Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Social Network -- visionaries and communities

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

Ideas change the world. The Social Network tells the story of a recent idea that changed our world. Not so much a biopic or even history, Fincher's film is an imaginative retelling that may not get to the truth but lays out various perspectives and allows us to engage them, choosing for ourselves. We may never know the real truth, but life is like that.

The film opens in 2003, even before the titles, with two students in the "Thirsty Scholar Pub" in Boston. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, who looks surprisingly like the real-life Facebook-founder), a sophomore computer programming student at Harvard, is talking to his girlfriend. The speed of his speech makes it tough to follow and his abrupt changes in direction exacerbates this. Then his girlfriend tells him she is breaking up with him. He is stunned. He cannot understand why. He has the social skills of . . . well a gnat. Without wanting to, he alienates those he is with. He is not so much a nerd, he is an ass, a socially handicapped genius.

Going back to his dorm room, while drinking beer and blogging about his breakup, he creates in just hours  a website, Facemash, which takes down the Harvard network. His prodigious exploits put him in the sights of the Winklevoss twins, two Olympian rowers who have an idea for an exclusive on-line network for Harvard students. Inviting Zuckerberg to join them on this business opportunity, he either steals their idea or has his own idea energized. Either way, he becomes obsessed with the concept. As he tells his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield): "People wanna go online and check out their friends, so why not build a website that offers that. I'm talking about the entire social experience of college and putting it online." He conceives of "thefacebook".

Here, indeed, is the intended target audience for Zuckerberg's initial idea. But it has gone way beyond that. Facebook now has over 500 million users, more than the population of the United States. And in a little less than a decade, Zuckerberg has gone from a dorm-dwelling dork to the youngest billionaire in history. There is certainly a story here. But which one is it?

Fincher moves from crime stories (Se7en, Zodiac) to this anarchic tale of social revolution by way of Fight Club and Benjamin Button. As a traditional narrative, highlighting the rise of Zuckerberg on the jet stream of technology, this would have been nothing more than social commentary. But with Aaron Sorkin's (A Few Good Men) adroit screenplay, excellent acting from relative unknowns, and with Fincher's decision to retain the story's ambiguity, this becomes an award-winning and compelling movie.

The Social Network cuts between the development of the Facebook idea and the deposition by the various key "inventors" as the now-rich Zuckerberg is sued by former friend Saverin as well as the twins.

In the backstory, Zuckerberg turns to Saverin for cash to finance the idea. And Saverin comes through, with $1000 now and more later. In return, he is offered the position of CFO of this fledgling company. But as the exclusive site, initially restricted to those with an email address, takes off, Saverin hungers to monetize it through advertising. But that would be uncool. Meanwhile, the twins ponder the gentlemanliness of suing a fellow Harvardian while simultaneously bemoaning their plight of missing their life-defining opportunity.

When Zuckerberg decides to expand from Harvard to more ivy league schools and then to Stanford, he appears on the radar of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Parker, of course, was the founder of Napster, the visionary who came up with the idea of digital downloads and almost single-handedly initiated the collapse of records as we knew them. (At least that's the story here. And really, who buys music at Tower Records anymore?) This leads to a meeting with Mr. Cool himself in California, where Zuckerberg immediately likes him and Saverin dislikes him. Parker offers one piece of advice, "Drop the 'the'. Just 'Facebook'. It's cleaner." This stuck. So did he. As Zuckerberg moves to California, Saverin went to New York to hustle advertising. But it was Parker who delivered the venture capitalists and in doing so became a stockholder, supplanting Saverin as Zuckerberg's business adviser.

How much of all this is true is unclear. But visionary Parker observed, "we lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're gonna live on the internet!" That was true. And Zuckerberg picked up this vision and added it to his growing concept, ultimately making it come true. How many of us spend hours on the internet on the Facebook site? What started as a club for students, exploded worldwide. In my family of six, four of us have accounts, one wants one and only one prefers to live life in reality, not in cyberspace.

No one can dispute that Zuckerberg has transformed the social experience. We have gone from writing letters to email. Now we have added text messaging, tweets, and facebooking to the mix. His vision to add relationship status, photographs and videos to Facebook means that we can instantly upload documentation of tonight's party. We can snap a photo and post it almost before we can say "cheese". Is this good? Hard to say. It just is what it is. It certainly adds a new perspective to privacy, or lack of it. We now live on-line, through our facebook accounts.

At the heart of the film, if not the reality, is Zuckerberg's craving to belong. Unlike Groucho Marx' famous quip, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member," Zuckerberg wants to join an exclusive club. But he never does. When his friend gets invited in, he is visibly joyless. Rather than "rejoice with those who rejoice" (Rom. 12:15) he sulks because he is not the one. Desperately wanting to be on the inside, he creates the ultimate insider club: Facebook. He beomes the consummate anti-celebrity. With more money than almost anyone on the globe, he is perhaps least likely to be recognized by anyone on the globe.

Like Zuckerberg, we all crave to belong. We all want acceptance. In Jesus we can find this acceptance, this belonging. The community we desire is available to us in the church, the family that Christ formed (Col. 1:18). Some would argue that this community is hypocritical and superficial. And to some degree this is true. But it remains, nevertheless, the social and spiritual network devised by the creator of this world. And its inclusivity allows any to come (Matt. 11:28). All it takes is the desire to come to Jesus to experience what he offers: real life (Jn. 1:10), not virtual life.

Zuckerberg is certainly a visionary, whether he stole the idea or not. A social outsider and community rebel, he bears some comparison to Jesus, himself a social outsider. Two thousand years ago Jesus brought an idea to an exclusive community. He came to the Jews with the concept of a kingdom where the poor would be rich, the meek would be heirs, the persecuted would be rewarded (Matt. 5:2-12). Such a vision labelled him a rebel. And at an age not much beyond Zuckerberg's, Jesus was "unfriended" in the worst way possible: crucifixion (Jn. 19:16). But like Zuckerberg's vision, Jesus' has not gone away. His kingdom remains, albeit as an emerging one that will be fully realized at some point. A new social network and experience will come some day. Are you ready to accept Jesus' friend request?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Monday, December 27, 2010

Unthinkable -- ends, means, and morals

Director: Gregor Jordan, 2010. (R)

“My name is Yusuf Mohammad, my former name is Steven Arthur Younger, and I have planted three nuclear bombs across the country. They will detonate unless my demands are met.” The opening scene is captured on a home video camera and portends an intense thriller.

When Younger (Michael Sheen, The Damned United) sends this tape, with video of all three bombs, to the government, teh FBI is brought in to find the bombs. Heading up this effort is Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix). But when she finds out that Younger is already in custody, she joins CIA "consultant" Henry "H" Humphries (Samuel L. Jackson), an interrogation specialist she has already encountered. Heads butted there, now they must join together if they are to save the millions of lives that are in danger.

 Our first glimpse of Younger's captivity shows him hanging by his arms in a special cell-compartment in a high school gymnasium, being beaten by an army interrogator. This torture is nothing compared to what awaits him at H's hands. Demanding complete control, H takes over and immediately opens up his tool-case of knives, choppers, hypodermics and more. This is Gitmo-meets-suburbia in a plausible deniability inquisition that nobody in office knows about; in other words, "it never happened".

Unthinkable deserves its direct-to-DVD genealogy. The three stars do what they can but the script limits them. The dialog veers from dumbed-down, in case we don't quite follow the authorities' investigations, to didactic when points are being made. Though it works as a psychological thriller, it pours so much violence into the interrogation scenes that it is almost torture-porn. Those with squeamish stomachs be warned: stay away, or at least be ready to turn your heads numerous times throughout. And it seems more clumsy polemic than censurable pleasure.

As H ratchets up the torture, the central question emerges: do the ends justify the means? H whispers in the ear of the suffering terrorist: "There is no H. and Younger . . . there's only victory and defeat. The winner gets to take the moral high-ground, because they get to write the history books. The loser . . . just loses." This is relative morality.

Do the ends ever justify the means? Unthinkable makes it clear that the pain and possible killing of one man is outweighed by the saving of the millions of innocent US lives that hang in the balance. This was exactly the thinking that Caiaphas expounded 2000 years ago. As high priest, while Jesus was alive, he said:  “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (Jn. 11:50). He sentenced the innocent Christ to death to save the Jewish nation. In reality, Jesus died to save more than this one nation. He died to save all of us (1 Tim. 4:10).

But Younger is no innocent Savior. He is a terrorist who will kill to achieve his ends. In the duel that his interactions with H and Brody becomes, he turns the question on those who have strapped him in the chair. Yelling, face flushed, "I'm not a coward. I chose to meet my oppressors face to face. You call me a barbarian. Then what are you? This is not about me. It's about you." Brody, more than H or Younger, becomes the person whose morality is in question. Younger and H won't change, but will she?

If the ends apparently justify the means, then the means become the vehicle for becoming those we despise. By resorting to torture, the torturer becomes like the terrorist. How far will H (and Brody) go to save the innocent? That underscores the dilemma. In a war without rules, the Geneva convention is moot. The combatants on one side see no difference between soldiers and civilians. H understands this ("There are no innocent children") and is like Younger. But if we stoop to this level aren't we as guilty as Younger? Is there any place here for morality and ethics? Can there be a right and wrong, or will might always rule?

Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), and he lived in brutal times where terrorists were strung up on crosses with no trial. Victory does come through violence, as the Romans showed and as H desired. But this is a transient triumph. The true victory only comes in the true kingdom, the kingdom of heaven where behavior is paradoxical and summed in the beattitudes (Matt. 5:3-12).

Toward the end, as the interrogation approaches its climax, H screams at Younger: "Youssef! Do you believe I can do this?" Brody, squirming, shouts, "H, he believes it, he believes it!" But H goes on, "Faith is not enough, he has to know it!" Brody: "He knows it!" H: "Knowing is not enough! He has to see it."

Here H lays out the progression of faith leading to knowledge and knowledge requiring sight. It is the opposite of living by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, had to see to believe: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (Jn. 20:25). But when he finally did see the resurrected Christ, Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (Jn. 20:29). We are in the latter category. We believe without seeing. Our faith is enough.

At the conclusion of Unthinkable, as H is prepared to do the unthinkable, all hell breaks loose. With various characters revealing their own means of accomplishing the common ends, the film's ethic winds up in Brody's hands. Like her we all face a decision of our own. Will we do the unthinkable of living for our own glory and pleasure, turning away from the one who could save us? Or will we look at his hands and feet and, "seeing," believe in him?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, December 24, 2010

Winter's Bone -- weight of family responsibility

Director: Debra Granik, 2010. (R)

Winter's Bone is a cold, dark, wintry movie filled with brooding intensity that some may find slow but which grips the viewer despite its pace. Described as Southern Gothic and country noir, it combines aspects of both to create a film that explores a number of themes, including courage, family, loyalty and violence amidst the white trash poor of Missouri.

Set in the Ozark back country, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year-old with the weight of her family on her thin shoulders. With an absent father and a catatonic mother, Ree has to care for her two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee as well as her mom. When the local sheriff stops by to give her some bad news, her already dismal situation turns almost hopeless. Although she already knows that her criminal father has disappeared, she now finds out that he has put their house up as collateral on his bond and jumped bail. If he does not show up for his court date in a week they will lose the house and property, leaving them homeless and abandoned.

Setting out alone, without even a vehicle, Ree begins her quest to find her father. As a meth cooker, he has few friends in the underworld of the crystal methamphetamine subculture. But as she begins asking around, it seems everyone wants her to shut up and stop messing in their business. It is an ugly world with violence threatening at evey turn.

An early scene highlights this undercurrent of violence. Ree walks across fields to come to the home of her relatives. While her aunt offers warm words and hot tea, her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) enters the room. Himself a crystal coke addict, he swiftly grabs her by the throat, and we don't know if he will harm her or help her. Such is the menacing nature of life for Ree.

Already a winner of numerous awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, this low-budget ($2 million) independent movie will likely pick up some Oscar nominations. Its greatness centers on these two characters played with outstanding performances by two unknown actors. Lawrence communicates the gritty determination of a teen who has to rise to face demons that would scare those twice her age. In almost every scene, she is the heart and soul of the movie. Hawkes, on the other hand, has a tougher role. He has to balance the twitchy violence of a drug user with the twinges of familial love for his brother's family. And he does so in a believable fashion. Putting himself in harm's way he demonstrates loyalty when others would back off.

Writer-director Granik populates the rest of the cast with uniformly ugly actors. Nowhere to be seen are the Hollywood pretty people. They have no place in this redneck country. Moreover, she fills the frames of the film with cold winter scenes, bare branches, frigid rivers, beautiful sombre scenery. And as taut as her story is, she paces it effectively allowing us to feel the intensity and suspense that grips Ree. When violence comes, it is swift and painful, like life itself.

Ree wants to experience the normal life of a high schooler. We see her looking longingly in at such a life, at a classroom with students holding babies, and at an ROTC drill. She wants both, but can have neither.

But Ree gives us a picture of the scrappiness of the human spirit. Where others would give up, she keeps on going. Whether it is chopping wood to fuel the fire or hunting and skinning squirrels to feed the family, she is a fighter. Life may have stacked the deck against her and dealt her a losing hand, but she won't fold.

We should be like Ree. When we think of giving up or lamenting our lot in life, we can reflect on this teenage survivor. Her courage is a challenge to us. We can rise above whatever cycles of abuse, poverty, or the circumstance we find ourselves in. God will give us the power and courage if we call upon him (Psa. 46:1).

One poignant scene underscores her proud character. Watching her neighbor skin a deer her brother wants her to ask for some of the meat. She responds, "never ask for what ought to be offered." Though poor, she will not stoop to begging despite their hunger.

This scene causes us to reflect on our obligations to our neighbors. In this Christmas season, there are many around us who are hungry and homeless. Some may ask us directly for help; others may not. Yet those of us who are blessed with more than we really need should ponder our debt to them. Jesus said that when we give a cup of water to the thirsty we are serving him (Matt. 10:42, 25:35). Paul told us to have no debts except that of love (Rom. 13:8). We can serve Jesus by giving to those in need without being asked. Let our debt of love be partially paid through our sharing (2 Cor. 9:13).

As Ree's quest takes her deeper into the dangerous waters of the meth mafia, her two siblings think she will leave them. But her responsibilty to them is clear: "I'd be lost without the weight of you two on my back."  Her sense of familial responsibility is a testament to us. She realized that pursuing a career would mean sacrificing them to a life with strangers. Teardrop, too, comes through when the rubber meets the violent Missouri road. Blood is thicker than water. We may feel burdened by our family, whether it is caring for siblings, children or even elderly parents. But they are family. We must deny them. Love in words is not enough. Love expects actions, demands nurture and protection (1 Cor. 13:7).

"Winter's Bone" is an odd title. Daniel Woodrell, the author of the book on which this film is based, considered that winter was throwing a sop, a bone, to Ree, a gift of sorts. The ending offers a bone to Ree, a glimmer of hope. But the movie's ambiguity, its sadness and its despair juxtaposed with this hope and ray of redemption, parallels life. We humans are not predictable. But even in our complexity, our hearts are not too cold to be warmed by this slight "Ree" of sunshine.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review: "Flight of Shadows" -- Superior sequel

Author: Sigmund Brouwer, 2010. (Waterbrook Press)

When I first received "Flight of Shadows" and sat down to read it, I discovered that it is a sequel to "Broken Angel." So I had to read the prequel first. And I was glad I did, as it furnished details about Caitlyn Brown, Billy and Theo, the three main characters in this book. However, "Broken Angel" was linear and predictable, an average read at best. It did not excite me about "Flight of Shadows." Yet, surprisingly, the sequel is superior, being a suspenseful thriller maneuvering through shadowy worlds that circles to an elusive ending that satisfactorily completes the story. At the same time it raises compelling moral questions about science and society.

In "Broken Angel" Caitlyn Brown discovers she is a freak, a genetic experiment in hiding inside Appalachia. A theocracy, this country has succeeded from the United States. Outside her boundaries, America is really no more, a series of walled-in city states. Given a secret letter by her father Jordan Brown, she manages to escape with the help of her two new friends Billy and Theo, leaving merciless bounty hunter Mason for dead and National Intelligence Agent Pierce unsuccessful in his attempt to capture her.

"Flight of Shadows" picks up with Caitlyn now outside. But this is a new world where society is stratified into Influentials, Industrials, Invisibles and Illegals. Power is horded at the top, and those beneath have no rights, simply struggling for survival. Once again, Caitlyn finds herself on the run, chased by Pierce and the government for what her altered DNA can provide. Little does she know that Mason is also after her, fueled not only by his twisted sadistic nature but by the need for revenge for what she took from him in Appalachia.

Brouwer introduces a new character, Razor, a street smart illusionist who is more than he appears and who switches identities as easily as he switches sides. Even to the end, it is not clear if Caitlyn will elude her pursuers or who is friend and who is foe. Indeed, what do they want from her and what power lies dormant in her blood? Will her past finally catch up and overtake her present, swiftly curtailing a fragile future?

As much as this is a science fiction story set in the not-too-distant future, populated with soovie parks and death doctors, Brouwer's tale is one of a father's love for his daughter. And it is propelled by the choice she must make. Will she be driven by inner anger at what he and life have forced on her, trusting no one? Or will she decide to love and accept the help of others? Risking all, she must face sacrifice if she wants to experience freedom.

As Christian fiction Brouwer thankfully refrains from preaching, relying on the story itself to illuminate the horrors of DNA manipulation and social oppression. He even provides a fleeting glimpse of mercy in the dark heart of evil.

Brouwer's end-note describes his desire to paint the picture of a society that is not too far-fetched. Drawing from the history of ancient city-states as well as current repression of rights in Africa and the Middle East, he offers this as a warning lest our present democracy disintegrates. The dangers lie in the abuse of cheap illegal immigrant workers, the decline of civil liberties, and the exploitation of science for the pleasures of the privileged few. A rockingly good read, "Flight of Shadows" leaves us satisfied but duly warned.

Note: I received a free copy from Waterbrook but was not influenced to provide a positive review.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Vicky Cristina Barcelona -- sex, love and meaning

Director: Woody Allen, 2008. (R)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells the story of one summer and the changes it brings to two close friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, The Town) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, Iron Man 2) as they vacation in the beautiful Spanish city of Barcelona. An adult comedy drama, it overflows with sex: adulterous sex, pre-marital sex, lesbian sex, even menage-a-trois sex, but very little marital sex. Thankfully, little is actually shown on screen, but the film becomes a vehicle for Woody Allen's philosophy on sex, love and the meaning of life. Despite my disagreements with all of these, I found the film itself enjoyable with some beautiful scenery and cinematography.

The opening scene, even before the credits, is crucial to understanding the story and setting the question that Allen wants to address. It shows Vicky and Cristina in a cab traveling from the Barcelona airport into the city. An unnamed narrator (who is never explained and whose presence feels awkward at times) gives us the background in an extended monolog in the opening lines:
The two best friends had been close since college and shared the same tastes and opinions on most matters, yet when it came to the subject of love, it would be hard to find two more dissimilar viewpoints. Vicky had no tolerance for pain and no lust for combat. She was grounded and realistic. Her requirements in a man were seriousness and stability. She had become engaged to Doug because he was decent and successful and understood the beauty of commitment. . . . Cristina, on the other hand, expected something very different out of love. She had reluctantly accepted suffering as an inevitable component of deep passion, and was resigned to putting her feelings at risk.
Here, then, is the crux of the movie: what is the nature of love? And as an ancillary question, how does love relate to marriage?

In choosing two protagonists, Allen presents polar opposite approaches to love. Vicky offers the realistic perspective, seeking a love that is serious, stable and safe. She wants commitment. Biblical love is all of these things are more. Moreover, marriage is indeed a commitment, and so must not be entered rashly or thoughtlessly. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), so a wedding presents a gateway to a life-long commitment. Vicky is correct in her assessment, but it is insufficient. Love is so much more. Cristina, on the other hand, eschews the rational and logical, preferring the emotional approach. She desires a love that is exciting even experimental, opting for seduction rather than safety in her man. Certainly, we want love to encompass some of these, but not at the expense of marriage and commitment.

Cristina certainly understands one aspect of love: suffering. True love, agape love, is sacrificial and giving (Jn. 3:16). Love can never be safe. If we love someone we risk pain and rejection. By opening ourselves up to share our deepest thoughts and secrets we may be hurt. But the aphorism "nothing ventured, nothing gained" underscores the adventure that love encompasses.

One night, while eating dinner after attending an art show, a sexy, handsome artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) approaches their dinner table. He invites them to accompany him to Ovieda for a weekend of sightseeing and sex. Such spontaneity appeals to Cristina but not to Vicky. Yet both accept and find themselves walking a path that will change them. Cristina's animal attraction to Juan Antonio eventually results in them moving in together, once back in Barcelona. Vicky's one-night stand with him, causes her to question everything she believes in. Who is really in love with whom?

When Juan Antonio's tempetuous ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here) shows up one night, Juan Antonio allows her to stay in their home, the home he now shares with Cristina. So begins a threesome. Indeed, Cristina becomes the one who is able to harmonize the troubled love relationship between the two Spanish artists. More then this, though, she experiments with love with both of them, embodying a tolerance that Woody Allen clearly communicates as positive and appropriate.

Cristina delivers this tolerance openly in a cafe with Vicky and her fiance, while explaining her sexual adventures to them. But tolerance is not always positive. Sometimes it is simply permissive, accepting of sin. The Bible describes lesbian sex as unnatural (Rom. 1:26). Furthermore, most would agree with the biblical view of sex as between two people not three. Cristina's tolerance is really an intolerance of truth.

One scene gets to the heart of Woody Allen's views on love and life. The three chief characters are in a church in Ovieda, early in the film. Juan Antonio says, "Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic." This is patently false. Fulfilled love in marriage can be romantic, though it does not always happen. We must work in our marriages to retain the rosebud of romance so it can blossom even as the wrinkles appear on our faces.

The scene continues with Cristina looking at a sculpture of Jesus and asking Juan Antonio a question: "Are you very religious?" Since he wanted to show them this sculpture, this is a reasonable question. Yet, his response surprises her and us: "No, no, no, no, no. I'm not. The trick is to enjoy life, accepting it has no meaning whatsoever." Why he values this sculpture is unclear, but his philosophy of life is apparent.

Woody Allen speaks through Juan Antonio. He has posited this in other movies, such as Whatever Works. This position contradicts the Christian worldview. Those of us who follow Jesus affirm a meaning to life that drives us. God has architected history, from the beginning to the end. Meaning is weaved throughout, though we may not understand it this side of eternity.

Javier Bardem Real life couple PENELOPE CRUZ and JAVIER BARDEM starring in the movie 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' which is directed by Woody Allen. These are still shots from the movie which include SCARLETT JOHANNSSON, REBECCA HALL and PATRICIA CLARKSON...
Cristina answers Juan Antonio's question: "No meaning? You don't think that authentic love gives life meaning?" She offers our refutation of his position. But his response comes quickly: "Yes, but love is so transient. Isn't it?" He refers back to the love he had for Maria Elena. Yet, this love remains; it is not dead, it is not transient. It simply needed to be brought back to the surface. He contradicts himself in his later actions.

Love does give life meaning. Without love we would live cold hard lives suffused with selfishness with nothing to hope for. Sometimes earthly love may be transient. When marriages end in divorce, the love that cemented a couple has crumbled and disappeared. But it does not have to be that way. Certainly, God's love is not like that. His love for us is not transient; rather it is everlasting (Jer. 31:3). We experience it somewhat now, but we will experience it fully in heaven later.

Even if our lives seem muddled and empty, we don't need a summer fling in Barcelona to offer the vestiges of love. And simple sex cannot fulfill the emptiness that lies within our hearts. Meaning does not come from fulfilling our physical appetites. Woody Allen is off-track. Authentic love comes from the source of love, God himself (1 Jn. 4:16), and gives meaning to our mundane lives. Have you tasted this love yet (Psa. 34:8)? It is never too late. And you can do it in Beaverton or Barbados as well as Barcelona!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, December 17, 2010

Full Metal Jacket -- duality of man

Director: Stanley Kubrick, 1987. (R)

Overshadowed by Oliver Stone's Oscar-winner Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket explores the impacts of war and the duality of man. The title is explained at the midpoint by Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio): "Seven-six-two millimeter. Full metal jacket." Up until this point, the raw recruits have used blanks for their drills. Now they are ready to go live, and their rifles use this caliber of ammo. And it has a copper coating covering the lead core of the bullets -- the full metal jacket. But are they really ready for the horrors they will face in Viet Nam?

Kubrick's film plays in two segments, cemented together by Pyle's line. The first segment focuses on boot camp at Paris Island. The new draftees meet their sadistic drill sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey). Originally hired as a consultant having been a drill instructor in real life, Kubrick was won over by Ermey's cuss-laden monologue showing how to do it. On-set Kubrick removed the actor intended to play the sergeant and replaced him by Ermey. And it was an inspired idea, as Ermey dominates the first act with his macho message and abuse of the privates.

In the first interaction Sgt Hartman dehumanizes the men by giving them new names that point to ugly characteristics he sees in them. Privates Joker (Matthew Modine) and Pyle form the heartbeat of boot camp. Joker is indeed a joker, but one who thinks. He joined up to be the first on his block with a confirmed kill. Pyle is half-brained farmer who is slow to learn and whose fitness is in question. His love of donuts exacerbates the problem. Hartman assigns Joker to be Pyle's mentor, but then punishes the whole platoon when Pyle makes mistakes. In doing so, he makes Pyle the brunt of the platoon's frustrations, and they take it out on him with an act of midnight brutality. In a key scene, Joker wants to avoid hurting his mentee and retain some of his humanity, but his fellow soldiers exert peer-pressure and Joker has to choose. And he does: he participates in the brutality.

This moment defines the paths of Joker and Pyle. Afterwards, Pyle focuses on getting fit and learning to fight. But his spark of humanity is gone. Hartman has won. Pyle becomes a machine, ready to run, shoot and kill. Boot camp training has had its desired impact. Even Joker has changed.

The second segment begins with Joker in Nam, outside the war zone. The first interaction between him, a fellow soldier, and a prostitute paints a picture of the situation. The locals see the G.I.s as opportunities: either to make a quick buck or to steal from them. They are not the liberating heroes they were in Europe twenty years earlier.

Assigned to the "Stars and Stripes" propaganda machine as a journalist, Joker laments that he is not in the action. He signed up to shoot gooks not pics. When the NVC attack during the tet ceasefire, he gets his opportunity. As part of the tet offensive campaign, Joker and Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) are sent forward to join Joker's former platoon. It is there that they meet Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), a powerful charismatic leader who challenges the authority of Cowboy (Arliss Howard), a battlefield sergeant.

Like boot camp, the war itself has a traumatizing impact on the grunt soldiers at the forefront of the violence. The anti-war nature of this film is summed up by one soldier: "These are great days we are living in bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss not having anyone around that's worth shooting." They have been brainwashed by boot camp and by combat experience. Now their desire is to kill other human beings.

Some wars are just. Augustine pointed this out over a thousand years ago. But some are not. Viet Nam was one that America lost, and perhaps should not have fought in the first place. Yet, all wars have an impact of the combatants. They emerge, if they do emerge, different. Having taken life, life is not the same for them. When they return as heroes they may be able to handle this change. When they come back under scorn as invaders, this trauma may be too much. The system has failed them.

Full Metal Jacket highlights the nature of man. In Nam Joker sports an unusual adornment to his uniform, and one Colonel points this out: "You write 'Born to Kill' on your helmet and you wear a peace button. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?" Joker replies, "I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir?"

Joker's ironic ornamentation points to the truth of human nature. We want peace. (And followers of Jesus can experience the true inner peace that he promised to leave with his disciples -- Jn. 14:27.) But we can turn into killers given the right circumstances and provocation. The army trained Joker and his compadres to be killers. But each of us has the capacity latent within to do likewise. We all have felt that rush of blood as anger rears its ugly head. As anger turns to wrath, we sometimes lose control and say things, even do things, we regret. Most homicides in America are the result of domestic violence, crimes of passion. Like Cain (Gen. 4:8), we are born with a fallen nature that predisposes us to sin (Jer. 17:9). Apart from the restraining influence of society's laws and judicial punishments, we could and maybe would kill.

At the end one soldier comments, "I am alive." Ultimately in war, this becomes the paramount goal. Soldiers may be trained to kill, but their inherent desire is to live. Life on this planet is fleeting at best. True life and real peace come only through Jesus. Brainwashed by the drill sergeants in our lives, we can nevertheless cast them aside and choose to follow Christ. He is the one who said, "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6). When the ammo becomes live, will we look for peace or succumb to the killing nature?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- love and control

Director: Jon Turteltaub, 2010. (PG)

The Sorceror's Apprentice is a reunion of sort. Disney brings back National Treasure director Turteltaub and star Nicolas Cage for another live-action family-friendly frolic. But something is amiss. There is less magic and more formula in this; the treasure is missing.

The film opens with a rapid-fire sequence introducing three apprentices to the sorcerer Merlin. Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) and his love interest Veronica (Monica Bellucci, Mary Magdalene in The Passion of the Christ) stand on the side of good, while turn-coat apprentice Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina, An Education) sides with evil Morgana (Alice Krige). After the dust of wand-fighting dissipates, Veronica and Morgana are imprisoned together with Maxim in a magical doll leaving Balthazar alone. The dying Merlin commanded him to search for the coming Prime Merlinian, the young child who can save the world if Morgana is ever released. The quest undertaken: to find the Savior. We see Balthazar search long and wide, across centuries and continents, without success.

Before moving to the body of the film, this points out a universal human quest -- to find the Savior. In this Christmas season, most of us hear the songs proclaiming the birth of the baby Jesus so long ago. But do we believe and accept that this Christ-child was the Savior of the world? Our quest can end today: today is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6;2). And this could be the beginning of a life following the King. Unlike Balthazar, we might not need to search for years to find this Savior.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice Publicity StillAfter the frantic opening, the movie moves to modern day New York city and a group of grade-school kids on a field trip. Young Dave's crush on young Becky causes him to follow a yellow sticky note, wafted by the wind, straight into Balthazar's dusty antique store. Coincidence? Not at all. Dave is the long-awaited Prime Merlinian, but he doesn't know it. When Balthazar, realizing coincidence has no place in affairs of wizardry, places a dragon ring on Dave's finger, this ring comes to life and Dave becomes empowered. But like any boy he begins to explore and inadvertently releases Maxim. In the ensuing cgi-enhanced magical duel, Maxim and Balthazar become trapped in a magic vase, sentenced to a decade-long isolation from the real world.

When his teacher and the rest of the class find the lost Dave, he is ridiculed by them for his "fanciful" story of the two magicians. Such mockery, and his persistent dreams over the next 10 years, causes Dave to grow up with psychological problems and a loss of confidence. He retreats into the fact-filled world of physics, becoming a science nerd.

Cut ahead 10 years. Maxim and Balthazar are released from their vase-prison. Maxim goes searching for the doll that Dave casually tossed into the street years ago; Balthazar goes looking for Dave. Both find what they seek.

Balthazar reintroduces himself to the college-student Dave (Jay Baruchel), who has tried to suppress the memories of that day 10 years earlier. He is the true sorcerer's apprentice. He wants nothing to do with Balthazar but he is indeed no ordinary student.

This highlights one of the film's themes: who is special? Dave seems less than special: clumsy and quite ordinary in fact. But appearances can be deceiving, both in Hollywood and in real life. Most of us would claim to be ordinary, simple people living somewhat banal lives. But we are also special to God. He loves us individually with an undying and infinite love that we cannot fathom (Rom. 8:38). This makes us potential children of God (Jn. 1:12) and potential joint heirs to the kingdom (Rom. 8:17). The marked and the mundane co-exist in all of us, like it or not.

Dave's focus is on the beautiful Becky (Teresa Palmer), coincidentally reacquainted with her. While Balthazar tries to teach his young apprentice the ins and outs of wizardry, Dave just wants to spend time with Becky. Frustrated, Balthazar tells him, "Love is a distraction. Sorcery requires complete focus."

The Sorcerer's Apprentice Publicity StillIs this so? Is love ever a distraction? Certainly it can distract us from other tasks. But love is central to life. It fills our heart, it powers our will, it drives our actions. And God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). He lies at the heart of it all. As the apostle Paul once said, "Christ's love compels us" (2 Cor. 5:14). We can never dismiss love as a distraction in this sense.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice follows a fairly formulaic route to its climax. Along the way, Maxim teams up with a dandy apprentice of his own, Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), who provides some additional comic relief, including a nod to the original Star Wars. The action is fast, including a car chase involving a Pinto, but much of it is noticeably computer generated. Despite the lack of chemistry between the two young leads, it provides a couple of hours of entertainment that we can control.

Control. That underscores the final issue of the film. Balthazar tells Dave at one point, "I am your master not your mentor." Apprentices have masters. But Dave wants more control than an apprentice. What about us? Are we willing to be apprentices to Jesus? Apprentices learn from one who has mastered the art. Will we learn from Jesus how to live? Or do we bristle at the thought of relinquishing control, even if it is to the one who is Lord of the universe (Col. 1:16)? Generally, we don't want to be apprentices. We would rather be the masters of our own fate. We want control. In reality, we don't have it. Our future lies in becoming the Savior's apprentice.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) -- banishment, and waiting for Jesus

Director: Arnaud Desplechin, 2008. (R)

Christmas. A grand time of year when bells ring, Santas smile and joy floats like snowflakes all around. That's the ideal, anyway. But sometimes Christmas brings more stress than we'd like. For some, Christmas produces dysfunction and disappointment rather tidings of comfort and joy. Desplechin's tale presents such a picture. This is no Miracle on 54th Street or A Wonderful Life.
The film follows the Vuillard family as Christmas decends on them. The introduction sets the scene: Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) the father speaks at the funeral of his son, who died at 4. The shadow of this boy looms over the family, even after two decades. Through a puppet-like sequence, Desplechin introduces the other siblings: Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), the oldest child; Henri (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace), the despised middle child; and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), the youngest. Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the matriarch, rules the roost for the now grown family. Elizabeth has a troubled 16 year-old son Paul (Emile Berling), recently released from an asylum, while Ivan and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) have two little boys.

To fully establish the extent of the family dysfunction, A Christmas Tale retreats six years to a French courtroom. Henri is broke but in debt on a theater endeavour. With no apparent solution to his problem, Elizebeth offers a way out -- but only after Henri leaves the room. She will pay off his debt if he promises never to see her or visit their parents' house again. In a word, banishment. This, along with the loss of his elder brother years ago, leaves Henri isolated and lonely. His need for family has been met through alcohol. One scene shows him wandering the streets drinking and weaving. As he stands curbside he slowly pitches forward stiff as a bone, face first into the road. He is an abject failure.

Family should provide a safe haven, a place of nurture during childhood and a place of comfort when we return as adults. God intended for parents to love and care for their children, and he designed us this way. We crave affection and acceptance. When we fail to get it, like Henri, it can damage us permanently, leaving us alone, feeling like failures.

Banishment is a hellish punishment that Henri does not deserve. Indeed, hell defines the location of the banishment of all who will not willingly follow Jesus in this life. Though God would prefer all to choose to spend their lives with him (1 Tim. 2:4), he allows people to freely choose to separate themselves from his love, and in so doing they are choosing to spend their eternity alone: self-banishment.

When Junon learns she has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant, her blood type rules out most donors. She must explore those within her own family: her children. This cruel twist forces all her children and grandchildren to be tested for donor match, and brings them all together in a reunion of sorts in Junon's home. As the siblings and grandkids descend on her home, forgotten feuds, spats, and fights erupt in the midst of the festive drinking and eating.

During the reunion several famhy members seek answers to earlier questions. Henri wants to know the reasons for the conflict he finds himself in. Why did Elizebeth choose to banish him? What drove her to such a final recourse? If this were a Hollywood film, these would be in a box neatly wrapped in Christmas paper adorned with a silver bow. But it is a French film, and like life these answers are absent. They don't know the reasons for their situations. Rather, their choice is to accept the situation regardless of logic or rationale. Life is indeed like this. We want to know the whys to our questions, but rarely are we so enlightened. We must accept that God has a reason for all that he allows to happen to those he loves (Heb. 12:6). We must trust in his ultimate goodness. Ignorance, in this sense, may be bliss.

Although dark comedy suffuses much of the film, one scene offers a glimmer of light and hope. Jeffrey Overstreet discusses this in his 2008 Christianity Today article, "It Came Upon a Big Screen Clear." Ivan's two boys are playing with the Nativity scene and one asks, "When is Jesus going to come?" The other replies, "Maybe midnight." But when their father comes into the room and they tell him they are "waiting for Jesus" he refutes their childlike faith: "Jesus never existed." He represents the faithless of this age. But the boys retain a faith of sorts: "We'll wait anyway. We want to see him." This is the hope of Christmas -- the advent of the son of God born to a virgin, the babe who would be king.

In this Christmas season, will we wait for Jesus, even though many around us would tell us he doesn't exist? He came as a human baby in his first advent two thousand years ago (Lk. 2:6). He came with a mission to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10), doing so through his own self-sacrifice. But Advent is just the beginning. There will be a second advent, when the humble crucified and resurrected Jesus returns as the powerful Christ, the warrior-King to bring victory and restore his creation and creatures (Rev. 19:16). Will we wait for Jesus to come again? If we are his followers, then this Christmas as we sing carols of worship, we can say sincerely, "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:20).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Good Year -- winning, losing, and forgotten memories

Director: Ridley Scott, 2006. (PG-13)

Good wine matures with age to become a fine vintage. The best vintage heralds a good year. This film is more like a Trader Joe's "two-buck chuck". It's OK but not great. It is indeed "A Good Year" not a great year.

Ridley Scott has directed some classic films in a variety of genres: sci-fi (Alien, Blade Runner), road-movie (Thelma and Louise), war (Blackhawk Down). Some of his best films paired him with Russell Crowe: Oscar-winner Gladiator, Body of Lies, and his latest Robin Hood. Here Scott is reteamed with Crowe but with less impressive results. Not quite a traditional rom-com as the romance takes too long to develop, it is a a mix of drama, comedy and romance.

Crowe plays Max Skinner, a cold-hearted British bond trader. He lives to work, orchestrating the deals for his team (referred to as his "lab-rats"). He has no morals or qualms: he is not afraid to cross the line and break a few rules, as long as he makes a buck or two (or multiple millions). When his old Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) dies intestate, his winery and estate in Provence falls to Max.

Much of the first part of the film shows Max's childhood (Freddy Highmore as the young Max), with summers spent with his uncle in France. It is there that he learned to drink wine and play chess and tennis. It is there, with this effervescent but commitment-challenged old man that Max learns lessons that carry over into his adult career.

One of his lessons concerns winning: "You'll come to see that a man learns nothing from winning. The act of losing, however, can elicit great wisdom. Not least of which is, uh . . . how much more enjoyable it is to win. It's inevitable to lose now and again. The trick is not to make a habit of it." This is sage advice. We often learn more from our failures that our successes, not least of which is humility. When we win too often and too easily we can become proud and arrogant. We come to expect it and see it as a result of our own skill and strength. But success and victory are gifts, and "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights" (Jas. 1:17).

The older Max seems to have forgotten this lesson, and does not entertain losing. He wants victories and money. So, when he goes to France to see his inheritance his focus is on a quick trip and an even quicker sale. He has forgotten the charm of the French countryside and the charms of his old uncle. But places trigger memories, good and bad. One woman asks him, "Are your memories of my father [Henry] good?" and Max replies wistfully, "No they are extraordinary. My uncle loved women, although no one for a long time, and he never married. He loved England, yet lived in France. He was an adventurer, yet all my memories take place within 100 steps of this spot."

Locations lock in memories. When we visit them these memories can come back in a flash flood, wanted or unwanted. That is often why we avoid going to places where we have suffered; we don't wish to remember. But Max had forgotten, and so do we at times. The gift of memory is another of God's precious gifts to us. Even if we need triggers to bring them back to mind.

Max's journey to the vineyeard in his miniature yellow smart car causes him to unknowingly almost run into a beautiful French woman, Fanny Chenall (Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose, Inception). When they later meet, she makes an impact on him. So, too, does Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), an American who shows up unannounced and claims she is the illegitimate child of Henry. She becomes a competitor, vying for the inheritance. But, unlike Max, she knows vineyards and cares about them as a source of a great vintage not just a great sale.

Of course, as Max falls for Fanny and fights against Christie, both work subtly to cause him to see what is important in life. All his brokerage deals and opportunities in London are balanced against what Provence has to offer. Cash and a prosperous future versus a cafe and a quiet life, Max must make a choice.

A Good Life makes Max and us see that winning and success are not as important as finding love and satisfaction in life. What is a good life without someone to share it with? All the deals we cut will pale and be forgotten, leaving a mouthful of dry ashes instead of delicious wine. What is important in life? In your life? Is it the relationship you have with your spouse? Is it the relationship you  have with God? Or are you driven by your career to climb the ladder of corporate success? Will you be triggered some day by memories of better days once forgotten? Let's hope it is not a death of a relative that causes you to waken to what is really important in life.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Good Night -- dreams, and orbits

Director: Jake Paltrow, 2007. (R)

Middle-age seems to get older in real-life, especially as we ourselves age, but younger in Hollywood. Here Gary Shaller (Martin Freeman) is going through a mid-life crisis even before he reaches 40 or has any kids. Good night! Get real!

The film begins documentary-like, with talking heads discussing Gary, reminiscing on what he was like before, when he was one of the stars in the band. Even Paul (Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz), his former band mate and friend, offers up on opinion. Then the film moves back in time 2 years and into a more normal narrative.

The band has broken up. Gary is working for Paul composing music for commercials, selling out his artistic creative talent, replacing it with artless copying of familiar tunes. Clearly, his job is going nowhere. His girlfriend Dora (Gwyneth Paltrow, the director's sister) is tired and bored with him. Their love-life is so absent, he reads "The Idiot's Guide to the Middle East" in bed and has to put that aside to allow Dora to get her sleep. Can it get any worse?

Then Paul gets a promotion . . . and the house in the country, upstate New York. Jealousy raises its ugly head. Though Dora is thrilled, Gary is envious. Nothing seems to go wrong for Paul; quite the opposite of his experience.

Jealousy is a nasty sin. It can poison attitudes and kill relationships. Although Gary continues to be friends with Paul, this impacts his relationships, particularly with Dora. It comes from our fallen nature. The apostle Paul calls it one of the acts of the flesh and places it in a black list of vices: "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like" (Gal. 5:19-21).

Then Gary meets Anna (Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces). She is beautiful and sexy, and is crazy about Gary. She is the girl of his dreams, quite literally. He meets her when he sleeps, and wants to learn how to control his dreams so each day's end can become the good night. Through this desire he meets Mel (Danny DeVito), an apparent master of dream techniques. As Mel tells him,
Sometimes I wish that you could just hit the sack and never wake up. If your favorite song never ended, or your best book never closed, if the emotions mustered from these things would just go on and on, who wouldn't want to stay asleep? The guy who discovers that perpetual dream, he's my man.

Most of us at some time want to escape the humdrum reality of our lives. Some try drugs, others adventurous recreation. But if dreams become our reality, then we will pursue them instead. They leave us at the center of our universe. But they are an avoidance of reality. Like the old men in Inception who sleep for days to live in their very own dream-worlds, reality has lost its lustre and anything we can substitute we will.

Gary recognizes this. He tells Mel, "I used to believe that everybody was at the center of their own universe. You know, like we're all suns being orbited by the people in our lives. But at a certain point, if things don't go your way, maybe it's better just to pick someone or something great and just orbit that." Gary picked Anna, though she was a figment of his own dreamworld imagination.

Gary is spot on with this observation. We all want to be at the center of our own universe. But this is a dream. The reality is far better. There is a person who is really at the center of the universe: Jesus. He sustains all that is (Col. 1:17). And he does want us to orbit him in true worship. But it is our choice. We can live out a lie, thinking everyone orbits us. Or we can focus on the one truly worthy of our praise and worship.

Jake Paltrow's first movie as a director does not give him the content to show if he has the stuff great directors are made of. But since he wrote the screenplay himself, he must shoulder the blame. The potential of the concept fizzles after an hour and then we want to say good night to The Good Night.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs