Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Italian Job -- trust, betrayal and identity

Director: F. Gary Gray, 2003. (PG-13)

The Italian Job was originally a British film from the 60s starring Michael Caine (Sleuth) and featuring English TV comic Benny Hill. Set in Turin, its highlight was a traffic jam and three Mini Coopers maneuvering through the log-jammed streets. Gray's version is not so much a remake as a redo, a new movie inspired by its former namesake. All it has in common are the Minis and the jam.

The film opens in Venice as a theft is underway: of $35M of gold bullion. Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg) is leading the gang for the first time, having taken over the reins from John Bridger (Donald Pleasance), recent-parolee and safe-cracker extraordinaire. Rounding out the crew are computer hacker Lyle (Seth Green), wheel man Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), explosives expert Left-Ear (Mos Def) and inside-man Steve (Edward Norton). The plan is perfect, the execution flawless, and the getaway fast and furious. All seems a success, until Steve double-crosses them and takes it all for himself, killing one and leaving the rest for dead.

Having introduced the plot in Italy, The Italian Job leaves Europe and moves to Los Angeles for the final two acts. It's a year later, and Charlie's pursuit of Steve is rewarded. He has found him living under a new name with the profits of their heist. Pulling his team together, Charlie sets out to rob the robber. But he needs another safe-cracker, and he brings in Stella Bridger (Charlize Theron), John's daughter. She is as good as her dad, but an honest women, having experienced the consequences of the criminal lifestyle: the separation from her father during his prison stints.

The new "Italian job" is no longer about the payoff, it's about the payback. Money is immaterial, although a pleasant side-effect. Charlie wants revenge. So does Stella, and this is the only reason she would turn her back on integrity and turn to crime.

This new version is a lightweight summer flick that has a reasonable plot, some terrific chases, and mostly workmanlike acting from a well-rounded cast of big-name actors. Indeed, the two leads, Wahlberg and Norton, seem uninspired. Norton is going through the motions. This was not a movie he wanted to make, but was contractually obligated to Paramount for a three movie deal and was forced into this role (Primal Fear, his breakthrough film was the first). It's not as memorable as the original, but certainly a fun mini-ride with enough suspense to keep us watching to the finale.

The Italian Job is not simply a caper movie;  it is a revenge for broken trust film. In a scene where Stella is having dinner with Steve, reluctantly but to aid the team, he asks her, "Still don't trust me?" She replies, "I trust everyone. It's the devil inside them I don't trust." Trust is an issue for Stella as much as it is for Charlie. Her father had let her down too many times with empty promises. Steve had betrayed Charlie's trust.

Trust is something earned. It is built over time. When we do what we say, as we walk our talk, our credibility is created. This is part of our character, and something we need to cultivate. Yet it takes only a moment and a single action to destroy years of trust. As Steve's actions in Venice demonstrated, trust lost is hard to be regained. Two thousand years ago, one of Jesus' twelve closest friends had built a similar trust with him (Matt. 10:1, 4). Yet, a moment of action in the garden and Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities (Matt. 26:47-49)). That betrayal destroyed their trust-relationship resulted in Jesus' crucifixion and led to Judas' suicide (Matt. 27:5). Betrayal is a damning thing.

The Italian Job is not a deep film, but its dialog offers fruit for reflection. The line, "It's the devil inside them I don't trust" is repeated and proves pivotal in the plot-development. Stella's philosophy, demonstrated in this statement, is that human nature itself is good and trustworthy, but people may allow Satan to influence or even possess them. The lies and deceptions that eat at the heart of trust are the product of the devil, not the person. But this is errant theology.

Biblically, human nature has become corrupted by the fall, the original sin in the garden (Gen. 3:6). Now we don't need the devil to enable us to lie; our depraved nature can do it all by itself, thank you very much. There is still some goodness, a product of the imago dei present (1 Cor. 11:7), without which any trust would be impossible, yet our inherent nature is selfish and protective. We tend toward betrayal. But for the grace of God, Steve or Judas could be us. But by following Jesus, we are redeemed and given a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17), one that allows trust over betrayal.

As a caper movie, we pull for the criminal, though we know he is likely a violent sociopath. Early on, John Bridger gives Charlie some "sage" advice, criminal to criminal: "Charlie, there are two kinds of thieves in this world: the ones who steal to enrich their lives, and those who steal to define their lives. Don't be the latter. Makes you miss out on what's really important in this life." Obviously, most of us don't endorse crime, and would not want to resonate with the thieves here. But if we look at what they are as thieves we can see their stealing as work and modify the statement.

When we do this we see the truth in Bridger's point. We can work to enrich our lives or we can work to define our lives. Many people see work as self-defining. When asked about themselves, who they are, they respond with what they do, their work. They are defined by their job. "I am an engineer," as opposed to "I work as an engineer". The former is complete, my self-identity is found in my work. The second is incomplete, it does not tell others who I am. That is correct, because I am more than my job. If I lose it next week, I will remain the same person, though unemployed. My identity is found in my relationships. My true identity is based on my trust relationship with Jesus. By faith in Christ I am a son of God (Gal. 3:26) and a member of his family (Jn. 1:12). That will never change. Almost everything else will change, including job loss or retirement, betrayal by friends, family or coworkers, but Jesus will remain unchangeable (Heb. 13:8), an anchor for our soul (Heb. 6:19).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Date Night -- marriages and commitments

Director: Shawn Levy, 2010. (PG-13)

Summer evening in Portland and I wanted to spend time with my wife. As it was two-fer Tuesday we headed to the historic Bagdad Theater for a showing of, appropriately, Date Night. Though we are about as far from New York City, the setting for Levy's movie, as you can be in the continental United States, contextually this comedy resonated with me as we are a middle-aged couple with kids still at home.

The Fosters, Phil (Steve Carrell, Get Smart) and Claire (Tina Fey), are late-30s dual-income suburban parents with two elementary schoolkids. He is a tax accountant (can you say "boring") and she is a realtor. Their marriage is fine, their home is pleasant, their kids are . . . kids. Life is work, kids, chores, sleep -- predictable and boring. The highlight of the week is Tuesday night: date night. But date night is always the same -- potato skins at the same restaurant, or movies at the cineplex. The highlight of the dinner date is their game of "what's the story" as they spy on other couples and try to guess what is going on for them. Life is routine. They are in a rut.

Both come to this realization in different ways but at the same time, just prior to their next date night. Claire decides to spice things up by getting dressed up for a change. Seeing her like this, Phil decides to abandon the usual and drive into the city to eat at "Claws", the newest hottest restaurant. But this date is a Friday night, and they had no reservation. With little chance of getting a table, when the hostess calls out table for the Triplehorns and no one stands up, Phil throws caution to the winds and claims the reservation. One little white lie that will lead the biggest and worst night of their lives.

Toward the end of this expensive meal ("If we are going to pay this much for crab it better sing and dance and introduce us to the Little Mermaid!"), two toughs walk up to their table and ask them to step outside. Thinking they are with the restaurant, the Fosters go out into the dark alley. Bad mistake. These are not restaurant workers. They are criminals looking for the Triplehorns, who have stolen something from Joe Miletto (Ray Liotta), a mob boss. One ordinary couple caught in a case of mistaken identity. This special date night might be more expense than they bargained for; it might just cost them their lives.

This setup turns this date night into a date night from hell. The rom-com becomes a comic thriller, as Levy introduces guns, chases, and crashes. Indeed, Date Night has one of the funniest, if silliest, car chases in recent history during which Phil and Claire squabble like the older married couple they are.

In some ways Date Night is similar to the recent action comedy Knight and Day. Both feature lead actors  entering their middle years. Both have a person caught up in somethnig well beyond the norm. But whereas Kinght and Day brings Diaz and Cruise together as strangers to become lovers, Date Night starts with the premise of existing lovers who have become too familiar with each other. This movie explores the other end of relationships, set against the dangers of blackmail, mobsters and prostitution.

What makes this zany comedy work is the down-home feel and the chemistry of Carrell and Fey. Amidst the thrills and spills is some serious inner conflict, relationship problems. The very act of facing danger together forces Phil and Claire to face up to some of their problems. Even as they are escaping from the villains, they take time to stop their stolen car and have a heart-to-heart talk.

Levy ofers three different couples as foils to Phil and Claire. The first is Brad (Mark Ruffalo, Zodiac) and his wife. Although they appear only briefly early in the film, they represent what the Fosters could be: "excellent room-mates." But this is not a positive statement. Brad is splitting from Haley. They have lost the spark. Friends perhaps, but lovers no more. Haley now wants to "walk the bird" to find freedom, a freedom that will let her do whatever she wants whenever she wants.

This first view is very common. Love untended withers and dies.When excitement disappears the commitment to marriage appears to be a prison. The escape is divorce. But this is no escape. It is abandonment. "I ' hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel" (Mal. 2:16). Marriage is a life-long commitment. When we say our vows, we make a promise before friends, family and God. We can make it last by nurturing the relationship instead of allowing it languish. The freedom to have sex with anyone we want is no freedom. It is a hidden prison. Marriage properly cultivated is true freedom. We can be excellent room-mates and exquisite lovers, if we work at it.

The second couple is Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg) and his date. Holbrooke is shirtless and hot. An old acquaintance of Claire's, he is an ex-military, black-ops dude who knows he can get a date. His date is hotter yet, a young foreign woman who wants one thing only from a relationship.

This couple portrays the sultry sexuality that is at the heart of many relationships today. Superficial, when the sex gets old, the couple is toast. Today's society is both sensual and sexual, and older couples, like the Fosters, seem stodgy and sleepy. No swingers, they. But in a strong marriage, sex is a healthy and important aspect. Age is immaterial. God made us physical as well as spiritual, and with age comes the maturity and experience of knowing what the other partner wants and desires. We can find our marital sex becoming better and better with time. We may not be the hot couple, but we might find deeper intimacy than Holbrooke enjoyed with his Israeli babe.

The third couple is Taste (James Franco) and Whipit (Mila Kunis), the low-life criminals who were the "Triplehorns". These two are in their 20s and madly in love. But their bickering and posturing are reminiscent of what the Fosters went through in their chase stopover. This is the Fosters 15 years earlier. It is a review of where they have come from and a reminder of where they are today and why.

It is always helpful to reflect back and ponder the lessons we have learned over time. The Fosters had allowed the bickering and struggles of life to strangle some of their passion. But that can be avoided as we remember what brought us together. As they saw the animal magnetism displayed by Taste attracting his woman to him, we can remember what attracted us to our spouse. We can look beyond his or her faults. In the great "love chapter" the apostle Paul tells us love "keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor. 13:5). Instead love keeps a record of rights, the right things we liked and still like about our partner. Phil remembered this.

In Date Night when they tell most characters that the took someone else's restaurant reservation, the uniform response is, "What kind of people are you?" Phil tells us what kind of people they are, "I'd do it again, you know? Us, you, me, the kids, all of it. I'd do it again. I'd choose you every time." They are the kind of people who stick together in a lifelong marriage that is growing and thriving. I'd do it again. How about you? What kind of people are you?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Volver -- family secrets, pivotal returns

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 2006. (R)

Volver is a Spanish verb meaning to return. Almodóvar's Volver focuses on a return of sorts. And Almodóvar himself returns to the theme of strong women surviving without men. As in many of his films, such as All About My Mother or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, men have little or no roles. Here only Paco is prominent, albeit briefly but in a plot-centric way.

Almodóvar returns also to zany comedy after a string of dramas, including his Oscar-winner Talk to Her. Volver is full of rapid-fire one-liners that require a second viewing to fully enjoy It is not a deep or spiritual film, but its themes of female strength, family secrets and pivotal returns underscore the value of further scrutiny.

Penelope Cruz (Elegy), who has worked with Almodóvar several times (All About My Mother, Broken Embraces) plays Raimundo, the central figure. As the film opens, Raimundo, her teenaged daughter Paula (Yohanna Cobo) and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) have driven from Madrid to their childhood village of La Mancha, to visit the grave of their mother. Seeing them, and many other women, cleaning graves, Almodóvar underscores female survival. But this is a traditional and superstitious village. And when these three ladies visit Aunt Paula, the elderly and senile aunt who raised Raimundo after the death of her parents, Aunt Paula makes this clear. As she babbles, not recognizing Sole, she tells Raimundo that her dead mother is actually living with her and taking care of her.

Cruz inhabits this role and brings it to life with verve and vibrancy, sensitivity and soul. She deservedly earned an Oscar nomination. Indeed, she became the first Spanish woman ever to be nominated for Best Actress (and later won for her role in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona). But Almodovar seems to pull great performances out of his actresses, and Cobo and Duenas are no exceptions. Couple these with Carmen Maura, as Irene the long-dead mother, and this is a quartet of Spanish actresses that carry the film.

Back in Madrid, Paco tells Raimundo that he was fired. She has to take on yet another job to support the family. Unlike Sole, who works clandestinely as a hairdresser in her own home, Raimundo works long-hours legally to bring food home.

Raimundo's character and strength present a vivid picture of the Proverbs 31 woman: "She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family" (v.15). "She sets about her work vigorously" (v.17) and we see this when an incident occurs at home. When she finds an opportunity to make some money in a local restaurant, "She sees that her trading is profitable" (v.18). Truly, "she is clothed with strength and dignity" (v.25). "She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness" (v.27). The writer of this proverb summarizes the value of this kind of woman, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised" (v.30).

Death surfaces in this upbeat film. Aunt Paula passes away. But at a most inconvenient time. And Raimundo cannot attend the funeral. Sole goes solo to the wake hosted by family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). When she returns she brings more than she knows. And with her comes a whole set of questions that turn the film into a suspenseful farce. When Agustina herself becomes ill, she calls on both sisters to uncover some family secrets and discover truth long buried.

Volver highlights the fact that families often keep secrets, burying them under layers of distortions and lies. As children we believe what we are told by our parents or guardians. Later we may unearth the truth, and these secrets may be shocking. We often know more about the upbringings of our friends and co-workers than that of our own parents. We may ask ours, if they are still alive only to be put off with vague answers or smokescreens. But the truth might just be more than we can handle, as it is here, for Raimundo. The secrets from her past shock her to the core. Once they see the light of day, they can never be hidden again. Some secrets may be better left unrevealed. As Paco found out, some should simply be buried.

The revelation of the secret is connected to volver, the return of a long-lost character. This reminds us of the book of Revelation which focuses on the return of another long-lost character: the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 19:11-16). His return will bring to light family secrets: the secrets of sin and salvation (Matt. 25:31-48). Whether we like it or not, at his return we will come face-to-face with the reality of sin. Those who are not followers of Jesus will see him in his glory and holiness and realize their own unholiness, like Isaiah did in the presence of God Almighty (Isa. 6:5). Sin has a way of seeping into our souls and distorting our vision until we fail to see it. But when the Light comes the shadows and darkness become evident. The return of Jesus will usher in the separation of those who are his and are written in the book of life (Rev. 21:27), and those who are not and are destined for the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). Salvation and redemption only come to those who prove faithful to Jesus, the returning King.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fracture -- arrogance, weakness and winning

Director: Gregory Hoblit, 2007. (R)

Winners. We love winners. We rarely remember those in second place. Quick: who lost the last Super Bowl? (Come to think of it, who won the last Super Bowl?) In America, maybe the world over, we want to be winners. We don't want to be losers. Winning is one of the themes of Fracture, the intriguing court-room drama from the director of another court-room movie, Primal Fear.

Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) is a killer. He's also a wealthy, brilliant engineer married to a beautiful younger woman, Jennifer (Embeth Davidz, Fallen, also directed by Hoblit). But he knows that Jennifer is having an affair with a cop, and strategizes a way to take both out with one bullet. He ruthlessly kills her at point-blank range in their mansion, knowing that eye witnesses put him at the crime scene. When the cops arrive, he confesses verbally to the murder and then puts it in a signed statement. Open and shut case.

Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl) is the District Attorney handed the case on a platter. The catch: he has his bags packed and he's mentally checking out. This hotshot lawyer has created a name for himself as a winner with a 97% conviction rate, and is on his way to a new job at a prestigious civil law firm. He is trading in his civic responsibilities for a lucrative salary.

When Willy meets Ted in the court-room at the arraignment, Ted waives his right to a lawyer and elects to defend himself and then pushes for a swift trial. Little does Willy know, Ted has masterminded the whole thing like clockwork. As in the modern ball-bearing motion-creations he makes, he has steered a path for his trial that only he knows.

What follows is a thoroughly entertaining battle of wits between two very arrogant men. Going head-to-head, Hopkins and Gosling bring their A games to this film, and play off each perfectly. The script, too, is strong, keeping us wondering until almost the very last scene.

Both main characters are obscenely arrogant. Brilliance can lead to an over-inflated sense of ego. That is clear here. Who will master who? Important in the film, in life arrogance is a character flaw. The Bible has much to say about arrogance, haughtiness and pride. It is said of God, "You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty" (Psa. 18:27). And, "whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure" (Psa. 101:5). The writer of Proverbs says, "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18). In contrast, we are pointed toward the opposite of arrogance: "Seek righteousness, seek humility" (Zeph. 2:3). This is not a false humility (Col. 2:18), but one in which "in humility consider others better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).

In a jail-house interaction, Ted raises his arrogance over Willy's by telling him a story of his childhood, from which the movie derives its title. He worked in his grandfather's egg farm .
I used to candle eggs at his farm. Do you know what that is? You hold an egg up to the light of a candle and you look for imperfections. The first time I did it he told me to put all the eggs that were cracked or flawed into a bucket for the bakery. And he came back an hour later, and there were 300 eggs in the bakery bucket. He asked me what the hell I was doing. I found a flaw in every single one of them - you know, thin places in the shell; fine, hairline cracks. You look closely enough, you'll find that everything has a weak spot where it can break, sooner or later.
When Willy wonders if Ted has found his weakness, Ted replies, "I've already found yours. . . . You're a winner, Willy." Here is the theme of winning.

Willy's weakness is he will sacrifice everything to win. Nothing will stop him. And he goes at it 100%, even putting his relationships at risk. When we react like Willy, willing to win at any cost, we lose sight of the bigger picture. We might win the battle but lose the war. And the casualties that mount up may include loved ones that should take priority over the goal at hand. Winning is not everything. Sometimes it is not worth it. Sometimes, we need to be losers . . . so we can be winners.

Ted is right on one point. We all have weaknesses. We all are ready to fracture if the weakness is pressed. What is yours? You probably know what it is, and try to hide it, so no one can find it and exploit it. The reality is, we can never be perfect. We can acknowledge our weaknesses before our God and be like the apostle Paul. He had a weakness, and he prayed to God to remove it from him. But the Lord did not. Instead he said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me" (2 Cor. 12:9). We can let God's grace shine through our weaknesses, so that we might say with Paul, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).

As the climax to the case approaches, Willy's character flaw causes him to grow, arcing from an over-confident cocky lawyer to a justice-seeking crusader. But as time runs out, Willy faces a choice: he can cross an ethical line and almost guarantee victory; or he can be honest and true and let the chips (or cracked egg shell pieces) fall where they may.

Which brings up the final theme: what will we do to win? Are we willing to not only sacrifice our loved ones and perhaps future opportunities but also to cross the line and cheat? Does our desire for victory trump our sense of ethics, of what is right and wrong? Such a victory can only come at a high price: the fracturing of our character. Is it worth it? I think not.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Toy Story 3 -- perspectives on jobs and love

Director: Lee Unkrich, 2010. (G)

Fifteen-years ago, Pixar has come a long way from its first fantastic film, Toy Story, that captured our attention. But they continued to exceed the bar, with films like Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, and most recently Wall-E and Up. It seems that with each new creation they have outdone their best. All of their 10 previous films earned at least one Oscar nomination with 7 of them carrying home a trophy. This 11th feature had quite a tradition to keep up. Not only that, but it is the sequel to a sequel, normally a bad sign indicating a studio out of creative ideas, wanting to milk some more cash out of an audience with a rerun tale. Not so here. The storyline is fresh while retaining most of the original cast and introducing some new characters. It pulls off the difficult task of standing alongide its predecessors, carrying its own story, and bringing the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. At the same time, it is a 5-heart barrel of fun that ranks up there with the best of Pixar's earlier films.

The film opens with an action sequence featuring Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) and Jessie (voice of Joan Cusack) on horseback chasing a train being robbed by evil bandits.This could have been taken straight from an old-fashioned Western . . . at least until spaceman Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen) intervenes. But all this introduction brings back memories of the first film. Then we see this is actually the imagination of young Andy (voice of John Morris) as he plays intently and lovingly with his toys.

As Randy Newman sings the signature tune, the film moves ahead 10 years and Andy is now a high school graduate and preparing for college. Significantly, Newman sings, "As the years go by, our friendship will never die." Here is the key question Toy Story 3 is trying to answer: will toys simply be discarded when the owner grows up? Or is there a friendship, a connection, that is deeper, longer-lasting? How should the toys handle this dilemma? Beside some other themes developed along the way, Unkrich offers three answers to this problem, from the perspective of the toys themselves. Yet we can mine some nuggets for our own relationships as well.

When Andy's mom tells him he must clear out his toys, either depositing them in the attic, discarding them as trash, or donating them to a daycare, the toys realize their predicament. And the scene is set. The toy soldiers offer the first perspective. Telling the other toys, "We done our duty," they pop parachutes and jump out the window to float away to freedom.

Their response points to an obligation. They may have been Andy's toys but their duty was simply to bring him entertainment, some fun. This is akin to a business relationship. Their job is to serve. When that job is done, they have no long-term commitment to the master, the owner. Most jobs are like this today. We work, putting in the hours, to serve a boss who may be personally unaware of who we are or what we do. Regardless, as followers of Jesus we do work hard with good attitudes as if we are serving the Lord (Eph. 6:5-8). Yet often when we grow up and retire, or they grow up and realize they don't need us anymore, we are cut loose. Our parachutes may include an attractive layoff package, a golden parachute if we are an executive, or simply a box of our possessions if we are really unlucky. But when we exit the building or jump out the window, that is the last we will ever see of that boss and that job. We don't care enough to want to spend any more time with him or her. It is a relationship, but commercial and superficial.

Through a series of accidents, the discarded toys find themselves donated to Sunshine Daycare, and are at least glad to be together. Here is the second perspective: "The important thing is to stick together." We find this in other business relationships. Sometimes when people retire or leave, they enjoy their fellow employees or staff members so much that they miss the camaraderie. They may not miss the boss or employer, but they have significant friendships that last beyond the termination of employment. We see this when retirees volunteer back at the company. We see more when retirees meet regularly for coffee or lunch weekly or monthly. Their job may be over. But some relationships persist. They want to continue to be together, in one form or another.

On their first day in their new "home" the toys meet the new leader of the toys, a cuddly, strawberry-scented bear called "Lots-o-hugging-bear", nicknamed Lotso (voice of Ned Beatty). He is soft-spoken and appears to be a caring grandfatherly type, tottering around on a cane with some other toys as helpers. This couldn't be further from the truth. He is a tyrant, running the place with an iron rule, keeping the new toys in their place: the Caterpillar Room, where unsupervised toddlers trash them and all-but-destroy them . . .  on a daily basis.

Lotso brings up the theme of appearances. Appearances can be, and often are, deceptive. He seems so nice but is inwardly nasty. Lucifer is like this, too. He appears as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:4) but in reality is the prince of darkness. We are drawn to what we think we see, not always being discerning enough to look beyond the surface image. The devil knows this and plays to this aspect of our fallen nature. He presents us with temptations we are likely to fall for, and then once we have taken the bait he reels us in. We can and must be shrewder than a serpent (Matt. 10:16) in our ongoing battle with Satan.

Woody, though, is a special favorite of Andy's, who wants to take him to college. This cowboy toy must escape the confines of the daycare center and find his way back to Andy's home. His plan falls afoul and gets carried away by the wind; he finds himself in the care of a new owner. Here we meet some new toys, including a thespian hedgehog named Mr Pricklepants and another dinosaur Trixie. Perhaps the best pair of new toy characters are Barbie and Ken. Their lines are a hoot. Ken (voice of Michael Keaton) declares, when he first spies Barbie, "It's like we were made for each other!" Barbie (voice of Jodi Benson), on the other hand, shows she is more than just a pretty figure, with her understanding of modes of government, "Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!"

Eventually Woody realizes he must return to save his friends whatever the cost. Like the motto of the US Marines, the tagline for Toy Story 3 is driven home: no toy left behind! And that brings us to the second half of the film: it becomes an escape movie. Much like The Great Escape, the toys are prisoners in a compound that is guarded like a POW camp. Pixar brings a heightened sense of suspense, surprisingly so for a G-rated movie focused on children and families.

Woody himself offers the third perspective on growing up. Andy says, "Now Woody, he's been my pal for as long as I can remember. He's brave, like a cowboy should be. And kind, and smart. But the thing that makes Woody special, is he'll never give up on you... ever. He'll be there for you, no matter what." His view is that toys like him are supposed to keep on loving their owners forever, even when they are about to be discarded because they have been outgrown.

This is a deep theme, pointing beyond the casual business relationships we have explored in the prior two perspectives. This is more profound. It points towards an agape love that is sacrificial and focused entirely on the other, the one being loved.

To switch the parallel, God is like this. He loves us sacrificially, having given the life of his son for us (Jn. 3:16). And he goes on loving us, never giving up on us. "His love endures forever" (Psa. 136:1). Nothing can separate us from this love (Rom. 8:38-39). He is there for us always, no matter what. We might at times grow tired of God. Perhaps we feel disappointed with how life has turned out and blame God for this. We pull back from him, tiring of him for a time. But he never leaves us. God will never leave us or forsake us (Deut. 31:6), though we might wish he would. As Woody keeps coming back for Andy, so God will keep coming back for us.

We might graduate college, we might retire from our job, but no matter what age we are and how grown up we become, we never outgrow God.

All three perspectives on the toys' jobs offer a part of the truth. But which makes most sense and is most complete? Life is more than commercial relationships. It is more than friendship. It is founded on love, a love from God and a love for God. Have you found that love?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Passengers -- perspectives and truth

Director: Rodrigo Garcia, 2008. (PG-13)

A plane crashes on the beach just outside a big city. A dozen or so passengers survive, staggering around like drunks as they watch the engines explode. Having experienced such catastrophe, seeing so many die, it is not surprising they need grief counseling. And Claire (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married) is the young counselor assigned to provide this emotional support.

Claire has spent most of her young life studying for advanced degrees. She has been hiding behind her books, avoiding the real world. Unlike her activist sister, she has been afraid to face reality. Her mentor Perry (Andre Braugher) realizes this and forces her into the fray alone. She will help them with group sessions.

She meets them initially at the hospital on the night of the crash. While most agree to come to her sessions, Eric (Patrick Wilson) refuses. He says he does not need counseling. But he wants to see her, only not as a patient. He is riding an apparent wave of euphoria, an outcome of the post-traumatic stress of the situation.

The sharing by the survivors in her group counseling offers varied perspectives of the crash. Each recalls it differently. As in any situation, we see things from our own vantage point (e.g. see Vantage Point). Our own personalities may distort what we saw or remember. But one remembers an explosion before the crash that seemed to be the prime cause of the crash.

When Claire starts the sessions weird things begin to occur. Creepy strangers appear outside, watching and waiting. Then the survivors start to mysteriously disappear. The airline investigator Arkin (David Morse, Disturbia) appears to be covering up something. Classic conspiracy, or so it seems. The premise appears positive but the payoff fails to land, leaving us as passengers on an empty vessel.

For most of the film, you wish you were one of those passengers who disappears. If you were lucky you would be one of the first so you could skip most of the movie. If you were the unluckiest, you would have to sit through the entire film. In fact, Passengers has just enough to keep us interested and watching, but only barely. Wilson is creepily odd as the euphoric passenger who hits on Claire. But the chemistry between Wilson and Hathaway is missing, and her character comes across as immature, unprofessional and lacking in ethical judgment. We cannot root for her if she persists in "hanging out" with this creepy oddball.

Passengers touches on a couple of topics worth exploring. First is perspective. Eric, a VP in a business firm, re-evaluates his life after surviving the crash. He realizes all his time invested in making the deal was worth nothing. As Jesus said, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:26) There is so much more that he wants to do now that he has been given a second chance.

What does it take for us to realize what is important in our lives? We can stop at any time and step back from the rat race we may find ourselves in. It does not have to take an event of such tragedy. Even this film can be our wake-up call. Have we forgotten our family? Do we need to reconnect with a sibling we have not talked to for months, even years? Do we need to find ourselves, pursue our dream, instead of punching a clock for the next 40 years?

When Claire sees Eric in his apartment for the first time, he tells her the crash was a marvel for him: "I feel like I'm born again." He was relating his awakening, as from his dream-life. But we can also remember that there is a true "born-again" feeling. Jesus said it to Nicodemus, in a night-time encounter. The scholar, had come to Jesus to listen to one who had performed miracles. But Jesus took control of the conversation by saying, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (Jn. 3:3). We can enter into new life, see the very kingdom of God, by choosing to follow Jesus (Jn. 1:12). In this way we can be truly born-again.

As Claire digs into the mystery, she pursues the truth behind the "accident". She tells Perry, "The truth heals." She is right of course. We desire the truth. Sometimes it is hard, but it is better than being misled. Jesus said that the "truth shall set you free" (Jn. 8:32). And he also said, "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6). He is the truth-bringer, the life-giver. Apart from the truth we die.

One of the taglines for Passengers says "The Truth Can't Hide Forever." The truth is Passengers is not that good and perhaps the film itself ought to hide forever.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, July 12, 2010

Elegy -- growing old, seeing beauty

Director: Isabel Coixet, 2008. (R)

The title points to a sad and mournful musical or poetic composition. But who is mourning what?

Elegy is an under-rated movie by the director of The Secret Life of Words, from the novella by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Philip Roth. As in that earlier film, Coixet focuses on relationships and explores the complexity of love and beauty, the conflicts brought on by freedom vs commitment, and the issue of growing old. Is it a melodrama? Not really, though the ending is contrived and overly sentimental. Is it erotic? In places, especially given the long panned views of Penelope Cruz's nude body. Is it cynical? Sometimes, considering the main character David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a middle-aged womanizer who sees women as objects for his own personal pleasure. More than all these, Elegy is a beautiful and touching story of love won and lost and the power of love to transform.

Kepesh is an intellectual. A professor of literature in New York City, he is single and on the prowl. The opening scene shows him in a TV studio discussing one of his books on hedonism in the early American settlements. He reads a quote about this, " 'Debauched Bakunin aliens and atheists, falling into great licentiousness, and leading degenerate lives.' When I heard that, I packed my bags, I left Oxford, and I came straight to America, America the licentiousness." Coixet uses this scene to introduce Kepesh' character: a Brit who left his strait-laced and stiff-upper-lip birth-country for the sexual freedom of the liberated States.

Consuella (Penelope Cruz) walks into one of his classes and straight into his heart. Unlike any of the other myriad of women he has conquered and discarded, she stands out as classy, sophisticated, elegant and educated, a woman to be wooed. She has beauty that reminds Kepesh of beautiful art, momentary yet eternal. She is also 30 years younger than him and reminds of his lost youth. The wasted years.

David is growing old but he has never grown up. Despite an early marriage which produced a son, Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard), he has moved on from this divorce. He cannot hold down a relationship, because he does not share himself. He preys on his students for sex and sex alone. The cycles of life, though, demand a maturation. We are supposed to grow up as we grow old. That is not to say we should give up our passions and dreams. But with grey hair should come wisdom and a perspective to life.

We should not remain an emotional teen in a 50-year-old body. Many do, and we witness this in the mid-life crises that hit some men who realize their best years are behind them. Throwing off the wife of their youth, they trade-in their tan Taurus for a red Mustang. And they trade-up to a new young bride, who will make them feel young again . . . at least for a few years until the prostate goes.

David says it himself, "I think it was Betty Davis who said old age is not for sissies. But it was Tolstoy who said the biggest surprise in a man's life is old age. Old age sneaks up on you, and the next thing you know you're asking yourself, I'm asking myself, why can't an old man act his real age? How is it possible for me to still be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy? Because, in my head, nothing has changed." He does not want to act his real age, for fear of his own mortality.

Fear of commitment is another factor in his psyche. He has no long-standing relationships except one male friend George (Dennis Hopper) and one female friend Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson). The contrast between relationship and sex is brought out clearly in these two foils. George is "happily" married but maintains a string of mistresses, just for sex. He separates the two. His wife is a friend; his younger mistress is a sex-kitten. Somehow he is able to compartmentalize these two fundamental aspects of life. Carolyn, on the other hand, is a former student who has maintained a sexual relationship with David for 20 years. Coming into his life for brief one-night stands as she flies into New York, theirs is a relationship of convenience. In one scene, she asks him, "Is this our first real conversation?"

Relationship is fundamental to humanity. We were created to connect to others (Gen. 2:24). We connect as we open up and share who we are. We cannot have a genuine relationship if we do not disclose our identity. If we take no risk, we build no relationship. One demands the other. We were also created as sexual beings (Gen. 1:28), to enjoy sex (Song of Solomon 4:16. But this was and still is intended to be enjoyed within the boundaries of marriage (Heb. 13:4). One man-one woman, connected to one another in holy matrimony (Matt. 19:6). This provides the freedom to truly enjoy one another without the fear of jealousy and loss. David did not understand this. He sees marriage as a prison and freedom only in uncommitted sexual exploration. He has got his perspectives twisted.

When he falls in love with Consuella he is forced to come face-to-face both with his age and his worldview. No longer can he use her and betray her. She is better than this. For the first time in his life he is insecure. He faces his own fear: fear of losing her. He believes it cannot last; the age gap is too great. Having given his heart, he fears it will be broken. And in this fear, he does what we often do: he sabotages this relationship.

Fear, love and sabotage. Too often, we break things off prematurely, rationalizing that it is better to cut it off early and experience some pain, than to let a relationship develop and lose it later when that pain would be infinitely worse. This is hogwash. It is fallacious logic. We don't know what the future will bring. That is why life is how it is -- a grand adventure. Love does involve fear at times. If we open ourself up to another, we are at risk of abandonment. But that is a risk we must face. As the apostle John tells us, "perfect love drives out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18).

Coixet coaxes stellar performances out of her cast. Kingsley and Cruz are tremendous actors, both having received Oscar nominations (Kingsley won for Ghandi, Cruz lost for Volver). So this is no surprise. Sarsgaard is strong in his few scenes, as a bitter son following in the footsteps of his father, finally seeking counsel from a man who has no wisdom to offer. But most surprising of all is Dennis Hopper. Playing against type (normally an over-the-top villain, as in Speed), he gives one of his best performances in one of his last roles (sadly passing away just two months ago).

Hopper it is who introduces one of the best themes of this film: beauty. In one of the coffee-shop meetings with David, George the poet posits a thesis: "Beautiful women are invisible." Provocative. David replies, "Invisible? What the hell does that mean? Invisible? They jump out at you. A beautiful woman, she stands out. She stands apart. You can't miss her." We would all agree with this. When we see a beauty, like Penelope Cruz, we know it. We can't miss it. But that's not George's point: "But we never actually see the person. We see the beautiful shell. We're blocked by the beauty barrier. Yeah, we're so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside."

David is a connoisseur and a sophisticate. As a photographer and pianist, he knows art. He recognizes beauty.He can see the outward picture of beauty but what does he know of the inner beauty? Nothing. Until he meets Consuela.

Beautiful women are often objectivized. They are seen for their outward beauty not for their character or personality. They become sex objects. Hollywood is guilty of this. But how often do we look at a beautiful woman and fail to see the real person? Beauty (for a woman) or handsomeness (for a  man) can sometimes be a barrier to connection. What draws people to gaze or ogle also separates, leaving them imprisoned inside a glass case which is not of their own making. And the truth is, such beauty is only skin-deep, and will fade with time as wrinkles appear and curves disappear. We must look beyond superficial beauty to the real person. That is the only way to see true beauty and experience true relationships.

So, whose elegy is it? It seems to be Kepesh's elegy, for his lost relationships, his lost possibilities, as time relentlessly marches on. Do we need a wake-up call like his? Or are we secure in our age and our relationships?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs 
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Sunday, July 11, 2010

World Cup Final

Today is the final of the World Cup 2010. It's time to say sayonara to the super soccer ball, the Jabulani (meaning celebrate in Zulu) specially created for this event by Adidas. It's time to salute an au 'voir to the vuvuzelas, the loud and exuberant omnipresent stadium horns. It's time to bid a fond farewell to the festival of football. Sixty-three games down, just the big one left to play out. How will we survive until Brazil 2014?

What memories, though. From the opening game with host nation South Africa against Mexico, through the England-US group-play match, to the surprising quarter and semi-finals where the power-house South American giants were felled by the Europeans. Who will forget the goal that never was, when Frank Lampard's shot for England landed at least a yard into the goal before bouncing out and play resumed (can anyone say "goal-line technology" please?). Or the notoripus hand-ball by Luis Suarez to save Uruguay in the very last minute of over-time and effectively knock out Ghana, dashing the hopes of the entire African continent.

Of course there are our favorite players. There was Cuauhtémoc Blanco (see right) of Mexico. From catcalls to cheers, this 37 year-old, chubby forward, who looked like he should be watchnig the finals plumped down on a soft couch rather than captaining his national team, became the first Mexican to score a goal in three consecutive World Cup Finals. Then there's Diego Forlan, the hair-band adorned Uruguayan goal-scorer, who netted 5 times and who seemed to be the only striker who could tame the Jabulani and score from a free-kick. Or Wesley Sneijder, the diminutive Dutchman who effectively knocked out favorite Brazil with a shot and a header. And there's the other mighty mite, David Villa, whose 5 goals so far have almost single-handedly kept Spain in the competition. Both he and Schneider have a game left to play in the final to break the 5-goal tie and become the winner of the golden boot for top-goalscorer in South Africa this last month..

While the Three Lions of England looked old and toothless, the young bucks of Germany seemed invincible, putting scoring four goals in a match three times, against Australia, England and Argentina. But Spain proved too much for them. The passion of the Iberians morphed into the patient passing play that was boring but brutally effective in choking Klose, the German scorer, and forcing a shut-out.

Netherlands Spain

Now it's down to two nations: Spain and Netherlands. We started with a blog post about favorite soccer movies. It's fitting that we end the tournament with a post on favorite films from these two countries. Here are mine; yours may be different:
By my count, that's Spain winning 5-1. With Spain's stingy defense, I predict a similar result on the field later today (like Paul the psychic octopus): Spain by a score of 2-1. But just so you know, I am still rooting for the men of Orange today. Go Holland!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Knight and Day -- protecting our lives, discovering our desires

Director: James Mangold, 2010. (PG-13)

At 48 and 38 respectively, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are hardly young pups. On paper they are too old for an action comedy-thriller. Most of us in this age-bracket are happy to be able to get out of bed in the morning without joint pain. Here Cruise leaps across roofs, jumps out of planes, and races amongst bulls on a motorcycle.

Cruise is Roy Miller, an agent on the run. Like Jason Bourne, he is a trained killer and can get out of most situations. Like Bourne, his own country is after him, sending assassins to kill him. Diaz is June Havens, a single woman who restores vintage cars. He can handle killers; she can handle carburettors. She has nothing to do with the CIA or FBI until Miller briefly bumps into her in an airport. She immediately comes into the microscopic glare of those trailing Miller. An unlikely pair.

Panned by many, this is one of the brighter of this summer's movies. It certainly appeals more to the older generation, who remember Cruise when he was one of the young guns, such as in Top Gun. Cruise and Diaz have wonderful chemistry together. Both adopt a tongue-in-cheek style and underplay their characters. And it works. Cruise delivers his dialog deadpan to give the film sharp comic relief. For example, in an early scene where Cruise kills the assassins on the plane. He tells June but she does not believe him. But when she sees the cockpit door ajar, she cries out, "The pilots are dead!" Roy: "Yeah, they've been shot." June: "By who?" Roy: "By me. No, actually, I shot the first pilot then he accidentally shot the second pilot. It's just one of those things."

Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) brings understated direction to this film and allows it to come across as a campy Bond-like spy thriller. Moving across continents as Bond does, Roy and June team up to save a scientist while evading both the bad guys and the good guys. The speed of the film and the fun it generates are enough to keep our disbelief in suspension. That is necessary because there are more plotholes than potholes in a Portland road. But we can overlook them because we want to see Roy and June succeed.

There are certainly some exciting scenes, as we would expect in an action flick: the early airplane fight, flight and crash is a thrill; the car chase through the streets of Boston; and the motorcycle ride during the running of the bulls in Seville, Spain. Throw in the beauty of the Azores and the majesty of the Austrian Alps, and Mangold gives us some spectacular eye candy.

The title of the film points to the first major theme: knight. Roy buys a metallic knight figurine in the airport. But he himself is in reality the knight, a white knight. He is a good-hearted protector. Even when he has to shoot an innocent civilian, he makes it a clean shot and stops to make sure he is OK. As June discovers, he wants to protect her. In one scene, she tells a crime boss, "Where there's a bad guy Roy is near."

If truth be told, we all deeply want a protector, a knight in shining armor who can ride up to save us when the chips are down.We may not bump into Roy, or a real-life version. But we can bump into Jesus, a real protector. He is a true knight,"who gave himself as a ransom for all men" (1 Tim. 2:6). Indeed, God "has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Col. 1:13). When bad guys are near, Jesus is close by. He is even nearer than Roy, for Jesus lives with us, in us (Gal. 2:20). He has promised never to leave or forsake us (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5). That is the kind of white knight I want!

Speaking of truth being told, in one scene toward the end the crime boss injects truth serum into June seeking information he believes she has. He does not get what he wants, but she gets something she was not ready for, but needed. This truth serum allowed her to speak the truth to him, and unwittingly to herself. It unlocked the subconscious doors for her to see herself and her true desires.

Jesus promised the truth would set us free (Jn. 8:32), and it does. But we do not need a truth serum injection to discover our desires. If we take time to meditate and pray to God, he will let us see our desires. More than this, though, he gives us a promise: "Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Psa. 37:4). By moving beyond the self-deceptions that create a cozy but sheltered life, we can allow the truth to bring us face-to-face with our dreams and desires. And if God is central to our life and our heart is with him, he will make these desires real. It may be uncomfortable, as it was for June. It may be a challenging and stretching, but it will be worth it. Because we will be living in the vibrant reality that God wants for us.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Bright Star -- love poetry, love psalms

Director: Jane Campion, 2009. (PG)

Light and slight, Bright Star presents a picture of first love, a first love that burns brightest and is steadfast, As the opening lines of John Keats' famous poem of the same name says, "Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art".

Written, produced and directed by Jane Campion, who won an Oscar for The Piano, her 1993 period piece, Bright Star tells the true story of the three year romance between Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cormish) and the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw). But it is a doomed romance as any cursory review of Keats' life will attest. He is in debt, a poor artist with no source of income. He has no way to support a wife. Though they come to love one another, finances and ill health ultimately form a chasm too wide to bridge.

Unlike most period pieces, which are sometimes excuses to parade pretty girls in lavish frocks, Campion's film is far more subdued. It feels fresh and faithful to the era. It relies on a sharp and intelligent screenplay with realistic dialog, and good chemistry between the two relatively unknown leads.

Fanny is literally the girl next-door. Keats lives with his friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider, The Assassination of Jesse James), a rude Scotsman who wants to protect Keats from any intrusion that might deter his muse. The opening scene makes this clear. Fanny, a fashionista, is discussing her opinions on fashion in the sitting room while her family and Mr. Brown are having tea. When she wants to take a cup to Keats, Brown will not have it. But Fanny's personality emerges: she is a rule to herself. She will not be disappointed, and delivers some tea to Keats. Not love at first glance, this is a love that simmers slowly until it reaches full bloom, a thing of beauty.

When Fanny asks Keats to teach her to understand and appreciate poetry he agrees. A marvelous scene educates her and us. She tells him, "I don't know how to work out a poem." Keats thinks a moment and responds,
A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.
Bright Star, more than many movies, touches the soul. I must admit that I am a bit of a Philistine when it comes to poetry. I have never really understood it, though I had to learn many of the classic English poems in school. But they did not do much for me. They were mere words on paper, often with seemingly forced rhyme and meter. But Keats' words here touched a nerve deep within me. A poem is deep not superficial. It is not a pithy proverb. Nor is it a rule or law. It is a hidden gem that must be experienced, reveled in even. Its purpose is to move the soul emotionally, not expand the head academically. I tend to focus on the latter and leave the former alone. But that is my loss. I need to be like Fanny, and open myself to the hidden pleasures of poetry.

The Bible is filled with poetry. The prophets and wisdom literature include portions of poetry. The Song of Solomon is a lengthy poetic description of a man's love for a woman.The longest book, in terms of chapters, The Psalms, is a collection of poems and songs. Many Christians claim this book as their favorite, since they can come to it time and again to find solace for their soul in times of trouble. Perhaps my lack of understanding of poetry is the reason I find the Psalms less appealing than the epistles or the gospels. As I open my mind to the experience of poems I hope that my love for the Psalms will grow with it.

Campion uses poetry effectively in the film. Quoting from many of Keats' letters and poems, we gain appreciation for his work."A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Its loveliness increases. It will never pass into nothingness." My favorite comes from a scene where they are lying on the grass looking up at the sky and trees. Keats recites, "I almost wish we were butterflies, and lived but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain."

Keats' words here echoes something the psalmist wrote centuries earlier: "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere" (Psa. 84:10). As we experience God, our hearts and souls expand with love for the almighty, the one who created us to love. And this experience is life-transforming. It brings delight than cannot be described, only experienced.

David wrote in another psalm, "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psa. 34:8). Like that lake, God is someone we do not and cannot work out. We simply luxuriate in him, and allow him to reach into our souls to the very depths of our beings. As the Westminster Catechism said, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

If you don't like poetry you might want to skip this film. On the other hand, if you don't like poetry, maybe just maybe you need to see this film.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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