Saturday, January 29, 2011

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky -- passionless relationships

Director: Jan Kounen, 2009. (R)

Having seen Coco Before Chanel, I was hoping that this film would be a continuation of the story of Gabrielle Chanel, even though it is not a sequel. To some degree it is. But it offers little in the way of story development.

This film recounts the relationship between Coco (Anna Mouglalis), the radical fashionista of Paris, and Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) the revolutionary Russian composer, in the 1920s. Coco has lost her lover, Boy Capel, in a car accident, but meets Igor after being in the audience for the premiere of his composition "The Rite of Spring." The music is dissonant and matches the unconventional ballet performed by a Russian dance troupe. The audience boos and walks out, not appreciating the modernity of the occassion. Coco, though, seems to find a kindred spirit in Igor.

When the Russian revolution leaves Igor penniless and a refugee in France with his wife and four children, Coco invites them to stay at her mansion. While there, she seduces him and begins an affair, right under the nose of his wife Katarina (Elena Morozova).

With a classical music score and beautiful cinematography, this foreign film is slow but could have been fascinating. Instead, it is tedious and dull. There seems to be no point; the story lacks tension and there is little character development, if any. Even the sex appears mechanical and passionless, as though they are going through the motions simply to meet a need. The leads have no chemistry and little attraction, so there is nothing to grip the viewer.

The most interesting point is how the relationship between Coco and Igor contrasts with their work. There, apart, they are passionate and devoted, breaking new ground. Together, there is no devotion, no love, nothing new, just age-old sex.
There is little here to interact with. Perhaps, the film reminds us that our relationships deserve as much if not more than our vocation or work. For most of us, our work will eventually disappear and we will be forgotten laborers. A few will produce goods, inventions or creations that will carry our name forward to the world. But they are rare; they are like Coco and Igor. The rest of us must make sure that our love is not passionless, our relationships are not mechanical. We are imbued with the mark of our maker, the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and he made us for love and relationship (Mk. 12:30-31). Let's not waste this. For that matter, let's not waste time watching Coco and Igor waste their time! Do yourself a favor: spend time with your spouse or loved one, not with this film!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Black Swan -- perfectionism and paranoia

Director: Darren Aronofsky, 2010. (R)

"I want to be perfect," says Nina (Natalie Portman, Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace), the pretty ballerina in the New York City ballet company. She is the White Swan and the heart of this film. And perfectionism is one of the themes of the film, along with predominance and paranoia.

Aronofsky uses Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" as the balletic and musical background here. The troupe's artistic director, Frenchman Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), wants to bring a new spin, focusing on the black swan rather than the white. Of course, both swans are one and the same, simply being two sides of one person: grace and innocence compared to guile and sensuality.

An early scene sets the tone. When Thomas declares his old prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) will retire, the doorway opens for a new star. And Nina wants to be that star, the white/black swan of the title. When she approaches him for the part, he tells her: "The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes, you're beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It's a hard job to dance both." Nina softly replies, "I can dance the black swan, too." Thomas: "Really? In 4 years every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?" Whispering, Nina comments, almost to herself, "I just want to be perfect."

Black Swan Publicity StillHere is the core value of the little ballerina. The princess seeks perfection. Some of us are like that, too. We want to be perfect, and are scared we might fail. But in reality, we will probably not be perfect. Life usually disallows this. Only Jesus was perfect. This value, this goal tends to limit not free us. As Thomas put it, "Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them." When we let go of ourselves, remove the restraints and attack our job with gusto, willing to make a mistake along the way, we will surprise ourselves.  If we realize that our imperfections are more than made up for by God's immeasurable grace (2 Cor. 12:9), then we can do great things that we cannot do in our "imperfect perfection" (Phil. 4:13).

Winning the role, Nina has the white swan down but must master the black swan. Promoted to principal dancer, she immediately experiences the backstabbing and trash-talking from the other dancers. Only the new dancer from the West Coast, Lily (Mila Kunis, The Book of Eli), offers support and friendship. Even this is questionable, though, since she is a competitor for the lead role as her black swan dance is flowing and seductive.
The other main character is Nina's mom, Erica (Barbara Hershey). A former ballerina, she exerts a suffocating control over her daughter, managing and manipulating her like a child. Indeed, Nina's room in their apartment resembles a child's bedroom, down to the single bed and stuffed animals. Her appearance, like her relationship to Nina, is chilling and creepy.

Control is the second theme. Erica's external control over Nina mirrors Nina's internal control over herself. Her mom won't let her go free and she holds herself back. Control, in its place, is a good thing. Total lack of control leads to anarchy and chaos. But too much control limits our creativity, stifling our expressions of feeling and our freedom. The right amount of control is freeing, providing sufficient limits to bring focus while giving us room to grow and perform.

An example of this can be found in the Old Testament, though it is widely misunderstood. God provided the law and the ten commandments to his chosen people (Exod. 20) not as a form of over-control, but as a means to delineate the freedoms they had. This was a gift of grace, though when the people tried to earn their redemptive relationship with the Lord by rule-keeping, they missed the point and missed the blessing. These laws defined boundaries, allowing all else.

Like his last film, The Wrestler, Black Swan is intense, even disturbing, with its infamous Portman-Kunis kiss and lesbian love scene, certainly deserving its R-rating. It reminded me some of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, being both a drama and a paranoid thriller. Visceral and cerabral, it veers into psychological horror in places. Freely using jittery hand-held shots, he pulls the audience into the growing tension, making us feel as uncomfortable as Nina herself.

Aronofsky pulls outstanding acting performances from his cast here, as he did in his earlier film. The Wrestler earned Mickey Rourke an Oscar as Randy the Ram, and here Natalie Portman gives a stunning turn as a young woman spiralling into paranoia. She has already won a Golden Globe for this role, and seems a sure bet for the Best Actress Oscar this March. And the name cast around her also give fine performances.

Black Swan Publicity Still
As the pressure to perform as both swans mounts, Nina begins to descend into the dark depths of breakdown. The obsessions of her mother and the expectations of Thomas cause her to actively seek the dark side of the swan. To dance the black swan, she must become the black swan. Lily's friendship, too, borders on recklessness. Nina's fall from the grace of the white swan into the shadow of the black swan is accompanied by paranoid visions and feelings: "She wants my role. . . She's after me. She's trying to replace me!" She cannot see reality, only delusions.

Nina demonstrates the truth that in striving to achieve our goals, we risk losing a part of us that we might never get back. Like Randy the Ram, both wrestler and ballerina desired the glory of the spotlight at any cost. The tired and worn-out macho man and the young and ambitious petite princess echo one another. Both unknowingly risk their very selves for a passing prize.

Aronofsky also underscores the duality of humanity. We think we are pure and innocent, the white swan. We want to be that person. But we are not. The Bible says, "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure " (Jer. 17:9). It paints an ugly picture of the depravity of mankind: "The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time" (Gen. 6:5). Some, on the other hand, want to discard any trace of innocence and be the rebel, giving into the allure and excitement of the dark side of our nature, the black swan. That is easy to do, since our natural tendency is to sin. But we still bear the image of God (1 Cor. 11:7). Tarnished and distorted though it is, we are still his creation. In a sense, black swan and white swan live together in each person.   

Ultimately, though, God calls out to us offering redemption and re-creation as the true white swan, fashioned after the second Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:47). It is our choice if we would pursue the recklessness of the black swan that will consume and destroy us, as it did Nina; or if we will paradoxically release control and let go of perfectionism and find freedom and completion in Christ. Which swan will you be?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar Nominations 2011

83rd Academy Awards NomineesThe Oscar nominations came out bright and early this morning. The complete list can be found on the Academy's website, but the nominees in the top award categories are shown below.

I have reviewed four of the 10 (links included below), and three more will be published over the next 2 weeks (Black Swan, The Fighter, and The King's Speech). I aim to see at least a couple more before the February 27 festivities.

I would say Colin Firth and Natalie Portman are a lock on the best actor/actress awards, and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo should win for supporting actor/actress. As for best picture, my favorite film of 2010 was Christopher Nolan's Inception but it won't win. I think it comes down to The Social Network and The King's Speech. Although the former won the Golden Globe award this month, I am tipping the English period piece to take the biggest prize this year.

Best Picture:
Best Director:
  • Darren Aranofsky (Black Swan)
  • David Russell (The Fighter)
  • Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
  • David Fincher (The Social Network)
  • Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)
Best Actor:
  • Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
  • Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
  • Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
  • Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
  • James Franco (127 Hours)
Best Actress:
  • Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
  • Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
  • Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)
  • Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
  • Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
Best Supporting Actor:
  • Christian Bale (The Fighter)
  • John Hawkes (Winter's Bone)
  • Jeremy Renner (The Town)
  • Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)
  • Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)
Best Supporting Actress:
  • Amy Adams (The Fighter)
  • Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)
  • Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
  • Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
  • Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shrek Forever After -- boredom and blessings

Shrek Forever After Box Art

Director: Mike Mitchell, 2010. (PG) 

When Dreamworks brought out Shrek in 2001, it was fresh and funny, poking fun at various fairy tales and other kids' stories. The idea of a friendly ogre, an ugly princess and a talking donkey combined to make it a favorite of both kids and parents alike. Now, after two sequels, almost a decade later this final chapter in the franchise came out about as fresh as Christmas leftovers on New Year's Day.

All the main characters with the star voices are back: Shrek (Mike Myers), Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), King (John Cleese) and Queen (Julie Andrews). But it feels like they are going through the motions for a paycheck. Gone is the wonder; missing is the chemistry. Shrek Forever After is a tired and bored film aimed at the children, filled with routine animation, a derivative plot; it is simply not that funny. The tag line declares, "it ain't ogre till it's ogre" but baby, this one is most certainly ogre.

Shrek Forever After Publicity StillThe movie picks up with Ogre living happily ever after in his swamp with Fiona and his three little ogre-kids. Life is good. He sees donkey and his dragon family regularly. But regularity leads to routine, and routine leads to boredom. The locals love him, and even the tourists come unafraid to take photos of this once-fierce ogre. What has his world come to?

Enter Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohrn), a scheming villain who wants the kingdom but has been thwarted at every attempt to con it out of the King. When things reach boiling point for Ogre and he yells that all he wants are "the good old days" before he was married, Rumplestiltskin is waiting with an offer he can't refuse.

Shrek Forever After Publicity StillThe first theme we can resonate with is that of boredom. How many of us reach mid-life and verbalize Ogre's comment, "I'm not a real ogre anymore"? When the adventure and excitement of youth evolve into the responsibility and routine of child raising life can appear dull and drab. We may pine for "the good old days" but that is to live in the past. We look back and remember the good times, forgetting all the pain and stress that went along with our youth. Would we really sacrifice all we have achieved, throw away all our relationships carefully fostered, for a return to our youth?

God has designed this life to be a one-way street. We traverse it from present (which becomes our past) to the future, one day at a time. We cannot go back; we cannot skip ahead to the future. We must face each new day, looking for grace enough to carry us through 24 hours. His mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). We must win the day, the one we are in, rather than fondly reminiscing over our yesterdays. There is literally no time like the present, and we must soak in today no matter our circumstance. We will never have this day over.

But Rumplestiltskin's offer scratches Shrek's itch at an opportune time. He has a magic deal: to give Shrek one day over, back in the good old days when he still scared people, in return for one of Shrek's days. And when Shrek finds himself in Far Far Away, reliving his youth, he gets more than he bargained for. Rumplestiltskin has tricked him into being in an alternate version of that land, one where he himself is king surrounded by witches. Ogre has no friends and his time is running out.

Shrek Forever After Publicity Still
Here the derivative nature of the plot becomes clear. This is a retelling of It's A Wonderful Life. In that film George Bailey's troubles got him down so deep he was suicidal. He was not bored, wanting to relive his youth. He despaired of life, thinking others would be better off if he had never lived. When Clarence the good angel gave George his wish, George found himself not in Bedford Falls but in Pottersville. He saw clearly the impact his life had had on those around him, Rumplestiltskin is not good, but gives Ogre the chance to see what Far Far Away would have been like if he had not rescued Fiona: a dark place indeed.

The main message of Shrek Forever After emerges loud and clear: count your blessings; life is not as bad or as boring as you think. Ham-fisted though the presentation may be here, this is a truism. We should indeed count our blessings. When our eyes fall to the floor in depression, we must remember to actively look up, first to the vertical then to the horizontal. We look above to our maker, God who has given us life. Whatever our lot, he wants us to enjoy a living relationship with him through Jesus (Jn.10:10; 17:3). Then we must look around us, to see our families, those who love us. Few are there who have no one at all to love them. Familial love will warm our hearts, if we let it. All the earlier passion and adventure and romance can be beautifully echoed in a quiet loving relationship of a man and wife even in the midst of toddlers and teens. 

The little ditty has it right: "Count your blessings name them one by one. Count your blessings see what God has done." If Ogre had done this at the start, he would have avoided the drama and we would have been spared this movie. If we do it when we face depression or boredom, we can avoid the pain we would bring on ourselves and our families. Not to mention the added glory we give to God when we recognize his blessings!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 21, 2011

Priceless (Hors de Prix) -- sex and security

Director: Pierre Salvadori, 2006. (R)

Priceless is a French rom-com with an emphasis on the "French." Stylish and filled with sleek and snappy scenes on the south of France, it is saturated with sex and immoral themes that convey almost little of biblical truth. A superficial fun fling, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the truth of relationships by contrasting with the film's message.

Audrey Toutou (Amelie) stars as Irene, a beautiful gold-digger. She accompanies older men, sleeping with them in serial relationships, spending their money like water, until they catch on to her gig. Love's absence underscores lust's attraction and greed's allure.

Priceless - Gad Elmaleh as Jean and Audrey Tautou as Irene in Pierre Salvadori's PRICELESS
But when she slips out of her room for a late night drink she meets Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a barman at the hotel, who she mistakes for a wealthy, young playboy. Here is her new meal ticket. The setup has potential, but the payoff is ethically poor.

When her current old beau gives her the boot, she hooks up with Jean in the Royal Suite for the night. But the truth comes out and after she has burned through all his money, leaving the poor boy broke and jobless, she leaves him in an instant. A year later their paths cross unexpectedly. This time he has a lover of his own, an older woman, Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam). He is her toy-boy, a kept man, as Irene is a kept woman. Their feelings for each other cannot overcome their desires for the money found in their "sugar parents."

The relationship for each is founded on deceit. Neither will tell the older person that love is absent and that they are sleeping with someone else. To do so would be to risk breaking the relationship. But where truth is absent, trust is missing, too. And such a relationship is too fragile to last. Lies imprison, leaving us claustrophobic and needing air. Only the truth can set us free (Jn. 8:32).

Priceless - Audrey Tautou as Irene in Pierre Salvadori's PRICELESS.Irene was in it for sex and money. The sex was secondary to the security. She was prostituting herself in a sense, selling her body to an older man. Some would argue she was more of a courtesan, since there was a relationship that lasted more than the hour or two that a whore gives. The older man, and woman, probably realized the superficiality of the relationship but wanted sex and companionship. And they were willing to take the risk of rejection when someone else younger and richer came along. The commitment to stay was predicated on the level of monetary security. Here is a purchased loyalty apart from love.

The Bible paints a completely different picture of relationships. God designed man to live in relationship with woman and gave them the gift of sex (Gen. 1:28). But he warned that this was to be enjoyed in the boundaries of marriage (Heb. 13:4). Sex before marriage is fornication. Sex outside of marriage is adultery. God has strong words against these (Ex. 20:14, Eph. 5:3). Sex inside marriage is endorsed and encouraged.

The purpose of keeping sex inside the marriage bed is to nurture a lasting commitment between husband and wife. Marriage offers security to both. Irene's solution to security proves temporary and false. God's solution is permanent.

Priceless - Audrey Tautou as Irene and Gad Elmaleh as Jean in Pierre Salvadori's PRICELESSTrue security, though, can only come from God himself. Even the best spouse will, at some point, disappoint and hurt the other. That is inevitable. God, though, offers eternal and unconditional love and security that can fill the emptiness of our soul. We may have little money, we may be involuntarily celibate, but in Jesus we can find comfort for our soul, a security that money or sex can never buy. Salvation is a gift to be received (Eph. 2:8), not a wage to be earned or a present to be purchased (Acts 8:18). Where are you looking for your security? Is it in money? Is it in someone else who is not even your spouse? Is it in your spouse? If it is not in Jesus, it is simply sinking sand. He waits for you (Rev. 3:20). He wants to be your security. Choose carefully today (2 Cor. 6:2).

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo" -- morality and trust

Director: Sergio Leone, 1966. (R) 

The third of Sergio Leone's "man with no name" trilogy, many take this to the best. It is certainly the longest and most complex, running to almost three hours. Yet, I found it looser and more rambling than its simpler predecessors. It also adds complexity in characters. Where A Fistful of Dollars had one main character and For a Few Dollars More had two, this one has three. And to some degree that creates the contusions of the plot.

Once again, Leone has made a spaghetti western that is beautifully filmed and set against a haunting score by Ennio Morricone. The title theme has reached iconic status and instantly brings to mind Clint Eastwood and this set of films.

Indeed Clint returns as the cowboy, in this movie known as Blondie for skin tone rather than a forename. He is "the good" of the title, although he is a professional gunslinger and bounty hunter. Not necessarily the same character as before, yet he wears the same poncho and jeans. Lee Van Cleef, a good guy in For a Few Dollars More, plays "the bad," Angel Eyes who is a sadistic killer. And "the ugly" is Tuco, played by Eli Wallach who has more screen time than Clint and steals the show.

At the beginning of the film Angel Eyes is searching for a man who has information on stolen gold coins worth $200,000, a fortune in the civil war era. He finds the name of the man who had the money, Bill Carson, leaving his informant dead but not discovering Carson's whereabouts.

At the same time, we find Blondie and Tuco in a partnership of sorts. Blondie is capturing Tuco, a wanted outlaw, and bringing him in for the reward bounty. When Tuco is strung up, ready to be hanged for his crimes, Blondie shoots the rope, enabling Tuco to escape so they can work together on this scam in the next town. But, after doing this so long Blondie cuts not only the rope but his ties to Tuco as well. Severing their business relationship, he leaves Tuco to die in the desert. When their roles are later reversed, and Blondie is almost dead in the same desert, these two stumble on an ambushed Confederate stagecoach where Carson lies dying. With his final breaths he tells Tuco the name of the graveyard where the money is buried and Blondie the name of the actual grave. For Tuco to get the money, he must once more work with Blondie in a temporary partnership.

With all three after the money it is inevitable that their paths cross. But the various journeys are intricate and tortuous. They involve both Union and Confederate armies, a battle to hold a bridge, and some torture to extract information, leading to a Mexican standoff in a desolate cemetery.

One of the interesting themes of the film is the nature of the characters. Unlike earlier westerns where the good guys wore white and were pure while the bad guys wore black and were evil, Leone gives us shades of gray morality. Blondie, our hero, is not really that good. He is a bounty hunter and a con man. By freeing Tuco in the early sham arrests, he shows that his nature is corrupt, not pure. On the other hand, Angel Eyes has his own morality, always keeping his word to his employer. Though he kills at the drop of a hat, his word is his bond. Once again, his nature is a balance of good and bad; black and white mix to form dark gray.

This describes humanity. We are not pure as some would like us to believe. The Bible says, "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jer. 17:9). Such depravity entangles every aspect of our being, corrupting our character and motives. Even though we can still behave in a moral manner, inner drives belie the outer appearance. Yet, we still possess the image of God  (1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9), marred and twisted lacking its original intention (Gen. 1:26). We are not totally black; gray describes us well. Not fully evil like Satan, neither are we fully pure like Jesus.

A running joke throughout the film is in the contrast of twos in the dialog between Blondie and Tuco. Though not really pointing to themes, they do raise some interesting biblical thoughts. Blondie: "You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my frient: those with loaded guns and those who dig." In this world, there are two kinds of people: the powerful and the oppressed. Jesus came to offer a kingdom where injustice would be righted and the oppressed would find relief (Matt. 5:3-12).

Tuco: "There are two kinds of spurs, my friend. Those that come in by the door; those that come in by the window." In the Bible there are two kinds of people: those that come in by the door as it is opened, and those that come in through the door, while it remains closed. In fact, only one person was able to walk through a closed door, and that was Jesus, after his resurrection (Jn. 20:19). He is the second Adam, a type of what we could and should be (1 Cor. 15:45-49). Everyone else has to walk through the door after opening it. We all are imperfect, being sons of the first Adam (1 Cor. 15:22).

And Tuco: "There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting." There are two kinds of people in the world, those with the rope around their neck who are dying and will die, and those who do the saving. Indeed, all of us find ourselves in the former camp due to sin. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) and "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). But there is only one person in the latter category, and that is Jesus Christ the Savior. He does the cutting as we come to him for freedom from sin and life (Rom. 8:2).

A key theme of the film is trust. At the beginning Tuco trusts Blondie but that trusts proves short-lived. When they are forced back into a business relationship they must work together but theirs is a trust that is transitory. There is no foundation; both are waiting on an opportunity to cut out again. Even when Angel Eyes gets involved with Blondie, trust is missing.

Trust is important in business. When it is missing, we must look over our shoulders, always keeping an eye on our partners for masked motives or hidden knives. For life we need trust. To experience true life, we must place our faith and trust in Jesus (Jn. 17:3), the one who can sever the noose of sin around our necks. He offers freedom (Jn. 8:32) but it requires trust. We cannot sit on the fence or play the field. We cannot hedge our bets with fractional faith or "tolerant trust". No, Jesus demands that we sell out to him. When we sit on the figurative horse with the rope around our neck, he offers us escape if we commit our all to him. Regardless of whether you are the good, the bad or the ugly, have you trusted in Jesus, your noose-cutter and life-giver?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, January 17, 2011

For a Few Dollars More (Per Qualche Dollaro in Più) -- partnership and the preciousness of life


Director: Sergio Leone, 1965. (R)

The success of A Fistful of Dollars begged for a few dollars more from another film. Leone directed this "sequel" with another producer, and legend has it the bitter falling out produced this ironic title. This film, though, is the best of the "man with no name" trilogy. More complex than Fistful, it brings two protagonists into a more developed plot.

Clint Eastwood reprises his mythical cowboy role. Here, strangely enough, the man with no name gets a moniker: Manco, although that may be more an allusion to his habit of keeping one hand on his gun and only using the other for fighting (the Spanish word "manco", or "monco" in Italian, means "one-armed"). But Manco is not the same person as Fistful's Joe, as the Italian courts decided. Rather, he is a persona, the archetypal Leone cowboy, in his pancho and hat.      

This film is about bounty killers and that appears in the opening title card: "Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared." And the opening act introduces two bounty killers: Manco and Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef). Mortimer first appears behind the covers of big Bible riding a train to nowhere. A righteous killer, this opening scene makes it clear there is more to him and his mission than meets the eye. And a subplot will emerge that explains his drive. Manco, on the other hand, is motivated by money, as in the first film. Both are experts in their "trade."

Like Fistful, Leone crafts a stylized and violent (for its time) western. Once more he uses Ennio Morricone to score the movie, giving it his distinctive tone. And here Van Cleef gets as much screen time as Eastwood. Together, they take the spaghetti western to a new level.

When they both set out after the bounty on El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte, who appeared as the villain Ramon Rojo in the first film), their paths collide. After a terrific night time gunfight scene, where the two take turns shooting at each, neither blinking though their lives are a hair's breadth away from being taken by a bullet, Mortimer points out: "When two hunters go after the same prey, they usually end up shooting each other in the back. And we don't want to shoot each other in the back." Here is the reason for their partnership: preservation rather than profit.

This points to a Biblical principle on partnership. Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, penned:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecc. 4:9-12)
Life was never meant to be lived alone, apart from others. When we are joined in partnership we can help one another, just as Manco and Mortimer do eventually. More than this, though, life was meant to be lived in communion with our creator (Gen. 3:8). He is the third strand that will provide the ultimate strength to our relationships.

As the two bounty hunters forge their alliance they are forced into various subterfuges to find Indio and win his trust. Along the way, but especially at the end, bullets fly and the bounty hunters become bounty killers. At one point, the "boy" asks the "old man", " Tell me, Colonel . . . Were you ever young?" Mortimer philosophically replies, "Yep. And just as reckless as you. Then one day, something happened. It made life very precious to me." Setting up a subplot, this statement also sets up the theme.

The title card declared that life had no value, but life is indeed precious. We may take it for granted, and live recklessly in our youth thinking our lives stretch endlessly to the horizon. "Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty," (Psa. 90:10) but we don't appreciate them until they are almost gone. We need to face our mortality by living each day as though it were our last, the day when we will come face to face with our God. Then we will see afresh, enjoying the little details of our lives. And we can only truly appreciate this life if we have experienced true life in Jesus Christ, who came to give us life (Jn. 10:10).

The title card may have gotten the value of life wrong, but it is spot on regarding death. Death reigns over all of us, a consequence of sin (Rom. 5:21). Indeed, the apostle Paul pointed out that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). We cannot avoid physical death. It will come to us all, a thought many find morbid but one that is realistic. The second half of this verse gives us hope: "but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." We can decide if we will receive the gift or live under the curse of our payment.    

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) -- feuds, two masters, and peace

Director: Sergio Leone, 1964. (R)

The first of Clint Eastwood's three movies made under Sergio Leone's direction, this is also typically credited as the first spaghetti western. (Although others were made before, this is the first to find extensive release in the States.) It is also the first of the loosely connected "Man with No Name" trilogy of films, and arguably the weakest.

A spaghetti western is, of course, a western filmed in Europe, usually Italy, where the locations resemble the south or west of the United States. Filled with European actors, the plots usually center on the Mexican border, as the hispanic actors are easily mistaken for Mexicans.

This is the case here. Eastwood plays an iconic cowboy drifter, the man with no name (although he is referred to as Joe towards the end). Riding his mule into San Miguel, a Mexican village near the US border, this drifter sees a hanging tree and an apparently peaceful visage. But when the bell tolls, and the locals scurry inside their homes, he realizes trouble may not be far away.

Talking to Silvanito (Jose Calvo), the local bar owner, the cowboy discovers this is a town with two bosses. At one end of town are the Baxters, headed up by John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), while at the other end are the Rojos, the crueler Mexicans. Sandwiched in between, the townsfolk live in fear, while the man making money is the undertaker. The cowboy decides he can get rich in this town by working for both sides, serving two bosses.

In reality, no one can serve two bosses. Jesus said this in his sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7). He went on, "Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Matt. 6:24). The cowboy wanted to serve two rough human masters so that he could make money. In actuality, he was simply serving one master, money. We must choose if we will serve our mighty deity (Jesus) or the mighty dollar. Only one can take precedence.

As the movie progresses, the cowboy first ingratiates himself with the Rojos and then the Baxters, never being quite honest, yet never quite lying. All for the sake of cold hard cash and a fistful of dollars.

A Fistful of Dollars also marks the first time Leone partnered with his old friend Ennio Morricone, the talented composer. Reluctant at first, Leone was won over by Morricone's haunting score that combined lonely whistling, solo guitar, trumpets and other unusual combinations. This score, along with Leone's nascent visual style, using close-ups contrasted with long-shots, serves to define this western trilogy.

At one point, the cowboy comments, "When a man's got money in his pocket he begins to appreciate peace." And he can appreciate this, since he has accumulated considerable cash for doing very little, riding the fence rather than riding his mule. But what is peace?

The town itself looks idyllic at the start. Poor, perhaps, but at peace. Yet this is no real peace; it is a stand-off, a cessation in hostilities between the two rival factions. There is no mutual harmony between them. And the film makes that clear, as the cowboy begins a killing spree.

But the cowboy's concept of peace is itself marred. He believes that riches bring peace because, presumably, he can simply leave this town and find paradise somewhere else. Yet, as we all know, money does not guarantee peace. It may stave off hunger and purchase a promise of security. But it ultimately proves ephemeral, not delivering serenity.

True peace can only come from the one who guarantees a future free of wars. Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), and he said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives" (Jn. 14:27). His peace will bring freedom of the mind from annoyance, distraction, anxiety, giving in its place tranquillity: truly "the peace of God which transcends all understanding" (Phil. 4:7). Yet, Jesus also warned, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33). We will not find real peace in this world, only moments of quiet that may be long, may be short. But we do have the hope of peace in him.

Towards the end, the man with no name sacrificially helps one poor family caught in the middle of the feud. Like Christ, he gives them peace, an offer that is free and graciously given. But the end brings a classic showdown that is anything but peaceful. Like Christ rising from the dead, the cowboy rises from the dust to bring justice to the town that has been subject to injustice. Justice or vengeance, the cowboy departs stoically unaffected, leaving a changed town behind. Will we remain untouched?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Professional -- reality and relationships of life

Director: Luc Besson, 1994. (R)

An exciting action movie, The Professional is memorable as the debut film for Natalie Portman (Star Wars 1: the Phantom Menace). Cast at 11, she plays the 12-year-old Mathilda. And she does so in this prepubescent role with a remarkable range that precociously portends her later career.

Living in New York City in an cheap apartment, Mathilda is a lost waif. Her dad is a two-bit drug dealer. His violence is painted on her face, and she skips the private school to spend her days on the stairs. There she meets Leon (Jean Reno), her neighbor, a solitary man who carries the tools of his profession inside his long-brown overcoat.
When the well-suited Stansfield, pays Mathilda's dad a visit, he is given a deadline: find some missing drugs or the person who stole them by noon. Gary Oldman (The Book of Eli) is wonderfully wicked in yet another villainous role as Stansfield. He gets up close to Mathilda's father, invading his personal space to literally smell him and his fear. Unscripted, this quietly personifies his sadistic malevolence. But when Mathilda's father fails to fulfill the order, Stansfield and his men ruthlessly gun the entire family down. All, that is, except Mathilda who has gone shopping.

Returning home, Mathilda walks past the open door guarded by a gunman and proceeds to knock on Leon's door, silently begging him to let her in and save her. This he does. His secluded world is shattered by this act and it propels him into a relationship he never wanted. When she finds out he is a "cleaner," a professional hitman, she pleads with him to teach her the tricks of his trade so she can take revenge on the men who killed her family.

Besson focuses on this budding relationship between Mathilda and Leon. Both are cynical. Both are loners. Mathilda has not seen life yet, while Leon has seen too much. In one scene she asks him, "Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?" He thinks for a moment, and responds, "Always like this."

This is a hard truth, one we want to put off till we are mature and grown. But life is hard. No one ever said otherwise. Life is not fair. Parents get killed. People get cancer. Criminals get off scot-free. Workers struggle to make ends meet. But life is still precious and good. If we did not believe that we would all resort to suicide.

God has given us this gift of life to enjoy. Solomon, the wise King of Israel summed it up: "So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (Ecc. 2:17). He saw life was hard. Yet he also said, " Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days" (Ecc. 9:9). We must toil away now but we will take it easy in heaven later.

Leon, though, had no wife or family. His only friend was Tony (Danny Aiello), a Mafia-boss who employs him to clean up his problems. He has no one to love. All he has is his plant: "It's my best friend. Always happy. No questions."

Here is a sad truth beautifully portrayed: "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18). Leon lived secluded, sitting in the darkness simply contemplating. But God has created us for relationships. Indeed, life requires relationships. First and foremost is that with our maker. We can experience God through Jesus (Jn. 14:9). He is "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6). He has come to give us life in him (Jn. 10:10). Man is not a plant that he stands stoically apart, waiting for the wind to carry his seed to another plant elsewhere. Man is an animal that relates in person to others. Relating, we love, learn and grow.

Indeed, as Leon starts to teach her, she teaches him things back in return. She opens his heart to love, something he has not done in years. He begins to feel, to live, to love again. She, too, discovers a love for Leon that was not there with her abusive father.

Here is the horizontal relationship. We all have such relationships, including those with our birth family, our friends, and then the family we choose for ourselves through a spouse. Relationships bring richness to an otherwise squalid existence. Solomon, the writer of hundreds of proverbs, said, "A friend loves at all times" (Prov. 17:17). And the Apostle Paul said, "Husbands love your wives" (Eph. 5:25). Of course, parents are supposed to love their children. Such is the core of life, a life Leon missed out on until he met Mathilda.

The Professional, though, is an action movie first and foremost, and it brings it in violent bursts until it climaxes with an exciting extended scene in the apartment. It is here that both realize what they have gained and what they stand to lose: "I don't wanna lose you, Leon." She has found a father she never had. And he understands, "You've given me a taste for life." Let's hope it does not take a "cleaner" to personally teach us these lessons!
Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 7, 2011

Flipped -- trees and eggs, courage and character

Director: Rob Reiner, 2010. (PG)

Rob Reiner has done romantic comedy (The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally), and end-of-life comedy (The Bucket List). Here he turns to beginning of life comedy, focusing on tweens. Writing this screenplay from the book of the same name, this movie is clearly for young teens, with the plot centered on junior high schoolers Julie Baker (Madeline Carroll) and Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe). Not a boy's movie, but its heart-warming message will ring true even for them.

The movie opens in the late 1950s when the Loski family moves into a new house. As Dad Steven Loski (Anthony Edwards) starts unpacking the moving van, helped by young second-grader Bryce (Ryan Ketzner), young Juli (Morgan Lily) runs across the street to greet him. Instantly, she is captivated by his baby blue eyes. Flipped, falling in love at the tender age of seven, she dreamily awaits their first kiss! What a welcome to the new neighborhood. Certainly not one Bryce anticipated.
Flipped offers a unique perspective on the relationship between Juli and Bryce. Each scene is played out twice, once through Juli's eyes and then again through Bryce's. Each narrative offers a different point of view, almost as if it were a whole new situation. From this we can understand the mindset of the two main protagonists. And hence how love causes us to flip differently at different times.

From the beginning Juli had her eyes on Bryce, or at least on his eyes. But he does not repay her attention. Rather, he tries to avoid her. It is in junior high that the film really takes off. Juli also has her eyes on nature: one sycamore tree in particular. The tallest in the neighborhood, she regularly climbs it to get the big picture and to serenely relax. Yet, when the owner wants to cut it down, she refuses to come down, electing instead to be a young tree-activist.

The tree is a vehicle to demonstrate Juli is not afraid to stand up for her convictions. Although she has to finally relent, still she can hold her head up high. What is the sycamore in our lives? Do we have the courage to act on our beliefs? Do we even have the courage to climb the tree and take a stand in the first place? Some things are worth believing in and fighting for. Faith is one of them.

The tree incident gets her in the local paper and brings her to the attention of Bryce's grandpa Chet (John Mahoney). In an understated role, Chet is the sage old man, who offers wisdom to all who will listen, including Bryce and Juli, and even to his son-in-law Steven.

The two families are quite the contrast, both outwardly and inwardly. Their yards are the mirror image of their homes' interiors. The Loskis' immaculate yard belies a home that is filled with fear. While the Bakers' yard is a mess but their home is filled with love.

The dads, too, offer two opposites. Both have given up something and pay the price. Richard Baker (Aidan Quinn) has chosen to give up on owning his own home, instead using his money in other ways. Their house is filled with appliances that are on the brink of breaking, but he still prefers to focus on family. Steven Loski has given up dreams of music and now rues that choice. His home is filled with stuff, but his heart is heavy with regret.
These two characters provide glimpses of the impact of courage and cowardice on character. It takes courage to pursue dreams, because they might not be attained. Yet to throw them away because we afraid of failure is to give in to cowardice. Steven has repressed his cowardly choice but it emerges, seeping out in his slow-burning rage. Richard, on the other hand, has accepted that some dreams must be sacrificed for a greater good, and has the courage to face this truth head on. He makes a choice that displays his strength and will not allow the temptations of an easy life deter him from helping his family.

This reminds us to "be strong and courageous" (Deut. 31:6). We may not face the situations depicted here, yet we have our own and we must choose how we respond. It also highlights the concept of counting the cost. Jesus spoke on this to his disciples: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?" (Lk. 14:28). Wisdom must be cemented to courage so we make decisions we can live with and avoid future regrets.

Juli's passion also includes her chickens, offering their eggs to Bryce. Here we see a further contrast in the two families. Juli's gift is one of grace. She wants it to unite her and Bryce and even their families. The Loskis, though, are ruled by fear and see only the potential for salmonella. Such fear drives division, separation and lies. The gift is not received with thanksgiving and joy; it is received with trepidation and dismay.

God wants us to be thankful (Col. 3:15), accepting what others wish to graciously offer us. How we receive gifts speaks more loudly to who we are than giving gifts. Fundamental to the gospel of Jesus Christ is how we receive his gift of grace, the gift of life. When we refuse it, for fear that we must give up on our hobbies or friends, we are dividing ourselves from God. Worse yet, is when we try to add to the gift with works of our own. That subverts the gospel, replacing Christ on the throne with ourselves, as if we can add to his finished work (Jn. 19:30)! No, it is by Christ alone through faith alone -- sola fide.

The more Juli sees Bryce and the cowardice he has picked up from his father the more her eyes are opened. Is he less than the sum of his parts? Chet sums it up for Bryce when he says that character is formed at an early age. Bryce's character qualities include lying, cowardice and shame. Thankfully, Bryce eventually flips, the second flipped of Flipped, and has his baby blues opened.

Like Bryce, we are sometimes given second chances. Even if our characters are cemented in stone and we are at death's door, Jesus can break through and reach us. Pursuing us like Juli pursued Bryce, the Lord wants us for his own. He has flipped for us, and we saw this love displayed on the cross (Rom. 5:8). Have we bottled up our courage and flipped for him?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Crazy Heart -- hitting rock bottom

Director: Scott Cooper, 2009. (R)

Country songs capture the essence of life, the ups and the downs, often focusing on the struggles and suffering. Crazy Heart captures the essence of a country singer, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), focusing on his struggles. A loose episodic film, it highlights the impacts the right relationship can have even on a crusty old curmudgeon.

Bad is 57, broke and just about broken-down. Years of living on the road have taken their toll. He's seen too many bars, drunk too many drinks, and even married too many women. Single again, he is a legend whose star has waned. From playing packed out stadiums, he now plays bowling alleys and two-bit bars to crowds you could count on two hands.

Driving his trusty Chevy Surburban between gigs, he plays with unknown bands and "enjoys" one-night stands with aged groupies. He is living off the fame of his one great song, the one he sings every night and can't forget. This one has him by the hairs and won't let him go. On the other hand, he can't write any new songs, so he lives in the past.

How often are we like this, living off our one great success? We score a huge deal, write a great song, author a memorable book, and that is it. When we are defined by our past success we limit our future; it becomes a dead-end street. We begin to be like Bad, driving miles and miles to arrive at nowhere we haven't been before, going through the motions of living. Life is more than this. In sports they say you are only as good as your next game. You may have just won the superbowl or the BCS, but if you cannot go out and perform anew the next time you are destined for the slagheap of dusty memories. As followers of Jesus, we live in the present with an eye to the future. Our past cannot define us. We live imperfectly until Jesus has molded us into his image (Rom. 8:29). And that work of transformation will not be complete until we reach glory (Rom. 8:30). So, we must live for the future, abiding in Jesus in the present.

The first part of the film cements Bad's character as a bad boy, boozing and paying scant attention even to his trade. But when he arrives in Santa Fe and agrees to give a rare interview to a journalist, his life is about to change. Though almost two-decades younger than he, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) appears captivated by his gruff manner. Despite an odd chemistry, they fall into bed and into somewhat of a love relationship. Yet, she has been burned by marriage and is a single parent with a four year-old, Buddy (Jack Nation).

Bridges gives an outstanding performance as Bad, and it is the acting that makes this film so good. A veteran actor, he has appeared in dramas as the hero (Arlington Road) and the villain (Iron Man), cult classics like Tron and The Big Lebowski (who can forget his role as "The Dude"), and even the current remake of True Grit. After over 50 feature films, he finally won a Best Actor Oscar for his role here, and it is deserved. He inhabits the character, even doing his own singing. Alongside him, Gyllenhaal was herself nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar but lost out to Mo'nique (Precious). Veteran Robert Duvall, who also produced this film, appears as an aging bar owner. Interestingly enough, Duvall himself won an Oscar for playing a broken-down country singer in 1984's Tender Mercies. And then there's Colin Farrell, the Irishman who carries an American accent. He plays the new star, once mentored by Bad, who has now surpassed him and left him in the dust. Like Bridges, Farrell does his own singing, and it is not half bad.

During one of his inter-gig drives, Bad falls asleep and wrecks his car and mangles his ankle. Being forced to lay up in Jean's house, he recognizes that he loves her. With this renewed passion in his heart, he begins to write again. Love can do that. It fuels a positive outlook on life and brings with it joy. Bad's cynicism is pared back, and his creative juices begin to flow once more.

Despite the good things that start to happen, Bad remains at heart self-destructive. He can convince others that he is changing, but the real Bad is unchanged. He has not followed his doctor's advice and has only empty platitudes for Jean and Buddy. He must hit rock bottom before he can find any redemption or salvation. And it takes one action of his to make this happen and to change his relationships with everyone he cares about.

Another more contemporary country singer, Wynona, sang: "When you hit rock bottom you got two ways to go: straight up and sideways." Rock bottom is the place we all must reach to experience true salvation. Before this, we are like Bad, kidding ourselves. We think we are better than we are. We believe can conquer our demons, whatever they are. But if we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, the typically Western idea, we don't need a Savior. We can make it on our own. That is to move sideways.

Straight up from rock bottom requires that we face the facts. We cannot do it ourselves. Jesus said that he "came to seek and to save the lost" (Lk. 19:10). If we can find our own way out, we are not lost. Jesus also said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Matt. 9:12). On the contrary, "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). When we acknowledge we are sin-sick, corrupted so much that we cannot add anything to our own salvation, then and only then are we ready for grace. Into this experience comes Jesus, a grace-giving carpenter who does not simply mend our broken character. Instead, he picks us up and gives us a new character, even a new identity in him (2 Cor. 5:17). Born sin-depraved in the first Adam (Rom. 5:12), we are raised as forgiven saints in the second Adam (Rom. 5:18-19).

Unlike many Hollywood movies, this film decries the typical happy ending, leaving us instead with e satisfaction of seeing a man who has reached rock bottom and moved straight up. More true to life, our salvation experience will move us straight up without necessarily solving all our problems. Sometimes the harder the life, the sweeter the ensuing salvation song.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs