Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Party and Picks

Well, the Oscars came and we had a party to remember with the Jenkins, our co-leaders for the Mosaic Movie Connect Group. After a mountain of Thai food during the red carpet show, the ceremony began in earnest with Anne Hathaway in the first of her 500 or so outfit changes and James Franco looking like he was on valium.

As the night wore on painfully slowly, we counted our picks. It was clear that my confidence was in the big 5 categories that came at the end. I got all these correct (woot woot) but ended the night at an even 50%. Ward, however, had momentum from the get-go and ended with 18 correct picks

For this party, we had painstakingly crafted a beautiful trophy that should be sought after for decades to come. Ward graciously accepted the trophy and gave a heartfelt speech, only forgetting his wife's name twice. Never mentioning his agent at all, he did go on a little and we had to cue the music.

As for the big winners:
  • The King's Speech (4): Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Colin Firth)
  • Inception (4): Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effect
  • The Social Network (3): Film Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score
  • Toy Story 3 (2): Best Animated Feature, Best Original Song (Randy Newman)
  • The Fighter (2): Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo)
  • Alice in Wonderland (2): Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Black Swan (1): Best Actress (Natalie Portman)
The biggest losers: Winter's Bone, True Grit, 127 Hours and The Kids are All Right. None picked up any bling, although True Grit was one of the best movies of the year. The Coen brothers got their Oscar a couple of years ago (No Country for Old Men) and Jeff Bridges earned his last year (Crazy Heart). Newcomers Hailee Steinfield and Jennifer Lawrance are sure to get their time in the spotlight.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The American -- living in the present, dealing with the past

Director: Anton Corbijn, 2010. (R) 

This latest vehicle for George Clooney, star and producer, is billed as a suspense thriller. That is a poor description. This comes across more like a foreign drama, being slow and moody and meditative. Those who like such fare will surely enjoy this. Viewers wanting fast car chases and gun battles will be quickly bored.

The film opens with Jack (George Clooney) secluded in a snowy chalet in Sweden, cuddling up to a naked beauty. But when they are attacked by killers, Jack's career as a master assassin emerges. He must leave in a hurry and turns to his handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen). He meets him in Rome, but Pavel sends him to a remote Italian village to lay low and hide out with strict instructions: "Above all, don't make any friends, Jack. You used to know that."

In the secluded Abruzzian town, he masquerades as a photographer. But with a population in the hundreds, he stands out as the American, the lone foreigner. As a loner, he seeks no friendships. But the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) seeks him out. Moreover, Jack (passing himself off as Edward), seeks solace and satisfaction at the local brothel, and finds himself drawn to the beautiful Clara (Violante Placido). His relationship with her moves from monetary to romantic despite the earlier warnings.

Jack's choice of friends is surprising but points both to his character and his need. A priest and a prostitute are perhaps the two people most likely to hear confessions and gossip. But they are also the two people least likely to have deep friendships of their own. The priest holds too many secrets that others might find threatening. The prostitute is often frowned upon for her immoral career choice. Yet Jack is somehow drawn to them.

People have a hunger for companionship. It is innate. Loneliness makes for a poor bed-fellow, hence Jack's need for Clara. We see Jack as a man who has money but no marriage, riches but no real wealth. God made mankind to enjoy relationships, with him and with each other. When we seek isolation we are living apart from his plan. That does not mean we must marry (1 Cor. 7:8), but we do live in community and cannot find true meaning or satisfaction apart from relationship. Friendships form the foundation for an abundant life.

When Pavel contacts him and offers him one last mission, an assignment to create a custom-designed weapon, Jack accepts. For much of the film we see Jack working as a master craftsman, methodically gathering materials and fashioning them into a rifle and ammunition. Extended wordless shots of Jack creating and thinking form the center of the film, once more underscoring the lonely nature of his life. The sparse dialog is broken by the sparkling but brief interchanges he has with the priest.

It is in these interactions that we engage the themes of the film. The priest acts as Jack's conscience. Early on, he points out the superficiality of Americans in general: "Of course . . . you're an American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present."

America is a young nation, barely into its third centennial. Where other cultures in Europe, Asia or South America can look back to thousands of years of history, America has a short memory because it has a short history. But we can learn from history. When we ignore or avoid it, seeking escape in the present, we are at risk of repeating mistakes of our forefathers, or even mistakes of our own. By living in the present only, we once more isolate ourselves, this time from our antecedents. Jack's loneliness is temporal as well as physical.

Furthermore, by ignoring history we ignore evidences of God's interactions in the past. God has made himself known in times gone, first in creation (Gen. 1), then through his relationships with the patriarchs Abraham (Gen. 12), Isaac (Gen. 24), and Jacob (Gen. 28), later in the interactions with Israel, his chosen nation, and finally in his appearance in the person of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:2). Living in the present avoids having to face these truths, and leaves us isolated from God; that is until, he chooses to come into contact with us, in the present or the future.

Father Benedetto even points this out to Jack: "A man can be rich if he has God in his heart." But Jack's cynicism and isolation cause him to reply, "I don't think God is interested in me, Father." Jack has clearly avoided hearing the gospel. His present has been secluded and small. God is interested in him, as he is interested in us all. God wishes that all would be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), coming to a personal relationship with him through Jesus (Jn. 17:3). Once more, Jack's approach to life is self-protective but unknowingly becomes self-condemning.

Once more, the priest points out a truth that Jack would prefer to ignore: "You cannot deny the existence of hell. You live in it. It is a place without love." Hell exists, but to live in the present ignoring the future where an eternal destiny is defined by choices in this life is to evade the truth. Jack is living apart from God, apart from people. This is an apt description of hell.

Love, on the other hand, is a crucial aspect of real life. It is perhaps the foundational nature of God himself (1 Jn. 4:8), and forms the core of all true relationships. Being drawn to Clara, Jack is being drawn out of his lonely existence into a pool of love.

Priest, prostitute and professional killer all have their own secrets and sins of the past that need absolution. Living in the present is not enough to make this happen. Not even love and friendship can do this. Each must come to the living God, Jesus Christ, to find ultimate redemption and salvation. Jack's longing and loneliness may remind us of our own. We can find satisfaction only by first dealing with our past, through repentance, and then by living in the present with an eye both to the future and the past. All three dimensions of history converge in the Son of God. After all, it is all his story.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oscar Picks 2011

With the Oscars just three days away, it's not too late to be thinking about hosting your own Oscar party. The Oscars website has a link that provides you with an Oscar Party Kit. Not only that, but it has a neat Oscar ballot for making your own picks.

Never let it be said that I don't share my picks. I am more confident this year than ever and as such have picked winners for all 24 categories. You can see all my selections in the picture to the right (just click in it to enlarge), but I'll list the top 5 categories below.
  • Best Picture: The King's Speech
  • Best Actor: Colin Firth
  • Best Actress: Natalie Portman
  • Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale
  • Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo
What are your picks?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Despicable Me -- criminal fathers, benificent gifts

Director: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud, 2010. (PG)

"Despicable me" points to the anti-hero, Gru (voice of Steve Carell, Date Night), a master criminal who claims to be the world's greatest villain. Angular and bald with a quirky European accent, middle-aged Gru wants to pull off the world's greatest crime. But when someone else, the younger Vector (voice of Jason Segel), steals the pyramids from Egypt, Gru must devise something bigger and more fiendish: stealing the moon.

From his dark and creepy home in the middle of white-picket suburbia, Gru concocts his schemes with the help of the codgerly Dr. Nefario (voice of Russell Brand), a geriatric criminal, and the army of cute little yellow minions, who live in his basement-turned-super lab. Apparently no one suspects this neighbor to be so evil.

In a series of flashbacks to his childhood, we see Gru seeking to win approval from his mom (voice of Julie Andrews), creating various things including a fully functional rocket. To each one, his mom shows little interest, shrugging him off with an "eh". Clearly he wants to succeed to earn love and favor, and his ambition pushes him in the criminal direction.

Ambition can be a cruel taskmaster or a cheer-leading trainer. It can drive us to succeed or lead us to failure. In Gru's case, it compelled him to seek always bigger and better. He could not face someone being superior to him. Such compulsion is twisted, since rarely will we be the best in the world. We need to face reality with humility. And instead of succumbing to blind ambition to be the best there is, we should focus on being the best we can be, seeking to attain to the fullness of God's ideal in us. He has gifted us in ways that we can develop. If we reach our fullest potential, that will be success. Ambition cannot push us beyond this.

To reach his ambitious goal, Gru needs a shrink-ray and money to create a rocket that will take him to the moon. The shrink-ray comes easy, with the help of Nefario, but when it is stolen by Vector, Gru faces a double dilemma. First, the ray-gun is gone. Second, when he approaches the Bank of Evil for another loan, he is denied. He has been supplanted by Vector as world's greatest super-villain. What a blow to his ambition!

This is a nod to the cultural milieu. We find ourselves today in a society that worships youth and hides the elderly away. Gru's age prevents him getting the loan he needs. If we are over 40, we often find our age preventing us getting the job interview. It is the era of age discrimination.

Determining to get the shrink-ray back, he is thwarted by Vector's cool security contraptions. But Gru notices that three young orphan girls are allowed in, to sell cookies. Gru plots a scheme. He will "adopt" them and use them to gain entry. But in adopting them, he sets up the main premise of the film: can a master-criminal become a master-father?

This is a wonderful question. Master criminals have few morals and so might be considered as poor fathers. But that is to assume that non-criminals have excellent morals and hence good ethics and behaviors. The problem with this train of thought is that criminals and non-criminals alike are sinners. We have all broken the law of God (Rom. 3:23) and stand guilty and condemned before the court of heaven. We may not be criminals in America, but we are nonetheless criminals before God. Our morality may be better than that of Gru, but it remains imperfect and tainted. All have sinned, all are sinners. In God's eyes, we are no better than Gru. If we can be good fathers, so can he.

The three girls, Margo (voice of Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (voice of Elsie Fisher), are cute. As they invade his home and life, Gru's plans become altered. He must learn to take care of children. His initial command seems reasonable from his perspective but unreal as any parent could tell him: "You will not cry, or sneeze or barf or fart! No annoying sounds." He has much to learn.

Several scenes stand out as hilarious: The ballet practice that Gru must attend, even after his battle of wills with these little ones, showing the patience a parent needs; the parallel parking of his "Gru-mobile" highlighting his lack of concern and superior attitude; the funfair sequence where he must accompany his children on the rides. In this latter scene, little Agnes has the movie's best line when she cries out, about the unicorn she wants to win, "It's so fluffy I could die!" The humor is quick and fast and visual, like Gru's attempt to leave the kids alone by putting food and water on the floor, as if they were dogs.
As you would expect, Gru's criminality does not rub off on these "innocent" waifs. Rather, their lovability rubs off on him, as he changes. This single dad who should be the world's worst father slowly becomes a decent father.

His changes remind us of the words of Jesus: "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:11) We are sinful fathers yet we do not give evil gifts to our kids. No, we take care of them and often shower them with treasures. In contrast, our heavenly father is perfect and good, the true super-father. He gives even better gifts to us than we can imagine. He has done so, in giving us salvation (1 Thess. 5:9) and every spiritul blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3). But we are only truly his children if we accept his invitation to join his family through faith in Christ (Jn. 1:12). We may be more like Gru than like Agnes, yet God desires for us be part of his family, and when we do he will change us, little by little, until we become like Christ (Rom. 8:29).

This first film from Illumination Entertainment, the new animation arm of Universal Pictures may not be quite up to the high standard set by Pixar, with such films as Up and the Toy Story trilogy, but it is a worthy introduction. Its animation is good, the characters are strong, and the story is engaging. With a start like this, we can hope for more to come . . . more movies that will entertain and possibly even illuminate our faith.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, February 18, 2011

True Grit -- law, justice, vengeance and redemption

Directors: Ethan & Joel Coen, 2010. (PG-13) 
For their first Western, the Coen brothers chose to remake or reimagine True Grit, the film that earned Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne, his only Oscar. And they crafted a terrific film that is perhaps even better than the "original" (though both are based on the book by Charles Portis). True Grit offers tremendous gratification: it's a barrel of fun!

They chose to saturate the film in biblical themes of law, justice, retribution and redemption and church music. Indeed, the opening title card declares, "The wicked flee though no one pursues," a quote from the first half of Proverbs 28:1. And this sets the tone for the movie, basically summarizing the story in one line.

The movie begins with a calm scene, snow gently falling. But as the camera pulls away, we see a body lying outside a house. A man is dead, a killer flees on horseback and no one cares. No one chases him. The dead man is Mattie Ross' father, shot by hired hand Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). Leaving her mother back home on the farm, 14-year-old Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) travels by train to the town where the murder occurred to take care of the body and seek vengeance.

For a 14-year-old she packs a verbal wallop and is not afraid to stand up to the toughest of characters. Wielding the law, and citing her attorney, she shoots high and gets what she aims at. Asking for a US marshal she can hire to track Cheney into the Indian Nations where he is hiding, she is told of the best two: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, the "Dude" in the Coens' The Big Lebowski) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, Invictus).  But Cogburn is the one with "true grit", a determination to get his man dead or alive, usually dead. And he is the one she hires . . . on the condition that she accompanies him. However, when Cogburn teams up with LaBoeuf, they form an unlikely trio on an unwavering journey.

As with most of their films, the Coens mix humor into the drama and there are laughs aplenty, although much of the humor here is dark, as violence and death form the backdrop. Moreover, the script is delightful, with dialog that is razor sharp spoken in a weird redneck twang that is impossible to place. (As an example, LaBoeuf tells Mattie, after watching her sleep in her room, "You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin' I gave some thought to stealin' a kiss. . . . though you are very youg, and sick,  and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt." She replies, "One would be just as unpleasant as the other.")

The Coens work here with a terrific cast. Bridges is in fine form as the irrascible, drunken reprobate Rooster Cogburn, delivering his lines in a slur that is almost beyond understanding. He is clearly enjoying this role. Damon shows he can offer comic lines with the best of them. But it is Hailee Steinfield in her debut feature film that stands out. She not only holds her own with these veterans but centers the film.

The three main characters offer different perspectives on the themes of law and justice. We first see Cogburn in a court of law, on the witness stand defending his right to have shot three men. We discover his background as a lawyer, but his departure from that career as too confining. For him, as for Mattie, the law restricts and puts too many boundaries. These two want to take the law into their own hands. They consider themselves above the law. LaBoeuf, on the other hand, works within the law, quietly diligent and methodical in his approach. He gets his man, but it takes time, and he brings them to justice where they can be tried before they are hanged. Rooster cannot spare such time. He metes out his own form of justice. For him, there is no need for the noose; rather, a quick bullet in the heart will suffice. And it is cheaper, too.

How do we approach the law? Too often we feel we are better than others, then second guess the laws of the land. We may find ourselves more like Mattie and Rooster, thinking the laws don't apply to us, or are too impatient to be particular.Though we are no longer under the biblical law (Rom. 6;14), having been freed from that by Christ himelf (Acts 13:39), we are yet expected to honor God's law (1 Cor. 9:21) and respect the authorities in government over us (Rom. 13:1), and that includes obeying the law. We cannot simply use and abuse the law.

Mattie introduces the second theme of the film, vengeance, in an opening line spoken over her exit from the train: "You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God." Here is the American concept of "no free lunch". We will come back to the idea of grace later.

Mattie wants vengeance not justice. For her, retribution is required even demanded. Someone must pay for her father's death. She wants Chaney dead, preferably at her hands not at the end of a rope. She concurs with  Cogburn. LaBoeuf, however, wants Chaney brought back to Texas, where he killed a US senator. There he can stand trial and find justice for his crimes, not to mention the Texas Ranger will benefit from a bigger reward. But Mattie does not want justice. She does not want him tried for some other killing. She wants his head for her father's murder. That is vengeance.

Vengeance is very personal. It is the inflicting of harm on a person by another who has been harmed by that person. It is violent revenge. But it works outside the law, making the avenger an outlaw. God addressed this directly through the apostle Paul: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay' " (Rom. 12:19). God sees all that occurs and is the judge of mankind (Psa. 75:7). He will not let any crime go unpunished, but he often chooses to delay this judgment, sometimes deferring it to the final judgment (Rev. 20:11). We may not like his timing, and in our impatience find ourselves like Mattie wishing to take matters into our own hands. But the message is clear. It is not our place to do this. We put ourselves on God's throne when we do this. It is both better and biblical to leave it in his very capable hands.

One of the delights of True Grit is the score by Carter Burwell, the Coens' usual orchestrator. Together, they decided to use hymns from the western period as the music. The main motif comes from Elisha Hoffman's 1887 classic, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Virtually every scene uses this melody in one variant or another. From piano to violin to oboe, this melancholic music wafts over the wide snow-covered meadows of the wild west here.

The music also reflects the religious convictions of Mattie, and her journey toward revenge. "Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way" -- these words from the second stanza point to her pilgrimage of vengeance. "What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?" points to her security, first with Rooster and LaBoeuf, but ultimately with Jesus. Toward the end, with victory assured, Burwell brings the notes of "What a Friend we have in Jesus." Indeed, we can lean on the arms of Jesus and find a friend who will never let us down. Mattie found that and we realize it through this score.

The final theme is redemption. As the journey unfolds and the villain is found, all three characters find their own true grit tested. In so doing, Rooster in particular discovers his own depravity and performs an act of selflessness that enables him to find redemption of sorts.

Redemption, the act of rescue or deliverance, is something all three needed in one way or another in this film. And it is something we all need even now, one hundred years later. We may find ourselves vengeful like Mattie, self-righteous like LaBoeuf, or debouched and drunk like Rooster, but we all have gone astray from God's design for us (Isa. 53:6). Yet, in his grace, he has reached down into our world, to find us in our own particular sins, and he offers us rescue (1 Thess. 1:10). He is our redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). He has paid for our deliverance through his blood (Eph. 1:7). We must choose to accept this or reject it, but it is a biblical fact. How you approach law and justice and vengeance will ultimately pale in comparison to how you approach God's redemption. Grace is truly free. Jesus is the real hero with true grit.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Grace Card -- grace, forgiveness and reconciliation

Director: David Evans, 2010. (PG-13) 

The Grace Card, which opens in February 25, is a Christian film with a clear Christian message of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. More than this, though, it is surprisingly enjoyable, even if it resorts to melodrama at the climax; this ending brought tears to my eyes at a pre-screening.

In 2006 a church in Georgia showed that an independent David could beat the Hollywood Goliath by making a full length feature film (Facing the Giants) and turned a thousand-fold profit. It followed this success with Fireproof in 2008, a film that Dr. David Evans, a Tennessee opthalmologist, saw. When he exited the cineplex he decided that his church could make a film. And with the help from his wife as executive producer, he produced and directed The Grace Card, using only two name actors and a mere $200K budget.

At the heart of the film are two men, as opposite as oil and vinegar, or chalk and chocolate. Mac McDonald (Michael Joiner, a professional TV actor) is a white cop with attitude problems. He lost a son to a tragedy 17 years earlier and exudes anger at everyone. His remaining son Blake (Rob Ellison), who is flunking his senior year of high school and running with the wrong crowd, is a key target for Mac's anger. His wife Sara (Joy Parmer Moore) somehow keeps the family afloat while the white waters of Mac's rage threaten to capsize it.

The first part of the film emphasizes the pain and bitterness that anger brings. One moment can change a life but it is the aftermath that slowly unravels the family. The Bible acknowledges that anger is a genuine and legitimate emotion (even Jesus got angry -- Jn. 2:15-16). But it warns us, "In your anger do not sin; do not let the sun go down in your anger" (Eph. 4:26). When we allow anger to simmer and fester it turns inward into bitterness, poisoning our personalities, killing our relationships. Mac is the epitome of this. But he is more than just a caricature. We can relate to his predicament.

Sam Wright (Michael Higgenbottom, a theatrical actor) is the other main character. Also a cop, his desire is to serve God in his ministry as pastor of a small church. But since they cannot support him yet, he is "moonlighting" as a patrol officer to pay the bills. Black and big, he has a positive outlook and an easy laugh. When he gets promoted to sergeant, a promotion Mac has been coveting (see the warnings of Ex. 20:17) but lost because of his attitude problem, and then placed as Mac's partner, the film is poised to take off.

Evans juxtaposes the dinners of the two families to highlight the differences. Mac's meal is silent and tense, filled with fearful glances, a rumbling volcano waiting to violently explode. Sam's family begins with a grateful prayer of grace, spoken by one of his two girls, as they hold hands together. This meal draws them together in laughter and sharing. Love is present.

A domestic violence call brings the patrol partners to a Memphis apartment. Characteristically, Mac goes it alone and finds himself on the wrong end of a gun held by a black man. His racial prejudices spill over, making it clear where he stands vis-a-vis his partner. And the hatred that he thrusts on Sam causes Sam, in turn, to experience hatred of Mac. The cycle of hate bears only wounds and pain. How can Sam continue as a pastor if he is hating rather than loving his neighbor? Further, his congregation is growing as stagnant as Mac's career. But it is Sam's wise old grandfather, George (Louis Gossett Jr., the big-name here), who offers Sam advice and the grace card.

Evans offers some thoughts on ministry as one of the sub-themes here. Sam thought his ministry was in the pulpit and his policing was second-fiddle, just a temporary gig. But ministry is serving people. Ministry meets people where they are, at street-level not in the comfy closets of study. Sam needed to hear this, and we need to be reminded of it. Most of us who follow Jesus are not vocational ministers. Most are business people, professionals, blue-collar workers, or home-makers. Yet, we have a ministry wherever God has placed us. Jesus commanded all of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19). We carry the good news of Jesus Christ to those in the next cubicle. Our coworkers may never enter a church building and hear the ministry of our pastor, yet we have the incredible opportunity to be witnesses to them of grace and mercy, forgiveness and faith.

Although the low budget nature of The Grace Card prevents big feature action it still provides some elements from Hollywood police dramas. The acting is surprisingly good, considering most of the actors are first time performers in a feature film. (Moore, for example, was a school teacher.) What Evans coaxes out of them is down-to-earth realism. They could be your next door neighbors. The film does get a little preachy in a couple of places, but it can be forgiven this as it strives to show rather than tell. The plot is a little predictable, and having seen the trailer I could more or less guess where it was going. Yet, it throws an unforseen twist in midway that leads to an inevitable opportunity for reconciliation.

The real message of The Grace Card is forgiveness and reconciliation. All of us have a deep need, to find reconciliation with our heavenly father. God offers us this (2 Cor. 5:20). We can all receive redemption and reconciliation by grace (Eph. 1:7). His arm extends to even the worst of sinners offering forgiveness from all our sins (Acts 2:38). We can never underestimate the power of God's love (Rom. 8:37-38).

The Grace Card may only play in a few theaters in a few cities, but it is worth the price of admission. If nothing else, it reminds us of our need to heal the deep wounds that we all carry. And it offers the hope of a salve for these wounds -- grace. This is a "card" we all can carry in our wallets. When we do, we experience forgiveness in our hearts, a forgiveness that fosters reconciliation.

WATCH an exclusive 5-minute clip from the The Grace Card movie's FACEBOOK page before it opens in theaters across the nation next Friday, 2/25/2011!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Christianity Today's Critics' Choice Awards for 2010

Christianity Today published their annual Critics' Choice Awards for 2010. These are the ten most excellent films as voted by the CT Critics. Having seen 7 of these 10, I wouldn't argue too much with their top 5. Indeed, The King's Speech tops the list and I think this is the film that will take home the Best Pictore trophy at this year's Oscars in two weeks.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The King's Speech -- duty, desire and devotion

Director: Tom Hooper, 2010. (R) 

The King's Speech is surely one of the best movies of 2010 and has picked up 12 Oscar nominations to prove this. The title is a double entendre, pointing both to the malady of King George VI and to the climactic address to the British nation at the start of World War 2.

But the film begins a decade earlier when the Duke of York, Prince Albert (Colin Firth), gives a speech over the new technology of wireless radio at the closing of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. A man with a lifelong stutter, this short speech took forever leaving the Prince embarassed, even humiliated. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, Alice in Wonderland), sits discomfitted beside him.

When she takes it upon herself to bring him to the leading doctors and speech pathologists of the day, none can help him. His speech impediment persists, causing him to feel scorned by his father, King George V (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), and ridiculed by his brother, Prince David (Guy Pearce, Memento), who later becomes King Edward VIII. This defect drove him inward, contributing to his angry temperament and his desire to shun the public eye. Yet his "job" precludes this; he must do his duty and represent the crown at various social and public events.

According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. So we can resonate with Prince Albert. For many, we can face down enemies but we cannot face an audience. Part of this is psychological, part mechanical. But with practice and prayer we can get through.

At wit's end, Elizabeth is referred to Lional Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech coach, whose peculiar and controversial methods make him successful with his patients but spurned by fellow professionals. When he meets "Mr. Johnson" he is surprised to find a royal prince meeting him in his office. His methods and manner shock and offend the prince at first, but eventually he comes back.

An initial question by Lionel to "Bertie" (Prince Albert) raises pertinent issues. He asks him what he wants of him. He wants to be cured, obviously, but Bertie seems doubtful; it cannot be done. He has no faith in the healer. He walks away initially without a cure. This is just like the question Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt. 20:32) The blind replied, "We want our sight" (Matt. 20:33) and he touched them and healed them (Matt. 20:34). They went away healed based on their faith in Jesus' power. But in another incident, a father brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus' disciples who could not exorcize the spirit. When Jesus found out, he said “Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mk. 9:23) But the father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24) This is so typical of humankind. We are like this. Our faith is limited, our eyes remain blind, our tongues remain mute or stuttering. When it comes to unconventional cures, we, like Bertie, remain unconvinced. Oh, ye of little faith.

As a period piece, this drama brings all we have come to expect: credible costumes, top-flight British actors, and a fantastic script. The icing on the cake is the acting of Colin Firth. In almost every scene, he conveys the deep inner pain of someone whose problem is evident to all, and who cowers before his male relatives. He won the Golden Globe for this performance and should pick up the Oscar, too. Rush and Carter also do excellent work in their roles, and earned Oscar nominations, but they are totally outshined by Firth.

Confusing to some may be the changes in names of the two key princes. David is the heir to the throne, but when his father dies he selects the title King Edward VIII. Prince Albert, when he succeeds to the throne, chooses to be called King George VI, because Albert is too Germanic, and England is soon to be at war with Germany, and for continuity with his father. The film explains, for those who have forgotten or did not know, that King Edward's love for American divorcee Wallis Simpson caused him to abdicate the throne. We see David's own pain as he is torn between his duty to his country and his love for a woman. His act of love thrust Albert onto the throne and into the spotlight where public speeches were an expected and regular duty.

Duty is a second theme. Albert's duty was to serve his people, even if self-interest desired him to stay in the shadows. Lionel's duty was to serve his patient, and eventually his king. Sworn to secrecy, his duty required that he could not even tell his family about his famous patient. Both main characters placed duty above self-interest. It is like this for us, too. As followers of Jesus, we have a duty to him and his mission. He has commanded us to love each other (Jn. 15:12) and to take the good news of salvation to a lost and dying world (Matt. 28:19). Self-interest might have us remain at home, comfortable in our cocoon, but duty calls us to obedience out of love for our Savior.

Of course there would be no story if Lionel failed to help the king. He has a style all his own, including rolling around on the floor, singing a speech, and swearing loudly and profusely. Indeed, the only reason this otherwise family-friendly film gets an R-rating is for a couple of sequences where Albert drops the f-bomb multiple times.

Ultimately, this is a poignant film about friendship across social boundaries. In his first encounter with Lionel, Bertie expects him to treat him as royalty and address him as "Your Royal Highness". Instead, Lionel says he goes by his first name and expect the same from his patient: "I'll call you Bertie." The Prince is not accustomed to this. Going further, Lionel tells him, "My castle, my rules." He does not stand on title or ceremony.

Lionel, as an Australian, is something of a second class citizen in the country that was the head of the empire. A failed actor, he is depicted as someone who has few friends. Prince Albert has no friends. His royal title places him above, and separates him from, the common man. These two isolated loners slowly become friends. And it is in that friendship, with trust at its core, that the Prince finds the faith to believe in his friend's methods.

This friendship is an analogy, of sorts, of our relationship with Christ. God is our King (Psa. 47:7) and we are his people (Psa. 100:3). Yet he has chosen to come down to meet us in the form of a man, in the person of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:6-7). The royal sovereign wishes to enjoy a friendship with us, one where we can refer to him by a familial name, "Abba" (Rom. 8:15), rather than a title. The boundary he crossed was infinitely wider than the one King George VI traversed. He wants to sit with us and spend time together. He is devoted to us and wants us to be devoted to him. Will we let him?

In perhaps the best scene of the film, the Archbishop (Derek Jacobi) challenges Lionel's credentials, and is ready to cast him back to the gutters, where social custom would have him dwell. Lionel replies with a heartfelt speech about his experiences with trauma victims in World War 1, that puts the archbishop in his place and propels the Prince to show the depths of their friendship.

In the end, Lionel helped Albert speak better, though he never totally overcome his stammer. But he relied on his friend in his time of trial. That friendship enabled the King to deliver his speech, bringing him unexpected applause. But it brought two men together in a relationship that lasted a lifetime. Surely, this was better than total triumph over his deficiencies. Long live the King!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, February 7, 2011

CT's Top 10 Most Redeeming Movies of 2010

Christianity Today just released their list of "The 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2010." At the top of their list for a third year running is a Pixar film: Toy Story 3.  Having seen 6 of these I agree that these are great films. Half of them are up for Best Picture honors. They also include a short list of those that almost made the list. Those are worth checking out, too.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Revolutionary Road -- deconstructing the American Dream

Director: Sam Mendes, 2008. (R)

The American dream. We have been spoon-fed this panacea since childhood and many have bought into it. Not Sam Mendes. The director of Oscar-winner American Beauty brings us a similar story but set in 1955, a deconstruction of this delusion. And like that earlier film, this drama is cold and crisp. But this one reunites Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time in a decade, and they fit together again like an old shoe, with sure and splendid chemistry.

Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) meet at a party. She is a young aspiring actress, he is a blue-collar worker who does not know what he wants out of life. Cut ahead 7 years and they are married with two kids, living in suburban Connecticut in a charming starter home. Frank Wheeler works in an office for the same company his father retired from. April Wheeler stays at home as the typical housewife. Isn't this the archetypal American dream?

But this American Dream comes at a price. Frank is bored and April feels stifled. She wishes she could pursue her earlier dreams of acting or travelling. She comes up with a plan: they sell their house, pull their savings, and move to Paris, a city Frank loved from an earlier visit and one she pines to see for the first time. After much coaxing, he agrees. She will get a job and he will be free to search out his passions, an opportunity for both to rejuvenate and find life.

Mendes brings Helen (Kathy Bates, who also appeared with Winslet and DiCaprio in Titanic), a realtor, into the Wheelers lives. And it is her adult son, John (Michael Shannon, Shotgun Stories),  a man with mental and social problems, who functions as the key foil to verbalize the issues that are lying below the surface of this suburban family. He has the best and most incisive lines in the film. Pointing out the price of the American Dream, he says: "You want to play house you got to have a job. You want to play nice house, very sweet house, you got to have a job you don't like." That is Frank to a tee.

The phrase "American Dream" first appeared in 1931, in James Truslow Adams' book "Epic of America": "The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." He went on, "It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations." This original version of the dream focused on self-actualization and was purposefully vague, since each person's development would differ from another. But slowly, this has shifted and settled into the picture of the American Family in the American Home with material wealth and consumeristic goods and toys.

There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to grow to our fullest development. But the current version of the American Dream is not synonymous with Adams' vision. We can live the dream if we pursue our unique and inherent abilities, focusing on refining them, not on the finance that might be derived from them. Artists are a typical example. They often strive to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, but as they perfect their craft their improved creations are testament to the development of the person. For them, the true American Dream is to be able to make their ultimate creation.

Of course, biblically we can only grow into our truest and fullest development in Christ (Col. 1:28). And it is only in him and by his Holy Spirit that we can do or make anything of ultimate worth (Isa. 64:6). All else is considered hay or straw that will finally be burned up (1 Cor. 3:12-13). By his strength and through his grace, he can accomplish great things with us as his vessels (Phil. 4;13). Where does the American Dream fit into God's plan?

John identifies another issue with the suburbanites who are pursuing the American Dream: "Hopeless emptiness. Now you've said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness." He has put his finger on the problem. Chasing the American Dream, collecting toys like trophies, satisfies for a moment but leaves us empty in the end, with a feeling of hopelessness.

Things, even humans, will never fill that emptiness that lies within. Neither will they offer permanent hope. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician, said: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." And only Jesus can offer real hope, a hope for our soul that transcends the trappings of this life and moves into eternity (Tit. 2;13). The American Dream pales in comparison to the Heavenly Dream.

Circumstances conspire to prevent Frank and April from moving to Paris. Their idyllic marriage begins to crumble, just as their American Dream itself is deconstructing. She shouts,
I wanted IN. I just wanted us to live again. For years I thought we've shared this secret that we would be wonderful in the world. I don't know exactly how, but just the possibility kept me hoping. How pathetic is that? So stupid. To put all your hopes in a promise that was never made. Frank knows what he wants, he found his place, he's just fine. Married, two kids, it should be enough. It is for him. And he's right; we were never special or destined for anything at all.
She thought she was special, but finally gave up on that idea.

She is wrong, though. We are all special. Being made in the image of God imbues us with this quality (Gen. 1:26). And though original sin (Gen. 3) has resulted in this imago dei being marred (Jer. 17:9), we retain it in part (1 Cor. 11:7). Moreover, God has sent his only son, Jesus to become one of us, a human, to offer a way out of our dilemma (Phil. 2:6-8). His perfect life and perfect sacrifice paid the price; the punishment for our sins he bore when he hung and died on the cross. Now God has prepared good works for us, his new and special creation, to do in his kingdom endeavor (Eph. 2:10).  He offers us the Divine Dream, one that is for us priceless, but for him was infinitely costly. Will we continue to pursue the dead and deconstructed American Dream? Or will we consider and embrace this Greater Dream?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: "Radical" -- The American Dream vs the Biblical Gospel

Author: David Platt, 2010. (Waterbrook Press)

This is a small (at just over 200 pages) but deeply thought-provoking book. David Platt, pastor of a mega-church in Birmingham, Alabama, challenges us to consider the radical demands of the gospel, and calls us to a number of radical "d"s: dependence, devotion, duty, discipling, danger and death.

Written in an easy flowing style, with excellent stories drawn from his own life and from those in his church, "Radical" could be a quick read. But I found myself underlining many key points and stopping to ponder their relevance and application for my own life.

The major part of the book focuses on the problems within American culture, a "culture that exalts self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and self-confidence." The gospel calls us to something different: "the challenge for us is to live in such a way that we are radically dependent on and desperate for the power that only God can provide." Sadly, many of us in the church have absorbed the message of Madison Avenue and cocooned ourselves in our suburban homes, feeding on the drivel of entertainment flooding our senses in this electronic age.

In chapter 3 Platt brings up the American dream, a concept he will use to contrast with the biblical gospel: "while the American dream is to make much of us, the goal of the gospel is to make much of God." He identifies clearly how we can honor God: "we were created by God to enjoy his grace . . . but also to extend his glory to the ends of the earth."  We have a command in the gospel directly from the mouth of Jesus to go to the ends of the earth carrying the message of his gospel. "Anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity." In this sense, especially as he deals with culture and its impact on Christianity, "Radical" reminds me of "Christless Christianity" by Michael Horton, another scathing review of American Christianity.

120 x 600Platt spends some time on the radical duty of the Christian in evangelism. "Every saved person this side of heaven owes the gospel to every lost person this side of hell." In perhaps the most shocking picture in the book, he accuses most gospel-believing Christians of being practical universalists, "living each day as though it's not absolutely urgent to tell others about Christ." The statistics are sad and hard to get our heads around: "more than 4.5 billion people in the world today are without Christ . . . we clearly have no time to waste our lives on an American dream." The solution here is doing our radical duty in evangelism and making disciples, investing in relationships and winning the world one person at a time. Sharing the gospel, imparting life, making disciples, bringing glory to God fulfills this duty.

The American dream is centered on materialism, and Platt suggests this is a blind spot in American Christianity. He is not opposed to prosperity, but is concerned with how we embrace and use it. "God has given us excess, not so we could have more, but so we could give more.”

Another aspect of the American dream is security. We desire wealth as much for the safety it brings. But Platt offers an alternate view. He asks the question, “What if we begin to look at the design of God as the most dangerous option before us? What if the center of God’s will is in reality the most unsafe place for us to be?” This is a new way to look at God’s will. Many of us have been taught that the center of God’s will is like the eye of the hurricane, a place of peace and safety. Not so, says Platt. “The danger in our lives will always increase in proportion to the depth of our relationship with Christ.” He goes on, “as long as Christianity looks like the American dream, we will have few problems in the world.” The biblical gospel, in contrast with the American dream, offers danger rather than safety.

In the penultimate chapter Platt finally provides “the key to taking back your faith from the American dream.” It is a radical solution: “your life is free to be radical when you see death as reward.” We are brought up to see life as our goal and reward, not death. But when death is our crown we are willing to embrace anything, including suffering and danger. With this in mind, he summarizes the superiority of the gospel, “This, we remember, is the great reward of the gospel: God himself. When we risk our lives to run after Christ, we discover the safety that is found only in his sovereignty, the security that is found only in his love, and the satisfaction that is found only in his presence.”

The final chapter presents a radical experiment, a challenge to embrace this new lifestyle for a year. This would be a journey of authentic discipleship. He dares us to:
  1. Pray for the entire world
  2. Read through the entire Word
  3. Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose
  4. Spend your time in another context
  5. Commit your life to a multiplying community
This puts shoe leather on our faith in a way that will grow us and grow others. By becoming praying people of the Word, giving liberally, going urgently, and living dangerously we will be part of the transformation of lives and culture that God is ushering in.

As I completed the book, I can’t say I have committed to all five of the components, but Platt’s book has brought me face to face with my cultural distortions of the gospel, and God is in the process of working this message into my heart. “Radical” is one of the best books I have read in the last year. If you are a follower of Jesus, are you willing to read this and be radically changed? It’s radically worth it!

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

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Fighter -- overcoming family, redeeming family

Director: David Russell, 2010. (R) 

Some will say The Fighter is this generation's Rocky. Over thirty years ago John G. Avildsen's rags-to-riches boxing movie propelled Sylvester Stallone into stardom while winning the Best Picture Oscar, and remains one of only three boxing movies to win this coveted trophy (On the Waterfront won in 1954 and Million Dollar Baby won in 2004). The blue-collar working-class context in The Fighter certainly encourages this comparison with Rocky. But, don't be confused. This film is tighter, grittier and all-around better than the earlier Academy Award winner. And it's based on a true story, to boot.

The film centers on two men, both fighters. Mark Wahlberg is Micky Ward, the fighter of the movie's title, and Christian Bale is his half-brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo, Frozen River), acts as Micky's fight manager. She runs the ring and rules the roost, where seven sisters gather like a gaggle of geese. Dad, George (Jack McGee), is isolated as the lone male in the house.

Dicky's claim to fame is his former fight against Sugar Ray Leonard when he knocked the champ down but still lost. For that feat he earned the nickname "The Pride of Lowell," the working class neighborhood of Boston where they live. Roaming the streets followed by a two-man TV crew shooting a documentary, the outgoing Dicky knows everyone and they all love him. In contrast, Micky is a quiet and shy man, working and fighting (and mostly losing) to eke out a meager living. When Alice and Dicky persuade him to accept a fight against a much bigger boxer, it is clear they care less for his career and more for the cash.

This highlights one of the topics here. Alice is focused on Dicky not Micky. Dicky is the apple of her eye, and it is clear to everyone but her. Like Joseph in the Old Testament (Gen. 37), this is parental favoritism that impacts the siblings. We can learn from this: as parents we should not play favorites, although this does not mean we must treat our children identically. It simply means we don't love one more than another. God shows no favoritism (Rom. 2:11) and we must not either.

Alice's partiality blinds her to Dicky's faults. A washed out boxer, he is a crack addict, prone to trouble.  But she sees only the glory days of his fighting career. She is living in the past, fooling herself in the present, refusing to face up to the truth. Others can see what is happening, as Dicky avoids his mom, jumping out of windows, climbing fences to avoid shattering her carefully constructed image.

Don't we act like Alice at times? If we have had some earlier victories yet our present is fading away, we may try to live in our past. But doing this sacrifices our present, leaving us burnt-out husks, much as Dicky was. Rather, we should do what the apostle Paul said, "one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13-14).

Moreover, we must avoid the self-delusion that will keep us imprisoned in a captivity of our own making. Instead, we must embrace the truth in all areas of our life. By opening ourselves up to the spotlight of God's Word, listening to his Holy Spirit, and inviting godly friends and counselors into our corner, we can face the truth and allow it to knock-out the lies we may have told ourselves.

It is only when Micky summons the courage to ask Charlene (Amy Adams, Julie and Julia), the local barmaid, out on a dinner-and-movie date, that he begins to face the truth. Charlene can see what is happening to him in his family and she stands up for him. But the truth often comes at a price. Here it is a divisive force that polarises.

As well as being nominated for best film of 2010, a nomination it deserves but will lose to The King's Speech or The Social Network, The Fighter showcases stellar acting. Christian Bale has already won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his role. He is almost unrecognizable here, playing a man at the bottom thinking he is still at the top. Mark Wahlberg is strong and deserves his nomination in the Best Actor role, but is not quite good enough to win the trophy. Surprising for a boxing movie, the two female leads are poweful characters in their own right and are played with corresponding power by the two actresses. Both are nominated, and it is likely Melissa Leo will take home an Oscar to match her Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Adams, like Wahlberg, will go home empty-handed but can be proud of her performance.

Like Rocky and other similar sports films, Micky has to hit rock bottom before he can arise to make a comeback. When Charlene points out that Dicky is often late to train him and Alice is not getting him fights to improve his career, she encourages him to find a new path, a new trainer, a new manager.

Unlike other boxing movies, the fights are kept to a minimum, and the best ones appear in the final act. Instead, the focus is on the characters and the family drama. Boxing offers Micky a means of redemption for him, his family and his community. And it is through boxing that he is able to bring his family back around him.

We all need redemption. We have broken families, damaged relationships, wasted lives, painful hurts. We need to be rescued, delivered. Boxing may not be our redemptive mechanism, but we stand waiting nevertheless. God offers us redemption through Jesus (Eph. 1:7). He has rescued us from the damage we have caused ourselves. When we come to acknowledge and follow Christ, he brings us into his new kingdom (Col. 1:13). And he offers us opportunity to receive and give forgiveness (Lk. 3:3; 11:4). In this way, through grace we can experience restoration and victory.

The Fighter is not a family-friendly film, despite its message of family solidarity. It is enfused with cursing, just as we would expect from a film based on such a working-class context. It puts drugs in the center of the plot, though it underscores the cost of drug addiction on family and friends. Yet it feels real, and the characters are authentic in the way they talk and act. When it comes to the climactic fight, I found myself on the edge of my seat, dodging and weaving with Micky, even though I knew the outcome. David Russell has given us the story of two fighters that punches us emotionally for two hours but leaves us basking in its heart-felt victory.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs