Tuesday, March 31, 2009

City of God (Cidade de Deus) -- hope amidst violence in the slums

City of God

Directors: Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, 2002.

There are places where angels fear to tread, and the police avoid. City of God is just such a place. It is a slum. A suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 25 miles from paradise, the poorest of the poor live there in squalor and a war-like environment.

City of God is a brutally violent film that depicts the drugs, the guns, and the ferocity of the gangs. Not for the faint of heart, this is based on a true story and is filled with amateur actors recruited from the slums. Indeed, the actor who plays Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), the main narrator, actually lived in Cicade de Deus itself. And those in the cast not from this slum lived there for three months to prepare for the film. Yet, it could not be shot there since it was too dangerous. Rather, it had to be filmed in a less violent neighborhood of Rio.

The film opens with a festive atmosphere, bright colors and loud samba music. The camera focuses on a chicken, its foot tied to prevent its escape. As other chickens are killed and prepared for cooking, this one senses danger and imminent death. When it frees itself and runs off into the narrow streets, it is pursued by a gang of kids and young adults led by Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino). When Rocket and his friend approach the chicken down an alley, the gang, armed to the teeth stand at one end while the police show up at the other. Rocket faces his personal dilemma: "If you run you're dead . . . if you stay, you're dead." What to do? The fun has turned to fear and the film is underway.

The film moves two decades back to the 60s, where Rocket is a young boy, the son of a fishmonger. As Rocket narrates the story, he continually stops to tell the backstory of characters whose lives intersect with the current events.

It starts with the Tender Trio, three teen hoods who commit petty crime, robbing propane gas trucks. But when a younger brother, Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva) who later changes his name to Li'l Zé, comes up with the idea of robbing a motel/brothel, their life of crime becomes more serious. Li'l Dice is given a gun to act as lookout. But guns and kids don't mix. Kids don't have a sense of mortality and the magnitude of taking a life is missing. When Li'l Dice kills the people in the motel petty crime has become major felony.

From simple stealing to murder, Li'l Dice enjoys the power of violence. Graduating from robbery to the easier money in drugs, he moves into dealing and control. Only his childhood friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) can calm his murderous impulses. Cutting to the 70s Li'l Zé runs a gang and takes over the areas of the slum by mercilessly wiping out rival gangs and gangleaders.

Meirelles employs a variety of filmic techniques including time-jumping and freeze-framing in this contemporary rendition of a gang-warfare story. Where Scorsese gave us the violent Gangs of New York, with professional Oscar-winning actors like Daniel Day Lewis, Meirelles' amateurs are more violent, more chilling and more lifelike. The adult gang members of those New York gangs would have not survived in the City of God. The life expectancy of the Brazilian gangs seems to be much less, perhaps 20 years.

Toward the end, a scene stands out for its jarring juxtaposition of apparent faith and its anti-faith walk. As one of the gangs is preparing its firepower ready to go kill another gang, the kids stop and together recite the Lord's Prayer. This was not scripted, but one of the actors, formerly an actual gang member, said they always prayed before going to battle. But as we think of this prayer that Jesus taught his disciples (Matt. 6:9-13), we are reminded that in the very same sermon on the mount just moments before, Jesus also said these words: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:43). Faith in Jesus should lead to prayer and love. Praying and then killing is anathema to a true life of faith.

At its heart, City of God portrays the sense of hopelessness of these kids in the poverty-stricken slums. Their future was to join the police or join the gangs. The police were corrupt, but were afraid to come into the City of God. The gangs, on the other hand, offered the prospect of easy money, a sense of belonging, and a life of power. With the overwhelming prevalence of drugs, with pot and coke given to kids at a young age, it is easy to see how addiction would lead naturally to membership or soldierhood. And lack of hope manifests in lack of mercy.

Another South American film deals with poverty and hopelessness. The Pope's Toilet, a Uruguayan movie, shows a village on the Brazilian border with corrupt police and a poor populace. Yet, there the only crime was that of petty smuggling across the border. No one resorted to drug dealing and violence. Poverty does not have to lead to gangs and murder.

Indeed, set against the hopelessness of most of the characters in City of God Rocket's story is that of redemption. Rejecting the life of crime, he has an artist's eye and a passion for photography. He sees this as his ticket to freedom. Given a camera, he finds himself able to show the world the battle that is going on between the two final rival gangs in his city.

Even with its brutality, City of God reminds us that everyone needs hope. Without hope we die. Without hope of a future, we gravitate to anything that can satisfy immediately. For these street kids, it was guns and drugs. For Americans, it might be alcohol and drugs, or sex and porn. But there is a hope. There is an offer of redemption. It is not in photography, like Rocket's redemption. It is in Jesus. He offers us the hope of life, real life, even in the midst of tough circumstances, if we turn to him in faith. Just as Rocket put his faith in his camera, we can put our faith in Christ.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Horseman on the Roof (Le Hussard sur le Toit) -- Fear, honor and love

Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1995.

A huge-budget French production, this lavish movie beautifully shows a subtle romance against a stunning backdrop of lush French countryside. Winning awards for cinematography it is the kind of movie that makes us want to vacation in France. It also pictures love between two people without the need for physical intimacy.

The Horseman on the Roof is set in Provence, in southern France, in the 1830s. Two contextual themes provide a framework for the plot: political persecution and cholera epidemic. Through the first of these the two heroes, Angelo Pardi (Olivier Martinez) and Pauline de Théus (Juliette Binoche, Blue), meet and realize that their only chance for survival from the cholera is each other.

In the historical context, Austria was controlling Italy and many Italians had fled to France to avoid imprisonment or death. Angelo was one of these Italians. Swarthy and handsone, he was a cavalryman, a hussar or horseman. His mother had bought him an officership as a colonel, and he fit the mold of a noble gentleman. In France, he and other exiles were raising support for their revolution back home.

When Austrian secret police track him down in Aix, a small French town, Angelo has to flee on horseback at a moment's notice. Galloping through fields of knee-high, yellow wheat, he evades death. But in fleeing he runs headlong into death in the village he enters. Cholera has ravaged the inhabitants. Thirsty, Angelo stops at the fountain in the next village to refresh himself, a mistake he realizes immediately. The villagers descend on him like the carrion-eating crows that are ubiquitous. Fearful of the dreaded cholera, these people think Angelo is a fountain-poisoner come to infect their water-source.

This early scene highlights the nature of fear in humanity. When we do not understand something, such as the cause of a disease, we often project our fears onto a scapegoat. This allows us to deal with our pent-up frustration and anxiety, even if it actually accomplishes nothing. The scapegoat becomes the blame-carrier for us. Just as in the Old Testament the actual scapegoat became a symbolic carrier of sin away from the Israelite's camp, so a person like Angelo can become a symbol. Fear is a primal emotion. John tells us in his epistle, "Perfect love drives out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18). Only in accepting and demonstrating this love can we overcome our fears. When we give into them, as the mob did here, chaos and anarchy take over.
Angelo does escape and survives by taking to the roof, becoming the titular horseman on the roof. When he drops into an attic, it is the temporary residence of Pauline. Living alone, her aunts having fled the disease earlier, he acts honorably to her. With no one to protect her, Angelo could have had his way with the gorgeous woman but he had been taught how to treat a lady. The chivalry and respect he shows her is surprising and refreshing. Pleasing, indeed, to see honor in a hero.

When the town is evacuated by the French army, they are separated only to be reunited later. Together, they successfully escape the blockade of the area on horseback. Although they have separate intentions, he to return to Italy and she to find her missing husband, Angelo feels the urge to protect her. But when she discovers her husband is likely dead, she loses hope and leaves Angelo. Being taken into quarantine by the army, she is ready to give up on life. But Angelo is not ready to give up on her. At the risk of his own life, he voluntarily gives himself up to be with her in the quarantine prison alongside the other hundreds of possibly infected people.

Angelo is a type of Christ here. He reached out and touched cholera victims, trying to save them. Jesus ministered to the despised, the marginalized, too. He touched the untouchable, the lepers who were cast out of society to live lives alone. Jesus healed those lepers who came to him with faith (Lk. 5:13).

Moreover, Angelo was willing to sacrifice himself to save Pauline's life. With cholera all around, he went back for her. What selfless love Angelo had for Pauline. Jesus did this for us. When were dead in sin and enemies of God, Jesus left the place he had alongside the Father and came to earth to sacrifice himself for us (Col. 2:13). He lived a perfect life and died a perfect death. This death was substitutionary as he paid the price of our sins in himself. What great love Jesus had for us!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 27, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens -- family, friends and normalcy of Ginormica

Directors: Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon, 2009.

The latest animated feature from Dreamworks is so-so. Oh, without doubt it has great animation. In one scene a character has just been running and you can see her chest rise and fall rapidly with her breathing. It's details like this that set this and other recent animated features apart from cartoons.

Yet, this movie never really drew me in. The monsters and characters were too distant. Susan, the heroine, is too whiny throughout. And the plot seemed too familiar and derivative. Even the voice-talent was inferior to Dreamworks last feature, Kung Fu Panda. But my ten-year-old and most of the other kids in the theater seemed to have fun and enjoy this family-friendly film.

As Monsters opens, a planet explodes and one of the pieces hurtles towards earth. Meanwhile, Susan (Reese Witherspoon), a California girl, is about to get married. It's her wedding day! Susan is marrying Derek, a local ambitious weatherman. When Derek breaks the news that their honeymoon has been changed from Paris, France, to Fresno, CA, where Derek is auditioning for the next-step-up-the-ladder job, Susan's position in Derek's pecking order is clear. Left to ponder this bomb-shell, the meteorite descends like a bomb, right on top of her. Miraculously she survives, but the strange rock has changed her. She becomes a giant, growing like Jack's beanstalk even as she attempts to say her vows.

When the army is called in, she is captured and tied like Gulliver in Lilliput. Taken to a secure and secret government compound led by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), she is renamed Ginormica and meets up with four other monsters. She is no longer Susan, she is one of the monsters that people don't want to know about. Monsters are too scary. At first, Susan is horrified by them, but she comes to accept them, even love them, as her new family.

Monsters vs. Aliens Publicity StillThe four other monsters are derived from the horror films of the fifties and early sixties. Susan is a reference to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Dr Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) is a mad scientist turned into a cockroach in one of his experiments, a scenario taken from The Fly. The evolutionary Missing Link (Will Arnett) is like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Insectosaurus is modelled off Mosura (aka Mothra in the US). And B.O.B is a take on The Blob. Of all these creatures, B.O.B was my favorite. He seemed likable, despite his lack of brain. Created from a genetically engineered tomato, he is more like Bob the Tomato of Veggie Tales than the killer tomatoes from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

Two scenes stand out, both related to a robot probe sent to earth by Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson from "The Office"), an alien determined to find and recover the element that caused Susan's growth. At first the government does not know what to do. The US President (Stephen Colbert) ascends a ladder to a podium standing next to the robot. Arriving there, he begins to play the notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But then he breaks into a funky tune. Totally fun.

The second scene comes when the President realizes the military cannot handle this robot. At Gen. Monger's suggestion, he sends in the monsters to take care of things. Their journey through a deserted San Francisco (shades of 28 Day's Later) and the subsequent confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge was terrific.

When Gallaxhar decides to takes matters into his own hands, he sends a message to the earthlings: "Humans of Earth, my quest has led me to your planet. Give it to me now! You should, in no way, take any of this personally. It's just business." And that seems to symbolize this movie -- it's just business. There's no real heart. Unlike the fabulous WALL-E or the recent Coraline, this one has no personal connection.

Monsters does leave us with some ethical considerations. First, how does family and career coexist? Susan thought Derek was her soul-mate, her life-partner. But only on her wedding day does she begin to see his ambition burning selfishly within him. He was focused on his career above all. For him, family was secondary. Yet, family should take precedence over job or career. Family will always be with us. A job won't. When we lay on our death-bed, will we be regret-free? Or will we regret the time we missed with our children and our spouse? We probably won't wish we had spent more time at the office. A Christian husband is told to love his wife in the same self-sacrificing, career-sacrificing way that Jesus loved the church (Eph. 5:25). Indeed, both Christian husband and wife are to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21). Derek is not a picture of this kind of person.

Moreover, Monsters makes us ask who are our real friends? Derek was Susan's friend, and almost husband. But was he really a friend to her? How do we know who our friends are? Proverbs tells us that "a friend loves at all times" (Prov. 17:17). A friend will care enough to tell us the hard truth, to be there when we need someone, to realize that his or her desires may have to take second fiddle at times.

Finally, it focuses on normalcy. When Susan grew 30 feet, she became a monster in the eyes of most. She was no longer "normal." She did not fit in. All she wanted was to shrink back to "normal" so she could go home to her friends. But she came to realize that normal is relative. When she was with the other monsters, she was normal. Normal means conforming to what is common. But, conforming is always outward-focused, looking to others for approval or acceptance. Susan finally accepted her new normal. She was no longer waiting on the acceptance of the masses. She had her own self-acceptance.

People looked at Susan as Ginormica, a giant and a monster, but they did not see the real Susan. But God is not like that. "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). Our value is not in our height but in our depth. It is who we are under the skin that counts. Our value comes from being a human made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Though fallen, we are redeemed into the new, true humanity that Jesus provides (Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor. 15:49).

We can choose to be like the early Susan or the Ginormica Susan. Where do we gain our acceptance? Are we willing to accept ourselves, as God accepts us, warts and all in the normalcy of our redeemed humanity? Or are we looking for the acceptance and approval of men (1 Thess 2:4)? We are normal if we look at ourselves from God's perspective, conforming to his view of true humanity.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu) -- impersonal systems and judgmentalism

Director: Cristi Puiu, 2005.

Most of us have had some experience with hospitals. When it is dark and late, and we need to go to the emergency room, we know that we are in for a long night. But at least in the United States we can expect some closure. Writer-director Puiu gives us a glimpse into the Romanian health care system in this highly acclaimed dark comedy.
Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is an old man who lives alone in his small Bucarest apartment with several cats. Plagued with recent headaches and stomach complaints, he calls an ambulance to take him to hospital. Drinking and popping pain-pills while waiting, he calls again when there has been slow response.

As the waiting drags on, Lazarescu crosses the corridor to his neighbor's apartment seeking more powerful drugs. His neighbors berate him for his drinking but come into his home to help. While there, they do what neighbors do: they talk and complain. While the husband, Sandu (Doru Ana) discusses borrowed powertools and future fishing trips, his enabler wife, Mariana (Monica Barladeanu), simply wants to bring Lazarescu some moussaka!

This is one of the strengths of the movie. It portrays real life. These could be your next-door neighbors; they are not the pretty actors we see in American movies, but bald and fat people. By avoiding any musical soundtrack, Puiu does not play our emotions like a violin, as in most Hollywood films. We are left to feel what we would feel naturally.

When the ambulance finally arrives, paramedic Marioara (Mirela Cioaba) arrives on the scene. At first she is ready to prescribe some medicine and leave, but Lazarescu's condition takes a turn. She diagnoses colon cancer. But she is just a paramedic not a doctor. When she asks Sandu or his wife to accompany Lazarescu to the hospital, these good Samaritans suddenly withdraw, not willing to go the extra mile. Lazarescu is on his own. He has no immediate family he can call on to go with him.

At the first hospital, he is treated poorly by the doctors who want to move him on and out. They disagree that he has colon cancer. They want a CT scan done, but not at their hospital. To complicate matters, a car accident has left multiple people dead and has packed the ER rooms of all local hospitals. There is no room left.

As the ambulance takes Lazarescu to hospital after hospital, Marioara is his sole advocate. Time and time again the predominantly young doctors dismiss her concerns regarding Lazarescu's colon. Instead they treat her with scorn. She is merely a paramedic, not a doctor. Their arrogance drips from their tongues. It makes us reflect on our own approach to people who are "less educated" than ourselves. We may have one or more degrees but that does not mean we have a monopoly on wisdom or truth. When we stop listening to others who may know more than us, who can teach us something, we are dangerously close to educational suicide. There is no place for arrogance in the Christian life. Our finitude means we can never know everything. There will always be something that someone can teach us.

At the heart of this film is an indictment of the impersonality of the Romanian socialist health system. It is seen to be overly bureaucratic, not caring about the people. To the doctors, Lazarescu is simply another faceless patient on their list. In contrast to them, Marioara's is compaasion and concern for Lazarescu is the lone bright light in a dark night. The one person ancillary to the system is the one person who wants to make a difference.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu is a little overlong and the last twenty minutes seem to drag. But the ending is non-judgmental and leaves the viewer hanging. There is no clear closure. But perhaps that is the point. There are no easy answers when it comes to the issues of health care. The system is not perfect, not even close. But it is the one the Romanians have. And it is on display here.

A major sub-theme running through the movie is that of judgment. Virtually all the doctors in the various hospitals pour judgment on poor Mr Lazarescu for drinking. With a prior surgery for stomach ulcer, he should have known better than to do this. Instead of sympathy he gets scorn. Really, Lazarescu wanted only two things: a) to be treated with respect and b) to be healed or helped. The doctors had a duty to perform but it seemed that duty did not include dignity.

How often do we cast judgment on others? Jesus warned us, "Do not judge or you too will be judged" (Matt. 7:1). We may have our own problems that need to be addressed before we look at the specks in other people's eyes (Matt. 7:3-5). Will we be like Marioara and show care and compassion, treating the elderly and dying with dignity? Or will we be Pharisaic, like the Romanian doctors?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 23, 2009

Together (He ni zai yi qi) -- love, ambition and music

Director: Kaige Chen, 2002.

Music is a powerful art form that is a pathway to the soul. It can arouse emotions. Gifted wizards can turn a musical instrument into a magic carpet that carries us from the ordinary moments of our lives to the mountaintop experiences. But even gifted wizards have to start somewhere. And Together is about one of these wizards, Xiaochun (Yun Tang), and his journey. The journey gets sentimental in places, but it is an inspiring and poignant story of love and ambition, a lyrical heart-warmer for the whole family.

As the film opens, 13 year-old Xiaochun is called to a birth in his village and asked to play his violin to help the pregnant mother whose delivery has stalled. Playing with passion, his music enables her to get through the labor. When the father wants to give money to Xiaochun's father, Liu Cheng (Peiqi Liu), he won't accept it. For him, Xiaochun's music is a gift to be given away freely, like grace. He will not demean the gift, prostituting it, as a way to exploit the blessing his son has been given.

Instead, Liu takes Xiaochun, a child prodigy with his violin, to Beijing to compete in a classical music competition in an attempt to win a place at the music academy. But although being the best in the competition, politics and corruption creep in and Xiaochun loses out. In desperation, Liu pursues a private teacher, Professor Jiang (Zhiwen Wang) and finally persuades him to take on his son.

Jiang lays down the groundrules immediately:
First, you'll have to work hard. Otherwise, it's pointless. Second, you must enjoy playing. Refrain from playing unless you enjoy it. And finally, don't play only when you think of your mother.
The violin Xioachin plays was his mother's and she died when he was two. Music was his connection to her and her memory. When he played, he played with passion for his dead mother. But Xiaochun had to want to go beyond this in his music. He had to play for the sheer enjoyment of letting his gift emerge. This gift would be a blessing to all who would hear.

Professor Jiang's rules remind us that we, too, have a responsibility to work hard and enjoy what we do. Work was never a curse. It was given to mankind in the opening chapter of Genesis, when God told man and woman to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28). The cultural mandate precedes the curse of Genesis 3. But when sin entered the world, God placed curses on man, woman and Satan. Work became cursed (Gen. 3:17-19), not a curse in itself. It would become burdensome. Yet, God gives each one of us gifts and talents to use in our labors, in our careers. When we align our unique skill-sets with a job or career that matches, we find the job to be more than simply work, it is something we can enjoy. Many today have not discovered this, and perhaps this is due to misalignment. God wants us to enjoy our work: "That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil -- this is the gift of God" (Ecc. 3:13).

Another lesson is seen in Professor Jiang. When we first meet him he is disheveled, and his home is a mess. Stray cats abound, dirty clothes are strewn or lost. He has lost his passion for music. He has the skill and can teach, but he is going through the motion. But Xiaochun's humility, his mindset of service, challenges and changes him. Even as Xiachun learns technique from him, Jiang learns life lessons from his student. Sometimes we learn more from those we teach than from our teachers or superiors. A gentle heart and a humble spirit can be a powerful force for conviction of those who need to change.

When Together moves into its final act, Jiang has taught Xiaochun all he can. He has outgrown his teacher. And Liu arranges for Xiaochun to live with Professor Yu (Kaige Chen), a lecturer at the music academy.Writer-director Chen takes an active role as this professor. Yu is worldly-wise, and has developed latent talent into successful professional performers. Xiaochun must leave his father and move into a different world. Even his clothes and hair must change if he is to stand a chance. As he begins to fit into this world, his love for his father changes, and his passion for his music dissipates. To provoke his passion, Yu reveals a startling secret that causes Xiaochun's life to unravel, and forces him to make the most difficult choice of his life, a choice that will define his destiny.

Together warrants some comparison with August Rush, an American movie about a child prodigy. Both focus on a child who has lost parents. While Xioachun has lost his mother, August has been abandoned by his living parents and brought up in an orphanage. Both have a teacher with problems before moving to more accomplished and professional instruction. And where Xiaochun plays for his mother's memory, August composes in an attempt to find his parents and be reunited with them. Ultimately, the difference comes in the climax. Where August Rush has a Hollywood ending, as predictable as the rain in Portland, Together leaves us with an ending that satisfies even as it surprises.

Ultimately, Together is a story of love. The love of Liu for his son is clear in the sacrifices he makes to stay together with Xiaochun and see him succeed even at the cost of his own happiness. A parent's responsibility to raise a child in the way he should go (Prov. 22:6) is illustrated as Liu understands this gift of music is one that must be developed at all costs. Above all, he wants Xiaochun to find success and acclaim as a great violinist.

God the father has a sacrificial love for his children. This love caused him to send his son, Jesus, into this world taking on our very fleshly form (John 3:16). He who was sitting in glory humbled himself by being born in a barn and living a life of poverty. Only by becoming one of us, living a pure and sin-free life, and then carrying our sins on the cross in our place, could this love offer us a way to live with him.

But love is bi-directional. As Liu loved Xiaochun and sacrificed for him, so Xiaochun loved and honored his father. He demonstrated this love in his choices and his obedience to the wishes of his dad. Followers of Jesus, as children of God, must have a reciprocal love for him. We have experienced first-hand the love he has for us. Now that love must flow back to him. Jesus said, "If you love me you will keep my commandments" (Jn. 14:15) We love by obeying, not out of fear or duty but from the compulsion of love itself.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 20, 2009

Knowing - predeterminism or chance?

Knowing Box Art

Director: Alex Proyas, 2009.

What would you do if you knew a disaster was going to happen tomorrow? How would you respond? How would you live? Knowing an upcoming disaster is the premise of the new film from The Crow director Alex Proyas.

Knowing opens in 1959 where a time capsule is going to be buried for 50 years. While all the other kids draw their imagined visions of the future, spooky Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) fills two pages with row upon row of random numbers. Clearly something is amiss.

Cut to 50 years later when the time capsule is retrieved. The present-day students each receive one of the drawings from 1959. Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury) gets the lucky numbers! Of course, his father happens to be recently widowed John Koestler (Nicholas Cage, National Treasure 2), an MIT Professor of Astrophysics and a pastor's kid. After drinking too much that evening, he looks at the numbers and makes a staggering discovery that he shares next day with another professor:
I know how this sounds, but I've mapped these numbers to the dates of every major global disaster from the last 50 years in perfect sequence. Earthquakes, fires, tsunamis . . . The next number on the chain predicts that tomorrow, somewhere on the planet, 81 people are going to die, in some kind of tragedy.
But this just causes him to be viewed as a nutcase, a little off his axis due to his grief.

Knowing Movie StillWith three events remaining, and just days for them to occur, Koestler has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Since his wife died in one of the prior disasters and his son received the Nostradamus-like note, he believes he and his family are inextricably linked to the unfolding future.

But then he locates Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne, 28 Weeks Later), daughter of the "prophetess" Lucinda. Tracking her down, they become a team, both single parents with kids the same age, in trying to resolve this mystery.

Knowing has its good points and its bad points. On the positive side, it has an intriguing premise. The first two acts are intense with several moments of genuine suspense. And the disaster scenes are spectacular, not only in the action sequences but in their aftermath. In one scene, the survivors are seen in slow-motion, walking through the descending dust, like zombies in their shock. The relief at being alive juxtaposed with the guilt of being one of the survivors is evident.

Knowing Movie StillYet Knowing is heavily hamstrung by a cliched screenplay. Too much of the plot is convenient. There is little development of character. Koestler's backstory is mentioned and then left hanging. It would have been helpful to see more of his interaction with his family and his faith.

Moreover, the acting is plain vanilla. When was the last movie that Cage performed up to his potential, the potential that earned him an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas? He runs and shouts and acts all bothered, but any B-film lead could have done this. Australian Byrne, has little to do except scream and sob as the script gives her nothing to work with. Canterbury, as the young son, gives perhaps the best acting in this film.

Further, the film has an unsatisfying ending. As the third act begins, Knowing makes a turn that was unexpected but leads down a path that should have stopped much sooner. The denouement was trite and would have been better left to the viewers' imaginations.

Knowing has a number of biblical references. A picture from Ezekiel becomes a key plot device, and imagery of the wheels within wheels (Ezek. 1:15-18) was fascinating. There are references to the tree in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3). Koestler, himself, is a portrait of the Prodigal Son, returning to the waiting father (Lk. 15:11-32). With the death of his wife, he had turned away from the faith, if he had any in the first place. He had embraced chance and chaos theory, refuting determinism. At least, until he saw that events had been predicted and in some sense determined prior to their occurrence.

That brings us to the key theme of Knowing and its implications. Is determinism real? Are events predetermined, or in biblical terms, predestined? Many will say no, as Koestler did at first. Yet, the Bible is clear that God is sovereign (Dan. 4:25). Luke says, "From one man he [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the exact places where they should live" (Acts 17:26). The Lord predetermines those born, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart" (Jer. 1:5), and "for those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son" (Rom. 8:29). Predestination is a real theological premise.

So, is knowing events beforehand possible? The prophets of the Old Testament evidence that it is, if supernaturally revealed. Yet, apart from this it is unlikely. Even Jesus Christ, who will return one day in glory, told his disciples, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matt. 24:36). And after his resurrection, and just before he ascended back into heaven, he told them, "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority" (Acts 1:7). There are things we are not supposed to know.

Knowing made me question if I would, or even could, change the future if I knew an event was going to happen. While Koestler knew that disaster was about to strike, this knowing did not help him to prevent it. Try as he might, he found it impossible. It seems to me that this would be true for us, too.

Finally, this film forced to think about things we should not be knowing. Knowing impending tragedies without the ability to do anything about them is one such thing. Knowing your death day is another. Though Diana knew the date (not the year) she would die, each year that date would have been preceded with trepidation lest this be the year. How would we live if we knew the date but not the year of our death? Would we live in readiness to meet Jesus? Or would we live in restless worry? Better to live this day as if it might be your last, fully and totally to the glory of God. And if he gives you one more, that is a blessing indeed.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cinema Paradiso -- engaging with cinema

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988.

Who doesn't love movies? Most of us, especially those reading this blog, love movies. It is today's entertainment medium of choice. With its powerful imagery, it is deeply evocative and able to shape our worldviews. Cinema Paradiso is a movie about loving movies.

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1990, Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso is a beautiful story of a boy who grows up with a love of film. Set in a Sicilian village just after World War II, where there was one traditional movie theater showing one film and newsreels, Tornatore intended this to be an homage and obituary for these traditional theaters. With the rise of the multiple screen cineplex and the nascent emergence of all-digital movie-making, such neighborhood theaters are in decline. These once bastions of community now are second-run and second-rate. Their glory has faded, but there is still a nostalgic air about viewing a film on one of their screens.

Cinema Paradiso opens with an old woman trying to place a call to her son, Salvatore, who is somewhere in Rome and has not ventured back to his childhood village in 30 years. When he eventually gets the message she left, it is a simple one: Alfredo is dead. This sad news triggers his long reminiscing, which we see through flashbacks to his childhood and youth.

As a young child Salvatore, nicknamed Toto, was an altarboy alongside Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste). After mass, Father Adelfio would go to the Cinema Paradiso to pre-screen the upcoming film while Toto would sneak into the projectionist booth to be with Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) the projectionist. Whenever the priest would see a kissing scene he would ring the bell and Alfredo would mark the spot for cutting.

Toto grew up with his mother and sister, but his father never came back from the war. Fatherless, Alfredo became a surrogate father to him, instilling in him a love of film and an understanding of technique. When an accident leaves Alfredo blinded, the teenaged Toto steps into become the projectionist at the rebuilt Nuovo (new) Cinema Paradiso.

It is Alfredo who counsels wisdom to Toto through parables and through sage advice. In one scene, he tells Toto:
Living here day by day, you think it's the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything's changed. The thread's broken. What you came to find isn't there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time . . . many years . . . before you can come back and find your people. . . . Life isn't like in the movies. Life . . . is much harder.
For someone growing up in a small village this is hard to hear but apropos. The world is much bigger than his village. He has to leave to find himself, and coming back too soon would invalidate his discoveries. Independence is something each child must attain. And real life is so much harder and longer than the movies.

Salvatore Cascio is perfect as the young Toto, a cute yet mischievous child with large adorable eyes. He has great chemistry with Noiret. Marco Leonardi carries the role through the teenage years, when Toto falls in love for the first time with Elena (Agnese Nano), but her university studies and his national service bring their ill-fated romance to an end. Yet, this is a romance that the adult Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) has not moved beyond. In the new version of the film, where almost an hour of unseen footage is added, she reenters the movie to be reacquainted with the adult Toto, but the original version never brings her back into the picture. For Toto, his two loves were film-making and Elena. He could not have both.

For all its beauty, simplicity and sentimentality, Cinema Paradiso highlights two ethical issues. The first is that of pornography. When Father Adolfio sees a man kissing the body of woman, he rings the bell and yells, "I will not watch pornography." She is mostly clothed, only her shoulders are bare, but to him this is pornography. Times change and what was obscene in the 1940s is mild material in the 21st century. Virtually no one today would call a simple movie kiss pornographic.

We can understand his concerns, but what comprises pornography? Certainly, explicit sexual images in a movie would be considered pornography. But who draws the line? Is it a line in the sand, that the seas of time wash over and erase, drawing a new one with new standards? Is it a personal decision that must be made by individuals? Can we impose our morality on others outside our immediate family? These are questions that conscientious consience-carrying Christians must wrestle with for themselves.

Moreover, the second issue emerges from the first. What is the relationship between the church and the cinema? Father Adolfio made himself the village censor, forcing Alfredo to cut and snip any scene that he considered morally inappropriate for his flock of parishioners. But is this the role of the church? Can we not, as Christian adults, make decisions for ourselves?

Some Christians rely on the role of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) ratings system, watching only G or PG movies and avoiding R-rated film. But this is to move our responsibility to another body, whose standards morph or degrade over time. Ultimately it is our responsibility to determine what we will allow in our eyes and our heads.

Some ask the question, can the sacred be found in the secular film? Most who ask this answer with a no and look to "Christian films" for permitted entertainment. But avoiding secular films is to give up the cultural battleground. We also miss the opportunity to engage our neighbors and to engage our God. If God could open the mouth of a donkey (Num. 22:28) or talk through a cloud (Matt. 17:5), he can certainly talk to us through secular-movies.

A better question is how can the sacred be found in the secular. Robert K. Johnston's excellent book, "Reel Spirituality," answers this question, showing the different approaches. These blog postings affirm his thesis, that we can find the spiritual in secular Hollywood movies. Whether we hear a direct word from God or see and hear something that moves us forward in our Christian life, if we watch a film with an air of expectancy not simply as mindless vegetainment, we can come away changed for the better.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu) -- visual narrative of loss and liberty

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993.

Blue is the first film of Kieslowski's tri-color series, and a tour-de-force it is indeed. Although not true sequels, they are loosely connected in that several characters appear in cameos and some scenes are repeated from a different perspective. Based on the colors of the Tri-color, the French flag, blue, white and red, the themes of this flag represent the themes of this trio: liberty, equality and fraternity. In particular, Blue focuses on liberty and loss.

At the very beginning of Blue, Julie (Juliette Binoche, The Flight of the Red Balloon, Dan in Real Life) and her family are involved in a car accident. When she wakes she is in a hospital room alone, and her husband and daughter are dead. Breaking into the nurse's room, she steals a bottle of pills and pops them all into her mouth. But she cannot go through with this obvious suicide attempt. Yet she cannot deal with the loss and the ensuing grief. And while in her hospital bed she cannot be at the funeral for her two loved ones; since her husband is an acclaimed composer, the service is broadcast on TV and she has to watch on a small portable set.

When she is released from the hospital, Julie goes to the country farmhouse her family owns and clears out belongings and memories. She sheds no tears, she pushes aside her pain, she isolates her memories. She says, "Now I have only one thing left to do: nothing. I don't want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps." The only thing she takes is a blue hanging crystalline mobile/lamp that presumably belonged to her daughter.

Julie moves to Paris, changes her name to avoid being found and rents an apartment. She has various funds enough to live, but no vocational future to keep her alive. Although she did not commit suicide, her withdrawal from the world is tantamount to emotional, spiritual and relational suicide.

Blue is an artistic composition. It is a visual exploration of Julie's character. Kieslowski uses little dialog and long extended shots to convey inner changes and struggles. For example, Julie holds a sugar cube dipped into coffee until it is saturated. In another scene, a coffee cup and saucer are the only objects in the frame emphasizing the passage of hours as Julie sits and soaks in the Parisian cafe. There is little plot, but this movie is a stunning achievement of the use of color and light, complemented by music.

Julie hangs her blue mobile in her new apartment. Jeffrey Overstreet, in his book "Through a Screen Darkly," comments extensively on Blue. He says these stones "are like strands of suspended crystalline tears, pieces of sharp-edged grief that Julie has not been able to express." For me, they seem to be a metaphor for her past and its memories. In her farmhouse, she tore some and let them fall, cascading, onto the wooden floor. Yet she was not willing to let them all go, despite her apparent intention. She repressed her memories but still carried them with her into Paris. When her neighbor, an exotic dancer, approaches this mobile, the fear and sense of violation is clear on Julie's face. These are her memories, they cannot be shared.

There are several key scenes that are informative and transformative for Julie. While Julie sits on a bench, an old lady hobbles along the street clutching an empty bottle, trying to recycle it. But the depository slot is too high. This is a visual picture of life alone with no one to help. Another picture of aloneness and loss is Julie's mother, living in a care-home, her memory gone. As Julie was trying to let go of her memories, her mother was already there, not knowing Julie's name. Was this what she really wanted, a life without friends, a life without memories?

In another scene she is swimming alone in a blue-lit pool. Instead of emerging from the water, she suddenly curls up in a ball, a fetal position, and submerges herself. This is a form of rebirth. The new Julie is waiting in this amniotic fluid for a moment to emerge and face life. She is not yet ready; but her birth is imminent.

When her neighbor calls her to the exotic dance club late one night, Julie sees herself on the TV. She realizes that her husband's final unfinished composition for the unification of Europe, which she thought she had destroyed, is being finished by her friend Olivier (Benoît Régent). She had abandoned this symphony but it would not abandon her. Indeed, a busker had told her, "You have to hold onto something," and finally she realizes it is the music which will liberate her. The symphony will come out; it must be finished.

Unlike Audrey who deals with her loss in Things We Lost in the Fire by reaching out for human relationship, Julie deals with hers by running away. Julie tried to find freedom and emotional liberty by starting over, isolating herself as a nameless face in a nameless suburb. But, as Overstreet says, "the more Julie tries to break free, the more she imprisons herself." Her solitude is not liberating. It can be. As God tells us, "Be still and know I am God" (Psa. 46:10) and we can discover much about ourselves and our maker in that contemplative quietness, if we listen. But Julie is running and not listening.

In contrast, when she understands that she must face her loss and move on, the music of the symphony under-construction becomes her healing balm. Again, Kieslowski uses creative camerawork and technique to let us experience the music being written as Julie would experience it, and there is a beautiful mystery about this. There is grace in this healing, and this grace works its way into and through Julie in how she comes to deal graciously with those around her, even those who have hurt her. Grace is even present in the finale, with a choir singing 1 Corinthians 13 in Greek as the orchestral composition hits its climax.

Throughout the film the color blue crops up, highlighting the mood of Julie's grief. A blue light occurs frequently, when Julie is caught by some fleeting memory. Accompanied by strains of an orchestral composition, possibly her husband's, these blue screen shots hold for several seconds while Julie is clearly processing something. The meaning of this blue light is unexplained. For Overstreet, it is the spirit of reunification of broken things. Clearly, Julie needs to reconnect with the broken things in her life. But I think it is more the grief breaking into her consciousness so it might be processed. Perhaps it is the common grace of God's goodness that is forcing Julie to think about life and move from her escapist prison of personal solitary confinement to the true liberty of living in community.

As a movie about loss and grief, it shows that grief cannot be repressed. It is a reality. It requires a journey through the darkness to emerge once more in the light of life. The early part of grieving needs time. In the Bible Job lost all his children (Job 1:18). When his friends came to be with him, the first seven days they simply sat in silence beside him comforting him with their presence (Job 2:17). Words were not present or needed. But when they started to talk, to analyze, they made Job's life worse. Likewise, in Lars and the Real Girl, when Lars lost his beloved Bianca the elderly ladies of his church came to sit and knit beside him. Just being there is what counts in this phase of grief.

But grief has to move beyond this. At some point the griever must choose life and hold onto something, as Julie reached out to music. Death is part of life. We must embrace this truth and be ready to move through the valley of the shadow of death to once more to get to life.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Pope's Toilet (El Baño del Papa) -- poverty and hope

Directors: César Charlone and Enrique Fernández, 2007.

The Uruguayan film, The Pope's Toilet, has a lengthy opening introduction before getting to the main story, which is loosely based on actual events. This extended prolog introduces the era, 1988, the protagonist, Beto (César Troncoso) a petty smuggler, and the village, Melo, a small Uruguayan town nestled on the Brazilian border.

The first act paints a portait of life in this town. It is a life of poverty and frustration, of people scraping a living in homes that are little more than hovels. But this is a life that these people are accustomed to, a struggle that they accept as normal. Beto, his wife Carmen (Virginia Méndez), and their daughter Silvia (Virginia Ruiz) all live in a home where the rooms are divided by hanging blankets and where the bathroom is an out-house. Jobs are almost non-existent and the men make a living by smuggling goods in and out of Brazil on bicycles. The more successful smugglers can afford a moped or motorcycle to make their labor easier and quicker.

The slow pacing of the directors allows us to see and experience the hopelessness of these lives. The beauty of the natural scenery juxtaposes with the ugliness of the people's homes. Poverty is an obstacle that seems insurmountable. It reminds us of Jesus' saying, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matt. 26:11). In saying this, Jesus is not endorsing poverty or social injustice. He is merely making it clear that in this life in this world, there will not be a solution to this societal problem. Only when his kingdom is firmly established, in the Millennium and beyond, will poverty be eliminated.

Until then, what is important is the attitude of the poor themselves and the attitude of the more fortunate toward the poor. The poor must find hope somewhere. As followers of Jesus, our hope should be in him. For others, it might be in a quick fix. For those of us more fortunate to be blessed with riches, and in America we are rich indeed, we must find it in our hearts to be gracious and generous to those less well off than ourselves. The plight of the poor is usually not their own fault.

When Pope John Paul II is set to visit Melo, the people are given hope. Expecting an onslaught of thousands of visitors from Brazil, they smell instant success. With some predictions of a crowd of 50,000, the locals see a quick fix, an instant solution. By taking out loans, hocking and selling their homes, they pour their money into food and drink that they can make and sell to these visitors. As Jesus fed the 5,000, so these villagers are ready to feed the 50,000 -- but at a price, not for free.

While the rest of the village is busy buying chorizo and planning to make tortillas or fritters, Beto comes up with an ingenious idea. He will build a toilet, an upscale outhouse with a real door and a real porcelain throne. After all, he surmises, with all this food and drink being consumed the people will have to do what comes afterward. And they will need some public facilities, even being willing to pay for full service from Beto and family.

The second half of the film shows Beto building his dream outhouse. With scoffing from some and help from others, he manages to pull it off, even if it is the 11th hour when his new toilet arrives. But the Pope's visit is not the quick fix it was hoped to be.

The Pope's Toilet reminds us that when our hope is placed on the transitory, the ephemeral, it can disappoint. Even if it does succeed, it is often momentary and fleeting, leaving us back in our despair before we have savored the success. But when our hope is set on the eternal, the permanent, it will not disappoint. In some ways, the contrast between the villagers' hope in their soon perishing food and Beto's hope in his permanent toilet is an illustration of Jesus' warning of treasure location (Matt. 6:19-21):
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
When we set our heart and our hope on impermanent treasures, be they food that perishes or stocks that shrink, our hope will dissipate. But when we set our heart and our hope on that future kingdom, that hope will not disappoint.

Ultimately, The Pope's Toilet is poignant and sad. It leaves us realizing that poverty and hopelessness is a fact of life and a way of life for many around the world. We can certainly count our blessings and be thankful for all we have in this world. But where is your eternal hope?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

City of Ember -- proof of the Builder

Director: Gil Kenan, 2008.

City of Ember is a fantasy film aimed at kids, based on the book by Jeanne Duprau. Unlike other kids' movies taken from novels, such as the Harry Potter series, this is slow and wooden, and barely engaging. Kenan previously directed the animated Monster House and this is his first live-action film. Despite some good actors, he wastes their talent. Bill Murray appears to be going through the motions as corrupt Mayor Cole, and Tim Robbins has little to do as Loris Harrow, father of one of the protagonists Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). Even the performance of Saoirse Ronan, nominated for an Oscar in her role in Atonement, cannot hold this film together.

The movie opens with a voice-over from Loris, explaining the situation:
On the day the world ended, the fate of mankind was carried in a small metal box. In a secret location, architects, scientists and engineers met and concluded that there was only one hope for our future: to build an underground city designed to keep its citizens protected for generations to come.
It sounds like The Matrix, where the world above ground had ended in a cataclysm. But City of Ember is more like one of the Matrix sequels: dull.

The metal box left by the Builders contains instructions to the city dwellers, and was intended to be passed down from mayor to mayor, but somewhere along the way the box got lost. Now it is 200 years after Ember was built and populated, and the people know nothing of the world outside their boundaries. The massive generator that powers Ember is deteriorating and with it goes life. Further, the supplies that kept the people fed have dwindled and are almost gone. Time is running out for these citizens of this underground city of light.

When we meet the two chief protagonists it is the day of assignment, when the school graduates are given a vocation. The ceremony is overseen by a bored mayor. Like the sorting hat in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, this decision will decide their destiny. Where the choice in Harry Potter was made by a wise wizarding hat, here it is a matter of luck as the young adults reach into a bag to pull out the paper slip that will impact their whole life. Doon wants to be an electrician who can work with the generator to fix it, but instead gets to be a messenger, a runner with a red cape. Lina (Saoirse Ronan) chooses the life of a pipe-worker. Neither are happy, and so they switch roles.

When Lina discovers the metal box and the message it contains, it seems to be a clear sign. With no one else focusing on the imminent dangers of the dying generator, Doon and Lina take destiny into their own hands and look for a way out of Ember.

The film has the mandatory cgi creatures needed in a fantasy like this: a mutated mole and a massive moth. But the stolid plot never explains these, and barely uses them except for a couple of moments of manufactured tension. Yet despite the slowness of the film and the mediocre nature of the adventure, there is much to interact with biblically. In fact, the film seems full of Christian motifs, whether intentional or unintentional.

The assignment of vocation is akin to the assignment of spiritual gifts to those who choose to follow Jesus. When we commit our lives to Christ, the Holy Spirit blesses us with a spiritual gift to use in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:11). In Ember, Loris tells Doon, "What you get is what you get, what you do with what you get, that's more the point." Likewise, we do not have a say in the gift or gifts we are given. Some in the church desire the more visible gifts, as those in the Corinthian church wanted the gifts of tongues, healing, miracles, etc (1 Cor. 12:28-31). But unlike Doon and Lina, we cannot swap our gifts with another believer. We get what we get. What we do with these gifts is the point. Will we use them faithfully to bless and benefit the church? Or will we hold back, jealously wishing for something else, squandering what we do have, and grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30)?

Early in the film, the Mayor declares that Ember is the city of light in a world of darkness. Jesus said something similar to describe Christians. As Jesus is the light of the world (Jn. 9:5), so his followers are lights to the world, reflecting Jesus to those in darkness (Matt. 6:14-16). We in the church comprise a city of light in this dark world. As we allow Jesus to shine forth through us those around us can see the truth.

But Ember's light started to sputter and flicker and experience blackouts. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the impact of sin in the life of the believer. As we allow the temptations of the devil, the world and the flesh to draw us into sin, so our lights sputter and flicker. We can remain bright lights only as we stay connected to Jesus. Sin breaks that fellowship (1 Jn. 1:6) and causes our witness to the world to be tainted and darkened. The generator is not broken, but our connection to that power source, God, is interrupted. Unlike Ember, we can fix this by repentance and confession followed by receiving God's forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9).

The Mayor himself can be compared to some biblical leaders. In a position of power and authority, Mayor Cole has put his own needs and desires above his people. He is no longer serving them, he is looking out for number one. The power accorded his office has corrupted him so that he seeks self-preservation. Even the the two kids on their mission to save Ember are perceived as a threat. The Pharisees were like that when Jesus came the first time. He preached a gospel message that was good news to the poor and marginalized (Lk. 4:18-19) but bad news to those in authority, since this authority was threatened. Jesus' light shone too brightly for these leaders and to retain their power they had to commit the worst sin in history: the murder of Messiah. They were not serving the Jews, they were serving themselves.

Perhaps the clearest reference to God in City of Ember is in the "Builders." The Builders created this underground world and then left the people. No one has seen the builders, but they all believe in the builders. But this belief has turned cynical, since the builders have remained silent even while the city is collapsing. When Lina finds the instructions in the metal box she shows Doon, and he in turn tells his dad, "The Builders left instructions." Having been hurt before in this kind of belief, Loris bitterly retorts, "The Builders abandoned us." Doon responds, "No, they didn't. They didn't, Dad. I have proof." Proof is what Loris wants: "Show me." And he shows him the secret instructions, the letter of escape, or salvation, from the Builders. This is akin to the Bible, the letter containing the gospel message of salvation or escape from the kingdom of darkness for humanity (Col. 1:13), if we will only listen.

Today, many have cynically given up on God. Many preach that he is dead, a belief that swept the 20th century, or he has abandoned us to ourselves. Yet, this present attitude is often accompanied by a staunch resistance to any proof or evidence of the presence of God. All such evidence is "explained" away by an atheistic approach that wants nothing to do with a creator God. But Loris shows us the attitude we need: openness. We can never prove that God, a spirit being (Jn. 4:24), exists. But there is evidence that demands a verdict. And that evidence is compelling and of more than one kind. Looking into the Scriptures, looking at the overwhelming "coincidences" that must align to make life possible, looking at the changes of character of people throughout 2000 years of Christian history, and looking at personal experience of a God who wants to make himself known personally to you and me, this evidence demands of each one of us a personal verdict. And that verdict will define who you are in this life and the one to come.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Eagle Eye -- the tyranny of technology


Director: D.J. Caruso, 2008.

After the 2007 hit Disturbia, Caruso and star Shia LaBeouf teamed up again in this intense Orwellian thriller. Although the plot is thin, the action is thick and fast-paced, and it raises issues around technology and compliance.

Technology is front dead center in the opening prologue set in the Middle-East. An unmanned drone plane is launched so the military can eavesdrop on a convoy containing suspected terrorists. Using satellite imagery and cell phone tapping, the military intelligence's computers recount a 51% probability that this is the man they are hunting. When it appears that they are going to a funeral in a remote village, a quick decision must be made. Is it the hunted? Are they willing to take the chance and destroy the village? The Defense Secretary (Michael Chiklis) says no, fearing massive collateral damage and even worse political fallout. The President overrules. Missiles are deployed. Technology has given the information but a human has made the decision.

Cut to the US. LaBeouf plays Jerry Shaw, a quick-talking and smart slacker with an aversion to authority, who dropped out of Stanford and is now a copy boy with little cash. When his over-achieving twin brother dies in a car accident, Shaw's life is changed dramatically, not by the event itself but by an anonymous caller.

When Shaw goes to deposit a check in an ATM machine, he sees his balance as almost a million dollars! Spooked by this, he finds his apartment full of weapons and military secrets. He is being set up to look like a terrorist and a traitor. At that moment, he gets a call from a woman telling him, "Jerry Shaw, you have been activated. Your compliance is vital." She goes on to let him know he has less than a minute before the FBI arrive to arrest him, and concludes, "Disobey, and you die."

Eagle Eye Publicity StillIgnoring her orders, he waits and is arrested. He finds himself in a cell being interrogated by Agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton). He is in deep trouble. But when he is given his one call, the outgoing call is intercepted by this mysterious woman who tells him to get down so she can maneuver his escape. He has no choice but to obey.

Meanwhile, single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan, Gone Baby Gone) has packed her son off on a train to DC where his school is going to perform. Like Shaw, she too gets a strange phone call. This same woman tells her to drive a strange Porsche else her son will die. And like Shaw, she is put in a position of compliance through coercion.

When Shaw is sprung from the FBI and gets in the Porsche, these two strangers begin an adventure that takes them across the country to DC, via cars, buses, and planes.

http://ericyang.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/eagle-eye-01-lg1.jpgThe initial car chase is thrilling, with Holloman being instructed precisely how to drive by the female caller. This strange woman can control the traffic signals and can even remotely take over the cruise control. Escaping death by last minute turns and assists from robotic cranes, it seems there is nowhere that Shaw and Holloman can run or turn to evade whoever is behind their plight. They don't even know what is expected of them. It is a moment by moment journey to who knows where.

With Agent Morgan joined by Air Force Investigator Perez (Rosario Dawson) on their tail, Shaw and Holloman barely stay ahead and alive. In some ways, this cat and mouse hunt is reminiscent of The Fugitive, with Tommy Lee Jones on the trail of Harrison Ford, another innocent caught up in a conspiracy. Eagle Eye Publicity StillBut this movie is not in that league. There is no real chemistry between the two leads, and their characters are paper-thin. The plot is so full of holes that only the presence of the rapid-fire action causes the viewer to suspend disbelief and put all questions on hold. Such as could they really outwit and outfight Morgan? How could they do all that they did without shock kicking in? Why were these two picked seemingly at random? And in the climax in DC, how could Shaw possibly survive? But, hey, this is Hollywood.

The tyranny of technology is the central theme of Eagle Eye. With the mysterious woman caller controlling security cameras, cell phones and computer accounts, she knows all there is to know about Shaw, Holloman and others pushed into service. As in George Orwell's 1984 Big Brother, or is it Big Sister, is watching them.

In a ZDNet article of Dec 2006, it is reported that the FBI is indeed using cell phones as "roving bugs" with the approval of the US Department of Justice. Apparently cell phone microphones can be remotely activated, even with the cell phone turned off, to monitor conversations. Moreover, cities such as London have surveillance cameras positioned so that virtually every part can be remotely viewed. It is a small step to all this technology being used against the citizens it is supposed to protect. So, as in The Dark Knight, where Batman crosses the moral line to use all of Gotham's cell phones as a way to listen on for the Joker and then triangulate to find his position, the cell phones controlled here by the unseen voice are apparently feasible. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the technology that is supposed to be our friend will become our foe.

The other main issue at hand is that of compliance. Shaw and Holloman have to comply to save lives. But this compliance is coerced, it is not voluntary. As Christ-followers, Jesus desires our compliance. He told his disciples, " If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). But his is an easy yoke (Matt. 11:30), and he wants our voluntary, moment-by-moment compliance. If we learn to hear the still, small voice of God, the Holy Spirit, we will learn to hear directions, sometimes specific, like Shaw and Holloman. Some believers have reported this kind of guidance. To get more requires compliance.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs