Monday, May 30, 2011

The Jacket -- time and death

Director: John Maybury, 2005. (R) 

The Jacket is a psychological thriller based around time travel. The protagonist, Jack Starks (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) can move backwards and forwards in time when under the influence of experimental drugs. Discovering he will die in 4 days, he finds himself in a race to determine how, in the assumption that he might then be able to prevent it.

The opening scene shows Jack in 1991, a soldier in the Gulf War. Using monochrome green/gray strobe photography, director Maybury turns this war into an alien environment. Jack’s voiceover opening line portends the key theme of the film, death – “I was 27 years old the first time I died.” Shot in the head by an Iraqi child, he is left for dead, lying corpse-like in the mobile hospital. That is, until he blinks. Then the nurses realize he is still alive and treat him. A year later, Jack is back in his native Vermont, discharged. Though apparently able to deal with civilian life, he suffers from bouts of amnesia.

Hitch-hiking the cold winter roads, two interactions define the course of the film. The first occurs when he stops to help a single mom and her young daughter, Jackie. The second is when he is picked up by a stranger. This stranger later kills a cop and leaves Jack unconscious beside the body to take the fall. Since he cannot remember what happened, he is found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution for the criminally insane.

The Jacket PictureIt is in this asylum that his time travel begins. When Dr. Thomas Becker (Kris Kristofferson) orders him restrained in a strait-jacket, given an unusual drug therapy and locked in a morgue drawer, the claustrophobic space and sensory deprivation disorient Jack. Somehow his mind takes him back to his “death” in Iraq and then forward to 2007, where he meets the older Jackie (Keira Knightley), a hard-hitting young woman who has taken after her mom. Through her, he finds out that Jack Starks died 4 days after his initial time in the jacket. And, of course, he and Jackie rapidly fall in love. They can only be together in this version of the future as he allows himself to undergo more of these treatments. With each trip, he learns more and brings more information back to the present of 1992.

The Jacket sets its sights high, seeming to want to be a cross between Memento, 12 Monkeys and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But it can’t quite pull it off. It’s a bit of a jumble and is unable to address the metaphysical aspects of time like Memento deals with the metaphysical aspects of memory. For Jack, time is no longer linear. His present reality becomes secondary to the unpredictability of his dream-like experiences, which shoot him to familiar and unfamiliar times. Time is a loose construct for Jack, but this is not developed enough to communicate any points to the viewer.

Of course, if time is like this, then we cannot live our lives meaningfully. If we may be in a decade-old yesterday followed by a decades-new tomorrow, forgetting what happened in between, our mind will struggle to make sense of it. We were not designed this way. We are by nature time-bound creatures, that live for the inexorable progress of time, second by second, day after day. We age along a one-way street, never revisiting old paths (except in memory) and leaving the forward parts of the journey for the unknown future. Only God can know this; we cannot.

The Jacket PictureBut if time is largely unexplored, death is not. It is the central theme and offers a pair of key thoughts. In a crucial letter written from the future to the past, Jack comments, “Sometimes life can only really begin with the knowledge of death. That it can all end, even when you least want it to. The important thing in life is to believe that while you’re alive, it’s never too late.” This is actually theologically true. Until we acknowledge our own mortality, we live a lie. More than this, until we accept that we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), devoid of true life, we can never experience the life that our creator intended us to have. Sin has created a chasm, separating us from God (Isa. 59:2). We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and have become his enemies (Col. 1:21). Yet while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). When we understand that his death covered our sins (1 Pet. 1:18-19), and when we choose to follow Jesus, we find that he has given us new life. This is the abundant life he promised (Jn. 10:10). It is while we are here on earth that we have this opportunity to trust Christ. It’s never too late, until we pass on into the hereafter. Then our fate is sealed, for better for worse, for heaven or hell.

Jack goes on in this same letter, “When you die, there’s only thing you want to happen. You wanna come back.” Jesus told a parable of a rich man and Lazarus, one that resonated with this idea (Lk. 16;19-31). This rich man died and passed on to experience hades (hell). Seeing across the chasm into heaven, where Lazarus went upon his death, he wanted God to send Lazarus back to life to warn his family.

When we die, there are only two destinations: life in heaven forever with God himself (Matt. 25:34), or life in hell, separated from God, isolated and alone forever (Matt. 25:41). This is like being in the jacket in the morgue drawer forever, never interacting with others. For those who trusted Christ in this life, entering heaven will be the journey into bliss from which they will not want to return. For those who ignored Christ, entering hell will be a journey they want to come back from. Unfortunately, there is no return ticket. Life, like time, is one-way. You’d better make your decision wisely.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 27, 2011

Pandorum -- judging others

Director: Christian Alvart, 2009. (R)

Pandorum wants to be a sci-fi chiller in the vein of Alien, but it is not nearly as good. It is set sometime in the late 22nd century. The four title cards at the start set the scene:

1969. Man lands on the moon. World Population = 3.6 billion.
2009. Kepler telescope is launched to search for Earth-like planets. World population = 6.76 billion.
2153. Paleo-17 Space Probe lands on planet Tanis. World population = 24.34 billion. Food and water shortages are commonplace.
2174. The battle for Earth’s limited resources reaches its boiling point. Spacecraft Elysium is launched.
The Elysium was shot into space headed for Tanis from Earth. Elysium, of course, references Greek mythology, where it was the final resting place for the preferred heroes of the gods, a place or state of perfect happiness. Tanis was intended to be a similar place for those on board, as they sought to populate this new earth-like planet.

The film starts, though, when two crew members wake up from years of hyper sleep to find the ship stranded somewhere in space with the power failing. Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid, Soul Surfer) seem to be the only two humans left. But their memory is hazy, an effect of the hyper-sleep, and they are disoriented. With the gloomy darkness and the creepy emptiness, they realize the door out of their chamber is locked. The only way out is up, through the narrow vents. Payton sends Bower with a radio and a flashlight. As Bower progresses through the claustrophobic shafts, the parallels to Alien (and its sequels) becomes clear. What Bower finds is shocking to both of them. They are not alone. But the remaining humans have devolved to survival of the fittest, in the worst of ways.

Pandorum offers some suspense along with gory violence. The acting is solid, not stellar. Foster and Quaid raise this to a notch above a straight-to-DVD film, and German Antje Traue, as the female warrior-scientist, offers a hint of Eve to Bower’s Adam. But the ending is surprising, with a twist that is not easily seen.

Toward the end, one character begins acting in a god-like fashion, ready to set himself as king. When confronted, he declares, “Who are you to judge me!” He feels he is above the judgment of another. This brings up the question of when we should judge another person. Jesus told his listeners in his early sermon on the mount, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). And this is true. But in the context, Jesus was pointing out that we must first judge ourselves before we elevate ourselves as judges over others: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:2-3) However, he was not saying we should not apply the basic rules of morality when considering others. Judges were, and still are, appointed to make judicial rulings about law (and morality). In the absence of judges, as in Pandorum, we can and should judge a person who has clearly crossed the moral boundary. Indeed, when someone becomes self-deceived, his own perceptions become faulty and untrustworthy. In such a situation it becomes necessary to judge and subdue.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Silence of the Lambs -- civility, coveting and change

Director: Jonathan Demme, 1991. (R)  

With Ted Tally’s screenplay of Thomas Harris’ book, Jonathan Demme (The Manchurian Candidate)did what only two other directors had done before, namely create a film that scooped all 5 major Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins, Fracture) and Best Actress (Jodie Foster). And this psychological thriller is part chiller, part horror. Certainly, it pits two memorable characters against one another in search of a killer, and rivets the tension without excessive gore. Oh there is blood and some disturbing images, but the horror is mostly left to the imagination, a sign of a great film.

With “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine) kidnapping, murdering and skinning young women, senior FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) realizes he needs help in getting inside the mind of this psychopath. He sends FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) to visit the brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins). But Lecter is himself a psychopathic killer and a cannibal to boot. Clarice does not know what she is getting into as she visits him in the asylum for the criminally insane where he is imprisoned.

Hopkins is only on screen for about 16 minutes, the shortest Best Actor performance ever. But this screen time is dominated by three incredibly tense interactions with Jodie Foster and a gory escape from an escape-proof cage. Just in these one-on-one interviews, Hopkins and Foster demonstrate the highest quality of acting.

The first two interactions occur in the asylum. Clarice thinks she is interrogating Lecter, but he is subtly getting inside her mind, turning the tables on her. Separated by a glass wall rather than cell bars, Clarice and Lecter can stand opposite one another and appear to be able to reach out and touch one another. Demme uses this to create a sense of creepy intimacy between the two.

When Lecter tells Clarice, “If I help you, Clarice it till be turns with us, too. Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself. Quid pro quo. Yes or no?” She is too rash and young to say no, not realizing he will force her to confront her greatest fear. Lecter has the intellectual ability of a trained psychologist to get to the root of a person. And he immediately penetrates her defenses, taking her back to an incident in her youth, from which the film gets its names, when a barn-full of lambs is being slaughtered. “You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs?” Clarice is running from this picture, trying in her life and work to silence the screaming, to hear instead the silence of the lambs.

If the first interaction between the two sets the tension, it is the last interaction that brings this to a climax. Here, several themes emerge from this single conversation. Lecter has been brought to Baltimore, to come face to face with a US Senator whose daughter is the current kidnap victim. Transported in a strait jacket with a head mask to prevent him using even his teeth on the guards, Lecter appears safe and harmless. Further, he is placed in a cage in the middle of a ballroom, actively guarded by two armed policeman in a multi-story building evacuated by all but the police.

When Clarice comes to talk to him, appealing to his intellect for help in solving this crime spree, Lecter tells her, “First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?”

What is the nature of man? That is the first question we face here. The chillingly erudite cannibal told her earlier what his nature is: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” This is a great quote and highlights the evil of this man, a character who appears in many of the top 5 lists of best villains from the movies. It also highlights the thin veneer of civilization that masks the depravity and self-centeredness of us all. We all seek to look nice and good to those around us, but within our civility is actually replaced by a sinfulness that we cannot overcome on our own. The Bible makes it clear, “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10); “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). From birth “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer:17:9) and we do our best to hide it. Some allow the truth to come out, like Dr. Lecter, but the darkness is present in all, until we are redeemed by Jesus (Rom. 3:24).

Lecter goes on, almost instructing Clarice as a professor would: “What does he do, this man you seek?” She thinks the answer is obvious: “He kills women.” But that is too plain. “No. That is incidental. What is the principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing? He covets. That is his nature.” Here is the second theme.

Coveting is one of the sins addressed in the ten commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex. 20:17). It is the desire to have what is someone else’s. It evidences a dissatisfaction with one’s own estate, and seeks to rectify this by taking from someone else regardless of the pain it will bring. Covetousness stems from the inner nature of a person. We cannot excise coveting until we eradicate our sinful self, and that only through Christ.

Finally, Lecter gets to the point. “Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual.” Billy wants to change himself and he is doing this through his violence against women.

Change also picks up on a sub-theme of the film: the death’s head moth. The movie poster depicts Clarice Starling with her mouth covered by this moth, and several corpses are found with the moth’s cocoon in their mouths. These cocoons, or pupae, metamorphosize into the moths as part of their lifecycle. They effectively change from an ugly larva into a beautiful creature.

Change is part of life. But the biggest and best change of all is in our nature. The original nature of mankind follows man’s original sin: we have an adamic nature. But Jesus Christ laid down his life that we might be changed and given a new nature (Gal. 6:15). When we trust him, our lives are renewed and we are made into new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). This change is far greater than the moth emerging from the cocoon, for that creature has not had an innate change, just an external bodily one. The change in the Christian is one of inner nature, of the very soul.

After the interaction between Clarice and Lecter, Clarice is led away without a firm answer. Lecter has planted the seed, knowing that she has the intelligence to solve the clues herself. Meanwhile, he is able to escape from the cage leaving a bloody exhibit that once more points to his evil nature, despite his urbane manner. Clarice, on the other hand figures out the clues and is sent on her own to interview family members of the victims. The climax has her unwittingly enter Buffalo Bill’s house, only to become the hunted. The scene where he is following her in the dark through his house of horrors will produce goose-bumps of fear in even the most horror-hardened viewer.

The Silence of the Lambs stands up there with other great Oscar winners as a film that not only delivers a powerful story but also engages the mind with philosophical themes. It highlights our nature and our need. When considered biblically, it points us unerringly to Jesus Christ, himself called a lamb. Interestingly, this Lamb of God was silent before his inquisitor (Isa. 53:7; Matt. 26:63). His was truly, the silence of the Lamb!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) -- secrets and passions

Director: Juan José Campanella, 2009. (R)

Argentina is famous for its musical moves, namely the tango, not for its magical movies. Argentinian cinema is almost an oxymoron. Almost. With The Secret in Their Eyes Argentina won its second Oscar (Best Foreign Film, 2010), the first coming in 1985 for La Historia Oficial). This one is for a $2M film that was viewed by only 3 million people and grossed $6M. Yet, it is a worthy award winner, an engaging complex film that is part crime conspiracy, part murder mystery, part romance.

The story opens with Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) trying to write a novel about a crime, basing it on an old closed case that he investigated 25 years before. More than anything, this is his attempt to bring closure to both the old case and an old love. And through the twists and turns of the plot and a surprise ending, closure is attained.

The Morales case had been rife with corruption and confusion. Liliano Coloto (Carla Quevedo), a young teacher recently married to Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), was brutally raped and murdered one morning. Esposito was given the case. Reluctantly, he visited the crime scene with his alcoholic partner Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), but was taken by her beauty and the sadness of her loss. The tragedy struck home and the case took root in his heart.

As he begins his investigation, there are two suspects who are swiftly taken into custody. The problem is that he believes they are innocent. Looking at a variety of photos in the Morales’ apartment, the eyes of a subject tell a different story and point Esposito at a different suspect. With support from his new chief, Irene Menendez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil), an engaged woman several years his junior, he pursues this suspect, even though senior officials have reason to shut his investigation down.

Moving between the past and the present, we see the older Esposito visiting the now married Hastings to seek her input and advice. He is still taken by her beauty. In the flashbacks he does not recognize the signs in her eyes, and it is only now, in the present, that he understands the secrets of her eyes. It is between these two leads that the romance is played out in subtle and poignant ways. Theirs is not the lust-filled sex of a Hollywood movie; rather, they communicate their interest and romance in the glances shared between two souls attracted to one another.

One of the themes of the film is the way that the eyes can hide or convey secrets. From the secrets contained in the eyes of the chief suspect to the romance contained in the eyes of Hastings, the key is whether we discern and understand these secrets. The eyes offer the entryway to the soul. Jesus said something similar in his sermon on the mount: “The eye is the lamp of the body.” He went on, in this same passage, to declare how the eyes not only hide secrets, but declare the health of the soul: “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness” (Matt. 6:22-23). Moreover, Jesus preached many messages in parables to retain secrets from his listeners, “otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Matt. 13:15).

The second theme emerges as Esposito and Sandoval hunt for the real killer. Having disappeared, they are at a loss to know where to look for him. But Sandoval, in a drunken monologue in his favorite pub, points out how to find him: “A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion.” This killer’s passion is his soccer team, and so they go looking for him amongst the fans at a crowded match.

Passion, then, is the other main theme that ties the film together. The killer’s passion is soccer. Esposito’s secret passion is Hastings, though it is evident in the eyes. What is our passion? Is it our home, our hobbies? Maybe it is our family, our spouse or girlfriend? These are all legitimate passions. But perhaps our biggest passion should be our God. Jesus commanded his followers to

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Our passion should begin with this relationship (not a religion) and overflow from here to those around us: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:40). Our passions surely are what we will come back to time and time again. Will this be the Lord Jesus? Or is your passion something less permanent, more transitory and less valuable? Your eyes will give it away.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Review: "To Be Perfectly Honest" -- an inspirational endorsement for truth-telling

Author: Phil Callaway, 2011. (Multnomah Books) 

I  must confess I had never heard of Phil Callaway before, but the premise of this book sounded intriguing: humorist Callaway commited to telling the truth for an entire year and to journal about this "adventure". Since he is a speaker and writer, he travels a lot and interacts with many people, strangers and audience members, as well as church members and family. This was sure to be an engaging ride.

Now, a year of telling the truth sounds easy. After all, those of us who are Christian, even those of us who simply claim to be moral, would say we are committed to truth-telling. But as soon as someone asks how we're doing and we answer "Fine" when inner turmoil rages, we realize how easily we slip into little white lies and social sinning that everyone expects.

The book is pretty thin and an easy read. Written in journal fashion with several days to a page, it is not as funny as I had expected. Oh, there are some laugh out loud moments (such as his interaction with Mormons where he pretends to be deaf even though he is listening to his iPod), and some humorous ongoing episodes of email correspondence (one with a spammer offering him millions of dollars if he will help her, which most of us would have simply deleted). But it comes across as light entertainment rather than gut-busting hilarity.

The epilogue is perhaps the most interesting, where Callaway reflects on this experiment after it is all over. What did he learn?
For starters, I'm more honest in prayer. This thing about trying to impress God was laughable. . .  I speak the truth more speedily now, less concerned with what people say about me when I'm out of earshot. . . And finally, after completing a year of truth-telling, I'm much more aware of my flaws and weaknesses. . . . What I've found is that there is a God who smiles, a God who still loves me. With his help, I've decided to extend the deadline on this truth vow another fifty years.
As a comedic book, it only partially succeeds. It is not funny enough to be considered true comedy. As an inspiration for others to be better truth-tellers, it hits a home run. Callaway's self-deprecating humor paints a tighter picture than a 100 moralizing sermons. I came away wanting to do a truth-telling experiment of my own. Perhaps that is the true purpose of the book!

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

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lovers on the Bridge (Les amants du Pont-Neuf) -- self-seeking love

Director: Leos Carax, 1991. (R)

The film’s title, Lovers on the Bridge, connotes images of a beautiful romance set against the dreamy arches of the Pont Neuf, Paris’ oldest bridge. This is not quite the case. Carax’ film is a love story of sorts, but between two vagrants who live on the bridge. Rather than suave and sophisticated, the protagonists are shabby street people. This is the seamy side of the city of love.

Alex (Denis Levant) is a fire-breather, a street performer who makes a meager living selling his act, rifling through garbage cans for tossed out food, and stealing the odd fresh fish to complement his diet. Nights, he climbs over the fences sealing off the bridge for ongoing repair work. The bridge is where he lives. His only friend, Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber), an older hobo, doles out the drugs that allow him to sleep. Alex is, after all, addicted to drugs and alcohol. We learn this early on, when he collapses in the middle of a Paris street; he is picked up by the police and taken to a recovery center.

Michele (Juliette Binoche, Blue) is another street urchin, a woman walking the street with a portfolio under her arm. An artist, she finds herself on Pont Neuf sleeping in the spot where Alex normally sleeps. And she has penciled a sketch of him from the memory of an earlier encounter. This piques his interest, and, voila, a relationship begins.

As the movie progresses, Michele reveals that her eyesight is deteriorating – she is going blind. With her helplessness increasing, she finds herself more and more dependent on Alex. When he discovers that there is hope for her; he fails to let her know, fearing that she will leave him if she becomes healed.

It is purported that both leads have mysterious pasts, and they may. But the film never takes the time to reveal them to us. We learn little about either Alex or Michele, and never understand why they are living on the street.

Writer-director Carax uses striking color and stunning visual angles, along with some surreal images, but all to little effect. He cannot add warmth to the two main (and one minor) characters. They are cold and unlovable. Ultimately, we really don’t care what happens to them.

Moreover, the film suggests that Alex and Michele are in love. But both seem manipulative in this relationship to the degree that love is not the correct term. Alex’ desire for Michele seems more lustful, sexual, and his love is almost imprisoning. She is more a captive of his. Michele, on the other hand, seems needy and dependent, drawing near to Alex for the help he can give her.

True love is neither manipulative nor imprisoning. The apostle Paul spoke of love to the Corinthian church:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails
(1 Cor. 13:4-8). What Alex and Michele have is a self-seeking relationship, one that protects self, not the other. It is not love. These are not true lovers on the bridge. Even the ending, which offers a pair of twists does not really point to true love.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rabbit Hole -- responding to loss

Director: John Cameron Mitchell, 2010. (PG-13)

Rabbit Hole offers a low-budget look at the impact of loss and the responses to the consequent pain. Based on David Lindsay-Abbaire’s 2005 play, Lindsay-Abbaire adapts his own screenplay for Mitchell to direct. And the film feels like a play, being tight and restricted with few characters. The success of the film lies in the performances of the two leads, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, especially Kidman who was nominated for an Oscar here.

The film centers on Becca and Howie Corbett. Once a happily married couple, seven months earlier they lost their little boy, Danny, in a tragic accident. Now, they are dealing with fall-out of that event that, in an instant, redefined their lives and their relationship.

Becca (Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding) was a successful executive but left her job to become a stay-at-home mom. Her life was defined by her child. Now she tries to find comfort and solace in well-meaning friends and family. Howie (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) has turned to a support group, led by Gaby (Sandra Oh), for healing. Each, though, are struggling to accept and move on.

Director Mitchell draws upon personal experience to create this poignant and emotional movie. When he was 14 he lost his younger brother to a heart condition. He commented, “It was a sudden, unexpected event. It defined a family forever and recovering from it was something we’re still doing.”

Indeed, in the film Becca’s mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) has experienced similar loss, in the death of her son and Becca’s brother. Becca asks her, “Does it ever go away?” Her mom responds, “No, I don’t think it does. Not for me, it hasn’t – has gone on for eleven years. But it changes, though. . . . At some point it becomes bearable.” With her sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard, Bella), becoming pregnant, Becca is forced to confront the impending presence of a child and the absence of another.

Becca tries to deal with the loss by forming a friendship with Jason (Miles Teller), a teen who is crafting a comic book entitled “Rabbit Hole”. More than this, though, she is slowly clearing out all traces of Danny. Down come the fridge pictures. Out go his clothes and toys. She sends his dog away, to relatives. And she wants to move to a different home where “ghosts” are not present.

Here is one way to cope with loss. It is to hide or remove the past. She has given up on group therapy because it forces her to look at the loss and it further forces her to hear people who are turning to God. She wants neither. By running away from the pain of the past, we can seemingly learn to live once again in the present. But this pain remains, even if buried, and it will poison relationships, just as it was poisoning Becca’s marriage. Without intimate relations in seven months, Howie is feeling neglected and abandoned.

One issue with Becca’s approach is her stubborn refusal to look to God for refuge and comfort. Even when Nat tells her, “You know, Becca, when your brother died, I found the church very helpful,” Becca reacts, “I know you did, but that’s you. That’s not me.” And she goes on to badmouth God. Sadly, he is there and waits for Becca and us to come to him (Rev. 3:20). He offers comfort to the downhearted (Jer. 31:15). He understands our pain. For sure, the pat and clichéd response of the believing couple in group therapy, who suggest that their loss was God taking another angel to be with him, is both wrong and discomforting. But errant theology is no reason to abandon the true God. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8).

Howie tries to deal with the loss in a different way, by going to group therapy and forming a friendship with Gaby. As Becca pulls away from him, hiding her secrets behind a wall of silence, so he, too, hides his secrets from her. Neither can really hide the truth, though, which is that their pain is redefining them.

As Becca is discarding memories, Howie is reliving his. He spends hours watching old videos of Danny on his iPhone in the dark of night. He cannot move forward. He cannot let go. Neither have found the “happy medium” where life can go on while memories remain.

The title Rabbit Hole refers to the concept of alternate universes that may be present all around us. This is the theme of Jason’s comic book. Really, though, it seems this refers to the Corbetts. Both are living as though they have descended down Alice’s rabbit hole. They are living as though their son should be alive. Their present life seems to be in an alternate universe, one they are neither ready for, nor prepared to adjust to.

Too often life can be like that. An event occurs, and in an instant changes life for us forever. It redefines us even if we try to evade such redefinition. We may seek to live in the past, thinking the present life is the rabbit hole, the alternate reality we never wanted. But we must accept the past, embrace what has happened. To do otherwise is to live in the rabbit hole. Without seeming pat, it is true that God will use even tragic events to mold us into Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29). This oft-quoted and much maligned verse from Romans declares, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We should not blame God, but we can look to him to use these events for our eventual good.

Will we choose to embrace reality’s heart or live in the rabbit hole? One will leave us stuck and bitter, damaging those around us. The other will bring healing, even though we are damaged. The choice is ours.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tangled -- worldliness, sharing and dreams

Director: Nathan Greno & Byron Howard, 2010. (PG)

Tangled provides a triple milestone in the Disney canon. It is the 50th animated movie from the studio, and an excellent one at that. It is also Disney’s first foray into computer generated imagery, and a fine one it is. Finally, it is the studio’s most expensive animated movie to date, costing $260 million to make. But they have more than doubled this in takings at the box office worldwide and are adding to that in DVD sales. They should, as this is a terrific film.

Tangled presents the story of Rapunzel, from the fairy tales of the German brothers Grimm. However, the title was changed to attract a broader market than just young girls. By changing the title, Disney moves the focus away from the princess alone and onto the scampish rascal Flynn Rider, a person boys could identify with, hence creating a wider audience. And the trick works.

The story begins with the pregnant queen lying ill and in need of a miracle, one that can only come from the magic flower that grows somewhere in the kingdom. This plant, though, is selfishly guarded by Mother Gothel (voice of Donna Murphy), an old maid whose youth is returned to her when she sings to the flower, which she wants for her own. Sharing is not in her vocabulary. But the flower is discovered and it brings healing to the queen. More than that, it transfers its magic powers to the hair of the new-born baby Rapunzel (voice of Mandy Moore). Aging rapidly, the old wicked woman steals the baby from the palace, and takes her to the hidden tower where she lives. Through the magic of the child’s hair, Mother Gothel once again retains her longevity.

Seventeen years later, Rapunzel is grown and her golden hair is 70 feet long. She believes Gothel is her mother, and she is kept in the tower for her protection. She is never allowed outside. All she can do is stare out through the tall windows at a world that seems both dazzling and dangerous.

Mother Gothel offers a perspective on worldliness that many Christians erroneously embrace. The world is indeed a dangerous place. With the entry of sin, the “prince of this world” (Jn. 14:30) lays claim and exercises his demonic powers. Worldliness vies antithetically against Christendom. Yet, Jesus never told us to withdraw, like cloistered monks. He prays about his followers, in his pre-crucifixion prayer, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (Jn. 17:16). Moreover, he prays, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (Jn.17:15). Isolation is not an option; insulation is. If we are followers of Jesus, we are to live in the world, amongst those who deny Jesus, being “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
Further, if we find, or are given, a blessing we should not keep it to ourselves, selfishly hoarding and protecting it from prying eyes. Instead, we should share it with others, being a blessing in turn. Of course, the greatest blessing we can receive is the Lord Jesus himself. Once we have seen how beautiful he is, we are obligated, even commanded, to share him with the world. We must take his gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation to the world, making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). We must share Jesus with others, simply telling them, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8). We can do no less than this. We must not be like Mother Gothel, keeping Jesus all to ourselves.

Into the picture comes Flynn Rider (voice of Zachary Levi), a thief who has stolen the princess’ crown from the castle. Pursued by the king’s mounted guards, Flynn finds himself in the hidden valley where Rapunzel resides. Climbing into her tower, he is captured by the princess, literally. They have differing desires. He wants his freedom and the crown she has hidden; she wants to go outside to see the floating lights that the king releases on the birthday of his lost princess. They form a deal that will allow both to get their wishes. He will lead her there and then she will give him the stolen crown. Together, they leave the tower.

When Mother Gothel returns, her golden-haired giver of youth is gone. She is facing rapid mortality. Her wickedness comes to the forefront as she pursues Rapunzel and Flyn, with the help of Flynn’s two thuggish robber friends.

Along with these three main characters, two voiceless creatures steal the show. Pascal is Rapunzel’s pet chameleon who accompanies her everywhere. Maximus is one of the king’s guards’ horses, a strong powerful white beast. Through their actions and expressions, their emotions are evident. These speak louder than any words.

Another theme emerges in one of the best songs in the film. As Flynn and Rapunzel emerge from the hidden valley, he takes her to a dingy inn filled with dangerous outlaws who turn on them, looking for the reward money that has been placed on Flynn’s head. But when Rapunzel starts singing, “Have some humanity. Haven’t any of you ever had a dream?”, the whole gang breaks into song, sharing their own special dreams.

Dreams. Without them, life is dour and dismal. Depression sinks in. With them, we have something to live for, something to look forward to. They become our motivations when we are down. They can inspire and drive us forward. Too often, we allow life to choke and strangle our dreams. We lay them aside or forget them, as these thieves had done. But they remain, dormant dwellers in our subconscious ready to be awakened. And when they are, our monochromed life becomes technicolored once again. The power of dreams.

But there is a flip-side to dreams, as Rapunzel discovers. When she and Flynn sit in a boat about to watch the floating lights in person, she is filled with fear and uncertainty: “I’ve been looking out of a window for eighteen years, dreaming about what I might feel like when those lights rise in the sky. What if it’s not everything I dreamed it would be? . . . What do I do then?” Here is the rub; if we attain our dreams and find they were not what we expected, what do we do then? At that point, our lives that had been focused laser-like on achieving this goal, might become aimless. This is often the onset of a mid-life crisis. We got the promotion we worked for, and now find the job is anything but what we dreamed it would be. Our kids are almost grown and the dream of a tight parent-child relationship has dissolved in the teenage turbulence. What has it all been for?
Flynn offers Rapunzel, and us, the answer: “Well that’s the good part, I guess. You get to go find a new dream.” Here is the solution: a new dream. There is no limit on dreams. We can have more than one. Dreams are personal, particular and populous. They can even be complex, and tangled. We define our own dreams, and need not pander to others. After all, these are our dreams not theirs. If we attain one, we can add another. We can exhilarate in a dream realized and we can excite in a dream reformulated. We need not even worry if they are interwoven and tangled. Dreams are indeed golden and renewable!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tourist -- two sides of humanity

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010. (PG-13)

Venice is a beautiful city, one of the most romantic in the world, perhaps second only to Paris. Yet, it has its back canals that are dirty and ugly. We never see those, but we know a city has two sides. We see only the gorgeous side here, along with some glimpses of Paris.

The film opens in the French capital, where Elise (Angelina Jolie, Salt) is under constant surveillance by the local cops, Interpol and the British police. They are tracking her to get to her long-departed lover, a criminal who has walked away from the mob with a bucket load of money. But she knows she is being watched.

When her lover finally sends her a message it tells her to leave Paris and catch a train to Venice. She is to find a man on the train who might resemble his last known appearance. Though she burns the letter, the police are able to make out enough from the ashes to piece together the train time. Inspector Acheson (Paul Bettany) sends undercover cops to sit on the train and monitor her. When she sits opposite Frank (Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland), a pudgy Wisconsin school teacher, she seduces him with her beauty and charm, drawing this tourist into her web of deceit.

In Venice, she takes him to her hotel, kisses him in front of an open window to make it clear to all watchers that he is her lover, and suddenly Frank has a bulls-eye on his back. Archeson and the police want him. So does the British mobster and his Russian henchmen. The tourist’s life has become transformed into a target’s life.

The Tourist was panned by most critics, but I thought it was a fun romp, even if it was superficial and mostly mindless. Clearly not in the league of classic “mistaken identity” films (e.g., North by Northwest), yet it had enough light humor and twists to engage. Von Donnersmarck (whose previous film was the superior, The Lives of Others) makes the most of the stunning surroundings but wastes the two superstar leads. They lack chemistry and seem to be going through the motions. As an adventure, it lacks enough excitement. As a thriller, the thrills are mostly missing. Yet I still found it better than expected.

One theme emerges from the Janus motif. Janus was the Roman god with two faces, and his visage appears on Elise’s necklace. She explains: “My mother gave it to me when I was little. She wanted to teach me that people have two sides. A good side, a bad side, a past, a future.” Just as the city has two sides, so people have two sides.

It is true that people have two sides. Outwardly, we often look good, projecting the “perfect image” we want the world to see, just as Elise did. But inside we know our true selves. We cannot completely deceive ourselves. Very few are transparent enough to live their true self for all the world to see.

This duality also reflects the truth of our nature. Our bad side reflects our Adamic nature. Made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), yet his original sin caused the entire human race to be plunged into sin so that even from birth we are depraved (Psa. 58:3). Our fallen human nature veers to sin (Jer. 17:9). We lack the capacity to do good (Isa. 64:6). But the true image of God can be restored when we choose to accept Jesus as God and follow him for our life. He makes us a new creation, giving us a new nature like his (2 Cor. 5:17). In this life our old nature, though crucified (Rom. 6:6), remains and fights against our new nature (Rom. 7:21). The good and the bad coexist, though Jesus gives us the strength through his indwelling spirit to resist the temptation of the old nature and live victoriously (1 Cor. 10:13).

We may think we are tourists in this life, but like Frank we have been kissed by Christ, chosen by him to become something more (Eph. 1:11), even if it does place a target on our back that Satan sees and pursues. Will we accept this kiss and fall in love with Christ the kisser?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 2, 2011

Get Low -- premature funerals and overdue forgiveness

Director: Aaron Schneider, 2009. (PG-13)

Have you ever done something that you are so ashamed of that you just can't forgive yourself? What did you do as a result? Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) separated himself from society and lived as a hermit in the Tennessee woods, in an isolated one-room log cabin.

It is the depression-era 1930s. When the local town preacher pays Bush a visit to let him know of another elderly person’s death, Bush gets the idea of holding his own funeral . . . while he is still alive! He comes into town to put this idea to the reverend. “It’s time to get low,” he says. But the reverend wants to know if he is ready to meet his maker. Has he gotten himself right with God. Has he experienced the forgiveness of Jesus? Bush’s response: “They keep talking about forgiveness. ‘Ask Jesus for forgiveness.’ I never did nothing to him.” And he picks up his wad of money and walks out of the church.

The preacher has the right questions. When we approach our own death, we should consider if we have made our peace with God. To avoid this is to ignore the eternal destiny that awaits us the other side of mortality. But peace with God comes only through Jesus (Rom. 5:1). He carried our sins on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24), and offers forgiveness to us freely by grace (Eph. 1:7). But Bush has it wrong. We all have done something to Jesus. When we sin, we violate God’s moral law and we further separate ourselves from him (Isa. 59:2). These sins were the nails that we ourselves figuratively drove into Jesus’ hands and feet. We absolutely need the forgiveness of Jesus.

Taking his cash, Bush walks into the funeral home run by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), with the help of his young assistant Buddy (Lucas Black). At first disbelieving Bush’s request, when he sees the money Quinn suggests he can do anything his customer wants. If that means throwing a funeral party, he is the man. The catch, though, is that Bush wants everyone to come and tell stories about him. The man who has been the bogeyman to most of the youngsters now grown up, wants people to relate back what they think.

Into this mix comes Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old friend and flame that Bush once knew. She seems to be the only person who can see a glint of the good side of the crusty old man. There is also Rev. Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), another old friend who ministers in a distant Illinois church.

Get Low is the debut film from Schneider whose previous movie career was as a cinematographer. As such, he brings a keen eye to the imagery, crafting a beautifully shot film. More than this, he extracts great performances out of his two leads, Duvall, who interacts in gruff mumbling monosyllables, and Murray, playing against type as a slightly shady character.

Despite the low budget and the shallowness of the characters, the marvelous acting makes the film a success, a sparkingly redemptive one at that.

Though Bush asks for people, not friends, to come to his party and tell stories about him, what he really wants is to tell his own story to them. He is after redemption and forgiveness. Though he decries Jesus’ forgiveness, he wants the townsfolk, who have no real relationship with him, to forgive him. And he really wants to forgive himself. If the people grant him grace he could perhaps find it within himself to do likewise.

Such effects of guilt hit home. When we know we have done something wrong, we often berate ourselves, punishing in ways that exceed the sin. Bush’s forty years with little to no interaction with others, surely went beyond the extra mile. But we find it so hard to practice self-forgiveness. We may accept the forgiveness of others, perhaps even Jesus, and still hold this back from ourselves. The truth is, we have hurt God more than anyone. If he can forgive us, we should be willing to forgive ourselves.

Forgiveness is a gift. It allows us to expose the painful past, experience release from the cells of self-imprisonment, and re-establish relationships: with ourselves, with those around us, and with our forgiving God. Are you ready to taste this? Discard your hermit clothes, and clothe yourself in Christ (Gal. 3:27)!

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs