Saturday, November 29, 2008

Witnesses (Svjedoci) -- to be or not to be silent

Director: Vinko Bresan, 2003.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it actually make a sound? This is a common philosophical brain-teaser that may cause some to ponder. Witnesses raises a similar question. But more on that later.

Initially slow but ultimately satisfying, this Croatian film centers around a murder committed in a village on the front-line during the civil war of 1992. Even while the man is being shot, the father of one of the killers lies dead in a casket in the family home, watched over by his widow. When the police arrive the next day, the inspector treats it as a true crime, while most of the neighborhood see it as a war-time annoyance. After all, the victim was a smuggler and a loan shark . . . and a Serb to boot. They think he had it coming. is one complication for the three murderers, all Croatian soldiers: there was a witness in the house of the murdered man -- his young daughter. So they kidnapped her and threw her in a garage, not knowing what to do with her. The key question, then, is what to do with the witness?

Upon this simple premise, Bresnan has crafted a complex film. The key to its success is repetition. He takes us back over the scenes multiple times, each time showing us something new, something unexpected. He introduces new characters, who are related to the plot in ways we don't foresee. In this regard, Witnesses is similar to Vantage Point, a later film. However, where Vantage Point used this plot device effectively to build a taut thriller with plenty of action but little character growth, Witnesses uses it to develop characters. And these are complex characters communicated by an excellent cast of actors not seen in America. chooses his camera angles and cinematography carefully to further add to the narrative. The early parts of the movie are shot in desaturated color giving grainy greens and grays, perhaps emphasizing the presence of the war and its effects on the whole community. The camera both shows and hides things so that the viewer sees but does not see all that there is. the mother calls in the mayor, essentially the small town patriarch, to seek counsel, he offers chilling advice: "That which was not seen was not done . . . No witnesses. None." We are back to the falling tree in the unpopulated forest. If the killers silence the witness, then there was no witness. And if there was no witness, there was no crime. Is it really that simple? Is silence golden?

Committing a crime, especially murder, is a sin. Moses told the Israelites, "You shall not murder" (Exod. 20:13). This law has stood the test of time. It remains in the law books of all democracies. Committing another crime, another murder, does not cause the first to disappear, to vanish. It simply doubles the sin. It is illogical to think otherwise. The criminal mind may think we can sweep such sins and crimes under the carpet and no one will know, especially in a time of war, but God sees all and knows all (Job 34:21-22, Psa. 94:11). Nothing escapes his attention. He will call us to account for such sin. Only through the finished work of Jesus can we find forgiveness, even for the acts no one but God sees (Eph. 1:7).

Another issue raised by Witnesses is that of genocide, but it is the subtext for the main points. Killing of people groups based on ethnicity or religion is wrong. Peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups is a high and worthy goal that should be pursued as much as possible. But the film does not explore this and so I will leave it for another review. (Although, this film was the recipient of the Peace Film Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.)

A broader question framed by Bresan is, who are witnesses? One of the killers, realizing his predicament, makes the statement, "We are all witnesses" before committing suicide in a violent manner. How are we all witnesses? To what are we all witnesses? In the context of the movie, the soldier seems to be pointing to the war and the atrocities occurring on a daily basis. The town, even the country, knew what was going on. They were all witnesses. They were the other trees in the forest. Yet none was speaking out, none was coming forth. Their voices were silent. Are we witnesses of crimes, of social injustices? Are we willing to speak out to see justice served? Or are we silent, and in our silence pretending that no injustice, no sin, no crime was done?

Finally, for those of who follow Jesus he has charged us to be his witnesses, to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8). In this sense, too, we are all witnesses. So, are we speaking out for Christ? Are we giving a witness to those around us, in our words and in our deeds? Or are we acting like these soldiers, doing what the mayor suggested, and staying silent? If we are doing so, we silence the voice of Jesus. Witnesses reminds us that we can choose to remain silent, fearful, and act as though nothing has happened between us and Jesus. Or we can be a witness for Jesus, giving voice for him who paid for our sins and those of the world on the tree. What kind of witness will you be?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Walker -- loyalty in action

Director: Paul Schrader, 2007.

A friend once told me how to know if you're watching a bad movie: if your butt twitches it's a loser. This is a "butt-twitcher" of a movie.

On paper The Walker has a lot going for it. It's got a a veteran cast, including the great Lauren Bacall, Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Willem Dafoe and Ned Beatty. And the storyline looks promising, set in Washington DC with political intrigue and scandal. Yet, this failed to keep me interested. It is a disappointing movie, with an unsatisfying ending.

Harrelson plays Carter Page III, a DC walker, which is a person who escorts the wives of the political power-brokers to high society events. A friend and a confidante, he spends his time playing cards with them, partly as a way of catching up on all the gossip. Not hurting for money, since his father and grandfather were rich and famous politicians, he works little, dresses well, and stays in the know on the movers and shakers. But as an elegant homosexual not interested in pursuing politics ("I am superficial"), he is a disappointment to his father. his best friend Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) discovers her lover murdered, it is Carter who puts himself in the middle of the situation to protect her and her senator husband from scandal. His loyalty to her causes him to become the center of the police investigation and the prime suspect. As the plot develops, Carter has to resort to his own investigation, with the help of his gay lover, to discover the root of the conspiracy.

With a deep southern accent and bushy toupee, Harrelson gives a "not quite over the top" performance as the perfect gay gentleman. Thomas is strong as the lead female. But the main problem with The Walker is that it is confusing and slow. Taking too long to get to the murder, I almost gave up in the first act. But by the second and third acts the plot was dull and perplexing. With too many characters with unclear motivations, this lost me and left my wife asleep. By the time the ending arrived, I turned it off still not understanding what had really happened; worse yet, not really caring. Walker uses Carter's homosexuality as a device to enable him to become friends with the wealthy women without causing their husbands concern. Yet, the film's images of the gay lifestyle are at times troubling. His lover's job as a gay artist, creating agitprop posters of nude men being tortured are disturbing and unnecessary.

Homosexuality is morally a sin. The Bible is clear that same-gender sex is wrong (Rom. 1:26-27), though it is also clear that the people involved are dearly loved by God (Jn 3:16). Lest I be accused of intolerance, the Bible is also clear that heterosexual adultery or pre-marital sex are also sins (1 Cor. 6:9), as are lying, gossip, stealing, etc (2 Cor. 12:20, Matt. 19:18). But Hollywood seems to glorify in showing homosexual relationships, perhaps with an agenda to promote (think Brokeback Mountain, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, etc). I can accept that some will choose this lifestyle, even that it might be portrayed in movies. But it is hard to watch when it includes "in-your-face" visuals almost as propaganda.

A key theme from The Walker is that of loyalty. Carter's loyalty to Lynn almost cost him his freedom, even his life. He demonstrated the true meaning of loyalty to a friend. The bible tells us that a friend loves at all time (Prov. 17:17) and such love must be shown in action. How far will we go for a friend? Would we be willing to put ourselves in danger, in the midst of serious trouble to help a friend, to protect the friend's spouse? Would we risk imprisonment and death for a friend? Carter did.

It's possible that his loyalty to Lynn was a reaction to the lack of acceptance from his father. His avoidance of political involvement combined with his homosexuality may have been cause for scorn from his male predecessors. Sometimes a person will pour himself into another friendship as a way to gain the missing parental acceptance. That provokes personal reflection on those of us who are parents: are we providing the kind of acceptance our children need? Particularly as a father, am I accepting my son for who he is? Or am I pushing my agenda and expectations unfairly on him in ways that are unhealthy and damaging? A father's acceptance is indeed a powerful thing.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bolt -- heroes and hero-worship

Directors: Byron Howard & Chris Williams, 2008.

The new Disney release, Bolt, is formulaic in its plot-development and happy ending, referential in recalling a number of movies, and yet a whole lot of fun for the family. With their 2006 acquisition of Pixar, some of the magic of that studio has rubbed off. Though not in the class of WALL-E or Ratatouille, this adventure is akin to The Incredibles, though just a tad inferior (due to the limited social commentary). This is clearly the best Disney movie in years.

It starts by showing us the most adorable white puppy you have ever seen. "Cute" does not do justice to Bolt (John Travolta). Penny (Miley Cyrus) falls instantly in love and becomes his owner, or his person as he later refers to her. to 5 years later and we find Penny's father kidnapped and Bolt and Penny involved in trying to rescue him. The ensuing chase scene is like something from the opening of a James Bond film. Exciting, nail-biting, Bolt is seen to be a super-dog with super-powers. He can run faster than a speeding bullet. He has heat-ray vision. He can stop a moving truck. And his bark is something to behold. It can literally raise the roof. There's even a shot using "bullet-time" made famous in The Matrix.

Unlike a Bond movie, however, this extended opening has everything to do with the story. As it ends we find Bolt taken back to his home . . . a movie trailer in one of the sound stages. All this is for a TV show. To make sure that he does not find out that he really is a normal dog with no super-powers the show's director keeps him cooped up between shows in this trailer. This is reality TV with a twist. What is real for Bolt is actually unreal, just a TV show. Shades of The Truman Show with a dog as the star.

When Bolt somehow escapes from his trailer and is accidentally packaged up and sent from Hollywood to New York, he has to learn to survive in the harsh real world. He thinks he still has super powers but this TV star has a lot to learn about life. Since the show was left on a cliff-hanger with Penny kidnapped by the "green-eyed" man (Malcolm McDowell), Bolt is bent on a mission to rescue her.

The rest of the film is the story of Bolt's journey from New York across the country back to Hollywood. In New York he is taken to the mangy alley-cat Mittens (Susie Essman), a Don Corleone-like figure who extorts food from the local pigeons in return for protection. She is likely to make them an offer they cannot refuse. But Bolt sees her as one of the evil creatures in league with the green-eyed man, and takes her prisoner, making her help him find Penny. route they meet Rhino (Mark Walton), an overweight hamster who inexplicably lives in a plastic ball. Rhino is a TV-obsessed mammal who idolizes Bolt and wants to accompany his hero, even if it means "eating danger for breakfast."

For all these speaking creatures, who begin as enemies but end as friends, as all Disney movies play out, the pigeons steal the show. The running joke through Bolt is the presence of regionally accented pigeons. The initial set of pigeons are the extorted New Yorkers who bring Bolt to Mittens, who think they recognize the super-dog but are as small-brained and forgetful as their real-life relatives. In contrast, the Hollywood trio of pigeons are sharp screenwriters ready to pitch an idea to this actor-dog after they recognize him.

The animation in Bolt is excellent. Especially in the peripheral aspects like the blades of grass or the characters' hair the artistry is amazing. What brings added interest to Bolt is the fact that it is shot in 3-D. When things fly out, you can almost reach out and catch them. Fascinating for adults and kids alike. much fun as Bolt is, it also raises several issues deeply embedded in its narrative, each appropriate to one of the three animals on the journey. The first relates to heroes. Bolt is the star of his TV show and believes he is a super-dog. He expects to save Penny, his owner. But like Buzz Lightyear in the earlier Pixar film Toy Story he learns that he is no superhero. He is an ordinary dog. But in real-life there are no super-heroes, just ordinary people who can become heroes. Just as Bolt becomes a real hero, we can be to those we interact with. Even if it does not involve rescue from imminent danger, if we help those in need we can be heroes. We are here to serve and love those in our communities. Whether that involves mentoring a young boy in an inner-city school, coaching a girls' soccer team, or serving at a rescue mission, there are needy and hurting people desperately seeking a champion. You or I can be that hero.

Mittens, on the other hand, is no hero. She carries within her a secret, one she dares not share. It is her "power." She has been wounded before. We have all been wounded by others. How we deal with these wounds determines who we become. If we allow the wounds to fester we will become bitter, cynical, liars, who in turn hurt and wound others. We might feel it our "right" since others had done likewise to us. We can stop this cycle through forgiving, letting go of the past, and bringing truth to our relationships (Col. 3:13). was a straight-up hero-worshiper. A fan, he wanted to follow his idol regardless of the danger it might put him in. He is an unlikely example of what a Jesus-follower looks like. For us, Jesus is our hero. He is the one we want to follow at whatever cost. If it means picking up our cross and facing death (Matt. 10:38); if it means walking into the valley of the shadow of death (Psa. 23:4); if it means staring into the face of Satan and not backing down (1 Pet. 5:8-9), we will do it if Jesus takes us there. Will we be like Rhino in our worship of the true hero, Jesus?

Finally, the best line in the movie comes from Rhino and points us back to the God of the miraculous: "the impossible is possible . . . when you are AWESOME!" Jesus tells us "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). He who could make a dead-man rise, a blind-man see, a mute-man sing can do all things. He is indeed awesome and worthy of our hero-worship!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ben-X -- autism, bullying and revenge

Director: Nic Balthazar, 2007.

I rarely get angry when watching a movie. But Ben-X was an exception. I was so engrossed in the movie that I totally sympathized with the protaganist Ben, so that when he was ruthlessly bullied I wanted justice or vengeance. My fists were clenched, my stomach was tight, and I could not pull away.

First-time screenwriter and director Balthazar created a story with punch. Subtitled in English, this Flemish movie was the official entry from Belgium at this year's Oscars. Though it did not win, it won 6 awards at other film festivals, including Montreal. is a young man with Asperger's Syndrome, a brain disorder and form of autism. This condition has in part led to the his parents' divorce. Because autism carries with it both behavioral and emotional difficulties, Ben stands out as "different" at school. And in a large public school, different is not what you want to be. It is clear he is not "normal." And several bullies pick on him ruthlessly while the rest of the class participates in this ongoing humiliation of Ben.

The fine acting of Greg Timmermans, also making his debut in feature films, combines with the exceptional cinematography to enable the viewer to really feel the frustration and pain of a sufferer of severe autism. Although language and cognitive development is not hindered, as is communicated in Ben's excellent grades, autism manifests itself in difficulties in social interactions, minimized verbal communications, limited empathy, and obsessive or repetitive behaviors. Since eye contact is impaired, the camera frequently focuses on lips, side-burns, or random objects when Ben does talk. And when it does so, it does not hold still, but moves jarringly as his eyes would, with some distortion thrown in. (This is a little like the camera work in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, another foreign movie dealing with limitations.) Further, Ben's aversion to noise is clear in his physical mannerisms. The soundtrack when he is in the presence of normal noise such as traffic is grating and discordant, further communicating the isolation that Ben experiences.

Ben-X helped me, in some degree, "get inside the head" of an autistic teen. I have a relative in this situation and up till now have not understood what it meant to have this disorder. Though she only has a mild case, I am now able to better appreciate the difficulty that she faces in her studies, her relationships. It also explain some of the relational issues of her pre-teen years. the plot develops, we see some of the bullying that Ben experienced in his younger years. Clearly, he has had it rough. But it is at the hands of two"normal" bullies Desmet (Maarten Claeyssens) and Bogaert (Titus De Voogdt) that he is pushed over the edge. The bullying intensifies until it reaches a particularly mean incident in front of the whole classroom, and then beyond. Humiliated and angry, Ben still won't communicate to the teachers or principal. intriguing part of the story is that Ben, inept and awkward in real life, is a macho hero in an on-line role-playing game that he plays daily. In this virtual reality that he escapes to he can recreate himself to be whoever he wants. And in doing so, he has attained a level of power and superiority, and has found a girlfriend/princess. Indeed, the beginning of the movie plays like the start of a video game, with clever credits coming up as entry points into Ben's other world. What he cannot feel in reality he can feel in cyberspace.

After the major bullying incident, Ben descends a path that is dark and dangerous. He cannot get real help from anyone. He is literally helpless. Yet, his avatar has the strength and strategic wisdom to seek revenge. And his virtual princess encourages him on that path. As the climax approaches, Balthazar blurs the real and the virtual with creative cinematography, including some stop-action scenes, so that it is evident that Ben does not know which world he is in. With some of the major characters giving comments to the camera, as though this were a documentary, reflecting on an event not yet happened, it is apparent that something very bad will occur at the climax. Visions of recent catastrophes at school come to mind, but Ben-X keeps us guessing and engaged right to the end.

Ben-X is a social commentary on bullying and its consequences. It is also educational on autism. To torment someone for being different is ethically wrong. It is not that person's fault to have a disorder. Treating him as a retard, as the antagonists in the film label Ben, is an attempt to elevate one's own importance and value by demeaning another. Yet, all people, including those with mental or social disorders, are still humans made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) with inherent value and dignity. It is distasteful to see a person dehumanized by such bullying and this provoked my anger throughout the film.

Worse in a way than the bullies perhaps, were those who stood by apathetic or even cheering them on. These people were sheep not willing to stand up for Ben but instead following the bullies. Am I willing to stand up for someone being harassed or bullied? Or do I go along with the crowd? How will I combat even implicit bullying that surfaces in situations in my life? I can and must fight against this form of injustice.

Finally, Ben-X raises a key question about revenge. Is it ever OK to seek personal revenge? Paul, in Romans 12:19, addresses this question directly: "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." We are to leave justice to God, who will often use government entities to perpetrate such justice (Rom. 13). Yet what do we do when even the governing authorities won't intervene? Taking the law into our own hands, like Charles Bronson in Death Wish or Jodie Foster in The Brave One, becoming judge, jury and executioner combined is obviously wrong. But as we see Ben's fateful act, I wonder if this could be an acceptable form of revenge, a true bringing to justice, even leaving room for God's wrath.

Ben-X left me feeling wrung out, but gave me a deeper appreciation for those with autism and a deeper aversion to bullying. When was the last time a Hollywood movie left you feeling that way!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

He Died with a Felafel in his Hand -- chaos and balance

Director: Richard Lowenstein, 2001.

Despite winning multiple awards, this is not a very funny film. Neither is it tasteful, being unnecessarily filled with foul language from start to finish. Film Movement has distributed some excellent foreign or unknown films (such as Arranged, Witnesses, and Ben-X -- watch for reviews of these latter two films in the next 2 weeks), but it has had some misses too, and this is the worst so far.

It starts off with a golf scene. A man stands with his golf club about to drive. But when he calls "Fore," instead of a ball he hits a bull-frog. Shocking and hilarious, this is as funny as it gets. After this, it devolves into a dreary film with few laughs. story-line revolves around "room-mates from hell" in eastern Australia. These room-mates include: foul-mouth "bruces" doing drugs and seeking sex; a chaos-inducing Russian lesbian who creates trouble for all; a homosexual coming out to no surprise; a self-absorbed soap actress; and a Japanese student who is given a broom-closet for a room.

Danny (Noah Taylor), a wannabe writer whose highest career aspirations are to write a sordid story for Penthouse to earn "25 gees" (25,000), is a semi-loser who is followed around from apartment to apartment by these full-blown losers. It has the potential for great comedy, but falls flat. It dies with a bloated and under-used cast in its hand.

Two scenes offer small ethical nuggets worth pondering. In the first, Danny is talking to Flip, one of the weird room-mates who is "moon-tanning." He asks Flip, "Do you ever wonder if it's all a big con Flip? This. Everything. What if none of it really exists? What if it's like some big experiment and we're like ants trapped in a giant petri dish?" He senses something bigger than himself, than his humanity. But rather than seeing the order and purpose built into creation by God, he sees chaos and disorder. He questions his existence.

To question our existence, to ponder the purpose of life, is at the very heart of philosophy and religion. Is there more than simply existing, living and dying? Is there really a higher life-form looking down on us? Yes indeed! There is a God. There is God. If we truly pursue this line of questioning looking at the evidence, we will discover that there is a God who has brought all things into being. He looks at us, but he does so in love and mercy. We are not ants, we are people created in his image (Gen. 1:26). And this gives life meaning and purpose. It also helps us realize we will spend eternity with him, if we choose to follow him in this life.

The second ethical nugget is related to the first. When a Melbourne detective lines Danny and friends up against a wall to ask them questions, he waxes philosophic: "When things fall out of balance, you know what happens then don't you Daniel. Your spiritual values start to decline. You get your disintegration of your social structure, don't you? The system collapses." As the spiritual values that underpin society decline, social order does decay. We have seen evidence of this throughout history. But what is happening with spiritual values today?

Paradoxically spiritual values are on the ascent and the descent simultaneously in America and perhaps elsewhere. Tim Keller, in his book The Reason for God, says "both secular skepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways." The new atheism and agnosticism, themselves "religions" based on faith, are growing. Islam is exploding exponentially around the globe carrying its spiritual values to its followers. And in the Christian community, while the older mainline denominations are dying with their aging congregations, emerging (not emergent) churches are blossoming as they retain Scriptural authority while balancing truth with love. They are reaching a new generation with a very relevant gospel of Jesus. For society to remain healthy and strong, there must be values that are outside of ourselves, a set of spiritual values. Moral relativism is a failed experiment.

He Died with a Felafel in his Hand did not entertain or educate me. On the whole it simply wasted two hours of my life. Yet, even this dismal movie managed to touch a couple of nerves that caused me to reflect on deeper issues. I don't recommend you sitting through this movie. But perhaps this review has touched a nerve for you.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 17, 2008

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl -- optimism, depression and prejudice

Director: Patricia Rozema, 2008.

I have never read an American Girl book. Before watching this movie I could not tell the difference between Kit, Ruthie, Kaya, Britney, Jojo or whoever! If I did not have a 10 year-old girl, I probably would not have watched this movie. And what a pleasure I would have missed. I came to Kit Kittredge with little expectation, thinking it to be a typical kid's movie. Boy, was I wrong. This is an uplifting movie that deals with tough issues in a deep and honest manner.

Set in 1934, Kit is a typical 10 year-old girl living in a middle-class family in Cincinnati Ohio. But this is slap dab in the middle of the Great Depression, with foreclosures all around, and people being forced into unemployment and poverty. With the global economic meltdown of the last two months, this should sound very familiar. first Kit just wants to enjoy her friends, her tree-house and her dream to be reporter. But slowly the depression affects her. She sees friends lose their homes. She sees kids at school bully and humiliate those impacted. But until it hits home, she is still insulated. When she sees her dad, a car salesman (Chris O'Donnell), at a soup kitchen, her world is rocked. As he leaves for Chicago and the hopes of a job, her mom Margaret is forced to take in boarders to make ends meet. Kit sacrifices her room to a paying lodger. lodgers that come to Kit's home are a strange bunch. There's the mom with son (Kit's friend), whose husband has also left the state looking for work. She is humbled but still considers herself better than the hobos who live in shanty towns and travel the country jumping trains. Alongside her is the dance instructor who is desperately looking for a husband, any husband, and any man with a pulse will do. Throw in a magician and a mobile librarian who can barely drive and you have a houseful of odd ducks.

After painting the picture of the prevalent poverty of the era, Kit Kittredge becomes a mystery story with a moral message. A rash of thefts appears to be committed by a hobo, the scapegoat of choice. When it appears that the hobo befriended by Kit may be the culprit, Kit and her friends set out to solve the mystery. thing that makes Kit Kittredge a better than average kids' movie is the acting talent on display. Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin gives another strong performance in the central role as Kit, and is an effective hub for those around her. Julia Ormond is a great foil as the ever optimistic mom in the midst of such painful circumstances. This his lady could make lemonade from pre-squeezed lemons! Stanley Tucci appears as the magician and the lisping Wallace Shawn (Vizzini in The Princess Bride) plays Mr. Gibson, the crusty newspaper editor. But Joan Cusack steals the comic scenes as Miss Bond, the librarian. Cusack is an accomplished actor who can play comedy or serious roles with poise. (Who can forget her role in Arlington Road as the sugary sweet but chillingly scary next-door neighbor!) Max Thierot, too, gives a believable performance as Will, one of the two friendly hobos at the center of the mystery plot.

Kit Kittredge is a child's eye view of the great depression and its personal impact. As such it lays bare the tragedy of poverty and social injustice. It can hit almost anyone. Middle class today, on the street tomorrow. When or if this happens, will we swallow our pride and do what it takes to survive? Or will we retain our pride and pretend that we are still middle class and not needing help?

Margaret Kittredge displays an almost inauthentic optimism throughout. But it is more her adaptability that is highlighted. When confronted with crisis upon crisis, she simply buckles down and draws upon hidden reserves, never letting her smile fade. Surely this is what it means for the joy of the Lord to be your strength (Neh. 8:10). Though she is not shown to be a Christian, Margaret's attitude in dire times is a strong example to those of us who follow Jesus. In similar misfortunes, we should not complain, but rather maintain a thankful spirit with a humble heart. There is always someone worse off than us, as there were in this film. Kittredge also portrays the prejudice that is often deep in the human heart. When calamity strikes, we often seek to shift the blame. The scapegoat bears the brunt of our prejudices. In the film, all hobos were viewed with suspicion as criminals, low-life to be avoided, despite the lack of evidence. They were pre-judged. But Kit saw beyond the mists of bigotry, and looked for the goodness in Will, her hobo friend. We must be diligent to avoid prejudice in our own life, whether it seeks to raise its head in racial, social, sexual or other forms. Instead, we must seek to live like Kit seeking the good in those around us. Better yet, we should live like Jesus, who loved and accepted all, especially the marginalized of society who were looked down upon by the proud and haughty. We can and must remove the cancer of prejudice before its damage becomes too deeply rooted.

All this in a simple, yet gently thoughtful, kids' movie. This one is worth watching with your children just for the discussion opportunities afterwards. But if you do, keep some tissues handy; I found myself bawling like a baby at the sentimental ending.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas -- Forbidden friendship

Director: Mark Herman, 2008.

How do you explain the Holocaust to an 8 year-old boy? How would it appear to him if he saw a concentration camp with his own eyes not knowing what it was? This is the premise of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, based on the book by John Boyne. Though the story is told through the eyes of a boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), this movie is powerful and emotionally moving enough that viewer discretion is recommended for pre-teens. But for teenagers and adults, this is a film to see.

The movie opens with a happy scene. Bruno is running through a city square followed by three friends, all pretending to be planes. But this city is Berlin festooned with bright red German flags and swastikas. As they run carefree through the streets, they are juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the time: German soldiers restraining savage dogs rounding up families of Jews.

When Bruno's father, a German officer, gets promoted to be the commandant of a concentration camp Bruno sees it as a displacement from his friends. Arriving at the new home in the country, it is a stark contrast to the home they left. Where that was open and airy, classically defined, this new one looks more like a prison. Even the photography of Bruno on the staircase behind full-length banister rails makes him look like a jail-bird.

Apart from all his friends, Bruno is lonely. When he discovers a way out of his own "prison compound," he discovers a place with a barbed wire fence and a little boy, his own age, sitting by it. Schmuel (Jack Scanlon) is wearing striped pajamas with a number. Bruno thinks it's a game. Little does he know. the film progresses, so do the characters. Bruno begins to see that Schmuel and the others in pajamas are different, or at least are treated differently. He is confused. He likes his friend, Schmuel, but learns that he is a Jew, and Jews are supposed to be evil, animals, the cause of all that is wrong with Germany. Meanwhile, father (David Thewliss, Lupin in the Harry Potter movies), is simply doing his duty serving his country, unquestioningly killing the Jews in the gas chamber, while mother (Vera Farmiga, from The Departed) knows nothing. Life goes on for her until she finally discovers what the foul-smelling smoke from the camp really is. Then she is devastated and starts to come unglued. casting director for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas really scored. Asa Butterfield, in only his second feature film (his first was a minor role in Son of Rambow) is astonishing. His large blue eyes, seen in close-ups of his face so often, convey an innocence and naivety. With the restrained direction of director and screenwriter Mark Herman, Butterfield looks like a veteran. The other boy, Scanlon, cast after Butterfield was in place, has excellent chemistry as the powerless and hungry friend. This is his first feature and certainly won't be his last. The two adults hold their own, too. Thewliss eschews cliche in his role, playing the commandant not as a total monster but as a person who loves his family while slowly sliding down the slippery slope of sin and evil. He based this performance on the autobiography of Rudolph Höß, commandant of Auschwitz, written during the Nuremburg trials. But Farmiga, as mother, shows perhaps how some Germans must have felt, truly conflicted about the awfulness of Hitler's "final solution."

The screenplay avoids stereotypes and portrays the Germans as multi-dimensional characters, real people who could convince themselves that what they were doing was right. None in the film was completely evil, none was completely good. Even Bruno, the hero throughout, lies to save himself at one point, at a terrible cost to another.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is indeed a compelling story. Slow to begin with, it has a subtle pace but by the last 20 minutes of the final act, its momentum is unstoppable. It moves toward a climax that is inevitable and unavoidable, but still staggeringly shocking. When the camera lingers on a static image in the closing scene, I was left breathless and stayed rooted to my seat. The Holocaust has been the focus of other movies, such as Spielberg's epic Schindler's List. Indeed, the award-winner, Life is Beautiful, dealt with a boy in a concentration camp. But where that was a fable, this is a serious movie, and it stands up with these two modern classics. The only complaint I had is the initial strangeness of hearing all the actors (even American Vera Farmiga) speak with very proper English accents. It was a little unnerving to see Nazis and hear Brits. But the anomaly quickly paled in significance as the film's message shone out.

There are a number of ethical and moral issues addressed in this film, but three stand out. First, the treatment of the Jews as evil subhumans is obviously morally abhorrent. Jews are people just as all humans are people. We are all made in the image of God, regardless of race, sex, religion, color or creed (Gen. 1:26-27). To treat people with brutality, even killing them because of their religion, is a sin and a crime that cannot be condoned. It goes against everything that Jesus taught.

Through Bruno we also get a picture of an innocent who wants to place himself beside, associate with, and even take the place of, "a sinner". This is a beautiful image of Jesus, the innocent but suffering servant of Isaiah 53. He gave up his place of honor and power at the side of his Father to take on the form of humanity (Phil. 2:6-8). He came alongside us, lived with us as Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). He took our place (1 Pet. 2:24). In him and in him alone we can find our salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).

Finally, Bruno's friendship with Schmuel is a forbidden friendship. Despite clear instruction to not befriend Jews, he sees beyond labels to the true humanity beneath. Bruno was a soul in need of company. And Schmuel was in a similar condition. Both, in their own ways, were victims of incarceration. Schmuel was incarcerated physically. Bruno was a prisoner of his father's making, isolated from friends and imprisoned in the jail cell of racial hatred and intolerance. Yet, they formed an unlikely friendship, a kinship that traversed the barbed wire fence that separated them.

How often do we let labels or emotions separate us from others? How often do we find ourselves alone and wonder why? What is the cause of our imprisonment? Is it ourselves or is it imposed on us from others? If platonic and pure, how can a friendship really be forbidden? Let's be like Bruno. By becoming like a child, perhaps we can gain or strengthen our faith in God and our love for others (Matt. 18:4).

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fall -- assisted suicide

Director: Tarsem Singh, 2008.

The Fall is a stunning, visual feast, a phantasmagoria of colors. And what colors they are! Vivid vibrant skies of blue. Desert sands of bright orange. Sheets turning blood-red. Oceans so clear and pristine and turquoise that it's hard to believe that the film was shot entirely on location (across 28 countries and four years), with no computer generated images.

Tarsem (he has dropped his last name) has brought to the screen a dreamy stylistic movie that is to film what Picasso or Salvador Dali was to painting. Surreal and fantastic, The Fall is full of unlikely and unreal characters and creatures, from swimming elephants to smart monkeys, from shamans to Charles Darwin. This is a gorgeous movie, one that is unique. Perhaps the closest movie in stylism I have seen recently was The Fountain that played with fantasy and merging storylines across time.

As the film opens, the subtitle reads "Once upon a time." This is clearly a fairy tale, but an adult one wi mature themes. Set around 1915, the era of silent movies, stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) lies paralyzed and depressed in a Los Angeles hospital. His body is broken from a crazy leap from a bridge while filming an impossible stunt. His heart is broken by the actress girlfriend who left him for the leading man. His hope is gone.

Enter adorable Alexandria (Romanian Catinca Untaru in her debut role). She is a 5 year-old East European in the same hospital with a broken arm in a cast. Wandering the halls of the hospital she comes across Roy and forms an immediate friendship. He begins to tell her a story. With his words and through her imagination, we see the story come to life in front of our eyes. story Roy tells is an epic tale of revenge. Five men from different lands and backgrounds are exiled to a remote tropical island by the evil Governor Odious. When they escape by riding on swimming elephants, it is clear that realism is subverted and imagination is highlighted. They embark on a quest to avenge their losses.

Roy tells his story in segments, chapters, and populates his tale with the people around him, much like the classic The Wizard of Oz. In between, Alexandria roams freely inside and outside the hospital.

When she brings him a Eucharistic wafer she stole from the chapel, Roy asks her, "Are you trying to save my soul?" Alexandria does not understand, but Roy realizes that she can save him in another way. As he leads her into this beautiful story, he uses the segment-breaks as teasers and tells her she must get him some morphine to help him "sleep" before he will continue. She thus embarks on her quest to get the desired medicine.

Like another fairy tale, The Princess Bride, this film uses the story within a story vehicle. But here both stories are related, actually inter-related. As reality and fantasy blend, the bright and hopeful story turns dark. At one point, Roy tells Alexandria, "There's no happy ending." How can a fairy tale not have a happy ending? the end, the 5 heroes in the tale start dying even as Roy is dying. This is tough for young Alexandria, and crying she asks, "Why are you making everyone die?" This does not make sense for a 5 year-old. Stories for kids just don't do this.

The Fall focuses on several falls. Roy's fall puts him in the position to need Alexandria. Her fall leaves her in the hospital with the need to combat boredom. Another fall forces characters to turn from fantasy to face reality. And perhaps there is even some passing reference to the fall of mankind, that leaves us all in a state of sin, a state where we need salvation.

Indeed, salvation is one of the ethical and theological topics raised in this film. With a noticeable prevalence of crucifixes, there is an almost subliminal focus on Christian religion. Roy's recognition of the Eucharist wafer and his question underscore his need for salvation. Salvation comes from outside not within. We must reach out for true salvation and receive it as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). But in his dark and depressed mood, he is unwilling to move toward God and life; he only wants death. He seeks a different salvation; he seeks salvation in a pharmacy bottle, like many even today.

Moreover, Roy is in some ways a lot like God. He is the creator of his story, crafting it in the fashion he wants. God, too, is in the process of crafting his story; we call it history. As creator, he formed all that there is and he has a storyline, a plot. We know the broad brushstroke outline from the Bible. But we still live it, as our reality and God's "fantasy" merge for us.

A final, and perhaps the most direct, issue is that of assisted suicide. As Roy tricks Alexandria into raiding the infirmary, he is asking her to unwittingly and unwillingly assist in his own death. Surely if she knew the truth she would not do it. Suicide is the taking of a life, one's own life, and as such seems to be a sin akin to murder. This is a life created by God for his purposes and pleasures, and is not ours to take. Regardless, suicide is a clear sign of loss of hope. To kill oneself is one thing. To have someone else assist knowingly is another; it is an ethical issue that is controversial. Some states of the union permit this, others do not. To have someone else assist unknowingly is certainly manipulative and unethical.

Despite the darkness of the end of the story, there is some light in the darkness. The Fall ends with some hope and there is a blessing in disguise. Sometimes accidents that seem horrible, even tragic, can indeed turn out to be the blessings we really need.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Disturbia -- entitlement and spying

Director: D.J. Caruso, 2007.

Disturbia is a Rear-Window remake aimed specifically at the teen market. Fifty years after Hitchcock's famous suspense thriller, most teenagers will not have seen that classic. Shia LaBeouf carries the movie in the Jimmy Stewart role. He is a likable everyman-teen, but more in the manner of a young John Cusack. Where Rear Window was set in the city, this is set in the suburbs: hence the title Disturbia (disturb suburbia).

The opening scene, which was improvised, has Kale (LeBeouf) fly fishing in an idyllic river with his dad (the journeyman actor Matt Craven, recently seen in A Simple Curve). Their bantering conversation about a fish is a clear portent of things to come: "Do you think he sees us?" asks Kale. His dad answers, "No, he can't see us. But trust me, he can feel us watching." This is the plot of the rest of the film.

Life throws Kale a curve-ball when he crashes their car on the ride home, and tragically he sees his dad killed. A year later, he has still not recovered emotionally. His grief is impacting his school work, and when he punches his Spanish teacher in the face he is sentenced to three summer months of house arrest. He has an ankle bracelet attached that will allow him to go no further than his front lawn before sending a signal to the police. Going further will lead him straight to jail. This is bad bling.
When his mom (Carrie-Ann Moss from The Matrix is miscast here as a suburban widow) pulls the plug on his technology entertainment, Kale resorts to voyeurism. He begins spying on his neighbors. There are the young brats watching porn in their bedroom, the philandering wife who is having an affair, the sexy new-girl Ashley (Sarah Roemer) who loves swimming topless in her pool, and the shy loner Mr. Turner (David Morse) who just might be a serial killer.

This first act of Disturbia takes way too long. Several times I was ready to copy Kale's mom and pull the plug on this film. But I stuck with it and was rewarded with a predictable thriller that was executed mechanically and gave a few moments of white-knuckle suspense. Kale starts to suspect Mr Turner is more than he seems, the film kicks into gear. Soon, Ashley joins Kale and goofy buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) in their spying sessions. Morse gives Turner a s sinister feel, but only enough that he could just be an honest neighbor. When he finds out they are intruding on his privacy, spying on him, Disturbia becomes creepy and suspenseful.

By the time Disturbia comes to its violent conclusion, the implausibility is ignored. With dark basements hiding shocking secrets, improbable hidden rooms and tunnels, one wonders how Mr. Turner could have done the remodeling needed to make this a Hannibal Lecter model-home without drawing attention to himself. But viewers will forget these questions being drawn along by the inexorable motion of the final act.

Disturbia is not a deep film, and presumably was not intended to be. But its underlying theme of teen entitlement, clear in Kale's approach to his initial confinement, is ethically questionable. As followers of Christ, what are we really entitled to? If we are American citizens we can point to the rights built into the US constitution, but our citizenship is now primarily in heaven. As such, Paul calls us to consider others first (Phil. 2:3-4). Entitlement is a word that carries no weight in God's kingdom. also raises the issue of privacy and spying on neigbors. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, the second great commandmant (Matt. 22:39). Is it loving to spy on them, to pry into their lives? Even though this might lead to the occasional discovery of the Mr. Turner's out there, who can answer this with a yes? No, to love our neighbors is to serve them and allow them to retain the level of privacy they desire.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Simple Curve -- Breaking away from Dad

Director: Aubrey Nealon, 2005.

A Simple Curve is a coming of age story. But the person coming of age is no teenager. Rather, Caleb (Kris Lemche) is 27 and still living at home with his ex-hippie dad, Jim (Michael Hogan), his mom having passed away.

Jim is the artistic woodworker, while Caleb is the businessman and junior partner in their carpentry / furniture store. Times are tough and the contracts are either not coming in or are being canceled because of cheaper bids. Caleb cannot persuade Jim to do what the customers want at the price they want. Jim wants to discover what is in the wood waiting to be made, regardless of the project. Not really a great way to run a business. And all that is running is their profits -- straight into the red.

When Jim's old friend Matthew (Matt Craven, most recently in Disturbia) arrives in town in his sea-plane to build a lodge resort, Caleb sees opportunity, if he can keep Jim in the dark.

The title is taken from the simple curve at the top of the chair that Matthew asks for as a demo of Jim's work. Initially Jim creates a magnificent work of art, using a compound curve. It is a chair befitting a king, but it is expensive and cannot sustain the cash flow needed in their business or by Matthew in his lodge.

Written and directed by Canadian Nealon, this is his first full-length feature film. With a setting in a small-town community in a mountain valley beside a serene lake, he brings spectacular cinematography of the beautiful Kootenay Rockies in British Columbia.

A Simple Curve is a low-key comedy that is light on laughs. While weak on plot it is strong on character development, with a cast of odd individuals in addition. A pair of present-day new age hippies arrive to set up camp on the front lawn and provide a reflection of the younger Jim (and his wife). A prospective girlfriend Lee (Pascale Hutton), with young kid, allows Caleb to face up to the question of what he really wants. But ultimately it is all about Caleb growing up.

Perhaps the funniest scene is the most unlikely. When Caleb is on his second date with Lee, he finds himself in a restaurant being waited on by one of his former sexual conquests. He then proceeds to tell Lee his entire sexual history, given that most of these conquests are in the same room as they are. Despite the obvious moral issue of sexual promiscuity, this highlights the transparency in Caleb's character. He is not afraid to tell the truth and say what he wants. The problem is does not really know what he wants.

When Lee asks him, later, if he really wants to spend his life in the valley it forces Caleb to face the question of his future. Where he had simply accepted that he would be with his dad in the shop, eking out a living, he now has a new thought in his head. Then when Matthew gives him a piece of advice, that all boys need to tell their dad to get lost (not the exact phrase used, but toned down for this blog), another piece of the puzzle enters his brain. He has never stood up to his dad and pulled away.

Towards the climax, an earlier secret long-buried is shared by Jim with Caleb, a secret that is shocking. This is a secret that is enough to push Caleb over the edge.

Nealon's film posits that boys will only become men when they tell their dads where to go. In doing so, the sons will separate from the dads and find their own independence. But is this necessarily true? And is it biblical?

It is true that for a boy to become a man, independent of his father, he needs to establish his own identity and individuality. But it is surely not true that to make this happen he must swear forcefully at his dad. This would seem to invite separation and a breaking of the relationship, perhaps permanently. Biblically, such separation is not forced upon a boy-man until he takes a woman as his wife, whereupon "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife" (Gen. 2:24). The new marriage relationship requires the man to be separate from his parents. Finally, the Bible tells us to honor our parents. Paul quotes from the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:16) in Ephesians 6:2, telling us that there is a promise attached to this. Clearly swearing at our fathers is not a good way to honor them.

We do need to break away from our parents. And for sons, this needs to be from our fathers in particular. I moved 5000 miles away from mine and have established a new family on a different continent. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. Nealon's way seems to be the wrong way.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs