Sunday, November 28, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 -- temporary victory for evil

Director: David Yates, 2010. (PG-13)

"These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today." The opening words from Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy), the Minister of Magic, set the tone and mood for this film. And it is indeed darker, scarier and more mature than any in this franchise so far.

In making a film of the final book in the Harry Potter series the producers had a difficult decision to make:  to sharply reduce the almost 800 pages into one epic film, even if it were 3+ hours of run-time, omitting much of the dense narrative and characters; or to keep the story intact but divide it into two films. They chose the latter, which moved the bogey to David Yates. His problem was how to make a middle movie that has no real conclusion, little action and lots of character development. But he has done a surprisingly fine job here.

Yates imbues the film with a profound sense of doom and despair, isolation and loss. From the darkness of the opening scenes to the bleakness of the broody English countryside, this is a moody and atmospheric film. This is a world at war.

Despite the war, though, there is a lack of action sequences. What there are, are certainly done well. The opening sequence where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) must be carried to safety by the members of the Order of the Phoenix, with volunteers morphing into multiple Harrys thanks to polyjuice, is thrilling. The ensuing aerial dogfight is reminiscent of Battle of Britain movies. There is a nail-bitingly suspenseful scene where Harry and Hermione (Emma Watson) visit Cedric's Hollow and face one of Voldemort's slithering serpents. And Ron (Rupert Grint) must face the horrors of one piece of Voldemort's soul while being psychologically battered by sensual visions of Harry and Hermione. But these sequences notwithstanding, the film is about character not commotion.

Unlike the earlier films, there is no trip to Hogwarts. So the film is not structured around the semester schedule of magical studies. Further, few of the teachers from the school show up, and those that do, such as Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), have little more than cameo appearances. But Dobby the house elf does appear again for a key purpose.

With Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) on the ascendance since the death of Dumbledore at the end of Half-Blood Prince, the order of the Phoenix has gone into hiding. Theirs is now a war of resistance, like much of occupied Europe in the 1940s. As he takes over the Ministry of Magic, putting his puppet minister in charge, there is a Nazi-like atmosphere prevailing, with ministry workers being pulled away for any excuse to suffer interrogation and Gestapo-esque torture.

When a momentary break in the tension via a wedding celebration is destroyed by the appearance of Death Eaters, Harry, Hermione and Ron leave all their friends to depart on a mission: to find and destroy the horcruxes. As readers of the book will know, these are objects that Voldemort chose to hide pieces of his dark soul. Difficult as they are to find, they are even more difficult to destroy.

The extended sequences of the three heroes wandering the English countryside or sitting in their magical tent, give them time to show their acting chops. They have come a long way since the first film in 2001. Here they have the chance to communicate the dark night of the soul. As they undertake horcrux-searching, they experience soul-searching and deep angst. As the characters themselves have matured under author J.K Rowling's pen, these actors have matured enough to be able to carry this task on their broader shoulders.

Along the way, a strange symbol, comprised of a line and a triangle captured within a circle, keeps showing up. Only later does Luna Lovegood's father explain their meaning: "The Elder Wand [the line], the most powerful wand ever made. The Resurrection Stone [the circle]. The Cloak of Invisibility [the triangle]. Together, they make the Deathly Hallows. Together, they make one master of death." Using a clever animated sequence, Yates explains the backstory to these hallows which form the core of this final story.

The final image of the movie shows Voldemort in a position of power, seeking to be master of death, holding his wand aloft. A powerful picture, it underscores the utter lack of hope in this film. Where almost all the previous Potter movies had hope of a savior as an interwoven theme, this is devoid of such.

The one biblical parallel in this film derives from this final image. It reminded me of the apparent victory of Satan over Christ at the cross on Good Friday. When Jesus hung there and the day was turned dark, he breathed his last, "It is finished" and "with that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit" (Jn. 19:30). The death of the Son of God gave promise to Satan that his victory was secure and his reign about to begin. A dark night of the soul it was indeed for Jesus disciples as they hung their heads and hid behind locked doors in Jerusalem. They had to wait two long days, believing their Savior dead and gone. Resurrection and hope was a long way off. It is here, too.

We must wait almost 8 months, not two days, to experience the hope of final victory over Voldemort. Meanwhile, we can experience true victory by choosing to follow Jesus, because in doing so his spirit will come to live in us (Jn. 14:15-16). When that is the case, "the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 Jn. 4:4).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 26, 2010

Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) -- selfishness and selflessness, lies and truth

Director: Jan Hrebejk. 2000. (PG-13)

Set in Czechoslovakia during World War 2, this Oscar-nominated film presents a moral dilemma that will cause viewers to stop and think. Like another middle-European drama, The Trap, this presents an almost unthinkable situation but leaves us with a more hopeful conclusion.

The film begins in 1937 with an idyllic scene. A car is driving through a green countryside when it stops for a moment of relief. Three men are present. Two play a trick on the chauffeur. These three will be at the heart of the story, as it moves ahead to war-torn Europe.

The introduction makes it clear that the three know each other. But David (Csongor Kassai) is a Jew. When the war arrives in Czechoslovakia he and his family are evicted from their large mansion and moved to an unseen holding facility before being sent to the concentration camps. Meanwhile, the chauffeur Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) has become a collaborator, helping the Nazis find and capture Jews. The other man, Josef (Bolek Polivka), remains in his tiny apartment with his wife Marie (Anna Siskova). He has suffered broken legs and refuses to work with his "friend" Horst helping the Germans.

With this backdrop, the film moves to 1943, and David appears back in the village, a furtive fugitive, a skeletal image of the wealthy man he once was. Josef faces a choice and makes the snap decision to bring him home, to hide him in the secret room behind the closet. The problem is that Horst continues to drop in unannounced to flirt with Marie. As a "good citizen of the Third Reich" Horst cannot be denied this, and both Josef and Marie understand.

By helping David this couple put themselves in grave danger. Like other stories of Europeans helping the Jews during WW2, this one shows the risks that such people faced every day. With those risks come great stress that play upon the family relationships of those risking their lives. Every knock on the door could be the one that hastens a trip to the gallows.

David and Marie's willingness to put themselves at risk underscores the selflessness of humanity that often surfaces at times of great duress. Jesus identified this as a sign of love: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (Jn. 15:13). Yet, humanity is complex, and selflessness and selfishness are kissing cousins, often being present in the same person. Horst is an example of selfishness, seeking to save himself at the expense of others.

To offset the risks, and to prevent Horst's almost daily visits, Josef agrees reluctantly to take a job working for Horst. In this sense, he is aiding and abetting a collaborator, making him almost one himself. In the eyes of his neighbors, though. he has become a German sympathizer and risks his reputation now as well as his life.

Josef's willingness to take on this role makes him a pariah. Like the lepers of old, his neighbors avoided him, treating him with disdain. Are we ready to sacrifice reputation and more if it would save the life of another? Or would we push the person aside, expecting someone else to help, as the priest and the Levite did in Jesus' parable of the "Good Samaritan" (Lk. 10:25-37)?

The dilemma, though, appears beyond the mid-point of the film. When Horst's eyes for Marie move beyond the academic to the physical, she rebuffs him. He is a selfish creep. But there is a price for this rebuttal. He seeks revenge by trying to move a German into their home. With this imminent danger, she tells a lie. The first thing that pops into her head becomes something that will eventually catch them out.  The lie forces Josef and Marie to contemplate and commit unthinkable acts. As one character says, in times of war "normal people do abnormal things."

Lying is a sin. The Old Testament declares unequivocally, "Do not lie" (Lev. 19:11). Paul repeats this in his letter to the Colossians: "Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices" (Col. 3:9). Yet in the context where the truth will not see free (Jn. 8:32) but will lead to execution for multiple people, perhaps the whole street, is it right to lie? The Israelite midwives lied to Pharaoh to save young lives (Exod. 1:19). But the truth is that one lie leads to another and to consequences we may have not imagined. And this is the case in this film.

At the end, as the village is liberated by the Russians, Josef finds himself facing yet another problem, the result of his earlier actions. And when the three men are brought together in one room, they each face a choice. Will revenge and justice win out? Or is there a spark of forgiveness that will provide redemption for those who don't deserve it?

Divided We Fall is a subtle film without action sequences. Yet it offers stirring performances of depth and humanity, contrasting selfishness and self-sacrifice. At its heart, it provides testament to the truth, that united we stand but divided we fall. And it leaves us with the hope that comes from new life.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 22, 2010

W. -- approval, disappointment and conversion

Director: Oliver Stone, 2008. (PG-13) 

Oliver Stone is not afraid to tackle controversial topics. His resume include two Viet Nam war films, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, as well as two on presidents, JFK and Nixon. But this is the first time he focused on an in-office president, George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States.

W. presents the story of "Dubya", switching between the backstory of his growth from undergraduate at Yale to Governer of Texas and the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Along the way we realize that Bush was the product of his father in more ways than one, and was a man who may have made it to the White House but seemed to be in above his head. Of course, this is a biopic and so includes fictionalized segments alongside real events, such as the infamous choking pretzel scene (which bookends the film).

The film opens with Bush being hazed by the "good old boys" of Yale. Semi-naked and standing in ice-cold water, he has whiskey poured down his throat, a reference perhaps to the practice of waterboarding that was forced on inmates of Guantanamo (or renditioned prisoners elsewhere). But as the young Bush (Josh Brolin) grows up we see the older Bush, Poppy (James Cromwell), manipulating things behind-the-scenes to help his wayward son: bailing him out of jail, taking care of a pregnant girlfriend, getting him a job. As he says to the younger Bush, "Partying, chasing tail, driving drunk. What do you think you are -- a Kennedy?"

This brings up one of the themes present in the movie: the legacy of a family name. The elder Bush is concerned that his family leave a legacy for future generations, and a good one at that. We all want to be remembered for something good. Poppy was no different, although he was a president and a successful patriarch. David, in the Old Testament, a patriarch and king wanted this for his family. Although most of his children and decendants turned away from his faith and were disappointments, one came as the Messiah. David's legacy was legendary. How is yours?

As Bush fails in one j after another, he finds one he enjoys: owner of a baseball team. We see him dreaming of being a player. But he has no talent for the ball-game. His talents lie elsewhere, and he begins to develop his political ambitions and accomplishments. Along the way, he meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), and woos and weds her.

In the other storyline, Bush is surrounded by a cadre of political advisors. Here the film sizzles with outstanding actors. Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell; Scott Glenn (Secretariat) plays Donald Rumsfeld; Thandie Newton is razor-sharp as Condoleeza Rice; and Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) is a scintillating Dick Cheney, portrayed here as the villain pushing for invasion. And there is dimunitive Toby Jones as Karl Rove, the puppeteer behind the president. But at the heart of the film is Josh Brolin, giving an astounding performance as Bush, capturing his quirks and even sounding like the man.

Another key theme of the film is approval. Not the approval of the public, although the president needs to understand this when he is in office. Rather, the approval here is that of Poppy. Dubya has big shoes to fill, and he is constantly seeking the approval of his dad. Yet, he never seems to get it. How often do we men seek the approval of our fathers. Do we get it? When we don't it hurts our psyche. But even if our fathers fail us in this regard, our heavenly Father never does. He loves us unconditionally and unceasingly (Psa. 100:5).

Approval is one thing, disappointment is another. Rather than approval, Bush junior feels the disappointment that oozes from his father. Several times, Poppy verbalizes this to his son. How tough is that, for a man to know he is a disappointment to his father? As fathers, we must realize how fragile our sons' pysches can be. And if we are disappointed with them, we should determine how we can help them rather than hurt them even more. Poppy thought he was helping with his behind-the-scenes manouverings, and they did help politically. But what W. wanted more than anything was to hear his father say he loved him and was proud of him. Have we told our sons this lately? If not, why not do so today?

In the backstory of Bush's political emergence, we see him come to Christ. In a low-key scene, W. professes faith in Jesus. This is something his father does not understand or really acknowledge. Later, W. tells his pastor that he feels the Lord is leading him to be president. Although we see him as President concluding meetings with silent prayer, it is not obvious that Christ is the person directing Bush. Instead, Karl Rove appears to be that person, orchestrating Bush's rise to power.

Like George W Bush, we all face a decision to convert to Christ or not. Jesus loves us and wants us to come to know him. As the apostle Paul said, "now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). There is never a better time. Don't put it off any longer. And if you have already made that decision, then live it out daily following Jesus, seeking his guidance and approval.

One of the disappointments of W.  is the lack of insight into Bush himself. We see his exterior but not his interior. He remains a mystery, an empty enigma. Two scenes at the close of the film, both dream sequences, show us the continued disappointment and emptiness of the man. Yet Stone leaves multiple balls in the air, as Bush looks skywards wondering. The question at the end remains: who is W.?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 19, 2010

RED -- dealing with retirement and aging

Director: Robert Schwentke, 2010. (PG-13)

Retired. Most of us out of school give a glimmer of thought to the idea of future retirement. What will it be like? Days filled with fun activities? Slow and lazy days by the pool? Endless rounds of golf? Or perhaps a long, laborious descent into deteriorating health. Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his team of retirees show us different approaches to retirement, but reunite for a post-retirement blast of black-ops fun.

At the start of RED, we meet Frank, an early retiree from government work. He is clearly lonely and bored. He sits in his Cleveland home and tears up his retirement checks so he can call Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), his pension planner in Kansas and flirt with her over the phone. That is the highlight of his week. Apart from this he reads pulp romance fiction as conversation starters for his calls to Sarah. What a life!

But Frank's government work was as a CIA killer. So, it is not completely surprising when one night a team of wet-work assassins shows up at his house to kill him. Retired he might be, but Frank is no slouch. At 55 he can easily handle the odd killer or three. Even when the backups fire machine guns redecorating his house a la swiss cheese, he takes care of them and escapes. His concern is for Sarah, who he fears may appear on the killer's list, since he has called her so much.

With this beginning, Frank journeys to Kansas, meets and kidnaps Sarah, for her own good, and sets about regathering his old CIA team. All are retired, but in different stages of retirement. They, like Frank, are RED: Retired and Extremely Dangerous.

This team includes Victoria (Helen Mirren), the former British spy now turned into a Martha Stewart type of bed-and-breakfast owner; Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich, Secretariat), a paranoid recluse who trusts no one and carries a pink pig with him for protection; Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman, Invictus), the kindly killer who is dying of cancer; and even garnering support from former Russian spy and enemy Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox). Of course Sarah, the newcomer who warms up to Frank, as expected. Set against them is current CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban, Star Trek) and his handler-boss Cynthia Wilkes (Rebecca Pidgeon). This is quite a cast of seasoned actors, which makes this lightweight film so appealing. There is even a cameo for Ernest Borgnine, himself 93 in real-life.

As superficial as this is, RED does bring up the issue of retirement and aging and puts it squarely into our consciousness. For a society that venerates the young, the old are a forgotten and often ignored demographic. So, what do we see?

Frank is bored. His life seems to lack purpose. His mission is accomplished, and now what? Without someone to love and something to live for, life becomes mundane and dreary. Frank's sole solace is Sarah and he does not even really know her. For those of us fortunate enough to retire alongside a loving spouse, we can enjoy the time we can spend together in our golden years. Yet, having a purpose can amplify this enjoyment in our waning days.

Victoria offers the perspective of a second career or vocation after retirement. She has energy to spare and is not prepared to descend into pulp fiction. She has found a purpose. For some, a second career may prove a critical necessity economically, and we see these people in blue shirts at Wal-Mart. But for Christians we might find retirement an opportunity to serve in missions work overseas, or even in a rescue mission downtown. Our spare time can be converted into useful service for those who have genuine needs. This is something Jesus would be pleased with.

Marvin and Joe offer more negative perspectives on retirement. With age comes mental changes, such as Alzheimer's (or Marvin's paranoia), or bodily breakdown, such as strokes and cancer (or simply the aches and pains of muscle loss and lack of mobility). These bring a dependency we have not known since early childhood. Here, too, is an opportunity, but one we may not welcome. It is the opportunity to see ourselves dependent on others and ultimately God himself. We learn humility in realizing others must do for us what we once did for them. We see parents diapered by their adult children. Any earlier pride will be broken through this. Though we are immortal in soul and spirit, our bodies are mortal this side of eternity.

The movie moves along in a fairly linear fashion, each
action sequence and character introduction leading to the next. There are no major twists and a somewhat loose and disappointing conclusion. But the journey is worth it. Frank may be Retired and Extremely Dangerous. But this film is itself RED: Ridiculous but Entertaining Despite this.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 15, 2010

Salt -- Identity and Motive; Who and Why?

"Who is Salt?" That is the question at the heart of the movie, and its marketing campaign, driving it along its action-packed journey. And it underscores the issues addressed, albeit superficially, in this thriller.

We meet Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie, Changeling) in the introduction, which occurs two years before the setting of the story. She is a captive of the North Koreans, bound and being tortured, all the while denouncing their claim that she is a CIA spy. But is she? When the Americans, led by her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate), negotiate a transfer of prisoners, she is set free. But it is her German husband-to-be, Mike Krause (August Diehl) whose incessant appeals have instigated this. So, is she CIA?

Cut to the present and we find out that she is indeed a CIA spy, an assassin and covert operative. As her workday as a corporate executive is about to end and she is ready to go celebrate her wedding anniversary, a Russian defector Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up ready to give up national secrets. This on the eve of the Russian President's visit to the US to pay his respects at the funeral of the US Vice President. When Winter puts Salt in the cell to do a quickie interrogation, Orlov drops a bombshell. He has trained a team of children to live in America as sleeper agents waiting for his word to strike at the heart of the US. But the biggest shock is the name of the agent who will kill the Russian President in New York: Salt. So, is she CIA or a carefully prepared Russian spy?

From here, Orlov escapes surprisingly from the hands of two experienced CIA agents. Salt herself is able to escape from the CIA locked interrogation cell, and then from the building despite a SWAT team ready to take her down. On the run, Salt avoids her friend and boss, as well as the chief US interrogator Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But her husband disappears and she has multiple threats to worry about.

Salt becomes a female version of The Bourne Identity and carries with it the same intense action sequences and hand-held camerawork. The story, at a mere 100 minutes, feels fast-paced as this kind of thriller should. The stunt work is stellar, although somewhat unbelievable. Jolie appears clinging to buildings or jumping from moving truck to moving truck, hanging on by the very tips of her painted fingernails. But Jolie pulls off the difficult task of being a killer secret agent while remaining feminine and sexy. She has the ability to change her appearance at the turn of a stolen hat.

As the film progresses, the plot thickens with key twists and turns, particularly one midway through, that really leave us wondering who Salt is. Is she the person Orlov described? Is she the innocent, she claimed in the intro? Is she a defamed CIA agent whose own country will not accept her?

Salt really touches on the question of identity. And it makes us reflect on the identity of those around us, as well as our own identity. We can look at people and see what they want us to see. We take at face value their claims of ancestry and pedigree. We don't think to question their veracity. But we don't really know. Are they lying, even a little. Perhaps their stories are spun to make them look better. Who are they? Can we really know, short of a thorough background check, which few of us will do?

What about our own identity? This is probably more relevant. Who do we present ourselves to be? Are we being open and honest with those in our circle of influence, our family, friends, coworkers, etc? Will we maintain our integrity, as Job did despite all the trials he faced and the tempation to turn against God (Job. 2:9)? As children of Adam we have a tendency to lie and deceive, as Satan did to Eve who led her husband into the original sin (Gen. 3). Our fallen nature leans this way. We tend to hide our identity behind a mask of deceit and hypocrisy. But as followers of Jesus, our new nature (2 Cor. 5:17) demands that we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), even if this portrays us as less than we desire.

Further, Salt makes us ponder our motives and drives. What was driving Evelyn Salt? Not knowing who she is, it is hard to understand inner drivers. But knowing ourselves to some degree, we can seek enlightenment from the Spirit to show us why we do the things we do. Sometimes it is our old nature that pushes us. As Paul says in Romans 7:15, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." At other times, we are "compelled by the Spirit" (Acts 10:22) in our actions. The more we know who we are, the easier it is to understand our motives and drives, and align them with God's plans.

Salt presents a sweet action thriller but ultimately leaves us hanging, like its heroine. It never really answers the question it set before us: who is Salt? We never really find out. And the ending's ambiguity seems destined to encourage a sequel. Will that answer the question? I doubt it. But it will likely be a fun journey, like this one, nevertheless.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 12, 2010

Prince of Persia (The Sands of Time) -- adoption, destiny and WMDs

Director: Mike Newell, 2010. (PG-13)

Disney's The Prince of Persia is, ironically, a live-action adventure based on a video game. Yet, despite its mongrel genealogy, this is no dog. It offers some lightweight fun, with adequate computer graphics, and a subtle nod at the recent American war.

As the movie begins, King Sharaman reigns over the Persian Empire, with his two sons Garsiv (Toby Kebbell) and Tus (Richard Coyle) and his brother Nizam (Ben Kingsley, Elegy). During one of their rides through their capital an orphan is being beaten in the streets. Another orphan, Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brothers) intervenes to save him only to be caught after an exciting parkour-type chase through the market. About to be beaten or killed himself, Dastan finds salvation at the hands of the king. Tus narrates:
"Moved by what he saw, the king adopted the boy Dastan into his family. A son with no royal blood and no eye on his throne. But perhaps there was something else at work that day, something beyond simple understanding. The day a boy from the unlikeliest of places became a prince of Persia."
This early scene provides a beautiful picture of the salvation and adoption we receive from our King, Jesus. We are orphans, sinners by birth and by choice. We have turned our backs on the father who created us. Indeed, we have become his enemies (Col. 1:21). Yet, in his marvellous grace he has provided Jesus as our means of salvation. Through him we can be adopted into the family of God. We can become adopted children, experiencing the riches of his kingdom, sharing in his throne (Eph. 1:5). This is beyond simple understanding. It is a spiritual reality.

After the three brothers are grown, spies report on weapons being amassed in the sacred city of Alamut. With sage advice from advisor Nizam, the brothers set out to attack. Dastan leads a swift guerrilla attack and the battle is over before it begins. But when he presents the city's Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and a precious robe to his father, his father dies from poison secreted on the robe. Dastan is accused of the murder, and he and Tamina take off on the lam, along with a magical dagger holding the sands of time that can reverse time for the holder.

Of course, there are no secret weapons. The screenwriter seems to be nodding back to the infamous WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, that were supposedly hidden in Iraq. Once the invasion was started with this reasoning, it could not be recalled. So too, the attack in the film.

The rest of the film depicts Dastan and Tamina on their journey to identify the person behind the murder and hence prove Dastan's innocence. Naturally, they start off at odds with one another, but are destined to become friends and more. Along the way Alfred Molina (An Education) once again steals the show as Sheik Amar, a cynical and entrepreneurial leader in a desert community. He has some of the best lines in the film: "Tch, secret government killing activity! That's why I don't pay taxes!"

Destiny proves to be the center of the film. And it proves to raise an interesting question. When Tamina loses the dagger she says, "It's gone. Protect the dagger no matter the consequences; that was my sacred calling. That was my destiny." But Dastan refutes her: "We make our own destiny, Princess." So, who's right?

Destiny is often defined as the predetermined, usually inevitable or irresistible, course of events. In this regard, it seems contradictory that we make our destiny. How can we make what is predetermined. Dastan's comment seems to focus on the free will of the human, but cannot really include destiny in this sense. On the other hand, Tamina is more on the mark. She had a predetermined role but her actual destiny, or what was to come, was something that she could not know. And the film proves this out.

There is similar theological dispute over destiny, or predeterminism vs free will. Proponents of both sides cite biblical passages to support their view. Perhaps there is a middle ground. Regardless, most biblical scholars would agree that God has in some sense control over destiny. Paul says, in Eph. 1:5, "he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will." And a similar concept of predestination appears in Romans 8:29-30. If God is sovereign, which is evident throughout the scriptures, and all-knowing then it would seem there is a destiny of sorts.

Whether you lean towards Dastan's view of destiny or Tamina's, though, you can become a member of the royal family by being adopted into God's family. Is that your destiny? Or will you make your own destiny and choose to follow Jesus? Don't let the sands of time slip through your hands. You won't find a secret dagger to reverse this.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks -- humiliation of a Hollywood remake

Director: Jay Roach, 2010. (PG-13)

If sequels are usually worse than the first movie, how do remakes fare? If this film is an example of a remake, not very well! Having just seen the 1998 French original (The Dinner Game) upon which this is based, I was in a great position to make the comparison.

This Hollywood is not only 50% longer it is at least 50% duller. The plot line copies the original. But where its predecessor focused on the pre-dinner interactions between the professional and his idiot, not showing the actual dinner at all, this one climaxes at the dinner for schmucks and there shows the heart of the shmuck. Along with this, Roach develops some threads that could have been left undeveloped.

Like The Dinner Game the film centers on a group of high flying professionals whose monthly dinner parties are simply opportunities to invite schmucks, idiots who have "fascinating hobbies" that they can talk about for hours. Boring to most, they are mocked and made fun of at the dinners, though they have little idea of what is going on.

As the film opens, Tim (Paul Rudd) is watching as one of his peers is fired. Looking down on him, literally, Tim is ready to grab the now empty desk and seize his career opportunity. This opening scene epitomizes the core of the film: looking down on others and using them as stepping stones to further one's own increase.

When Tim moves up in his job and pitches a proposal to his company's CEO, he is seen as opportunistic and duly invited to this dinner for schmucks. But he must find his schmuck. Further, his fiancee, Julie (Stephanie Szostak), is opposed to this idea of ritual humiliation. What is Tim to do? He makes his choice -- career.

But he has to find an idiot. And he runs into one, literally. Barry (Steve Carrell, Date Night) is a tax auditor who collects dead mice, stuffs them, and then creates artistic friezes from them. Wow. Could it get better than this! Of course, complications ensue, including back spasms, orgiastic art, and kinky stalking ex-lovers.

My review of The Dinner Game focused on the issues related to mocking others for fun, and how this is a form of judging, which we are commanded not to do (Matt. 7:1), as well as on the real heart of the idiot which reveals that the schmuck-hosters are really the schmucks, though they cannot see this. The same could be said for this film.

Yet, Dinner for Schmucks highlights one additional topic: career climbing. Tim is clearly doing much of his antics for the sole purpose of improving his career. There is an underlying reason for this, but he is willing to sacrifice his integrity for this goal. Stepping over others and into offices that are not cooled from their previous occupants, he is anxious for the call to the upper floors and the upper echelons. Do we resonate with this? Are we so focused on the next promotion that we would damage our character and destroy others? The apostle Paul gave sage advice to his young disciple Titus: "In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity" (Tit. 2:7). Once our integrity is tarnished it takes a lot of work over a long period of time to regain the sheen and the trust. Sometimes it never returns. It is just not worth it. The cost is too high.  

Ultimately, this version has too much potty humor and sexual references that are not that funny nor necessary to the plot. Shorter and cleaner can be better. So, don't be a schmuck. Choose the French original over this Hollywood remake and you'll be happier.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Dinner Game (Le dîner de cons) -- mocking others, judging ourselves

Director: Francis Veber, 1998. (PG-13)

Not many have heard of this French film but it was the original source material for this year's Hollywood remake, Dinner for Schmucks. That movie was panned by the critics, drawing a 47% on the tomatometer on but The Dinner Game is both very short (at 80 minutes) and very funny.

The French title translates as "Dinner with Idiots" and that conveys the premise of the film. Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte) is a suave professional in the publishing industry. He is also one of a group of men who host weekly Wednesday dinner parties to which each must bring an "idiot" as their guest. The object of the dinner is to humiliate and mock these idiots and then decide which person brought the best idiot. Of course, most idiots may not even know they are such.

With Wednesday approaching, Pierre still has no idiot. But when his friend meets tax accountant Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret) on a train and Francois insists on showing photos of his matchstick models of famous structures, he has his idiot. Francois could be the "world champion".

When Francois meets Pierre at his home for pre-dinner drinks, he finds Pierre in pain from a bad back. The doctor has warned him to stay at home. His wife, Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot) has told him not to go, and disdains the whole idiots dinner idea. But Francois is eager to tell someone, anyone, about his models of the Eiffel Tower and famous bridges. And the rest of the film takes place in Pierre's apartment as everything falls apart and goes wrong.

Thankfully we don't actually see the dinner. Other events prevent this. However, the concept of mocking others for fun, even if they miss the point of this humiliation, is distinctly disgraceful. Certainly humor is relaxing, and laughter and jokes are fun. But who is the brunt of the jokes? When we put ourselves in the place of the fool, we can laugh with others at ourselves. That is fine because we are not taking ourselves seriously. But laughing at others deliberately seems wrong. The book of Proverbs gives warnings against mockers: "if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer" (Prov. 9:12). Moreover, "The proud and arrogant man -- 'Mocker' is his name; he behaves with overweening pride" (Prov. 21:24). We may mock men without their knowing it, but we cannot fool God: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked" (Gal. 6:7). Such behavior brings his displeasure and likely discipline.

If we set out to humiliate others in this way, we really find ourselves judging them. In fact, who is to say someone is bore? Perhaps he himself is a bore. He is certainly a boor, rude and insensitive. Jesus said, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Matt. 7:1). By judging others to be idiots and seeking to humiliate them, we are showing the kinds of people we are, and calling our own character into question.

As events transpire and Christine leaves him, Pierre asks Francois to call his "friend" Juste Leblanc (Francis Huster), Christine's former lover and co-author. As Francois gets into character as a Belgian film producer seeking the rights to Leblanc's book, he gets carried away in this idiocy and shouts excitedly, "I think we got it . . . and for peanuts". He has totally forgotten what he is trying to do. And that epitomizes the fun in this film: the idiocy of relying on an idiot to help make things better. In fact, Francois manages to make things worse, much worse. If it can go wrong, he can make it go wrong, inadvertently.

Yet, in his heart Francois is trying to help. Unlike Pierre, he demonstrates a generous and kind spirit, even if the execution of his kindness fails to match up to the intent. In his own way, Francios gives evidence of several of the fruits of the spirit: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). He is a teddy bear, warm and cuddly if alone and boring.

Finally, Francois reveals to Pierre the reason for his model-making. What was a bore and a sign of an idiot, has a raison d'etre. There is more to Francois than meets the eye. This is true for most people. We see their outsides, we hear their stories, we listen to their pet hobbies. We may resonate with them; we may be repelled by them. But until we get below the surface layer, we really don't know what is driving them, why they have these hobbies. Perhaps by listening to them instead of laughing at them we can encourage them to bare their soul. And that may lead to healing . . . for them, for us, maybe even for both.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Damned United -- arrogance, ambition and rivalries

Director: Tom Hooper, 2009. (R)

The Damned United refers to Leeds United, the top football (soccer) club in England in the 70s. To Brian Clough, the manager (aka coach) of Derby County, another first division team, Leeds was his bitter rival. Actually, Don Revie, the manager of Leeds, was his arch-enemy but Revie and Leeds were synonymous in his eyes. This is the story of that rivalry.

Hooper's film focuses on Clough (Michael Sheen) and his 44-day reign as the manager of Leeds United in 1974. For those interested in English soccer, it is a compelling and nostalgic look back. Interspersed with some actual footage of soccer matches from the period, it brings back fond remembrances of soccer players with short shorts running on horribly muddy pitches watched by fervent fans standing not sitting. More than this, though, it paints a stark character portrait of a man burning up with ambition, arrogantly thinking he is better than everyone else.

Brian Clough was one of the premier managers in English soccer, working with his assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, Wormtail in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Hooper repeatedly cuts back to Clough's earlier days with Derby County in the late 60s when they were a second division side. Life in this lower league was hard with few fans. But the fans were loyal to the club of their birth. If you grew up in Derby, then Derby was your team.

The extended flashbacks explain the origin of the rivalry. Leeds were drawn away at Derby in the FA Cup. Preparing for that visit, Clough did an almost extreme makeover on the tarnished facilities, wanting the esteemed Revie to feel honored and in turn appreciate Clough. Instead, Revie ignored the man, refused to shake his hand, knowingly or unknowingly, and thereby created a monster. Half a decade later, Clough has led Derby to the first division to become peers with Leeds.

When Revie is offered the job as England manager, he accepts leaving champions Leeds leaderless. Leeds' chairman Manny Cussins (Henry Goodman) turns to Clough asking him to take the reins. Even before he shows up to meet the directors though, Clough stops for a TV interview where he takes Revie to task for coaching his team to play dirty. At his subsequent belated interaction with the directors Cussins takes him to task: "I hired you to do this job because I think you're the best young manager in this country." Clough retorts egotistically, "Thank you. I'm the best old one, too." But Cussins goes on, "I also did it under the assumption that you would be coming here wanting the best for this club. For the city of Leeds. So why do I get the feeling this is all about you and Don?" Clough's response: "Of course it's just about me and Don. Always has been."

Rivalry can be a good thing. It can bring the best out of us. We raise our game to beat our rivals. But it can also be a bad thing. We can be consumed by the rivalry, putting everything else aside. The victory over the rivals becomes our focus. This is tantamount to idolatry, as we spend our time and energy on this one pursuit. Certainly this is evident in Clough's rivalry with Revie. He wanted to be better than Don.

Ambition is like this, too. It gives us drive and inner energy. But when we set aside others, like our families or even our God, for this goal we become idolators. Toward the end, when he and Taylor are facing a decision that might separate the two, Clough pours scorn on his friend: "And then what? Bottle again [run scared] as soon as it comes to the big time? That's always been the trouble with you, Pete. No ambition." But Taylor insightfully points out, "That's the trouble with you, Brian. Too much ambition. Too much greed, too much everything!" Ambition has a place but it is not central.

Sheen presents a brilliant portrayal of Clough. He even looks somewhat like the man. As he did with his role of Tony Blair in The Queen he seems to susbsume himself completely and we see the man portrayed not the actor present. Clough comes across larger than life, with charisma, ego and blind ambition that prevents him seeing his own faults.

Clough's arrogance overwhelms his relationships with his players and his chairman.  "I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the country. But I'm in the top one." Even when staring at disaster and defeat his arrogance knows no bounds. Cussins asks, "Who do you bloody think you are?" What a question for a self-assured and arrogant man: "Brian Clough. Brian Howard Clough." More than self-confidence, he reeks of overconfidence.

The apostle Paul gives a warning to the Romans: "Do not be arrogant, but be afraid" (Rom. 11:20). Arrogance leads us to consider ourselves bigger and better than everyone else. The way to overcome such arrogance is to "not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment" (Rom. 12:3).

Clough did go on to great victories with other clubs, notably Nottingham Forest. He took them to become champions of the first division and then on to win the European Cup twice, the first English club to achieve this. But this picture of the man gives insight into what drove him in his earlier days. And arrogance and ambition are not easy drivers. They can make a man a winner yet with a losing character!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs