Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Man on the Train (L'homme du train) -- planners and adventurers

Director: Patrice Leconte, 2002.

Chance encounters often lead to the strangest relationships. Strangers can be honest with one another, not wearing the masks in place to protect our real selves. A chance encounter is at the start and at the heart of this award-winning French movie.

A man gets off a train at small village station with a deep headache. At the pharmacy he buys aspirin and meets an older man. Needing water he accompanies this man to his nearby home then leaves to go claim a room at the village hotel. Alas, it is closed! No room in the inn for him, so he resorts to returning to the old man's home to spend the night . . . and a few more.

Milan (Johnny Hallyday), the middle-aged man on the train, has come to town to rob the bank. He is going to meet up with his band of criminals later in the week, but initially meets Monsieur Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a retired poetry teacher. These are two men as different in personality as they are in age. But surprisingly a friendship of sorts begins to develop.

As with many French films, the pace is slow enough to allow characters to emerge. As they do, we begin to understand these two men. As opposite as they are, they have one thing in common: they are not satisfied with their lot in life.

M. Manesquier is old and lonely. When Milan enters his life, he has a person to talk to; though Milan is the dark and silent type, the brooding gangster. He will not open up easily or quickly. But when he joins his gangster friends he begins to see that life as unfulfilling. He needs the money but wants something different. He wants to read books about poetry.

Back at M. Manesquier's home, Milan sees two toothbrushes in the bathroom. He asks, "Why two combs and two toothbrushes?" Manesquier replies, "There are two kinds of men. Those who say, 'I must buy a toothbrush; I've lost mine," they're adventurers. And those who have an extra tooth brush. . . . Planners, at best." Here is the central contrast of the film: planners and adventurers. Manesquier had been a planner his whole life, surrounded by a library filled with books, reading his poetry, teaching his students. His life was uneventful. Even when he tries to pick a fight, he fails. Milan, on the other hand, is no planner; he has adventure to spare robbing banks. But both are bored with their lives and want what the other one has. Excitement for equanimity. As the climax arrives we wonder if they got what they wanted.

Is it wrong to want another person's life? Certainly, the Ten Commandments warn us against covetousness (Ex. 20:17). But that is coveting things: a house, a wife, belongings. Here the idea is more life and lifestyle. Realizing what is missing in one's life is not wrong. But what we do about it might be. If we are stuck in a career rut, as Milan seems to be, putting a finger on what we really want can be a tremendous god-send. As Milan recognizes finally what he wants, he can look in hope to a day when he might adopt this career or lifestyle. Likewise, if we see a friend doing something we want to do, it might be a divine message pointing us in a different direction.

What of planners versus adventurers? Is one better than the other? There is certainly something to be said for planning. Jesus pointed out the value of counting the cost before undertaking a venture (Lk. 14:28-33). As a planner myself, I can understand the usefulness of making preparations and taking precautions.

But the Bible also says that plans do not always work out the way we expect (Jas. 4:13-14). Too much planning may leave us lifeless and ill-prepared to experience life's true adventures. The apostle Peter was a reckless and rash adventurer. Never thinking too much before speaking his mind (Jn. 13:6-7) or swinging a sword (Jn. 18:10), he was ready to jump right in.

Balance is the key. We are all created with a tendency to one end of the planner-adventurer spectrum. But being able to flex and experience both facets will allow us to be more rounded. Planning and adventuring can be joined together if we take care to not let one become too extreme. Plan for it!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 26, 2009

My Sister's Keeper -- controlling or letting go

Director: Nick Cassavetes, 2009

The first murderer, when confronted with the question, "Where is your brother?" lied, "I don't know." Then added, in a gesture of angry denial, "Am I my brother's keeper?" This story, of course, comes from the opening chapters of the Bible (Gen. 4:8-9), and highlights the bonds of sibling care and dependence that were expected from Cain (the murderer) and his brother Abel. Similar sibling bonds form the foundation of the story, based on the book by Jodi Picoult, from writer-director Cassavetes (The Notebook).

From the very start, even as the opening credits are playing, we hear 11-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine, Definitely Maybe) describe the conception and birth of babies. Though most are "accidents" she is not. She is most unusual. She is a genetically engineered girl, a made-to-order baby.

Anna's older sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) is dying with a rare form of leukemia. We see her with her family after the credits enjoying an idyllic summer day in LA, blowing bubbles in the air. These bubbles epitomize the buoyancy yet fragililty of life. So easily floating away into the blue sky they pop and disappear so quickly. Kate's life is like that. Her joie de vivre will be over almost before has it begun.

Through a series of flashbacks we see the "development" of this family. At an early age mom Sara (Cameron Diaz) and dad (Jason Patric) are told that young Kate has the disease. Their doctor tells them, off-the-record, that a genetically engineering child would be a perfect match for blood and bone marrow transplants. Of course, ethically he is not allowed to make such a recommendation or even suggestion. But Sara snags this ray of hope in her suddenly dark world and along comes Anna. Made as a spare parts child, Anna is her sister's keeper in the real physical sense.

This moral dilemma is center stage in My Sister's Keeper, yet surprisingly the ethics are not really explored. Rather than focus on the issue of whether a baby should be conceived in vitro for the sole sake of being available to provide for another person, the film focuses on the emotional and physical after-effects in the lives of Anna and her family.

Yet, this is certainly an important issue. President Bush signed the "Fetus Farming Prohibition Act" of 2006 to prevent intentional creation and use of human fetal tissues or organs for scientific or medical purposes. But fetuses carried to term become babies whose rights are governed by their parents. So, is it morally acceptable to birth a genetically crafted child for the purpose of helping an older sibling? In a 1991 real-life parallel to Anna and Kate, the Ayala family from LA conceived a girl to help their older daughter Anissa who was suffering from leukemia. But their daughter Marissa was not genetically manipulated and they trusted God to give them a child that would be a genetic match to Anissa. Their motive was apparently to steward the life that had already been given them, with an additional emphasis on the new life added to their family. Their motivation was seemingly positive and scriptural.

So, an answer to this complex question must involve motivation on the part of the parents and how they balance the needs and health care of their donor-child.

In My Sister's Keeper, Sara is completely obsessed with caring for and healing Kate. This is to the extreme, and all else is subservient to this single-minded goal. Clearly, she is not balanced in her approach to her family and other children.

So it is a surprise to Sara when she is delivered a subpoena to appear in court. She is being sued by her own daughter Anna, who wants medical emancipation from her parents so she does not have to struggle and suffer the pain and possible long-term effects of further operations in support of her sister. Anna has contracted the support of showboat lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin).

As the film moves toward a climax, there is a moving scene in the judge's chambers where Judge De Salvo (Joan Cusack) wants to assess Anna's ability to understand what she is asking for. There is an emotional connection between the two based on loss. Indeed, the courtroom scene, where first Sara then Anna are put on the stand, is powerful and stands up to other courtroom scenes, such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

My Sister's Keeper is not perfect, by any means. It veers into sentimentality at points and gross-out imagery at others. Its nonlinear narrative enables it to gloss over a number of plot holes quickly and quietly. It underplays the male characters to overplay the three female leads. And it traverses a fairly predictable and emotionally depressing path only to add a snippet of Hollywood hope at the end.

Yet, for all this, it was an engaging and thought-provoking movie. It raises additional issues of age of responsibility for control over your body as well as the point of letting go. At what point are we able to make informed decisions about our own bodies instead of being under the governance of our parents? The film sets up the scene well but never really delivers a solid answer.

As for the time when life veers into death, when is the time to die with grace? Is it more important, as Sara seems to think, to strive for every additional minute or month, regardless of the cost in dollars or lives impacted? There comes a time for all of us when life will run out, when our last breath is but a moment away. The wise king Solomon once wrote a poem about this in the third chapter of Ecclesiastes.

1 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under

2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5 a time to scatter stones and a time
to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
There is a time for everything and we need to be ready to die as we have lived: with grace. In this way, even in death can we glorify our God who has given us the gift of life and the time on this earth to prepare for our eternal life in heaven (or hell) that will follow.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Eldorado -- acceptance and grace

Director: Bouli Lanners, 2008.

Eldorado is not about the legendary city of gold deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Rather it is a French-speaking Belgian buddy movie about a weird road-trip in a 1979 Chevy Eldorado.

Lanners wrote, directs and stars as a Yvan, a slovenly, hirsute man who comes home to find his house is being burgled. Picking up a lead pipe he enters looking for the burglar. Going into his bedroom it appears empty. But the would-be robber, Didier (Fabrice Adde), is hiding under the bed and won't come out! Yvan decides not to call the police, although this is not explained. Instead, he elects to wait out the burglar by sitting in a chair in his bedroom.

When he finally emerges, Yvan decides to give him a ride back towards town and drops him off at a crossroads and then proceeds to do his own business. When he returns later to find Didier still waiting in the same place, he once again takes pity on the poor man and agrees to take him to his parents home on the Belgian border.

Eldorado has some very funny moments, but is filled with absurdity along the way. Lanners brings some bizarre characters into the film for distinct episodes but some of them feel overly contrived, such as the naked camper and the hugger. In the end, it is more sick and sad than funny and fulfilling.

Yvan and Didier are polar opposites, which is expected in a buddy movie. Didier is rake thin and scrawny. He is a drug addict who has apparently kicked the habit. Talkative and jittery, he is ready to spin a line or two. Yvan is larger and more reflective. He keeps his thoughts to himself. Neither are Hollywood cute; both are humdrum and ordinary, even homely. But both have secrets they harbor in their hearts.

Yvan is a picture of sorts of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10). Finding Didier vulnerable and harmless in his house, he has compassion on him. This is grace in action. He could have called the police and had Didier thrown in jail, but love prevailed. He was willing to accept him and even help him in his desire to return to his parents' home.

When Didier finally arrives at his parents' home it is no poignant moment. This is not the return of the prodigal son (Lk. 15). Without grace to oil the cogs of a relationship, they grow rusty and refuse to turn. Relationships become bitter and hateful rather than better and loving. The fateful family reunion gives a hint of what that parable would have been like apart from grace.

Yvan has been compared by some critics to the Coen brothers, and this film in particular to The Big Lebowski. Both have elements of the absurd and freaky folks throughout. Yet, Eldorado descends from an intriguing beginning to a disappointing ending. Ultimately, the bleak conclusion leaves us feeling frustrated. What is the point that Lanners wants us to take away?

How is Yvan's grace repaid? It is not. But that is the point of grace. It is freely given, not a loan. Grace cannot be repaid. If it is given with the expectation of repayment, then it is not grace at all.

Eldorado left me thinking about grace and acceptance. Am I willing to offer grace to those less fortunate than me? Am I willing to go the extra mile or more to help others like Didier who are in desperate need? It is all too easy to push the marginalized away, to look down on them, to turn away. But like Yvan, the graceful and compassionate response is acceptance even if it is costly.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, June 21, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird -- principles over prejudice

Director: Robert Mulligan, 1962.

Indiana Jones, James Bond, Ellen Ripley, Rocky Balboa. What do these characters have in common? They are all listed in the top 10 heroes of the last 100 years by the American Film Institute. But none of these was the greatest hero. So who topped the list? Atticus Finch the gentle lawyer at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Finch is not only the greatest hero, but he is also a terrific father, one of the best in movie history. So it is most appropriate to consider him and this film on Father's Day 2009.

Mulligan's film is based on Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning book. Set in 1932 small-town (Maycomb -- "a tired and sleepy town") Alabama, it is the story of two human mockingbird's Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) and Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his debut film). Though told from the perspective of Scout (Mary Badham), a feisty 6-year-old tomboy, it is really the story of her father, lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and his principled stand against intolerance and prejudice.

The film starts slowly with the adult Scout providing voice-over commentary reminscing on her youth. Days of summer when she played with her older brother Jem (Philip Alford) and the neighbor boy Dill (John Megna). Even then, these kids showed a sense of ignorant intolerance about their particular boogeyman, Boo: "Boo only comes out at night when you're asleep and it's pitch-dark. When you wake up at night, you can hear him." Afraid of him, yet eager to see him, Mulligan racks up the tension as these kids sneak onto his front porch.

Juxtaposed against this story is the main plot, that of black man Robinson. He is accused of raping Mayella (Collin Wilcox). Finch is asked to defend him and agrees, much to the consternation of the town community. And his kids, Scout and Jem, initially take the brunt of the town's scorn. When Scout asks him why he is defending Robinson if no one wants him to, Finch responds, "For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again."

Finch has put his finger on a key principle that is declared in the Bible: "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins" (Jas. 4:17). He knows what he must do, and though many try to dissuade him through various means, he will not sin. Further, he understands that he is an example to his children. With his wife dead, he realizes that his children may see no other role models to imitate. How often do we do the right thing, even if it is painful and brings with it suffering? Are we willing to set aside our creature comforts and do good? Or are we prepared to be passive sinners, leaving a trail of lost opportunities behind?

Atticus Finch is a true hero, a man who lived by his principles. He was also a man who knew how to relate to people. When Scout runs afoul of other school kids and gets into fighting, he tells her, "If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." This is great advice! Dale Carnegie said similar things in his famous book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." But this is an ethic that is worth striving for. Looking at life from another's perspective lets us empathize and builds relational bonds, as Finch knew firsthand.

As the film progresses, the courtroom scene dominates. The all-white jury looks upon the black defendant and the guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion, so it seems. Robinson is on trial for his life and Finch gives him a stellar defense. But he is no idealist. In his closing statement, he declares to the all-male jury, "Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system -- that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality." This is an impassioned speech, not a prevarication, from a man of principle.

Peck brings an honesty and a true sense of decency to this role. It is the one he is most remembered for. Indeed, it is the role for which he won his only Oscar (Best Actor). And in a touching twist, when Peck died in 2003, Brock Peters delivered the eulogy for the man who "defended" him in court in this film.

At its heart, Mockingbird brings to the forefront the intolerance and prejudice birthed by fear and ignorance. It highlights how this can occur for both young and old -- in the persons of the boogeyman and the black man. The children were afraid of Boo, and spread malicious rumors about him. The townsfolk were bigoted against blacks, and spread malicious "truth" about Robinson. These two sides of intolerance juxtapose to frame Mockingbird.

Despite the prejudice of the town community, Finch's speech echoes the true ethics of the Bible. God created man and woman in his image (Gen. 1:26). There is no inferiority in being female. All humans are imago dei. Further, Paul affirms the equality of all people in respect to redemption in Jesus: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:29). Equality is a true and righteous ethic. We should not practice prejudice either explicitly, via racism, nationalism, etc, or implicitly in how we reward or punish others.

This brings us to the title of the film and book. What does it mean? Finch (whose name is avian), says to his children at the dinner table, talking about shooting birds: "it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. . . . Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy." Mockingbirds are defenseless, they do no harm, and they try do good. The two mockingbirds in this film, Boo and Robinson, meet these criteria. It is a sin to kill them.

Who are the mockingbirds in our lives? How are we treating them? Have we grasped the enormity of the sin of killing a mockingbird? If not, watch this film. It is a classic!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Proposal -- the value of family

The Proposal Box Art

Director: Anne Fletcher, 2009.

Take a driven and pushy workaholic book editor. Add in a pretty executive assistant 12-years younger (at least in real-life). Make the successful editor a Canadian whose visa expired and is about to be deported. Solution: marry the young American and voila life's a peach. That's the storyline of The Proposal. Except Fletcher throws in a giant role reversal and makes the editor a woman, Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock), and her assitant is Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds, Definitely Maybe).

Fletcher uses a female central figure as she did in her earlier film, 27 Dresses. Right from the start we see Margaret as a witch. Even her co-workers refer to her as such in the instant messaging system they have perfected to keep each safe from her tantrums and her spells. She is completely focused on her work and her career, not caring about colleagues below her. She has no family and no friends.

Andrew, on the other hand, is a sycophant, sucking up to his boss as a way to advance. His dream is to be an editor like her, and he sees her as his meal ticket. He will do anything, sacrifice time with his family, to make progress in this ambition. Where Margaret is a witch, Andrew is a wimp. But when she tells her bosses that she is marrying him, that is close to the limit. He is ready to opt out of this one until Margaret tells him he will lose his job the minute she is deported and all his efforts will have been in vain. Not surprisingly he agrees.

When they go to file at the INS office, things get more complicated. The immigration officer smells a rat. He tells them they have 4 days before they must come back for a detailed interview together. In that time self-obsessed Margaret must learn everything about Andrew, who already knows more than he ought about her.

As a naturalized American, I have gone through this interview with my American bride. It is every bit as intimidating as The Proposal suggests it will be. I remember when the interviewing officer asked a question of my wife and I started to answer for her whereupon he abruptly silenced me. It was her answer he wanted to hear. Did she really know me? Or was my marriage a sham to get me into the country? Well, mine was for real, and we are at 20+ years and counting, unlike Margaret's proposal.

Margaret accompanies Andrew on a visit to his parents home to celebrate his grandmother's 90th birthday. Arriving in Sitka, Alaska, she is in high heels and a New York City dress. His family are in flats and pants. This is quite the contrast. Alaska is about as far apart from New York as you can get. Margaret is obviously a fish-out-of-water.

The Proposal illustrates some negative ethics. Margaret does not seem to see the depth of the immorality that she is diving into. She is completely career and money focused. But "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tom. 6:10), and she coerces Andrew into agreeing to marry her. This coercion has two sides to it. The upside is the bribe, the promise of career improvement. The downside is the threat of job loss. But what starts with a simple lie, becomes an act of fraud before the US official. The lie births a felony.

How true it is that a simple lie can beget a monster. Sin heaps upon sin until we forget what the truth is. The Bible warns us against acts of deception, but too often we rationalize the first lie as necessary. Once that is done, the snowball has started rolling downhill and we struggle simply to keep up. And it is an act we have to keep up, all the while remembering the earlier lies. Jesus has it right: "Let your yes be yes" (Matt. 5:37).

But The Proposal also highlights some positive values. Fletcher surrounds Andrew with family and friends who love him and miss him. This family is not perfect but it is his family. Grace (Mary Steenburgen) is a mother who wants the best for her boy. Joe (Craig T. Nelson) is a father who thinks he knows what is best for his boy but does not really know Andrew. There is a rift in their relationship that no quick father-son talk can heal. And there is Grandma Annie (Betty White). Betty White gets the funniest lines and is terrific as the all-wise grandma who knows more than she lets on. The only weird thing is her mother earth worship, a take on Native American religion, that appears totally unnecessary except to let Bullock shake her booty.

Four days with the almost-all-American, certainly all-Alaskan, Paxtons, is more than Margaret wants or thinks she can handle. But over this time, dealing with dial-up connections and flying dogs, her cynical shell cracks. And lo and behold we see a real person trying to get out. She sees a real family, warts and all. There is even a trip to the woodshed for a verbal spanking. And just as Margaret's character softens, so too does Andrew's. He becomes stronger, more determined, and willing to risk loss for what he really wants.

The Proposal leaves us reflecting on the value of family. Most of us had a family growing up. Probably none was perfect. We may carry baggage with us into adult life, but there is a strong and wholesome value in the family unit. God designed family to procreate from the very beginning. Parents are there to raise their children in a loving fashion. When we see family working, even if imperfectly, we see the goodness of God. And it is the grace of God that allows selfish individuals to come together to bond as a unit. We can walk away from this and forget what it means. But one look at a real family built on love and the memories return. We can, we must, enjoy whatever family we have alive on this earth. And, for followers of Jesus, we can look ahead to that ideal family that awaits us with our heavenly Father in the life to come.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Barton Fink -- creating and the culture of entertainment

Director: Joel Coen, 1991.

The Coen brothers are probably the most versatile film-makers working today. They write their own scripts; they direct the films; and they usually edit their own work under pseudonyms. They have made film noir (Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There), comedy (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski), bleak crime (No Country for Old Men), even romantic comedy (Intolerable Cruelty). Barton Fink, their fourth film, defies simple genre identification. It starts as a drama with touches of comedy and ends as a surreal film noir. But it resists a simple narrative resolution and so is ambiguous and frustrating.

The Coens have won the biggest prize, the Best Film Oscar, for No Country. But Barton Fink achieved the distinction of winning the top three awards at the Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor (John Turturro), Best Director, and Palm D'Or (best picture). Indeed, after this, the Cannes organizers decreed that future films could win only two awards at most.

Barton Fink opens in 1941 at the backstage of a Broadway play where playwright Barton Fink (Turturro) is watching the debut of his new play. It is a huge success, being appreciated by both the general audience and the critics. When he is offered serious money to move to Hollywood to become a script-writer for Capital Pictures he at first refuses. But with the influence of his agent, the money beckons and Barton goes.

In Los Angeles Fink moves into the weird, seemingly abandoned Hotel Earle. Stylized in art-deco fashion, it seems to be full of residents and transients, yet Fink sees none except his sixth-floor neighbor, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) a door-to-door insurance salesman. Hotel Earle is slowly decaying and has seen better days. Fink's room is bare of any decor except a cheap picture of a bikini-clad woman on the beach gazing into the surf. The picture is a key theme in the film, as Fink repeatedly stares at it, and the camera returns to it time and time again.

Barton Fink is filled with themes and symbols. The Coen brothers offer some clear contrasts particularly in the area of entertainment. Fink hails from New York, home of the theater and Broadway. This is high-culture. Works of art, these plays are labors of love that playwrights like Fink have struggled to produce. In contrast, Los Angeles is the home of Hollywood and low culture. Film-makers mechanically turn out formulaic B-movies to spin profits, not to make art. The audience they cater to is the plebeian, the philistine, not the connoisseur.

Watching Barton Fink causes us to reflect on own preferences in entertainment. Do we prefer movies to stage-plays? Do we choose formulaic films, action, thrillers, rather than movies that might make us meditate? Are we looking for some form of escape from the daily grind or an encounter with the divine God?

Another inherent theme is the ideal of the common man. Fink is a leftist intellectual, and sees himself as the champion of these underprivileged people. Yet, ironically he is not one of them; instead he is self-obsessed and sees himself as a suffering creator. And he cannot see the common man when he is right in front of him. Charlie, his neighbor, is that archetype. Fat, sweaty, overly cheery and friendly, ready to share a drink and a joke, he is Common Man. But when Charlie says to Fink, "I could tell you some stories," Fink cuts him off and spouts off on his own soap-box. He will not listen.

Isolation, loneliness and frustration are additional themes. Fink spends most of his time in his room looking at his typewriter. He is struggling with writer's block having been ordered to write a wrestling movie script. Apparently surrounded by other hotel-dwellers, he is alone in one of the biggest cities in America. When he seeks the friendship of another writer, the famous W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), he discovers Mayhew is a drunk and something of a fraud, living with a lover Audrey (Judy Davis). Even these are not really his friends. He has no one to turn to. His agent is in New York. The movie producer is no help. And the mogul expects results not excuses.

When he turns to Audrey for help, late one night before a meeting with the film studio mogul, Fink is beside himself with worry. Her assistance is to reduce his tension. But when he awakes to a nightmare situation, the film itself becomes taut with tension and turns from a light drama to a darker film noir, with unexpected twists and turns.

Surrealism shows up in the eerie hotel. With an early reference to 666, the number of the beast in Revelation (Rev. 13:18), there is more to the hotel than meets the eye. Hotel Earle seems more like Hotel Hell. With New York symbolizing heaven (to Fink) LA symbolizes hell. Indeed, the hotel is hot as hell and the wallpaper in Fink's room starts to peel, dripping gooey paste like Charlie's pus-dripping ear infection. Yet, strangely this only seems to occur when Charlie is near. Is Charlie who he seems to be, a friendly pal? Or is he something more sinister? Is he perhaps the devil incarnate?

Certainly the character of Charlie Meadows reminds us that Satan is the master masquerader. He comes across looking like an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) yet is a demon of darkness. We do not expect to see the devil. He is portrayed as a little red demon with horns, a tail and a pitchfork. Yet he is more likely to come to us as a Charlie Meadows, the buddy next door, who wins our friendship and tempts us to turn from truth to sin. Only by standing firm in the strength of the Lord Jesus (Eph. 6:10-18) can we ordinary Jesus-followers expect to gain victory in the spiritual battle that we find ourselves in.

The most prominent theme in Barton Fink is the process of writing. Fink struggles with writer's block for most of the film. He says to Charlie at one point, "I've always found that writing comes from great inner pain." But his inner pain and suffering cannot produce a script about wrestling. Even Charlie's help, as a former wrestler, is to no avail. Only when Charlie gives him a brown-paper wrapped box for storage, does his mind start working. The box becomes a sort of muse for Fink. Perhaps it is the suffering that comes in the second half of the film combined with this muse that finally enables Fink to turn out a screenplay in one long sitting. Even then, it is the story of a wrestler's soul-suffering, more intellectual than the B-movie script he is being paid for. It is a creation not a formulaic copy. In celebration he cries maniacally to a dancing throng, "I'm a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I'm a creator! I am a creator!"

In this statement Fink identifies one aspect of the image of God in humanity. God, the Creator, decided to create man and woman in his image as the very apex of his overall creation (Gen. 1:26). We are uniquely endowed with a soul and spirit. And we are given the ability to create. This can take many forms, such as the creation of art, of literature, of writings. These are to be enjoyed as reflections of the one primary Creator.

Toward the end, in another surrealistic scene, Fink sits on the beach and sees a beautiful woman in a bikini approach him. She sits next to him and gazes out at the surf in the identical pose to the woman in the picture in his room. Fink has moved into the picture and she has stepped into reality. This underscores the tension between the objective and the subjective points of view in art. The line between imagination and reality has blurred. The creator has become one with the creation. How real is art? How real are films?

This scene evokes the descent from heaven into our reality of the Creator. Jesus, the one who made and now sustains all that we see (Col. 1:16-17), left his position of glory to enter into his creation. He joined the story. He walked into the picture. He became one of us (Phil. 2:8). He took on human flesh, skin and bone. He did that so that he might offer himself in our place on the cross that was destined for each one of us. As Barton Fink entered into this pictorial creation, so Jesus Christ entered into his physical creation. But though Barton Fink ends with an ambiguity that refuses to explain many of the symbols, Jesus stands ready with clear-cut options: life with him, heaven; death apart from him, hell.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Imagine That -- listening, leading, liking your kids

Imagine That Artwork

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick, 2009.

"I want my goo-gah!" exclaims a wild and upset Eddie Murphy as he is forcibly ejected from a plush Denver home. Thus opens Imagine That. So what is a "goo-gah"? And why does he want it so badly? The movie goes back in time one week to answer these questions.

Murphy stars as Evan, a successful fund manager at the top of his game. This is more than can be said for Murphy himself, who overacts and generally hams it up. This film is merely a vehicle for Murphy's brand of physical humor from a director whose only other film was Over the Hedge; not exactly a stellar pedigree.

Evan is a single father and an unsuccessful one. He has no time for his grade-school daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi). When she stays with him in his bachelor pad, she is simply in the way. She comes into his office late one night with her blankie as he is discussing funds and she overhears him. He tells her it is OK as long as she is quiet, but when she starts talking to her imaginary friends under her blanket, he says "You don't listen." Yet when she is giving him trading insights from these "friends" he is the one not listening.

When the owner of the firm decides to sell out, Evan is in line for the crown. But Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church) is his opponent, an unconventional Native Indian who wins accounts with mumbo-jumbo advice that somehow connects to the clients. Going head-to-head these financial gurus must win over the boss, who is listening to their recommendations.

Listening is one of the themes of Imagine That. Who is listening to whom? Evan is not listening to Olivia. But Olivia is listening to him, and she listens to her imaginary friends. Listening is an art and a gift. To listen, to really listen, is to give undivided attention to the speaker. It is to set aside our internal thoughts, to refuse to focus on our next response, and to seek to truly understand what is being said. In doing so we are giving them the gift of our time. James said, "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak. . . " (Jas. 1:19). A wag commented that God gave us two ears and one tongue so we can listen twice as long as we talk.

Imagine That Publicity StillAs a father, Evan is a washout. He cannot relate to Olivia and he doesn't really want to. We wonder whatever prompted him to become a parent in the first place, but that is never answered. He pleads with his daughter constantly, asking her to be quiet, to go to bed, to stop screaming (which she does whenever someone takes her security blanket away). But parents are supposed to lead their kids not plead with them. He has no parental control; he exercises no parental leadership.

Leading is another theme that emerges from this comedy. As a parent, Imagine That causes me to look at my own parenting style. Am I following the example foisted on me by Hollywood? Am I being conformed by these pressures to become a weak and pitiful father, one often mocked and ridiculed today? Or am I listening to the leading of the Spirit of God? He gives us careful advice, especially in the Old Testament. The great Shema in Deut 6:4 ("Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one") is followed by the greatest commandment ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength") and then the key command to fathers: "Impress them [these commandments] on your children" (Deut. 6:7). Moreover, Solomon tells fathers to take an active role in leading their children: "Train up a child in the way he should go" (Prov. 22:6). Fatherhood requires leadership. To abdicate this is to give up on parenting.

That brings us to the security blanket. This is the "goo-gah." And when Evan discovers that Olivia's imaginary friends are giving him advice that is better than insider trading, though certainly stranger, he wants more. But the only way into her secret world is with the help of this blanket. (The fact that she has need of these imaginary friends is patently due to parental problems, but that is beyond the point of the film or this blog.) This is his magic carpet ride into the kingdom of financial success.

One of the funniest scenes has Olivia showing Evan how to enter this secret kingdom, navigating past the lurking dragon, to meet her friends. As Evan sings in a higher and higher voice until his falsetto almost hurts, we see Olivia drawing closer to her dad emotionally. Even though his motive was to get to the "magic fortune-tellers," father and daughter are spending time together and she is having fun.

And this brings us to the third theme inherent in the movie: linking and liking. The imaginary journey into this secret kingdom becomes an emotional journey leading to familial linking. Eventually and predictably Evan realizes that he likes Olivia. He has come on his own journey of discovery and found himself and his daughter.

Even with wrong motives Evan's actions lead to positive results. This is often true. Two millennia ago, the apostle Paul pointed out "that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. . . . But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached." (Phil. 1:15, 18). The wrong motives led to Christ's proclamation. Good resulted. Sometimes the motives morph along the way, as they did for Evan, until the wrong motives become the right motives.

Imagine That is funny in spots and is fun for families, being reasonably wholesome -- imagine that from Hollywood. If it brings fathers and daughters together, as it did for me, to enjoy some family fun together, it is probably worth watching. We need to spend fun time with our kids!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 -- confession, ransom and redemption

The Taking of Pelham 123 Artwork

Director: Tony Scott, 2009.

Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, has teamed up with Denzel Washington before in action movies, such as Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and Deja Vu. Now they are reunited in the remake of this 1974 crime thriller. As remakes go, this is a good one.

Washington is Walter Garber, a transit authority worker who directs the subway trains in New York City. But on one fateful day a train on his line is hijacked by Ryder (John Travolta) and a team of trigger-happy criminals.

When the 1:23 train from Pelham stops in the subway tunnel between stations, an undercover traffic cop on one of the subway train cars suspects it is more than a problem with the train. He is mercilessly gunned down and this triggers the passengers to realize their day has taken a turn for the worse. They are hostages. When Garber tries to contact the train, called Pelham 1-2-3, he finds Ryder, an enigma, on the other end of the line sounding uncouth and volatile, vacillating between friendly banter and murderous threats. New York has a major problem and Garber is slap-bang in the middle of it.

Scott has created a tense, fast-paced crime thriller. Right from the start he uses edgy hand-held cameras to give a disorienting feel. He uses two main sets, the windowless underground transit authority command center and the subway car to communicate a claustrophobic feel which further adds to the tension and atmosphere. Then he pits good guy Washington against bad guy Travolta to play out the race agains the clock hostage situation. But life is not black and white, and there is more to both.

The Taking of Pelham 123 Publicity StillAt one point Ryder comments to Garber, "When you put your socks on this morning, did you think your day would be like this?" It all seems like a joke, a caper to him. But he is sitting next to a kidnapped driver and there is a dead cop behind him. This is no joke.

This offhand remark highlights a biblical tenet: we really don't know what each day has in store for us. James said it this way, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow" (Jas 4:13-14). We wake thinking this will be an ordinary day and God, not fate as Garber refers to, throws us a curve ball. But how we respond or react says a lot about our character. Paul, a prisoner in Rome, wrote to the church at Philippi: "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Phil. 1:27). The circumstances are out of our control but our attitude is not. When our day goes sour our attitude should not.

Garber, who seems to be a Catholic, has a depth of character that is not obvious at first. Thrown in at the deep end with no experience in hostage negotiation, he has to do his best and deal with Ryder. Indeed, Ryder seems to have an affinity to Garber to the extent that when NYPD Hostage Negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) appears on the scene Ryder will not deal with him. He has built an unlikely bond with Garber.

The Taking of Pelham 123 Publicity StillCharacter and patience Barber has, but he also has a darker secret. When Ryder discovers this he exploits it to his advantage. His banter with Garber turns into psychotic counseling. His cubicle becomes a confessional booth. Garber must confess publicly or Ryder will kill an innocent hostage.

This scenario is intense and thought-provoking. If we were put into a situation where our "sins" had caught us out but we maintained our innocence, would we confess in public if it would save a life? Would we do so if it risked sacrificing our freedom? Would we lie or tell the truth? Would it be ethical to lie in this scenario? Indeed, would we have the quickness of wits to lie? And if we did, would we be believed or not? In the film Garber's confession is powerfully emotive but it left me wondering if he told the truth or not.

Subplot aside, Scott ratchets up the tension since it is clear that the hostage-takers cannot escape. The tunnel is filled with SWAT snipers both in front and behind the stationary subway train. How will the criminals escape? Will the City pay the ransom demands? James Gandolfini shows up as the Mayor who does not want blood on his hands. There is an exciting race-against-time car dash through the city with twists that cause us to wish time would slow down. But the clock keeps ticking and Ryder becomes more and more explosive.

Pelham has a number of references to Catholicism, apart from the obvious confessional scene. The innocence or guilt of the ordinary folks on the train is called into question, as is that of the top city bureaucrats. Who is really innocent? Although Garber supposes the hostages are innocents, Ryder refutes this. They are all as guilty as he. Of course, both Catholics and Protestant Christians would affirm that all people experience the effects of original sin and the fall (Gen. 3). No one is without sin, no one is guilt-free. We even know this innately, as we experience the feelings and results of guilt.

Ryder offers an enigmatic comment on God, one that he repeats in the film: "We all owe God a death." Contradicting him, Garber retorts, "We all owe God a life." These appear to be two diametrically opposed statements. So, which is it? Do we owe God a death or a life? Perhaps the truth is found in both statements. Paul, author of Romans, says "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:23) and as a result "the wages of sin is death" (6:23). We all owe God a death because of our sin. Yet God gave his own son Jesus for us to die in our place (Rom. 3:23-26) and if we choose to follow him we can experience life. In this new life, Paul says "to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21). Followers of Jesus owe God a life; we must live this life he has paid for by bringing glory to him.

The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 is an exciting thrill ride with a redemptive, perhaps self-redemptive, ending. Yet reflecting on the ransom required we can consider the One who paid more than all the money in the world to ransom us when we were hostages in our own subway train of sin (Matt. 20:28). Now, it is our choice if we will walk out of our hostage situation and experience freedom in Christ, or if we will remain trapped, scared out of our wits, by that wicked hostage-taker, Satan.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Monday, June 8, 2009

Chariots of Fire -- following your conscience, glorifying God

Director: Hugh Hudson, 1981.

Who can forget Vangelis' Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire? The melodic electronic theme almost instantly evokes the beach scene where the British runners are on a training run in the surf. Moreover, the film itself won the Oscar for best picture, which is unusual for a sports film (Rocky is the only other sports-themed best picture in the last 60 years).

The title, Chariots of Fire, is taken not from the verse in 2 Kings (6:17) where Elisha prays for his servant to see the providential protection that is typically invisible to the spiritually unopened eye. Rather, it is a phrase in the English patriotic anthem, Jerusalem. And this song is sung in the opening scene in a London church in 1978, where the funeral of the great English athlete, Harold Abrahams is taking place.

This is the based-on-true-life story of Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), two distinctly opposite British runners who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Abrahams is a bright student, son of a rich Jewish businessman, going up to study law at Trinity College, Cambridge. He enjoys the high life of champagne, girls and opera. Liddell, on the other hand, is a blue-collar Scot, the son of a missionary to China, who is ready to go back to the mission field. What they have in common is speed, although they run for different reasons.

Abrahams is a man with a chip on his shoulder: prejudice. When asked, by his girlfriend Sybil, about his running, why he runs, he answers, "I'm more of an addict. It's a compulsion with me, a weapon I can use." Sybil asks, "Against what?" and he responds, "Being Jewish I suppose." He had experienced the religious prejudice of a Jew living in a "Christian" nation, and fought against this with his natural ability. By winning he could "prove himself" and his faith. He was no worse than the rest; indeed, he would be better because he was number one.

Sometimes we do this. We face some kind of prejudice and rather than accept it, we react to it. We may not be able to overcome it with our speed. But we may use our academic prowess, or our ability to get the job done at work. When we focus on being the best in our field or our school to gain acceptance, we are falling into the same trap that Abrahams fell into. Our acceptance by men should not be focused on what we can do, but on who we are. Character over career. But this is hard, especially for those of us who may feel inferior or somehow persecuted. Ironically, Abrahams converted from his Jewish faith to Christianity, after his racing career was over.

One problem with Abrahams' motivation is its total focus on winning for self-glory. When he loses a 100m sprint to Liddell in a pre-Olympics race, he pouts like a toddler, "If I can't win, I won't run!" Sybil wisely retorts, "If you don't run, you can't win." You must be willing to risk losing to have the chance of winning. In this life there are few certain victories. We can choose to play the game of life and risk losing. Or we can retreat from life, not chancing losing but never feeling the thrill of victory. Life, like running, is an endeavour that must be attacked with gusto, even if we might not win. Would you rather sit on the sidelines never knowing either victory or defeat? Or are you willing to get into the game, and experience the highs and the lows, as Abrahams did, after his pep talk?

Liddell makes this point clearly, in an evangelistic address to a group of spectators after he wins a race in England. "You came to see a race today. . . . But I want you do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race." The writer to the Hebrews says essentially the same thing: "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Heb. 12:1). Unlike the sprints that Abrahams and Liddell ran, our race of faith is more of a marathon requiring endurance and lots of training. We can choose to begin this race the day we embrace our great trainer and coach, Jesus Christ. We will face obstacles. We will hit "the wall" that all marathoners hit once the initial energy burst has dissipated. But with grace we can push onwards to the finish line, the end of our earthly life, where we will be crowned as winners by Jesus himself (Rev. 2:10)!

If Abrahams' motive was self-glory, Liddell's was God's glory. He said to his sister, who was trying to dissuade him from running so he might focus on the mission, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure." Liddell knew what he was chasing -- God's pleasure. And he was content. Abrahams was never content, "I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing."

Lidell felt he had wings on his heels and the wind in these wings. He wanted to run for the God who had blessed him with this speed. John Piper, pastor and author, has a ministry motto that says "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." When we are doing what God has designed us to do and to be, we can feel not only satisfaction but the very pleasures of God. And in this way, we glorify him.

Liddell's example can translate into our lives, even if we are not runners. God has gifted each of us in unique ways. Perhaps it is running, perhaps it is writing. We may be artistic or musical. We might be fantastic at relating to people. Whatever the gift, when we use it we find a deep sense of personal satisfaction. And when we do it intentionally for the glory of God, as Paul commands Christians to do in all things (1 Cor. 10:31), then we can also bring great glory to God and experience the pleasure of God as he sees and blesses us.

After his loss to Liddell, Abrahams hires a professional trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm, better known as Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Oscar-nominated here). With his help, Abrahams makes it through the heats to the final of the 100m sprint in Paris. He is on his way to success. Liddell, though, discovers that the heats of this race occur on a Sunday. As a devout follower of Christ, he is not willing to compromise his belief that the Sabbath should be kept for worship alone."God made countries, God made kings, and the rules by which they govern. And these rules say that the Sabbath is His." Despite enormous pressure to cave, he remained true to his principles. Even the Prince of Wales could not persuade him. He followed his conscience. And as he did for Abraham in his hour of testing with Isaac (Gen. 22), God provided a way out.

Once more Liddell's life gives an example of what it means to follow your conscience. Many followers of Jesus would not hold the same conviction as Liddell about Sabbath-keeping. But Paul tells us, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5). If it is wrong for us, we need to follow our conscience. We need not hold others accountable to our own conscience-held beliefs. But we must hold ourselves true to what the Holy Spirit has spoken to our consciences.

Both Liddell and Abrahams achieved victory. Both experienced glory. But they ran for completely different reasons. Which one would you rather model?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- life's changes

Director: David Fincher, 2008.

The premise is curious, even intriguing. The lead character says it himself, "My name is Benjamin Button, and I was born under unusual circumstances. While everyone else was agin', I was gettin' younger... all alone."

I had always thought it strange that when we are at our most energetic, when our vitality is at its highest in our youth, we usually have the least wisdom and wealth. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have our life's riches to spend on untold adventures when we can enjoy them, instead of when we are old and dying. But life has a linearity to its temporal dimension that God has devised for our benefit. Despite the story of Benjamin Button, this still prevails.

David Finch has taken a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and turned it into an over-long epic, that many have compared to Forrest Gump. Reunited with his Fight Club and Se7en star, Brad Pitt, Fincher has seemingly paced this to match the slow southern drawl that Pitt adopts. Known for the intensity he brings to his thrillers, such as Zodiac and Panic Room, Fincher here parallels the film's tagline (life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments): Button isn't measured in minutes but in hours.

Button starts with an extended prolog about a blind clock-maker who creates a beautiful and curiously unique clock for the New Orleans train-station. This clock runs backwards. As he says, it is to give people hope that maybe some of the boys that went off to the great war might come back someday.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Publicity StillThe day that great war (World War I) ended in 1918 was the day that Benjamin Button was borb. And it was the same fateful day his mother died in childbirth. When his father sees him, a monster looking like an old man in a baby's frame, something happens. He snaps. He picks up the baby and wanders the streets of the Big Easy, before leaving him on the porch steps of a house. Queenie (Taraji Henson), a black woman who runs a retirement home, finds him and keeps him as her own white child.

As he grows he begins to look more and more like one of the residents. Yet, he is the age of a grade-schooler. One of the themes of Button is loneliness. Benjamin Button cannot fit in. He is not old yet looks old and has infirmities that go along with old age. His closest friend is young Daisy, whose grandmother lives in the house. Yet he cannot play with her as it looks shameful.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Movie StillLoneliness permeates the lives of many people today, regardless of their social situation. They may be single, they may be married. A person can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. Button learned to accept this loneliness, to live with it, to embrace it. We all will experience loneliness in our lives. How we deal with it will say much about our character. One temporary resident in the house, a pygmy, tells Button to not be afraid of his loneliness. And this is a message for us. If we embrace Jesus, then we can cling to the promise he gives us that he will never leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20). Even in our loneliest moments, we can count on Jesus as an ever-present friend.

Button discovers one sad consequence of living in a retirement home -- frequently his "friends" die. Their route out of the home is in a casket. But one resident offers a pearl of wisdom: "Benjamin, we're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?" We will all die. There are no exceptions. So, those we love will one day be gone. When that happens we will realize what they meant to us? How important it is to make the most of the time God gives us to spend with our loved ones. We should never take for granted even an hour of the day. Who knows if we will wake tomorrow, or if they will wake tomorrow (Lk. 12:16-20). This is a lesson that carried Button through his strange life and one that we can grasp to help us, too.

Throughout the film, Fincher employs the plot device of having Caroline (Julia Ormond) read from Benjamin Button's diary to her dying mother Daisy (an elderly Cate Blanchet). This kind of device was used in The Princess Bride, but here it is more like The Notebook, and connects the story, present and past, together in a reverse chronology allowing for huge jumps in time between the episodes of Button's life. However, it is a little distracting, and the hospital drama adds nothing to the main storyline.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Publicity StillAs he grows, Button (Brad Pitt) starts to realize there is life outside Queenie's house. He takes a job on a tug-boat and sees the world. He serves in the navy on this boat during WW2. Throughout, he remains in love with Daisy, the young girl he met years ago. When he comes home he sees her in all her beauty. Their love affair is the heart and soul of the story. But it is one that is destined to end because of Button's curious aging.

Change is a key theme in Button. At one point when he comes home, he remarks, "It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You'll realize what's changed is you." And he has changed. Each time he comes home Queenie is older and grayer, and Button looks younger with less gray hair. But he has travelled and understands things many miss. He realizes something about change: "For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it." Change happens but how we respond to change defines us.

We can understand this. We all experience change, daily even. But we can do something about it. We can choose to be who we want to be. We don't have to suffer and struggle in a job if we don't want to. There is always an opportunity waiting. Life has no human rules, only birth and death and a journey in between. We can make choices that will impact us today and tomorrow and beyond. Indeed, how we face this life will define how we will face the life beyond the grave. If we choose to follow God and embrace his rules for life, rules of love (loving God, loving ourselves, loving our neighbor, etc -- Matt. 22:37-39), we will be ready to love him and live with him in the afterlife. In a sense, this life is just the introductory chapter to the books we have yet to write with our future life.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Taken -- depths of a father's love

Director, Pierre Morrel, 2008.

Every parent's fear, every father's nightmare: your child is taken, kidnapped. Usually this fear is focused around young children who need the protection of their parents 24x7. But Taken highlights the theme of human trafficking for prostitution, a particularly evil scenario.

Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, a retired CIA preventer. He has quit his job so he can try to get closer to his estranged 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Having essentially abandoned her for his career, he hardly knows her and their relationship is superficial at best. This is clear in his purchase of a birthday gift for her at the start of the film: a karaoke machine. She is surprised by this gift but quickly dismisses it when she sees the horse her stepdad gives her. Mills is lost in the memories of his daughter captured in the few birthday photographs he has of her. But this is not her now.

When she invites him on a date, Mills is elated. But she drops the bombshell on him that she wants to go to Paris with a friend for the summer. He sees his efforts to get closer to her go up in smoke. Moreover, he sees the potential for danger that she is deliberately blind to. But her mom Lenore (Famke Janssen) also came along, and the mother-daughter pair bring an agenda. Kim needs his written permission. He immediately disagrees. When confronted with the truth, "You sacrificed our marriage to the service of the country; can't you sacrifice a little one time for your own daughter?", he retorts, "I would sacrifice anything for her." This is the truth, and it prepares us for what is to come.

Kim gets to go with her friend but as soon as they arrive at their Paris apartment, she realizes her friend has lied to her. And within minutes, both are abducted, taken by unseen men. They have become the targets of an Albanian mafia group, intent on addicting them to drugs and then forcing them into a life of prostitution or selling them as sex slaves: a hell on earth.

While Kim ponders her friend's deceit, we understand the lies she, too, has told. She deceived her father by telling only part of the truth, knowing that if he knew her real plans she would not get to go. She is naive to the ugliness of the world outside of her rich-kid's bubble. She sees life as a grand adventure: it is her horse to ride. But life has its seedy side, and she will get to see this first-hand.

Too often, we tell half-truths, holding part of the truth back for fear that our grand plans will be disapproved if the entire truth emerged. But half-truths are simply lies with a colored facade, sugar coating to make them easier to swallow. They may gain approval at first, but they build upon one another until a house of cards is created. And this house hovers on the brink of discovery and then destruction (Prov. 15:11).

If the deceit of the daughter got Kim into this impossible situation, it's the skills of the father that will get her out. As the kidnapping is underway, Kim is on the phone to her dad. And so Mills hears first-hand what is happening to his little girl. When the call is finally discovered, Mills tells her kidnapper:
I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
And he is deadly serious. After calling in some favors from ex-CIA friends, he discovers the name of the person who took her, from the recording of a mere two words. He is told he essentially has 96 hours to find her or the chance of recovery falls close to zero. The chase is on.

Taken is filled with cheesy dialogue like this. (I mean who actually speaks this way, even under duress.) It has plot development that is totally implausible. And it has fast-paced action that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Director Morrell proved he could direct action in his only earlier film, District B-13. Here he stages two major car-chase sequences and choreographed fights galore.

Bryan Mills as Kim's father makes us reflect on the role of a father. Fathers are supposed to be protectors and providers, listeners and counselors. Mills did very little as a father for Kim, except provide for her. But when her hour of deepest need is at hand, he is finally ready to step up.

Most of us will not have the skills of a CIA operative, but we have something more valuable: personal involvement. As fathers, we need to develop relationships with our kids. We must be present physically. Kids need the unconditional love and affirmation of a father who is there for them. More than this, we must be present emotionally also. Kids need a sensitive listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a father to tell them the ground rules. Fathers have a wisdom and maturity that can provide an even-keeled approach to life. Kim missed out on this. Let's not let our kids miss out on it too.

As Mills goes on the offensive, he is willing to do anything to find his daughter, even if that means resorting to the level of those he is hunting. Taken has moments of brutality and torture, showing the feral side of man. Mills acts like a wounded animal, as indeed he is. Yet, would we stoop to torture and murder another person to save our own child? Would we become a sociopath to find a sociopath? When does revenge take precedence over rescue?

In its own way, though, Taken shows the great love of a father in search of his daughter. It shows the depths he will descend to rescue his child. It is a picture, of sorts, of the love our heavenly father has for us. We are all like Kim. We have lied to God, deceived him, broken the rules set for us, decided to go our own way (Rom. 3:10-18), since that seems more fun than his "over-protective" path. But when we have woken up in our own pool of brokenness, we realize we need a father more than we need our independence.

God has descended into the depths of this world, becoming like us, becoming one of us in Christ (Phil. 2:7-8). In this way, he has come looking for each one of us. He has found us and reaches out to you and to me. We can choose to grasp his hand and allow him to pull us free, to take us into his embrace, and to give us what we all crave more than anything: love. He will care for us (1 Pet. 5:7). He will provide for us (Phil. 4:19). He will protect us (Ps. 32:7). He will be all that a father should be. Will we let him? As Kim is reconciled to Mills, her real father, in the Hollywood-ending, will we be reconciled to our father through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:18)? That could be your Hollywood-ending.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs