Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Co-writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg spoofed the zombie genre in the very funny Shaun of the Dead (2004). Here they've turned their sights on the popular Buddy Cop category (think Bad Boys, Lethal Weapon, etc). And they've delivered another very funny comedy, hilarious in sections.
As in Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright directs lead Simon Pegg, here playing Metropolitan Police Officer Nicholas Angel. Angel is a classic overachiever. He outperforms his colleagues; indeed, he has a 400% better arrest record than anyone. He is so good that he is making everyone else look bad. So, he is "promoted" to sergeant and sent away to the country, where he is no longer a problem for the London police.
Partnered with Danny Butterman (Nick Frost, returning co-star from Shaun of the Dead), Nick finds Sandford, his new beat, a major change from London. With virtually no crime, this village has been "village of the year" for years. But soon accidents start to pile up. With a keen sense of "smell," Nick and Danny start to unravel a conspiracy.
The first act is a little slow, and there are numerous characters to introduce, including Danny's dad, Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent, who asked for a part in Pegg's next movie after seeing Shaun), and smarmy supermarket owner Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton, one-time James Bond). As the partnership between Danny and Nick develops, the comedy moves from first to second gear. At first they are the awkward odd couple, with Danny pestering Nick with oddball questions about police-work and guns: "Is it true that there's a point on a man's head where if you shoot it, it will blow up?" But as in buddy movies, this sets the scene for act 2, where the pair become real partners.
Once the "accidents" start occurring, the humor kicks into high gear. As in Shaun of the Dead and other British comedies (such as Monty Python's Meaning of Life or The Holy Grail), the violence is extremely gory and the language is filled with profanity. Blood spurts everywhere, bodies get cooked, decapitated heads show up center stage. Yet, there is a distinct air of levity throughout as the gore is clearly played in an over-the-top manner.
At one point, Danny, the chubby, beer-guzzling, cop-movie-watching partner, asks Nick, the strait-laced, juice-drinking one, if he has seen any of the classic American cop movies. But he hasn't, so Danny invites him in to his home for a beer and a pair of movies -- Bad Boys 2 and Point Break. This is an introduction to his world. More than this, Wright is setting up the movie for the spoofs that will come in the final act, including explicit quotes and scene duplications from these movies ("Ever fired your gun in the air and yelled, 'Aaaaaaah?' " from Point Break.)
As Hot Fuzz moves towards its climax, Nick discovers the conspiracy was something completely different than he had expected. So much for his hours of work spent in detective research. After escaping from the jaws of death, Nick returns to face down the village villains. In a scene pointedly similar to that from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Nick rides into town on horseback armed to the teeth. The shootout in the town, with Danny finally getting the chance to see action like that from the movies he fantasizes about, is absolutely hilarious. From here on, the third act is gorily side-splitting.
Hot Fuzz succeeds as a comedy, but also raises the philosophical issue of utilitarianism. The conspirators constantly echo the line, "for the greater good, the greater good." As they commit their murders, it is for this greater good, at least in their minds. But this is strictly utilitarian in thought: the moral worth or value of a thing or action is determined by its outcome, and what causes the most good is of the highest worth. This is regardless of what that action is. In this case, murder is endorsed because there is something of higher value that results from it. It is a quantitative or reductionistic approach to ethics. What brings the most happiness to the most people is morally right.
It is clear in Hot Fuzz that this utilitarian approach is wrong. This is what births the comedy. With no absolute moral value, no defined right or wrong, the higher value is simply that which the majority deem to be so. And from there it is a short step to condoning grisly murder. While the majority of the characters accept this ethic, Nick Angel, a self-confessed agnostic, declares to the village parson, "I may not be a man of God, Reverend, but I know right and I know wrong and I have the good grace to know which is which." He has a moral standard, although it is not evident where he gets this from.
As followers of Jesus, we get our standard from the Word of God, the Bible. This gives us clear right and wrong. And the presence of the Holy Spirit within us gives us the good grace to know right from wrong. Utilitarianism is an ethic that is generally at odds with Christian living. Indeed, rarely is "the greater good" a reason to detract from the morality and ethics found in Scripture.
Copyright © 2008, Martin Baggs
Sunday, July 27, 2008
"Always a bridesmaid, never a bride." So goes the popular saying, describing some of those unfortunate young women who walk the aisle-walk with a groomsman not a father. This sometimes happens a couple of times, but usually not many more. In 27 Dresses, Jane (Katherine Heigl) is setting Guiness World records, approaching 30 times as a bridesmaid.
At the start of the movie, Jane is a bridesmaid in two simultaneous weddings. Unbelievably, she dashes from one venue to the other, changing dresses and accessories in the cab en route, so as to be at each ceremony and celebration afterwards. What kind of girl is she? One who cannot say no to friends and colleagues.
Jane is a sweet 20-something living in New York, orchestrating the weddings of her friends, while waiting for her Mr. Right. And Mr. Right is George (Edward Burns), her boss, or so she thinks. As his personal assistant she organizes most aspects of his life. So close and yet so far. She is in love with him, but cannot let him know. Everyone in the office knows her predicament except George.
When Tess (Malin Akerman), Jane's younger sister comes into town, she falls for George seeing him across a crowded dance-floor. Cliched, yes. But as she deceives her way into his heart, this instant romance becomes imminent wedding when George proposes . . . and the wedding is in 3 weeks. Jane's life becomes complicated when she is asked to do her thing as orchestrator.
In the midst of all this, Kevin (James Marsden), the cynical wedding writer for the paper ("Love is patient, love is kind, love is slowly going out of your mind "), is intrigued by Jane, but this interest is not reciprocated. He met her when she was being the two-in-one-night bridesmaid, and later found her purse-organizer, her life in a book.
27 Dresses is a formulaic, shallow rom-com, but a fun and visually attractive one. Heigl, who's mostly been in fluff stuff like this, looks good and acts well. Marsden, who has played angry (Cyclops in the X-Men movies) and upbeat (Corny Collins in Hairspray, Prince Edward in Enchanted), plays cynic well here, and has fine rapport with Heigl. But Burns has little to do, and Akerman is obnoxious as the manipulating sister. She was obnoxious also in The Heartbreak Kid, one of the worst and unfunniest comedies of 2007. So she either acts well or is horrible -- I can't tell.
Very funny are the two foils to the two main characters. Judy Greer is Casey, Jane's best friend and work-mate, and Maulik Pancholy is Trent, Kevin's work-mate. Both are looking for easy sex. Both are encouraging their friend to use the situations (weddings) to grab a one-night-stand. Through them, the writer is offering the alternative to marriage: no-commitment selfish unrelationship.
27 Dresses plays up casual sex, one-night stands, love-at-first-sight romances. Yet, at its core it idolizes weddings. Though they may be big business in capitalist America, they still are the "most important day" in a girl's life, according to the screenwriter. That is, of course, if she stays married to her husband. While focusing on weddings, 27 Dresses barely touches on the marriage relationship to which the wedding is simply the prologue. It mentions it in passing, an oblique reference to Jane's parent's marriage. But marriage is work, though it is fun and beautiful. It is unromantic. Whereas weddings are colorful, romantic, symbolic.
Ignoring the obvious casual sex, the main ethical issues in 27 Dresses revolve around the intertwined topics of enabling others, pleasing people and not saying no. Jane is an enabler. She helps, but goes way beyond. She cleans up messes, fixes problems, meeting others' needs, and essentially makes herself invaluable. At one point, Kevin asks her about herself, if she has any needs of her own. Her response: "No. I'm Jesus." Flip, yes. Correct, no. Even Jesus had needs. He came as a real human, and real humans have needs, physical, social, emotional, spiritual. But Jane is denying her needs, putting others first.
Putting others first and helping them is laudatory, and has its place in a Christ-follower's life, if done with proper motivation. But it seems Jane is a people-pleaser, living for the applause she eventually gets in front of a crowd when they know how much she did for the bride. Paul contrasts pleasing men with pleasing God: "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10). If we live to please men, we will not please God. What is our motivation?
Fundamentally, Jane did not know how to say no to others. When asked to do something, she would automatically respond with a yes. Even when she wanted to say no, such as to Tess when asked to be her wedding coordinator, she could not bring herself to do it. Kevin showed her this in a bar scene, when he makes her role-play saying no. Eventually, Jane's character learns to say no, but it takes a crisis and causes a crisis. Sometimes that is what is needed. The next time we are asked to do something and want to say no, think long and hard before saying yes.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Why do so many children's movies have such poor plots and acting? Do the directors think the children won't notice and the parents won't care? The Spiderwick Chronicles is full of one-dimensional characters with a Swiss-cheese plot that entertains only to some degree.
As the movie's opening credits are playing we see Arthur Spiderwick investigating the magical creatures that live around his home in the middle of nowhere. Then he frantically seals his book, hides it and is fearful of something. Cut ahead 80 years to find the same large house, looking like a distant cousin of the one from Psycho, and a family car pulling up. Single mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) is struggling to move her three kids into this new home, recently inherited from gaga Aunt Lucy, locked away in the local sanitarium. Freddie Highmore plays two characters, twins. Jared Grace is the angry kid, using the silent treatment to communicate his dissatisfaction at the state of affairs -- the divorce and move. Simon Grace is the buttoned-down, logical brother, a clear foil to Jared. Throw in older-sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and the family is ready for some "fun."
When things start disappearing, Jared is blamed -- an easy target. Of course, this is a dysfunctional family, with every man for himself. At least at the start. But when Jared discovers a dumb waiter leading to a secret room, he finds Arthur Spiderwick's sealed book. On the cover is a note giving a clear warning not to open the book. But where would the movie go if Simon had found the book instead? No doubt, he would have left it unopened and gone on with life. But not Jared. He opens it unleasing a kind of sonic boom, letting every magical creature know that the book is once more found and open.
From here, the narrative goes in a straight-line, including goblins, hobgoblins, sylphs and an ogre. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the cgi creatures here simply do not work. The goblins look like frogs on steroids. They are not credible creatures. The wicked Mulgarath (Nick Nolte wasting his talent) can morph into a variety of shapes. As much as his main shape is scary, he does not look like a world-ender.
The story has too many holes and asks the viewer to ignore the questions that nag at the corner of the mind. Why does opening the book unleash the sonic boom? Why are there so few goblins? If Mulgarath is planning to destroy the world, he is not likely to do with his platoon of these toadies. It's as if the production company could not afford the cost of replicating the cgi monsters. Or maybe, too many would be too scary for smaller children. Regardless, the creatures are not sufficient to make the plot believable. And why would he start in the middle of nowhere? Indeed, why was Arthur the only person to see them? It does not make much sense. And then, on top of all this, the friendly creatures are not that likeable.
As the plot plods on, Jared convinces his siblings that there really are these fantastical things living in the woods with evil plans. Once convinced, these two rational siblings become followers to the emerging leadership of Jared. From angry, sullen kid to "warrior-leader" all in the space of a few minutes.
There are some moments of tension in Spiderwick, but they are few and far between. Jared and Mallory's race through the tunnels to escape to the local town is fair. But even here, the troll chasing them looks like a crocodile on drugs. It fights against the viewer's imagination -- this is not what a troll should look like. The final fight scene in the house is adequate, but by then the viewer is hoping and waiting for the end to come soon.
And the end is clumsy. Tacking on the "emotional character arc" Jared moves from warrior-leader to loving son. This is an unneccessary and contrived sentimental ending. To make matters worse, the very end offers a very weird book-end wrap-up to the opening, with the return of the sylphs and some serious time-warping. Why this was added is unknown. It does nothing really for the plot except try to tie up some loose ends that were better left undone. Sometimes Hollywood endings spoil rather than enhance the movie.
Spiderwick raises two main issues, neither very well. First there is the issue of breaking the rules. In two keys moments, Jared actively disobeys. First, when he sees the warning on the book, he blatantly ignores it. This is like our reaction to a "Keep off the grass" sign. Second, when warned not to take the book out of the protective circle, he disobeys and deceives, taking the book with him to see Aunt Lucy (and why he needed to do this is unclear; she did not have to see it to believe him). Ethically, it is wrong to break rules that are there for our protection. Lying and deceiving to get away with some disobedience is simply icing on the cake. But, this has been done better in Bee Movie, which took the concept of breaking rules to a broader limit in a funnier and funner manner.
Then, Spiderwick raises the notion of invisible creatures living in the world around us. Though there were barely a hundred of these, in our reality described in the Bible there are millions of invisible creatures living around us, and not just in the woods in nowhere-land. These creatures are referred to as demons (fallen angels) and angels. There is an invisible, spiritual reality. Yet, this has been communicated in a superior fashion in the classic movie, The Matrix.
Spiderwick sets out to be an entertaining kids' movie, and from a child's perspective it probably succeeds. My 10 year-old enjoyed watching this. Like a stormy weather forecast, I found it to be mostly dull with a few threatening periods.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
In 1999 Cate Blanchett came to the fore in her role of Elizabeth, commanding the screen as this powerful 16th century English queen in the film of the same name. She won rave reviews and an Oscar nomination, although the movie only grossed $82M. 2007 saw her reprise her role in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a continuation of sorts, portraying the later stages of her reign. Where the first film was interesting, this sequel is merely insipid.
The heart of Elizabeth 2 is the story of the virgin's queen developing friendship and love with Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). This is set against the backdrop of the impending war with the Spanish empire ruled by King Philip. With half of England still catholic, and the pope dominating most of Europe, England stood alone as a nation divided religiously. Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), is imprisoned, under "house arrest," as she was at the end of the first movie, but is the figurehead around which catholic hopes gather.
With court intrigue, suitors trying to win her hand, growing romance and whispers of passion, a little gory torture and even battle-scenes on the water, this sounds like a mini-epic. In actuality it is no more than eye-candy. For sure, Elizabeth 2 looks beautiful. With sweeping dresses and colorful wigs, well made sets that enclose in rectangular frames and circular rooms that show her aspiring freedom, this is a fantastic period piece with a loud score to rule the emotions. But it is all window dressing. Though it won the 2008 Oscar for costume design, probably deservedly so, the story fails to engage. It is dull and uninspiring. The actors work hard, but the script does not give them much to work with. The dialog is trite, even stilted, and most of the characters, apart from Raleigh, not developed. Indeed, Sir Francis Drake, the real hero of the naval battle against the fearsome Spanish Armada, is not even introduced properly here.
But this is Blanchett's movie again, and she looks good as the queen. She carries herself in a regal manner, as she did before, and rightfully got another Oscar nom. She conveys the power and anger of a ruler. In her best scene, when the Spanish ambassador to her court tells her there is a wind (war) coming, she rises to her full royal stature and declares: "I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare when you dare try me!" And we feel pity for the Spaniards for calling down her wrath upon them.
She communicates the loneliness of a monarch. As ruler, she is powerful but is still caged by her position. As a woman she cannot find love, though her advisors, such as Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) bring potential suitor after potential suitor into her presence.
When explorer and commoner Raleigh brings her potatoes and tobacco from the new world (and to think we now get chips from one and cancer from the other), he is a breath of fresh air, and she comes to love him, though she cannot have him. When her lady-in-waiting falls for him, Elizabeth shows the jealousy even a queen must feel.
More than anything, though, Elizabeth shows the love and protection a sovereign ruler has to feel for his or her subjects. When advised to kill or imprison the catholics in her realm, she responds, "If my people break the law, they shall be punished. Until that day, they shall be protected. . . . Fear creates fear. I am not ignorant of the dangers, sir. But I will not punish my people for their beliefs. Only for their deeds. I am assured that the people of England love their Queen. My constant endeavor is to earn that love." In saying this, and in her actions to support this, she is a picture (albeit imperfect) of the supreme King Jesus. Jesus does not punish people for their beliefs, but for their actions. He does protect those in His kingdom, though that does not mean their lives are untouched by suffering. Jesus wants His people, all people actually, to love Him. But He does not need to earn that love; rather He is worthy of that love.
Further Elizabeth's statement about fear is right on the money. John says, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18). Where fear resides, love is missing. God is love, and His love is perfect. Our sovereign, God, like Elizabeth, wants to replace fear and He does so by pouring his love and his Spirit into us. As we choose to follow Jesus as King, we can experience this enormous transformation. Then, in turn, we show our love and devotion to this great King, who is most worthy of our love and worship.
In a pointed biblical allusion, during the battle of the Spanish Armada, Philip of Spain looks at a candle and says, "Elizabeth is darkness. I am light." And in Hollywood fashion, the candle goes out, symbolically showing the error of this statement. Philip and the papist empire are darkness, Elizabeth is light. In reality, the true King is light (1 John 1:5). Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12). As protector, as lover, as light-giver, as sin-forgiver, we submit ourselves as loyal subjects to this precious King Jesus!
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Saturday, July 19, 2008
We love heist movies, or so it seems. Perhaps it's because it caters to our greed, as we put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist, and then dream of what we would do with the millions if we got away with it. Perhaps it's the sense of adventure, of risk by breaking the rules. One of my friends said she wished she were a bank robber. Why? Because if she could get away with it, she would know she were smart enough to do anything with her life. Twisted logic maybe. But it highlights the attraction of the darker-side.
Flawless is a heist movie. But it's not a bank that is being robbed, it's a diamond house. And not any diamond house, but the biggest in London, where the world's diamonds are cleared. With a vault of millions of cut and uncut diamonds, it is the Fort Knox of pressurized carbon.
The movie opens with scenes of women workers of all varieties, going to work in London. When a wrinkled gray woman meets a journalist in a cafe and starts to weave a tale, it becomes clear that the story is really set in the swinging 60s. It could not work in any other decade, since the focus is on the tale-teller, Laura Quinn (Demi Moore), the only woman manager in the London Diamond Company. In earlier decades women did not work as managers. In later decades, women's liberation movements had earned a level of equality, resulting in a plethora of female managers.
Quinn is not only a female in a male-dominated world, she is smarter than most, being an Oxford-educated American. But chauvinism is nothing if not protective, and she is passed over time and again, as her less informed male peers becomes her seniors and even board members. This rubs salt in her feminine wounds. When she learns from Mr. Hobbs (Michael Caine), the blue-collar night-working janitor, that she is going to be fired, that is simply the last straw.
Hobbs offers her a chance to get even with the company -- together they would rob the vault. But they would steal only a handful of diamonds, a trifling amount providing perhaps a million each, since that is small enough potatoes that the company would not even notice. Even a million is a nice termination ticket. In today's money that would be 100 million or more. To entice her, he asks her what she would do with her share. Greed does sell.
The plot is simple and clear. This is no who-dunnit. Rather, it is a how-dunnit. As the plot advances, we wonder with Quinn how Hobbs plans to execute the theft and escape undetected. When video cameras are installed at the last minute, it brings an added dimension of complexity and tension. Then when Hobbs double-crosses Quinn and takes the theft in a totally different direction, this how-dunnit becomes simultaneously a why-dunnit.
Throughout, Flawless keeps the viewer intrigued with these two questions of how and why. We know why Quinn want the money -- greed. But Hobbs is a different fish. He is an unknown character, and it is only at the climax that we understand the motive for his manipulations.
Flawless is flawless in its plot development and only close to the end is it possible to figure out the sheme. But it is flawed in its execution by one-dimensional characters, with no serious arc, and shoddy acting. Moore is stiff as Quinn. For a so-smart manager, she seems foolish to fall into bed with his plan and even more stupid to be seen publicly whispering with him. She appears nervous throughout, and is clearly guilty as sin. A poor partner for Hobbs to choose, even if she is the only one available. Yet it would seem she would realize that she has to act more innocent to escape the level of suspicion that would fall upon her. Caine, on the other hand gives a workman-like performance as a working-man. Like many other lauded and knighted actors, he does not always bring his A-game to the movies he now stars in. Still, it is an interesting movie, if not a crown jewel.
Toward the end of the movie, Hobbs says to Quinn, "Life is for living. It's there for the taking. Grant yourself no regrets." Certainly, this is an ethic that would resonate with most people. And it is not unbiblical. Jesus came to offer life, an over-abundant life (John 10:10). We need to grab hold of life with two hands as we would a raging bull or the sides of raft amidst the white waters of the Deschutes River. But we grant ourselves no regrets only if we have given full repentance and received full forgiveness for what would cause such regret.
Earlier, when he is trying to entice Quinn to join him, he asks her the question, "Will you be a giver or a taker?" In other words, how will she use the money? Despite being a scoffer at biblical faith (obvious from one of his passing comments), he has put his finger on the ethical use of money. Money itself is amoral, neither moral or immoral. But our use of it shows our internal character and passes judgment on us. When we have money, excess or not, what do we do with it? Do we look to give it away, to help others? Are we like the widow who Jesus saw give her only two coins away secretly (Lk.21:2-4)? Or are we like the rich man who wanted to hoard it for himself, taking all that he can (Lk. 12:16-20)? Are you a giver or a taker? Either way, God will be your judge.
Copyright © 2008, Martin Baggs
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Bella is a beautiful film, a surprise hit of 2007. Defying genre definition, it is a true love story without the romance. It is a comedy without the hilarity. It is a drama with little action. Poignant and sensitive, it is a simple but profound life-affirming movie, a character-based story of two people who find redemption in the midst of pain and suffering.
Set in New York City, Nina is a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. When she turns up late for work for the third time, Manny, the owner fires her. Jose, the head chef and Manny's brother sees something in her, and leaves his station in the kitchen to comfort her. He senses she needs someone to talk to. As he picks up her dropped and forgotten teddy bear and runs after her, little does he know he is setting out on a journey of rediscovery, and both will do some soul-searching on the way.
Like Juno, early in Bella Nina buys a pregnancy test kit. Unlike Juno, there is no flip patter from the convenience store owner. This is New York, a cynical city to the core. When the news is positive, or from her perspective bad, the reason for her lateness is clear. She is not hungover, she has morning sickness. With no job and a bun in the oven to boot, she is facing a dilemma. Where Juno plays out the whole pregnancy over the course of the seasons, Bella takes place in one single day.
Bella was produced by Metanoia Productions. Metanoia is the Greek word for repentance, and this production company is a Christian film-making business intent on making inspirational, hope-instilling movies. Writer-director Alejandro Monteverde developed the idea for this film on his drive to Hollywood, then spent about a year putting the finishing touches on the script before showing it to friend and star Eduardo Verástegui. It was clearly a period of slow cooking to produce a winning recipe.
Putting Verástegui in the lead role was a great decision. A star and heart-throb in his native Mexico, and familiar to some US viewers for his role in Chasing Papi, he, too, had a life-changing experience. When he became a Christian he decided to become a monk or a missionary. But a priest in the monastery persuaded him to use his talents for God in making positive-focused films. And it has paid off. He has excellent talent, and is believable here against other lead Tammy Blanchard as Nina. Together, they bring a level of emotion to the screen that captures the heart of this movie.
A crucial scene occurs when Jose brings Nina to his family home at the beach. There they spend some time doing simple things. They plant trees with his Spanish-speaking dad, and afterwards Jose shows her his classic car, hidden away in the garage gathering dust. As they sit in this convertible beauty, she asks when he last drove it, unknowingly triggering painful unspoken memories. He opens up a secret compartment; a secret that changed his life is told, his soul is bared.
Revealing a secret and looking back on a decision that changed a life has a way of bringing it home again. But in the retelling there is often a cleansing, a catharsis. In Bella, Jose breaks down in his mama's arms, crying till he can cry no more. He who has been hiding in Manny's kitchen behind a huge beard, has chosen to emerge. Like a fragile butterfly emerging from its cocoon to face life, so Jose is finally ready to face life again. Sometimes it is necessary to face our demons, to release our secrets and in so doing their power over us is broken.
Jose's family is a wonderful Latin family. As they are preparing a fantastic feast to meet his younger brother's girlfriend, the house is filled with marimba music, and the fragrances of Mexican cooking. Joy and love are old friends here. And then at the dinner, more secrets are revealed, secrets that open other ways of thinking.
One day in New York changes the lives of the three main characters. As a chef, Jose can see the lives of his fellow cooks, and workers. He has a caring heart, but a broken spirit. His brother Manny (Manny Perez) runs the restaurant like a general, with his clipped mustache and tailored suit. He knows if his workers are 20 minutes late but not how many kids they have. And all he cares about is the money. He has a business, not a life. Meanwhile Nina has a cynicism and mistrust that permeates her being. But as Jose restores Nina's trust in humanity, so she restores his passion in life. And as he experiences life again, he shows Manny that there is more than business, there is family and relationships.
At the very start of the film, as the waves wash against the shoreline, Jose narrates the line, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." We all make plans, thinking we are in control, thinking we know where we are going. But it is illusory. Like Jose and Nina, sooner or later we will face an irreversible moment that will change our lives forever. It has or it will. Will we be ready? Do we know what is really important in life? Have we found the joy and love that family and relationships bring? Before telling God your plans, remember Bella. Remember that life is all about the little things, the moments that matter, the choices that define a character.
As Bella closes with a tear-jerking ending, it leaves the viewer filled with emotion. A little movie with largely unknown actors, it is all heart. And it succeeds in its intent -- of lighting a candle in the heart of the viewer.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Sunday, July 13, 2008
The full title of this quirky French comedy is "Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain," or "The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain," but to its almost cultic followers it is simply Amélie. Narrated throughout with dry humor, it tells the story of Amélie Poulain, a lonely young woman who is searching for love but doesn't know it.
Amélie begins by showing and telling her life as a small girl. When her father, a doctor, incorrectly diagnoses a heart defect, she is doomed to life as a home-schooler. (For the record: I home-school my children, and it is a very positive experience, not an anti-social endeavor.) Her only friend is Blubber, her suicidal pet goldfish who jumps out of his bowl. When her mother is killed, ironically by a suicidal woman leaping from the top of a cathedral, Amélie is left alone with her cold-fish of a father.
Her childhood sets the stage for her adult life, which is the crux of the movie. Living in an older Paris apartment, Amélie continues to live in her imagination, seeing herself in news reels. As the narrator says, "The last thing Amelie wants is a reality check." Her imagination combines with fantasy elements (talking photos and paintings, Amélie talking to the camera) and curious storylines (photobooths, traveling gnomes) to make this an interesting, often very funny movie.
The old joke, what is black and white and red all over (answer -- the newspaper), could be modified to work in Amélie. What is green and yellow and red all through? Answer -- Amélie. These main colors, inspired by the paintings of the Brazilian artist Juarez Machado, occur frequently together in Amélie, and add to its stylism, reminding us that it is a blend of imaginative fantasy with realism: magical realism. Also blue, a contrasting color, is used to highlight important scenes or characters, and thereby artistically contributes to the development of the plot. (Watch for blue objects as plot trigger-points.)
When Amélie finds an old toy box tin dating back to World War 2 inside the wall of her old French apartment, she begins the journey of her life. Discovering a name inside (Dominique Bretodeau), she sets out on a quest to find its owner and return it. Through some adventures, she finally succeeds and anonymously delivers it to him. In so doing, he is brought to tears, tears of joy. This unexpected gift causes him to reflect on his broken relationship with his own daughter and initiates a change. Witnessing this transformation,"a surge of love, an urge to help mankind overcomes her." Thus is born her life's mission: to do good to others secretly, even executing her own form of justice where she feels it is needed.
With three main storylines that interlock, Amélie keeps the viewer engaged. First, there are the idiosyncratic co-workers at the cafe where she works. Amélie tries to play matchmaker there, to bring love where jealousy exists. Of course, playing the part of Eros is tough, and can fail.
Then there is the green-grocer, M. Collignon, who helped her track down the owner of the toy box. He is scathing in his mocking of his employee, Lucien, a slightly retarded young man with a big heart. Amélie devises a way to give Collignon justice. When he gets his come-uppance through undersized slippers, dimmed lights and spiked sherry, it is hilarious.
Finally, there is the collector, Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz). At this point, he collects torn-up photos from photobooths and reconstructs them to paste them into an album. Quirky, yes; bizarre, maybe. When Nino's album falls in Amélie's hands, she discovers in the album, multiple photos of an unknown bald-headed man who frequents the booths across Paris on a regular basis, a mystery indeed.
A key character in Amélie is the Glass Man, Raymond Dufayel (Serge Merlin), who lives in her building. His bones are so brittle he does not leave his apartment, but spends every day copying the same classic Renoir painting, a new copy year after year. Watching each other via small telescopes, they become friends. And he is a foil to Amélie. Where she lives out in the world, helping people, he is trapped by his condition in his apartment but helps both Lucien and Amélie to see the world. Even as Amélie is living in the world, she is really hiding from it. Her secret do-gooding is a way for her to remain behind the scenes.
As the storylines converge to confluence, Amélie leads Nino on a secret and surprise trail. As she does so she comes to realize she loves him. But only after a pep talk from Raymond can she summon the courage to finally emerge from her self-imposed glass prison: "So, my little Amélie, you don't have bones of glass. You can take life's knocks. If you let this chance pass, eventually, your heart will become as dry and brittle as my skeleton. So, go get him, for Pete's sake!"
Audrey Tautou instills in Amélie a sense of innocence, even naivete, while being a sweet and smart manipulator of events and schemes. She is picture perfect as the the thin young Parisian. With a bob-cut do, her big eyes and pert nose, she is pixie-like as Amélie. To think that this role was originally meant for Emily Watson is almost unthinkable. This is Tautou's defining character.
Apart from some unneccesary sex scenes that don't add to the narrative but give it an R-rating, this is a family-friendly film. But these scenes will deter parents from letting younger children see Amélie. Perhaps the sub-titles would themselves function in this way.
Amélie reminds us that one person can change another person's life forever. Just as Amélie changed Domique Bretodeau's life forever, giving him the impetus to finally reconcile with his loved ones, so when we touch another's life, secretly or directly, we can make a difference.
Amélie shows us too that it is good, even satisfying and fulfilling, to help others. Whether it is giving money to a pan-handler, as she does regularly, helping a blind-man get to his destination, or secretly match-making, by doing-good for others we are actually doing good for ourselves. Biblically and ethically, we are called upon to help those around us. That is part of our mission. How are we doing?
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Friday, July 11, 2008
It's hard to find a good comedy these days. Recent offerings seem raunchy or rude (think Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory or most of his work), acerbic and caustic (think Jack Black in Margot at the Wedding) or simply unfunny (consider Luke and Owen Wilson in The Wendell Baker Story). To find an award-winning one is even harder, and it requires regressing a decade or two.The Princess Bride, released in 1987, is a perfect example.
The Princess Bride is a very funny Rob Reiner movie despite hokey effects (the eels and Rodents of Unusual Size are odd by today's standards) and average acting. Viewed 20 years later it is still hilarious with memorable lines and notable scenes. Who can foget the classic line, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." With heroes and villains, giants and wizards, it is a fantasy and fairy-story. Indeed, it blends genres to offer a satiric comedy, spoofing the swashbuckling Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone movies of the 30s. It even pointedly references the great Hitchcock classic, The 39 Steps, with a six-fingered man.
Using the device of a grandpa (Peter Falk) telling a story to his sick grandson (Fred Savage in an award-winning role), Princess Bride is introduced as simple entertainment. The plot is simple: Westley (Cary Elwes) is a farm-boy who loves the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright in her first starring role), a higher-ranking girl from his village. They fall in love, are separated by death and must be reunited.
This is a story of true love. When Westley leaves to find the fortune he will need to marry Buttercup he is killed by the "Dread Pirate Roberts." Five years later, she is betrothed to the scheming Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). But there is no love there. Indeed, she is kidnapped at his doing to initiate a war. Her kidnappers are the marvellous trio of Vizzini the brains (Wallace Shawn), Fezzik the brawn (Andre the Giant), and Inigo Montoya the finesse (Mandy Patinkin). Buttercup is later re-kidnapped by the pirate, and rescued by Humperdinck. Formulaic, it is not. Surprises abound, and the dialog is witty, even riotous.
When the pirate is revealed to be none other than her "dead" beloved Westley, she realizes her true love has returned and there is none other for her. Yet, as she saves him from death at the hands of her fiance, the evil prince determines to torture him in the pit of despair then kill him. Humperdinck knows neither love nor mercy; he desires power and fortune.
Amidst the ensuing adventures, there are several rib-tickling cameos. Mel Smith appears as an albino torturer. Billy Crystal is superb as a sacked miracle worker, Miracle Max. He is old and wizened, a cynical old wizard. When asked to bring Westley back from the dead, after he is killed in the pit of despair, Miracle Max wants money and a good reason. Only when he hears that Westley is Princess Buttercup's true love and his "resurrection" could bring humiliation and defeat to Humperdinck, does he agree. Yet, he has a strange perspective on true love: "Sonny, true love is the greatest thing, in the world-except for a nice MLT - mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe."
Perhaps the funniest cameo of all is that of Peter Cook (former comedic partner of Dudley Moore) as the Impressive Clergyman. Employing the most impressive lisp in cinematic history, not duplicated since, he preaches a hilarious wedding sermon: "Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam. . . . And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva." This is wet your pants laughing material.
The main theme of Princess Bride is true love. Westley's is a quest for the true love he found and "lost" and wants to regain. Nothing is too much in this quest. All can be sacrificed for this ultimate goal. And love is a quest worth pursuing.
But is the concept of a "true love" realistic and legitimate? Will this one love satisfy us through a life together? Certainly Hollywood movies such as this portray the romantic side of love, that of love as a young person's adventure. It does not show the aspects of love after 20 years, 40 years, 60 years, when looks fade, functions deteriorate, and memory disappears. Is love, even true love, strong enough to withstand these assaults? Some would say no, some may be uncertain. Experience of couples committed to one another would say yes.
Too often today love is seen as temporary, a pleasure to be enjoyed and discarded when something or someone better comes along. Love is viewed as a feeling that can change. Princess Bride reminds us that love, true love, is more than this. It is permanent. As Westley says to Buttercup when she unmasks him, "death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while."
It is on this point that Princess Bride also unwittingly highlights the deeper significance of love. God is love and loves humanity more than we can know or even imagine. As we come to know and love God, we realize that our destiny is ultimately to be with Him in heaven. Death may separate us from our loved ones, but it is a bittersweet experience for a follower of Jesus, since it ushers the deceased into the presence of God Himself. Then when believing family members die, they too are brought into this place, and reunion occurs. In this sense, death does not stop true love, though it does delay it for a while for believing husbands and wives, parents and children. But even more than this, death hastens us Christ-followers into the presence of our one true love, Jesus himself. True love is indeed a worthy quest!
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Secret Service agents are trained to be vigilant, to be perceptive, and if necessary to take a bullet for the President. Agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) has been one of the best and is assigned to the team protecting the President as he attends a welcome in Salamanca, Spain, at the beginning of an anti-terrorist summit of world leaders. With crowds of protestors and spectators, journalists and TV crew, the police and secret service are on full alert. Yet, something is destined to happen.
Vantage Point is a taut thriller that defies exposition with revealing too many spoilers. What starts out as a simple thriller, becomes a fascinating yet exciting view of events from different perspectives. The catch in Vantage Point is that we see the same events over and over again, from the view points of different people, strangers, and each time we see something new. It is a Bourne Ultimatum crossed with Memento.
Recent movies, like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, have used flashbacks and non-linear narrative but not as the main plot device. Vantage Point uses it consistently and effectively to draw the tension tighter and tighter.
The first view of the events is from the inside of a TV production trailer, with Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) ruling her crowded roost. Watching her wall of monitors, directing the ubiquitous cameras, she sees everything that is happening as the President's motorcade approaches the plaza where he will be welcomed by the mayor. Yet, seeing everything she misses what is really happening. When President Ashton (William Hurt) arrives at the podium two shots ring out and he is taken down. When her on-site reporter is called on to give a first-hand narration, she is in tears. This has become personal. When bombs start exploding, chaos ensues, and things get even more personal and shocking.
Vantage Point breaks off sequences abruptly, often leaving the viewer in a mini-cliff hanger. It returns to the narrative at noon each time. Agent Barnes' view comes next. He has actually taken a bullet for the president and this is his first return to action. Visibly nervous, he is a shaken man offered a second chance. A big question he faces is how he will perform. In life, we often get thrown, and face a choice of how to respond. Will we get back in the saddle, even in the face of the fear of being thrown again? Will we even be offered the chance of redemption?
With each new take on the unfolding events we learn something new. We see through the "eyes" of Forest Whittaker's video camera. He plays a vacationing American, estranged from a wife and kids. In the midst of the Spaniards in the plaza, meeting a little girl, Anna, and slap-bang in the middle of a bomb-scene and police chase, he comes to recognize the value of life and relationships.
At one point, one of the bombers says, "the beauty of American arrogance is that they can't imagine a world where they're not a step ahead." This hits home. We Americans often think we can build our plans and contingency plans, and in this way control the eventual outcome desired. Yet this is arrogant thinking. We fool ourselves. We are not really in control. That is the realm of the sovereign God. The opposite attitude is humility. We need to approach life the way James says: "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow" (Jas 4:13-14).
The strength of Vantage Point is its unique viewpoint, not necessarily its acting. Dennis Quaid, so good in recent years in the two 2002 movies The Rookie and Far From Heaven, plays Agent "botox" Barnes -- with a frozen face. He has just one facial expression throughout. He is a shaky fallen hero made from granite. Forest Whitaker looks lost as tourist Howard Lewis. Only William Hurt conveys credibility in the person of the president.
Yet despite these acting flaws, Vantage Point is an entertaining and gripping movie. It packs in an exciting, but unbelievable extended car chase scene through the narrow Spanish streets, reminiscent of the small-car chases in both versions of The Italian Job. Throughout we see a complex conspiracy that captivates right to the very end where it makes sense, though leaving many questions unanswered -- as life leaves us without all the answers.
Vantage Point brings home the fact that often we may see but not actually see. We think we know what we are seeing, but it could be a misperception, even an illusion. We may feel we have all the facts, but in listening to others we may learn we are wrong. It reminds us that first-hand witnesses may appear to disagree, yet bring portions of the truth to the table. In combining them synergistically their sum can be greater than the whole. Some have written off the four gospels, or many parts of their writing, since they appear not to "agree" 100%. Yet, when witnesses agree completely they may have been coached in the same story. Different perspectives, as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John bring to the portrayal of the life of Jesus, offer rich dimensionality to truth.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Sunday, July 6, 2008
First published in 2003, Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner took a couple of years to attract attention. By 2005 it was the third ranked best seller in the US. In 2006 it started raking in nominations and awards. By now, if you have not read the book you must be a philistine or comatose. At this point I must confess I am a philistine. I have not read the book, so come to the movie without any major expectations.
Unlike Eragon, another much lauded book but one that should have remained on the printed page, Kite Runner transitions well to the screen with beautiful imagery, a strong plot, and realistic characters, people with depth and genuine humanity (both good and bad). This is a story of friendship and loyalty, of courage and cowardice. Above all it is a study of character and redemption.
Kite Runner starts in modern day San Francisco, before taking us back 30 years. This nonlinear plot device is unnecessary, but is used to introduce us to Amir as a writer, when he receives copies of his first published novel. Coincidentally that same day he receives a phone call from an old friend in Afghanistan that triggers the extended memory flashback and calls him home.
The plot really starts in the 70s in Kabul, and is set against a back-drop of kite running, a popular hobby among pre-teen boys. Amir is the son of a wealthy widower (Baba), and flies kites with his smaller friend and servant Hassan. In contrast to Amir, Hassan is the son of Baba's servant and is a Hazara, an ethnic group considered inferior. Yet Hassan is totally loyal to his softer, literate friend, even protecting him from bullies at much cost to himself, creating enemies along the way. One older boy in particular, Assef, has it in for them both.
After the annual kite-fight competition, Hassan runs after the free-flying kite whose string has been cut by Amir's kite (hence the name "kite runner"). Snagging the kite as the winner's trophy, he is chased by Assef and cornered in a dead-end alley. Threatened unless he gives up the kite, Hassan refuses. Unknown to him, Amir is watching secretly, afraid to show himself. When Assef is rebuffed, he resorts to beating and brutally raping Hassan. Throughout the ordeal, Hassan stays loyal to Amir, but Amir deserts him in his desperate hour of need.
Feeling the weight of guilt, Amir comes face-to-face with his cowardice on a daily basis as he sees Hassan within his household compound. This is more than he can handle. In one scene, Amir throws rotten fruit onto Hassan's chest, provoking him to retaliate. But in a beautiful response that is so reminiscent of Jesus' "turn the other cheek" ideal, Hassan picks up another fruit and rubs it on his own face. He will not stop loving his friend.
Finally Amir resorts to deception and false accusations, planting his watch in Hassan's bedroom. When confronted with theft, Hassan actually admits to it, though both he and Amir know this is untrue. Despite this moral violation, astonishingly Baba forgives him. But it is a forgiveness that Hassan's father cannot accept. In shame he takes his son and leaves the home. Amir has accomplished his desire at the cost of shaming his friend and damaging these relationships.
Kite Runner jumps ahead to 1979 when the Russians invade Kabul, and Baba and Amir have to flee for their lives. On the journey to Pakistan, in the back of a truck with a dozen other refugees, a Russian check-point forces the issue of cowardice back on center stage. A Russian soldier decides he will only let them through if he can have his way with one of the women. Standing up to the soldier, Baba courageously puts his life on the line for her and verbally challenges the soldier, calling out his shameful behavior. This juxtaposition of Baba's courage for a stranger with Amir's abandonment of his best friend highlights how even in fear we choose our response. We can stand in courage or we can run in cowardice. One leads to honor, the other to shame and guilt, and worse.
The final act occurs in the modern period. Amir and Baba are in America, where Amir has graduated from college and is pursuing his dream of writing. But even as he writes, he is still running from the memories of his moral failure. When Amir is called back to Pakistan to meet with an old friend of Baba's he learns a secret that shatters his view of his father, and radically alters his view of Hassan. Once again he is confronted with the memory of Hassan, now dead, and the ghosts he hoped were buried rise to the surface.
But Amir is given on opportunity to redeem himself by going back into Kabul to adopt Hassan's son at great peril to his own life. With the help of a friendly driver, he takes the journey back into his homeland, seeing it devastated not by the Russians, gone now, but by the Taliban and their religious imposition. Not finding the boy in the orphanage he seeks and finds him in the home of a Mullah. And there he comes face-to-face with his nemesis, Assef, now a Taliban executioner. Assef, who had raped Hassan and started the horror of this story, is raping Hassan's son. This time, though, Amir has the courage to face his fears and stand up to Assef, even if it means death. No longer can he turn a blind-eye. Though he still must bear the emotional scars of his earlier poor decision, he now can redeem something of his character and something for Hassan.
Kite Runner is a thoughtful yet sad film. Switching from Persian Dari to English, it is a foreign-American movie that feels more foreign than American. It does not resort to typical Hollywood dramatics to ply the emotions. It lets the narrative do that for itself. Working with mostly unknown actors, director Marc Forster draws strong performances, especially from the young boys. Where Kite Runner stalls is in the tiresome kite fighting sequences. There is simply too much footage of kites. It is hard to tell whose kite is whose, and it is almost impossible to see them actually cutting the string. A crisper focus on the characters would have enhanced this movie. Still, Kite Runner is a fine film, beautifully shot, with a powerful ethical message. The next time we face a choice to walk away from a friend in need, remember Amir and Hassan, and choose courageously!
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Thursday, July 3, 2008
When it comes to actors Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson count among the best still living. Both are 71. Both are Oscar winners (Freeman in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby, and Nicholson thrice: in 1976 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in 1984 for Terms of Endearment, and then again in 1998 for As Good as it Gets). So, when they star together in a Rob Reiner comedy you expect good things (think Reiner's Princess Bride or When Harry Met Sally). As it turns out, The Bucket List is a C-movie: corny, cheesy, and cutesy. It has some laugh-out-loud lines, one cry-out-loud scene, and some very ham acting from Jack. It is a Freeman frappaccino with Nicholson as the whipped cream on top.
Nicholson plays billionaire Edward Cole, who makes a business of out buying hospitals, improving the efficiency (i.e., reducing the number of doctors-to-patients ratio) and ensuring every room has two patients. No exceptions! So, when he comes down with terminal brain cancer even he cannot get a private room . . . and he owns the place! It turns out that his room-mate is Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), who is also dying. But as a blue-collar worker, Carter cannot get a doctor to talk to him and has to endure the awful hospital food while watching Cole enjoy the best deli food LA can offer, both on the way down and on the way up again.
At first, Cole and Chambers do not get along. They are from different sides of the tracks. But as Cole experiences the aftermath of brain surgery and chemo therapy, he begins to warm to the man who has family visitors.
When Carter throws a balled up sheet from a yellow legal pad onto the floor, Edward picks it up and starts to read it. It is Carter's "bucket list" -- all the things he wants to do before he kicks the bucket. But it is too short, and Edward starts to laugh. He can come up with a "better list"! So, with this spirit of competition, they start to come up with a better bucket list. And with Edward's money, they can actually make them happen. Against his wife's wishes, Carter embarks on this journey of discovery with his new-found friend, Edward.
In one sense, Bucket List is a road-trip of sorts, a "travelogue journey" to accomplish life's goals, or at least the adventures one puts off in life. From sky-diving, to racing classic Mustangs on a race-track, this odd couple brings a playful chemistry to this final chapter in their lives.
Along the way, Edward reveals some secrets from his life. And when Carter calls him on it, challenging him to make some final life adjustments, the insecurity and fear in Edward's heart emerges. When Carter tells him, "Everyone's afraid to die alone," he replies, "I'm not everyone! This was supposed to be fun. That's all it ever was." Even in dying, he was merely living for fun. Faith and family were not part of that equation.
At one point, as Carter muses on the magnificent stars he sees from Edward's private jet, he begins a conversation about God. But Edward has little time for faith: "I envy people who have faith. I just can't get my head around it." He does not believe in a god, but thinks this is a win-win situation, since if it turns out there is one, and he finds this out in the after-life, then he will have had his cake and eaten it, too. This is, of course, to completely ignore the biblical evidence that this life is a precursor to the one to come. And our destiny there, is based on our life and decisions here. We will all bend our knee to Jesus, either now, voluntarily, or then involuntarily (when we will wished we had earlier).
In the end, their journey is one of accomplishment and discovery, or rediscovery. Edward became the man he never was, having ridden out four wives, never giving himself to anyone but himself in his striving for money and power. He had to take time away to discover himself. In contrast, Carter becomes the man he was, but had drifted away from amidst the hubbub of 45 years of marriage, raising kids, serving others, and giving himself away to everyone but himself. He had to take time away to rediscover himself.
As we approach life, we often disregard the number of our days, months, years or decades.We take them for granted, assuming we have an endless supply. But we don't, and we fool ourselves. It is only when faced with our own mortality that we realize the fragility and finitude of life. Life is "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (Jas. 4:14). There may be things we want to do, goals we want to accomplish, people we want to see or reconcile with, but these are relegated to the bottom of our to-do lists, deferred to the undetermined future. The Bucket List reminds us that life is terminal. We all have a due date, an expiration date, that may be sooner than we think. We need to face up to this and live each day as if it were our last. We need to take time to enjoy life, and not put off those things that make life worth living.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs