Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Town -- choices, consequences and change

Director: Ben Afleck, 2010. (R)

Afleck's second movie is so similar thematically and stylistically that it could almost be a sequel. Except that his debut film, Gone Baby Gone, had a private investigator as the protagonist while this one has a crook. Further, Afleck himself plays the lead role of Doug MacRay here; in Gone Baby Gone it was his younger brother Casey Afleck in the spotlight and stealing the show. Ben Afleck seems to have a knack for directing strong performances out of his leads and he does that in this film, too, even from himself.

As with his earlier film, The Town is set in working class Boston. This is a gritty, violent movie. It feels real, not a Hollywood version of a crime story. Charlestown, the town in question, is a birth-place for Irish criminals, bank-robbers. Boasting itself as the bank-robbery center of the world, father passes down to son the skills of this illegal trade. MacRay is one of these sons, and his father is doing life for murder after a lifetime of robberies in Charlestown.

This picks up one of the themes from Gone Baby Gone. There, the main character commented at the start that one of the things that define us is the place we are born and grow up. Charlestown seems to underscore this. If you are from Charlestown the odds are seemingly stacked against you. Your future is predefined, your fate is prison. There is no escape.

Is this true? Certainly, birthplace plays a role in defining our potential. But many have risen above their initial circumstances. We need not let our upbringing limit who we are or what we become. Jesus was born in the lowliest of places -- a stable (Lk. 2:7). His parents were poor and living in a small town. Not the choicest locale for the future king of the world! He rose above these limitations. Then he rose from the grave. One day he will come back again in his fully realized position.

MacRay is the brains behind a gang of four thieves who rob banks and armored cars. Alongside him is James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker) as his "blood-brother," a loose cannon friend with a hair-trigger finger. Theirs is a strong love-hate relationship that real brothers understand and "enjoy".

When the initial bank robbery goes down, this team take the assistant bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), hostage. When they let her go, she feels emotionally torn. She chooses not to reveal all to the lead FBI Agent Frawley (Mad Men's Jon Hamm), holding back a key detail as she feels uncertain and potentially a suspect. Yet, she is suffering mental and emotional trauma from the incident. Finding that she lives just blocks from where they hang out, the robbers realize they must do something to protect themselves. MacRay volunteers and "meets" her at a laundromat. Working his way into her life, he falls in love with the person whose life his violence has disturbed. And he has to balance this secret relationship while plotting his next robbery and evading the FBI.

This is an intriguing setup. The hostage becomes the unknowing lover to the kidnapper. Afleck plays this out through great dialog. The characters are deeper than in most heist movies and Afleck gives them space and time to develop. Even the silences add to this film. The courtship provides an emotional center to the film, but dims toward the end.

Afleck shows that he knows how to stage excellent action. The set-pieces escalate. The opening bank robbery sets the tone. Then there is an attack on an armored car that rolls into a massive and thrilling car chase through streets seemingly too narrow for such a chase. This must surely be one of the best chases of the year. The climax is a heist at Boston's crown jewel -- Fenway Park -- setting up a tremendous shoot out.

Three things make The Town a slightly inferior movie to Gone Baby Gone. First, the script is looser. It winds more linearly than its predecessor and has less emotional subtext. Second, it is harder to engage an audience to root for a violent criminal than it is to side with a local good guy. It seems almost morally wrong to want MacRay, a thief and a killer, to get away from the FBI. But the FBI agents are virtually comicatures; certainly the scenes of their investigative methods are superficial. The focus is clearly on the crooks. And third, the moral dilemmas are missing. Gone Baby Gone had two massive morality questions that caused us to reflect on what we would have done in similar circumstances.

Yet some moral thoughts come in the themes of choice and change. A key question revolves around the choices we can take. MacRay thinks he can choose to leave his town and start anew. But his erstwhile boss and crime lord, the rake-like florist Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite), won't let him go, threatening all those around him. Then, when MacRay determines to teach another low-life thug a lesson for terrorising his new girlfriend, he invites Coughlin along. Telling him he must choose to come and do violence without ever asking why, Coughlin jumps at this chance and choice. But, loose cannon that he is, he chooses to go above and beyond and risk more than MacRay wants.

Choice. What choices do we really have? Afleck and MacRay would say we have little choice. Much of life is controlled for us by others. They have power over us. In contrast, Eli (The Book of Eli) offered an alternative thought: "We always have a choice." Indeed, there is always a choice. We just may not like the consequences that go along with that choice. Bad choices got MacRay into crime when opportunity gave him a way out of Charlestown earlier. Is there a way out?

Perhaps the biggest question this film asks is if we can change and at what cost. With all the cards stacked against MacRay, can he morph and move on? At one point he asks, "No matter how much you change, you still have to pay the price for the things you've done." His Irish-catholic conscience troubles him for his evil deeds. The wages of sin must be paid.

Biblically, there is some truth here. We are all held accountable for our actions. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23) and that is a price that must be paid. Yet, Jesus has himself paid that price for us on the cross. The sinless one (Heb. 4:15) has taken our sin on himself so that we might be freed from the consequences. Grace allows us to take up his offer of forgiveness and liberation. We do not need to beat ourselves up, as MacRay did, watching and wondering when the sins of our past will catch up with us. No, we can experience real change if we allow Jesus to become part of our life.

Yet, there are still consequences for sin and crime. Even with the forgiveness of Christ we should still expect to pay an earthly price. Change is not easy. Change is costly. Will we count the cost? Will we embrace change? We must, if we want to move forward and grow, not be caught up in the vicious cycle of an unforgiven and slowly dying existence.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, September 24, 2010

Summer Hours (L'heure d'été) -- globalization and values

Director: Olivier Assayas, 2008. (NR)

Living. Dying. Eating. Drinking. Collecting things. Enjoying family. Arguing with siblings. Such is the stuff of real life. And real life can be banal and boring. Summer Hours is a deceptively simple and slow film about ordinary life. Like life it seems to plod along with little plot and little purpose. Yet, beneath its exquisite exterior exterior it offers some critique of current issues.

The story revolves around three middle-aged siblings and their mother, Helene (Edith Scob). She lives in the French countryside in a beautiful house set in lush and expansive gardens. Her house is filled with antiques and original art treasures that she has collected and enjoys. Yet, she is growing old and is preparing for her demise, wanting to leave a legacy that won't cause subsequent strife among her kids.

In the opening act, Helene is hosting her 80th birthday party. Her family surrounds her, kids and grand-kids all seated around the large outdoor dining table. But she pulls Federic (Charles Berling), her eldest child who is an economics professor in Paris, aside to walk him through her desires for the disbursement of the treasures upon her death. Although he does not want to hear this, she insists. She wants the antiques and art to be sold or donated, and not force the three siblings to retain the then empty house as a museum or mausoleum.

The other two siblings are younger and more diverse. Both have deserted France for the riches of global economics. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche, Blue, almost unrecognizable with  blond hair) designs things in New York for a Japanese company. Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), the baby, works in Shanghai for a sports shoe company. Both have found more fortune outside of Europe than at home.

In act 2, Helene has died and the three siblings must determine the fate of the family house and furniture. It is here that their differences emerge. And it is here that the film sheds light on values, both the values of the people and the values of the objects.

In one sense Summer Hours is a reproach on capitalist globalization. By moving away from France, Adrienne and Jeremie have lost a part of their culture and upbringing. The ties to their family have been eroded; they can only see each other once or twice a year now, if that. Further, in doing so they have also essentially ensured that their children will have even less ties to France and family. That is clear in the film. Surrounded by foreigners, they will not absorb the cultural climes of their parents.

There are both pros and cons here. Certainly, it is impossible to prevent progress. In this technological age such progress includes always-on communications and global commerce. The price it often costs us, though, is free time and local traditions. These are sacrificed. Balance is needed. We need to draw some limits on when we will work, so that we can spend time with our families. The Bible commands the Jews to take a sabbath day of rest (Exod. 20:8-10), to set aside the cares and worries of earning a living and focusing on the one who cares and provides for them: the creator. In taking a day to worship and rest, we also can recharge our batteries for another week of work (Heb. 4:9).

More than this, though, there is a need to celebrate our traditional values. If we become part of the global melting pot, as the two younger siblings had, we lose our cultural identity and uniqueness. The Jews in the Old Testament were commanded to celebrate a number of feast days to remember who they were and where they had come from (Lev. 23:4). The Passover Feast, for example, reminded them of the act of Yahweh to save them from Pharaoh and bring them out of Egypt when he struck down the first-born throughout the land (Lev. 23:5). That feast pointed ahead, too, to Jesus the final passover sacrifice (Jn. 1:29). Though younger generations scoff at tradition, it serves a genuine and valuable purpose.

Summer Hours also addresses the value of objects. To the owner, the vases and paintings evoke strong memories of loved ones and gatherings. Once removed from the context of home and people, the objects revert to being things, albeit beautiful and expensive things. And who owns them? When they were in Helene's home they were hers. She owned them, she enjoyed them. She treasured them. When they find themselves in a museum they are on display for the world to see. Though they now belong to society as a whole, they really belong to no one. We see people walk past the objects and look without really seeing. They mean little to the vast numbers of the populace who pass by. Only Frederic and his wife really see the value in these objects. For him they represent fading memories and treasured heirlooms; to the rest they represent a past they may not have known and may not care about.

When Eloise (Isabelle Sadoyan), Helene's elderly housekeeper returns to the house, Frederic tells her to take something for sentimental reasons to remind her of the family. She chose a vase. She tells her nephew, "He said to choose anything. I couldn't take advantage. I took something ordinary. What would I do with something valuable?" Little did she know that that vase was one of the most expensive objects in the house. To her, it was a thing she used to hold cut flowers, one of a pair of vases.

The two vases stand as contrasts. One will be used in her home to hold flowers and beautify her residence. The other stands lonely in the museum offering a glimpse of beauty to those who will look. Both are valuable. But what is true value? Certainly, Eloise's was enjoyed more at risk of being broken.

These vases remind us metaphorically of the ordinariness yet tremendous value of each person. We all are very ordinary. We look around and see other ordinary people. Yet, each of us bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and have been created with the ability to come into a relationship with him, even to become a child of his (Gal. 3:26). Our value is significant enough that he sent Jesus to die for us, to enable this relationship to happen. Everyone is ordinary. And no one is ordinary. We are all treasures, like these vases, though we may not look it. We bear this treasure in clay jars (2 Cor. 4:7).

Like the vase in the museum that belongs to the world, Adrienne and Jeremie belong to the world, having cut their ties to France. But like the vase they have become rootless and left with little of deep value. Better, perhaps, is the vase that is taken and used that retains its purpose. Frederic is like this vase, retaining his roots in France, though not without his own problems.

The opening and closing scenes form a pair of bookends that summarise the contrasting values. In the opening, the family has come together to celebrate. Three generations sit side by side enjoying one another and having fun in a simple manner. The closing scene shows the same country house. This time the grandchildren are having a party. Their friends are gathered together.  But the friendships seem superficial. Now it is noisy with music and dancing. Kids are drinking and smoking dope. The house is bereft of furniture. The traditions have been erased; the modern has taken over.

Summer Hours leaves us reflecting on our own values and the value we place on our possessions. How much have we bought into the globalization of culture? And how much care do we place in maintaining our own cultural traditions, passing them on to our own children?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs   
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Monday, September 20, 2010

Seven Pounds -- playing God, assuaging guilt

Director: Gabriele Muccino, 2008. (PG-13)

I like Will Smith. That alone kept me watching when the first act failed to engage me despite its introduction. Seven Pounds certainly starts strong. But it frustrated me by not explaining what is happening, leaving me confused and losing interest.

The opening scene teasingly intrigues. Smith is on the phone, looking pained. "There's been a suicide," he tells the 911 operator. "Who's the victim." Smith replies, "I am." This certainly grabs our attention. But then the film takes too long to elaborate the plot.

Ben Thomas (Smith) is an IRS agent with a secret and a mission. He also has a long list of people that he is winnowing down, with the help of his friend and lawyer (Barry Pepper). But they are not just recipients of upcoming audits. There is something more. He wants just seven.

Why seven? There is an earlier reference to God, when Thomas says, "In seven days, God created the world." Seven points to perfection or completeness. As well as the days of creation, there are seven miracles highlighted in the gospel of John, seven "I am" sayings in that same gospel, seven seals and seven trumpet judgments in Revelation. When Jesus hung on the cross, he uttered his "seven words." And, of course, the amount of forgiveness we are instructed to offer those who offend us is seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22) -- complete forgiveness.

Seven Pounds Publicity StillThomas adds to the explanation in a voice-over, "In seven days, God created the world. And in seven seconds, I shattered mine." Seven becomes the critical number in the film.

Why seven pounds? This comes from an allusion to Shakespeare's famous comedy, "The Merchant of Venice." When Antonio, the titular merchant, fails on a debt, Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, demands his pound of flesh. He wants Antonio's heart. Seven Pounds uses this thematically.

As Thomas begins his quest, he tells his lawyer, "It is within my power to drastically change his circumstances, but I don't want to give that man a gift he doesn't deserve."  But who is to say what a person deserves? Then, when one on the list voices the obvious question, "You know, Ben, I keep asking you this but why me?" Thomas responds, "Because you are a good man." This is his reason.

This raises the issue, how can Thomas play God? He wants to find seven good men, but what are his criteria? Are they appropriate ones? We often try to do this ourselves. Not necessarily speaking like this, yet we look at others and judge. We usually do this to raise ourselves in our or others' eyes: self-promotion by putting others down. But we and Thomas cannot play judge. We do not have the qualifications: the wisdom and knowledge. Neither do we have the objectivity and lack of bias needed.

Seven Pounds Publicity StillMoreover, the Bible looks at humankind from God's perspective. It is not a pretty sight. All have turned away from God and are considered broken and damaged (Rom. 3:12). None are good in the sense that God desires (Rom. 3:10). There may be relative levels of goodness, but that begs the question of how we determine the basic level. No, our nature has been affected by the fall and we are not good until we receive a new nature through Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

As Thomas moves through his list, radically transforming the lives of total strangers, one impacts him deeply: Emily (Rosario Dawson). She is young and beautiful despite suffering from congenital heart disease. As he comes into her life, we can predict their attraction. Indeed, his ability to solve all her problems, from the broken antique to the weed-filled garden, in just a few days is totally unrealistic.

Seven Pounds Publicity StillWhether he is helping Emily or Ezra (Woody Harrelson), another on his list, Thomas is seeking self-redemption. He is looking for forgiveness from a hideous sin. He wants to buy this forgiveness and expunge the guilt that is driving, even consuming, him.

Of course, guilt cannot be assuaged by self-redemption or self-sacrifice. True forgiveness can only come through the sacrifice of Christ (Eph. 1:7). The purpose of Jesus' mission was to carry the sins of humanity and associated guilt onto the cross where he died. Through his death we can find forgiveness (Heb. 9:22). Through his resurrection we can find life (Rom. 6:8-10). We need not try to buy this in our own way. Grace comes freely from God (Eph. 2:8).

Half-way through Seven Pounds the plot becomes clearer. Once that happens the conclusion follows predictably. But we are left with a sentimental vision of sacrifice that helps others. For Jesus followers, it can remind us of the cost of Christ's sacrifice and its value to us today.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Ghost Writer -- deception discovered

Director: Roman Polanski, 2010. (PG-13)

Polanski's latest film has echoes of his earlier masterpiece Chinatown, as it brims over with political intrigue, suspense and controversy. Like that film, it has an excellent cast, with such actors as Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting), Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom), Kim Cattrall, Timothy Hutton, and even Eli Wallach. But the characters are less engaging, and not particularly sympathetic.

The ghost-writer (McGregor) lands a lucrative deal to redact the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan). Lang, a charismatic figure, now lives on an island off Massachusetts, presumably Martha's Vineyard, with his wife, his secretary and a security team. Protected from the public he has privacy in this modern but luxurious compound.

Taking on the assignment, the writer discovers that his predecessor died under mysterious circumstances. Further, the memoir itself is long and turbid -- a disaster. Moreover, it is guarded with a level of security that seems beyond its value. Then as he starts his work, Lang becomes embroiled in a major scandal dating back to his political leadership days. All this smells fishy.

The Ghost Writer Publicity StillAll the elements for a terrific suspense thriller are present. The cinematography underscores the solitude and bleakness, perhaps mirroring the inner state of the ghost writer. Yet, this is where the film falls a little flat. The ghost-writer is a ghost, a cipher. We know nothing about him or his life. As the major protagonist, his character does not really change. Yet, like the ghost, he floats almost silently through the film following the trail of clues left by the former ghost.

Polanski brings multiple topical themes into the story, from the state of US-UK relationships, to rendition and torture. Yet, none of these are developed or editorialized. They form the skeleton to the story, a story which carries us along engagingly to an unexpected ending that ambiguously leaves us both satisfied and unsatisfied.

The Ghost Writer Publicity Still
Indeed, there seems little in the way of core material to chew on. Rendition and torture are better discussed in a film that focuses on those directly (such as Rendition or Brothers). What struck me was the deception and conspiracy that was undertaken over the course of years. What was hidden and seemingly buried came to the surface with the digging of the ghosts. Perhaps Polanski is telling us that ghosts in our past can be brought to light by ghosts in our present.

Deception has an expiration date. It does not remain hidden. We sometimes think it will, and no one will ever know. In some cases, this might be true. But even then, God knows and it will come out in the final judgment (Rom. 14:10). For the British politician here, it came out sooner than that. And it carried a terrible cost. Such deception always carries a cost. Better to be open and honest (Prov. 16:13). Then we never have to worry about this future cost.

Most of us won't need a ghost writer since we won't have memoirs to be co-authored. But we author our lives as we live each day, and if we are followers of Jesus we have a "ghost writer" present with us in the form of the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit). He is co-authoring and redacting our story, as we allow him to lead us.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Monday, September 13, 2010

The Proposition -- brutal and depraved civilization

Director: John Hillcoat, 2005. (R)

The Proposition presents a number of moral dilemmas for the chief characters in this Australian Western set in the late nineteenth century. Like the American Wild West, life is brutal and at times barbaric, with swift violence. Lawlessness prevails, despite the presence of lawmen.

The movie begins with a shootout between the police and two members of the Burns gang, trapped in a cabin. When the smoke settles and the bodies lay fallen, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, Memento), and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are handcuffed and facing Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). The Burns gang have raped and killed the Hopkins family, and Stanley wants justice. He will hang these two, but, it is the leader, Arthur (Danny Huston), that Stanley really wants. And he is in hiding in the outback. Within minutes of the introduction, Stanley presents his proposition:
I wish to present you with a proposition. I know where Arthur Burns is. It is a God-forsaken place. The blacks won't go there, not the tracks; not even wild men. I suppose, in time, the bounty hunters will get him. But I have other plans, I aim to bring him down - I aim to show that he's a man like any other. I aim to hurt him. . . . Now suppose I told there was a way to save your little brother Mikey from the noose. Suppose I gave you a horse, and a gun. Suppose Mr. Burns, I was to give you and your young brother Mikey here a pardon. Suppose I said that I could give you a chance to expunge the guilt, beneath which you so clearly labor. Suppose I gave you 'til Christmas. 
He wants Charley to kill Arthur. One Burns brother will die: either Mikey by the judge's noose or Arthur by his brother's gun.

This in itself is a marvelous moral dilemma. What should Charlie do? Should he save Mikey by killing Arthur? Taking an active role he can accomplish this. Or should he be passive, and leave on horseback and do nothing? This would leave Mikey hanging by his neck but cause no guilt of murder to fall on him. That is Charlie's problem, and Hillcoat plays out the plot to a surprising and beautiful but brutal ending.

Of course no killing will expunge the guilt of prior murder, except it be the killing of Christ. The death of Jesus on the cross provide an atoning sacrifice (1 Jn. 2:2) expunging the guilt of all the sins of all the people, past, present and future. We cannot accomplish self-atonement and self-expungement. All we can do is accept Christ's sacrifice for us by faith (Eph. 2:8) and trust in his forgiveness, regardless of our background. Like Charlie and Mikey, we may have hideous sins. even crimes, in our past but we can turn away from them, as they turned away from Arthur and their other violent brother.

The outback of Australia features like a character. Hillcoat, who directed The Road, photographs its barren beauty and surrounds it with a mysterious and poetic score that emphasizes its wildness. Several times characters sit and marvel at the sunrise or sunset, seeing the wonder and peace of nature in contrast to the violence and inhumanity of man.

One of the keys to the movie comes in the form of Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), a sophisticated but drunk bounty hunter on the trail of the Burns brothers. Speaking to Charley in an empty tavern, Lamb says: "We are white men, sir, not beasts." And in another scene, Stanley proclaims, "I will civilize this land."

Hillcoat is challenging the premise of white civilization. We see the black aborigines treated like dogs. They are a little above beasts but not by much. And Stanley, his boss, and Lamb all see themselves as civilized, bringing law and order to a lawless land. But how civilized are they really? And how bad are the Burns gang?

Winstone brings depth to Stanley, a man who wants to be civil but has to offer an immoral proposition to bring civilization to his territory. At home, he acts like a gentleman with his wife Martha (Emily Watson). Together, they are genteel. At work, he rolls up his sleeve to do his dirty work.

A critical scene undercuts this veneer of civilization. When his superior demands a flogging for Mikey, Stanley, seemingly the antagonist in the story, turns good and shows his moral fiber. He refuses to order the flogging. But with the citizens of the town watching, Martha's arrival to witness the "execution of justice" forces Stanley to step back and allow it to happen. One hundred lashes is the immediate punishment. But after less than a third of this, the inhumanity is obvious. Mikey's back is tenderized meat, dripping blood as he dangles from the flogging post. All but the flogger have turned away. Martha has fainted. This is not civilized punishment. It is torture.

This scene, reminiscent of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ highlights the moral depravity of man even as some good remains. The so-called civil residents hungered for blood. The punishment was cruel. Blood-lust won out. The Bible says "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). It also points out, "The heart is deceitful above all things" (Jer. 17:9). We all bear within the fruit of the fall, wherein we lean toward evil. We can hide behind a mask of civility but that mask is easily torn away. Yet, there remains a spark of goodness; the image of God within is not fully destroyed (1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9). Most of us cannot tolerate true evil and cruelty and have to turn away, like these townsfolk, when it becomes deplorable.

We are above the beasts, but we are not truly civilized. True civilization requires salvation and redemption. That can only come from without, from Christ (Eph. 1:7). Christ creates in us a new nature; we are a new civil creation (2 Coer. 5:17).

Hillcoat further blurs the lines between good and bad in Arthur Burns. He is truly an evil man, who hurts and kills on a whim, yet when riding gives insight into his inner nature: "He's right, Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity." Then, when asked if his gang are misanthropes, he replies, "Good lord no. We're a family." He goes on, "Love. Love is the key. Love and family. For what are night and day, the sun, the moon, the stars without love, and those you love around you? What can be more hollow than to die alone, unloved?" He has "civilized" values even for a murderer.

Arthur has it right, even with his warped beliefs and behaviors. Love is fundamental. We all need and crave love. That is because we are made in God's image (Gen. 1:26) and desire relationship. God is the ultimate source of love, being in essence love itself (1 Jn. 4:16). We usually find love in our family, a representation of the love we will experience in God's family when we follow Jesus and become children of God (Gal. 3:26). Yet, in our depravity we turn our back on God, and like Jellon Lamb claim that he is "the God who has forgotten us." Nothing can be further from the truth.

The Proposition reminded me of Clint Eastwood, the king of spaghetti westerns (and Hollywood westerns a couple of times). Guy Pearce is photographed in several scenes from angles that cause him to resemble the "man with no name" from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Further, the moral theme and the darkness of all the characters bring to mind Eastwood's Oscar winner, Unforgiven.

Ultimately, The Proposition will not be for all viewers. The sudden and shocking violence of several scenes will put off those with weak stomachs. But its message is brutally true: we are all capable of the most inhuman of acts. And at the same time, we have the capability to appreciate and embrace the beauty and wonder of nature. Such dichotomy can only be reconciled by love, as we embrace the author of love and the creator of the world.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, September 10, 2010

Rushmore -- reason for living

Director: Wes Anderson, 1998. (R)

After the success of his debut film, indie classic Bottle Rocket, writer-director Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) turned his attention away from crime and onto something we have all experienced: high school. Like his earlier film, he focuses on quirky characters and dry humor, but in a tighter script.

Rushmore centers on three characters: Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), Herman Blume (Bill Murray), and Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). Max is a precocious 15 year-old student at the prestigious and expensive prep school, Rushmore Academy. Academically challenged, Max faces the threat of expulsion because he spends all his time leading clubs and societies. He is the king of extracurricular activities, and apparently mature beyond his age. Harvey, on the other hand, is a successful businessman with two rebellious sons at the school. He has been through all this and made his millions but lost his purpose and meaning. Though they form a friendship, they ultimately become rivals for the love of Rosemary, an elementary teacher at the school. This odd love triangle brings the conflict that propels the story.

Shooting his old high school, St. Johns School in Houston as Rushmore, Anderson uses these three characters to offer different perspectives on life and success. Herman shares his philosophy in an assembly address to the faculty and students:
You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn't matter. You were born rich and you're going to stay rich. But here's my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the cross hairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it. Thank you.
While the rest of the students sit bored, Max gives Herman a standing ovation.

Herman's cynical view of life focuses on a win-lose philosophy. There will be one winner and the rest come in second or worse. Such competitive approach decries collaboratism and service. Economic warfare is the name of his game. The pie is fixed, and our job is to get as much of it as possible, regardless of the consequence to others. This is not Jesus' approach. He modeled servant-leadership and a lifestyle of serving and giving (Mk. 9:35).

Though he is wrong about much of life, Herman is right in that money cannot buy backbone, or character. That is something that is developed through hard work and prayer. Moreover, you cannot buy grace, salvation or the supernatural powers from God. Simon the sorcerer tried this and was unsuccessful (Acts 8:18). All are offered freely by God and must be received by faith in this manner (Eph. 2:8-9).

If Herman's cynicism puts him at one of the spectrum, Max's idealism places him at the other. He seems to have it all figured out, even at his tender young age. When Herman asks him what his secret is, Max responds, "The secret, I don't know. . . . I guess you've just gotta find something you love to do and then . . . do it for the rest of your life. For me it's going to Rushmore."

Certainly, this conveys the enthusiasm of youth. Yet it captures the essence of truth. We all want to find something we love. If we do, then work feels like play and we have discovered our vocation, what we were meant to do. This communicates the idea of mission, whether in ministry or business. Jesus wants us to love him whole-heartedly (Mk. 12:30) and to follow him in his kingdom mission. When we find Jesus, when we realize our purpose, our soul feels settled and at peace (Phil. 4:7).

Between these two philosophies sits Rosemary. Younger than Herman, she is too old for Max's amorous intentions. (As mature as he thinks he is, he is just a child still.) She has experienced loss and has adopted a resigned view of life. She does not chase anything, but seems more accepting of what comes at her. But when it is both Herman and Max, she sees their love as youthful, even juvenile, telling Max, "You know, you and Herman deserve each other. Your'e both little children." Love can do that. It revitalizes. It sparks life into a cynical and cold heart. In this case it ignites friendly war that results in expulsion and competition. As Herman says, "She's my Rushmore."

Max's immaturity sees his time at Rushmore as lasting forever. It is his reason for living. Then he sees Rosemary and she becomes his reason for living. Neither are true; both are ephemeral illusions. School will not last forever. We were not designed to spend our lives in academia. And Max was not the right person for Rosemary, being both too young and a student at her school. Their relationship bordered on the unprofessional and unethical.

We can glean nuggets from each character, both positive and negative, to improve our own lives. We can spurn the cynicism of age that Herman presents. Instead, we can seek to retain some of the enthusiasm and youthful idealism like Max without becoming dewy-eyed dreamers seeing what is not there. And we can bring a sage acceptance of life and its calamities like Rosemary.

Ultimately, Anderson forces us to face the question that Max and Herman answered, "What or who is my Rushmore?" If it is not Jesus, our reason for living is probably misplaced.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Monday, September 6, 2010

Did You Hear About the Morgans? -- marriage and forgiveness

Director: Marc Lawrence, 2009. (PG-13)

A long long time ago (1994) in a land far far away (England) a young actor (Hugh Grant) won both a Golden Globe and BAFTA award for playing a stuttering and self-effacing Englishman (Four Weddings and a Funeral). Since then, Grant has gone downhill. On this decline he has teamed up with Marc Lawrence three times recently. Indeed, Lawrence has only directed three movies, so must see something in Grant that does not come across on the screen. This latest partnership is is an entirely forgettable, only slightly funny piece of fluff that has a few good jokes in an entirely predictable plot.

Grant plays Englishman Paul Morgan, a prosperous lawyer in New York. Paul is married to Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker), a fabulously successful New York realtor. However, their marriage is dissolving and they are separated. Their lives and careers have led to their estrangement, but his infidelity played a big part. When Paul tries one last time to reconcile with Meryl, their failed date finds them accidentally witnessing a murder, and they become the only two people to see the killer. The US Marshals whisk them off into the witness protection program, to the small-town of Roy, Wyoming.

Landing in Wyoming for these two city-slickers is akin to moving to a third-world country, such is the culture shock. Their hosts in the backwoods are Clay (Sam Elliot) and Emma Wheeler (Mary Steenburgen), the local US Marshals. These are gun-totin' rednecks, who understand PETA to mean "People eating tasty animals."

Hugh Grant has played this same role throughout his career and it is almost a caricature now. Looking older than he should, he is growing tiresome. His chemistry with Parker is lacking. But the acting of the two support veterans, Elliot and Steenburgen, make up for the leads. They seem to inhabit their roles like old clothes, comfortable and believable together.

The murder gives reason to move the main characters into the unknown situation. It provides impetus for the fish-out-of-water tale. For most of the film, the camera focuses on the character arc of the soon-to-be divorcees as they rediscover each other and rekindle romance. But the murderer has to reemerge to allow the plot to conclude.

It is interesting to see a romantic comedy that focuses on a married couple rather than singles coming together. As refreshing as this is, it is not developed fully, just like the characters themselves.

The only noteworthy point of intellectual engagement comes toward the end, when Clay Wheeler interjects into an argument between the Morgans, telling them that it takes effort to make a marriage work. This is sage wisdom from a grizzled veteran, who has had his share of marital strife. And it is true.

Most Hollywood rom-coms present the couple coming together prior to marriage. Rarely have they experienced married life and come to find it loses its initial glitz. Here, though, that has occurred. Real life is like that. The humdrum routine of ordinary life can take its toll. We can forget to nurture the relationship we promised to maintain until death. Little by little, life can erode the wedded bliss until the marriage is ready to collapse. God does not want this. He wants the husband to actively love his wife deeply (Eph. 5:25) thereby earning the respect that she will continue to give him (Eph. 5:33). Theirs should be a partnership of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), rather than self-actualization.

Additionally, forgiveness plays a key role in this relational nurturing. Paul's infidelity breached the trust that is the foundation of the marriage. But once done, his repentance seems legitimate and he is seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. Apart from forgiveness, wounds fester and go septic. Bitterness and estrangement are the fruit.Marriage cannot thrive or even exist in the face of such attitude. If we want to develop a healthy marriage we must be willing to offer forgiveness to our spouse when he or she has hurt us, even with such deep sin as unfaithfulness. If not, separation and divorce seem inevitable. Forgiveness may be difficult, but it is divine. And it is divinely enabled in our lives through Spirit-empowerment (2 Tim. 1:7) . . . if we are followers of Jesus.

Did you hear about the Morgans? Yes, well maybe you enjoyed it more than me. No, then I suggest you skip the film but work on your marriage. And also on your forgiveness.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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Friday, September 3, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- gratuitous violence with depravity too

Director: Niels Arden Oplev, 2009. (R)

Most have now heard of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first book in the Millennium trilogy, though many don't recognize the name Stieg Larsson. Larsson's books have sold 15 million worldwide, but he did not live to see any of this success. A left-wing Swedish journalist, he died of a heart-attack at 50 before this first novel was published.

Two characters are at the heart of this movie. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a left-wing reporter, seeking to expose the truth. Much like Larsson himself, Blomkvist fights for the truth, even at the risk of danger and liberty. At the start of the film, Blomkvist is found guilty of libel and sentenced to prison. But this is a set-up, one that is never fully explained. Disgraced and unemployed, he is offered a job solving a decades-old mystery.

Forty years earlier, Harriet Vanger disappeared from an island after a family gathering. But the Vangers' are no ordinary family. They own a rich and successful financial group. They are powerful and secretive. Harriet's uncle has always suspected foul play, with one of his own clan as the murderer. Now he hires Blomkvist to research the possible crime.

The second character is far more interesting and disturbing: Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). She is the girl with the dragon tattoo . . . and more. Leather-clad with  rings and piercings all over her body, she is emo-gothic with an attitude.She appears on the scene as a hacker, who has been hired to find out about Blomkvist, though why is left unclear. But she is good at her job. With a computer at her fingertips, she can apparently find out almost anything about anybody. After hacking into Blomkvist's computer and watching his investigation, she gets sucked into the mystery, ultimately working with him on the island.

With modern technology comes insight and new ways of exploring the disapearance. Oplev does a good job of showing us how a Macbook with Photoshop can bring out details not seen before. But modern technology also brings with it new threats. . . and new ethical issues. Hacking, of course, constitutes a crime. It is an invasion of privacy, at the very least. Who wants to be spied upon? But it harbors the potential for much more -- manipulation, stealing, identity theft, etc. It is digital trespassing with malicious intent.

Yet, can such hacking prove beneficial? If it is used for good, can such wrong ever be considered right? This is an ethical dilemma. Certainly some would argue that sin, any sin, should be avoided. But others dispute this, pointing to the use of lying to save the innocent, as many did in WW2 to protect Jewish refugees in hiding. Larrson's Lisbeth proves to be the detective to unlock the mystery, but only because she hacked Blomkvist's computer. If she had not done so, the disappearance would have remained unresolved. Was this right or wrong?

As Lisbeth and Blomkvist begin to decipher the clues, they point to a deeply buried secret in the Vanger family. One disappearance reveals another crime and then another, until murders stack up. As the two would-be detectives dig deeper they find themselves in danger of becoming victims of murder themselves.

Though little of her past is revealed, we realize Lisbeth has had a checkered childhood. She has not experienced positive male relationships. We see her attacked by a male gang. Then her court-appointed guardian turns abusive. She has learned to protect herself with disregard for law. For law has not provided for her in any positive way.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo highlights, if nothing else, the dark depravity of the human condition. From the lack of familial love among the Vangers to the brutal ugliness of the social worker who is supposed to be a helper, violence and sin become central. Even the main protagonist, Lisbeth, is violent. This jives with the biblical account of humanity. Created perfect in God's image (Gen. 1:26), we have fallen from grace and now bear the evidence of this fall in a corruption of nature and character that cannot be hidden: "There is no one righteous, not even one . . . All have turned away, they have together become worthless" (Rom.3:10-12) Unlike in this film, the answer to this depravity is not additional violence and death. Rather, it is divine grace, freely given and freely received (Rom. 3:24). We cannot cure ourselves. We cannot become uncorrupted by vigilante justice. We need vicarious justice, where someone else takes our penalty. That someone is Christ. His death becomes my salvation (Heb. 9:28).

As much as the film is a compelling mystery, it is nevertheless overly violent. With a savage rape scene and grisly images of torture and murder, the gratuitous violence left me disturbed. This is not a film for the faint-hearted. It might be better to wait for the American version, directed by David Fincher, due out in December 2011. Hopefully, that will leave more to the imagination than this one.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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