Thursday, February 26, 2009

Frozen River -- redemption amidst suffering

Director: Courtney Hunt, 2008.

Frozen River is the low-budget debut for writer-director Hunt and garnered the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival. A slow drama, it has tension and several moral dilemmas that keep the audience's attention. While focusing attention on the issue of human trafficking, it shoots a spotlight on the survival of single mothers living below the poverty lines in lower class America.

The movie is set in upstate New York, just below Quebec. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is waiting to buy a new double-wide manufactured home but her husband has split with the cash to gamble it away. Ray is left with her two kids, and it is a week before Christmas. Without the money she will lose her deposit on the new home. Having no other money, this family has to survive on popcorn and Tang for meals until the next paycheck comes in. This is barely baseline living. she sees Lila (Misty Upham) driving her husband's car away from a bingo hall, Ray follows her to the Mohawk reservation and the trailer that Lila lives in. This ugly introduction brings Ray into the world of immigrant smuggling, Lila's way of earning fast money.

At first Ray is a woman of principles, but circumstances conspire against her. A tough woman, she is trying to protect her kids, requiring them to be in school even though TJ (Charlie McDermott), the 15 year-old, could be earning money to put food on the table. Blamed by TJ for her husband's problems, she is bitter but not ready to give up on him or life. But with debts mounting, food missing, and the double-wide about to disappear, the lure of some quick untaxable cash causes her to compromise her principles.

As she and Lila drive over the frozen river separating Canada from the Mohawk reservation and America, their "partnership" is tense and untrusting. Ray's value to Lila is her car which has a large trunk with a manual release allowing several people to hide there. Lila's value to Ray are her connections.

As she descends into this other world, Ray sees people who are worse off than herself. There are Asians and Pakistanis who are paying heavily for the chance to be smuggled into America and their dream of a new life. But even that dream is sullied by the fact that most will have to serve in sweatshops as little more than slaves to payback the smugglers the $50,000 or more they are being charged. What price freedom?

What makes this film interesting is the interplay between Ray and Lila. Melissa Leo has a first-rate performance as a mother at the end of her rope whose eyes are opened to others' suffering. And as she learns to see beyond stereotype, she comes to see the cost and consequences of crime. and Ray have more in common than Ray first thinks. Both have lost a husband. Lila has lost hers literally, having drowned in the river they are now driving over. Whereas Ray has lost hers to a gambling addiction; he may be drowned in debt and never come back. Lila has lost a child, an only child, having had her boy taken from her by her mother-in-law. Apparently the Tribal Police on the reservation are not concerned about this kind of thing. Ray is losing her children emotionally, especially TJ as he begins to move into a life of petty crime for petty cash; like mother like son.

Frozen River, based around the issue of illegal immigration, shares a common theme with The Visitor, another low-budget movie. But the immigrants in The Visitor were not smuggled in, nor were they destined for slavery. Indeed, The Visitor was a lighter film but it turned political, with a clear agenda, in its second act. Frozen River, in contrast, is more holistic, keeping its message less devoid of overt sermonizing. In both films the main actor gives an Oscar-nominated performance.

When State Trooper Finnerty (Michael O'Keefe) comes to the store where Ray works, after she has made her first smuggling trip, her guilt is evident in her demeanor. But he is not here to arrest her. He is here to buy Christmas junk. Her lack of eye contact, her fearful shuffling around until he goes, should be enough to convince her that a run-in with the law is not what she wants. But Lila has told her that the State Troopers have no jurisdiction on the reservation and so the consequences are minimal -- a fine or a nominal jail-term. Trooper Finnerty comes to her home to ask her some questions about Lila and to subtly warn her. Things are coming closer to home. But Ray's need for gifts and the double-wide are even more desperate, and she continues in this path of crime. Ray needs one more run just like an addict's one more fix.

When the finale approaches, things go badly wrong. The final pick-up is mishandled. They run into serious problems, and they are forced to foot it over the river. When they arrive at Lila's Mohawk reservation they face a legal dilemma, and Trooper Finnerty, and someone has to pay the price.

Although Frozen River has no happy ending, there is hope and there is redemption. Ray has come to realize that she is blessed with two healthy children, even if her husband has left her for good. And even if the dream of a brand new double-wide dissipates, she still has a home. Lila has come to realize she is empowered to move into her little boy's life. And the debacle of the smuggling has brought two mothers together in a relational bond that perhaps nothing apart from suffering could do. Suffering has a way of cutting through the dross to show the silver and gold lying below.

Frozen River is no typical movie. It shows clearly the consequences of poor choices. Sin catches up with the sinner. In life this often happens. We may want to solve our problems with a quick fix, but there are usually no quick fixes. What seems too good to be true is often so. There is usually no substitute for living correctly, even if it means we don't get what we want. God loves us and wants us to develop our characters more than our comforts. We have ample warning in the Bible against sinning. We should heed such warning.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

28 Weeks Later -- Promises kept, promises broken

Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007.

28 Weeks Later, the sequel to 28 Days Later, is helmed by Spaniard Fresnadillo, although Danny Boyle does direct some of the second-unit filming. The first movie was scary and chilling due to the unknown effects of the rage virus. But that is known now. Indeed, it works as an action film, but has more in common with Alien or The Lost Patrol, as a small group of survivors must make a journey while being killed one by one.

Where 28 Days Later focused on the impact of the Rage virus on the individual, showing the dramatic psychological consequences to both the infected and those running from the infected, 28 Weeks Later focuses on the impact of the virus on society in general. Unlike its predecessor, there is no hope or redemption here, not even a glimmer. It is a tale devoid of grace. the movie begins, Fresnadillo takes us back to the days of the original outbreak. Don (Robert Carlyle) and his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack) are living in a farmhouse with several other survivors. When they are attacked by the infected, Don and Alice are trapped in a bedroom. But one of the infected zombies breaks in; Don leaves Alice and flees through the window. Looking back he sees her pleas for help before she disappears.

Seven months later all the infected are dead from starvation. Britain has been declared ready for repopulation, and the Isle of Dogs area of London is the initial site for the return, order having been restored. The US Army is supervising this repatriation and is providing protection for these people, all of whom live in the towering apartment buildings. Stationed atop surrounding roofs, US soldiers perform permanent surveillance to ensure that no one leaves the safe area, and no one comes in.

28 Weeks Later Movie StillDon is now caretaker of one of the towers and has AAA status -- all area access. His two children, 17 year-old Tammy (Imogen Poots) and 12 year-old Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton), survived the plague since they were in Spain at the outbreak, and they are reunited with their dad in this repopulation. Indeed, Andy is declared the youngest person in Britain, since they are the first children allowed back into the country.

When Don recounts the fate of their mother, he leaves out some key details. Naturally, the kids are devastated but Tammy promises Andy that she will never leave him, they will never be separated. Things hit home when Andy realizes he has trouble remembering Alice's face. He has no photographs to prompt recollection. Act one ends with Tammy and Andy sneaking out of the cordoned area to visit their old home, specifically to pick up clothes and photos.

If act one lays the groundwork and shows the social situation, act two kicks the action into gear. When a new survivor is brought into the quarantined city, the soldiers unwittingly allow the virus back. Scarlet (Rose Byrne from The Rage in Placid Lake), the US Major in charge of medical research, recognizes the problem and the potential. In a scene of ironic justice, Don becomes the first infected. Then before Scarlet can do anything, the virus is free, and the infected are multiplying again. The biggest question in this sequel is how the crazed and unthinking Don keeps showing up where his kids are, as though he is actually stalking them. panic breaks out and the infected run rampant, the US goes into code red: "Step 1: Kill the infected. Step 2: Containment. If containment fails, then Step 3: Extermination." Scarlet stays with Andy and Tammy, and along with infantry sniper Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and some no-name survivors, they need to flee the area and rendezvous with an escape helicopter across London. The scene is set for the chase and slow demise of this last platoon.

Although no more than an escapist gore-fest, 28 Weeks Later does make us review promises kept and broken. Don broke his sacred promise to Alice. His marriage vows presumably said something about promising to care for each in health and sickness. As husband, he was expected to protect her in times of danger. Yet, when death stared both in the face, he cowered and fled as a coward.

The original movie focused on the cost of survival. The cost in this one for Don was the loss of his wife and the guilt that plagued him afterwards. Was it the right thing to do? Would we have done any different if we were in his shoes? Would Don have been able to save them both? Although 28 Days Later showed survival as a core value, often causing one member to kill others, it did so in the context of them being infected. Don left Alice before she was infected simply to save himself.

If Don broke his marital promise, Tammy kept her sibling promise. She stayed with Andy, but at what cost. She remained true to her word and this may have resulted in devastating consequences.

This sibling promise reminds us of the promise of our "brother" Jesus (Mark 3:35). To those who choose to follow him he gave a promise: "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt. 28:20) He will never break that promise; it is one you can count on to be kept.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, February 20, 2009

28 Days Later -- rage, survival and hope

Director: Danny Boyle, 2002.

Boyle portrayed the psychological disintegration of one man (Christopher Eccleston) in his first film Shallow Grave. Here he presents the psychological disintegration of a whole nation and its apocalyptic consequence in this modern zombie movie.

The film starts with some animal rights activists breaking into a lab full of caged chimps. Discovered by one of the scientists he pleads with them not to release the animals since they have been infected with a virus that causes psychotic rage. Being idealists, they disbelieve the scientist to their and England's detriment.

28 days later Jim (Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow in Batman Begins) wakes up in a hospital bed naked and remembering nothing but a bike accident. Slowly he comes to realize there is no one there. The hospital is abandoned. Going outside he finds London abandoned empty and silent. he stumbles into a church he discovers a pile of dead bodies and a few living people. But these are barely people; they are irrational blood-crazed creatures seeking the living.

Meeting Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), they save him from these zombies and then explain that England has been overrun by a plague and there are few survivors. Living has taken on a different meaning: "Plans are pointless. Staying alive is as good as it gets." If the virus, carried in blood or body fluids, gets to you there are only 10 seconds before you become crazed and enraged.

The first act presents the disaster and the hero, Jim. Boyle chooses to use digital video cameras instead of film to capture the grittiness and emptiness of the post-apocalyptic urban landscape. And it works very effectively. There is a sense of immediacy in the filming which adds to the tension, giving us a "survivors eye" view.

28 Days Later is a tense chiller more than a horror movie. It has enough pace to keep the questions in check. But it never answers the question of why Jim was the only patient left in the hospital. Where did the others go? And why did the zombies not get to him, trapped as he was in bed with tubes and medical equipment constraining him? Moreover, where did all the corpses of the dead go? London was mostly devoid of the dead. And what happened to the rest of the world? Although, this question is left purposefully vague to allow a sequel. second act brings Selena and Jim into contact with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). They are literally imprisoned in their apartment waiting for other survivors to find them. They have heard of a cure, but it is 200 miles north, a journey they would not make on their own. Taking his London taxi, they travel to the army compound that apparently has the cure. En route, Jim has to kill one of the infected. This is his "rite of passage" into this new kind of living.

In the final act, Jim, Selena and Hannah are brought into the country house turned into a fortified compound. But these normal army soldiers are not quite what they seem. Led by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), they may not have the infection but they are not philanthropic. They have a pragmatic purpose indeed for summoning survivors. Zombies outside the gates, enemies within, Jim finds himself having to choose a careful course of action. and West are an interesting study in contrasts. Jim is at first naive ("What do you mean there's no government? There's always a government, they're in a bunker or a plane somewhere"), looking for someone to pass the buck to. West is cynical, it's just people killing people as it always is and always will be. Jim's transition from denial to acceptance occurs when he himself kills. Killing is nothing new to West. Jim, the hero, is chivalric, especially in the castle, where chivalry usually has its home. He wants to protect his two friends. West is pragmatic in his command. he wants to protect his men.

Boyle rejected the normal notions of the zombie genre, the living dead eating the living, to focus on the current generation's fear of diseases, such as Ebola. The rage virus didn't leave its victims dead physically, but psychologically. Once infected there remains no trace of the original person. All that remains is a homicidal maniac, dripping and spewing blood.
Rage, too, is a key issue that Boyle wants to address. This uncontrollable rage is a metaphor for the societal problem of rage and anger prevalent today. We see it evidenced in the anger that surfaces from the frustrations of impersonality and inequity. It is on the nightly news in the form of road rage, with drivers shooting other drivers. Anger itself is a legitimate emotion but how it is manifested can be righteous or sinful. Jesus became angry in a righteous sense when he entered the Temple in Jerusalem and saw the grounds turned into a marketplace of corruption (Matt. 21:12-13). In his anger, he overturned tables, forced the moneylenders out of the grounds, even using a whip to make this happen (Jn. 2:13-17). Yet, there is an anger that is sinful. Paul says, "In your anger do not sin" (Eph. 4:26). Then he goes further and declares, "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger" (Eph. 4:31). Anger must not master us.

Ultimately, though, the issue at the heart of this film is that of survival at what cost. Boyle rips away the veneer of civilization to show what is in the heart of humanity. The zombies may be rage-filled psychopaths, but their humanity is gone, taken by the virus. The living, on the other hand, display the savagery of true human nature. Even Jim transforms into a killer. When the chips are down it is kill or be killed. Survival is a primal instinct. But would we kill a human, not a zombie, in the name of survival? This is a picture of the darkness of the human heart in even the best of men (Jer. 17:9).

Like Trainspotting, though, Boyle ends with a ray of hope. There is a glint of redemption in the choices Jim makes in the final conflict. Though he will kill to save himself, he will not become like the soldiers, worse than the zombies, in their blatant sinful actions. He chooses a sacrificial path, one seeking others over self. Grace is present even in the midst of desperation. And grace inspires hope.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- isolation or teamwork

Director: David Yates, 2007.

With this fifth installment of the Harry Potter series, the characters are well-defined and the overall story arc is underway. In the last film, Goblet of Fire, Lord Voldemort was re-embodied and came back. As the series has turned darker, so the story has become deeper and fuller. There is death here, even death of a key character. But there is life, too, with the bright themes of friendship, loyalty, teamwork and truth. These are the redemptive threads that make these films enjoyable.

Where Goblet of Fire did not include any of the Dursleys, Phoenix starts back in muggle-land. It's a strangely hot summer. But as Harry and cousin Dudley face off, the sky suddenly darkens and the temperature drops fifty degrees in fifty seconds. Running for their lives, they shelter in a tunnel. But they cannot run from the dementors who swoop to suck the life and joy out of both. With Voldemort back things are not the same. When Harry uses his magic to save both himself and his bullying cousin, he breaks the laws of the Ministry of Magic. He has to appear before a full inquiry headed by the minister himself, Cornelius Fudge.

It is at this inquiry that we learn that the minister and the ministry are refuting the return of Voldemort. When Dumbledore, defending Harry, says, "The evidence that the Dark Lord has returned is incontrovertible," Fudge responds, "He is not back!" Not content to ignore the events at the end of Goblet of Fire, the Ministry and the Press are running a smear campaign against Dumbledore and Harry who are preaching the bad news. Potter is declared to be a Plotter and Dumbledore is maligned as wanting Fudge's job.

The Ministry does not want the truth to emerge since this will cause fear and panic and require action on their behalf. There is a place for propaganda in war, when we want the enemy to be misinformed. But it is wrong to deceive the people when war is imminent. There are times to shield the truth from those who are not ready to hear it. But this is not one of them. The honest wizarding families needed to know that Voldemort had returned so as to prepare their defenses. Similarly, there are times when we need to know the truth so we can take appropriate action. Lies and deception tend to enslave. Lies are sins, and come from the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). They create animosity and division, as they do here, and they require huge amounts of energy to keep track of. In contrast, the truth is freeing and empowering (Jn. 8:32). It is better to err on the side of truth than deception. Harry and his friends arrive at Hogwarts, they find a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). Appointed by Fudge, she is a plant to ensure that Dumbledore and Potter stay in line. Avoiding any actual experience of spells in class, she focuses solely on theoretical book-knowledge. She also acts as a Spanish Inquisitor, with powers to do almost anything. Hogwarts, with Umbridge, descends into a totalitarian institution. With Draco Malfoy appointed one of her deputies it can rightly be called draconian. Umbridge taking control of the school so the students don't learn the truth, Harry is isolated. Many of the students believe what they have been told or read, that Harry is a liar. Only Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) remain loyal. But new student looney Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) tells him she and her father believe him too. When Harry says, "Seems you're about the only ones that do," she replies, "I suppose that's how he wants you to feel. . . If I were You-Know-Who, I'd want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it's just you alone, you're not much of a threat." Isolation leads to despair and despair is crippling.

Isolation is a key strategy in warfare. By separating a soldier from his troop and making him think he is all alone, the enemy can debilitate him making him powerless and no threat at all. This is how Voldemort worked. And it is how Satan works. Throughout history, this strategy has been effective. In the Old Testament, Elijah thought he was the only true prophet of God left and fell into despair (1 Kings 19:1-10). Yet, God had a reserve of 7000 faithful followers in store and when Elijah saw this his strength and resolve returned (1 Kings 19:18). We can fall prey to this attack today.

When we feel alone, separated from other Christians we can become despondent and our flame dwindles. By turning to God, and trusting him we can realize the truth is something else. We are never alone. Jesus has promised to always be with us (Matt. 28:20). We can walk confident in this promise. this fifth year, Harry experiences strange dreams, dreams where he sees things from a snake's perspective. Somehow, Voldemort is getting into his head while he is asleep. Fearful of this growing connection with Voldemort, Harry thinks he is becoming more like him. In a moment of honest vulnerability, he confesses this to his godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Black comforts him, "You're not a bad person. You're a very good person. . . . We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Good comfort, bad theology.

Theologically, we are all depraved creatures (Jer. 17:9). Depravity means that sin has impacted us deeply to our core, and every part of us has been touched by this sin. It does not mean that we are as bad as we can be. But there is nothing that remains free of sin. We can do good; indeed we do. And we are good, to some degree. So, Black is right that we have all got light and dark inside of us. But the dark will win because our own light is not enough. Unless we turn to the Light, Jesus Christ (John 9:5), our own light will dim until we die with a dark soul. Jesus, though, can rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and brings us into his kingdom of light (Col. 1:13); that is, if we let him.

In Order of Phoenix, the rebellion begins. The forces of good start preparing for the inevitable war that will happen. Just as the adult wizards on the side of good have formed the secret Order of the Phoenix, so Harry, at Hermione's request, forms Dumbledore's Army to prepare the student wizards. While Umbridge is wasting their class time, Harry begins teaching them real defenses against the dark arts. In doing so, he sees that he is not alone, there are other students who want to stand up for good and confront evil. the exciting climax approaches, Harry is drawn mysteriously back to the Ministry. He thinks it is best to go it alone, but Ron, Hermione and some others from his "army" persuade him that teamwork will prevail: "We're in this together!" This is good advice for Harry and for us. We cannot live apart from others. In the Christian community, when we find ourselves pulling away, the words from Hebrews echoes Hermione's advice: "Let us not give up meeting together" (Heb. 10:25). We cannot have victory alone.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Visitor -- music and relationships

Director: Thomas McCarthy, 2008.

What would you do if you walked into your apartment and found a young couple living there? This is the question that faces Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) in this low-budget but big-hearted movie.

Walter is an economics professor in a Connecticut university. A widower, he has lost his zest for life and is simply going through the motions. He is teaching just one class while he "writes his new book" but he is a zombie walking through his life with eyes closed. When his co-author cannot go down to New York City to read an academic paper, Walter has to go. Reluctantly he agrees. But when he gets to his rarely used apartment in the Big Apple he finds a strange black woman and middle-eastern man there. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) thought they were renting but had been duped. this unexpected meeting, Walter allows them to stay in his apartment while they search for their own and a friendship begins. Walter is a very private person and at first he is content to live with brief interactions. But when he comes home to find Tarek in his tighty whiteys playing the African drum Walter's defenses come down. He is captivated by this instrument, and Tarek teaches him to play it. In doing so, he is really teaching him to reconnect with life. As he begins to practice playing this drum, Walter finds rhythm and purpose. Playing together in the apartment there is a sense of grace, of relating even without words. a beautiful scene, Tarek meets Walter and they go to Central Park where other drummers gather to make music together. Tarek sits and plays, but Walter is reluctant. Perhaps fearful of inadequate talent, shy and reserved Walter stands on the periphery with the crowd of observers. But his feet are tapping and his hands want to be playing. With some urging from Tarek Walter steps in and begins to play. He is the only white man in this circle of musicians, but he is no longer worried, no longer self-conscious. He is lost in the joy and simple pleasure of making music. Skin color and gender are irrelevant. The beat and the music are central.

Indeed, one of the themes of The Visitor is music. Music is a language. Music has the power to divide, but it also has the power to unite, to calm, to soothe. In the Old Testament, Saul, king of the Israelites, would have David play the harp to soothe him when he was troubled (1 Sam. 16:23). Here, music is the medium for Walter and Tarek to form the bond of friendship. It lubricated the relational gears that had grown rusty in Walter's life.

But just as the relationship is growing, Tarek is arrested. It is a misunderstanding, but he is an illegal immigrant, in the United States without papers or permission. The second half of the film deals with this issue. Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass), a Syrian living in the mid-West, shows up on Walter's doorstep, new problems and new opportunities arise. With his college colleagues pressuring him to return to Connecticut and Mouna needing help, Walter has some tough choices to make. But this is a new Walter, one who has awakened from a long sleep.

The issue of illegal immigration takes center stage but is a little heavy-handed and political. There is an agenda at-hand now, in this movie. Writer-director McCarthy makes it clear that it is not black and white. The immigrants are not all terrorists. Most simply want somewhere to live and are willing to work to build a future. Yet, the law has been broken. There is a balance, but McCarthy comes down clearly on the side of those trapped in bureaucratic middle of the detention centers. Some of the scenes and their dialog do sound a little preachy. Yet, the bigger picture is that of the effect of Tarek's incarceration on Walter. And when Walter finally cries out, "It's not fair!" he is acting like a little kid -- full of emotion and passion. This is the new Walter!

One of the delights of this movie is the acting, particularly of Richard Jenkins. A veteran actor of 30 years, most recently seen as a support in Burn After Reading, he is superb here in his first starring role. He gives an understated performance that has earned him several awards already and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Using very few words but plenty of subtle gestures and mannerisms, he communicates the sadness and pathos of a man lost and alone even in the midst of a bustling city.

The opening scene, where Walter is seen from behind looking out a window in his neat but cold Connecticut home, waiting for his piano teacher, sets the tone of his alienation. And his piano teacher exacerbates this alienation. Old and critical, she tells him he is too old to learn and has no natural talent. It is no wonder he is withdrawn. Contrast her to Tarek. He is warm-hearted and encouraging, telling Walter he can learn to play the drum. As the piano teacher creates a chasm, Tarek builds a bridge. The power of a kind word and the potency of encouragement are twin towers of motivation we all need to use more often.

Ultimately The Visitor is a story of relational redemption. Christianity Today named this film second overall in their list of top 10 most redemptive movies of 2008 and it is clear why. Walter needed friends, relationships. He did not have that at work or at home. He found it in Tarek, and again in Mouna. The Bible makes it clear that no man is an island; we are to live in relationship with others. In fact, the New Testament is replete with "one anothers": live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16); love one another (Jn. 13:34); serve one another (Gal. 5:13); honor one another (Rom. 12:10); instruct one another (Rom. 15:14); submit to one another (Eph. 5:21); encourage one another (Heb. 3:13), etc. We can only do this if we are connected to those in our circle of influence.

In this 21st century world of connectedness, where our laptops, our cell phones, even our iPods are connected to the web, perhaps it's time to unplug and disconnect from technology and reconnect with humanity. Relational connection is everything!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oscar Predictions

With a week to go to the year's big event, the Mosaic Movie Group cast their votes. Here are the picks for the main Oscars from the folks at Mosaic Church, aggregated together, along with my personal picks. And we probably know our Bibles better than we know our movies (hopefully) so don't put your cash on our picks . . . unless you have some to lose!

And for those bean counters out there, not everyone voted in every category, so the totals are not constant.

Best Actor:
  • Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (4 votes, Sean Penn 3, Brad Pitt 1)
  • My vote -- Mickey Rourke
Best Actress:
  • Kate Winslet in The Reader (4 votes, Meryl Streep 2, Angelina Jolie 1, Anne Hathaway 1)
  • My vote -- Kate Winslet
Best Supporting Actor:
  • Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (6 votes, Philip Seymour Hoffman 3)
  • My vote -- Heath Ledger
Best Supporting Actress:
  • Split: Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2 votes, Amy Adams 1, Viola Davis 1)
  • My vote -- Amy Adams
Best Animated Feature:
  • WALL-E (7 votes, Bolt 1)
  • My vote -- WALL-E
Best Director:
  • Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (5 votes, David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 1, Gus Van Sant for Milk 1)
  • My vote -- Danny Boyle
Best Picture:
  • Slumdog Millionaire (6 votes, Milk 1)
  • My vote -- Slumdog Millionaire

How do you vote? See if you do better than these picks!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mulholland Drive -- illusions and ambition

Director: David Lynch, 2001.

Lynch (Elephant Man) got a best director Oscar nomination for this movie but I don't understand why. This is a confusing and ultimately disappointing film, one that cannot be recommended.

First off, I found it very weird with characters becoming other people. Second, there is some disturbing lesbian sex scenes that are unneccessarily graphic. Finally, there is no redemptive thread that ties it together and makes this movie worthwhile. Like No Country for Old Men, the 2007 Best Picture, grace is absent from Mulholland Drive. But at least No Country made sense as a narrative. Mulholland left me scratching my head.

I had heard positive reviews of Mulholland Drive. Also, I wanted to see it as many of the LA detective novels have scenes set in Mulholland Drive. But most of the film's action occurs elsewhere, and it is only the start and end that takes place on this famous curving road high above Los Angeles.

Mulholland Drive opens with a sense of mystery. A limousine with a beautiful brunette stops on Mulholland Drive, and one of the men pulls a gun on her. As she wonders what is going on, another car collides leaving the two men dead and the woman dazed, with amnesia. She makes her way down into LA where she falls asleep in the bushes outside an apartment. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) disembarks a plane at LAX she is a perky Canadian come to Hollywood to become a movie star. She makes her way to her aunt's apartment where she finds the mysterious brunette in the shower. "Rita" (Laura Harring) has a bundle of cash in her purse and no recollection of how it got there or who she is.

This is an intriguing storyline. The first half of the movie plays out like a mystery with the two women pursuing leads. But when Betty lets Rita sleep in her bed, though she has only known her a couple of days, sparks fly and Betty declares her love for Rita. A key insight comes when Rita awakens Betty at 2am and leads them to a strange nightclub where the on-stage impresario declares, "It is all an illusion." He is referring to more than just his act. sex is declared in the Bible as a sin. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says: "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones." (Rom. 1:26). They had stopped worshiping him, their creator, and exchanged the truth of God for a lie. The sex scene is quite troubling. Yet, Jeffrey Overstreet in his very insightful and helpful interpretation of Mulholland Drive, offers an alternative explanation of this scene as something other than lesbian sex.

Lynch throws in other odd characters, such as a cuckolded film director, an enforcer cowboy, and a hitman, some of whom really don't add to the plot, while others are related but in strange and surreal ways. Then, as the movie moves into its second act, Betty becomes Diane, a failed actress, and things are really not what they seem. Overstreet points out, a key to understanding Mulholland Drive is found in the pre-credit sequence at the start of the film. We see couples dancing against a blue screen, with shadows moving through them, and pictures of Betty flashing up in front of them. This is followed by a short shot of a red pillow. This is a dream. As Betty says in the first act, "now I'm in this dream place." Perhaps this is deeper than the throwaway comment it appears at first blush. Indeed, the tagline says this film is about a woman in search of herself in the city of dreams.

The underlying theme of Mulholland Drive is the illusion of Hollywood's goodness and glamour. Underneath the facade is an ugly beast. Betty seeks the fame and fortune of being a star or even a great actress, and is driven by ambition. But the seduction of tinseltown has its effect, and there comes a point of no return. Beneath the mask of niceness Betty/Diane is cold and selfish, ready to do anything to achieve her dreams. The girl-next-door naivete gives way to greed and then bitterness and finally jealousy. And jealousy cannot bear another person to have what it wants.

Mulholland Drive does bring us face to face with our own masks. Naomi Watts gives a powerful performance transforming from the naive Betty to the cruel Diane. In so doing it forces us to view our own visages. Who do we see in the mirror? What lies beneath the mask? We all hide something, some part of our being that we don't want others, even those closest to us, to see. Yet, the more transparent we can become the easier it is to live authentic lives. Paul commands us to "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Tim. 2:2) This kind of living is open and honest to ourselves and to others.

Ambition and seduction are two more themes. Ambition itself is not wrong. But unchecked it can become a vicious master. Combined with the seduction of temptation, it can lead to the easy way to success where corners are cut and sins committed. In contrast, Jesus said "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it" (Matt. 7:13). As you consider your ambitions, Mulholland Drive asks the question, What are you willing to do to achieve your ambitions? What sins or crimes will you commit to become successful? Indeed, the cost of unfettered ambition is simply too great.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, February 12, 2009

La Vie en Rose -- no regrets

Director: Olivier Dahan, 2007.

La Vie en Rose tells the biography of Edith Piaf, France's most famous singer, who died in 1963 at the young age of 48. Writer-director Dahan brings an astonishing performance from Marion Cotillard as Piaf. Cotillard seems to have submersed herself into this role, looking and sounding remarkably like the actual singer. So terrific is her acting here that she won the Oscar for best actress. Even as Piaf ages, and she did go downhill very quickly, Cotillard is lost in the person of Piaf.

Born Edith Gassion, she was given the stage name La Môme Piaf, literally the little sparrow, by a music club owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who gave Piaf her first break. (Coincidentally, La Môme was the American title of this movie when released in the States.) The name fit perfectly since she was a diminutive 4 feet 10 inch with the voice of a songbird. This stage name stuck and she has been known since as Edith Piaf.'s early years were hard. The movie picks up when she is five, with Manon Chevallier playing young Edith. Her father is a soldier in battle and her mother is an alcoholic street singer who has little time to care for a small child. Eventually her father came home from the war, but as a circus contortionist he was no great help, and so he carted her off to his mother, a madam running a brothel. It was there that she first felt love, from the prostitutes. In particular, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner, from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) adopts a motherly role for her. But after several years, her father returns to take her to be with him in the circus and then onto solitary street performance. It is there, with him, that she first gets to sing in public. She discovers that she has a voice that others will pay to hear. no real family and no real home, Edith "graduates" to street singing on her own, just like her mother, but with a friend Mômone (Sylive Testud) who stood by her. Mômone would go on to be a life-long friend and companion. It is on one of these street corner performances that she is discovered by the music club owner.

The rags-to-riches story is a powerful one, but one of the downfalls of this compelling film is the way it is structured. It continually cuts from one era to another. It is never quite clear where Piaf is. Worse yet, it does not explain the various characters that surround her in her entourage. Major segments of her life are omitted. There is scant mention of her marriages, and only one of her husbands from her marriages shows up. the film Edith Piaf's rise to stardom is accompanied by pain and loneliness. Early on, her association with the French mob causes a key friend to be murdered and her to be placed under suspicion. Later, a car crash puts her in hospital and leads to her addiction to painkilling drugs. Yet, despite these setbacks her life was her singing. Perhaps her greatest tragedy was her ill-fated love of married champion boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins).

The title of the film, La Vie en Rose, is one of her signature songs. Translated as the rosy life, or a life through rose-colored glasses, it sums up Piaf's life. She approached life with verve and gusto. Indeed, later in life she gives an interview while sitting on a sun-drenched beach knitting. "If you were to give advice to a woman, what would it be?" Piaf replies, "Love." Again, "To a young girl?" and she replies once more, "Love." Finally, "To a child?" And Piaf reiterates, "Love." Though she had more than her share of heartache and did not experience the kind of love we expect as a child, still she knew in her heart that love is what counts. Love is the glue that can hold a life together. Biblically, we know God is love, the very essence of his being is love (1 Jn. 4:8). And he has poured out his love to us in Jesus, his son (Jn. 3:16). We can experience this love and then share it with others. Love can make our lives meaningful and enjoyable.

Piaf sings another of her signature songs at the end of the film, my personal favorite: "Je ne regrette rien." This translates as "I regret nothing," or more colloquially, "No regrets." Again this symbolizes Piaf's life. She lived with no regrets. She made some bad decisions, and some good ones. She drank too much, took too many drugs, got involved with some of the wrong people. But she looked at the big picture of her life and regretted nothing. She took the heartache with the love. How powerful to live a life without regrets. To live fully, to embrace all that life throws at us, to be big enough to neither regret nor blame, but simply accept. With all her faults, Piaf is an example of this.

Perhaps the reason Piaf had no regrets was that she had discovered her true purpose in life. At one point in the movie, she says that she must sing else she will die. Nothing, not physical collapse nor car wrecks, could stop her performing on stage. The cinematography underscores this, viewing her from behind and showing her looking out at the audience. We are in her shoes, somehow realizing that this is the place she had to be. She sang because she was a singer. It was in her very nature to sing. Singing gave expression of who she was. Like Descarte's famous, "I think therefore I am," Piaf could have said, "I sing therefore I am."

Piaf leaves us with the thought: are we who we are because of what we do, or do we do what we do because of who we are? Being must precede behavior. If we have discovered who we really are, the gifts and talents that God has given us, then we can find outlet for them in our jobs, in our vocations, in our ministries, in our lives. The closer we align our lives to our gifts the more satisfied we will be and the less regrets we will experience. Even in our spiritual gifting that is true. If we have accepted Christ, the Spirit of God has given us at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:7). We are to exercise this gift in the body of Christ, for the benefit of the church and the kingdom of God. When we are doing this, we are empowered. Blessed indeed is the person who knows his talents and spiritual gifts and aligns them with life.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wanted -- Control, Identity and Purpose

Director: Timur Bekmambetov, 2008.

Wanted is the story of geeky account manager Wesley Gibson's (James McAvoy) life transformation from cube dweller to professional killer. Bekmambetov is a Russian-Kazakh and this is his first American film. With an opening sequence that is derivative of the classic Matrix, with building jumping while shooting bullets from two guns, the rush is on.

Gibson is a humble employee, lacking self-confidence. Abandoned by his father before he was a week old, he is also lacking a self-identity.He thinks he is a nobody. Belittled at work by his boss, betrayed by his girlfriend, he is a wimp plagued by anxiety attacks that leave his heart racing at 400 beats per minute.

When sexy Fox Jolie) appears one day alongside him at his pharmacy the boredom of his life's routine is irrevocably shattered. She rescues him from an attack by Cross, a shadowy assassin. But Cross steals a truck and they embark on a gripping car chase, one to rival the best in recent cinema. Indeed, Wanted has several set pieces, including this chase, a fantastic train wreck high above a mountain valley, and the finale that is choreographed better than some musicals. Bullets as ballet.

When Fox brings Gibson to meet her boss, Sloan (Morgan Freeman), he explains that Gibson is the son of an assassin recently murdered. The blood of assassins courses through his veins. He just needs to get in touch with his killer side. Commanded to shoot the wings off several flies flying in a waste basket or be shot, Gibson discovers he can do it. His anxiety attacks are actually his body giving him enough blood and adrenaline to allow him to take control. control is one of the issues of this movie. Sloan's first pep-talk to Gibson tells him, "It's a choice, Wesley, that each of us must face: to remain ordinary, pathetic, beat-down, coasting through a miserable existence, like sheep herded by fate - or you can take control of your own destiny and join us." Gibson chooses to take back control of his life. We all want to control our lives, although control might be a myth. What control do we really have? How much of our lives is beyond our control? We do have a circle of control and influence but the rest is outside of this circle, with others acting on us.

Beyond control, though, fate is a crucial theme in this film. Sloan makes it clear: "Our purpose is to maintain stability in an unstable world - kill one, save a thousand. Within the fabric of this world, every life hangs by a thread. We are that thread - a fraternity of assassins with the weapons of fate." Known as The Fraternity, these people led by Sloan are assassins led to their victims by a loom. "We get orders from a loom; fate. And we're supposed to take enough faith in what we're doing is right. Killing someone we know nothing about." But fate is predetermination.

In some sense this strange picture parallels biblical truth. Predetermination, in a biblical sense, focuses on the one behind the decree: God. He has set history on its present course. As followers of Jesus, his son, we do take things on faith. We must have faith enough to believe in God's sovereign control (Acts 17:24-26). much as Wanted is a high-octane thrill ride, it is full of one-dimensional caricatures of people, whose names are nothing more than descriptors: Fox, The Repairman, The Exterminator, Mr. X. And the plot has holes so large you would need a giant loom to darn them. How do Fox and Gibson evade the law though they are "Wanted" and their photos are on the front of all the newspapers? Why did the bullets that took the wings off the flies not ricochet back to cause harm? How did Gibson fall thousands of feet and still survive? How did Gibson get back to the States after his fall? How did the mysterious loom survive for thousands of years? Indeed, how did it come to America, a country only centuries not millennia old?

Perhaps the largest of the plot holes is its intriguing premise: curving bullets. When Fox tells Gibson, "I want you to curve the bullet," he answers her, "How am I supposed to do that?" This seems a reasonable question. Sloan answers him, "It's not a question of how. It's a question of what. If no one told you that bullets flew straight, and I gave you a gun and told you to hit a target, what would you do? Let your instincts guide you." This is taking control to the max: over-control. Playing out the logic, if no one told you that you cannot fly, could you fly? The opening sequence implies that you could. Nothing is impossible if you let your instincts guide you. Obviously this is plain nonsense, but simple fun. Yet, there is a grain of truth in this nonsense. We are back to faith once more. And Jesus, in a famous lesson on faith to his disciples just days before his death, told them (Matt.21:21-22):
I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
The key issues raised by Wanted, though, are identity and purpose. In his training, before being released to kill on demand, Gibson is beaten senseless. Between beatings, he is asked, "Why are you here?" Repeated time and time again, it is only when he asks in response, "Who am I?" that the beatings stop. These are two questions fundamental to humanity. They are at the core of our beings. At one time or another, we all have faced, or we all will face, these two questions. And our answers to them, philosophically and theologically, will define the path that our lives and our eternities take.

Who am I? The Bible answers this with the truth that I am a sinner, broken and lost, apart from the one who created me (Eph. 2:1-3). This brokenness is felt inside, in the inner vacuum, the loneliness and lack of purpose. Only in Jesus can we find redemption and reconciliation (Eph. 1:7; 2 Cor. 5:18), forgiveness and peace (Col. 1:14; Rom. 5:1), and a love that fills us to overflowing. When we give up in our own self-attempts at earning love and forgiveness, we can become a child of God (Jn. 1:12). Who am I? Now I am in God's family. Now I am one of his own, no longer an enemy now a son.

Why am I here? Again the Bible gives us answers. God created me to enjoy him, to serve him, to love him (Matt. 22:37). And now that I am alive in Christ, I am commissioned to go out and share his love with others around me (Matt. 28:19). If the loom in Wanted was more than a metaphor, the names of its victims would be names I would have to go share Jesus' love with. My role would be to assassinate their old selves, not with a bullet but with a Bible verse telling of the kingdom. Then instead of falling down dead they would rise to new life, a life with meaning and purpose.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Coraline -- other worlds, better worlds?

Director: Henry Selick, 2009.

Adapted from the award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is the first feature from Laika Studios in Portland, formerly Vinton Studios, home of the California Raisins. Nike's Phil Knight owns Laika, and his son Travis is principal animator on this stop-motion movie. As debuts go, this is a very good one and a promising sign for the studio. Perhaps Laika will develop into the Pixar of Oregon to compete with that California powerhouse.

Over the opening credits we see a doll being taken apart, its hair pulled out, its eyes removed, its stuffing extracted. Then the doll-skin is refilled with new stuffing. Blue hair is attached and a perfect pair of black buttons is selected to become its eyes. When it is complete, it is a replica of Coraline, apart from her eyes.

At the start of the film, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) and her parents are moving into an enormous pink house. Both parents are writers for gardening magazines, and they are so preoccupied with their work that Coraline is a distraction. As she explores she meets her neighbors, eccentric people who live in this same house. There are the two spinster sisters who used to be in the theater, Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), who live with their three terriers in the basement. Then there's the Russian Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), the amazing acrobat with his mouse circus. She also encounters an obnoxious neighbor boy, who won't stop talking, and his mangy black alley cat (Keith David). Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) tells her a spooky secret that his grandmother, the owner of the pink house, does not allow kids in the house because they will disappear forever. she gets the look-alike doll things get mysterious. Because she is bored and not allowed to go out and play in the Oregon mud, she is assigned the job of counting the windows and doors in the house. In so doing she finds one small door wall-papered over and locked. When she persuades her mom (Teri Hatcher) to open this door, there is nothing behind it but a brick wall. But that night she is drawn to this door and discovers it is a portal to a parallel reality. through the corridor she emerges in the "same" room, but things are not quite the same. This alternate pink house is beautful and decorated, not dingy and dull. Her "other parents" are attentive and devoted to her. Instead of her real dad cooking slop, her "other mother" (also Teri Hatcher) cooks feasts to please her. And, unlike her real father, her other father (John Hodgman) is a superb gardener. The only odd thing is that their eyes are buttons.

When Coraline goes to bed in this house, her room is bright and welcoming. When she awakes she is back in the real house, in her room with a cracked ceiling. She wishes she were back where she can have what she wants. So later she returns to see her other parents. In this alternate universe, the neighbors are all there, including Wybie whose mouth is sewn shut to silence him, and his cat; but here this cat can talk.

Not all as it seems in this perfect world, however. And in the second half of the film it becomes clear that this world is distorted and menacing. The other mother has an agenda for wanting Coraline to stay forever in this world. As Coraline gets caught up in her web of games and lies, she has to rely on her resourcefulness, her determination, and two friends to save herself, her parents and some lost souls.

Coraline is full of incredible imagery, with so much vibrant detail is hard to take it all in. The story has been compared to "Alice in Wonderland," what with a talking cat and a trip to a parallel world. But Coraline is much darker and scarier than Alice. Rather, it is more akin to the works of Raold Dahl. And Director Selick has worked on darker material and Dahl stories, having directed both James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare before Christmas. Fun for both adults and older kids, this is a little scary for young children. are some stunning "set-pieces," including a scene where the other father causes a magnificent garden to emerge instantaneously and another where the two alternate spinsters perform in front of a theater full of terriers. My personal favorite is where the other world literally unravels before Coraline's eyes. As in an action thriller, she has to keep a step ahead of this unravelling to stay alive.

There are several clear issues in Coraline. The most obvious is that of wanting to live in an ideal world. In the real world people did not listen to Coraline, often mishearing her name as Caroline. She was in the way, a nuisance even to her parents. Then Coraline experienced a world where she was the center of attention, where people knew her name and wanted her to be there. But this was not the best world. Her real parents, as uninvolved as they were, really were better for her than these other parents.

As children of God, we often dream of an ideal world, one where there is no suffering, where we get our way. We can dream of our plans, where everyone knows our name, where we are the center of attention, where we are successful. We think this would be a far better world for us than the one we inhabit. But our "real father" in heaven knows us and our needs far better than we do. (Matt. 6:32, 10:30). Even if he sometimes seems uninvolved, he is always there for us and his plan is far better than ours; it is a perfect plan (Jer. 29:11). We just don't always recognize this on this side of eternity. Unlike Coraline, who came to see things for what they were, we must take this on faith (Heb. 11:6).

A related lesson comes from Wybie, the young neighbor. Nickamed "YB" for "Why Born?," he was branded with this sense of meaninglessness. But in this dark tale he had a purpose, and it comes to pass. Sometimes we can give ourselves this moniker. Why were we born? What is the point of our lives? But God is not a capricious being, and those he creates he creates with a purpose (Eph. 2:10). We may not know what his plans are, but we can be sure that he does have a plan for our lives. Like Esther in the Old Testament who God placed in the Persian palace for a particular action at a particular time, who knows but for what moment we were made (Est. 4:14). And when that moment comes, our purpose, our very destiny will stare us in the face., an ethical warning emerges from Coraline. Just as the "other mother" looked so caring and loving but turned out to be creepy and evil, so there are those in our real world who are not what they seem. Jesus told his disciples to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt. 7:15). There are people who will pretend to be what they are not simply to use us, to deceive us, to destroy us. We may not recognize them instantly, but if we are on the alert, we will know them by their fruit (Matt. 7:16). As Coraline came to see what her other mother was by the fruit of her desires, so we can see those who do not have our interests at heart by their fruit. How is your ability to judge fruit?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Christianity Today's Critics' Choice Awards of 2008

Just published yesterday was the annual Critics' Choice Awards for 2008. These are the ten most excellent films as voted by the CT Critics. Interestingly, their top two films match my two favorite films from last year. Seven of the movies also showed up on their Most Redeeming Movies of 2008 list, but there are also some notable mentions that are worth considering for future viewing.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs