Saturday, August 30, 2008
Some movies have tantalizing trailers only to deeply disappoint with the actual full-length feature. The Bank Job is one of those movies. The trailer entices, but the DVD is a let-down. It starts off very slowly, and takes a long turn through some unnecessarily graphic nudity and kinky sex, to get to the actual robbery, where the viewer's interest lies.
Set in London in the 70s, The Bank Job has only two main "stars": Jason Statham (has he been in any good movies?), the journeyman action-crime actor (as east-Londoner Terry Leather) and Saffron Burrows (as Martine Love). The rest of the cast is no-name and very workmanlike; indeed that is a bad sign for the film.
When Martine approaches Terry with a job offer -- rob a bank while its vault sensors are out of commission -- it sounds too good to be true. And it is too good to be true, but Terry agrees.
Terry and his mob are bumbling, but "good-hearted" villains. They contrast with the "real" criminals, the evil men who run the porno industry, indulge in blackmail and commit murder.
As the heist unfolds, it is clear that Terry and his team are being set up by MI-5 for reasons of national security. And director Roger Donaldson wants us to root for Terry, the lovable crooks, who show "honor among thieves." But these are still criminals who are endangering themselves and their families while breaking the law and stealing from society.
The Bank Job can be contrasted with the 2007 Flawless. Both are heist films. Both are set in London in earlier eras. Both have two main stars. But that is where the comparisons end. Flawless has better stars, with Michael Caine and Demi Moore. Even with Moore's stiff acting, Flawless is the better acted and better developed movie. Indeed, Flawless develops intrigue and maintains interest without resorting to nudity, sex or violence. Neither film is great, but The Bank Job should remain out of sight in a bank deposit box while Flawless deserves a viewing opportunity.
Despite the quality of the film, The Bank Job does illustrate one key biblical issue: that of depravity. Throughout the film every main character except two (Detective Sgt Roy Niven and his side-kick) show evidence of corruption. This is corruption of one kind or another and to one degree or another. Even the British bobbies are on the take, shaking down the porn king and his cohort for kick-backs. Detective Niven stands as a foil, and an instrument of plot movement, to contrast this prevalent wickedness. But intended or not, this is exactly what the Bible says about humanity. Jeremiah said it this way, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). Paul, on the other hand, bluntly said, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). Every person is corrupt and depraved, being touched by sin and impacted to one degree or another. While The Bank Job offers no solution to this universal corruption, the Bible offers Jesus as our way out.
Copyright © 2008, Martin Baggs
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
David Fincher has become an accomplished director of psychological thrillers, edge-of-your-seat knuckle-biters. Before his two tense movies of this decade, Panic Room and Zodiac, he developed his game with Alien 3, Se7en and The Game. The Game has moments of tension, quite a few actually, but the story is thinner than his two more accomplished movies.
Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy investment banker who is divorced with no friends. He is living "the American dream," but without hope and without fun. He has total control of his schedule and of his life, but in actuality is lacking life. As a boy, he witnessed the suicide of his 48 year-old father who jumped from the roof of his mansion. Now, as a man, Nicolas has withdrawn and protected himself from risk and danger by taking control of all aspects of his life.
On his 48th birthday, a significant birthday, his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) appears to give him an intriguing birthday gift -- a membership in the "Consumer Recreation Services." Although not clear what this is, he asks Conrad why he gave him this. "Make your life . . . fun. You know what that is ... uh, you've seen other people have it," says Conrad.
At first Nicolas is unsure about this gift. He does call the number and goes through the day-long "interview" process, but still he does not know what it is all about. When he overhears a member of his exclusive health club talking about CRS, he buys him a drink and asks about it. "You wanna know what it is? What it's all about? John 9:25. 'Whereas once I was blind, now I can see.' " With this strange interaction, Nicolas' curiosity is piqued enough to kill all nine lives of the proverbial cat. He starts seeing things afresh, looking for something but not knowing what. Everything appears mysterious and perhaps involved with the game. But as CRS starts to embroil their way into his life, his life changes.
Meeting a beautiful young woman, Christine (played by Deborah Unger), and following enigmatic notes, The Game feels almost Hitchockian. With a score that plays to the mysterious mood, the tension mounts as surprise follows surprise for Van Orton. Until the very end, the movie maintains interest, keeping the suspense heightened.
Two chief complaints emerge, though. First, Van Orton is a cold and callous protagonist. It is hard to root for him as he is unlikeable and not easy to empathize with. And it is difficult to accept that Van Orton would take the initial steps that start him on the road to inevitability. Why would he give up the control he so desperately wants?
At its heart, The Game raises two key ethical issues for consideration. First, who is in control of your life? Nicolas Van Orton despised surprises. He was rich enough to think he had complete control of his life. Surprise, even spontaneity, was an unwanted bedfellow. Are we like Nicolas? (I must confess, I am often this way.) If we are in control, where does that leave God, even the sovereign God? In many places in the Bible, God makes it clear that it is He, not us, who resides on the throne. Two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, will suffice: "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails," (Prov 19:21); and "Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow" (James 4:14). To want control so badly is to demonstrate a heart and life not fully committed to the Lord.
If the first issue is about control, the second, and related, issue relates to fun. Do we take life too seriously even to the point of having no fun? By driving out spontaneity, we are driving out the joy-filled experiences that give life its color. Author Leonard Sweet, in his book "Soul Salsa", addresses this issue for Jesus-followers when he says "it's time to play with God. . . . We must surrender to life's surprises. All life is placed within God's control." He urges us "to live life as adventure over life as plan, to hardwire surprise into your life." How are you doing with adventure and fun? Is fun a part of your life as you follow Jesus? Or are you a "serious Christian" with a glum face and a dour rules-list? It's time to cut loose and enjoy "the game" of life, the great adventure of following Jesus with spontaneity and spunk.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Saturday, August 23, 2008
2008 has been the summer of the superheroes. It started with the scintillating Iron Man, followed by The Incredible Hulk. But the best of them all, maybe the best movie of 2008 so far, is The Dark Knight. And dark it is. Very dark! But it is a movie that raises many ethical issues and classic morality questions asked in philosophy classes, such as: Who would you choose if you could only save one of two friends?
Like Iron Man, Batman is really not a superhero. He has no superpowers. Instead, he is a human, with physical and mental force as well as flaws, and this movie shows them all. More than a superhero comic book movie, this is a gritty crime drama that could be compared with the best of this genre. Director Christopher Nolan is on top of his game. He has proved his mettle with earlier movies such as Memento and Batman Begins. But he surpassed himself here. With a tag-line of "Why so serious?" repeated often by the Joker, you might suppose there is some humor in the film, but it is anything but funny.
This is the first Batman film lacking his name in the title, and perhaps it communicates that this is no ordinary Batman movie. And as Batman, Christian Bale is no ordinary Batman. Indeed, he is head and shoulders above the rest. He gives a strong performance. But the acting honors go to the late Heath Ledger in a career-defining performance as the Joker. He steals every scene he is in. Wearing face-paint to cover his character's scars, his lip-smacking performance is scary crazy. This is not Jack Nicholson's Joker, a funny joking criminal. This is an anarchist, a twisted evil man, who terrifies. This is a performance that should earn him a posthumous Oscar nomination, perhaps even the trophy. He could be the first actor to win an Oscar posthumously since Peter Finch in Network back in 1976.
As the movie begins, Gotham City seems a little cleaner and safer. There are fake batman characters emulating the hooded vigilante. Criminals are afraid to be on the streets. Enter the Joker. A psychotic bank robber who dreams of a world without rules, he will shake up Gotham and its underworld. He wants to kill the Batman. Like Nero, he wants to watch as everything burns, figuratively and actually.
In The Dark Knight Gotham has a new DA, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is at odds with Police Chief Gordon (Gary Oldman). Corruption in the police is rife, but Dent knows it and is not afraid. He is the hope of the city, its white knight. And his damsel is Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne's dream but not-to-be girlfriend. Played with charm and spunk by Maggie Gyllenhaal, she replaces Katie Holmes who soullessly filled these same shoes in Batman Begins.
Michael Caine returns as Alfred the sardonic and wise-cracking butler, as does Morgan Freeman as CEO of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox. Once again, Fox is the creator of some fabulous techno-toys, including a bat-bike and a bat-suit that lets Batman turn his head. With a new costume and gadgets on hand, this is an action-packed thriller, with a first-rate cast. There are some outstanding stunts, such as when Batman "flies" out of a high-rise office. And there are some terrific action sequences, including the incredible chase where the Joker ultimately gets captured.
But this is not the Batman from the 1960s where Adam West was campy and comfy in his spandex suit. That Batman was a clear-cut American good-guy, who fought by society's standards. Nolan's Batman is much more complex. He does what it takes to catch the bad guys, what most people will not do. While most will not resort to violence, Batman recognizes that in fighting a war violence is necessary. You cannot sweet talk criminals into obeying the law. Labeled a vigilante by the society he is protecting, and viewed as "deeply flawed" since he is willing to violate society's mores and fight fire with fire, Batman still holds fast to one rule: he is no executioner. He won't kill.
As Gordon exits the interrogation cell, Batman symbolically comes out of the shadows. He pulls no punches in his questioning of the Joker. To get an answer, Batman will stop at nothing . . . except the violation of his one rule. He will not be pulled down to the Joker's level of a world without rules.
The first moral issue that is raised revolves around two people, one of whom will die. With the Joker in an interrogation cell, he reveals that two key characters are in danger in two different locations, and there is only time to save one. This is a classic moral conundrum. People have dreams about this one. Who would you save? Batman has to face a choice. If it was our spouse and our child, who would we go for? And how would we make such a difficult decision? Hard to imagine, but we feel the tension and the pain Batman goes through.
As the Joker continues to terrorize Gotham, it is clear that he is not motivated by money. There is something more going on in his twisted head. At one point he says, "I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It's fair." For the Joker, chaos is fair. But for Dent, when he later confronts Gordon in his now twisted persona of Two Face, he has a different opinion on fair. "You thought we could be decent men at an indecent time. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair." For Dent, chance, not chaos, is fair.
And that is one of the themes of the movie: fairness vs chaos, fairness vs chance. Is chance fair? As a parent, I often hear the words, "It's not fair." So fairness is something that rings true in the heart of all people. Fair means to be free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice. Chance is the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled. On the flip side, chaos is a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order. So, in a sense, both the Joker and Two Face are correct in that chance and chaos are both fair. Perhaps it is better said in the negative: neither are unfair, since neither involve bias. However, chaos caused with a criminal intent is unjust and hence unfair. Similarly, chance that is controlled, as when a coin flip is repeated to get the desired result, is unfair.
When the Joker raises the stakes he raises another problem of mores. He pits convicts against common citizens. He wants to remove the veneer of civilization from the citizens of the city and prove that they are depraved and without rules, without morals. It is another tough dilemma. What will the "righteous" citizens do? Will they consider themselves superior to the convicts? Will the convicts succumb to their baser, survival instincts? A philosophical poser. Like Satan, the Joker is fighting for the soul of Gotham city
In answering this question in The Dark Knight, Nolan paints a picture of depravity and grace. Biblically, all have been impacted by sin are depraved. Yet, there is grace present in the world which causes even the worst of sinners to do some good and kind things. We can empathize with the well-dressed businessman who wants to condemn the convicts but wonder if we could or would pull the trigger.
When Batman finally faces off with the Joker in the first climax, it is clear that things have changed, forever. Batman cannot go back to being who he was. The "insanity" of the Joker and the "righteousness" of Batman are both tainted; neither are pure. There is no black and white, only shades of gray, just like in real life. In some warped sense, the Joker is the dark side of Batman. As he says to Batman, "you complete me."
Accomplishing what he set out to do, cause chaos, The Joker "took Gotham's white knight, and brought him down to our level." Harvey Dent, the proclaimed savior of Gotham City, failed the test. As he unknowingly prophecies early in the film, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." The movie closes with Batman as the Dark Knight. White has become dark, dark is really white. Perception is reality and Batman becomes the hunted, rather than the hunter. In real life, Jesus is the Savior. However, to many he is not the white knight we need, but the dark knight they deplore. Is Jesus your dark knight, as you chase him away, or your white knight, who has already provided all you need for this life and beyond?
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight could easily be one continuous movie. Batman Begins defines Batman and his values while The Dark Knight puts those values to the test. Think of Batman Begins as the classroom and The Dark Knight as the lab where things literally get blown up.
Batman Begins reveals how, and more importantly why, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) became Batman. The why behind the creation of Batman's persona is really the focus. The themes presented are the different lessons he has to learn which will serve as his reasons and means for fighting injustice.
First, Bruce has to learn the difference between justice and revenge. On the one hand, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) tells Bruce that justice is balance: an eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth. Ducard burns down Wayne Manor because Bruce had burned down Ducard’s house. “Consider us even,” says Ducard. According to Ducard, justice and revenge are one and the same. On the other hand, Bruce's girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), responds very pointedly to Bruce when he says he wanted to kill the man who murdered his parents because they deserved justice. Rachel says that there is a difference between justice and revenge: “Justice is about harmony,” whereas “revenge is about making yourself feel better.” In the end, Bruce rejects Ducard’s definition of justice and tells Rachel she was right: “Justice is about more than revenge."
Next, Bruce Wayne must learn how to handle fear; he must overcome his fear of criminals, those who use fear as a weapon. Mafia don Carmone Falconi (Tom Wilkinson) says that the power of fear is the kind of power money can’t buy. Twice Bruce tells Falconi he is not afraid of him. Falconi tells Bruce he doesn’t understand the criminal world and “you always fear what you don’t understand.” So Bruce goes 1,000 miles away where nobody knows his name and lives as a criminal in order to better understand that world so that he won’t be afraid of it. Additionally, Ducard plans on using fear as a weapon to destroy Gotham. He plans to disperse a weaponized hallucionogenic which will strike fear into people so they kill each other.
More importantly, Bruce must overcome his own trepidation. He tells Ducard he wants to turn fear on those who prey on the fearful. Ducard however tells him that in order to manipulate the fears of others you must first master your own fears. Ducard asks Bruce what it is that frightens him. Flashing back on a childhood encounter with bats, it is evident that Bruce is afraid of being afraid. The bats are simply the visible expression of his terror. This is why Thomas Wayne’s dying words to his son were to not be afraid. Later, Bruce tells his butler Alfred (Michael Cain) he is choosing to become a "batman" because he is afraid of bats and it’s time for his enemies to share his dread. So bats represent fear and he will use this imagery to strike alarm and gain advantage over his enemy.
Ducard tells Bruce you must become what you fear in order to overcome it, primarily why Bruce became a criminal. Now he must become fear in order to overcome fear. Ducard tells Bruce that people fear most what they cannot see. So Bruce battles Ducard while Ducard is blending in with other warriors. Bruce cannot see him. Bruce turns the tables on Ducard by blending in with the warriors so that Ducard can’t see him. It's a power play to defeat him. At this point Ducard acknowledges Bruce has purged his fears. He is "fearless."
Bats are the visible expression of Bruce’s fear of fear; they also serve to chronicle his journey in overcoming his apprehension. First, bats attack Bruce as a kid and we see him afraid, lying flat on the ground. Second, we see bats fly out of the box at Ducard’s fortress and Bruce falls partly backwards. Clearly he is not as fearful as when he was a kid. Third, we see Bruce stand completely upright as bats swarm in the cave, an indication he has overcome his fear. Finally, we see Batman use bats under his control to attack the police who fall down in fear. This allows him to escape. He can now control fear. In fact, the whole persona of Batman is intended to strike fear into the minds of criminals because men fear what they can’t see. Batman often lurks in the shadows before he attacks in order to create fear in the mind of his opponent. Indeed, one of the messages of Batman Begins is President Roosevelt's famous phrase, repeated by drug-dealer Dr. Crane: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
The next lesson Bruce Wayne must learn is the proper means of administering justice. Ducard presents a murderer to Bruce, saying he deserves to die. According to Ducard, only the administration of the death penalty will prove Bruce’s commitment to justice. He must be willing to do whatever is necessary, be willing to kill. The only issue is whether the person is willing to act. Ducard tells Bruce his dad died because he wasn’t willing to kill his attacker. Bruce however is no executioner. He refuses to be the one who deals punishment. He defers to the proper officials, always leaving criminals for the police to find. Thus, he refuses to kill the man accused of murder. In fact, Batman is known for his unwillingness to intentionally kill. Ducard sees this as compassion, which is a weakness he says, “your enemies won’t share.” Ducard believes that there are those without decency who must be fought without hesitation and without pity. However, Bruce sees this ‘compassion’ as the one thing that separates him from the criminals. At the climax of the movie, Ducard asks Bruce if he had finally learned to do what is necessary, the will to kill. But Batman responds that while he won’t kill Ducard he doesn’t have to save him either. It is this ‘one rule’ of Batman’s that will be put to the ultimate test by the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Copyright ©2008, Ryan Blue
Saturday, August 16, 2008
21 is a simple but "based-on-true-story" tale of a student who needs funds to pay for college. But it is also a contrast between two cities: Boston and Las Vegas. Whereas one represents education and culture, the pinnacles of a youth well spent, the other represents seduction and sin, the depths of debauchery and a youth, even life, wasted.
Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess the English star of Across the Universe now trying on an American accent) is a gifted student, perhaps even a genius. An MIT student with a 4.0 GPA, he is accepted to the prestigious Harvard Medical School. The only problem is it costs $300,000 and he does not have this kind of money. His main job, while a student, brings in a whopping $8 per hour. He has set his hopes on winning the full ride scholarship. He has the academic credentials. But in his interview, it is clear he does not have the life experience to dazzle the professor and hence separate himself from the other 70+ applicants. His last hope is dashed. He has no way to pay for medical school.
When Ben is the only student in class who can answer the questions posed by math prof Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), he captures his attention. Later, he is invited to join a small group of students being primed by Rosa to work a system for counting cards for blackjack. At first he refuses; he doesn't want to compromise his job or studies, or even his participation on the robot competition with his two nerdy friends. But a visit from Jill (Kate Bosworth), the hot student he desires from afar, changes his mind.
Ben, of course, is a natural. He picks up the counting method, the signals, and the buzzwords quickly. He is a natural leader, too, and is given the spot as high hitter, the one who comes to the table when signaled and starts betting large amounts. And so the Vegas trips begin.
At first Ben, with his new identity, does well but remains the same shy scholarly student that he was at first. He still wants to stay friends with his nerdy buddies. But as these trips continue, he changes. He is seduced by the large amounts of money they are winning, the glitz of the neon, the grand suites they occupy, and the recognition he is given by the hotel staff. Slowly he withdraws from his former friends. He lies to his mother. He becomes a different person, an uncaring, high roller who lives for the thrill of the game, and enjoys the trappings of this success.
But the success of this cabal is only as good as the counting of cards. When Ben falls prey to playing with emotions, not the system, he loses and loses big. At this point, Rosa's true motivations emerge: "You are only ever as good to me as the money you make!" This is not about the team, it is about the money they bring to him. The nasty underbelly of the beast is exposed. And he has ways to destroy them and their dreams.
When Ben and his fellow students decide to work without Rosa, he gives them away to casino enforcer Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), a shady character from Rosa's past. When Ben is taken for a talk with Williams, the talk involves fists and knuckle-rings. It is a wake-up call.
As Ben loses everything, his fortune, friends, and future, he is forced to take drastic action. With nothing left to lose, he plans a way to win it all back. The final act is a formulaic con that plays out in a fun fashion.
21 wastes its talent. The signals used in the casinos are so obvious a blind-man could spot them a mile away. The system, explained once, is repeated time and time again unnecessarily, as though the director expects us to forget what is going on. And the characters are too superficial, almost caricatures. The screenplay lacks subtlety; with more depth of character it would have been interesting and compelling.
As ordinary as 21 is, it raises some intriguing ethical issues. Is it OK to lie to your family, your parents, to "protect" them? Sometimes, to lie is to save face. If the truth is too hard to tell, or cannot be told, is this a sign that the activity is ethically wrong? In lying to a parent or family member, this will undoubtedly have a domino-effect. It will hinder future relational growth, since relationships are based on honesty and transparency. It will lead to further lying to hide the truth that cannot be told.
Can we expose ourselves to seductive activities without being seduced by them ourselves? It may be possible but it is very difficult. As one of the characters says, "You know what I like most about Las Vegas? You can be whoever you want to be." Vegas allows people to pretend to be something that they're not, but in doing so they are actually becoming those people. The masks we wear conform our faces so that they eventually will become those masks.
Another ethical issue is that of abandoning one's friends when a "better" group comes along. This is manipulative at heart. True friendships are based on care and concern, a desire to see our friends reach their best. It is not self-serving, as though we use the friendship until a better one for us comes along. 21 causes us to reflect on our own friendships and our internal motivations. How do we know our true friends? Who are we true friends to? How do we treat our friends?
Perhaps the biggest issue 21 raises is how close to the limits we choose to go. If counting cards is not illegal, it is certainly close to the boundaries. The fact that the enforcer will beat a card-counter to a pulp shows how the casinos view this activity. Is it wise to live life close to the allowed boundaries, always challenging the authorities but never quite crossing the line? 21 never really answers this question and this void subverts the narrative.
So, should we root for Ben and his team? We do, only because we see the inherent wickedness in their mentor. But what if Rosa was better, decent at heart? Where would our allegiances lie then? Surely perceptions are as important as reality. And if the perceptions of others is that when we live close to the limits we are actually over the line, it is better to move away, to alter the reality so as to alter their perceptions. As followers of the Lord of the Universe, we must live so as to cause no issues for others. If that means avoiding living close to the limits, then perhaps we need to reevaluate the lifestyles we have chosen.
21 is for 17 -- the birthday number for my son today! Happy birthday David.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Zodiac is an intensely captivating taut thriller from David Fincher (Se7en, Panic Room). Based on the book by Robert Graysmith, it presents a fictionalized account of the manhunt for the serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. More than this, it provides a mesmerizing study of obsession and its consequences.
The movie opens with a young couple going out to a lover's lane area. When a car stops behind them, they are afraid but it turns out to be other punk kids having a little fun with them. When another vehicle, looking like a police car, stops behind them, they are spooked but it drives off. When it returns, and the man gets out, they are relieved to speak to a policeman . . . but only momentarily. This is a killer. And he kills the woman, leaving the man wounded but not dead. Apart from this violence, and two other brief killing scenes, the film is more psychologically frightening than violent.
When a later is sent to three San Francisco newspapers claiming credit for a later murder as well as this and another, the editors and police are unsure whether to believe the writer or not. But there are enough details known only to the police to make this credible. Along with the letter is a page written in code claiming to give the identity of the killer. This is the beginning of the hunt for the serial killer who was known as the Zodiac, after the use of this symbol in this code.
Present at this first meeting is reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist who is in the right place at the right time to be in on this first code. Avery is sent to do investigative reporting, while Graysmith is dismissed to work on his comics.
But Graysmith, a divorced single parent, is a puzzle-maniac, and this puzzle has him in its grip. When all the famous agencies (police, FBI, CIA, etc) cannot solve the puzzle, a pair of teachers does several days later. But this serves only to add fuel to the fire of Graysmith's interest.
As the murders continue over the course of months, the encoded letters continue. And as they do, Graysmith develops a budding relationship of sorts with Avery, after he shows him that he has solved the puzzle and others through library reading and research on cryptography. Also embroiled in the case is Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). Toschi and partner Inspector Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to one of the early murders, and then becomes obsessed with the Zodiac killings.
Zodiac is a dark movie, with moody cinematography. Fincher, a director with an eye for detail, catches the ambience of the times, even giving subtle references. The real-life Toschi was the inspiration for Steve McQueen's performance in Bullitt (1968) and in one-scene is sarcastically called Bullitt. In another, Graysmith is in a movie theater watching Dirty Harry, which was set in San Francisco with Inspector Dirty Harry Callahan on the trail of a serial-killer, Serpico -- modeled after Zodiac.
One extremely tense scene has Graysmith, by now pale and haunted, visiting Bob Vaughn who has information on the identity of the Zodiac. Apparently, the Zodiac, who lived in a house with a basement, hand-drew the movie posters and Graysmith wants more information on the "artist." When Vaughn admits that he, not the other person, drew the poster, the air chills. Graysmith is visibly scared. When Vaughn offers to show him the originals in his basement, Graysmith chokes out: "Not many people have basements in California." When he does follow him slowly down into the dark basement, he hears a noise upstairs. "Are you sure no one else is in the house?" When he grabs his stuff and runs upstairs he finds the front door has been locked and there's no way out. Shades of Psycho! Without any need for gore and violence, this kind of movie-making wins out hands-down.
At its heart, Zodiac is not really about the killings; it's about the obsession of the three main characters in response to the killings. And their obsession is costly. Paul Avery, seeing this as a ticket to fame, pursues this killer until he believes that the Zodiac is simply claiming others' killings. Through his obsession, he descends into drink and drugs with his own private demons.
Dave Toschi, on the other hand, is a cop who wants to catch the killer. Even after his partner moves on to a different beat, no longer able to bear the long hours and late night calls without success, Toschi is still fixated on Zodiac. Only when he himself is thought to be the writer of one of the Zodiac letters, one arriving out-of-the-blue after years of no activity, are the consequences of his fixation clear. He is moved out of homicide -- a career suicide for this honest cop.
Robert Graysmith, though, suffers the most. He started as a serious cartoonist, one with a loving relationship with his kids. Once the Zodiac got in his blood he could think of nothing else. Even his second wife, Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), left him. The obsession was plain for her to see even on their first date. He arrives late, asks her to spend time with him in a phone booth as he tries to contact Avery, worried that he may be walking into a trap set by the Zodiac, and then has her spend a long lonely night as they together wait for Avery's return call.
As his obsession continues, he withdraws from Melanie and involves his three kids in his compulsive pursuit of the killer. His character disintegrates and he appears dishevilled. When asked what is driving him, he can only say, "I... I Need to know who he is. I... I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it's him." As the movie's tagline says, "There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer" and Graysmith is most certainly losing his life, maybe his sanity, to someone he does not know but needs to find. This puzzle has control over him.
Zodiac paints a picture of a man who is obsessed with killing and a man who is obsessed with finding the Zodiac killer. It does not explain what drives a killer; it does not explain what drives an ordinary man to pursue a killer. Even at the end, when some of the loose ends are tied up, it still leaves the viewer left wondering if the answers were right.
What is it about an obsession that causes a rational person to put his life on hold, or even to lose his life, to forget everything and everyone to single-mindedly pursue his obsession? Zodiac portrays the puzzle-obsession but what about obsessions? The obsession with fame or fortune? Most obsessions are damaging, somewhere between mildly or maximally. The only obsession that is healthy and honest is the one that Steven Curtis Chapman sings about in his song, "Magnificent Obsession:" the obsession of pursuing the Lord Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2008, Martin Baggs
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Gangs of New York is a sweeping story of love and life and death amidst the violence of the early days of New York City, the gateway to the west for the hordes of immigrants from Ireland and Europe. Even after cutting his movie by an hour, director Martin Scorsese has an epic of almost three hours. As in most of his movies, Scorsese taps many religious and Catholic themes, but focuses on revenge here to ask the question, are hatred and vengeance powerful enough forces to sustain a man's life?
The movie opens with Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) shaving in preparation for a major gang battle. When he cuts himself with his open razor, he tells his young son, Amsterdam, "The blood stays on the blade. One day you'll understand." This is a preface for what will come in this very bloody and violent film. And by the end, we understand the implications of the blood on the razor.
Facing off against Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his gang of "Natives," Priest Vallon takes his gang of Irish immigrants into battle, only to die at the hands of Bill as the Irish lose the fight and ownership of the 5 Points, a cruel and crime-infested ghetto. The boy Amsterdam sees his father die and escapes.
Some years later, Amsterdam returns to the 5 Points as a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose "education" has been in a brutal reform school. He is filled with hatred for Bill and is looking for revenge. As he falls in with a group of Irish boys, he manages to meet Bill and somehow gain his approval, becoming almost an apprentice of his. As side-kick, he is "sleeping with the enemy" who does not know his true identity. Along the way, he meets, befriends and falls in love with Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a street-wise but scarred pick-pocket.
After the prolog, the movie is set in 1863, when the Civil War is extolling a high price within the Union. With the caskets of dead soldiers returning to the NYC harbor at night, the immigrants arriving during the day are urged to become soldiers, even immediately after becoming citizens. Yet prejudice is rampant, then as now. Where some, such as the corrupt politician "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) see America's future ("That's the building of our country right there, Mr Cutting. Americans aborning.") others, like Bill, see America's threat ("I don't see no Americans. I see trespassers.").
Prejudice is a key theme throughout this movie, as it takes the form of national prejudice (Americans vs immigrants) as well as racial prejudice (whites vs blacks). The gangs of New York are formed to provide protection for the groups of people who naturally gravitate together. As Irishman McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) says, " That war [of prejudice] is a thousand years old and more. We never expected it to follow us here. It didn't. It was waiting for us when we landed." Prejudice is inescapable.
Although the American Declaration of Independence espouses "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," the sinfulness of the human heart ensures that all men are selfish and self-centered. This inherent human condition ensures that throughout history prejudice has raised its ugly head, and will continue to do so in one form or another. The chief solution is found in Jesus: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). In choosing to follow Jesus, we become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:21) whose internal character is changed. We are truly equal in Christ. Prejudice has no place in the hearts of Christ's followers.
If prejudice is the blood running through the veins of this film, revenge is its heart. When Amsterdam prepares to kill Bill, he wants to do it in a public way, where everyone can see it and understand that this is an act of vengeance. But his friend betrays him in a Judas-like manner, so that Bill is ready. When it happens, the tables are turned, and Amsterdam becomes the one caught in the trap. Yet, as Priest Vallon spared Bill's life once before, causing Bill to lose an eye, Bill chooses to spare Amsterdam's life: "He ain't earned a death! He ain't a death at my hands! No, he'll walk amongst you marked with shame, a freak." He scars him but frees him, leaving him a monster, even more consumed by hatred.
Despite the immigrants who sign-up, there is still a lack of numbers and the draft is enacted. Only the rich can escape, since a conscript could buy his way out of the army for a price of $300. But it is a price that most could not afford. When the draft becomes real and names are drawn, the tinder-box of New York is sparked and anti-draft riots occur. Amidst the worst riots in the nation's history, the mob torches the town, killing anyone who stood in its way.
Set against this violence, the final gang battle is waged. The again-returned Amsterdam has united all the immigrant gangs of New York against Bill and the Natives. In a scene that reprises the prolog, the gangs face one another at 5 Points. But this time, the Union army is involved as are the war-ships on the water. Quelling the mob, hindering the gang-battle, the gunfire and cannon-fire cause a smoke and haze that makes the scene surreal. At the climax, it is Amsterdam vs the Butcher.
Gangs of New York is a powerful film with strong acting. Daniel Day-Lewis is larger than life in the central role of Bill the Butcher that sees him have a scene with every main character in the movie. Having won one Oscar for his role in My Left Foot, he was worthily nominated here but lost to Adrien Brody (for his role in The Pianist), although he picked up numerous trophies for this role elsewhere (and then won his second Oscar last year for There Will be Blood). Diaz and DiCaprio, normally pretty actors without much substance, show depth not often seen in their roles. Surrounded by a deep cast of well-known faces (Broadbent, Neeson, John C Reilly, Gleeson, etc), Scorsese crafts an homage to his beloved New York.
But Gangs of New York is not perfect. It is overlong, with too many characters and too graphic in its violence. More than this, its answer to its fundamental question is that revenge and hatred will sustain a man, which is deeply unsatisfying ethically. Revenge is costly. It is an emotion that does not sustain life, it sucks the life and the love out of a person, turning them into a bitter shell.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Smart People is a dramedy about the love life of two smart people. And it asks the question, is high intelligence enough to make it work? If Carnegie Mellon Professor Lawrence Wetherbold (Dennis Quaid) is a true representative of intelligent or smart people, the answer is no. Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.
Widowed and raising two children, James (Ashton Holmes) a student at Carnegie Mellon and Vanessa (the enormously gifted Ellen Page) a high schooler studying for the SATs, Lawrence is a scholar in Victorian literature. But he is also withdrawn and antisocial with no friends on faculty and no love relationships. Yet he does not seem to care.
When he climbs a fence to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car he falls onto his back he suffers a seizure. He wakes to find himself in the ER. This incident is the catalyst for change. His attending physician, Dr Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), was a former student who had a crush on him, but whose early passion for liberal arts and literature were crushed and destroyed by Wetherhold's scathing criticism of her papers. When she tells him he cannot drive for 6 months due to his condition, both find themself in a quandary. He needs a driver, and she has a forgotten crush rekindled.
Into this mix drops Chuck Weatherhold, the adopted brother who is a perpetual low-level scam-artist and loser. Adopted means he is not genetically related to the other three Weatherholds and so is not a smart person. He is clearly the dumb foil for them to learn from. He needs a place to stay and money, but he can drive and so becomes the designated driver and lesson-teacher.
Thomas Haden Church plays Chuck well, like a "grown-up toddler" who is looking for cheap drugs, drinking and sex. He is easy in every sense of the word. His character is a failed version of Jack, his hedonistic character from Sideways. (Perhaps this is not surprising since Smart People is from the producers of Sideways.)
Of all the characters in Smart People, Chuck is easily the most likable, if perhaps the most depraved. But he is comfortable with his depravity and his dumbness. He is not putting on airs. What you see is what you get with him. In contrast, Lawrence is self-absorbed and narcissistic. He is only focused on his latest book, which has been consistently rejected by one publisher after one another. When he finally goes on a first date with Janet, he spends 45 minutes talking about himself without pausing to let her say a single word. What did she see in him? And she is no cuddle-bunny. She is a man-eater who has poisoned her earlier relationships: a match made in heaven! (Yet the viewer is left asking what she ever saw, or even still sees, in him.)
Smart People pictures these two very smart people as so smart and intellectual that they miss the emotional and romantic intelligence or niceties needed to maintain or even begin a relationship. They have no clue. It takes dumb Chuck to show them, and Vanessa, what life and love is all about.
If we can get past the casual sex, under-age drinking and drug-smoking, Smart People has a lesson for us: intelligence is not all there is to life. A high IQ, several degrees and letters behind a name, does not make a person better than one without the diplomas. It may not even make them happy or fulfilled. We all need to learn, and sometimes the smartest, most educated people lack the common sense or common graces that others have, and hence have the most left to learn.
Smart People also has a lesson about role models. Vanessa is driven by the need to get a perfect SAT score. She is a loner, a nerd in her high school, who sits alone at lunch because she lacks friends. In short, she is just like her dad. When confronted about this, she admits he is her role model. She is a chip off the old block. Unintentional though it may be, he has given her an incorrect and poor model to follow. The parent needs to lead the child, but in the right direction and in the right manner. What kind of role model am I as a father giving to my children? What kind of message are we as "smart people" communicating to those around us, who are watching how we live? Smartness, intelligence, is not the only message; it may lead to pride and egotism. Healthy, loving relationships with others is perhaps a better sign of a rounded personality, particularly for Christians who are called to be lovers of God and lovers of people.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Do we really know the person we are sleeping with? Or, to be more specific, do we know what really goes on in the mind of the person with whom you sleep? This is the question that Ira Sachs explores in Married Life. And he answers with a disappointing, but perhaps realistic, no.
Versatile character actor Chris Cooper plays the everyman Harry Allen, a mid-40s businessman in this mid-40's melodrama. "Happily" married to Pat Allen (Patricia Clarkson), he is in the middle of an affair with a much younger woman, Kay (Rachel MacAdams). The twist is his wife believes "love is sex" and wants sex not romance or affection, while Harry seems to want affection more than sex. Harry is a good guy who "cares" enough about his wife to avoid hurting her with a divorce, so decides he will poison her instead . . . as if killing her is a better thing for her.
When Harry informs his charming but rakish friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) of his love for Kay, and then introduces him to Kay, Richard falls for her. To cap things off, Richard later walks in on Pat with a younger lover herself. Everyone, it seems, is cheating on another.
With such a quality cast, Married Life gets fine performances from the lead actors. Yet, despite the acting and the interesting plot twists (a "good" guy with a bad heart and a "bad" guy who develops a better heart, no longer wanting to play loose with every woman he meets), this is a melodrama that disappoints. The characters are not that likeable, and it is hard to care about them.Married Life portrays married life as a sham. Although this couple, Pat and Richard, share the same bed, they do not share the same thoughts or affections. They are going through the motions, though neither senses that the other is also doing it. Both seem to focus on the duties implicit in marriage not the benefits or pleasures to be accorded to one another.
At one point Pat says "What is the price a good wife pays?" She wants to be good but does not wish to pay the price. She is focused on self-interest, in this case in sex and not from her husband. He, in turn, realizes that she has made him a "better finished product" but cannot bear to publicly humiliate her (as divorce did in those days when it was not common).
Both main characters have put their finger on a key issue in marriage: it takes work and has a price. Husband and wife will pay a price to make a marriage last, but it is worth doing so. A good marriage will make both partners better people. Typically, we see our own selfishness and sinful behaviors exposed more clearly in the intimacy and proximity of this relationship. But we grow only as we decide to open up to one another and become vulnerable, and then take action to change the pettiness that we see illumined in us.
In Married Life, both Pat and Richard have stopped being transparent with one another. They no longer share their thoughts and desires. In withdrawing mentally they have separated themselves from one another, until all that is left is superficial and phoney. Marriage, as ordained by God, is intended to be a beautfiul relationship of openness and love, where we can support our spouse and help them to become the people God wants them to be. Since marriage is a symbolic picture of the relationshoip between Christ and His church, the Savior and the saved, it highlights an intimacy rarely experienced but always expected. As we ponder the question, do we know who we are sleeping with, for married followers of Christ, if we cannot say yes, we should at least be trying to get to a yes, rather than accepting a no.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs