Monday, June 28, 2010

Big Night -- enjoying life, food and God

Directors: Campbell Scott & Stanley Tucci, 1996. (R)

Big Night is a "slice of life" movie set in the 50s that throws food, love and life into the mixing bowl and produces an affectionate casserole that some will enjoy and others will avoid. It is reminiscent of the superior Babette's Feast, filmed a decade earlier, particularly the spectacular feast of the big night itself.

Primo (Tony Shalhoub, Monk) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci, Julie and Julia) have an Italian restaurant on the East Coast. Emigrants from Italy, their hopes and dreams are tied up in this business. Primo is the older and gifted chef. His younger brother, Secondo, is the front-man who smoothly interfaces with the clientele . . . when there is some.

The restaurant offers superb food but is on the brink of bankruptcy. It is not surprising, since the brilliant chef is not willing to make what customers want. When they desire something plain or ordinary, such as spaghetti and meatballs, to go with the exceptional risotto, he refuses to make it. After all, he argues, you don't add a starch with rice. He knows better than the customer! Though they know what they want and like, he believes he knows the appropriate culinary combinations. He is a genius and they are simply philistines!

Across the street, literally, is another Italian restaurant owned and run by Pascal (Ian Holm, Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings) with his girlfriend Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). Their food is routine and ordinary, but the business is enormously successful. These two restaurants could not be more opposite.

When the bank tells Secondo he has till the end of the month to pay his bills or face foreclosure, the story is set. Without finances, Secondo approaches Pascal for advice and a loan. Telling Pascal the pressure is too much, he gets advice: "What this is: 'too much'? HEY! It is never 'too much'; it is only 'not enough'! Bite your teeth into the ass of life and drag it to you! HEY!" Classic, over-the-top, Italian wisdom.

Pascal puts his finger on a key piece of advice for all of us. Life is here to be seized and enjoyed. We need to grab hold of life and run with it. Even when things look bleak, we need to realize this is our life. Life happens and has to happen. We can be passive or active. It is better to accept reality head-on and move forward. Make a plan and take a risk.

Although not offering him money, Pascal promises to set the two brothers up with a big-time jazz musician who will play a special benefit for them at their restaurant. With this plan, Secondo decides to risk it all on one big night of food, music and fun. And what a night it is! Finally the restaurant is filled with friends, lovers, and the press. Prima surpasses himself and creates a feast for the senses. As he says, "To eat good food is to be close to God."

Enjoying good food is part of enjoying life. God made us creatures with senses and physical needs. We need food to keep our bodies going. But there is food as fuel and there is food as sensory pleasure, almost an art form. Solomon, the writer of the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, said: "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun." (Ecc. 8:15) Indeed, when we experience heaven we will enjoy a great wedding feast promised by Christ to his Church (Rev. 19:9). Food and festivities are part of the celebrations of life, both now and later.

Enjoying good food and enjoying life are important. Enjoying God is primary. God has gifted us with life. He wants us to know him personally. And we can do so through Jesus Christ, his son (Jn. 17:3). King David, Solomon's father, used a culinary metaphor to describe this relationship with God: "Taste and see that the LORD is good" (Psa. 34:8). To fully enjoy life we need to fully know God, as Jesus said: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (Jn. 10:10).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Friday, June 25, 2010

The Rock -- covert ops and active disobedience

Director: Michael Bay, 1996. (R)

As the movie opens to stirring patriotic music and images of wars, we hear a voice saying, "Congressman Weaver and esteemed members of the Special Armed Services Committee, I come before you to protest a grave injustice... It has to stop." This is Maj. General Hummell (Ed Harris), a blue-eyed marine officer looking dapper in his dress uniform. Later, we hear Hummell's impressive resume: "Three tours in Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm; three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and the Congressional Medal of - Jesus. This man is a hero." So, why does this hero, this man of honor, cast himself in the role of the enemy?

Hummell himself gives us the answer: "The men of marine force recon are selected to carry out illegal operations throughout the world. When they don't come home, their families are told fairy tales about what happened to them... and denied compensation. Well, I have choked on these lies my entire career. Well here and now the lies stop!" In the opening scene, we not only hear men being abandoned to die alone, we see Hummell kiss his wife's grave. With her gone he is free to do what needs to do to seek justice.

Covert operations form the background to this thriller. It is true that governments, including that of the United States, engage in such activities. Though they would deny them for security reasons, with time the truth emerges. We learn of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the involvement in Nicaragua, and the military juntas of South America. Although part of history, those involved in these military actions risk life without the ability to tell their loved ones what they are doing or why. When they don't come back, their grieving relatives are told a bouquet of lies.

This may be necessary, as unpleasant as it is, but there is a certain responsibility that befalls our government to take care of the survivors of the dead. If that does not happen and their benefits are not paid, then truly a grave injustice has occurred. It is difficult to say if The Rock is plausible in this regard, but its speculation raises questions that governments need to face. If we send our boys into harm's way, even covertly, we must be willing to make reparation to their loved ones if they die. Though it might need to be done delicately, it is something the commanding officers must feel accountable for.

With such accountability ignored, Hummell takes matters into his own hands. Leading a renegade platoon of marines he breaks into a naval weapons depot and steals VX gas warheads. He then takes over Alcatraz Island, holding 81 tourists as hostages. Calling his former superiors at the Pentagon, he asks for $100M as restitution for those soldiers who died under his command during these black ops. If the government refuses to pay, he will shoot 15 missiles into San Francisco causing untold death and destruction.

The government turns to a trained SEAL team, to break into Alcatraz to disarm and defeat these traitors. However, they need someone able to handle the chemical weapons. They turn to FBI Agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage, National Treasure), a nerdy PhD agent who can handle the pressure of a biowarfare bomb but not a pregnant girlfriend or a gun.

But that is only half the team of heroes. They need to find a way into the impregnable prison. For this, they turn to British SAS Officer Jon Mason (Sean Connery). Imprisoned for 30 years by the current FBI Director, lost to the world through this time, Mason is bitter and cynical. But he is the only person who can get the team in, as he is the only person who has ever broken out of Alcatraz. With five million lives unknowingly hanging in the balance, the team enters Alcatraz only to face a desperate stand-off that leaves Mason and Goodspeed as the two misfits who must go it alone to save the city.

Connery plays Mason as a hard case, but adds that "twinkle-in-the-eye" charm that seems to characterize his roles, ever since Bond. He is a pleasure to watch. Cage is not as good, and does not reach the heights of his earlier performances, such as in Moonstruck or Leaving Las Vegas. But they have an easy banter that belies the realities of their characters.

Michael Bay directed this film after his first Bad Boys picture and before his later Armageddon and Transformers. But it is a typical Bay-film: full of quick shots, big bangs, and improbable car chases. The one chase sequence, involving a Hummer, a Ferrari and numerous police cars, is intense and thrilling and totally unbelievable. For an agent told to keep this whole incident under wraps, it seems like half the cars in SF are damaged or destroyed. Further, with a hero as a bad guy and a "bad guy" on the good team, it is predictable how the story will unfold at the end. Nevertheless, Bay does deliver some thrills, even if they are typical and by-the-book for this genre.

The real ethical question for this film relates to passive versus active disobedience. Hummell pushes beyond military discipline when he takes an active disobedience stance. Portraying himself and his men as modern-day patriots, he likens himself to George Washington. But he is not fighting a foreign government in distant lands, as Washington was. He is going against his military superiors and the Commander-in-Chief in the White House. Is this ethically appropriate? It seems we should answer no. Threatening to kill millions because hundreds were denied benefits in their deaths is to take on a role that was not his and to overly unbalance the scales of justice rather then rebalance them.

The Bible gives examples of civil disobedience. Daniel and his friends were taken captives to a foreign land (Dan. 1:6). There they were instructed to worship a false god and not their own God. Daniel disobeyed by worshiping the true God (Dan. 6:10), but he did so knowing the risk. He was willing to face death himself, but he did not threaten others. Similarly, in the New Testament after Jesus' death the Jewish leaders instructed Jesus' disciples to stop preaching the gospel of Christ (Acts 4:18). They disobeyed, citing their desire to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But they did this understanding the consequences: they would be arrested and beaten (Acts 5:40). Civil disobedience is appropriate in certain circumstances, and must be entered into recognizing the personal risk involved. Active disobedience, especially when it puts other lives at risk, is clearly another matter.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Monday, June 21, 2010

Maria Full of Grace -- exploitation and determination

Director: Joshua Marston, 2004. (R)

Writer-director Joshua Marston brings a riveting story to the screen in his feature-length debut. Filmed in Ecuador and using unknown actors, Maria Full of Grace is a story of illegal drug smuggling that highlights both the exploitation of the poor and the determination needed to survive.

The title points to the grace that Maria carries into her situations. It also points to the "grace" of the cocaine that she carries in her full stomach, a false grace that does not satisfy.

Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a 17 year-old working in a flower factory in a small Colombian village. Living with her mother, grandmother, sister and small niece, her meager salary supports her family. All the men have deserted these women, and survival is the name of the game. But the factory work, stripping thorns from roses that will be shipped elsewhere, likely to wealthy Americans, is hard and tedious and the boss is a thorn in her flesh. When he pushes her too far, she has had enough -- she up and quits.

Troubles multiply, though. With no income, her family presses her to apologize and beg for her job back. Her boyfriend breaks up with her. Becoming isolated, she discovers a new "friend" Franklin who takes her to the big city of Bogota to look for work. En route, he suggests there might be an opportunity to earn some money while traveling. But this is not simply traveling; it is illegally importing cocaine into the States. She will be a drug mule.

As a mule, she will swallow capsules full of cocaine, each weighing 10 grams and measuring 1.5" by 0.5", about the size of a large grape. If swallowing one is hard, it gets much worse: she has to swallow 62. If one of these breaks in her stomach she will die. The danger of death is clear; the danger of arrest and imprisonment hovers over the girl. For several thousand dollars, a small fortune in her village, she will risk her future and her life.

Out of desperation, Maria clings to this forlorn hope of a future. But underlying this is the clear exploitation of the poor to satisfy the desires of the rich. Even in the factory, where the working conditions are demeaning, she and her fellow workers are being exploited. Perhaps not as bad as some of the sweat shops of SE Asia, it is still a less then perfect environment. Such social injustice demands a champion to fight for the cause. We have seen this in real life, with big corporations, like Nike, facing criticism and more for their employment tactics in third-world countries. Some, such as Starbucks, have moved to more expensive labor, using "green coffee strategies," to empower local labor forces and pay fair wages. This is the appropriate and biblical/ethical thing to do.

Worse, though, is the reality that drug lords can employ poverty-stricken women to carry drugs across borders, letting them taking all the risk while themselves enjoying all the profits. The return for Maria is small, but for the boss it is huge. This portrays illegal capitalism without redress.

When Maria arrives in New York, inwardly anxious but outwardly calm, further troubles befall her. Before long she sees the dark inner reality of drug smuggling -- violence and death. Taking off with little cash in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, Maria faces choices that will define her and direct her future.

Ultimately, this is the tale of a headstrong girl growing up, a nuanced coming of age story of sorts. Maria draws upon all her determination. Desperate circumstances cause us to face our own characters. If we are weak internally, outward troubles may break us, and this is clear for some of the characters in Maria. If we have inner strength, these troubles will sharpen us and allow our strength to shine through. It is like the refining fires that burn the dross away from impure metals, leaving the pure behind (1 Cor. 3:13).

Moreno gives a powerful performance as Maria. Surprisingly, this is her debut film. Yet she was nominated for an Oscar for her role. She is in stellar company, as only two other Hispanic women have been nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award: Salma Hayek for Frida (2002) and Penelope Cruz for Volver (2006). She carries the film, with a realistic account of a lost teenager finding her way.

Other films have focused on the effects of drugs on the user. For example, Danny Boyle's Trainspotting portrayed the horrors of addiction in graphic form. But Maria avoids focusing on the junkie and instead shows the effects on the mule carrier. Either way, it is clear that drugs offer no hope to any in the illegal "food-chain." The risks far outweigh the gains. True hope is found in true grace, the grace of Jesus (Eph. 2:8).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Road -- brokenness and hope

Director: John Hillcoat, 2009. (R)

Man and boy are walking alone on the road in a cold and barren land. The sky is gray. Cold, they huddle in parkas and blankets. Together, they are struggling to survive. But their love and the dwindling flame of humanity is enough to keep them going.

In one of the longest soliloquies in this oft-quiet movie, Father (Viggo Mortenson, The Return of the King), gives us as much explanation as we will get or need:
The clocks stopped at one seventeen one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it's October but I can't be sure. I haven't kept a calender for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker - beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food. Always food. Food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice - difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.
We never know what caused the apocalypse. We simply see the effects.

Hillcoat has given vision to Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-prize winning book of the same name. Like another of his books turned into film (No Country for Old Men), this is bleak and depressing. But unlike the former, which had no trace of grace or hope, here this is a flicker of hope.

Unlike other post-apocalyptic films, the story is leaner and focused on character not plot. Whereas The Book of Eli had an epic western feel, The Road is the story of father and son. It is raw and immediate, with an emotional depth. Characters are few, other than Father and Son, and they have very short screen times. And to underscore the allegorical aspect of the tale, all the characters remain nameless.

Indeed, the power of the film comes in the acting. Mortensen gives a powerful performance, starving himself to become thin and straggly, a survivor who faces constant hunger. Matching him is newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee as Boy. They carry this film, being in almost every scene and delivering the emotional intensity it demands. Their chemistry is exceptional. Charlize Theron shows up in flashback only, as Woman the mother of Boy. In contrast to the almost monochrome cinematography, color shows up in these rare dream-like sequences of the woman that keeps Man going but could not handle the extremes required to survive. Robert Duvall appears almost unrecognizable as Old Man, and Guy Pearce (Memento), too, has a few moments at the end as the Final Man.

Hillcoat chose to shoot the movie on location in places that had experienced man-made and natural disasters: Louisiana, the site of Hurricane Katrina disaster, and Mt. St. Helens in Washington feature prominently. Indeed, the desolate environment perfectly conveys the brokenness in the world. With dead trees all around, simply waiting to topple, the world and life itself seems to be dying.

This picture of ravaged nature, either burning or falling, parallels, to some degree, the biblical account. Nature has experienced a fall (Gen. 3:17-18). The world is broken, and not how it was meant to be. Paul tells us the world is waiting to be redeemed and restored to its former glory and beauty (Rom. 8:19-21). More than this, when Jesus the redeemer returns for his church he will leave the world alone for a brief period during which horrors and tribulations will come (Rev. 6). In this post-apocalyptic period, even the current beauties of nature will be tainted and destroyed leaving little to take joy in.

Early on, the boy asks his father, "We're the good guys, right?" He is young and sees life as black and white, with him and his father on the right side. His father affirms this, but as the film progresses it comes into question. Will trials and tribulations eventually wear us down, so that any remaining aspects of moral humanity are sacrificed on the altar of expediency and need? With little food, harsh weather, and the peril of cannibals ever-present, can there be any level of trust?

Yet, a key interchange between Father and Son identifies the possibility of humanity. The man tells his son, "You have to keep carrying the fire." Not knowing if this is literal or not, the boy asks, "What fire?" "The fire inside you." This fire represents the idea of humanity. The father realizes he has to pass on the core of humanity to his son.

This idea of the fire of humanity is representative of the core idea of the imago dei, the image of God that was poured into mankind at creation (Gen. 1:26). Though it has been tainted and distorted by sin, it still remains, a shadow of its former self (Jas. 3:9). But we draw on this in terrible times. When others succumb and become savage, gang-members who cruelly rape and murder to feed their own desires and stomachs, the image of God calls us to retain our humanity and dignity. That is what the Father wanted for his Son.

One scene demonstrates this clearly. Father and Son are walking along the road after finding a store of food when they encounter an Old Man (Duvall). Father, starting to lose his humanity, selfishly wants to keep the food to themselves. Son, however, realizes this is selfish and calls on Father to share. This simple act of sharing is symbolic of humanity. We remain human as we share and care. When we become hard-hearted and selfish we are losing the flame.

Ultimately, Father realized that hope lay in his Son. Though they were making for the South and warmer climates, their destination was an unknown and their destiny an enigma. Yet, even in his early monologue the Man foresaw the Son as the word of God. He would carry the hope of the world in his heart.

This points us to the earlier Son who was sent to the world by the Father (Jn. 3:16). Jesus became man to bring hope to all mankind. In his life and through his death and resurrection we can find life and hope (Tit. 3:7). We may not know our present destinations and our destinies may appear uncertain, but as we put our trust in the Savior of the World we can know that life flickers inside us and there will be a hope for our future (Jer. 29:11).

At one point, the Man says, "If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different. And so I have you. . . . I have you." This is exactly what God has said. He has made the world the way he wanted it and the choices of man have caused it to become broken and desolate. We see this all around us, and in the news accounts of the oil despoilation of nature. Yet, God would not have made it any different. And he made us, that he might have us to enjoy a mutual relationship together. He wants us. Will we let him have this relationship? Will we allow the flame of true life in Jesus to burn in us? Even if we were the last person alive, we would still face this question on the road we call our life.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, June 14, 2010

Whatever Works -- entertaining comedy, errant philosophy

Director: Woody Allen, 2009. (PG-13)

Woody Allen returns to his native New York for this latest comedy. He wrote it 30 years ago with Zero Mostel in mind for the central character. But when he died in 1977 Allen set his screen play aside for decades. He came back to it last year, now with Larry David in the role as Boris Yellnikoff.

Boris is clearly a substitute for Allen himself. Not only does he sound like Woody Allen, he even looks a little like the nerdy director, though taller. As the protagonist, he is the least empathetic one in recent years. Frequently talking directly to the camera, he says right at the start, "I'm not a like-able guy. Charm has never been a priority with me. And just so you know, this is not the feel good movie of the year." Though he does not change during the course of the film, those around him do and they create the arc for this story.

The first of these characters is Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, The Wrestler), a naive runaway from Mississippi, who confronts Boris on his apartment stairs one night. Needing somewhere to stay in the Big Apple, she sweet-talks her way into his apartment and ultimately into his heart. As she has him acting as tour guide for her, seeing places in New York he has not visited in years, he molds her to his viewpoint. Despite his cruel and cutting, always condescending, remarks to her, she comes to love him.

Another two characters add to the mix. Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent), Melody's southern belle mama, comes looking for her, suitcases in hand. Finding her married to a man older than her own husband she is shocked. Her sheltered southern marriage has not prepared her for this, or for New York, at least Woody Allen's New York. Soon enough, though, she has become enlightened, her life changed, her philosophy radically altered. Gone is her Bible-believing Christian faith. In its place is a secular and sexual humanism that literally transforms her into an almost unrecognizable version of her former self.

Like Marietta, John (Ed Begley Jr.), Melody's church-going father, arrives on Boris' doorstep searching for his long-lost daughter. But he knows his sin and, though praying for forgiveness, cannot find it in God. Instead, he finds his redemption, like his wife, through the sexual awakenings of the New York City lifestyles.

Allen instills plenty of hilarious one-liners ("Was your mother a woman?", "Let's face it, our marriage hasn't been a garden of roses. Botanically speaking, you are more of a Venus Flytrap.") He draws good performances out of the main characters, but none resonate with us. And Boris is so cruel, especially with his young chess students, that we sometimes wish his suicide attempts had been successful.

Like all his films, Allen uses comedy as a way to smoothly convey his philosophy of life: a pessimistic skepticism that chokes the joy out of life. His anti-religion ideology is mentioned within the first minute, as Boris declares, "There's big money in the God racket." This is true. There are charlatans and frauds in all walks of life, and Christianity is no exception. There are a number of preachers who want us to show our faith by sending large sums of money to their ministries. And they show the trappings of these blessings. But one bad apple does not always spoil the whole barrel. For most, Christianity is a God-relationship, not a God-racket. And most ministers experience big blessing but not big money.

In the first scene Boris' interaction with his two drinking buddies gives us Allen's feelings on Jesus and life: "The basic teachings of Jesus are quite wonderful. . . . They all suffer from one fatal flaw. They are all based on the fallacious notion that people are fundamentally decent. . . . That they're not stupid, selfish, greedy, cowardly short-sighted worms.. . . . People make life so much worse than it has to be. Believe me, it's a nightmare without their help." As is often the case, truth is distorted or denied.

Allen's view on the wonderful teachings of Jesus ("Do to others what you would have them do unto you," Matt. 7:12) completely misses the core teachings of Jesus -- the brokenness of humanity and the redemption found in his gospel. We are not fundamentally decent. Jesus never said that. Rather, he and his apostles pointed out the depravity inherent in human nature (Rom. 3:10). We are actually like Boris describes us: selfish, greedy, cowardly. Church theologians such as Calvin and Wesley echoed this belief, and it has become known as "worm theology" from a line in Isaac Watts hymn "Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed": "Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?"

Moreover, Allen sees life as meaningless: "What the hell does it all mean anyhow? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nothing comes to anything." To him life lacks purpose. That's why suicide is an attractive option. When troubles appear or life becomes overwhelming, drop out permanently. But if there is a God, then there is a purpose to this existence. Since God does exist, he has created us to find meaning in him (Eph. 1:11). We can experience him and enjoy a relationship with our creator (Psa. 34:8). Despite troubles, life does have purpose. Allen's view is fundamentally wrong.

Of course, with such a pessimistic approach, Boris (and Allen) offer the only advce that makes sense: "That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works." Here is the grand theme of the film. And there is a measure of truth buried here. We should be looking for grace and love in whatever measure as we journey through life. But with the reality of purpose and the truths of Jesus, we know where to look. God offers us grace and love. We can experience these daily (Lam. 3:22-23).

However, it is not correct to look for whatever works. If it works does not make it right. Surveying the holiday celebrations in Boris' apartment in the concluding scene, we find all the key characters in their new-found relationships, each with a measure of love. For them, whatever works. But none of them have found depth of relationships. Theirs are superficial and distorted relationships that many would find immoral. Like Woody Allen's marriage with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow, these relationships are contrary to nature and decried in Scripture.

Whatever Works works as a comedy, but fails as philosophy. As followers of Jesus, our lives are not governed by whatever works, but by whatever glorifies God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Fever & Soccer Movies

Today begins one of the biggest sporting events in the world: the FIFA World Cup. Arguably bigger than the Olympics, certainly larger than SuperBowl, the Jules Rimet trophy is football's crowning tournament. (Note for Americans, this is soccer, not American Football).

For the next four weeks most of the world, me included, will be living and breathing World Cup soccer. I am rearranging my work and sleep schedules to watch as many games as possible. This might mean a slow-down in movie intake, and a decrease in number of reviews this month. But it is all worthwhile.

Meanwhile, to get into the spirit of the season, here is a short-list of the best football movies I have seen, in no particular order:

  • Shaolin Soccer (2001)-- a Chinese comedy that is hilarious at times

  • Bend it like Beckham (2002) -- the film that introduced us to Kiera Knightley, with barely a shot of the great David Beckham. A fun movie to rediscover the joy of various British accents

  • Bella (2006)-- not a soccer movie really, but one of the main characters was a star soccer player

  • Goal! The Dream Begins (2005) -- rags-to-riches story of a player making it in the English league for Newcastle United

  • Kicking and Screaming (2005) -- Wil Ferrell comedy about children's recreational soccer (if that is not an oxymoron with such competitive parents)

  • Gracie (2007)-- true story of a girl (real-life actress Elisabeth Shue) breaking into a boys' soccer team

  • Those Glory, Glory Days (1983) -- one of my favorites, not so much a soccer story as a fan's story. It is dear to my heart for two reasons: 1) this deals with the glory days of the Spurs' Double season of 1960-61, and I am a die-hard Tottenham fan; and 2) the accents are pure joy, reminding me of my early childhood.

  • Joyeaux Noel (2005)-- again, not a true soccer story, but soccer features prominently in this WW1 tale based on the real-life events of a Christmas soccer game when the trench war stopped for 24 hours.
Finally, here are two more movies, that escaped my viewing, to round out to ten. They might be worth taking a look:

  • Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) -- who can forget the "head-butt of the 2006 World Cup.

  • The Damned United (2009)-- movie about the Leeds United soccer coach
My guess is that if you are not a big soccer fan, the World Cup will mean little to you. And then neither will most of these films. But what the heck, it only comes around every four years. It's time to set life on hold and soak in the sights and sounds of South Africa.

With dual citizenship, my allegiances are somewhat torn. But I have to go with my football heritage. Here's rooting on the English (first, the Americans second)!

What other favorite soccer films would you add to this list? Add a comment letting me know what they are.

Monday, June 7, 2010

To End all Wars -- forgiveness and sacrifice

Director: David Cunningham, 2001. (R)

What must we do to end all wars? Though Cunningham's film does not answer the question directly, it does provide a picture of what is necessary. The title refers to something the main character, Capt. Ernie Gordon (Ciaran McMenamin) says in voice-over at the very start. As we see his Scottish regiment marching at home, he says he joined the army to fight in this war (WW2) to end all wars.

This is a low budget film, as is clear from the immediate cut from Scotland to Burma, showing the progression in a series of still photographs. In this way we find that the regiment has seen battle and the survivors taken captive by the Japanese. They are being transported to their new prison camp in the middle of the jungle. The story centers on their survival mechanisms and the lessons they learned during their brutal confinement.

Despite being an independent film, To End all Wars boasts some strong acting from some known actors. Robert Carlyle plays Maj. Ian Campbell, Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) is Dusty Miller, and Kiefer Sutherland (24) is the lone American, Lt. "Yanker" Reardon. When the leading officer, Lt. Col. Mclean (James Cosmo) is mercilessly executed on a whim, Campbell finds himself in charge. He is the authority figure, while Miller is the spiritual leader, a chaplain of sorts who creates a makeshift church.

Without being preachy or didactic, To End all Wars develops themes of self-respect, forgiveness, sacrifice and atonement in the midst of cruelty. Early on, the only medical doctor comments to Gordon, after he has been beaten by the guards, "Never look 'em in the eyes when they pass; that's pure defiance. Always look away. Rules of Bushido. . . Their kind of chivalry. Respect and obligation. If you don't respect them, they feel obligated to beat you. Nothing personal." In this POW camp environment, the Japanese eschew the Geneva Conventions but impose their own code of conduct based on respect.

More important than this "respect" of the guards, which can earn a severe beating or worse if ignored, is the self-respect that the prisoners need to survive. Despite hunger, violence and in some cases torture, the prisoners learn to survive by respecting themselves. Gordon and Miller are at the center of this. Gordon, who dreamed of being a teacher, finds himself offering classes in this "Jungle University". At first it is just philosophy, focusing on Plato's Republic, offered to a few men in less than ideal conditions. But it grows to religion and ethics, and even literature when a Shakespeare professor turns up.

We all have dignity and self-worth, even if those around us treat us like animals because they believe this to be so (as the Japanese did). Since we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) we have inherent worth, and are all equal before him, Scot or Japanese, German or American (Col. 3:11). Further, this imago dei inherent in humanity means we can learn and create. It is part of our intrinsic make-up to be curious, to want to learn and grow. Gordon tapped into this and in doing so gave the men the will to live.

When the film enters the second act, the POWs are forced to build a railroad for the Japanese as a supply line through Thailand. Indeed, this is based on a true story, where 61,000 allied prisoners were forced to build the Thailand-Burma railway. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is. This is the same storyline as in the 1957 Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai (7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director). Both films were based on the same book, Gordon's autobiography: "Through the Valley of the Kwai" (later renamed "Miracle on the River Kwai" and subsequently renamed to be "To End all Wars"). Though the earlier film was big-budget with much better sets and action, and a memorable score,it had less compelling underlying themes.

As the harsh treatment by the Japanese escalates, Campbell and Miller migrate to two polar extremes with regard to relating to the enemy. Meanwhile Gordon falls in the middle, acting as a fulcrum on this teeter-totter. He is the protagonist, and we watch to see which end of the plank he will be attracted to. Campbell, as the official leader, wants to escape, even though there is nowhere to go. He wants to fight fire with fire, and repay the enemy with eye for an eye (Exod. 21:24). For him, this is war. And to end all wars requires greater strength and violence. Miller, on the other hand, is the spiritual leader, and calls on the prisoners to live like Jesus. He proposes the "turn the other cheek" strategy (Matt. 5:39). Both are British soldiers, but they could not be further apart.

Gordon is ultimately persuaded to the position of forgiveness. When we are hurt we must forgive. Jesus taught that there is no limit on the forgiveness we are expected to proffer (Matt. 18:21-22). Counter to our unredeemed nature, we can only do this if we are spiritually renewed (Col. 3:10). At the end of the film, Gordon reflects in voice-over once again, this time on the lessons he learned in these years. He learned to forgive his enemies and in doing so win some over.

To go one step beyond forgiveness is to offer sacrifice. Two scenes are burned into memory here. In the first, a shovel is counted missing. As the men stand in the baking sun waiting for punishment from their captors, the Japanese officer wants to know who stole it. Slowly stepping out of line, Yankers walks forward. He does not have the shovel, but he sacrifices himself for his fellow prisoners. In this act, he suffers a monumental beating that leaves him permanently disabled. He took the punishment on himself voluntarily.

The second scene goes beyond this. Where Yankers paid the price for no one in particular, as the count was inaccurate, Miller puts himself in the place of a specific person and takes on his punishment. In a tremendously barbaric act, he is crucified as Jesus was. Unlike Jesus he died and remained dead.

Both scenes point to the power of sacrifice. The second scene points to the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Rarely has a picture been so clear of crucifixion as substiutionary in nature. (Gibson's The Passion of the Christ may be the exception.) Here, Miller becomes a Christ-figure, and we realize the cost of sacrifice. This was even more true for Jesus' sacrifice. When he willingly allowed himself to be nailed to the cross, he did so not for his own sins, but for mine, for yours. He took my place. He died my death, that I might live today with him (Gal. 2:20). We cannot get to God except through the cross of Christ (Jn. 14:6). The crosses we wear around our necks are shiny and beautiful. The cross Jesus (and Miller) touched was rough and raw, an instrument of execution.

Miller ends a crucified chaplain. Campbell's heart is hardened by imprisonment; he wants revenge and jungle justice. Gordon's life is transformed by the power of the living word, his encounter with Jesus through the gospel accounts. He went on to be the Dean of the Chapel at Princeton.Three men, three different destinies.

That brings us back to the question the film forces us to consider. What must we do to end all wars? To end all wars requires forgiveness and sacrifice, two weapons more powerful than any that is man-made. But wielding these weapons takes courage and character more than most can handle. In reality, they can only be handled by those empowered by Jesus.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 4, 2010

Righteous Kill -- losing faith, winning respect

Director: Jon Avnet, 2008. (R)

As Righteous Kill begins we see a grainy home video with a close-up of a man's face. He is saying, "I've been a cop in the NYPD for over thirty years, in that time I've killed 14 people." This is 'Turk' (Robert De Niro) and sets the scene for this sub-par B-feature.

Turk is partnered with Rooster (Al Pacino). Both are NYPD detectives. Both are approaching retirement. Both are jaded and cynical. They have spent their lives working together trying to clear the streets of low-life criminals, only to see them walk free for one reason or another. Early, when a rapist and murderer gets off, they frame him for a different crime. This marks an early turning point. They have crossed the line. Catholics, as they pray in church, Turk says to Rooster, "I've lost my faith."

Faith is something we cling to. It provides a set of values for us to live by. It connects us to our God. By faith we look beyond ourselves to someone bigger. We realize life is about more than just us. But when we see injustice flourish it is easy to lose heart and hope, as Turk did, and think that God is missing, or has left us. We lose sight and then lose faith. When we do it damages us, then destroys us. The psalmist Asaph recognized this millennia ago, as he struggled with this very thing (Psa. 73). But in the middle of his compliant he remembered that God has not promised recompense and justice in this life, but the one to come (Psa. 73:17).

With faith gone, there is nothing to anchor our soul, nothing to steer our values. We become rudderless, ready to do anything. This is Turk.

As Righteous Kill progresses, a serial killer begins to murder the sociopaths who have walked free. Where the judicial system cannot prevail, this killer will. Akin to the Charles Bronson film of the 70s, Death Wish, this is a vigilante in New York taking matters into his own hands. Leaving a poem at each murder as a calling card ("He trades in sin, distributes flesh, He picks his fruit when it is fresh, Now someone must slap his whore, His heart has stopped he breathes no more.") he is nicknamed the poetry killer.

Having to see a psychiatrist for killing a gangster in the line of duty, both Turk and Rooster share insights into their psyches. When asked, "How do you feel when you've fired your weapon?" Turk responds, "Dirty Harry said there's nothing wrong with a little shooting, as long as the right people get shot." But who are the right people? And what gives Turk the right to shoot them? Who made him judge, jury and executioner?

Righteous Kill highlights the pent-up frustration that occurs when criminals defeat the judicial system and are acquitted of crimes. In these cases the cops, even the common man in the street, know the system failed and the defendant should be locked up. But if we live in a democracy like America where we can participate in government we cannot simply rebel and take the law into our own hands when we suspect a criminal has gotten off scot-free. Paul said that God has put our governing authorities over us and we must submit to them (Rom. 13:1). We must trust the system, even if it occasionally fails, else we risk bringing on anarchy.

Suspecting a cop, the team of Rooster and Turk are paired with Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg). Tensions run high as Turk is sleeping with Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino), another NYPD homicide detective who used to be Perez' girlfriend. Brian Dennehy rounds out the cast as Lt. Hingis.

With this cast of actors, especially Pacino and De Niro, we expect something better. What they deliver here is a predictable, almost boring cop "thriller". These two veteran actors are simply going through the motions. They have appeared together three times now. They first time was in The Godfather Part 2 (1974), where De Niro won an Oscar. There they both played gangsters, but had no scenes together. In 1995 they were on opposite sides in Heat, with Pacino a cop and De Niro a criminal, and had just one scene together. We had to wait 13 years for them to finally have extended screen time with each other, here as two policemen, and the wait was simply not worth it.

If the focus of the film is on the righteous killings committed by a cop, the core value of the movie is respect. Turk verbalizes this: "You don't become a cop because you want to serve and protect. You join the force because they let you carry a gun and a badge. You do it because you get respect." He adds, "Most people respect the badge. Everyone respects the gun."

Women want love; men want respect (Eph. 5:22-33). But how do we get this? Do we get it by displaying a gun, like Turk believes? No, that is the way of force. That is a false respect. It is a respect of the gun, not the man. Remove the gun and you lose the respect. Respect in reality must be earned, not bought. It comes from character and integrity demonstrated in how we live, how we treat others. There is no shortcut to real respect, not even through fielding a firearm.

Turk wants respect. And he gets it, through his weapon. But De Niro and Pacino lose some of our respect through this mediocre addition to their resume. For academy Award winners once the highlight of Hollywood, they are sinking low.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs