, "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. . . . He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old. " He was a killer with charisma. By the year 1881 he was a living legend.

As we start the movie we meet Robert Ford, so ably played by the fresh-faced Casey Affleck (who was fantastic in Gone Baby Gone). He is 20 years old and idolizes the James brothers. All he wants in life is to be part of the James gang, to be like Jesse, perhaps to be Jesse. His initial approach to Frank James is spurned: "You're not so special, Mr. Ford. You're just like any other tyro who's prinked himself up for an escapade, hoping to be a gunslinger like them nickel books are about. You may as well quench your mind of it, because you don't have the ingredients, son." This is especially hard for Ford to take. He reveals his vulnerability, "I've been a nobody all my life. I was the baby; I was the one they made promises to that they never kept." We can empathize with this, since how many of us have had promises broken. Later, Jesse also rejects Ford's "apprenticeship" and in so doing creates his own nemesis. This is shades of Buddy/Incrediboy in The Incredibles, who cast aside by Mr. Incredible becomes the evil Syndrome.

This theme is crucial. Jesse could have taken the youg Ford under his wing, and taught him, trained him, made him. Ford worshiped the ground Jesse walked on. But Jesse made a huge mistake. Rather than granting acceptance, he gives out rejection, and it ends up killing him. And this raises an issue for us. How do we treat those who look up to us? Do we use our position of influence for the well-being and growth of our would-be mentees? Or do we fail to recognize these opportunities to bring good into the world, and instead act like Jesse, impatiently casting aside those who want our time and touch? Perhaps we don't even take the time to dwell on those around us.

Andrew Dominick has given us a beautiful film, that shows us views of the old West we rarely see in movies -- cowboys who have homes, with families and furniture, who live in towns and go to churches. They shop, cook, play with their children. He uses time-lapsed photography to show scenes of clouds moving across sweeping landscapes of deep wheat and grass. The camera provides long, slow visuals of horse ride journeys. And he uses soft-focused vignette-stylism to transition scenes so that they communicate the historicity of the drama.

The turning point is when Ford kills Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Jesse's cousin and co-train robber. Knowing Jesse is hunting the traitor who turned four of his gang into the law, and knowing further that Jesse will avenge this death, Bob and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), now live in fear. Bob's hero-worship turns sour, and this former idolizing kid becomes an angry and resentful adult.

Assassination is actually a well-acted character study. Brad Pitt is outstanding as the family man/cold-blooded killer, Jesse James. When he is in his killing mind-set, he reminds us of Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Nothing will thwart him, and he verbally spars with his victims. On these killing trips, he brings fear with him as an invisible side-kick, that is so apparent it could be credited. This is a slow-burner of a film. Pitt's Jesse James remains unchanged, though struggling with his prior choices, but we get into the mind of Robert Ford through the acting of Affleck. We see him grow and change. While Charley is a joker, handling everything with humor, Robert wears his emotions on his sleeve. As it progresses, the intensity is slowly cranked up until the atmosphere is taut with tension, and each line spoken causes nerves to jangle.

It is clear from the turning point that either the Ford brothers will be killed by Jesse or they must kill him. It is a question of how and when. Toward the end, Jesse gives Bob a beautiful new gun. It seems evident that he knows that Bob will use it to kill him. Why does he do this? He is already a legend. But he is a legend who is troubled by inner demons: "I can't hardly recognize myself sometimes when I'm greased. I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and my mean face and I wonder about that man who's gone so wrong. I've been becoming a problem to myself." He seems to want to die, and is almost setting himself up for Bob. And Bob takes the opportunity given and kills him in a cowardly manner.

After this, Bob takes to the stage to reenact night after night this cold-blooded killing, before it finally gets to him. Though he solved a serious crime problem in Missouri, he was hated because of this action. Rather than gaining the respect and attention he desired, he was despised as a coward. And no one likes a coward. In closing the movie, the narrator tells us, "he was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case- that he truly regretted killing Jesse." The framing of the opening and closing of the movie with narration makes it seem almost documentary-like.

The story of Bob Ford brings to mind the story of Judas and Jesus. Judas spent time with Jesus, three years traveling as his companion. Yet, unlike Jesse James, Jesus never spurned Judas. Instead, Judas' inner evil desires caused him to betray Jesus. This betrayal earned him thirty pieces of silver, as Ford's killing of James earned him money and infamy. But, like Ford, Judas could not handle the inner shame and regret. His life ended at his own hand, a man filled with remorse. Betrayal of a friend, even a legend or Lord, is a tough meal to digest. It can bring nothing but sorrow for all.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Coming May 10 -- Blade Runner

Our last planned movie screening of the current season will be Blade Runner, to be shown on Saturday May 10. (We'll discuss summer options for this connect group at this event, as we don't want to lose momentum during the brief period while the Oregon sun blazes.)

As always, we'll show the movie around 4:30pm, eat some bagels and then discuss the film around 7pm. Babysitting, bagels, coffee, popcorn . . . what more could you want!

For a full-sized personal invitation to hand to others (or to post on your fridge), click on the image above or click here.

My movie reviews coming soon include The Assassination of Jesse James, The Kingdom, and The Water Horse.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rendition -- Torture as propaganda

According to Wikipedia, "rendition is a 'surrender' or 'handing over' of persons particularly from one jurisdiction to another." Extraordinary rendition, in the context of this movie, refers to the transfer of suspected terrorists out of the US to a country where harsh interrogation takes place, even torture.

The plotline is ostensibly clear: Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a Egyptian living in Chicago on a green-card, disappears on his flight home from Africa through DC. Though he boarded the plane, there is no record of him ever arriving. Unfortunately for him, a suicide bomber killed dozens of people in the unnamed middle-eastern country that is the locale for the heart of the movie. And since an American intelligence officer was killed, the CIA wants to do whatever it can to find the culprits. Anwar's apparent non-arrival in Washington DC is slightly subsequent to this tragedy. Anwar's very pregnant wife Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), sadly waits for a husband that will never show, since he has been legally kidnapped by US officials and sent to the country where the bombing took place.

With Anwar in custody, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) is the principal interrogater/torturer. To protect America's interests, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) a local CIA paper-pusher is assigned as the observer. This is outside of his activity, but the local "knuckledragger" is the CIA agent killed in the bombing. So, Freeman is asked to step up his game.

Now, along with this obvious story-line, there is a sub-plot with Fawal's daughter, who is in love with a terrorist-wannabe. Throw in Meryl Streep as CIA chief Corrine Whitman, who makes the call to take Anwar prisoner, Peter Sarsgaard as Alan Smith, the long-time friend of Isabella who works at a senator's office, and Alan Arkin as the senator, and you have the makings of a gripping, multi-threaded thriller, along the lines of Crash or Traffic. Unfortunately, the screenplay does not include much character development. These are all flat characters, with no real backstory. Even the acting is subdued, apart from Naor who plays Fawal with strength and conviction. As one of the leads, Jake Gyllenhaal seems miscast in his role. He appears unbelievable as a young CIA analyst asked to do a very dirty job. It is obvious what he will do, and if the audience can sense this, his superiors should too.

Though the story is fun to watch, it is clearly a vehicle for the political statement the director is trying to make: rendition, introduced in the Clinton administration, is being used inappropriately by the Bush regime. The story is so loaded to this end, that only one statement to the contrary stands out. Corrine Williams, when confronted by Alan Smith on this abuse of human rights, says "Honey, this is nasty business. There are upwards of 7,000 people in central London alive tonight, because of information that we elicited just this way. So maybe you can put your head on your pillow and feel proud for saving one man while 7,000 perish, but I got grandkids in London, so I'm glad I'm doing this job... and you're not." We torture one, and save 7000. Those are "good" statistics.

While Rendition raises the issue of ends justifying the means (7000 alive, one tortured maybe dead), it does not develop it fairly or thoughtfully. As Anwar is tortured, he finally breaks and gives his captors what they want: information. But how good is information obtained in this manner? How certain can we be of coerced information? And if the information is suspect, what possible justification can there be for such acts? Just as the data that caused him to be taken in the first place is questionable at best, so is this confession. And it could, likely will, lead to other arrests and torture.

Ethically, the Bible says all men have dignity being created in the image of God. This implies that they should not be tortured. But in war, and terrorism is a form of war, biblical ethics become more difficult. (This is clear when we have committed Christians both ardently supporting and opposing war.) Intended to leave the audience morally disgusted with the use of extraordinary rendition, Rendition left this critic wondering how such a potentially good movie could end so suddenly with a Hollywood happy ending. And such an ending, instead of bringing satisfaction to the viewing, cheapens the overall experience. In this life, good guys don't always end victorious, and bad guys don't always get their comeuppance.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Margot at the Wedding -- Secrets and Gossip

Billed as a comedy, or comic drama, Margot at the Wedding is cruel and caustic. Its “comedy” is pointed savagely at family members. It’s like the family reunions we attend where old Uncle Ned or second-cousin Sally are sure to poke fun at us for the mistakes we made in our youth. Now, take that and multiply the pain a hundred-fold, and you have the comic basis Noah Baumbach’s depressing movie.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) takes Claude (a terrific debut role for Zain Pais), her androgynous son, to visit her estranged sister Pauline (Jeniffer Jason Leigh) who is going to marry Malcom (Jack Black) at the family home within a week. This sets up the film for Baumbach to explore family dysfunctionality. Or rather, for him to show scene after scene of vicious dialog. This is one family with infinite degrees of separation; this is a family you are glad to be rid of.

Margot at the Wedding Publicity StillMargot and Pauline are foul-mouthed sisters who share a love-hate relationship. Although Pauline thinks Margot is her best friend, they haven’t really spoken in years. Both struggle to hold onto relationships, and this failure is rooted in their abusive childhood. Though we do not meet him, their father has hurt them and his shadow continues to darken their lives.

The simple marriage is set to occur in the garden in the shade of a huge tree. The tree is a source of conflict for the neighbors, who want it cut down, since it is diseased and destroying their property. The tree is a clear symbol for Margot’s family. Although it appears strong and healthy, within it is diseased and is poisoning everything around; any relationship that comes close is damaged. We can predict what will happen to the tree, and hence to the family.

Margot at the Wedding Publicity StillAs Margot meets Malcolm, an unemployed musician/artist, she sees him as less than worthy for her sister. Malcolm, himself, says “For me, expectation just turns to disappointment, and so ultimately I'd rather not try." That is a self-defining statement. Black plays Malcolm as a whiny loser, yet he is the most lovable of all the characters. Indeed, Black demonstrates acting not seen from him before. And Baumbach pulls outstanding acting from Kidman, too, who shows a depth of emotion from a self-obsessed “winner” with borderline personality disorder.

At the heart of this story is the issue of secrets. Very early we realize this when, in a living room scene with the main characters present, Pauline shares, “Malcolm was fondled by a male babysitter.” What a bomb! Pouting, Malcolm retorts, “Just use that information however you want." It gets worse. Later, Pauline tells a secret to Margot in private. It is confidential. But Margot cannot keep it hidden and shares it with one person. That is one person too many, and it is not long before it is public knowledge. (With the lies that are being told, this could have been called Secrets and Lies, but that was a 1996 British movie, and "Secrets and Gossip" only works as a blog title.)

But Margot is a writer, and ceaselessly critical of all. She has made her fame by writing nakedly about family. She finds many ideas by writing her Margot at the Wedding Publicity Stilljournal. But in using this, she damages those around her, who do not want their secrets revealed. She has already destroyed Pauline’s first marriage in this way. In fact, Margot is like a hurricane leaving a trail of damage and devastation in her wake, unawares. She believes she has it together, yet her marriage is failing, she has a cruel lover, Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), and she is drinking and popping pills. When Margot is interviewed by Dick at a local bookstore, he cruelly yet casually throws a nuclear bomb of a question at her that perhaps causes her to see herself honestly for the first time: she is the one who has abandoned her family. But she rejects this criticism.

Margot presents an insightful illustration of the proverb, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Prov. 11:13). When we are told a secret in confidence, it is our ethical duty to maintain that confidence. To do otherwise is to betray trust. Telling even one person, puts this confidence in peril. But it is so easy to let it slip, if we are not careful. Or perhaps it puts us in a position of power or prestige if we can somehow let another know what we know – to gossip about this. Whatever, or however, we might do it, sharing a secret hurts the other person and damages our character, too.

At the start we see Margot and Claude on a train to the Long Island coastline. At the end we see Margot and Claud on a bus back. Much has happened in between, but none of it positive. With the exception of Margot’s husband Jim (a brief role for John Turturro), who is gentle but weak, all these characters are sick and horrible, with multiple skeletons in their closets. Just like No Country for Old Men there is no redemption here.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Animatrix -- Matrix' Humanistic Backstory

One of my favorite movies is The Matrix. If you liked that movie, you will find The Animatrix fascinating. This is a collection of nine short animated movies telling the backstory of the world of the matrix. These nine shorts are created in different styles, some more “realistic” than others, each intriguing.

The first three are the strongest. Starting with “The Flight of the Osiris” which tells the story of the ship Osiris as it tries to warn Zion of an imminent attack. This is set in the time of The Matrix Reloaded. The second and third stories, “The Second Renaissance Parts 1 & 2,” fill in how the earth came to be under the control of the machines with humankind acting as their energy cells. “A Detective Story” is a film noir of the Sam Spade variety, where P.I. Ash is hired to track Trinity. But the last short, “Matriculated,” is as confusing as the final Matrix movie, filled with Beatles-like psychedelic colors and themes. A group of humans is trying to “convert” the machines to their reality, not as slaves but as “freed” machines.
In “The Second Renaissance” the main character, the instructor, says, “In the beginning, there was man. And for a time, it was good. But humanity's so-called civil societies soon fell victim to vanity and corruption. Then man made the machine in his own likeness. Thus did man become the architect of his own demise.” And later, “And Man said, 'Let there be light'. And He was blessed by light, heat, magnetism, gravity, and all the energies of the universe.” So much has been written on The Matrix trilogy, on the parallels with biblical faith. Others see elements of Buddhism or new age beliefs. These quotes make it plain that the Wachowski brothers are pulling almost verbatim from the Scriptures. But they are infusing them with a humanistic spiritualism that is opposed to the tenets of Christianity. For example, in the short “Kid’s Story” when the kid sees Neo, he says to him: “Neo, I knew you would save me.” And Neo replies, “I didn't save you kid, you saved yourself.” According to the makers of The Matrix, we don’t need a savior, we can save ourselves.
Without writing a thesis on The Animatrix (and it is worthy of such an endeavor, though not here), I want to highlight three ethical issues that emerge from the movie. First, in “Program” Duo says, “Maybe you regret taking the red pill.” In so doing, he puts regret firmly on the table. Do we ever regret accepting Jesus? If we have taken the “red pill” of Jesus so we can now see reality as it is, if we have tasted the goodness of God, would we regret it? Could we regret it? Faith with regret might be a false faith.
Perhaps regret is not the issue, but doubt might be. Here is the second ethical issue. Do we ever have doubts? Is our faith that solid that doubts never occur? I think not. Faith without doubt is an untested faith. God tests us, so that our faith might become stronger, just as he tested Abraham when he commanded him to sacrifice Isaac (in Genesis 22). When doubt comes, it is an opportunity for us to test our faith. As Pastor Morris Dirks said recently, "He who has never doubted has never believed. It is not doubt, but what happens with doubt, that's crucial. Doubt destroys unworthy faith." And Tim Keller, in "The Reason for God," said: "A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic." If our faith is not strong enough to stand up to our doubts, it is not a good enough faith to support us for eternity.
The third issue is ecological and environmental. The instructor tells us, “So the leaders of men conceived of their most desperate strategy yet. A final solution: the destruction of the sky.” In an attempt to win the war against the machines, mankind destroys the sky and in so doing destroys the natural environment. This is a deliberate strategy in the movie backstory. But how are we destroying environment in reality? Or how are we saving the created order. God in creating mankind gave him the cultural mandate, to protect the world. It is our duty to live in ways that allow other species to live, to keep nature as pure as possible. We cannot and must not actively seek to profit off the earth’s resources if it cannot be sustained.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Incredibles -- together or alone?

How does Pixar keep on doing it, turning out winning movie after winning movie? With great stories that captivate and thrill. The Incredibles is another from this winning stable. Written and directed by Brad Bird, recently an Oscar-winner for Ratatouille (from the same studio), this was a 3-D cgi movie after his former 2-D animated movie The Iron Giant (itself a great movie).

The Incredibles is a super-hero movie where the super-heroes have become shunned and banished by the public they were helping due to a glut of lawsuits (is that a societal issue today in the US?). The supers have hung up their capes, removed their masks, and permanently taken on their alter ego identities.

At the start of the film, a young and single Bob Parr (aka Mr Incredible) is off to his wedding, when he hears of a police car chase. Doing the right thing, he dons his super-suit and rushes to the rescue. En route, he encounters Buddy, his biggest hero, who wants to work with him, as his sidekick, Incrediboy. "I work alone," says Mr Incredible, and this is a recurring theme and weakness of his. In casting Buddy aside, he puts inside him a seed of resentment that will bear bitter fruit years later, when he becomes Syndrome, his arch-nemesis.

15 year later, after the lawsuits and his wedding to Helen (aka Elastigirl), we find this super settled down in suburbia. Bob is overweight working as an insurance agent, and barely fitting into his company cubicle. Bored to tears he pines for his super-hero days when he saved the world. When given the chance to do it again, he jumps at it, though he keeps it secret from Helen and their kids, Dash and Violet.

The charm of the story is in the ironical one-liners ("you can be super wthout them [superpowers]", "aren't we all misunderstood", "you have more power than you realize", "everyone can be super, and with everyone super, no one would be", "Mom and Dad's lives are in jeopardy . . . or worse, their marriage"), and the references to other movies. From the James Bond-like orchestral score as Dash runs on water, to the Indiana Jones boulder rolling down to kill them, from the Mission Impossible "this tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds" to the cruciform-like image of Spiderman saving an L-train, Incredibles is replete with references.

Of course, the story stands and succeeds on the backs of its engaging characters.The leads, Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), are so true to life that we see ourselves in them and their situations. We can easily put ourselves into the role of Bob, trapped in the boredom of a dead-end job that does not match our strengths. We have experienced the frustration of being strectched to breaking point, like Helen, by the petty squabbles or endless activities of our children. We can remember the desire to be invisible in High School, like Violet, when wanting a date but fearing rejection. And we can picture ourselves running to victory like Dash in the championship race, if only we are given the chance. They are us, they are real, even if computer generated.

The moral premise of the movie, according to Stanley Williams, is that "battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; but battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory." Throughout the movie Mr Incredible refuses to allow others to help, to work with him, because he finds his identity and purpose in his calling. But he cannot do it alone. And when he tries he fails. But as he learns to let others help with their talents and super-powers, he grows.

In one scene, his whole family has been captured by Syndrome and are hanging helpless, chained by zero-energy bonds. He starts monologueing, and while he does, Violet uses her force-field powers to get loose and free them all. He could not do this alone.

At the initial climax, when the family arrives back in the US to save the day, Mr Incredible still wants to do it alone, because he does not want to lose Elastigirl; but he can only keep her by letting her in, letting her help, and hence risking losing her. In this pre-climax, and the final one with Jack-Jack, only working as a family of supers are they able to gain victory. Working together the family wins. And this is a film that families can watch together and enjoy together.

This false ethic of working alone, like the legendary cowboy in the old Westerns (e.g., Shane), is one we must face and fight. Whether at home, at work, or in the church, we cannot and must not do it alone. Particularly in the church, God has given each of his Christ-followers one or more spiritual gifts, Holy Spirit-empowered abilities that enable us to serve others. If we try to do it all ourselves we will not only fail and burn-out, we will deprive others of the opportunity to use their gifts. Do you know what your Spirit-given gift is? If so, are you using it to the glory of God to serve Him?

Another main issue is that of identity. Incrediboy tells us "to be true to ourselves," but who are we? Do we really know ourselves? And if we do, do we let it out, do we show others? Or do we wear masks to protect our identities? As a victim of identity theft in the past 5 years, I know first-hand the difficulty and struggles that occur when our identities are not well protected. But how do we keep a balance between letting others know who we really are while not giving away too much that can hurt us? If we protect our true identity too much, then like Bob our cubicle will become crammed and claustrophobic and people will never come to know us. Relationships are built upon openness and trust, and that demands appropriate vulnerability.

Finally, The Incredibles tackles head-on the issue of "normal" and "fitting in." Society wants the supers, and us, to simply fit into their expectations. When we do, society is satisfied, but we may feel imprisoned. There are some appropriate behavioral expectations imposed by society, such as not stealing, not killing, not slandering (sounds a lot like the Ten Commandments), but within these limits we can and should be ourselves. Normal is just a term. We are more than normal, more than average. As followers of Jesus, we are sons and daughters of a king, of the King. We are special. We fit in, but in the unique and distinct ways God has created us.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Movie Group shows The Incredibles

The Mosaic Movie Connect Grup met for the fourth time this year yesterday. Eleven stalwart regulars sacrificed time in the sun (that yellow orb in the sky that rarely shows itself until July here in Oregon) to sit in a dark and cool basement watching The Incredibles. But what fun it was. Since this was a family-oriented movie rated PG, we had half a dozen kids viewing with us, and they were incredibly well-behaved. (Perhaps they learned a lesson or two about being true to yourself, and even coming in second.)

After the screening, we enjoyed Noah's bagels and some "hang-time" before going into discussion. Ryan, co-leader of the group, led us through an analysis of the moral premise (or message) of the movie using techniques described in "The Moral Premise" (see link on blog "Resources" sidebar). And then movie man Martin (yours truly) engaged the ethical issues of the movie, working alone vs together, protecting your identity, being normal and fitting in (if everyone in Portland were weird, as in "Keep Portland weird," would weird become normal?). All in all it was an incredible night -- see the photos below.

Amy, Becca and Martin (movie screen in the background)


Ryan, Becca, Hannah, Alison, Ezra, Amy and Caleb being true to themselves

Kirstin and Sue connecting!

Sharon and Andrea -- future photo connect group leaders?

Pre-discussion discussion!

Ryan in his element, leading the group

Coming soon to this blog, my reviews of The Incredibles, The Animatrix, Margot at the Wedding and more. Check out the blog over the next week or so to read these.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, April 12, 2008

District B-13 -- Vehicle for Parkour

Parkour is a cross between a sport and a martial art form. It is the acrobatic and athletic approach to getting from A to B as quickly and easily as possible, regardless of the obstacles in the way. David Belle was the founder of parkour, and he is one of the leads in this French action-adventure film.

District B-13 is more a vehicle for parkour than a full-fledged action movie. With a cast of unknown French actors, and written by Luc Besson (who directed the 1997 Willis flick The Fifth Element), it is largely unknown in the United States. It is set in a grim Paris in 2010, where near-anarchy is present. The government has given up on many areas and bordered them, building walls to form ghettos (anyone remember Europe during World War 2?). District B-13 is one of them, populated by lowlife, and run by a criminal gang. There is little law, and what "law" there is is administered by the one with the biggest gun. The wild west has moved east to Paris.

The movie opens with an almost 30 minute prologue, introducing the two lead actors. Leito (David Belle) lives in B-13 and is trying to clean it up, to make it better for those who call it home. When he destroys 1 million euros worth of heroin, his sister Lola is kidnapped by the B-13 crime boss, Taha. Leito succeeds in rescuing her, and capturing Taha, but the police will do nothing. Instead, Leito takes the fall and is sent to prison. Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) is a captain in the Parisian police force, committed to upholding the law, regardless of what it is. We see him at the culmination of a prolonged undercover mission, as he takes down an entire gang single-handedly in the mayhem of a casino bust. Clearly he is not someone to be trifled with.

Immediately after the casino take-down, Damien is asked to go into B-13 where Taha has possession of a stolen neutron bomb. What a coincidence! In the theft, it has been inadvertently armed and triggered. He has less than 24 hours to find it and defuse it. His only help is Leito, who wants to find and rescue Lola. This sets the scene for the final two-thirds. We have a “buddy” movie with two “buddies” on different, though related, missions.

District B-13 is fast-paced, but the plot-line is thin and the dialog is cheesy, especially toward the end. The scenes are sometimes far-fetched, with bullet-riddled cars carrying totally unscathed passengers. How can so many men fire so many bullets and not one time hit the targets?

The ending brings a twist. B-13 is a problem for the government and, though not the “final solution”, their solution is to simply neutron bomb the ghetto. When Damien asks, “You really think the government would allow District 13 to be destroyed?” Leito answers, “Six million died for not having blonde hair and blue eyes.” So what is two million when most of them are criminals? When governments decide arbitrarily who can live and who can die, they have put themselves outside of the law. And at that point, citizens must resist and call them to account.

At the end, ironically Damien says that the problems of the world cannot be solved with violence. After spending 90 minutes solving this French problem with violence, both guns and fists beyond the capability of most, he is now calling for a more pacifist approach. For sure, violence is to be avoided as much as possible. But there are times and places where violence is the only solution (anyone remember World War 2?). Knowing the difference is the key.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 11, 2008

No Reservations -- Life is unpredictable

Every so often I set aside the action adventure or drama genres and I watch a romantic comedy. I have three girls and a beautiful wife, you see. Most rom-coms are formulaic, few are engaging. No Reservations is both formulaic and engaging. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Kate, head chef at the upscale 22 Bleecker Restaurant in Manhattan, and Nick, as an Italian-trained sous-chef, are a cute couple.
Kate has worked hard to claw her way up to the top, the head honcho in this expensive epicurean establishment. She has no other interests, no family, no relationships in the last few years. In short, she has no life . . . except for her kitchen creations, such as her signature quail with truffles. And she is in therapy, at the orders of her boss, Paula (Patricia Clarkson).
Tragedy strikes Kate's neat and tidy life, when her sister is killed. Kate winds up with her niece, Zoe (played by the adorable Abigail Breslin who was so good in Little Miss Sunshine). Kate is a fish-out-of-water. As strong and in control as she is at work, she has no idea how to care for a child. She does not know what to feed a kid. She forgets her and leaves her waiting on the school steps.

When Kate goes back to work, she finds a man running her kitchen. And not only a man, but one who is "conducting" the other chefs in a magnificent rendition of Italian opera with passion, while he keeps the food coming. Nick is clearly Kate's opposite. Kate is all cool control, a general giving orders in the kitchen, expecting instant acquiescence. Nick is playful passion, a composer collaborating with fellow creators. They are oil and water.

Inevitably, Nick wins Paula's approval but not Kate's. Inevitably, Nick wins Zoe's affection, and even Kate's approval when he gets her to eat . . . some spaghetti (don't all kids love this?). Inevitably, Nick and Kate date, even if it is a home-cooked Italian dinner on "safari." Inevitably, Nick and Kate kiss, though it takes a while. And inevitably, they break up, setting up the rom-com finale. But it is an engaging ride, played well by the leads, who have good chemistry.
No Reservations, light and comic though it is, serves up a couple of meaty main course thoughts for us to ponder. First, Kate the controller says to her shrink, complaining about Nick, "He's so unpredictable!" She cannot stand such disorder in her kitchen, which is her life. The shrink replies, "Life is unpredictable." How true. We think we have a handle on our own destinies, our lives. We think our plans are working. And then, WHAM, we have a blowout. James says, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' " (Jas 4:13-15). God is in the one ultimately in control of things, and God is not predictable. So life is unpredictable. For some of us, like Kate this is difficult to accept.
The second ethical main course relates to that of control. Kate, embraces control because she does not trust. She has been hurt before; there is relational pain in her past. Nick sees this and says, "You won't let anyone in." We are relational beings. In relationships we do get hurt. But in relationships we also find the deepest joy and love there is. Relationships require trust; they are a gamble. Paul Simon sang, "I am a rock, I am an island." That's Kate. It takes Zoe for her to understand there is more to life than just work. And in relationships there cannot be one-way total control. Healthy relationships require a give and take, and that is trust.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs