Friday, April 30, 2010

Gomorrah -- retribution and violence, redemption and grace

Director: Matteo Garrone, 2009. (NR)

Gomorrah draws to mind the biblical account of Genesis 19 when "the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah" (v.24). The reason he did this was because "the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous" (Gen. 18:20). Moral darkness had descended upon the city. Similarly, moral darkness has fallen on Naples in this tough-to-watch award-winning Italian film.

The movie opens with the unexpected shooting of several unsuspecting gangsters as they are relaxing in a tanning salon. This is reminiscent of the shootings at the end of The Godfather. Indeed, Gomorrah offers an inside look at the mob underworld in Naples, as The Godfather did for the mafia in America. But where that movie focused on the godfather, Don Corleone and his son, in Gomorrah we never see the mob boss. Rather, the emphasis is on individual gangsters as well as the individuals who come into contact with the system. It is, in this respect, a portrayal of the grass-roots level impact of organized crime.

Garrone has based his movie on the best-selling non-fiction book by Robert Saviano which exposes the crime syndicate known as the "Camorra" or "System" and the rules it ruthlessly enforces. As a result of his book and this film, Saviano has received numerous death threats from the Camorra and has to live under police protection. Unlike the American Mafia or Sicilian Cosa Nostra, where there is a clear hierarchy, the Camorra is flatter and looser, with different clans vying for power.

The film pulls five individuals out of the book's narrative and, though unrelated, interweaves their stories together to highlight the impact of crime on the criminals and their families as well as the innocent. None are ranking members; all seem ordinary people with lives and dreams. Most are living in the urban ghetto.

Don Ciro is a middle-aged middleman who handles the money distribution to the families of imprisoned clan members. Timid, he shuns violence and simply wants to get out of the system. But the system won't let him. He cannot escape without making payment for his life. Toto is a 13-year-old grocery deliverer who aspires to be part of the clan. Through an accidental incident he is given a chance to be initiated into this violent life. Marco and Ciro are two older teens who are cocky gangster wannabes. Full of small-time plans, they think they are invincible. But they cross too many clan leaders who cannot tolerate their disrespect. Pasquale is a tailor who works for a garment factory owner with ties to the Camorra. When he begins consulting for a competing Chinese company, he crosses a line. The Camorra brooks no competition. And Roberto is a young graduate who starts working for a clan businessman, Franco, who illegally dumps toxic waste in disused quarries. All five find out to their dismay just how deeply the tentacles of this crime organization extend and the depths to which the Camorra will go to exact retribution.

Retribution is an extended theme. Most of the five stories focus on this topic in one way or another. When the rules of the Camorra are broken, the gangsters seek retribution. Usually with a gun. It matters not the age or sex of the victim. What matters is exacting this retribution.

The idea of retribution focuses on meting out merited discipline, just punishment. It connotes swift revenge, a paying back for an evil done earlier. It flies in the face of Christianity. Followers of Jesus are not to take matters into our own hands like this. Paul tells us to leave vengeance to God (Rom. 12:19). But retribution in the legal sense appears in the biblical texts, particularly in the death of Jesus. Though he was innocent of any crime, and lived a life free of sin (1 Pet. 2:22), the punishment for the sin of others, for our sin, was poured out on him. He experienced the retribution of God that we rightfully should receive. In doing this, he absorbed in his death the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25).

The subplot of Roberto's introduction to illegal toxic waste management is particularly despicable. As Franco goes about seemingly helping save poor families, he is merely filling his pockets and the coffers of the Camorra while destroying the environment. Organized crime does not just focus on prostitution, drugs and gambling. Where there is "opportunity for profit" they are involved. Such schemes not only pollute the earth but damage people's health, as Roberto witnesses first hand.

We are called to care for the earth (Gen. 1:26). We have been given a social stewardship. Though it is politically correct to focus on green initiatives these days, such emphasis stems from the Garden of Eden. God's beautiful creation is our playground. If we destroy it, we will all suffer, and we will leave a damning legacy for future generations.

The world of Gomorrah is gray; its pulse is cold and cruel. All five scenarios end with, or involve, violence and death. The landscape is bleak, mostly sleazy concrete apartments. Even when the film moves outside the city, the countryside is brown and barren, under heavy gray skies. Sunshine is missing. Color is absent. Beauty is gone. Drab and dull, life has been supplanted by death.

The core values of the Camorra and those living under its umbrella are clear: power, money, and blood. The people have little choice or freedom. There is no grace, no forgiveness, no hope. Gomorrah is a chilling picture of life apart from Christ. Without these life is meaningless and can be curtailed brutally with a swift bullet. In contrast, Jesus' gospel of grace offers forgiveness for sin (Matt. 26:28), instead of retributive justice, and hope for a future (Tit. 2:13). The way of redemption is superior to retribution!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, April 26, 2010

Get Smart -- ambition and ability, control and chaos

Director: Peter Seagal, 2008. (PG-13)

The 1960s brought James Bond to the silver screen, as a suave and sexy secret agent. Picking up on the success of that franchise, NBC created the thrilling spy series, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." A couple of years later the same TV company aired a spoof of these action adventure heroes: "Get Smart" starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart. Seagal has translated this TV series to a full-length feature, updating it to the current era of cell phones and portable nuclear bombs while retaining some of the devices from the original, such as the shoe phone. In doing so, he has created a smart and funny film that has lots of slapstick comedy and just a little crude humor.

True to the original, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell, Dan in Real Life) is an analyst for CONTROL, a secret Government spy agency thought shut down. But what better place to hide a secret department than in a museum that highlights the "former" agency itself. He is terrific in his job, producing the best analysis of any HQ worker. But he pines for the life of a field operative, with danger and death as ever-present sidekicks. The Chief (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine), though, won't hear of it. Smart is too smart, and too good at his job to be released into the field. Even when Smart scores high enough on the field operative test to be considered for a numbered agent's job, he is not promoted to that role. He is denied his ambition.

Maxwell Smart exemplifies the struggle of ambition and ability. He is a klutz and really unsuited for field work, despite his test score. His ambition is to be in the field, but his ability puts him behind a desk. How many of us desire to be doing something else, something that we are in reality unfit for? There is an allure for more glamorous work. It may be the call of the professional athlete for the person who played college ball but never got drafted. Perhaps it is the desire to be a VP or CEO while a middle-manager. It could be the dizzying appeal of acting on the other side of the camera when you are a grip or cameraman. Whatever it is, if you are good at your job perhaps that is where you are meant to be. God has given each of us talents and abilities (1 Cor. 12:11). And although we can grow and develop our skills, moving into areas that are not our strengths, and may be our weaknesses, is often a recipe for disaster . . . as is almost the case for Maxwell Smart.

When the headquarters of CONTROL is destroyed by KAOS, their arch-enemy organization, and most of the field operatives are compromised or killed, few agents are left to combat KAOS' deadly plan. The Chief has to promote Smart to become Field Agent 86, partnered with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married). She has the practical experience and wisdom, he has the head-knowledge and impractical ineptness. Although he got an A- on the field operative's test, better than her score, she points out that in the field you are either dead or not dead. There is no grading on the curve or other ways of scoring.

CONTROL vs KAOS reminds us of the innate desire of humanity for control as opposed to living in a state of disorder and indeterminism. We want to be independent, in charge of our own destiny. We bristle when others are in control, able to order us around. Yet how much control do we really have? Even when we think we are calling the shots, God is still sovereign, the ruler sitting on his throne in heaven (Dan. 5:21, Psa. 110). We are mere mortals, fooling ourselves.

One of the pleasures of Get Smart is the comedic acting of Carrell. A fine straight man, here he is straighter than an arrow and the butt of many of the jokes, a sympathetic spy. He has excellent chemistry with Hathaway. And even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson pitches an acceptable performance as Agent 23, a field operative relegated to analysis.

The storyline itself is solid enough and plays out fast enough for the audience to miss the holes. And like any good spy adventure, the action moves from continent to continent until it arrives at the climax where the US President (James Caan) is in unknown danger. What makes this fun is the use of low-end spy toys, like the exploding dental floss and the multifunction pocket-knife with concealed flame thrower and crossbow.

The tagline describes the movie's theme and Smart's role: "saving the world . . . with difficulty." His desire to work in the field was to save the world. In real-life, that is Jesus' role. He has saved the world with difficulty. That difficulty was his death on the cross (Phil. 2:8). God chose to come down and be a field operative, working and walking in the world he had made (Phil. 2:7). Perfect at creation and under control, sin had entered the garden (Gen. 3) and chaos and disorder ensued. The only way to save it and ensure a future restoration was to absorb the punishment for sin in his own body and die for us (Rom. 5:8). Unlike Smart, Jesus' ambition did not exceed his ability!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 23, 2010

Thank You for the Chocolat (Merci Pour Le Chocolat) -- hypocrisy, suspicion and wariness

Director: Claude Chabrol, 2000. (NR)

The opening two chapters give us some clues for understanding the tone of this film set in the French-speaking Swiss city of Lausanne. The French title is easily translated as "Thank You for the Chocolate." So when the subtitle shows up on screen as "Nightcap" it is clear that this will be an enigmatic and elusive film.

The first scene shows two middle-aged people getting married in a small civil ceremony. Marie-Claire "Mika" Muller (Isabelle Huppert) is marrying Andre Polanski (Jacques Dutronc). Through side conversations between bit players, we learn that she is the well-to-do and cultured heiress of a Swiss chocolate company, while he is a famous and respected concert pianist. What we also discover slowly is that this is their second marriage to each other.

The second scene, meanwhile, presents four different characters eating lunch beside the lake. And these seem totally unrelated to Mike, Andre or Andre's son Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Yet one of these four, Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), is the same age, exactly, as Guillaume, and she will enter the Muller-Polanski family as a stranger who forces long-held secrets to rise to the surface.

Chabrot has been regarded by many as the French Alfred Hitchcock, and this film is certainly Hitchcockian. A slow and elegant psychological thriller, it weaves an intricate plot to a surprising and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. It is a forensic character study of a family that appears to have it all: money, beauty, and artistic talent.

Mika's daily routine, of ritual, or making a special nightcap of handmade hot chocolate (hence the title in both French and English) supposedly underscores her love for her husband and step-son. This warmth is further "apparent" in her acceptance of Jeanne who unexpectedly shows up at their large estate. Yet, underlying this warmth is a coldness that comes out in the subtle looks that Huppert casts at certain points. The love is a mask that hides something darker within. Her happiness is merely a facade.

Chabrot paints a portrait of hypocrisy through Mika. We deplore this sin when we see it, as Jesus did. He vented righteous anger on the Pharisees who were the champions of hypocrisy during his earthly life (e.g., see the seven woes in Matthew 23). Yet, we often fail to see this same sin when it exists in our own lives. Whenever we feel the need to hide, to put up a defense, a mask, we are becoming hypocritical. Projecting false love when we are cold and uncaring is a classic form. The main antidote to this insidious sin is openness and transparency. Being who we are. Saying what we think. All in love, of course (Eph. 4:15).

At one point Mika says to Andre, "Instead of loving, I say 'I love you', and people believe me. I have real power in my mind. I calculate everything." She is fooling those around her, as her husband points out:. But she retorts, "Some people fool themselves."

As the characters are developed and the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Andre's second wife died in a car accident that was drug related. Sleep-inducing drugs become central to the plot. Accidents and clumsiness compound the narrative, so that it is unclear what is calculated and what is chaotic. Further doubt descends on the underlying identity of the characters themselves.

When Jeanne is accepted into the family mansion, Andre discovers that she is a talented and aspiring pianist herself, unlike his aimless son, who is threatened by her presence. A significant clue to this mystery is in the chocolate-brown throw-wrap that Mika is crocheting. Hanging over the back of the couch, it looks like a spider's web waiting to snare her latest victim. And the emotionally enigmatic Mika could be the spider at the center of this web. Are the accidents really accidents? Or are they coldly calculated means to an end? Indeed, does Mika have a deep-seated psychosis crying out for help?

We all harbor sin within. Sin leads to guilt, a feeling that we have done wrong. Often we try to hide or ignore this feeling of guilt. But it comes out, in many different ways. We can find ourselves doing things that cause us to be caught out. Only in confessing the sin can we find mercy and freedom (Prov. 28:13). God promises to forgive if we accept his grace (1 Jn. 1:9). If we are crying out for help, it is but a prayer away.

The mood of suspicion and Mika's claim to fool people even as they believe her is a clarion call for wariness. We live in a fallen world where people choose to live out lies, facades like Mika's. They may say one thing to us, but mean something else entirely. Jesus told his disciples, when sending them out on mission, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16). That message applies to us, too. We must be wary and suspicious, while retaining a level of innocence and naivety. This is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith, one that is behavioral not doctrinal. But only in following Jesus' advice will we be able to see clearly through the fog of hypocrisy and deceit that would blind us.

Finally, Mika's comments to Andre remind us that people are quick to believe what they hear. When we tell someone something they tend to naturally accept it. That places a burden on us to be honest. If we lie, even a white lie told in jest, may be unwittingly taken in faith and cause someone to falter. We must be careful in our words lest we wound a fellow follower of Jesus (1 Cor. 10:23-24), or, worse perhaps, push away someone who does not yet claim Christ.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, April 19, 2010

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt -- sacrificing for career

Director: Peter Hyams, 2009. (PG-13)

What would you do for your job? Alternatively, what would you sacrifice for your career? Hyams focuses on these two key ethical questions in this clumsy crime thriller.

The first time we see CJ Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe) he is in front of the TV camera conducting a live taste test of different coffee brands. Quite a come down for an ace investigative reporter. His plastered smile disappears the moment the red light on the camera fades, and it is clear from his face that he desires something more. His career is stuck in the slow decaffeinated lane.

In the background, though, he is investigating the DA, Martin Hunter (Michael Douglas, The Game). In partnership with his cameraman, Corey Finley (Joel Moore, the Portland actor who was a supporting actor in Avatar), they think they have a scoop on the man who appears a shoo-in for the Louisiana Governor's job at the next election. An attorney who hit a losing streak of cases and faced losing his public office, he suddenly hit gold with a long string of 16+ successive convictions, putting criminals into prison. But in each case, with nothing more than circumstantial evidence, he suddenly produced DNA evidence at the 11th hour that tied the defendant to the crime. CJ believes Hunter fabricated the evidence and had it planted to secure his convictions.

This brings us to the first key question: what would you do for your job? Is there anything that you would do to gain the edge in your career? Gaining an edge is one thing, if it is done ethically with the right motives. But lying and cheating to get ahead is clearly wrong. It breaks laws of the land as well as moral guidelines. Hunter resorted to evidence tampering to gain success, and descended to the level of the criminals he was prosecuting. But would you do something similar in your field? Is it worth the risk? Not to mention the fact that it violates virtually every ethical standard of most religions. As followers of Christ, we are called to love and serve in honesty and integrity (Gal. 5:13). We do that to honor God (1 Cor. 10:31), even if it means we lose the promotion or the election. God's approval is superior to man's (1 Thess. 2:4)!

When CJ discusses his suspicions with his editor, he cannot offer any proof and is ordered off the "case". Of course where would the movie be if he did just that. Instead he pursues a relationship with Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn), an assistant DA who works for Hunter. And he concocts a scheme where he will frame himself for a random murder, and document the DA producing the DNA evidence at the very last minute. In this way he thinks he can complete his investigation, bring it to the spotlight with maximum flair, and win a Pulitzer prize.

The problem with Reasonable Doubt is that is too choppy and cheesy. The first act focuses on CJ and Finley preparing their "Pulitzer Plan". Slow and boring, it seems unnecessary. The second act develops CJ's relationship with Ella, and this is too rapid and awkward. There is no chemistry between the two. Indeed, the acting is poor throughout, using mostly TV actors; even Michael Douglas looks like he is on auto-pilot. Reasonable Doubt is a remake of a 50s movie and feels like a B-movie production. Having said that, the third act, when it gets to the courtroom and beyond, offers some interesting plot twists. Indeed, the conclusion is unexpected and almost makes the movie worth watching to the end.

So why would CJ frame himself for murder? To capture the prize and secure a promotion. He is willing to put everything on the line, including his freedom and his very life, for this goal. In the courtroom his future lies in the hands of the jury of his 12 peers. Later, his future lies in the hands of Ella, as she must choose between her love for CJ and her loyalty to Hunter.

That brings us to the second question: what would you sacrifice for your career? Would you be willing to give up your freedom for your job? Would you put your life at risk for a promotion? Some would answer yes. And some people do, particularly in dangerous professions, like the military. But for those of us in sedentary and safe careers as engineers or electricians, doctors or dentists, nurses or nannies, clerks or cashiers, what would we do for our careers? If we profess Christ, we need to be careful how we answer this question.

As followers of Jesus, we should be ready to give up our lives for Christ. To live for Christ is to die to this world. In general, for those of us not in vocational ministry, our careers and our jobs are important but not critical. They are not important enough that we would sacrifice our family, our lives. We have a mission from God to live out our faith before the eyes of the world in a loving way (Jn. 13:34-35) so that others might smell the sweet fragrance of Jesus (2 Cor. 2:16) and choose to find out more (Psa. 34:8). When we put business and money before this mission, in an ambitious desire to advance, we are really sacrificing our faith. That is not a good trade-off. Faith and family should come before career advancement.

When Reasonable Doubt ends we discover what Ella chooses and what CJ accomplishes. And we see that sacrificing for career is an empty, though costly sacrifice. As Matthew said in his gospel, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul" (Matt. 16:26).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bottle Rocket -- playing with fireworks, avoiding adulthood

Director: Wes Anderson, 1996. (R)

What is the great American dream? And how do we attain it? Bottle Rocket explores these questions and more. But not in the ways we normally think of when we contemplate such concepts.

Most cult classics are the early work of a director or actor (think Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's third film, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Tim Curry in his first role). These films were often bombs when they came out but emerge over time as critical or even foundational in the auteur's philosophy. Bottle Rocket is one such classic and introduced the world to three Texans: Wes Anderson, and brothers Luke and Owen Wilson.

Originally made as a 13 minute black and white short, it was shown at the 1994 Sundance Festival and garnered attention, but more importantly money ($7M). This allowed Anderson and Owen Wilson, friends from the University of Texas, to write the longer script. But their longer film tanked at a screening causing them to be snubbed by Sundance and forcing them to rewrite the script, particularly the opening segment,.The final version is this quirky and off-beat comedy that some critics consider Anderson's best film, even though it was his debut.

We meet Anthony (Luke Wilson) in a mental institution. He is leaving, having spent time there voluntarily following exhaustion or a nervous breakdown. But instead of walking out the front door, he climbs down a rope-ladder made of bed-linens because his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) believes he is helping to bust him out. Anthony does not want to burst Dignan's bubble!

Dignan and Anthony are joined by their friend Bob (Robert Musgrave) as a trio of would-be criminals bent on a life of crime. Dignan is the "mastermind" and has plotted a crime spree that will put them on the map; or at least make them visible to local crime boss Mr. Henry (James Caan). If Dignan is the brains and Anthony is the brawn, Bob's main qualification is that he has a car and hence can be the getaway driver. These three low-life losers are striving to be gangsters; some might describe them as misfit mobsters.

The tagline says it all: they're not really criminals, but everybody's got to have a dream. Dignan is the only one who has a dream. And his great American dream is to become somebody, a criminal somebody. Unlike many who have supersized dreams, hopelessly unrealistic, his is small-sized, easily attainable. A poignant picture of the smallness of his dreams comes when he arrives on a motorcycle to persuade Dignan to join him in a final caper. This motorcycle is a mini-bike, barely big enough for him to ride on.

Yet Anderson offers a celebration of dreaming. Too often we lose our dreams in the cynical world of reality and adulthood. But this is not necessary. We can dream, big dreams as well as little dreams. We can venture after things that are within reach. These give us hope. And hope does not disappoint, it keeps us alive (Rom. 5:5).
To accomplish our dreams we need to plan. That is so true. An early scene makes this clear. As they "escape" the mental institution on a bus, Dignan shows Anthony his notebook full of plans. There are short-term plans and long-term plans. Then there are 50-year plans, and 75-year plans! He is totally confident in his capabilities. In actuality, though, he is a bumbling idiot, unable to execute a plan if his life depended on it. And his plans go wrong even from the start.

Planning and organization is critical to achieving our dreams. Jesus talked about making plans (Lk. 14:28). Yet plans must be flexible, quickly changed as the realities of life assail them. When we fail to plan, we plan to fail. But when we plan and hold rigidly to that plan, despite changing circumstances, we are also prone to fail. Both short and long-term plans are important, but we cannot predict what will happen from day to day. James, the biblical writer, addresses this, when he said: "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 must be willing to give up or modify our plans constantly.

The trio's crime-spree culminates, initially, in the robbery of a bookstore, always known to be a storehouse of treasures (though not necessarily monetary). As they go on the lam, they stop at a Texan roadside trailer to buy fireworks and bottle rockets. Fleeing quietly to avoid capture, they noisily set off these rockets from their car while they are driving!

The Bottle Rocket of the title is used as an effective double metaphor. First, it describes the kinetic energy of life. Like the rockets that explode in an instant of energetic excitement, showering the viewer with a colorful display that dissolves away, life is short yet filled with wonder. Life is viewed as a temporary, but colorful, attraction. Shakespeare put it this way, in Macbeth: "Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The apostle James, continuing his thought mentioned above, said, "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (Jas. 4:14). If this is true, then we need to make the most of the short span of time we have on this earth. In particular, we need to make sure we connect to the author of Life, so that our lives have meaning and purpose.

The second metaphoric use of the bottle rocket is the misfit's unwillingness to embrace adulthood. Fireworks are for kids. The heroes' desire to buy these rockets and let them off from their vehicle demonstrates their lack of responsibility and avoidance of growing up. They are still just boys in men's clothes. Their dangerous adventures belie their naiveté.

Indeed, both main characters are still locked up in childish or idiotic logic. During one theft, as the cops are on the way, Dignan points out, "They'll never catch me . . . because I'm @*#! innocent." Naive he is; morally innocent he is not. In the bookstore theft Dignan says to the store manager in a fit of bravado, "A bigger bag you idiot!" But the manager recognizes the kid inside, and says, "Don't call me an idiot, you punk" and Dignan sheepishly retorts, "Do you have a bigger bag for maps and atlases . . . sir?" His macho exterior is a front for his childlike nature within. And Anthony is bedeviled by the fear of failure, "Grace [his sister] thinks I'm a failure." Neither have yet grown up; both are clinging to the freedom of youthful irresponsibility.

Anderson's films (e.g., The Darjeeling Limited) are all about characters and their journey, and this first one is no different. The improbability of the crime spree and the consequent escapades all function to show off these three lovable characters. They are all searching for something, and they succeed in finding it. Yet for all of them, success comes in small sizes. Dignan finds direction and accomplishes his goal, although little and ludicrous. At the end he is satisfied with his lot, relishing his moment of glory, even forgiving the one who caused him grief (confer Jesus forgiving his crucifiers from the cross, Lk. 23:34). Anthony finds a woman to love. The motel-maid from Paraguay Inez (Lumi Cavazos, Like Water for Chocolate) not only brings joy to his life, she causes him to want to grow up and accept responsibility. And Bob gains respect from his brother (Andrew Wilson, yet another Wilson brother), who has bullied him for far too long.

Martin Scorsese was quoted in Esquire magazine, saying that this film is a "picture without a trace of cynicism that obviously grew out of its director's affection for his characters in particular and for people in general." We can appreciate this affection and laugh at these endearing small time hoods, yet at the same time cull lessons from their journey. Bottle rockets, anyone?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs -- communicating I love you

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2009. (PG)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a very fun family film that, though light-hearted, has some depth. It is more than a one-course dinner; it is the full meal-deal. Still not up to the high-bar standard set by Pixar films, both artistically and narratively, Sony Pictures Animation (Monster House, Open Season) has improved its credentials in this blossoming genre. The story is creative, the animation cool, the humor clean, and the voice talent very capable. All in all, it is four-star worthy.

We meet Flint Lockwood (voice of Bill Hader) as a kid in school. A typical nerd, he is enamored with inventors and inventions. Adorning his bedroom wall are posters, but not of rock stars. These are of scientists: Tesla and Einstein. His heroes are the creators who have impacted society enduringly, not with transitory music.But as a kid, this is tantamount to social suicide, and he is mocked and ridiculed. His invention of spray-on shoes, to overcome the problem of untied shoelaces, solves the issue but leaves him with permanent "shoes" . . . and a lasting badge of his ineptness.

Cut ahead a decade and Flint is still inventing things that don't work or contribute to his town. Still an outcast, he "works" in a science lab constructed above his parents' house, a crazy contraption that is reached via an elevator in a porta-potty. His mother has died and his father Tim (voice of James Caan) wants him to come work in his fishing tackle store. But Flint wants to pursue his dream of being a genius inventor and somehow saving the world.

Cloudy portrays a young man wanting to contribute to society. Despite being a social outcast, he wants to make a difference for the good. We all want this. We want our lives to count for something. We want to contribute, to help make things better. God has made us this way. We were made to function socially in community. We all have different gifts and talents (Rom. 12:4-8). As we accept this, we can exercise these God-given gifts and talents for the benefit of ourselves (as our livelihood), our neighbors (who we know, or should know, personally), and our broader community. Like the parts of a body, as we work together we enhance the common good (1 Cor. 12).

Flint's town, though, is in the midst of an economic depression. Swallow Falls is on a small island in the middle of the ocean and has relied on its sardine cannery as its main source of income. When the world woke up and realized sardines are yucky, their economy went into mercurial meltdown, leaving the islanders with megatons of sardines to eat or dispose of. And there are very few ways you can eat sardines before you get sick of them, just like the Israelites got tired of manna for 40 years in the desert (Num. 11:6).

To overcome this problem, the town mayor (voice of Bruce Campbell) comes up with a scheme to turn the liability into an asset by creating an entertainment theme park out of sardines, much like Disneyland but with the canned fish. But during the grand opening celebrations, misfit Flint manages to mar the events further ostracizing himself in the eyes of his fellow townsfolk. To make matters worse, a national TV news channel has sent an intern weather reporter Sam Sparks (voice of Anna Faris) to cover the ceremony.

If Flint offers a perspective on contributing to society, Sam offers one on conforming to society. She is all you would expect from a meteorologist. Perky, pretty, blond with big bright eyes: an airhead with her head in the clouds. But later we discover the truth of Sam Sparks: she is a nerd-wannabe. As a kid, she had big glasses and a ponytail, and a yearning for the scientific tools of weather-forecasting. But she realized that others would look down on her if she followed her desires like this, so she adopted the expected visage and characteristics of a successful weather person. In short, she conformed to society's expectations.

The Apostle Paul has strong words for followers of Christ on this matter: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:2). The world wants to mold us into its image, making us who it wants us to be. Sam understood this, and realized to get the job of her dreams she would have to sacrifice who she really was on the altar of corporate expectation. She gave up her real personality and took on a fake one, just so she could be in front of the cameras. Likewise, the world wants to grind us down, tearing us away from Jesus.

Jesus intends to inaugurate a new kingdom, one where we can be who we are. To do this, we must allow ourselves to be transformed from within. We have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), and the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and can have our own minds renewed. By meditating on the Word of God and drawing on the Spirit's power, we can experience this transformation and turn our back on cultural conformation. Sam ultimately finds this out, too, to her benefit.

Flint and Sam come into contact when his latest invention, a machine that transforms water into food, goes out of control and blasts into the atmosphere . . . where there are clouds full of water. The first "rainfall" is cheeseburgers, and is seen as a miracle, like manna from heaven. And when Flint realizes he can control what is delivered from the sky, he begins to take orders. The mayor even sees a new way to exploit this apparent blessing. But predictably, matters get complicated until chaos ensues threatening the entire globe. The world needs a savior, and Flint is that man!

Against this big picture scenario, the real heart and theme of the film is much smaller and down-home: communicating "I love you". Flint's mom was a good communicator, but his unibrowed dad has a different communication style: "Son, not every sardine was meant to swim," he tells Flint early on. But Flint replies, "I don't understand fishing metaphors, dad!" They are not on the same wavelength. His dad is an uninspiring and practical man, who goes about his work with an air of defeatism. He does not understand Flint's world or his dreams. There is more than a generational gap, here; there is a vocational chasm. Flint cannot understand his dad's aphorisms; Tim cannot understand his son's inventions.

Another character, Earl (voice of Mr. T), the local martial arts-practicing policeman, presents quite the opposite picture: "I love you son," he tells his boy. "I know dad. You tell me every day." Plain and clear, he tells his son in words he understand, words every son wants to hear from his dad. Even grown-up sons are like little boys who want to hear that their dad loves them and is proud of them.

As a father, I am called to raise my children to be the people God made them to be (Prov. 22:6). Yet, I am called to do this in a spirit of love and encouragement. All children are different, they are unique no two exactly alike. What works for one may not work for another, and I am finding this out personally. But somehow a son needs to feel the paternal love and admiration. And we fathers must strive to find the love language that works for our children, especially our sons.

One author said men are from Mars and women from Venus in their communication styles. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs says we may all be from different planets. The trick is to find which planet your son is from and learn that language. That, or invent a magic translator like Flint!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Moon -- effects of isolation

Director: Duncan Jones, 2009.

Forty years ago pop-singer David Bowie came out with his second album "Space Oddity", which was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Four decades later Bowie's son Duncan Jones pays homage to that movie classic with his first full length feature, Moon, from a story he wrote himself.

With a budget of a mere $5M, lunch money to some directors (think James Cameron, director of the 2009 sci-fi smash hit Avatar), Jones has come up with a striking film that is as much psychological drama as it is science fiction. With his limited resources, he has eschewed the wonders of cgi and focused on more classical effects, like miniatures. But this is not a criticism. In fact it works very well, and gives this film an old-fashioned feel allowing it to be compared well with movies in this genre, such as 2001 and Blade Runner.

Moon is virtually a one-man show built around Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell (although the voice of Kevin Spacey is heard as his computer companion). Rockwell carries the movie on his shoulders, showing us he has the acting chops to do so and be in front of the camera for almost the entire film.

Bell is the sole inhabitant of a lunar station on the dark side of the moon. He has a three year contract with Lunar Industries that is almost up. His job is to harvest the helium-3 found there, the source of clean and abundant fuel for earth-dwellers, and then rocket back to earth the tanks as they get filled.

With two weeks left to go, he is counting the days until he can return to earth to be reunited with his wife and young daughter, who was just born when he left on this mission. Unlike in "Space Oddity", where Bowie sings, "Ground control to major Tom," there is no contact between ground control (or Lunar Industries) and Bell, as the satellite link has been damaged. So, Bell is completely alone, apart from GERTY, an artificial intelligent computer, and infrequent video recordings sent to him from earth.

The unintentional yet prolonged isolation has taken its toll. With nothing else to do but wood carving, routine exercising and plant growing, Bell has started to talk to himself, and to his plants. He also starts to have hallucinations. He is beginning to crack up.

Moon opens us up to the question of what effects long-term isolation has on a person, particularly his psyche, but it does not really answer its own question. It is clear that depriving a person from human interaction for an extended period will cause some damage, but how much is the big question. With the future possibility of manned space flights to mars or beyond, and today's orbital space-station a reality, these are legitimate questions. Man is a relational being, and needs social engagement to thrive and grow emotionally. We even find our true identity through relationship, but specifically our relationship with God, our creator (Jn. 1:12).

The film has been compared to 2001. Both have an astronaut alone on a ship or in a station. Both have a computer. Where HAL was soft and creepy, becoming malevolent, GERTY is soft and friendly, not malevolent; think HAL with a heart. As he says, "I'm here to keep you safe, Sam. I want to help you." And he does. Also, the first half of the film is filled with classical music, just like 2001 was with its inimitable Strauss score (both Richard and Johann). The long slow tracking shots used to capture the eeriness of the moon also parallel the early slow shots of the space station in 2001.

When Bell goes out in a space rover to check on one of the harvesters, he gets into an accident, Perhaps this is partly due to his mental deterioration. But when he wakes up to the friendly tones of GERTY in the sick-bay he comes face to face with a discovery that sends him reeling. His world is not as he thought it was. The second half of the film is a mystery that is an enjoyable journey of self-discovery.

If the scene-setting first half is slow and moody and 2001-like, the mystery-solving second half is more akin to Blade Runner. And just like in that earlier film, memory implants and identity take center stage. But Blade Runner is a much better film for exploring identity, and Moon quickly focuses attention on the baffling puzzle that Bell finds himself in.

As the film concludes, we realize the second question Jones puts before us is what will big business do for a profit? Is it ethical what Bell finds himself caught up in? Though introduced in a futurist film, this is a question relevant to any age. If business puts profit before people, deceiving and lying to gain an edge, this is ethically wrong and the sign of a morally bankrupt company.

Jones and Rockwell do a fine job of crafting a science fiction film that delivers on both the aesthetic and ethical levels!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Brothers Bloom -- identity and an unwritten life

Director: Rian Johnson, 2008. (PG-13)

Johnson's second movie as writer-director (his first was Brick) is a caper movie built around a pair of con-men, the brothers Bloom: Stephen (Mark Ruffalo, Zodiac) and Bloom (Adrien Brody, The Pianist). But unlike most caper movies, the con is not the point. The emphasis is on the brothers' journey through life, and the film offers a discussion on life and identity.

Stephen, the older of the two, is the creator of the cons. He carefully scripts the plot with a writer's flair. For him, every little detail matters. At the center of his schemes is Bloom, the hero. He plays out the roles written for him. And when the con reaches its apex, the mark departs leaving the brothers to celebrate with a victory party before separating for a while. Their only other partner is the mysterious and almost silent Japanese woman, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), whose penchant is blowing things up.

For their final con, Stephen focuses on Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a lonely and eccentric New Jersey heiress. Living in a huge mansion, her pastime is borrowing other people's hobbies. When she finds a hobby she finds interesting, she teaches it to herself from books. That is her life. So Stephen writes Bloom as a smuggler who falls in love with Penelope, and brings her into their latest smuggling scheme.

Weisz has excellent chemistry with Brody and the acting is good throughout. Ancillary characters appear, including Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) as one of the con artists and Maximillian Schell as Diamond Dog, the arch-enemy of the brothers. But the plot is mushy, like a shaggy-dog story.

One of the issues Johnson raises is control. Bloom resists role-playing. He has been living his life through the identities of the people in the cons. He has been living a written life. What he wants is an unwritten life, one where he has control. He despises living under the control of another, even if it is his brother.

Do we seek independence and self-control? Sometimes we feel the burden of living under the authority of another. Our natural tendency is to want to throw off authority and define our own life. But what is the place for God? Where does he fit? Proverbs 21:1 says, "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases." God oversees the course of life to bring matters to his sovereign plan. Life, like it or not, employs a script written for us by the Writer.

Penelope contradicts Bloom's philosophy: "There is no such thing as an unwritten life, only a badly written one." Indeed, as she excitedly embraces the smuggling caper, not knowing she is being conned, she exclaims, "I know I'm pretending to be a smuggler but what you don't know is that I'm a real smuggler because I tell it like I own it." She wants to write her own life and as she does, she does so with confidence and thus writes it into "reality."

Penelope is right, in a sense. All lives are written, by someone. They are written well, or they are written poorly. As we align our lives with the Writer, God, our lives make more sense and become better written. When we live apart from God, not knowing him or deliberately ignoring him, our lives retain less meaning and are thus badly written.

The film's introduction shows the backstory of the two brothers. As boys, they are moved from home to home, until they discover their knack of the con. In their first major scam, as kids, Stephen writes Bloom into a puppy love story with a girl he likes. At its pinnacle Bloom forgets the caper and wants the relationship with the girl. But it cannot be, and his "love" is lost. Likewise, we later hear of Penelope's childhood where, through circumstances, she is forced to live apart from other kids in the large and lonely mansion. Both Bloom and Penelope have been impacted by these childhood moments.

Which brings us to the theme of identity. Bloom does not know who he really is. Director Rian Johnson asks the question, are we defined by our role? Clearly the answer is no, because Bloom has had many roles and has no distinct identity. His various roles have not defined him. What about childhood? How does that impact identity? It plays a role certainly, as seen in Bloom and Penelope. We can understand this, too, as our childhood has a significant part in who we are. The families we grow up in do shape us. But that is not the whole story. Our relationships play the dominant role. My identity is not found in my work, but in my relationship to God. I am a unique child of God (Rom. 8:16).

Toward the end of the film, as the con develops, the lines between reality and deception blur, for both the view and for Bloom. We don't know what is happening, as he does not. But Stephen leaves us with two thoughts. The first is on cons: "The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted." Stephen wanted to write the perfect con, the perfect written life. Bloom wanted to find himself, his real person. Penelope wanted to find something or someone beyond mere hobbies. If they all get what they want, including the mark (Penelope in this case), is the con morally acceptable? If the mark willingly gives us the money and thinks he or she has gained something, is this still ethically wrong? This comes down to ends and means. The con is a deception, a ruse. It is breach of confidence; after all that is what the con-game is all about. Lying. Deceiving. Stealing. How can this be OK, even if all get what they want? It can't.

The second point is one to close on. Stephen says to Bloom, "You were the only audience I ever needed." He wrote his cons for an audience of one, his brother. He relished the appreciation of the other members of the con, but really sought only the approval of his brother. We are like Stephen, though we are not writing lives for others. We play to an audience each and every day. But if we are followers of Jesus, that audience should be God. We play to an audience of One. We should be living our lives motivated by our desire to please and serve this One who can write for us a better life.

So, how is your life? Is it badly written? Do you want it to be better scripted? Then seek the Lord while he can still be found (Isa. 55:6). Then choose to serve this audience of One. And find your true identity as his beloved child (Jn. 1:12).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Accidental Tourist -- running from life


Director: Lawrence Kasdan, 1988. (PG)

The Accidental Tourist is a slow and small film. Combining elements of romance, drama and comedy it blends these together to produce a tender and somewhat bitter-sweet film that leaves the viewer reflecting on life's ups and downs.

The protagonist is Macon Leary (William Hurt, The Village), a Baltimore travel writer whose guidebooks helps business travelers transit without trouble, with the minimum of fuss and as little impact as possible. He can tell them where to find hamburgers in Paris, or how much laundry soap packets to take to Atlanta. But he can't deal with his own life. He is sleep-walking through reality.

Married to Sarah (Kathleen Turner), their marriage is on the rocks, and he doesn't even know it. Having lost a son in a fast-food robbery-shooting a year earlier, Macon has retreated into himself. He has not worked through his grief. His isolation has caused Sarah to think she needs separation from him, perhaps to connect with another, to come to terms with this heavy loss.

Macon summarizes his philosophy of life in a comment about films: "I don't really care for movies; they make everything seem so close up." Life, up close and personal, is a scary thing for Macon. So he avoids it, by distancing himself from people and things. Even his books focus on how to avoid interacting with others.

Life will always have adversity, peaks and valleys. That is expected. If we avoid the valleys through self-isolation, we miss out on the high notes too. Life is meant to be lived in relationship. When God made Adam, he saw that he was alone and that it was not good (Gen. 2:18). The only time this phrase (not good) occurs in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis is related to Adam's isolation. So God made Adam a companion, Eve (Gen. 2:22-24). Apart from friendships, life becomes colorless and dour, even depressing. As Macon says, "Now I'm far from everyone. I don't have any friends anymore."

Into his life, though, comes Muriel Pritchard (Geena Davis, Thelma and Louise). When he needs to go on another business trip, his wife is no longer available to care for his dog, a Welsh corgi, and so resorts to a boarding kennel, and Muriel is the dog-trainer managing the place. She is his total opposite. Flighty, friendly, outgoing, gawky, she is a single mom who is willing to push for what she wants. And surprisingly she wants Macon. He, though, wants nothing to do with her.

After Sarah leaves him, Macon moves in with his siblings, a curious bunch who are as aloof as he is. Together, they settle into a tired routine that could almost be considered non-living, an uneventful existence. Macon thinks he needs Sarah but she has not helped him. What he really needs is Muriel. She helps him break out of the suffocating rut of this routine.

Muriel runs after Macon much like God runs after us. She offers him unconditional love and a tolerance for his shortcomings. Isn't this what most of us really want, deep-down? God offers exactly this. His love has no strings attached. Once our sins are forgiven, they are cast aside, as far as east is from west (Psa. 103:12). He keeps no record of our wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5).

Macon puts his finger on what is happening to him as his relationship with Muriel develops: "I'm beginning to think that maybe it's not just how much you love someone. Maybe what matters is who you are when you're with them." He loved Sarah. But ultimately this did not help his marriage. He was not available to her emotionally in the latter part of their relationship. He needed to be there with her. Muriel showed him who he could be. Though it led to an adulterous relationship, he needed Muriel to be able to develop as a person.

Who do we need to grow as people? Are we allowing our spouses to help us grow and blossom, thereby changing and maturing into the people God wants us to be? If we are not, we run the risk of becoming like Macon, looking outside the marriage for meaningful relationships. God has created the institution of marriage as the nucleus of human relationships. As we open up to one another, our intimacy grows and our characters develop. We do not need a Muriel in our lives if we are willing to be open to the Sarahs we are married to.

Geena Davis plays a terrific Muriel, and worthily won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She has a shotgun approach, spewing words and thoughts a mile a minute. Hers is a zany spontaneity that is balanced by practical ideas that work.

One of her practical ideas causes me to stop and reflect on its application for my life. Teaching Macon to train his dog, she tells him to cluck when the dog does something right, as an encouragement, a means of positive feedback. How often do I fail to do this when training my children? Encouragement is critical. Yet, I find myself criticizing more than I praise. I can learn from Muriel. I need to cluck more at my children!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, April 2, 2010

Monsieur Hire -- jumping to conclusions

Director: Patrice Leconte, 1989. (PG-13)

Although his ninth feature, this was the one which brought Leconte international attention after it was shown at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. Slow and short, this French psychological drama is part twisted love story, part suspense enigma, part sexual obsession.

Pigeons, mice and people. Together they form a metaphoric picture of the solitary Monsieur Hire (Michel Blane). Middle-aged and balding he lives alone in a small provincial apartment. He dislikes people, but he keeps mice in a cage in his tailoring workshop. These are his only companions. He stops to feed the pigeons in the park. The birds that most people find a pesky nuisance he finds friendly.

His main form of entertainment is watching Alice (Sondrine Bonnaire), the pretty young woman who lives opposite his apartment. His window overlooks hers, and she never closes her curtains. So he has a voyeuristic view of her, waking and sleeping, eating and dressing. And he sees her passionate affair with her boyfriend Emile (Luc Thuillier). All the time M. Hire barely moves, remains in the shadows, hardly living.

Almost 15 years later Leconte directed a very similar film, Intimate Strangers, that also starred Sandrine Bonnaire. He had certainly developed as a director and his later film is more engaging. In that movie her loneliness intersected with that of a financial adviser, and he explored the themes of loneliness and voyeurism. These are clearly common themes in his films. Here, though, M. Hire and Alice don't interact for a good part of the film.

M. Hire is not so much lonely as reclusive and maladjusted. He seems resigned to his situation. His voyeuristic spying on his neighbor, creepy as it is, seems harmless. He has no malicious intent. He just wants to watch her. (She should have invested in heavy drapes, but that would have pulled the curtain down on the movie.) Yet, he is certainly not living life to its fullest. He is on the sidelines looking in. He is a spectator rather than a player. Life is meant to be lived. God gave us life, and we can only experience it fully and freshly if we come to Jesus: "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly!" (Jn. 10:10)

Apart from his interactions with people at his work as a tailor, his only other social interplay is when he goes bowling. He is something of a star bowler, but seems to go to put on a show, not to engage other people. Here he is player not spectator, but it is once again a solo act. He is still hiding in his shell, not letting anyone see who he is, not living the kind of life the gospel calls us into.

When a young woman is found naked and murdered nearby, M. Hire becomes the prime suspect. The police inspector (Andre Wilms), the fourth and final main character in this claustrophobic movie, descends on M. Hire and seems bent on bringing him to justice rather than solving the case. Why is this? It is due to his behavior. Maladjusted with no friends, he must be a middle-age murderer.

M. Hire's neighbors pour vitriolic scorn on him and find him guilty in the court of public opinion. Because he is different, he is seen as guilty They, and the detective, jump to conclusions based on personal dislike and distrust. Yet there is nothing objective to warrant this, nothing factual. It is subjective and unsupportable.

As M. Hire comes under more and more suspicion, Alice sees him and comes to meet him. In the second half of the film, their interaction develops in surprising ways. In some sense, she is as strange and lonely as he, though in different ways. And Leconte slowly brings the narrative along to an unexpected conclusion.

It is true that M. Hire is unlikable. He more or less says so himself. He does not like people, they don't like him. As the major protaganist, Leconte takes a risk with this. But just because someone is strange and different does not mean they are pariahs, to be shunned. Leconte forces us to consider how we deal with people we may not like. Jesus came across many people he probably did not like. Some scorned him, some were lepers, unclean and diseased. Others were social pariahs, like tax-collectors who were ostracized by their fellow countrymen.

Zacchaeus was one such person. A chief tax collector, he had ripped off the local Israelites and become wealthy. Unliked, despised, rejected, yet when Jesus entered Jericho Zacchaeus determined to see him and climbed a sycamore tree to make sure he did. Instead of rebuking him when he saw him in the tree, Jesus accepted him and even invited himself over for tea! (Lk. 19:1-9) And Jesus declared, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." Jesus was concerned about all people, not just the likeable. We should put aside our petty prejudices and seek to love our neighbors, even when we don't like them.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs