Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- Appreciation of Life

What would you do if you were crying out to be heard but no one could hear you? And to compound this, suppose you were unable to move. This is the situation that Jean-Dominique Bauby found himself in. His true-life story is told in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a slow but moving French movie.

Diving Bell opens with Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) in a hospital bed. The camera stays tight, unmoving. It gives us the view from the patient's perspective. It goes in and out of focus with Bauby. When he blinks, the camera closes. He does not know where he is, or why the people are coming in and out of his field of vision. When he "talks" they cannot hear, since the words are in his head. Slowly he comes to realize he is in a hospital. And worse, he has "locked-in syndrome." All he can move is his left eye. Nothing else.

The first act of the movie is almost surreal, a claustrophobic combination of frustration and confusion. It succeeds in getting the viewer into the position of the patient. If we feel this frustrated, how much more must it be for Jean-Do Bauby.

As the movie unfolds, we see through flashback who Bauby was. Editor of famed fashion magazine, "Elle," he was the prototypical Frenchman -- lover of wine and women. Father of three, he had left his woman, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) -- "not my wife, she is the mother of my three children" -- for another. He had been through several affairs. He was seeking the fullness of life; he was seeking relational fulfillment. He found it with his father, who was trapped in an apartment by old-age infirmities, but not with women.

In contrast to this carefree lover of life, Bauby has become trapped in a world all his own, with little to no hope of rescue or emergence. At first he cannot communicate with his caregivers. But rehab nurse Henriette Durand (Marie-Josee Croze) devises a way for him to "talk" -- she reads the letters of the alphabet to him and he blinks at the letter he wants. In this painstaking way, letter by letter, he constructs the words and sentences he wants to communicate. But it is better than no communication.

At first he feels so sorry for himself that he wants to die. "I want death," he says to Henrietta, communicating the enormity of the frustration and lack of control he has. But as he ponders life, he changes his perspective: "I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory." And these two are his constant companions.

The movie portrays his memories in flashback sequences, and these let us into what he has lost. The imagination is communicated in a collage of pictures and creative videos. In his imagination he can go anywhere he wants at any time. And he uses this to keep his outlook positive. As the diving bell is a metaphor for the locked-in situation he has no physical escape from, so the butterfly is a metaphor for the freedom he finds in his imagination, his mental escape which keeps him alive.

Before his stroke, he had signed a contract to write a modern-day version of "The Count of Monte Cristo", from a feminine point of view. Now he wants to fulfill his contract, but as a memoir of his life instead. With the help of Claude (Anne Consigny) who becomes his constant "dictation companion," he begins to write this book, one letter at a time.

Along with the way, his frustration is seen in the little things of life. Watching a soccer game, a nurse comes in and turns the TV off. We can feel the pain he experiences as he wants to see the end of the game and yet cannot do a thing about it. In another scene, two telephone installers come to his room and treat him like an idiot, a mute animal who has no feelings. As they leave the room, they rudely mock him, leaving him pierced by their cruelty.

In several ways, Diving Bell is like The Sea Inside on steroids. Both are slow foreign films. Both are based on true stories. Both deal with men in their prime crushed by an accident. While The Sea Inside's Ramon Sampedros is paralyzed, he can still move his head and speak. He can communicate, Jean-Do Bauby can do neither. While Ramon pursued death with dignity, Jean-Do moved to an acceptance of life. Both are based on stellar acting in conditions requiring total commitment.

In life Bauby looked everywhere for meaning and purpose, not really appreciating what he had. Going from woman to woman looking for love, he gets approval from his father (and don't we all seek parental approval) but cannot settle down with a wife. Yet, only when locked inside himself does he really get to appreciate what he had. Bauby learns to appreciate life, even if it is only lived out in his imagination.

How often do we fail to appreciate what we have? How often do we look at what we are missing, at what others have, and build greedy resentment in our hearts? Diving Bell reminds us that we should be thankful for what we have. Whether it is our children, our spouse, our friends, we must not take them from granted. Let's not wait for a tragic accident to make us realize what we have. As I celebrate the birthday of my beautiful Becca today, I can see my children and my family as gifts from a wonderful God. We can and should count our blessings.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- Knowledge is Power

In the last couple of years we have seen the return of some old favorite sexagenarians to the screen. Sylvester Stallone started it in 2006, coming back as boxer Rocky for the millionth time in Rocky Balboa. And then he did it again this year as Rambo. So, when Harrison Ford reprised his role as legendary Henry Jones Jr, it was with some trepidation that I went to see Indiana on the silver screen once more. But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a fun, if far-fetched, flick, and a reasonable addition (conclusion?) to the Indiana Jones franchise.

Crystal Skull makes no bones about Ford's age. Indeed, it seems to play up to the fact that he is now no spring chicken. Indiana looks older and more wizened, though he is still physically able to perform heroic stunts that would leave younger, lesser men in the dust . . . or in the ER. At one point Dean Stanforth (James Broadbent, taking over from Denholm Elliot [Dean Marcus Brody], who died in 1992), says to Indy, "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away." And for Indy, his job as professor of archeology at Marshall College is being taken away due to questions of his "communist associations."

Set in the late 1950s, Indy is still teaching and pursuing adventures as an archaeologist. This time, though, his enemy is not the Nazis, but the Russian commies, and they don't carry quite the same punch. The leader of this bad band is Col. Dr. Irina Spalko. Cate Blanchett plays her with relish as a wicked cartoonish figure, like Cruella DaVille with a Russian accent. The goal in this chapter is the crystal skull, legendary pointer to El Dorado, city of gold, hidden somewhere in South America.

As Indiana is about to leave Marshall on a train, his job gone, a young punk greaser, Mutt Williams pulls up along side the train on his Harley and delivers the news that his old friend Prof Oxley (John Hurt) has been kidnapped after apparently finding the skull. Shia LaBeouf looks like a young Marlon Brando is this encounter, and has the chops to pull it off. He brings a sense of youth and adventure to Crystal Skull, a younger version of Indiana, if you will. Of course, this sets in motion the rest of the film.

And with fedora, bullwhip and leather jacket, Professor Jones becomes the Indiana we have waited two decades to see. Just like before, he builds plans on the fly (the question, "What's he gonna do now," gets the apt response, "I don't think he plans that far ahead.") He does what he believes is right at the time. Seemingly always one step behind, Indiana is still the guy who picks himself up, dusts himself off, straightens his hat, and tries again. Once again an American cowboy for the twentieth century.

Crystal Skull is shot in the same comic book style, with the same types of action sequences as the previous three episodes. So much so, in fact, that this could have come out in the 1990s. It is filled with obvious references to the earlier movies: truck chases, fist fights, poison-tipped dart-blowing natives, booby-trapped tombs. The most exciting chase occurs early in the movie, when Williams meets Jones, and they flee the Russians on Mutt's motorcycle. This had all the thrills of the earlier movies.

But if Crystal Skull captures the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is not quite up to that movie's standards. It goes too far, and asks the viewer to suspend disbelief too much. The early incident where Indiana survives an atomic bomb explosion is simply unbelievable. And the incident later when the adventure seekers go over three waterfalls is highly implausible. Tack on a prolonged sword fight across two high-speed jeeps. Action adventure films often go over the top, and this one is no exception.

The first act is strong, showing us an older and more worldly-wise Jones, and introducing us to a young Mutt Williams. The second act is more predictable. The third act, where Karen Allen reappears as Marion Ravenwood pits the two ex-lovers, Marion and Indiana, once again verbally at each other's throats. And they pick up where they left off in Raiders. Indeed, a big part of the fun of Crystal Skull is seeing these two love-birds fighting and squabbling again.

But as it comes to the climax Crystal Skull moves into the ludicrous. Steven Spielberg seems to want to make reference to his earlier movies, with a flying saucer that looks an escapee from Close Encounters, and aliens reminding us of ET. Indeed, where Raiders and The Last Crusade had clear biblical references, Crystal Skull has none. Gone is Scripture (apart from a very brief glimpse of the ark) and in its place are aliens.

Crystal Skull has some reunions and surprises, a nasty villain and a gruesome scene with some red ants. It gets silly with some monkeys and Tarzan-like tree-swinging. Yet, by the end Indiana has discovered his lost love, and perhaps realizes he has wasted a lot of life simply waiting for her, filling in his time with quests for a treasure he already had found . . . and lost. How much of life do we waste waiting, for whatever we wait for? Life is an Indiana Jones-like adventure, a journey of discovery to be treasured and enjoyed. Let's not sit around waiting for something to happen.

A key theme in Crystal Skull is knowledge. Dr Spalko tells Indy early that she is seeking the artifact for knowledge. Her power, as Stalin's chief scientist, comes from her ability to know things others don't. She is pursuing knowledge. And along the way, when Mutt asks him about El Dorado, Indiana says, "Well the word for 'gold' translates as treasure.' But their treasure wasn't gold, it was knowledge, Knowledge was their treasure." And it was Spalko's treasure. And it was her downfall. In the climax, Spalko's eyes are opened to knowledge, more knowledge than her head can hold and she is destroyed.

In many ways, in the postmodern twenty-first century, knowledge is still power. The information age peddles knowledge as currency. It is what we know, and it is who we know. As true as this is in the physical world, it is more true in the spiritual world. Knowledge is power there. Who we know is the key to this power. If we know Jesus as our master, then we have an age-old, timeless power that Indiana Jones would have marveled at. As the apostle Peter says, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (2 Pet 1:3). Like the apostle Paul, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection" (Phil. 3:10).

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, June 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Harnessing the Power of God

As Philip Marlowe epitomized the private detective of the 40s, and Humphrey Bogart exemplified Marlowe (as in The Big Sleep), so the 80s gave us Indiana Jones the epitome of the determined yet carefree adventurer and Harrison Ford exemplified Jones. Originally scripted to be called Indiana Smith, and changed on the first day of production to Jones, how can we think of anyone other than Indiana Jones when we think of tombs and arks, whips and fedoras?

The Oscar-winning classic and highest grossing film of 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark, opens with the extended scene of a leather-coated Jones in pursuit of a gold relic in a tomb in South America. Getting past the initial booby-traps that have claimed other earlier archeologists and mercenaries, he attains the altar upon which the small golden head rests. He swaps a bag of sand for the head, but despite this trick still triggers the final trap: a large boulder the size of a truck rolling down to crush him. When he finally gets out, with the help of his trusty bullwhip, he finds his arch-enemy, the French Belloq (Paul Freeman), waiting with a hostile tribe of headhunters, and has to relinquish the relic. The classic shot, foreshortened via long telephoto lens, of Indy running in front of these native Indians before diving into the river is one seared into the American movie-goers memory.

Whew! What a way to start a movie.

And like the typical James Bond movie, this scene has little to do with the rest of Raiders. Yet, it serves its purpose -- to introduce the person and character of Indiana Jones. Here is someone who lives at the edges of danger and survives by the seat of his pants . . . and by his wits.

When we next see Indiana Jones, it is in a suit, in his real job as a college professor, writing with chalk and winning with charm. But when the US Army tells him that the Nazis are seeking the Lost Ark that Moses used to store the Commandments, he rises to their call. Another adventure beckons. And he is just the man for it. Indeed, it is harder to think of another hero for this job. And it is hard to imagine that apart from a commitment to Magnum PI, Tom Selleck would have been Indiana Jones. Instead, Ford was cast less than three weeks before photography began, and this gave him a second career-defining role (after Han Solo in Star Wars).

From America to Nepal, where he teams up with old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), to Cairo Indy paves a trail that is anything but silent. As Raiders progresses, the action comes thick and fast. The world of the late 1930s is changing, and the Germans want the ark because of the power of God that it is supposed to provide to its bearer. But Indiana Jones symbolizes all that is good about America in contrast to the highly organized and efficient but evil Germans. With such memorable scenes as the marketplace fight and standoff with the giant scimitar-bearing thug, and the truck chase culminating in Indy being dragged on his belly, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a modern-day classic, yet another winner from the Spielberg-Lucas stable.

Indiana Jones is the kind of character you want in your corner in a bind but don't want at your doorstep dating your daughter. He is a true modern cowboy, with a wry asymmetrical smile, a one-liner response to every situation, and an ability to face anything . . . except snakes! His adventurous spirit is symbolized in his response to how he would go after the truck bearing the ark, "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go." But his adventure and flexibility are tempered and controlled by his dogged determination. When he sets his mind to something, he will go at with all his might and gusto.

As the climax approaches, Indiana and Marion find themselves tied together to a pole, while the Germans prepare to open the ark they have recovered, with Belloq presiding in the robes of a Hebrew high priest. All appears lost. But this is nothing if not a Hollywood movie, and a happy ending is in the cards. The Germans expect to harness the power of God to use in their soon-to-be ensuing war machine. But, in the words of the late C.S. Lewis, Aslan is not a tame lion, and God is not a genie, bottled up waiting for the magic lamp to be rubbed to release him to do the bidder's beckoning.

As fun and as fast as Raiders of the Lost Ark is, the whole emphasis is on the power of God locked up somehow in this ancient and mysterious artifact. Certainly in the Bible, the Israelites treated the ark with fear and respect, and it did carry with it a supernatural power that caused death and disease to be visited upon her enemies (1 Sam. 5-6). But the ark represented the very presence of the holy and living God, and it was His power that was in view. Though the power of God is not available upon request to the owner of the ark, it is a rightful truth that the power of God is something to behold.

The very same power of God that was believed locked in the ark of the covenant was the power of God that defeated sin, Satan and death at the cross. It is the power of God for the salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16). It is the power of God available through the resurrection of Jesus (Phil. 3:10). It is the power of God that is available to those of His followers who trust and depend on Him. We may not dodge rolling boulders or poisoned blow-darts. We may not stare down king cobras or escape cruel Nazis. But as we search for own personal arks, we can find the power of God available to us for our daily lives. We just need to lay down our bullwhip and our own strength -- God's power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:8).

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lord, Save Us from Your Followers -- Radical Compassion Required

If 9 out of 10 Americans believe in a god, and 75% of Americans claim to be Christian, why is America so polarized? Why is the gospel of love dividing America? This is the question that filmmaker Dan Merchant sets out to answer in this entertaining and funny independent documentary.

Merchant took to the streets of the cities in America as "bumpersticker man," wearing a plastic suit emblazoned with dozens of bumper stickers and Christian-fish stickers, to talk to the average man and woman. Engaging them in conversation, real conversation not proselytizing, he heard what average Americans really think. It's a mixed bag. When asked about Jesus, most people responded in broad terms of love, forgiveness, belief, even unbelief. These are the very people He came to love.

Merchant also sits down to interview some big names, such as Tony Campolo, Al Franken, Dr. John Perkins and Lars Larson. Though he only gives very short segments from these interviews, they are thought-provoking and leave us wishing we could hear more. In one segment, Campolo cites Augustine, saying "My mother is a whore" to refer to the unfaithfulness of the mother church. Though she is unfaithful it is through the church that he (and we) hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is through the love of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for our sins that we come to receive His forgiveness.

Speaking of forgiveness, Merchant took a cue from Don Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, where he and "Tony the beat poet" set up a confessional booth in Portland's Reid College campus to confess their sins to the students instead of the other way round. Likewise, Merchant set up a booth on the Portland waterfront park during the Gay Pride week festival. Inviting gays and lesbians in, he confessed the church's and his personal sins of judgment and uncaring attitudes. In so doing, he opened up genuine conversation. It was a beautiful picture of humility. No Christian conversions occurred apparently, but conversation happened. And conversation is the forerunner to thoughtful response.

This was a contrast to the extended scenes and interactions around Battlecry, a Christian movement in San Francisco aimed at teens. When the organizers appeared on the steps of City Hall, the same steps where gay married couples appeared earlier, they were met with an anti-Christian gay rally. This, in turn, caused Christians to decry the gays for their lifestyle. It was a classic polarizing and dividing event. Merchant, meanwhile took time to talk to some of the ralliers on both sides. One in particular, Sister Mary Timothy of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag-queen nun, shared her/his views to Merchant as he was actually heard. Respectful listening created space for views to be shared.

Camping on the concept of the culture wars, Merchant created a "Family Feud" game called "Culture Wars" where he pitted young conservative Christians against liberal media personalities. The right-wingers were blown away. They could not pull themselves out of their rigid thinking to understand how others thought. To prove this was no accident, Merchant even repeated this "battle" with college students. The result was even more one-sided, with the Christian students gaining not even one point! But it reemphasized that the ostrich mentality will win no friends and does nothing to further the gospel.

If the first two acts show how some Christians are dividing the country, two extended scenes stand out to communicate the way the gospel should be "preached." The first was the weekly bridgetown event in Portland, where volunteer Christ-followers come out to wash the feet and cut the hair of homeless people. Amidst a spirit of genuine love, they cared for and fed these men and women. They touched their spirits, and they touched their bodies. Where most people shun them, refusing to even see them, like the lepers of Jesus' day, these volunteers preached the gospel of love without words.

And then there was the mission to Africa to care for the African kids who have no food. An international compassion ministry partnered with a non-Christian rock-n-roll radio station to go show Jesus' love. The radio station director who went over was a non-believer, and came back convinced that this was not only presenting America in a benevolent manner to these needy kids, but was an expression of the love of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel in action. This is the true gospel, recognized for what it is -- the love of Jesus caring for people who are marginalized.
Lord, Save Us from Your Followers is not a perfect film, but it is a thoughtful and challenging one. As a follower of Jesus, am I listening to people who are different from me and my church friends? Do I really know what they think? Do I really care about them? It's easy to listen enough to have an opportunity to argue, but that rarely wins friends, let alone enemies. Jesus called us to radical compassion. And that requires radical conversation. Anyone can love a friend. Jesus tells us, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:44).

Lord Save Us left me thinking about pairs of opposites: conversation versus debate; compassion versus judgment; love in deeds versus love in words; fusion versus faction; dependence versus division. Too often I find myself on the right side of these pairs, not the left. I want to be transformed by the gospel of love and be a transformer for Jesus with His love in this world. I want to move from the right to the left. I think that is what Dan Merchant wants to see happen.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited -- Road-trip to Sibling Reconciliation

Like The Savages, The Darjeeling Limited deals with sibling issues of abandonment and favoritism. However, whereas The Savages was acerbic and steeped in reality, this movie is funnier but shallower, more low-key. As in previous movies (The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore and Bottle Rocket), director Wes Anderson works with his own screenplay and his favorite actors: Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and a cameo from Bill Murray.

Owen Wilson plays Francis Whitman, the oldest of three brothers, all dealing with grief. He invites each of them to meet him on the Darjeeling Limited, to take a train journey across India. This is a road-trip on rails. Ostensibly a spiritual journey, it is also a time for them to rebond. After their father's death a year earlier, they have not seen each other, and are still experience sibling issues. Jack (Jason Schwartzman): "I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people." And that is one of the themes of the movie.

Wilson gives Francis the innate characteristics that define first-borns: order and control. Those of you who know or live with first-borns (and I am a first-born) understand first-hand the tensions that these bring. At one point, when an Indian waiter asks the three for their dinner orders, Francis orders for them all, not giving Jack or Peter (Adrian Brody) a chance to decide for themselves. This is a source of tension for them.

Further, Francis wants to be in control throughout. He keeps their passports for them. He has created daily, laminated itineraries for them. They must follow his carefully scheduled plan. (I can relate to this from my own childhood, when my dad organized family vacations in this manner, as well as my own tendency to impose my itinerary on my own growing family.)

Another source of tension is that of inheritance. Seeing Peter with their dad's sunglasses, he says "Are those Dad's sunglasses?" And later, "Is that Dad's razor?" Clearly, he expected to get these as firstborn.

As they journey through India, the home of a million deities, experiencing different religions, praying to different gods, it is interesting that they end up in a Christian church praying to the one, true God. This may be unintentional, but is a metaphor for real life. Many of us seek spiritual awakening and enlightenment, looking into many religions. But the truth that can set us free can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the middle of the movie, after the brothers try unsuccessfully to perform a ritual with three peacock feathers, Francis says "You guys didn't do it right. I asked if you read the instructions. You did it wrong. . . I tried my hardest. I don't know what to do." And this is a self-illuminating statement. We cannot make it right simply by trying harder, we cannot control others by our own efforts. We need to work together. We need to face life in mutual inter-dependence.

Not long afterwards, after being tossed from the train, they come upon three Indian boys trying to cross a rain-swollen rushing river. When the boys' raft capsized, the brothers leave belongings behind to jump into the rescue. Alas, only two boys are saved. It is the death of this stranger's child that proves the turning point. Coming face-to-face with death is cathartic. Life's inconveniences, sibling struggles are minor in comparison to death.

At the end of the movie, after they have accomplished, at least partially, the hidden agenda that Francis would not reveal to them, Francis cuts away the head bandages he has worn throughout the movie. In doing so he displays the scars and bruises of his earlier motorcycle accident. Seeing his still wounded face, he says, "I guess I've still got a lot of healing to do." But Peter, now reconciled to his brothers, replies "Gettin' there, though." The physical wounds are a metaphor for the emotional scars they all bear inside. Though the movie has no climax, like all good road-trip films, the resolution is in the character growth.

Symbolically, in running to catch the train to the airport at the end, a matching book-end to Bill Murray's cameo scene at the beginning, they let go of the baggage they have been carrying all movie-long. They have arrived at a level of self-understanding and sibling-reconciliation. Their emotional baggage has been released. What about us? Are we holding on to the baggage of our childhood? Are we carrying around a weight of unnecessary issues that is hindering our relational growth? Are we remaining unreconciled to family members? The Darjeeeling Limited challenges us to come to our personal catharsis, to take the journey to rebond with brothers or sisters, and become true friends.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Savages -- Death and Familial relationships

Anyone with adult siblings understands the complexity of these relationships. The Savages, one of the underrated movies of 2007, explores familial relationships as an acerbic comedy with a very real social commentary by writer-director Tamara Jenkins.

Wendy Savage (Laura Linney), a freelance writer applying for grants to write a play, receives a message on her answering machine. Her dad Lenny (Philip Bosco) is descending into dementia in retirement central, Sun City Arizona. Add to that his long-term girlfriend just died, and Wendy has a family mess on her hands. She calls her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is a professor of drama in Buffalo, New York. Estranged from their father, they have not spoken to him in decades. Perhaps abused, certainly abandoned, they have spent their adult lives trying to deal with a damaged childhood -- "Maybe dad didn't abandon us. Maybe he just forgot who we were."

Given the crisis, both Wendy and Jon fly into Arizona, and immediately find themselves picking up where they left off from childhood -- sibling bickering. As Wendy, the neurotic younger sister starts to criticize Jon and his casual, almost cavalier, approach he says, "This is not therapy, this is real life." Their dialog is so real, it could come from the back seat of my Honda minivan.

Wendy and Jon come to find Lenny in restraints in the hospital -- for his own safety. It is clear he cannot live in his dead girlfriend's house: her kids want to sell it. It is also clear he cannot live on his own. It falls on his kids, no longer part of his life, to become involved. It is their obligation, their responsibility.

As Jenkins develops this theme, she slowly reveals the two main characters. Their upbringing has caused them to fear intimacy. Both are struggling in relationships. Jon won't marry the woman who loves him for fear of abandonment by her. Wendy, on the other hand, is sexually involved with a married man in her apartment complex, but it is physical rather than emotional intimacy that she shares with him. Neither can sustain a long-term relationship. Both are struggling with achievement. Jon is a PhD working on a book that he can't finish. Wendy wants to write a play but cannot get the support she needs to write.

Jon, being the older and employed child, takes the responsibility of finding a nursing home. But it is not picture perfect. Wendy is the guilt-ridden child, who cannot bear that her dad will be in a place that smells, that reeks of decaying life and imminent death. She wants him to be in a "retirement home" where there is classical music and sweet smelling flowers -- at least that's what the DVD promo materials from these make them look like. And burdened by guilt, Wendy moves in with slobbish Jon, a sort of siblings Odd Couple.

Where Away from Her dealt with the loss of mental acuity of a spouse who had to enter a nursing home, The Savages looks at a similar issue from the adult child's perspective. Faced with the dementia and dying of their dad, these two siblings come to terms with one another, growing in their understanding of themselves at the same time. It takes this encounter with death and responsibility for them to face their own demons. We cannot run all our lives.

I write as one who has a younger brother, Kevin, with whom I have little in common. We live on different continents and communicate so infrequently you could mark your leap year calendar by our calls. This movie caused me to reflect on the personal loss I experience from a loss of relationship with him and his family. Indeed, it is ironic that Philip Seymour Hoffman bears a close resemblance to my brother, so much so that every time I see Hoffman in a movie I think of Kevin. It is indeed sad that I see Hoffman but cannot connect to my brother.

The Savages puts us face to face with the reality of dealing with dying parents. With medicine and technology extending physical life well into the 70s, 80s, even 90s, we face quality of life issues as well as caregiving issues. Whose responsibility is it to care for an ailing parent? Who will care for them? When the one who changed our diapers when we were kids now wears adult diapers who will change them? It seems common practice to ship them off to antiseptic-smelling nursing homes where strangers will do this dirty work. Is that a good thing? Perhaps so. Perhaps not. We may all have to face decisions like this in the coming years as our parents' health deteriorates. Health may deteriorate but what is fundamental is to maintain healthy relationships.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War -- Emotions change people

Based on a true story, Charlie Wilson's War is hard to believe. Or, cynically, maybe it's too easy to believe that government is bloated enough to not know what is going on. Directed by Mike Nichols (winner of the 1967 Oscar for The Graduate), as a comedy it has some funny lines, but as a political statement it has a dormant effect that causes later reflection.

Tom Hanks stars as Charlie Wilson, US Congressman from Texas, who at first seems to be an unprincipled womanizing drinker. When he is naked in a Vegas hot-tub with several hotties and a TV producer, he notices a bearded and turbaned Dan Rather on the TV news. This is his initial exposure to Afghanistan. On the defense appropriations committee, he decides to double the CIA Afghan budget to $10M. But this is mere chicken feed.

Later, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a rich right-wing Texan with an interest in freeing the Aghans from the Soviet oppression, schedules Wilson to meet President Zia of Pakistan. In this meeting, Wilson gets a dressing down from Zia and his generals for the lack of support by the CIA. Taking it in stride, he is ready to leave with political platitudes preached, when Zia makes him promise to visit a refugee camp that very day. Flying there in a waiting helicoptor, Wilson tells lapdog aid Bonnie Bach (Amy Adams), "You know you've reached rock bottom when you're told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup."

But this trip proves life-changing for Wilson. He sees widows fighting for a few grains of rice, children without arms and legs due to booby-trapped candies and toys, and tents housing families as far as the eye could see. Seeing first-hand the results of bombs, mines and war, he returns prepared to make a difference.

With the help of CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an undiplomatic forthright agent who gets things done, Wilson, Avrakotos and Herring prove an unlikely trio who changed things forever while the world slept. Slowly, Wilson raises the budget to $40M and then $500M and then over a billion. Sending modern weapons to combat the Russian Hind helicopter gunships, Wilson gets an education and a victory in this covert war, a war that the US never wanted, but a war that they won . . . and lost.

As the closing credits said, "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... and then we [screwed] up the endgame." Like many political issues, once an issue appears over, it is over in the eyes of the politicians. And then it is old news in the media and the populace forgets. Like the morning mist it dissipates and is forgotten. Without bringing an issue, or a war, to closure the loose ends can cause us to trip and fall flat on our faces.

In Afghanistan, the US armed the local mujahideen to fight the enemy, the soviets. And they won. But without providing them education and hospitals, ongoing support, we left the fatherless children with an inaccurate portrait of America. Now, years later, those same mujahideen are the Taliban "freedom fighters" that support Al Qaeda and follow Osama Bin Laden. Like Frankenstein, we sometimes create our own monsters.

Along with this political lesson, Charlie Wilson's War illustrates an adage well-known by charities and missionary agencies. When Charlie Wilson hears about Afghanistan he quickly doubles the CIA budget. But with little thought, it's done and gone, over and out (of mind). Only when he sees first-hand the effects does he emotionally understand the issue. And with emotional buy-in, he becomes invested, changed. When charities ask for money, people sometimes give. But when charities ask for first-hand involvement, showing the effects and the impact of personal giving, people invest. Giving is often one-time, from afar; investing is often ongoing, from actual experience. Such emotional involvement changes us and changes our plans!

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lonesome Jim -- depressing outlook on life

This low-budget ($500,000) independent film is one of the reasons many people don't watch indie movies -- many of them are simply awful. And Lonesome Jim really is that bad. At 91 minutes, it is about 90 minutes too long. There are a few good lines, but for the most part it is simply depressing.

Steve Buscemi, the wonderful bug-eyed character actor who has appeared in dozens of movies even some great ones like Pulp Fiction and Fargo, directed this 2005 loser. Casey Affleck stars as 27 year-old Jim, a deadbeat dog-walker who moves home to his parents from New York. So great in the Assassination of Jesse James and stellar in Gone, Baby Gone he is positively monotonic here.

His family is semi-dysfunctional. Brother Tim is another loser, divorced with two kids, he holds a minimum wage job. Dad thinks both sons should be working for the family manufacturing firm. And mom is an overprotective mother, who does everything for her sons. When she walks in on Jim taking a bath to give him a towel and a hug, we realize she has not let her sons grow up.

The storyline has Jim meet nurse Anika (Liv Tyler), and after a one-night stand, starts to date her. She is upbeat, with a positive outlook on life, despite being a whiskey-drinking single-mom. At one point Jim says to Anika, "There's so many fun and cheery people in the world. Don't you think you'd be better off with one of them? Someone more like yourself?" To which Anika replies, "You think I'm fun and cheery?" She makes lemonade out of the lemon that Jim is.

Lonesome Jim takes us through various circumstances, including Tim unsuccessfully attempting suicide after being goaded into it by Jim, to mom being arrested for allegedly dealing drugs from the factory. Through it all, almost to the very end Jim remains down while mom remains up. Only at the end does Jim change, a sudden uncharacteristic character arc toward the positive.

At first Jim's mom seems so fake, so artificially cheerful. But then we realize this is the point of the movie. Life can be depressing. We do get bad breaks. But our attitude is our choice. Both Anika and mom display this in different levels. This is an important lesson, but we need not waste 91 minutes watching this movie to learn it. Choose to be upbeat. Choose to be positive. Choose to take joy in life instead of chronic despair. Choose to avoid Lonesome Jim!

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, June 7, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets -- honor your family

It seems everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. And director Jon Turtletaub is counted among them. He uses this in the plot for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the sequel to the very popular 2004 Disney hit.

When Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) announces that he has a missing page from John Wilkes Booth's diary damning treasure hunter Ben Gates' (Nicolas Cage) ancestor as one of the conspirator's in President Lincoln's assassination, the gauntlet is thrown down. This conspiracy casts dishonor on Gates himself as well as his father Patrick Gates (Jon Voight). Although he is not the person of his great great relative, Gates feels stigmatized: "We cannot have him remembered as a conspirator in the assassination of the man that brought this nation together. "

Gates uses the analogy of Dr Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth's broken ankle and was later sentenced to life in prison, to galvanize his father and friends. He states that Mudd was later thought to be innocent, yet he became the source of the saying, "his name is mud." However, this is inaccurate, since the saying predates Dr Mudd, and was in use in Britain in 1820, 45 years before Lincoln's death. Nevertheless, Gates' version makes for a better narrative.

Bringing back together the team from the first movie, Riley (Justin Bertha) and love-interest Abigail (Diane Kruger), Ben also has to call in his mother, Emily (Oscar-winner Helen Mirren). The action adventure is fast-paced and spans the globe, with scenes in Paris, London, Washington DC and South Dakota. One car chase scene in the streets and back alleys of London stands out for sheer excitement.

As in other movies in this genre, one must suspend disbelief to enjoy the ride. It is totally implausible that a treasure-hunter, even with a techno-geek foil like Riley, could break into the office of the queen in Buckingham Palace escape the country and then kidnap the President of the United States of America and get away with it. If the secret service was as poor as they appear here, we would be seeing a new president every other week. But that aside, to decipher the code and find the treasure Gates and crew have to go these cinematic locations and solve the clues without getting caught, else there is no story.

The major issue with Book of Secrets is that the bad guy Wilkinson is really not that bad. This is a Disney movie and there is no violence or killing. Although Wilkinson hires thugs to chase and shoot at Gates, no one really gets hurt. And in the end, Wilkinson wants the same thing as Gates -- a name for his family. At the climax when he finally threatens to kill Abigail, he cannot do it. He is too nice, too refined. And he ends up getting what he wants but at a huge cost.

Book of Secrets is a thrill ride, for sure. Not in the same realm as the Indiana Jones trilogy (and I can't wait to see and review the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in June), yet it is an exciting movie that you can watch with your children. It is a perfect example of the scriptural injunction: "Honor your father and your mother" (Exod. 20:12). One of the ten commandments given to Moses, we are commanded to honor the names of our parents, and presumably those of our ancestors. As Gates sees a clear need to give 100% to the cause of clearing his ancestor's name, so we need to be committed to honoring those of our lineage. And hopefully, we will not be called on to break into the oval office to do so!

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Capote -- Self-Absorbed Manipulator

Truman Capote was a journalist, a writer, and a homosexual: indeed, a larger-than-life colorful character. In contrast, Capote the movie is dull and depressing, a colorless biopic that fails to engage. It has terrific acting, by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who lost 40 pounds to star as Capote, and won best actor Oscar in 2005, and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, but a dour storyline.

We first see Capote in his element -- at a party. Surrounded by adoring sycophants, he is the center of attention telling stories of his own grandeur. He is self-absorbed, captured by his own brilliance, having already written "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

When the Clutter family is brutally murdered in their Kansas home, Capote is drawn to the story like a moth to a flame. And like that same moth, this flame will change Capote forever. Capote senses a huge story and asks Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mocking Bird," to accompany him to visit the Kansas town as his research assistant. She is the perfect foil to Capote, grounded and calm.

When Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr) and Dick Hickok (Mark Pellegrino) are arrested for the crime, Capote wants unrestricted access to them for his story. He spends hours befriending them, focusing on Smith, the erudite and apparently sensitive one of the two.

But Smith is akin to Capote. As Capote says, "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door, while I went out the front." Both are excellent wordsmiths; both are excellent manipulators. While Capote befriends Smith to get inside his head for the story of the crime and his life's best work ("It's the book I was always meant to write"), Smith sees Capote as his ticket to an appeal, if not freedom. Two cagy foxes, they circle around, never quite getting what they want, both deceiving. When Smith wants to know the title of the book, Capote lies, not wishing to reveal that he has chosen one. When Smith discovers that it is "In Cold Blood" Capote denies it is his choice, or even the final choice. He might not get what he wants with such a damning title.

Along the way, Capote's relationship to Smith turns somewhat personal, he becomes involved. Truman Capote becomes conflicted, wanting his book to end but knowing that it would only do so with an execution or a pardon. Through it all, though, seeing them dance a verbal tango, or watching Capote tap the keys of his manual typewriter is simply not enthralling cinema.

True, as Tennessee Williams, Capote's cousin, said the novel Capote eventually wrote would change how people write, and it did. It created the true crime novel genre. And was Capote's best work. But the process changed him thoroughly. He saw first-hand the inner workings of a murderer, and the inner workings of the justice system. After this, he never finished another book.

Capote reminds us that manipulation is ethically wrong, a dark sin. Covering our desires with silver-tongued lies, leads to friendships that are fake, mere facades. The truth is, manipulation is simply using someone else to gain our own ends with no care or concern for the other person. The antidote is selfless and genuine love for others.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, June 2, 2008

An Unfinished Life -- Playing the Blame Game

Lasse Hallstrom directs slow and thoughtful dramas (like The Cider House Rules and Chocolat). His 2005 An Unfinished Life opens with a shot of a bear, and it is not a coincidence. The bear is a character in the story. Indeed, he is a metaphor for the premise of the movie.

Jennifer Lopez plays Jean Gilkyson, a single mom who is living with a violent boyfriend in Iowa. After one more incidence of domestic abuse, she takes her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) and runs. In an old car that breaks down she has nowhere to go . . . except to Wyoming, where her estranged father-in-law Einar lives. But she is the last person he wants to see. And each carries their own secrets, secrets that haunt them.

Einar lives on a ranch alone, except for his friend Mitch who lives in a log-cabin on his property. Oscar winners Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman play these two characters as grizzled, crabby old cowboys. But whereas Mitch bears the outward scars and the physical disability of a mauling by the bear, Einar is physically unwounded but bears the invisible scars of emotional wounds.

When Jean shows up on Einar's doorstep with her daughter, he learns that Griff is his granddaughter, the child of his late son, Griff. A shock indeed! His first interaction with the young Griff is less than polite, but he allows them both to stay, if just for a couple of weeks. But that is long enough for her to get a job at local diner, hook up with town sheriff Crane Curtis (Josh Lucas), and for her abusive boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis) to find her and show up in town.

As the movie unfolds, Einar visits the grave of his boy, which is on his ranch. The headstone atop the grave, says "an unfinished life," because he died young in a car accident with Jean at the wheel. But whose life is really unfinished? Jean has an unfinished life, since she blames herself for killing her husband. From that time she has withdrawn, taking only the comfort of losers, who abuse her, as a form of penance. Einar, in turn, has blamed Jean for killing Griff, and has retreated into his bitterness. He drove his wife away by his isolation, and now only has Mitch left as a friend. And Einar has blamed himself for his involvement in the bear mauling accident that left Mitch disfigured and disabled. How about us? Are we living unfinished lives, lives damaged by blame?

But An Unfinished Life is a movie of redemption and forgiveness. During the few weeks that Jean and Griff are living in town, Einar learns what it means to have a relative, a granddaughter, to love. And amidst such great actors, Becca Gardner, in her second movie role, steals the show. She wins Einar's heart and softens him until he is ready to confront Jean.

In a key scene, he wakes Jean from slumber and tells her he must talk to her. This verbal confrontation makes them face each other and put their baggage on the table. Although it forces her away, at least temporarily, the wounds are opened for all to see. No longer are the secrets hidden. And though they are not resolved, there is now opportunity for healing. Until they are verbalized they cannot be faced.

We all have experienced blame and the resulting bitterness. Perhaps we are the blamers (self-confession: I fall into this category), or maybe we have been on the receiving end. Either way, the issue is not pleasant and will not disappear. Either the parties separate or they deal with the issue. Many times the blame is inappropriate and uncalled for. But forgiveness drains the bitterness away. As we forgive the offender, we release the bitterness we have harbored and in turn we release ourselves from the prison it created.

Early on, learning that the bear is back in town, Einar takes his rifle to go kill it, only to be prevented by Sheriff Curtis. The fish and wildlife folks sedate and capture it instead. This is how Einar deals with his problems -- a quick kill to put it behind him, a permanent solution, out of his immediate attention. But the effects of the bear are apparent and face him every day in Mitch's scars. Mitch, on the other hand, wants Einar to visit the bear, now in the town zoo, and even to feed it. Mitch has faced his foe, placed no blame, and held no bitterness. He is willing to move on, despite the consequences, and live his life, difficult though it is, to the finish. Mitch sees beyond to a future that embraces all that life has thrown at him. Even when the bear escapes and somehow returns to Mitch, and runs at him, Mitch will not (cannot) run. Instead, he stands his ground. He will face life, the good and the bad, but refuses to play the blame game or wallow in pity parties.

Accidents happen in life. As Mitch says to Einar, "They call 'em accidents cause it's nobody's fault," though we want to make it someone's fault because it feels easier to accept. And later Mitch adds, in a comment about his dream of flying, "I got so high, Einar, I could see where the blue turns black. From up there, you could see all there is. And it looked like there was a reason for everything." We may never know why something happened, but faith in God underlies an acceptance that he is sovereign and does have a reason for the things that happen. This side of glory we may never know that reason, but faith accepts, trusts and forgives.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs