Saturday, May 31, 2008

Eragon -- Why me?

opens with a narration by Brom (Jeremy Irons) introducing us to the land of Alagaƫsia and its history, including the dragon riders. "But the riders grew arrogant, and began to fight among themselves for power. Sensing their weakness, a young rider named Galbatorix betrayed them, and in a single bloody battle, believed he had killed them all, riders and dragons alike. Since then, our land has been ruled by Galbatorix. He crushed all rebellion, including the freedom fighters known as the Varden." This is as much character development as you will see in this dull dragon discourse.

As the story begins, Arya (Sienna Guillory) is riding for her life with a blue stone, stolen from King Galbatorix (John Malkovich). When she is caught by the evil wizard Durza (Robert Carlyle), she somehow transports the stone to another place in the forest. How she got the stone and how she transports the stone are never explained. Perhaps the director thinks the viewer will be so caught up in the "action" that he will not ask.

When Eragon (Ed Speleers) finds the stone on a hunting trip, he takes it home. Of course it is a dragon egg, the last remaining dragon egg, and it hatches into a very cute beastie. Quickly, so quickly it grows from a small hatchling to a giant flying dragon, Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz). And this underscores the main problem with this movie. It moves so quickly that there is no character development, no time for nuance of plot. Many of the characters have so few lines that they come on stage and are gone before you know they were even there. What dialog there is comes across as wooden and stilted.

Eragon can be compared to another recent movie with a monster's egg found by a youth that hatches: The Water Horse. Both aim at the youth market. Where Water Horse engaged with appealing characters and a cute plot, Eragon overflows with tedium. Silent Nessie easily wins over speaking Saphira.

When Eragon hooks up with Brom, it gets a little more interesting, but not much. With a confusing clutch of characters, many unnamed, Eragon fails to keep the viewer's attention. At one point Arya says to Eragon, "Time moves quickly" but not for this audience. Eragon seems to drag on and on, with action sequences that are simply dull. Though many of these scenes bring to mind Peter Jackson's terrific trilogy, try as it might to be a youthful Lord of the Rings, this is more like Bored of the Dragons.

Eragon does raise a number of questions such as: how did Eragon learn his magic, why does John Malkovich never leave his dark war room and why does he only interact with Durza, why does Eragon smile so much, and why did so many good actors commit to this doozy of a project? One of the biggest questions is why was Ed Speleers cast as Eragon in his debut role, since he looks like a deer in the headlights through most of the film.

The one serious question and challenging issue that is raised in Eragon is "Why me?" A universal question raised by men and women when something unexpected and difficult, even tragic, occurs, Eragon asks this of Brom and of Saphira. "But you were chosen," says Brom. As a son does not choose his father, so a rider does not choose his dragon. The dragon waits for the right time and chooses the rider. Indeed, Saphira explains why she chose Eragon: "You choose a leader for his heart." When Eragon replies, "But I'm not without fear," Saphira retorts: "Without fear there cannot be courage."

When we face tough times, and are tempted to ask "why me?" we can remember that as followers of Jesus, God has chosen us. We did not choose him, he chose us (John 15:16). He allows us to be in the positions and situations we face. And fearful as we might be, we can trust that we will lead with courageous hearts, with hearts of faith.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Matrix -- nature of reality

With gas prices rising faster than a Cape Canaveral space shuttle launch, it is clear we have a desperate need for an alternative energy source. In The Matrix this alternative energy source has already been found. Unfortunately it is the human body; and it acts as a fuel cell for the machines that have taken over. In huge fuel farms, people live their lives naked and unconscious, oblivious in pods connected to the system via tubes and pipes. They are the equivalent of Duracell batteries.

The Matrix is one of my favorite movies and I can watch it again and again, still feeling a thrill each time. Drawing deeply from earlier movies, such as Blade Runner, for mood and atmosphere, and using desaturated cinematography to paint a picture with greens, greys and blacks, it is a vision of the future that is dark and dank. When it came out it broke new ground with a level of special effects, stop-time photography, and a gritty urban style that felt novel. Dark shades and black leather, The Matrix did as much for fashion as it did for sci fi. Libraries are filled with books written about this movie; still, it is a memorable trip (it gives a new meaning to "bug in the code") and a film worth reviewing.

Keanu Reeves plays Thomas Anderson, a software geek by day and a hacker named Neo by night. And he is on a quest. When he mysteriously meets Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss), she cuts to his heart: "You're looking for him. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn't really looking for him, I was looking for an answer. It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did." To which Neo replies, "What is the Matrix?" This is his quest.

In many ways, Neo's question is humanity's question, our question. This is the question we spend our lives answering: what is the meaning of life? Life cries out for purpose. Else all is meaningless, a few trips round the sun and we're gone. Biblically, we are shown that human life has purpose: to glorify God and ultimately to enjoy Him forever (1 Cor 10:31; Rom. 15:6). Apart from this we must embrace existentialism or nihilism.

The Matrix is filled with religious themes and questions. It appears to be strongly biblical, but these are more references than clear pointers. Indeed, The Animatrix, the animated short-story collection providing the backstory that fills in many of the missing details, makes it clear that the underlying religion is a curious synthesis of humanism and eastern mysticism.

Neo goes with Trinity to meet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in a dark abandoned hotel (shades of the abandoned theater where Deckard meets Batty in Blade Runner?). Here Morpheus tells him that all is not what it seems. "The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us." The visible world is merely a software construct created by the machines to keep humanity sedated. "It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth." The real world is beyond. But it cannot be described it must be experienced.

At the climax of this classic scene seen so many times, Morpheus offers Neo the ultimate choice -- the red pill or the blue pill. The blue pill takes you back to "normality," to humdrum existence, to the world of the "physical" senses. The red pill opens your eyes to the truth. "All I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more," Morpheus says. This choice is crucial to the plot development. The similar choice to accept Jesus or not is crucial to the development of our own personal plotlines. Unlike Morpheus, however, Jesus offers more than truth. Truth is certainly included in the package. But Jesus says to us, holding out the red and blue pills, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me" (John 14:6). He offers to us life, true life.

When Neo takes the red pill, he sets in motion the inevitable path to confrontation. He is freed from the fuel farm and picked up by Morpheus. He wakes to find himself in a physical world that is dull and gray, compared to the mental world of the colorful Matrix. He now has to learn what this all means. Morpheus believes Neo is the one prophecied by the Oracle who would bring the humans, now living deep underground in Zion (the promised land) the last remaining city, victory over the machines.

After Neo gets trained, learns multiple martial arts, and has met the Oracle, being told by her that he is not the One, there is a fateful trip into the Matrix where the group is betrayed by one of their own, Cypher. Like Judas betraying Jesus for money, Cypher has betrayed Morpheus, Neo and Trinity for a return to a "better" life, even if that one is in cyberspace. In the ensuing action sequence, Morpheus uses himself as a decoy to allow Neo and Trinity to escape. In so doing, he is captured.

Back in the real world, Neo and Trinity decide to seek a rescue, and kit themselves head-to-tie with enough firepower to take down Fort Knox. Returning to the Matrix, there is the classic "rescue from the military building" scene. This stands as one of the finest action set-pieces in recent film-making. With spent cartridges seen dropping to the ground in slow-motion, and wall-walking machine-gun firing heroes, this is sheer macho action. Of course, Morpheus is rescued. But this itself leads to the terrific rooftop gunfight scene that introduced the world to "bullet-time" where we see the bullets fly slowly by as Neo and the agent weave and dodge the bullets. Spectacular!

As the climax approaches, Neo must face off with the evil software agent Mr Smith (Hugo Weaving). No human has ever fought an agent and lived. But no one before has been Neo, no one has been the One. He faces Smith and both draw weapons, like old-time cowboys, but neither is killed. After shooting their full magazines, they resort to hand-fighting, and it is fast and furious. When Neo kills Smith it is over. Or is it? Agents can take over any human, since they are in the construct, and so Smith simply takes over another host and is "raised from the dead." At this Neo runs.

But he cannot run forever, and he finally runs out of space and time. Smith shoots him. Not once, but multiple times at point blank range. He is dead. Then in a pointed reference to Sleeping Beauty, Trinity, who loves Neo, kisses his dead lips in the real world, and unbelievably he comes back from the dead in both worlds. He is the One! He is truly resurrected, raised from the dead. In this new life, his new body in the Matrix has new powers, much like Jesus' resurrected body could walk through walls (John 20:26). He can now stop bullets dead. And with one diving leap, he enters Agent Smith's body and from the inside changes him, destroys him. He has finally won, but it took his death and resurrection to make this happen.

If Neo is a pointed reference to Christ, raised from the dead, Trinity may be a reference to the Holy Spirit who breathes new life into the dead (Gen 2:7, Job 33:4). Morpheus appears to be more of John the Baptist than God the Father, since he is the one who pointed the way to the savior. He was looking his whole life for Neo.

The Matrix is so full of ethical issues that only two or three key themes can be addressed here. One key theme is slavery. In his initial encounter with Neo, Morpheus says, "You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind." Paul says essentially the same thing in Romans 6:16-23. All humans since Adam have been born into slavery, a slavery to sin, due to Adam's original choice to sin. But we don't know it, because it's not readily apparent. This is a prison that confines without bars, a prison you cannot touch, taste or see, but a prison nonetheless.

A second key theme is the corollary of slavery -- freedom. Humans want to be free. Free to control their own destinies. Free to explore and enjoy. Morpheus says "You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind." Jesus says "Come, follow me. Have faith and do not doubt" (Matt. 4:19; Matt. 21:21). Though we may be filled with some level of unbelief, we must trust Jesus our Savior and cry out "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

These two previous themes are important, but the overarching theme is that of reality. What is the nature of reality? "What is 'real'? How do you define 'real'?" In The Matrix the world that most people live in is a dream, a false facade created by the machines. The real world is a parallel existence found by only a few. Likewise, we live in a physical world governed by physical laws. We can experience this world with our senses. But the bible makes it clear that there is a spiritual existence that is parallel to the physical (Eph. 6:12). We cannot see this spirit world, but it is there regardless. And there is a connection between the two, just as there is in The Matrix. By following Jesus, we are given new life and a reborn spirit.

Interestingly dreams play an important part in both worlds. Morpheus says, "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?" Dreams can be as vivid and realistic as real life, sometimes more so. So much so that it can be hard to know which is which. That was true in the movie, and it is true today. Indeed, God used and may still use dreams as a means to communicate with people. In Matthew 1-2, Joseph is warned several times in dreams of impending danger to Jesus, as too are the Magi.

So, how do we know what is real and what is a dream? That is a key philosophical question raised by The Matrix. The directors suggest we can be led to the truth by someone who knows. But we have to walk by faith, freeing our mind. The Bible says we must be led to the truth by Someone who knows, by Jesus. And he says we must walk by faith . . . faith in the one who is the truth, the way and the life!

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Prince Caspian -- looking for Aslan

A woman is in childbirth in a castle. A son is born, a portent of a new age. A prince hides in a wardrobe, only to surreptitiously see soldiers turn his bed into a shower of feathers with crossbow bolts. And this wardrobe, which has a secret passageway, is his way of escape out of the castle to a magical forest. Chased by soldiers intent on killing him, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) falls from his horse and blows the magical horn before falling into oblivious unconsciousness. Thus starts Prince Caspian.

Andrew Adamson directs this second movie of The Chronicles of Narnia franchise as a less spiritual and more traditional Hollywood offering. The four Prevensies are now in London, not the country. Peter has not transitioned well back into adolescent life and is mixed up in fights with other kids. He carries himself with an air of superiority, of arrogance. (Susan asks, "Why can't you learn to walk away?" to which Peter replies, "I shouldn't have to.") Perhaps this is appropriate for a high king, but not for a high schooler. But the horn summons them back to the magical land of Narnia. This time, however, it is not winter but it is 1300 years later, and things are different. Narnia is more savage. The magical creatures are hidden, no longer living openly, due to the efforts of the neighhboring Talmarines, who have sought to exterminate them, as they would vermin.

After rediscovering their chests of clothing and weapons in the ruins of Caer Paravel, they save the life of a dwarf, the crabby Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage, who appeared in Death at a Funeral). With him tagging along, they go off in search of Aslan in Narnia. But Peter (William Mosely) leads them the wrong way. Lucy (the wonderful Georgie Henley) sees Aslan standing across the gorge, but no one else does, and they mock her. "Would you please stop talking to me like you're grown-ups? I don't think I saw him, I know I saw him." When asked later why she alone saw him, she says it may have been because no one else was really looking for him.

Eventually the Pevensies meet Prince Caspian, and, along with the centaurs, the bears, talking mice (Reepicheep, voiced by Eddie Izzard), etc, form an unlikely force to combat the evil Talmarines. Initially, Caspian voices his concern, "You're not exactly what I expected." And this is sometimes how we approach God's answers to our horn-blowing prayers for help and deliverance. But God answers our cries in surprising ways. Sometimes we are confused, sometimes we are concerned, but God is not. He provides answers to his children who call out to him in their time of need (1 Pet. 3:12).

With Peter taking the lead, and the animals and peoples of Narnia following him as their liege, he arrogantly plans a raid on the castle in Talmarine, where Prince Caspian's wicked uncle has his usurped the throne, rightfully belonging to the Prince. This first battle is exciting, but fraught with problems. Indeed, Susan (Anna Popplewell) asks Peter, "Who exactly are you doing this for, Peter?" It seems in his arrogance he has forgotten Aslan. He is looking for his own honor. His motives are mixed. And forgetting Aslan, forgetting Christ, is a recipe for disaster, in this case ominous defeat.

Seeing so many friends helplessly slaughtered does something to humble Peter, but not enough. It takes a strange encounter with the White Witch (Tilda Swinton, fresh off her Oscar win), encased in an ice prison. Without the help of Aslan, the other choice for power is to turn to the dark side, in this case the "white side." As Caspian is almost seduced to free her with a drop of Adam's blood, it is Peter who stands transfixed, ready to call on her. But Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the deceived in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, becomes the deliverer here, with a swift swordthrust.

The final battle between the forces of dark and light is inevitable. With dear Lucy sent to look for Aslan, as she is the only one who has seen him since their return, Peter takes his stand as King against the overpowering number of Talmarines. In a thrilling mano-a-mano swordfight duel against the wicked King, he buys time for Lucy.

And it is little Lucy who finds Aslan, absent for too long in this movie. Aslan, powerful and dangerous, never tame, is the deliverer that Narnia needs. With his people in dire need, and Lucy looking in his large eyes, he re-breathes spiritual life into the trees, even the river, bringing restoration to the land. With forces of nature on the side of good, no evil can withstand the Narnians.

Prince Caspian is not perfect, but is an entertaining movie. Three of the four Prevensies (not Lucy) are irritating, and the dialog is too stiff at times. Yet, the animals bring welcome comic relief, especially Reepicheep the mouse and Trufflehunter the badger. In all, it is more developed and darker than The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Though less Christ-focused, it highlights several important spiritual principles. Two stand out.

First, the fact that only Lucy can see Aslan is witness to the need for a child-like faith. Jesus himself said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).

Secondly, to find Aslan, to find Jesus, we must be truly seeking, looking. He will reveal himself to the humble, not to the proud. As High King Peter sought victory for himself on his own terms, Aslan was not ready to help. When Peter was humbled, with nothing left for victory, staring defeat in the eye, he was ready to find Aslan. How often do we look for Jesus when we are really looking for our own victories? How often do we miss out because we have become proud and haughty? Peter, the biblical apostle not the high king, says "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (1 Pet. 5:5).

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cape Fear -- Justice or Truth?

The first glimpse we have of Robert De Niro in Cape Fear is of his bare back as he exercises in a prison cell. Emblazoned on his skin is a tattoo of a huge cross from which hang two scales, one bearing the word "Truth" and a Bible, and the other "Justice". The theme is thus clear from the very start -- can truth and justice be balanced or will one outweigh the other. Can you have both truth and justice?

Cape Fear is a 1991 remake of a 1962 film. In that one Robert Mitchum played Max Cady, and he shows up in this movie as a police lieutenant. Gregory Peck, who played Sam Bowden in the 1962 version, has a minor role as a defense lawyer in this remake; indeed, this was his final appearance in a theatrical film release.
Here, De Niro plays Max Cady, a psychotic criminal with a creepy southern accent released after 14 years behind bars for brutally raping a 16 year old girl. When we next see him he looks refined and well-dressed, having moved to the small town where Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) lives with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). But this is no coincidence . . . . Bowden was Cady's defense lawyer. In one of their first interactions, Cady tells Bowden that he will teach him about loss.

Bowden appears to be a successful attorney with a beautiful family. But this is a veneer. Beneath the surface, he is a womanizer lusting after his law clerk. Leigh is a bitter and brittle wife who knows of her husband's philanderings. Danielle is a 15 year old rebel who has been caught smoking dope and almost expelled from school. This is no "leave-it-to-Beaver" family.

Reunited with his Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese, De Niro gives a strong performance as a vengeance filled, bible-quoting psycopath. In some ways, Cady's character brings back shades of Travis Bickle: both are mentally unbalanced, both have an aggressive character, both want to effect justice on their own terms. De Niro was born for these powerful roles, and in recent movies he has settled, even sold-out, for the easy job (such as Stardust, Meet the Fockers, Shark Tale, etc).

When Bowden's dog is poisoned, he pulls a favor from the local cops and they bring Cady in for a shakedown. In so doing, they see that his body is a living canvas for all the tattoos adorning arms, chest and back. Most of them are scripture verses. Here is a man who believes in truth and justice, but his justice. But the shakedown proves unsuccessful, and Cady is set free.

Scorsese cranks up the psychological tension as Cady seduces and rapes Bowden's girlfriend. In a vicious scene, he savagely assaults her leaving her knowing who he is. He knows she will not give evidence since she will face gruelling cross-examination and public humiliation. Cady knows how to work the system. And the system is slow to respond to such terrorizing.

With Cady free to do more or less what he wants, Bowden starts to unravel. Cady tells him to read the book of Job -- he is going to make him suffer as Job suffered. And then we learn the truth about Bowden -- he buried a crucial piece of evidence at Cady's trial. The raped girl was promiscuous. He hid this because he felt that she did not deserve what happened, and Cady deserved to be locked up for the act. He acted as judge and jury against his own client. And so the central question of the movie is made clear: is justice legitimate without truth? In locking up Cady with tainted evidence, was justice really served? The victim was marred, the culprit was imprisoned. Would it have been right to present evidence that would likely have meant Cady walked? What would we have done in Bowden's position?
As Cape Fear moves towards the climax, Bowden hires a sleazy private investigator, and then agrees to pay for three thugs to beat Cady to a pulp. But things continue to go against him, and he ends up with two dead bodies in his home, courtesy of Cady, and a panicked family.

Driving to a houseboat on the Cape Fear river in North Carolina, they seek escape. But escape is not in the cards. Cady is with them, and stalks them until he confronts them alone in the middle of a storm. Crazed for vengeance, he enacts a courtroom scene for all three, with Bowden in the dock. He yells at Bowden, "I find you guilty, counsellor! Guilty of betrayin' your fellow man! Guilt of betrayin' your country and abrogatin' your oath! Guilty of judgin' me and sellin' me out! With the power vested in me by the kingdom of God, I sentence you to the Ninth Circle of Hell! Now you will learn about loss! Loss of freedom! Loss of humanity! Now you and I will truly be the same."

As a Catholic, Scorsese often returns to religious themes in his movies. And Cape Fear is no different. With biblical references painted on De Niro's body, he explores themes of salvation and judgment, guilt and freedom, fear and depravity. Bowden displays a guilty conscience that has caught up with him and he cannot outrun it. His salvation is not in the suffering Cady wants to impose. It is not in the killing of Cady that Bowden wants. Indeed, when he tries to kill Bowden in a climactic fight and ends up with blood on his hands, like Pilate or Lady Macbeth he tries desperately to wash this away, salving his guilty conscience. No, his salvation can only occur in true confession and repentance and faith.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Run Fatboy Run -- Running from responsibility

Simon Pegg, so good in Shaun of the Dead and absolutely hilarious in Hot Fuzz (which has to be one of the funniest, if goriest, comedies of the last decade), is only mildly comedic as Dennis Doyle, a fatboy failure, in Run Fatboy Run. After seeing the trailer, David Schwimmer's directorial debut movie is somewhat disappointing.

In the opening scene we see Dennis at his own wedding, a man in fear, almost a man facing his own death. As Gordon (Dylan Moran), his best man, tries to coax him out of his room to go across the street to the church, Dennis lies on the bedroom floor, banging his head and gazing blindly into a future of commitment and responsibility. Shaken to his core, he runs from this responsibility leaving his pregnant fiancee Libby (Thandie Newton) standing in the street forlornly watching, aghast.

Five years later, Dennis is still a loser, renting a basement flat and working as a security guard in a small lingerie store. He still loves Libby but can't get the courage to do anything about it. He settles for seeing her when he sees his son, Jake. But when he discovers Libby has a boyfriend, Whit (Hank Azaria), his jealousy is inflamed. What is worse, Whit is a successful hedge fund manager (i.e., well off financially), an American who runs marathons for fun and for charity!
Not knowing what to do, Dennis seeks advice from his best friend Gordon. But what a relationship role model: "The only serious relationship I've been in ended in a broken collarbone and a dead meerkat." That scene is left to our imagination! Clearly, relationships are not us, or rather them. This is something missing from the lives of the main characters.

On a whim, to win back his woman, Dennis decides to compete against Whit in the upcoming Nike River Run marathon. But Whit is a perpetual quitter, never finishing anything. As Libby says, "You can't even finish your sentence," to which Dennis replies, "Oh . . don't . . . don't . . . don't be . . . what's the word?"

But where the first act sets the scene with amusing scenes and dialog, the second act falls flat, apart from a few laugh-out-loud gross-out jokes (think bursting a blister). Whit is shown as a disciplined and dedicated man, a perfect foil to Dennis' undisciplined approach to life. (He always leaves his house keys in the house.) The interactions between the two focus on the relationships with Libby and Jake, and set up the final act.
By the third act, which is the race itself, the film has become predictable and boring. Whit's discipline is shown to be a form of control, and in fact this charity-oriented saint is a self-centered controlling cheat.
Fatboy raises the issues of responsibility, commitment, and respect. At one point in the movie, Dennis despairs of winning Libby back and in conversation with her, tells her he just wants her respect. This is consistent with biblical relational imperatives. God made woman for man, and in the context of marriage, Paul says to men: "each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband" (Eph. 5:33). Men desire and strive for the respect of their women.

In regards to marriage, success is predicated on trust and commitment. Marriage is a relationship that carries with it certain responsibilities for both husband and wife. If a man does not commit to his wife, even with the prospect of an uncertain future, the future is certain -- failure. Even if he thinks he is not good enough, if she has chosen him in love, and if he loves her too, their active commitment to one another will sustain them through the tough times ahead. Like life, marriage is a ship that will sail on calm seas as well as stormy seas -- that is a given. How we approach it makes all the difference in the world.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Iron Man -- Change of Heart

I have never read any of the Iron Man comic books, so came to the movie unbiased, a tabula rosa. With no expectations to be met or dashed, Iron Man proved to be blast, a thinking man's superhero movie.

Robert Downey Jr plays Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries a weapons manufacturing company selling to the US military and others. Stark is a genius inventor, and a wealthy playboy, enjoying all the pleasures money can buy: wine, women and song. He thinks hard, drinks hard, plays hard, sleeps little.

Iron Man begins in Afghanistan, where Stark is demonstrating his latest super-rocket to the US army. In flashback we see the previous 36 hours to introduce his hedonistic character: he is totally self-absorbed, with no relatives and no real friends. But in a surprise attack on his convoy, Stark is wounded by one of his own weapons and is captured by local militia terrorists. A fellow prisoner, Yinsen, saves his life by implanting a huge electromagnet in his chest to prevent the shrapnel from entering his heart and causing cardiac arrest.

In captivity, Stark is commanded to recreate his super-rocket by the terrorist leader. With nothing but the scraps they could find, Stark decides to work at this project (or else be killed). In reality, he is creating a small super-reactor to power the magnet and save his heart. With that done, he turns his genius on building a prototype Iron Man suit that will get him and Yinsen out. And he succeeds, but not without losing Yinsen. As he dies, he tells Stark, "Don't waste your life." What a challenge!

Iron Man Movie StillUpon returning to the United States, he asks his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to call a press conference. Shadowed by his friendly and worldly-wise second-in-command Obadiah Stane (a bald Jeff Bridges), Stark begins by showing some unprecedented emotional vulnerability: "I never got to say goodbye to my father." Then he drops the proverbial bomb: "I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries." For a war-monger who profits from weapons and death, this is economic suicide.

The obvious moral issue raised is that or profiteering from weapons used in war. Whereas earlier he had shown no moral qualms for making a buck or a billion off a rocket or two, now he has seen the effects of his rockets at first hand . . . and it is not pretty. In a capitalist society it is too easy to focus on the immediate task and the bottom line and avoid worrying about the bigger picture, and the consequences of our work.

The immediate focus for Stark is to seclude himself in his multi-million dollar mansion where he labors to recreate his suit. Not a true superhero with powers of his own, his man-made suit is his alter-ego. This gives him his power to fly, to crush, to survive bullets. With only a talking robot as lab partner, and Potts as his coffee-bearing companion, Stark throws himself into this task.

On this journey of self-discovery, Stark has his eyes further opened when he sees a photo of a village destroyed by his weapons. Seeing the deception of his company, and Stane in particular, and the devastation to human life, Stark takes the next step in his character growth. Now, "there's no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There's the next mission and nothing else. . . . I shouldn't be alive . . . unless it's for a reason. I'm not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it's right." He has become a man on a mission.

Cold-hearted and indifferent to the suffering in the world, he gets a new heart, a warm heart that visibly pumps power into him. With this he gets a new perspective and a new mission. He has purpose, a purpose other than simply pleasure. Following Jesus is like this. Before finding him, we are cold, with hearts of stone. We are self-absorbed. But after seeing and savoring the Savior of men, we cannot remain unchanged. Iron Man Movie StillHe gives us a new heart, a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26). And with this heart comes a mision -- to love others, to carry this good news, the gospel, to a cold but needy world (Acts 1:8). Are we living as missional people in this uncaring world?

When Stark perfects his red and gold suit, it is a sight to behold -- beauty and power combined. It is unbelievably cool! The movie is as much as about the suit as about the characters. With a combination of computer generated imagery and animatronics, the suit is fantastic. In several extended scenes, Iron Man provides gripping and thrilling action sequences. From the chase by two US jets, to the finale, these are worth the price of admission.

With anyone other than Downey playing Stark, this would be a typical superhero movie. But Downey's performance is right on the money. He plays a conflicted playboy to perfection. Casting wisecracks faster than one can blink, he infuses humanity and realism into the role. Perhaps drawing from his own very public issues, Downey conveys the journey from hedonist to hero with total credibility.

Meanwhile, Stane is no friend. He is striving to create the same kind of suit for himself, to wield the power that will make him Iron Man Movie Stillinvincible. But he is no inventive genius. And his scientist employees cannot match the intellect of Tony Stark. So Stane reverts to out-and-out theft and cold-blooded killing. Stealing Stark's heart, he creates his own mega-monster, Iron Monger. This inevitably sets up the final confrontation between Iron Man and Iron Monger, a classic good versus evil confrontation. And after this confrontation is over, the final press conference provides one of the most terrific closing lines in recent movie history, one the left the audience cheering.

As Stark has evolved for the better, so Stane has devolved for the worse. Bridges displays fine work as an antagonist whose mask is slowly removed to reveal the true nature beneath. His subtle unmasking from corporate charmer oozing smarm to callous killer oozing evil is nuanced and credible.

As much as Iron Man leaves us feeling satisfied, cheering on the good guy, it leaves us wondering if we are still celebrating violence. Is it ethically permissible to fight violence with violence? Should we use technology and technologically advanced weapons to fight evil? Or, in doing so, are we simply becoming part of the problem itself?

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead -- Sin's Slippery Slope

The title of the movie is apparently taken from the Irish toast: "May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you're dead." In the opening credits, director Sidney Lumet (last seen as an actor in Michael Clayton) replaces 40 years by 30 minutes, focusing clearly on avoiding the devil and squeaking into heaven, not on being there to enjoy it. But leaving the first part of the toast out, it is evident that this is going to be a dark movie, a common theme of 2007 dramas.

In the opening scene we see Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) enjoying paradise, well Brazil at least. But there is a worm in paradise, and their brief pleasure is but a short respite from reality, the reality of New York. This happy scene is as good as it gets. It's all bleak and downhill from here, and the opening makes this clear.

Devil uses the postmodern technique of nonlinear story-telling, with flashbacks cut closely into the narrative, and showing the same scene from different perspectives to communicate new information. This is both entertaining and confusing in parts, as we don't know exactly what is going on. But that does add to the building of tension.

Back in New York, Andy is an accountant or senior manager in a real estate firm. Dressed in tailored suits, and living in a posh house, he seems to be successful. But appearances can be deceiving. Underneath he is an embezzler and a drug-addict. He is emotionally estranged from Gina, though they share the same house and bed. At one point, he confesses to his drug-dealer that he feels disconnected, his whole is less than the sum of his parts.

Hank (Ethan Hawke) is Andy's little brother who is divorced and behind on his child support payments. He is in dire need of money. He is defined by the labels others impose on him. His brother and his dad (Albert Finney) call him a baby, and his daughter and ex-wife call him a loser. He lives up (or down) to these appelations. Hawke plays him to a tee, controlled by the sultry voice of Andy, a snake of a brother. This calls us to think carefully on the names we call those around us. Even in jest, a name can stick and define a friend or relative. He may shrug it off as a joke, but it may subtly stick in his subconscious and have an impact beyond its intent.

Since both Andy and Hank are in dire financial needs, Hank devises a scheme to net them quick cash -- rob a jewelry store. The twist is, that the store is a mom and pop store, not a large chain, and it is their mom and pop's store. Easy in, steal the jewels, the folks get the insurance, and Andy sells the loot to a fence for 20 cents on the dollar. No one gets hurt. That's the plan.

Before Andy will reveal this plan to Hank his little brother must commit to the robbery. As Hank's interests grows, he goes from standing to sitting, to committing. This is an example of the downward path depicted in Psalm 1: "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers."

But in real life, as in a good Hollywood film, plans don't usually work without some hitch. When Hank brings in a helper, since he himself is a baby, the help carries a gun. Things go awry, bullets get fired and Mom ends up in ER. There is no haul, just ruined lives, dead bodies.

As the non-linear story unwinds, we see the build-up to the robbery intertwined with the consequences of the botched job. Hank looks to Andy. Andy looks to preserve himself. As the movie progresses, little things crop up to bring the two deeper and deeper into trouble. As this happens, Andy's sin blossoms. What started with drug abuse and stealing, led to robbery and homicide. It finally leads to cold-blooded murder.

Sin leads a person down a slippery slope. What looks easy is not, but instead has a high cost and takes a terrible toll on all those around. Sin destroys families not just individuals. Like No Country for Old Men, this movie has good acting from the four main characters (as well as from Amy Ryan as Hank's ex-wife), but is a bleak picture of human depravity and sin's consequences. There is no redemption here.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl -- Community Love & Acceptance

Lars and the Real Girl is an unconventional but poignantly beautiful comedy about loving, accepting and growing up. It ranks with Juno as one of the most redemptive movies of 2007. Indeed, Christianity Today in one of its polls voted it Most Redemptive movie of the year.

Ryan Gosling is Lars Lindstrom, a semi-recluse, living in the garage while his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) have the house. The romantic interest that is central to the movie is Bianca, a real doll, also known as a sex doll. With no dialog, she is in almost every scene, and the characters, especially Lars, play convincingly as though she is real.

Lars is thirty-something with a job but no real life, no deep relationships. He cannot bear to be touched, and this is a metophor for his unresolved childhood insecurity. As he interacts with Gus and town physician Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), we progressively see the long-standing causes of his mental illness and isolation.

Everything changes when Lars orders Bianca to be delivered to his door. He believes she is real, though wheelchair bound. Now that he has a "girlfriend" he emerges from his shell and interacts with his family. The scene when he introduces Bianca to Gus and Karin is a classic of jaw-dropped shock.

In a visit to Dagmar, she suggests to Gus and Karin that they play-along with this delusion: "You won't be able to change his mind, anyway. Bianca's in town for a reason." This is tough for a man to take, and Gus says, "Everyone's gonna laugh at him," to which Dagmar retorts, "And you." This is hitting one of Gus's own insecurities: he does not want to be a laughing stock for the community.

But Gus's fears prove groundless, because in a meeting with the church pastor and some members, the pastor finally asks the cliched question, "What would Jesus do?" Well, Jesus would accept the marginalized, the sick, the wounded. And that is what the community does. They agree to go along with Lars' belief. They begin to treat Bianca as though she were a real girl.

Lars stands out among Hollywood movies for treating church and church-goers as real people. The reverend is a person, not a stereotype. The parishioners are not caricature Christians who are bigoted and anti-everything. Instead, they are normal not beautiful. But they show what it means to follow Jesus in community.

As Lars develops, the town folk have put shoe leather on their love for Bianca, which is really their love for Lars. They take her to places, they hang with her, they party with her. This is a wonderful picture of acceptance and love. Gus had feared Lars would experience rejection and painful mocking for his mental illness, and this is a typical response to things misunderstood. Yet instead, he receives love. Not love merely in words, but true love that is shown in its actions. And love is the redemptive oil that lubricates relationships and enables personal and spiritual growth.

If acceptance and love is one area Lars needs to develop, the other is in shedding his childhood (symbolized here by the baby blanket he still carries around with him) and becoming a man. He asks Gus, "How'd you know . . . that you were a man?" Gus answers, "Well, it's not like you're one thing or the other, okay? There's still a kid inside but you grow up when you decide to do right, okay, and not what's right for you, what's right for everybody, even when it hurts." Moving into manhood, especially for Lars, is a choice to act. This corresponds to the apostle Paul's own advice, "When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me" (1 Cor. 13:11).

Eventually, Bianca develops a fatal illness. In the midst of tragedy, three elderly sewers come over simply to sit with Lars. This is so reminiscent of Job's comforters. When tragedy strikes, sitting with someone quietly is perhaps the greatest gift we can give them. Inaction over action is needed, since there is usually no action that can solve the problem. We Americans so often want to fix things immediately. But we cannot fix tragedy.

As with most tragedies, this one ends in "death". The church is packed for the funeral, but this is no sombre occasion (though I personally shed a tear or two), this is a celebration of life. Bianca is eulogized as one who "reached out and touched us all, in ways we could never have imagined. She was a teacher. She was a lesson in courage." And she is a real doll. This is a eulogy we would all desire to have for our own, but how many of us can inspire such words? This shows that it sometimes takes one person, one character, to bring a community together. That one person can make all the difference in the world. It can mean acceptance and love, in contrast with rejection and scorn. Jesus came to offer this kind of community, and he gives us the grace to make this community happen here and now. To a large degree, this is what the kingdom of God is all about. Are we prepared to be a real guy or a real doll for those around us? I hope so.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Blade Runner -- What defines humanity?

A box-office bomb when it was released in 1982, Blade Runner has slowly built up a cult following. It was reissued in 1992 as Director's Cut, where the Harrison Ford voice-overs were removed and the final scene was cut to eliminate the happy ending leaving it dark and ambiguous. The consummate version, though, is the recent Final Cut edition. As a prelude to that one (the one I recommend) director Ridley Scott says it is his favorite since he has reshot some scenes, corrected some errors and cleaned up the sound and picture quality.

Blade Runner is a science fiction urban film noir set in 2019 Los Angeles, based on the book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by Philip K. Dick. (Indeed, it may be the quintessential science fiction movie.) Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an ex-blade runner policeman who retires (not executes) replicants (androids) who run free on earth. Ford is perfect in the role of detective, and is Philip Marlowe-esque. In fact, given a brown fedora he could be Marlowe (except Ford wore that hat in Indiana Jones).

Six killer Nexus-6 replicants have escaped from slavery in a distant world and have found passage back to earth. But this is not the earth we know. It is dark, wet and crowded. It is all cement, skyscrapers and slums. There is no greenery. People now stay on earth only if they cannot afford to buy their way off-world. The whole earth, then, is a low-life ghetto. When making the film, the director and producers were fearful of ecological concerns, over-population of the earth, and the death of animal life, and this is evident in this grim futuristic setting.

Deckard is "asked" to come back on the force to hunt these replicants down, and he is given no choice, though we don't know why. He is running from something and does not want this job, but reluctantly takes it. His first task is to talk to Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the owner of the company that made them (" 'more human than human' is our motto"); in this sense, he is the maker of the replicants. At Tyrell's penthouse suite in the pyramid he lives in, he questions Rachel (the beautiful Sean Young), who he discovers is a replicant herself, though she does not know it. "How can it not know what it is?" asks Deckard, and that is a question that lingers.

Rachel is played with acerbic toughness and intelligence. She gets under Deckard's skin, with her beauty and her questions ("Have you ever retired a human by mistake?"). Ford instills a laconic dry wit into his hard-edged Deckard, and they make an intriguing couple.

There are many elements of the true 40s film noir. There is a beautiful femme fatale, Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), a snake-bearing replicant dancer (that was her own pet snake). The film is moody and atmospheric (most of it was shot at night in the rain, with smoke-machines producing the smoke that is ubiquitous). Deckard, is a whiskey-drinking loner with a hidden chip on his shoulder. And there is a complex storyline around several criminals (replicant killers in this case).

Ultimately, though, the film is all about what it means to be human. Replicants are emotionally impaired. They cannot experience true emotion, at least at first. They cannot empathize. Is that what differentiates them from humans? Is it emotions that define humanity? Without emotion would we be less human, or even not human? Emotions are important. Indeed, without them life would be so much less colorful. But animals have emotions, though perhaps less developed than humans. Pets, cats and dogs, can show happiness when their owners return. Emotions cannot be what defines humanity.

Blade Runner suggests memories as a differentiator. Tyrell says to Deckard, "If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better." Deckard replies, "Memories! You're talking about memories!" Tyrell had implanted false memories into Rachel, an experimental replicant. She thought she had a childhood. She (and all the replicants) had a love for photographs, false though they were, since they "connected" her to her "memories". With these, she had a past. She "knew" who she was. But they were not hers.

So, the question Blade Runner raises is whether memories define humanity. If we had no memory, would we be any less human? Is a man suffering from acute Alszheimers disease, and hence no memory, sub-human? Obviously, not. Clearly, as above, animals have memories. Pavlov's experiments with dogs proved that. So, memories do not make a man. But how do we know who we are? Memories play a key role here. Most of us look to our family, our jobs, our friends to know who we are, but these are all described in our memory banks. If we had false memories implanted would we be more human or a different person?

Another of the replicants, Pris (Daryl Hannah looking like a freak), says "I think therefore I am." Referring, of course, to the saying by Rene Descartes, this is a foundational element of philosophy: if someone is wondering whether or not he exists, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist. So, is thought the definition of humanity? No. It is proof of existence but not necessarily of human existence. Angels think, and therefore are, but are not human.

The key antagonist is Roy Batty, played to perfection by Rutger Hauer. He wants life, "More life," beyond the four-years expectancy of a Nexus-6 replicant. His quest is to get this from Tyrell, his maker. And in him, and in his interactions with Tyrell, we find echoes of biblical Christianity. "It's not an easy thing to meet your maker," he says to Tyrell. Tyrell, in turn, refers to Roy as his prodigal son. But if Tyrell is the maker, the creator, the "Father," Roy pierces his hand in a pointed reference to Christ. He is the powerful and superior Son. And in the climactic scenes, Roy carries a white dove, perhaps symbolic of the Holy Spirit (at least symbolic of spirit). There is an un-holy Trinity. Just as all the replicants are man-made, and all of the urban scenery is man-made, we see a human creator, a man-made savior, and a free-spirit dove.

In the violent climax, Deckard faces off against Batty knowing he is less than the replicant in power and strength, even intelligence. In an abandoned theater, they clash unforgettably. Finally, hanging by one hand from a steel rafter the other broken, and dangling hundreds of feet from the ground, Deckard is saved by Batty, who cries out, "Kin!" Awaiting obvious execution (retirement?), Deckard puzzles over why he does not die.

Blade Runner is a tight film noir detective story with a terrific score by Vangelis (he scored Chariots of Fire) and beautiful use of light (and mostly dark) in its cinematography. Yet, beyond the superficial storyline lies some deep philosophical and even theological questions. It raises the question of what it means to be human, and though its answers are lacking biblical support, it makes us think. Biblically, of course, humanity is defined as being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and we are image-bearers of deity. No other created thing has this. As God is Spirit (Jn 4:24), so we too have a spirit. We have body, mind, soul, and spirit. We have emotions, memories, but it is the imago dei that defines us.

In the movie, Deckard comes face to face with replicants who are beautiful and good (Rachel) and beautiful and bad (Pris, Batty, Zhora), but he has to face who he is and what he wants. Clues throughout point to him being a replicant himself -- his unicorn dream, his keen interest in photos, the orange-red gleam in his eye, his attraction to Rachel, his "kinship" with Batty. Dodging the fundamental question of humanity, Blade Runner leaves us hanging on this question: was Deckard a replicant? I think he was; you'll have to decide for yourself.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs