Monday, May 31, 2010

Brothers -- surviving war

Director: Jim Sheridan, 2009. (R)

"I don't know who said 'only the dead have seen the end of war'. I have seen the end of war. The question is: can I live again?" When Sam Cahill says this it pretty much sums up this movie. Not so much an antiwar film, as some critics have claimed, Sheridan's movie explores the effects of war on soldiers and their families. It explores the bonds between brothers.

Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) has it all. A former high school football star, he married his cheerleader sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman, The Phantom Menace), and has two little girls at home. In contrast, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rendition) is a loser, and is just getting out of prison for armed robbery. They could not be more different. But they are tied together by blood.

The early scenes emphasize the closeness of these brothers. Life may have dealt them diametrically opposite hands, but their relationship keeps them together. It is Sam who goes to pick up Tommy when he is released from prison. Brothers are meant to be close: "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (Prov. 17:17). This is not always so, but when they are something special is present.

A recent movie, Armored, presented a view of brotherhood of men. But there, the brotherhood was fraternal and ultimately a fraud, destroyed by greed. Here, the brotherhood is familial and upheld, even through trials that should have destroyed it.

Sam is also a Captain in the US Marines. Having already made one tour in Afghanistan, he is being sent back with his troops for a second. While there this time, his helicopter is shot down and he is amongst the fallen, presumed dead. In actuality, he and a fellow Marine private are captured and held prisoner by the Taliban in the mountain caves. While his family back home grieve his loss he is trying to preserve his life and sanity.

As the film moves between the US and Afghanistan, we see Tommy grow up and Grace move on. The "death" of his brother left him wounded and ready to grow up. He recognizes the life his brother had and sees it as something he has missed out on. He begins to establish a relationship with Grace and his nieces. Their improving relationship is juxtaposed with Sam's declining experience. When his captors begin torturing him, the stakes grow until Sam is forced to endure horrors unbearable and to do the unthinkable. When he is eventually rescued and returns home a hero, he is not the same man who left these shores months before.

Brothers is a remake of a 2004 Danish film, Brødre, that follows the same storyline. What makes this version more than just a sentimental Hallmark film is the strength of acting of the three principals. Maguire and Gyllenhaal look like they could be brothers, and they bring a maturity to their roles, not really seen before. Portman, too, is believable as a woman trying to make sense out of loss. They present a powerful picture of change.

The change in the two brothers is highlighted by a contrasting pair of dinner table scenes. Early in the film, Sam's family are eating with his father, Hank (Sam Shepard) and stepmom Isabelle (Bailee Madison), and Tommy, fresh out of prison. Tension fills the air as Tommy and Hank verbally spar until sparks fly and Hank leaves the room. Later, when Sam is back from Afghanistan, a similar dinner has Tommy at ease at the table but Sam stressed out by his daughter playing with a balloon. One will explode and it is not the balloon. At this meal, it is Sam who flies out of the room. As well as contrasting the changes in the two, it also underscores how often dysfunctional family dynamics emerge around dinners, sometimes the only time everyone gets together.

Furthermore, these scenes, especially the first, identifies one of the issues in the Cahill family: favoritism. The favoritism of the father has pushed Tommy away. A former marine himself who saw combat and horror in Nam, Hank thinks the world of Sam and thinks nothing of Tommy. Sam's competitiveness and career has won him this love, while, it seems, Tommy has rebelled against his father by defying authority, even becoming a felon.

Favoritism is a particularly nasty sin. It divides families, where love should be uniting them. It creates deep wounds that scar emotionally and psychologically. In the Old Testament, Joseph's father Jacob favored him over his brothers, giving him the prized multi-colored coat (Gen. 37:3). In their jealousy, his brothers sold him into slavery to push him out of their family (Gen. 37:28). Here, the favoritism of the father brought the two brothers closer but pushed Tommy out of the family in other ways.

Interestingly, Hank's favoritism is partly due to shared experience. Both he and Sam have seen the hell of war and returned. Both came back changed. Demons haunt them. Both turned inward in silence. One scene has Hank, realizing Sam has been traumatized, telling Sam he can talk to him about Afghanistan at any time; this from a person that does not talk about anything!

Brothers.jpg Brothers image   by bambidahlIt is the horrors of war and torture that we come back to, though. Several of the scenes in Afghanistan are intense and brutal, gripping the viewer by the throat and choking back the emotions. When we send young men and women to battle, even the modern-day guerrilla or terrorist warfare, they will face things that they may not be able to handle. War is hell. But sometimes war is necessary. Brothers does not dispute this. But it does question how to survive war. The only way to survive may be to detach emotionally and compartmentalize. It is no wonder that veterans returning from these places have a tough time fitting back into normal society.

By the end, we realize Sam has seen the end of war. But the answer to his question of whether he can live again, is in his own hands. It is his choice.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 28, 2010

Goodbye Solo -- friendship, family, and hope

Director: Ramin Bahrani, 2008. (R)

Goodbye Solo, winner of the Best Film award at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, is a study of hope and hopelessness, of the American Dream, set against the improbable friendship of two men in Winston North Carolina. As an independent film, it defies Hollywood expectations and leaves many questions unanswered, ultimately unsatisfying for some. What keeps us watching is the dazzling smile and the likableness of Solo, a protagonist we care about.

Solo (Soulemane Sy Savane) is a cab driver, cruising the dark midnight streets when most people need a ride. When he picks up William (Red West) to take him to the movies, William makes him an offer. He will give him $1000, with an immediate down-payment, if he will take him on a 2-hour drive, one-way only, to Blowing Rock in two weeks. This place, Blowing Rock, is an isolated peak in the beautiful wilderness where updrafts cause objects tossed out into the wind to be blown back so they fly upwards, defying gravity.

William is old and clearly depressed, wrapping up his affairs, moving out of his apartment. Solo is young, trying to move up in life, with his first child on the way. Recognizing William's despair, Solo tries to befriend him and to "save" him from whatever his future event may include.

Bahrani's film taps into the inherent need that we all have for friendship. We are creatures of community. We were made to have friends (Gen. 1:27). Apart from family and friends, our lives become lonely, lives of quiet desperation lived with no one to know us or our dreams. The problem with this film, though, is the friendship is forced. William is not looking for a relationship and pushes back hard on Solo. Indeed, a number of questions come to mind, such as why Solo would sacrifice his own family for a friendship with a man he hardly knows and who does not want his friendship?

The dreams of the two men are, like the men themselves, a study in contrasts. William's American Dream has dissolved into ashes. His family is gone, there is no one left for him. Solo, on the other hand, is aspiring to a new career in the airlines, and has a beautiful woman and step-daughter waiting for him. An immigrant from Senegal, his American Dream is just beginning.

Dreams are what keep us going. When we can see beyond today we are motivated to arise and work. We have a carrot that keeps us going. Dreams can be big or small, but they are inspiring and typically uplifting. They bring color into our days. Apart from dreams, we slip into staleness, the rut of routine, and life turns gray.

Goodbye Solo explores the value of family. William had a wife, but that was long ago. He has slept alone for too many years. He is filled with regret. Without family he has little to live for. Solo, on the other hand, has a family back home in Africa, and a budding family in America. For a man with family globally, his name is antithetical to his situation! He has a plan. He will earn money and send it home to Senegal to provide for his relatives there. Then when he is old, like William, he will return to his homeland and these relatives will care for him. His retirement plan is his family. They are his 401K!

Too often in America, we sacrifice our families for jobs, careers. We leave our parents and our extended families in search of wealth and the American Dream. But when our parents grow gray and need help, we put them in facilities, old people's homes, where they can be antiseptically cared for by others. All we need to do is sign the monthly check. That can salve our conscience. If we do this for them, won't our children do likewise for us? Will we end our lives in this way? Or worse, will be abandoned by our families to slip off into the sunset like William? Better to build a family that is community, one that loves us and will be with us in our golden years, so that when that day comes we will depart the earth surrounded by loved ones, knowing they care for us as we cared for them.

Ultimately, though, life is about more than dreams. Life is about hope. Dreams come and go. They dwindle and disappear, as William's did. But hope, like faith, is about the unseen (Heb. 11:1). Hope encompasses the afterlife. We can have hope both for this life and for the next if we turn to Jesus. He is not the American Dream; he is the great Christian Dream. He offers us life (Jn. 10:10), here and now. He offers us hope of a future (Jer. 29:11). He calls us to live this life with him and for his kingdom (Matt. 6:33). We can make a difference now, and then in our last days we can look ahead to living with him forever in heaven.

As Goodbye Solo closes, we see a spectacular scene of raw, elemental nature, beautifully framed for the camera. We ponder the power of nature and the brevity of life. And perhaps we consider if we are more like William or Solo. Will we be hopeless, filled with regret? Or will we be filled with satisfaction and hope? Who will be saying goodbye to us, when we face our Blowing Rock?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 24, 2010

Armored -- sinful brothers, Christian killers

Director: Nimród Antal, 2009. (PG-13)

Armored is a man's movie. Bleak and brutal, the violence and armored car chase will appeal more to men. But that is not my point. The plain fact is that there is only one woman with a speaking role in this film, and she is a nameless social worker who appears on screen for less than 4 minutes of this 88 minute B-movie.

This female social worker shows up at the home of Ty Hackett (Columbus Short), our protagonist, ready to commit Ty's younger brother to foster care. Ty, a decorated veteran of the Iraq war, is really down on his luck. He is the legal guardian to his brother, as their parents died recently. With their death he inherited a mountain of debt and he is receiving foreclosure notices from his bank. His kid brother is skipping school and spray painting the kitchen. He almost visibly buckles under the weight of these things.

Ty is training to be a guard with Eagle Shield Security, manning the armored cars that transport cash between banks. Under the mentoring of his godfather Mike (Matt Dillon), he is fitting in with this group of "tough guys." An early scene shows these two and four other guards, including Quinn (Jean Reno, Jet Lag) and Baines (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix) drinking together in a bar after a typical male-bonding prank. Ty is clearly struggling with his killing deeds in Iraq, but to the others, especially Baines, this is a badge of manhood.

The first act portrays a picture of the brotherhood of workers, especially those in a dangerous occupation where they must depend on one another. They are a band of brothers. Ty's own family is gone; they are a replacement, with Mike acting as a surrogate father. Their easy bantering displays a camaraderie that most men want. We are made for this. We need family, we need friends. Often we need to blow off some steam and we do this with other men in story-telling and mock competition, sometimes over beer or coffee. The writer of Proverbs understands this, and tells us, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (Prov. 17:17). Friends we often refer to as brothers are those who we can turn to when we are in need or desperate.

So when Ty is desperate, with foreclosure looming and foster care for his brother hanging over his head, he turns to Mike. And Mike has a plan. He and the other 4 friends are planning to rob two of the armored trucks the next day. With the bi-annual alignment of schedules they will be transporting $42M, enough to share and solve Ty's problems . . . . if he will join them. Despite misgivings, after all Ty is supposedly a fundamentally honest man, he commits to this plan on the condition that no one will get hurt.

As act two gets underway, the robbery occurs but plans get compromised and things start to go south in a hurry. With half the money hidden and the other half left in one of the trucks, Ty's conscience kicks in and he locks himself in the second truck. He has separated himself from the rest of the gang, and they are not prepared to accept this. The remainder of the film deals with this Mexican-standoff of sorts.

This "family" of Ty's slowly and surely turns in on itself and disintegrates. Greed is the culprit. Wanting the money and wanting escape, they cannot see beyond violence to accomplish their ends. Sin is like this. Once we have embraced sin, a simple lie here, a minor theft there, our character is compromised and sins start to accumulate. Mike's undying love and concern for Ty transforms into concern to see Ty die. He does not care for his "friend"; he only cares for his money. The apostle Paul said, "Do not be misled: 'Bad company corrupts good character' " (1 Cor. 15:33). When we hang around with the wrong crowd, as Ty did, they will seek to seduce us to their view and their values. He was almost carried away by his "friends" into a felonious sin, but saw the light early enough.

Armored is a short and easily forgettable film. The characters are not overly developed and the plot is full of holes. The criminals' plans seem almost ludicrous; how would they really get away with their scheme? And to throw the idea at Ty the night before the heist is simply implausible. There are some moments of excitement, but this is a film for switching off the brain or locking it away in the armored truck of our cranium until the credits roll.

One character, Palmer (Amaury Nolasco), appears to be a Christian. He is seen reading his Bible and praying. Yet he is enthusiastically amongst the thieves. And it gets worse. Like Judas (Lk. 22:48) he betrays his friend, silently thrusting the dagger into another, making him a thief and a killer. Is this a caricature? Can a person be a Christian killer? Or is this an oxymoron?

We remember that the apostle Paul (when he was named Saul) himself was a killer, or accomplice (Acts 8:1). But that was before he met Jesus (Acts 9:3). After his encounter he was a changed man, who suffered more than most apostles (2 Cor. 11:23-29) in his desire to preach the gospel of forgiveness to the unreached world. A person like Paul, a follower of Jesus, is one who has been touched by grace. He has experienced God's love. How can such a person choose in cold-blood to murder another human being? Jesus said his followers are characterized by love (Jn. 13:35), not murder, hate, lust, greed, or other sinful desires. We are known by our fruit (Jn. 15:8). Palmer's fruit was obvious. He was a killer, not a lover. What is your fruit like?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 21, 2010

Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (M. Hulot's Holiday) -- helping, not running

Director: Jacques Tati, 1953. (G)

This classic French comedy is sub-titled in English. But if you dislike these you need not be put off: this is visual comedy. Slapstick and pantomime abound, as this is reminiscent of the silent-screen comedies of Buster Keaton. Tati directs his second full length feature from his own script and stars as the iconic M. Hulot, a character that he reprised in three subsequent movies.

It is vacation time in France, and M. Hulot takes to the wheel of his sputtering jalopy. He heads for the beach and the shabby hotel where he is staying. This is not the glamorous French riviera; it is rather a typical working-class seaside resort in Brittany. The film is fairly plotless, being built loosely around his vacation and his interactions with the other guests.

The week is full of misadventures for him and these guests. There are some laug/>h-out-loud scenes and others that go too long and fall flat. But the former outweigh the latter. In one scene he stumbles into a funeral because of his spare tire and becomes one of the greeters. In another, he takes up tennis with a unique serving style that leaves his opponents dumb-struck and defeated. A shark-like escapade unintentionally presages Spielberg's Jaws. My favorite scene, though, is the climax where he inadvertently sets off fireworks and tries to fill a water bucket, to put them out, by running laps around a circular sprinkler.

The film succeeds because of M. Hulot and his character. A gangly bachelor with a floppy hat and a pipe dangling from his mouth, he is happy but hapless, living in the moment without a care in the world. Each episode extracts its humor from his bumbling clumsiness, wherein he manages to cause catastrophe. His intentions are good, but the results of his efforts are not.

M. Hulot brings to mind two other screen characters. The first is the French Amelie. Both M. Hulot and Amelie want to help others, even people they don't know. But where Amelie mixes mischief in with her do-gooding, M. Hulot is fundamentally well-meaning. He simply seeks to do good, to help. There is no hidden agenda with him.
The second screen character is British TV's Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson). He is an almost silent character, like M. Hulot, relying on visual gags. He may even have been modeled on the French character. But he is more like a young boy in an adult body, competitive and spiteful. M. Hulot, in contrast, does not seem to have a mean streak in him.

We can be like M. Hulot if we want and if we try. If we move out of our self-focused comfort zone we can look to others, to help them where they are in need. As followers of Jesus, he commanded us to love our neighbors (Matt. 19:19) and one way to do this is to offer well-meaning help. This is not giving money, although we are called to be generous and cheerful in our tithing to the church (2 Cor. 9:6-7) and our giving to the poor (Deut. 15:10). Rather, it is a giving of our time and ourselves.

One thing with M. Hulot: when his help causes problems, he runs away. He abandons the problems, leaving others to clean up the mess. He is irresponsible in this regard. If we choose to help others, we must decide to do so responsibly, taking the good with the bad. If we cause a mess, we should clean it up. If we damage things, we should seek to repair or offer redress. We cannot simply run away, like a little child. Though we surely enter the kingdom of heaven like a little child (Matt. 18:3), we must grow up and put aside childish behaviors (1 Cor. 13:11). We must be responsible citizens of God's kingdom in our relationships with others.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus -- souls in the balance

Director: Terry Gilliam, 2009. (PG-13)

If you loved Monty Python (The Holy Grail, Life of Brian), you will probably love this film. Gilliam, the imaginative animator and only American in the original troupe, has created a fantasy that is weird and wonderful and reminiscent in places of his work in Monty Python.

The Imaginarium is a morality story, a good-vs-evil tale, that centers on Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer).A millennium ago he was a monastery leader in a remote mountain setting, leading his monks in a continuing telling of "the story." When a mysterious stranger with strange powers enters, he challenges Parnassus to a wager. This growly voiced man loses and gives Parnassus his wish -- immortality. He is, after all, Mr Nick (Tom Waits), none other than the devil incarnate.

Here the devil has tapped into a deep desire all mankind has: to live forever. We want to be immortal. We were made to be immortal. But we lost this when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden so long ago (Gen. 3). Their choice was our (and their) loss. We will die physically. Yet, in our spirit or soul we are immortals. We face an eternal existence beyond the grave that is dependent on our choices in this life. If we choose to follow Jesus and accept the forgiveness he offers, we will find ourselves accepted into his family (Jn. 1:12) and experience eternal life in heaven later (Mk. 10:30). If we choose to ignore Jesus and his offer of life, God will honor our choice and allow us to be separated for all eternity in the hereafter (Rev. 20:14-15). That is the place we call hell, described as filled with pain and torment without respite (Matt. 25:46).

Over the centuries Parnassus has been walking the earth with his imaginarium, a travelling side-show of sorts, aging but not dying. But when he eyes a beautiful woman, he is willing to make a trade with Mr. Nick. He wants his youth back so he might woo and win her. The deal is a subtle one. He gets his youth and the devil gets his first-born, if he has a child, when she turns 16. He has put off for tomorrow this debt-obligation so as to experience the pleasures of today.

How often do we make "deals with the devil"? Not necessarily literally, as with Dr. Parnassus' deal, but figuratively. We avoid God and enjoy the temptations of sin. We look for ways to extend our earthly physical life at almost any cost. We worship youth and practice agism. We put off death. We don't even talk of death anymore. We hide it from ourselves, as if by closing our eyes and stopping our ears we will make it go away. Ironically, we watch so many deaths and killings on the screen yet act as if death will never pay a personal visit.

Fast forward to 21st century London. Dr. Parnassus has a daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), who is almost 16. With her and his two helpers, Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer, mini-me in the Austin Powers movies), Parnassus takes his horse-drawn imaginarium around the country offering a fantastic choice to anyone who would enter. But how can his old-fashioned stage-show from the back of his carriage compete with the flashy lights of modern mindless entertainment?

One night as they are departing the city they spy a figure "river dancing" on the Thames. It is Tony (Heath Ledger), swinging from a noose. His shadow is playing out on the river while he chokes to death. They save him and he joins their troupe, an amnesiac who can't remember why he was hung and who did it to him. But there is clearly more to Tony than meets the eye.

Many of us will remember the late Heath Ledger for his posthumous Oscar-winning role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Most think that was his last role. But not so. This film was his last performance. Not as malevolent as the Joker, he still loses himself in the role and is totally believable as a man who has a dark history he is hiding. But he died while it was being filmed, and with his sudden death, the production was shut down for several months. Being a fantasy, though, the script was rewritten so that Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) and Colin Farrell could take his role and complete the film. Given that people enter the imaginarium and encounter a fantasy-land of their own making, we can accept that Tony could enter that place and find himself the same person but with a different face. This rewrite is effective and allows us to see these other three talented actors enable Ledger's last role to come to the screen. And they didn't take a penny either. They graciously donated their earnnigs to a trust for Ledger's daughter.

The imaginarium is actually a projection of the mind of Dr Parnassus when he is in a trance-like state. An audience member who steps through the "mirror" enters into this mind bringing along his or her dreams. The imaginarium magically creates a wonderland from the personal dreams of that person. It is like Alice going through the looking glass, but entering a personally crafted land. Not asking for money to enter, they are given plenty when the person returns, after all, as Tony declares, "Can you put a price on your dreams?" Sometimes you can, often you can't.

We all dream. The older we get the more we have released our dreams to float away like helium-filled balloons. What we once held dear as potent possibilities we now loose as vapid vapors never to be accomplished. Yet there are still one or two dreams we cling to, hoping beyond hope that they might come true. Parnassus plays on these.

There is a catch, though. All who experience the wonder and joy of finding their dreams come true in this imaginarium, ultimately face a choice. When Mr. Nick shows up in their dream-scape, customizing his temptation to the person, they must choose imagination and beauty or immorality and sensuality. The temptation hangs over them and their life hangs in that choice.

With Valentino just a day away from her 16th birthday, Mr. Nick shows up once more. Always a gambler, he offers Parnassus another wager: if Parnassus can win 5 souls over to beauty and life he will allow her to live and stay with him; if the people choose immorality and temptation he keeps their souls and hers.

Here is the crux of the plot. Like in the Old Testament book of Job the devil places a wager on the outcome of a test. There, Satan wagered with God over Job (Job. 1:9), who was tested with loss of wealth, family and health. Satan expected Job to do what his wife advised, "curse God and die" (Job. 2:9), but he did not account for Job's faith. Here Parnassus takes the place of God, but provides the place of the testing, in his imagination, and Valentino is the object of the wager. Like Job, she knows nothing about the bet or the price if Parnassus loses. But Parnassus cannot afford to lose.

When Tony finds out the truth about Parnassus' imaginarium, he asks, "If Doctor Parnassus can really control people's minds, why isn't he ruling the world, then, eh? Why bother with this little . . . side show?" Anton knows the answer to that question, as he has been around Parnassus and this circus for while: " 'Side show'? He don't . . . he don't want to rule the world. He wants the world to rule itself!" Parnassus has experienced the power and manipulations of Satan. He wants the world to be free of this bondage. In a sense, he wants to act as God, counteracting the traps of the devil.

God, though, does rule the world, even if we don't acknowledge this. It is his creation (Gen. 1:1) and he is sovereign (Isa. 40:10). In the grand scheme, there is a battle between good and evil. And good has already won the decisive victory in Christ's death on the cross to conquer sin and death (1 Cor. 15:54-57), and his resurrection to life (1 Cor. 15:20). But though the final chapter has been written in Revelation (Rev. 20:7-10), the middle chapters are still playing out in God's imaginarium. He places before each one of us, in our own personal stories, our own moral choice -- freedom or destruction, life or death. We can find freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1). Or we can ignore Jesus and God and follow the wiles of Satan. There we find our life ends in eternal destruction (Rev. 20:15). That is the devil's intention and hope. God wants us to choose life, love and liberty. Until we make our choice, our souls hang in the balance.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 14, 2010

Alice in Wonderland -- believing and doing the impossible

Director: Tim Burton, 2009. (PG)

Burton's latest film is a gorgeous extravaganza full of vibrant color, fantastic creatures and imaginative design. It is an excessive sensory experience that deserves to be tasted and savored before being analyzed and critiqued. This is to be expected as Burton often uses expansive fantasy (e.g., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or elaborate caricature (e.g., Mars Attacks) to create his movies. Though I did not see it in 3-D, one of the cinematic options, the characters and creatures almost leapt off the screen in a dizzying speed that left me almost breathless. Yet the story itself felt episodic and patched together.

This is not the "Alice in Wonderland" written by Lewis Carroll. There Alice is a girl; here she is 19 and about to be engaged. This Alice has already visited Wonderland but returned and forgot her adventures. All that are left for her are recurrent nightmares of that place, and even then she does not recognize the traces of reality embedded in her dreams.This is more of a conflation of "Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass" with some additional thematic elements thrown into the mix.

At the start Alice Kingsley is running late to a large garden party. Little does she know, it is an engagement party being thrown in her honor, assuming she will accept the proposal of a dull and boring English nobleman. Alice, though, is an unpretentious individualist, willing to march to her own drum. Seeing a white rabbit in a waistcoat, she leaves her potential fiance waiting at the gazebo, in front of all the guests, and pursues him right up to the proverbial rabbit-hole. When she tumbles in, she falls through a weird vortex into a locked room that offers escape into a new land.

This Wonderland is really "Underland" and it is populated by the creatures we know from "Alice": the white rabbit (voice of Michael Sheen); the blue caterpillar (voice of Alan Rickman); the March Hare ("You're all late for tea"); Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum (Matt Lucas). Then there is the Cheshire Cat (voice of Stephen Fry) whose liquid-like appearance and disappearance is as good as we can imagine.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Publicity StillOne of the strengths of the film is in the cast for the human characters. Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married) plays the White Queen like some delicate pansy, all limp wrists and longing gazes. Her big-headed (literally) sister, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), is the tempestuous one, with serious anger-management issues ("Off with their heads!") This is the Queen of Hearts, as is clear from her guards who look like playing cards. She has a fondness for public decapitation and flamingo-and-hedgehog golf. Johnny Depp is perfect as the Mad Hatter, bringing an energy and quirkiness that fits to a tee. Burton has worked with Depp and Carter numerous times before (Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and knows how to get the best out of these two accomplished actors. But it is the relatively unknown Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska, who steals the show as Alice, with her confident performance that carries the film.

When the creatures of Underland find Alice they are expecting her, still remembering the girl from her prior visit. Is she that Alice? They don't know, and she can't remember the prior meetings. But this is crucial, because one oracle predicts that Alice has a very important date -- the soon to be Frabjous day. On this day Alice is predicted to fight the Jabberwocky to bring justice back to Wonderland. The Jabberwocky is, of course, the dragon-like monster that Carroll wrote about in a separate nonsense poem ("Twas brillig and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe. . . Beware the Jabberwock, my son!") This same poem introduced "the frumious Bandersnatch," another fearsome creature Alice meets in this adventure.

One of the themes on display in this film is that of expectations and choices. Alice is living under the pressure of external expectations from just about everyone. Her mother expects her to wear certain clothes to the garden party, and then expects her to accept the engagement proposal. She has already chartered Alice's future life. Even the Hatter and his mad friends expect her to fight the Jabberwocky and free the land from the Red Queen's harsh rule. But Alice has strength of character beyond her years and stands up to her mother, her suitor and both queens. At the end when the White Queen asks for a champion to fight the Jabberwocky, it becomes Alice's choice whether she will accept the challenge, even if it is expected.

Too often we find ourselves living under others' expectations. Now, there is nothing wrong, per se, with expectations. These can help us rise to the occasion. But when we submit to them against our desire, we become unhappy, even bitter. Better to be like Alice, self-assured and confident enough to swim upstream and go against the crowd and their expectations. There is always a choice, and we must recognize this. Even if we choose to meet expectations, it then becomes our choice. When we can choose, we have freedom and are not living as subjects. We can be free-spirited like Alice.

Another theme is doing the impossible. We might be mad to believe the impossible, but madness is a thread weaving the story together. When the Mad Hatter says to Alice, at one point, "Have I gone mad?" she responds, "I'm afraid so. You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are." This is the message her father told her in the prologue. When we are too rational and logical we discount the irrational, the illogical, the impossible. We begin to believe only in what we can see or measure. It tends to rule out faith, which believes in what cannot be seen (Heb. 11:1).

Toward the end, Alice declares "This is impossible." She is seeing with her eyes, not her heart or mind. The Hatter brings up her short, "Only if you believe it is." And a little later Alice declares, "Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." By opening up her mind to these impossibilities she is ready to face her foe. After all, this whole adventure is impossible by any normal standard, so believing in the impossible is almost natural.

We can take this lesson to heart. We may limit the impossible by refusing to accept or believe in it. Yet the Bible tells us that God is the god of the impossible -- "for nothing is impossible with God" (Lk. 1:37). Many believe that miracles are impossible. but God has done many miracles: from the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites, to the raising of the dead in Lazarus and Jesus. Miracles by definition cannot be explained by natural means. If our minds are closed to the possibility of these miracles, of the impossible, then we will seek to explain them away, and ultimately ignore the miracle of Jesus' resurrection and the new life he offers by grace. One of our six impossible things we should contemplate before breakfast is salvation in Christ.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Publicity StillIf Alice offers us a perspective on faith, the Red Queen offers insight into fear. She tells her trusted friend, "It is far better to be feared than loved." She rules with an iron-fist; fear is her watchword. This is, of course, a reference to"The Prince", written by 15th century Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, where the same question is asked: "It may be answered that one should wish to be both but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved." She is Machiavellian, but not biblical

God our Creator answers this same question differently. He wants both. He demands to be feared: "Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness" (Jos. 24:14) Indeed, "For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods" (1 Chron. 16:25). But this fear is not a terrible dread of impending judgment; rather, it is more of an awe of one who is so much greater than us. It is a beneficial fear: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). This fear results in love from God: "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him" (Psa. 103.11). If God calls us to fear him, he also wants us to love him. A teacher asked Jesus what the greatest commandment in the Law was, and Jesus replied, "' 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38) He was citing Deuteronomy 6:5, one of the books of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament. God is love, and he wants us to relate to him as Father by loving him whole-heartedly. Love and fear find balance in our relationship with the Lord, unlike the Red Queen.

Ultimately, Alice in Wonderland is too quirky to be a classic or one of Burton's best. But he has refashioned a classic of English literature for a new generation. And in so doing he has shown us that it is possible to believe the impossible. Now it is our turn to fall down our own rabbit hole into a more extravagant wonderland -- the marvelous kingdom of God, which impossibly is working its way to fruition in this antithetical, science-focused planet. Believe the impossible; believe in Jesus. Then you can live forever in Wonderland with exotic creatures called angels.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Young Victoria -- prisoner, pawn and powerful philanthropist

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009 (PG)

Queens have great majesty and honor. Playing royal monarchs in movies often brings with it similar acting honors. Helen Mirren won her Oscar for her role as Elizabeth II in The Queen. Judi Dench played the first Elizabeth and won a supporting Oscar in Shakespeare in Love. Cate Blanchett played this same queen in Elizabeth and then went on to win an Oscar soon after for The Aviator. Likewise, Elizabeth Taylor starred as Cleopatra and just afterward won her second Oscar. Emily Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning) plays Queen Victoria here, effectively carrying the movie on her shoulders with a radiant performance. No Oscars for her yet, but with acting like this the honors can't be too far away.

Where most films about Queen Victoria focus on her latter years, when she is well-enthroned as monarch but a lonely widow, here the focus is on her formative years. We see her as a girl ruled over by her mother the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her consort, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Her uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent), is still ruling, but getting older and weaker. Conroy wants her to sign a regency order putting him as the ruler while she is still young. But Victoria is headstrong and unwilling to submit to Conroy's domineering control and at times violent behavior.

In these early years, Victoria is almost a prisoner in her own home. There are a number of shots looking out of windows or between the bars on cast iron gates, adding to this impression of imprisonment. It is perhaps common for teenagers to feel the leash of parental control as restrictive, even imprisoning.But usually there is a reason, as the parents are seeking the best interests of the adolescents, who are still not quite adults. Even Solomon gives sage wisdom in the book of Proverbs telling his son to listen to him (Prov. 1:8; 4:1).

Even as a young adult, Victoria feels the like a pawn being moved against her will by others. One scene stands out in communicating this manipulation. Prince Albert (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is playing chess with Princess Victoria when she reveals her feelings to this young man: "Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself? In a game being played against your will." He answers her, "Do you?" to which she responds, "Constantly. I see them leaning in and moving me around the board." The chess game forms a terrific metaphor for these manoeuvrings. But Prince Albert offers advice beyond his years, advice borne out from first-hand experience, "Then you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can."

Many young adults experience this feeling of manipulation and rebel against it, forcing confrontation and power struggles with their parents, even their employers. But Albert is right. It is more effective to learn the rules and work the system. They can then beat the system, and rise above the rebellious to be the rightful relative or responsible worker who cannot be denied.

This idea of working within the system and being shrewd is echoed in a parable that Jesus told (Lk. 16:1-9). A business manager was caught in the act of stealing and realized his livelihood would be taken away, so he used the system to set himself up. Rather than scold him, "the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light." We don't have to remain victims, pawns in the grand game being played. We can shrewdly (but honestly) play the manipulators without them knowing it.

When the King dies, Princess Victoria is elevated to the monarchy and now has power to escape her imprisonment. But as she moves into a more regal and palatial home, she finds more people ready to manipulate her, including the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). Friendships can be deceptive or duplicitous.

Vallee does a fine job of clarifying the dizzying array of characters. Some audiences may not be familiar with the various politicians, advisers and royals who come into Queen Victoria's life. Added to this, the screenplay is engaging and the costumes spectacular. Above all, the cast is excellent, particularly Blunt and Friend. They capture completely the friendship and budding romance between these two young people. Although Prince Albert, a German, was sent to England by his uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, to win her love as a means of gaining political power and support, he falls in love and wins her heart. This is a tender love story set against the politics of the day.

Their growing love is developed through correspondence to one another from different countries. Yet, when the letters arrive, they are read and vetted by the advisers before the principals can see them for themselves. When Albert complains that he has no privacy, this falls on deaf ears.

Interestingly, almost 200 years later, a similar privacy issue is looming large. Today's issue is how private your emails or text messages are. Does an employer have the right to peek at these messages, today's equivalent of Victoria's letters? There is a case currently before the US Supreme Court where a California SWAT team member (Jeff Quon) was sexting, using his government pager to send personal messages, and his employer read them. He sued citing the Fourth Amendment which protects American citizens from "unreasonable" government searches. Public employment is in the center of the storm, but it will reach out into the private sector. Unfortunately, the high court has no real clue at this point, as is evident from Chief Justice John Roberts' statement: "I just don't know. I just don't know how you tell what is reasonable." This may well be a landmark case, but it hearkens back to practices centuries old.

Prisoner and pawn in her immature youth, Queen Victoria develops into a powerful philanthropist. Riding in a carriage looking out at London's poor, she comments, "I do want to help them, whatever you say. And not just the laboring poor, but the hungry and the homeless, and . . . There are people who are lost, and whose business is it to see to their welfare?" Lord Melbourne, her traveling companion, unsympathetically remarks, "Well, in my experience, ma'am, it's best to let these things develop naturally. If you interfere, you risk overturning the cart." A true politician at heart, there are no votes for him in helping these people. So why bother. "Well, Prince Albert doesn't agree. He's made a study of the working man's condition, he's full to the brim with ideas for their improvement."

Victoria and Albert recognized their power and determined to use if for good, for the good of the country and the people who looked to her as their sovereign. They wanted to better the conditions of those down and out throughout the country. Nominally the head of the Church of England, Queen Victoria presents an example of a missional life.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be intentional in how we live. We are all on mission for Christ, whether we depart for distant shores to take the gospel to the third world or remain ensconced in our day-to-day jobs. Missional living is mandatory. How do we live out the gospel so that it makes a difference in the lives of those who are hungry and hurting, broken and destitute? Are we helping or hindering? Is our Christianity all talk? Or do we put shoe leather on our words?

Victoria's marriage to Albert brought them happiness and joy. This film gives insight into the love that drove the woman at the very heart of the British Empire. We may remember her for her later accomplishments, but she was a woman who fell in love and simply wanted to serve her country with her husband at her side. Their 20 years together produced 9 children, but he died early, in his 40s, leaving the Queen a widow for almost a half century. She remains today the longest-reigning of all English monarchs, ruling from 1837-1901.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 7, 2010

Iron Man 2 -- wounded saviors

Director: Jon Favreau, 2010. (PG-13)

Sequels are often duller than the originals, being formulaic, put together to cash in on the success of the prior films. Fortunately, Iron Man 2 does not fit this bill. It is as much fun as Iron Man but without the need to introduce and explain the characters. Now we can get right into this new story.

The film picks up several months after the first one left off, but reprises in flash-back Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) surprising press conference revelation of his dual identity. This revelation is critical, as Stark is now out of the closet. Indeed, during the opening credits, we see magazine covers portraying the technologist and industry magnate as a savior. Iron Man is Time's "Man of the Year." Other newspapers show Stark as the person who has brought global fighting to an end. Subpoenaed to testify before a Senate heaing, Stark declares, "I have successfully privatized world peace!" With characteristic charisma, Stark flashes a peace sign and welcomes the audience's applause and semi-worship.

Just as the original was replete with spiritual references, so too is Iron Man 2. Stark presents himself as the savior of the world, and soaks in the world's acclaim. Surely the world needs a savior, that is true. But not one like Tony Stark. As Iron Man he has dealt with the external conflicts but we need a Savior who can address our internal issue, the enmity we have with God (Col. 1:21). We have no inner peace, and without that external peace is only temporary. Jesus is the Savior the world needs (Jn. 4:42), and he is as humble as Stark is egotistical.

In Iron Man, Stark discovered a literal and metaphorical internal change of heart. He realized he needed to give something back to society. Here he has regressed. Once more he is self-centered and self-indulgent. As an out-in-the-open hero, he now faces a government that wants his suit as a weapon, a business rival that wants his secret, an enemy that wants him dead, and a mid-life crisis that leaves him sinking into depression and alcohol. Stark is back into his playboy ways. He must face these internal and external demons.

The film is loaded with acting talent. Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) plays Ivan Vanko, a discredited Russian physicist who blames Stark. Sam Rockwell, so good in Moon, is Justin Hammer, the weapons' supplier to the military and Stark's arch-rival. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Stark's assistant who keeps him and his company running. Gone, though, is Terrence Howard, who had a falling out with Marvel Studios. Don Cheadle (Traitor) replaces him as Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who has a bigger part in this story. So, too, does Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the leader of the Avengers. Making the strongest impression, though, is Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman, a young lawyer for Stark Industries.

Rushman is in my favorite scene, as she takes on a whole platoon of security guards while her company driver Happy Hogan (played by the director himself, Favreau), struggles to fight one guard. In Matrix-like freeze-motion, we see her sans a mechanical suit take all the guys down herself.

Of course, in coming to see Iron Man 2 we come to see comic book action, and these actions scenes are terrific. Two stand out. The first is set against the stunning backdrop of the Monte Carlo grand prix. With Stark on the track, Vanko shows up to wreak destruction with a high-tech weapon of his own. This is a spectacular sequence of flying cars and electric whips. Then there is the final battle where Stark with help combats Vanko again, now in an armored suit himself. The action is bette and the climax superior to the original movie.

Vanko is a fearsome enemy, with his own demons and internal motivation. In one scene, he tells Stark in his Russian accent, "If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him. There will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come . . . All I have to do is sit here and watch, as the world will consume you." He does not want to simply kill Stark; he wants to wound him and let the world bring him down. If Iron Man is shown to be vincible, his supporters will turn away.

Here is a classic contrast with the real Savior. If Stark's blood is shed, his wounds will cause the peace that he has enabled to fall apart. His world cannot handle a wounded savior. But that is because Stark is not God, he is not the real Savior. In reality, the world needs a wounded Savior. It is by the shedding of Jesus' blood that our sins can be forgiven (Heb. 9:22). His blood was poured out for us on the cross as he died there for us; by his wounds we are healed (1 Pet. 2:24). And with his death and resurrection Jesus has inaugurated his kingdom, a kingdom that will ultimately usher in peace (Isa. 9:7). One wounded savior ended peace; the other wounded Savior brings peace.

Another point of reference for biblical Christianity comes from Stark's claim, "I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one." His Iron Man suit is an anti-type of Jesus, who has come to be one with the human person. The real Jesus comes to us and makes his dwelling in us (Jn. 14:17-18). He said "I and the Father are one" (Jn. 10:30)., The fullness of God in Christ is the very same fullness we have been given in Christ (Col. 2:9). When we choose to follow Jesus in obedience and love we can no more be separated from Christ and his love (Rom. 8:35), in whom we find our new identity (2 Cor. 5:17), than can Tony Stark be separated from his suit in which he derives his identity.

One semi-humorous scene has Stark, dressed in his Iron Man outfit, hosting his birthday party. Full of swingers egging him on, he uses his technological weaponry as party poppers to entertain this wild and drunken crowd. And he is drunker than they are. He has gone off the deep end, in the realization of his mortality. He has hit rock bottom in his character. So far down is he, that he faces off in a mano-a-mano combat with his friend Rhodes, who has donned another of Stark's mechanized suits. Not a fight to the death, this is fight for dignity and respect. Stark cannot accept anyone else giving him orders or wearing his suit. This takes attention away from him. He is a lone ranger, he needs no help, he wants the limelight all to himself.

This brings us to a final key theme of the film: partnership; fighting together, supporting one another. Rhodes says to Stark, "This lone gunslinger act is unnecessary . . . you don't have to do this alone!" Stark thinks he does but he really doesn't. Americans have adopted the lone gunslinger mentality. And we have extended it even into our faith. Too often followers of Jesus think we can live out our faith on our own. Yet it is simply not true. Of course, we must come to Christ on our own; it is as a personal decision of ours to make. But once we are part of his family we are part of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). We all contribute to the well-being of the corporate body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:14-27). We cannot live alone with God. We need others; and they need us. Stark learns this lesson and comes to depend on his friend. We can learn this, too.

Despite the depression Stark overcomes his demons and emerges stronger, though narcissistic. Wounded, he is not weaker. Flying, he is more grounded. As a savior, he is still less than perfect savior. But, before leaving the cineplex, stay for the extra scene after the credits that is a teaser for the third installment of this fun and very successful franchise.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Verdict -- personal responsibility and redemption

Director: Sidney Lumet, 1982.

Courtroom dramas end with a verdict. That is the nature of legal proceedings and makes for good storytelling. For criminal cases, it answers the question of whether the defendant is found guilty or acquitted. For civil cases, it resolves justice for either the plaintiff or the defense. But in The Verdict, it is the system that is indicted and must answer. The Verdict explores personal redemption as well as societal redemption.

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is at the center of the film. A top-notch lawyer in his prime, mistakes have shattered his reputation and a divorce has destroyed his self-esteem. He is washed-out, barely surviving as an ambulance-chasing leech, eking out moments of sobriety between drinking sprees. With hardly any clients and a losing streak a mile long, he is headed for the gutter when he is handed a civil case by his retired partner. A woman lies comatose and vegetative in a Boston Catholic hospital, the result of some errors while she was in surgery. This medical malpractice suit is his ticket. An out-of-court settlement will set him up, as well as the client's sister and husband, Sally and Kevin Doneghy.

With little time for preparation due to one too many lush breaks, Galvin visits the hospital to look at his client before going to negotiate the settlement with the Bishop. But that is his undoing. Or, at least, the turning point in his decline. When the Bishop tells him, "Nothing we can do can make that woman well," Galvin replies, "And no one will know the truth." He has been impacted by the sight of a young life brought to its knees, never to experience freedom again. "What is the truth," says the Bishop, echoing the infamous words of Pilate to Jesus when Messiah stood before him two thousand years ago (Jn. 18:38). Frank breaks into a soliloquy that is as much to himself, as he stands on the brink of the abyss, as to the Bishop:
That that poor girl put her trust into the... into the hands of two men who took her life. She's in a coma. Her life is gone. She has no home, no family. She's tied to a machine. She has no friends. And the people who should care for her - her doctors... and you and me - have been bought off to look the other way. We've been paid to look the other way. I came here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can't do it; I can't take it. 'Cause if I take the money I'm lost. I'll just be a... rich ambulance chaser. I can't do it. I can't take it.
This is a moment of clarity, a moment of decision. And Frank makes the decision to reject the money and go to trial. He has little in the way of preparation: no legal team, no extensive list of witnesses, no support from his clients' relatives. Yet, he is doing this as much for himself as for them. He is tired of running from life, drinking himself to sleep and avoiding his reflection in the mirror. He seeks restored self-respect and personal redemption.

In deciding to fight for justice, Galvin acts apart from his clients' desires. This raises the question of ethics. What ethical responsibility does an attorney have to follow his client's wishes? A lawyer is supposed to offer counsel, and to act as advocate at trial. He represents the client but is supposed to follow the client's direction. In acting on his own Galvin moves beyond the acceptable boundaries of the attorney-client relationship. He had no right to do this, even if he felt that he was pursuing social justice.

When Doneghy finds out that his pot of gold has been taken away, replaced by the court appearance with a real risk of losing, he is furious: "You guys... you guys are all the same! The doctors at the hospital, you . . . it's always what I'm going to do for you. And then you screw up, and it's, 'Ah, we did the best that we could, I'm dreadfully sorry.' And people like us live with your mistakes the rest of our lives." Coupled with the fact that the judge trying the case is clearly corrupt, favoring the defense, this is a serious indictment of the whole system: the religious, medical and judicial systems. Lumet portrays the social context as one that tramples on the little person, the common man, leaving him bloodied and bruised, perhaps broken, with no recourse because the system itself is bankrupt, corrupt.

The prophets in the Old Testament cried out against the Israelite society in which the rich got richer at the expense of the poor because they owned the courts and judges. This injustice was prevalent and the people could only call out to God as their advocate. Ultimately, the prophets' warnings of social deconstruction and disintegration proved correct, as the system was brought down and the nation taken into exile. Social injustice will eventually be corrected, but often not in time to help those suffering in the present moment. We who see such injustice can pray to God for divine remedy at the same time as taking appropriate action ourselves. God does work through human agency, as history bears out.

Two other characters come into the story. James Mason plays the defense attorney, Ed Concannon, hired by the Catholic Church. With money, this suave and confident lawyer hires an extended team to do legal legwork. Charlotte Rampling shows up as Laura Fischer, a woman Galvin meets in a bar. She offers him the chance of romantic redemption, but there is more to her than meets the eye.

What makes The Verdict stand out is the acting and the screenplay. Newman gives one of the strongest performances of his career, and was nominated for an Oscar. Mason is more subdued but no less effective, and also earned an Oscar-nomination. And David Mamet's Oscar-nominated screenplay is the icing on the cake. His dialog seems so natural in the mouths of these actors yet is powerful enough to resonate with the audience.

At the conclusion of the trial, Galvin's world-weary summation to the jury is emotional and moving, focusing not just on the trial or on the law, but on life itself: "You know so much of the time we're just lost. We say, 'Please God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.' And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless." But then in the midst of this almost despairing monolog, he tells the jury, "But today, you are the law." He gives them permission to decide the law apart from the corruption that swirls all around.

Galvin's terse statement is so true. Despite all the corruption, in a jury trial the twelve jurists, ordinary men and women, are the law. They decide the case. They set precedent. We do not need to complain and wallow in despair. We can and must do our civic duty. Justice is bound up in all of us. If we allow the system to take the upper hand, to allow it to run roughshod over us, then we are ourselves to blame. If we believe in justice, we must act on behalf of that justice. We indict ourselves if we see social injustice and do nothing. Society is made up of the collection of individuals and each of us has rights and responsibilities. Let us not abdicate these to the corporations . . . to the system.

Despite the unexpected and unconvincing ending, The Verdict leaves us reflecting on personal responsibility and redemption. Galvin says in a rare moment of joy, "I changed my life today." His decision point came midway through the film. Ours can come anytime, even today. You can find personal redemption, second chances regardless of the state of your life, if you choose to change your life today. Jesus makes that possible. "Today is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). Are you ready to make that decision to follow him, and accept personal responsibility?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 3, 2010

Synecdoche New York -- life and death, nihilism and choice

Director: Charlie Kaufman, 2008. (R)

Kaufman's directorial debut is a challenging film that will leave some viewers scratching their heads and wondering what the point was. Others will see a deep exploration of life and death from a unique perspective; it is not a superficial film, although the surface is at times bizarre. A few will list it as one of their favorite films; critic Roger Ebert named it the best film of the 2000s. I found it intriguing if overlong, but not interesting enough to make it to my top 10 list.

The first part of the film is set in Synecdoche, up-state New York, where Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) is a successful but neurotic play director. This is, of course, a play on Schenectady New York, which has the famous zip code of 12345. But it is more than this. It is a clue to the film itself. A synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part stands for a whole, or vice versa. In this case, Caden, an individual, represents the whole of humanity. We explore the meaning of life and death through this one person.

When his current work, "Death of a Salesman," ends he is looking for his next project. Complicating this, his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him, taking with her to Berlin their young daughter Olive. Into this emptiness comes the news of a Macarthur grant that allows Caden to pursue his project of a lifetime, a play of brutal realism and honesty. With an ensemble cast, this is not a play in a theater. Instead it takes a place in a huge downtown New York warehouse, and it is a replica of life on a grandiose stage.

Where Adele is an artist painting miniatures, Caden is an artist working on a grander scale. As the movie progresses, their scales are amplified. Adele's paintings become impossible to see with the naked eye, but Caden's play becomes bigger and bigger until it is as large as, if not larger than, life. His sprawling work has no focus but is clearly visible, while her is totally focused but invisible. Which works? Which is more effective? Both seem to fail in the sense of moving the viewer but for different reasons. Both have lost their sense of meaning.

The key to understanding the movie comes from Caden himself, as he tells his cast what he expects of them: "I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we are going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't." He adds, "I won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day, I'll hand you a paper, it'll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, etcetera." This is life, improvised, played out without a script, in front of a non-existent audience.

This key in itself, though, is insufficient to unlock Kaufman's complex movie. An additional key comes in Caden Cotard's medical condition. He is diagnosed to have a mysterious disease that causes his autonomic functions to shut down slowly and systematically over time. So, he cannot cry or swallow, since he loses this ability. He is slowly dying from the inside. His character is a subtle reference to the actual medical condition known as "Cotard's delusion," in which a person believes himself to be dead or losing his internal organs. Also known as nihilistic delusion, this points to the worldview in sight: nihilism.

When Caden realizes he needs to put himself in the play, he picks Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) to play himself. Sammy has watched Caden for more than 20 years and knows his every quirk. He even adopts his nihilistic philosophy, when he departs from Caden's "script" and declares on-set, "Watch me learn that after death there's nothing. There's no more watching. There's no more following. No love." There is a shallowness to this worldview that ultimately ends in despair, as seen in Sammy.

With Sammy gone, Caden still needs someone to play himself, and he selects Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest). In this curious selection, we see the synecdoche complete. Man or woman, it is irrelevant. Caden is everyman and everywoman. Her closing comment, representing Caden, puts an exclamation point on the emptiness of life from the nihilistic view:
What was once before you - an exciting, mysterious future - is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone's experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone's everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen.
This existence is meaningless.

Of course, this is counter to the biblical worldview, in which meaning and purpose are built into human existence. We are created by God in his image (Gen. 1:26) to live a life that brings glory to him (1 Cor. 10:31). We live this life as preparation for the next, the life after physical death. Sammy's view of no love after death is blatantly incorrect. God is love (1 Jn. 4:8), and for those who choose to follow him in this life will experience the breadth of that love in the next. The emptiness of the theatrical trinity of Cadens is refuted by the depth of purpose of the holy Trinity of the Bible.

In the film, Caden is constantly drawn to Hazel (Samantha Morton), a box-office clerk. Despite a marriage to his lead actress Claire (Michelle Williams) Caden's attraction brings him back to Hazel. His choice resonates with consequences through his entire life. And this is further illustrated in a strange choice she makes. Early on, she buys a house that is perpetually on fire. Smoke seeps into each room, and fire burns eternally throughout. She remarks to the realtor, "I like it, I do. But I'm really concerned about dying in the fire." Perceptively, the realtor responds, "It's a big decision, how one prefers to die." Hazel makes the choice to live there, she makes the choice to die there. All choices we make have ramifications which we must live with.

Interestingly, although nihilistic, this house reminds us of the fires of hell, where those who make the choice not to follow Jesus are destined to spend their eternity after death (Mk. 9:48). A choice in this life brings with it ramifications of dying and eternal death (Rev. 21:8), separated from the one person who can give life: Jesus.

We should not be surprised by the various surreal aspects to this film. Kaufman has focused on the mind in his other screenplays: Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, etc. He weaves fantasy and reality together; desires and dreams coexist in the Kaufman universe. Separating the definite from the delusional is hard to do. Is it a play or is it real? After 17 years of rehearsal without a performance, the lines have blurred. William Shakespeare wrote, "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players." That seems to be plainly in view here.

To this point, toward the end, as Caden ages, he proclaims, "I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They're all leads of their own stories." There is truth here. We are key players in our own tales. We may be bit players in the grand scheme of things, but our stories are important to us, and to our families. In this regard, we have a raison d'etre. We have significance. This echoes biblical truth.

Caden goes on, "It will all take place over the course of one day. And that day will be the day before you died. That day was the happiest day of my life. Then I'll be able to live it forever." In his nihilistic view, there is only one way to live forever and enjoy it. That is to constantly replay his happiest day again and again, like in Groundhog Day.

Living forever in this manner is not eternal life. It is life on the rerun. There is nothing new here. The despair is obvious, in having to cling to this faint hope of eternal enjoyment. The true reflection is in resurrection, to an eternal life of hope and joy (Tit. 3:7). That is a reality that awaits all who choose Jesus. Just as those who choose the burning house reap the ramification, so too followers of Jesus will reap the reward of their choice. But this is a rich reward, one that will take place over the course of forever lived out sequentially, not the same day time after time.

Synecdoche is a puzzling film. Yet viewed with the keys of the title and Caden's surname, we can find meaning buried there. Life is not the empty and despairing experience Caden describes. It does not have to be. It can be full and vibrant, a foretaste of greater things to come. It is your choice!

Copyright 2010, Martin Baggs