Sunday, July 31, 2011
Director: Brad Furman, 2011. (R)
Despite the American judicial concept of “innocent until proven guilty” we often see a person arrested for a heinous crime and assume he or she is guilty. The state has built a case and arrested the person with due cause. Our allegiance tends to fall with the state, even though they have the burden of proof. The defense attorney is either a slick shyster or filthy rich from defending the wealthy criminals. The Lincoln Lawyer plays off this cliche while dealing with themes of innocence, injustice and evil.
Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is the Lincoln lawyer. He conducts his business out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car while being driven from client to client by Earl his driver. He epitomizes sleazy, defending bikers and prostitutes who he knows are guilty. He works the system, and is not above greasy a few palms to get the “Not Guilty” verdict to match his car license plate.
When Louis Rollet (Ryan Phillipe), a 30-something realtor, is accused of raping a prostitute, he asks Haller to defend him. Mick’s meal ticket has arrived, and he promptly starts laying out the expense account. Rollet claims he is being set up, and Mick sends his trusty investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy) to dig up the dirt. But he digs up more than he wants and suddenly nothing is as it seems.
The Lincoln Lawyer is based on the book by Michael Connelly. A film cannot capture the details of a 400 page novel, and this one is no exception. There is little to explain why Haller uses the Lincoln. His backstory is not described, except for his simmering relationship with his ex-wife Maggie “McFierce” McPherson (Marisa Tomei). She is one of the LA District Attorneys, on the opposite side of the fence from him. Hence the “ex” in their relationship. But their daughter keeps them on speaking terms.
There are twists and turns aplenty in this taut crisp thriller. The flashbacks tend to be a little confusing at times, but the attentive viewer will remain engaged. McConaughey brings his A-game, showing he is more than just a pretty face. His cynical front slowly melts as the truth confronts him. Phillippe is perfect as the innocent-with-an-attitude rich kid who wants to be put on the stand to get his story told. Tomei doesn’t have a lot to do except encourage Mick, an odd concept from a DA to a defense attorney.
The ethical themes emerge when Mick gets one-on-one with Roulet. He senses injustice. Injustice is the violation of the rights of others. But the injustice seems to be against an earlier client. And the attorney-client privilege, which prevents him from disclosing anything Roulet tells him, puts him into a precarious position.
The dilemma here is how a person avoids injustice if justice (or the law) itself disallows that very same person from seeking redress. It would be wrong to break the law but by not breaking the law the law itself has been broken. It is a paradox, and the beauty of the film is how Mick works this out. The secret is to find the limits of the law and use them, while staying safely within the confines.
Moreover, Mick’s character growth is evident. Initially, he is happy to work a little subtle bribery. But by the end he sees the cost of injustice. He almost exemplifies the words of Habbakuk to God (Hab. 1:3): “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” He struggles to right the wrongdoing, and in so doing finds his own plumb line reset correctly.
At one point Mick confesses his lifelong fear, of representing someone truly innocent. He shielded his conscience by assuming that all his clients were guilty. But, he says, “You know what I used to be afraid of? That I wouldn’t recognize innocence. Not guilty or not-guilty. But pure innocence. That it’d be standing in front of me and I wouldn’t know it. You know what I am afraid of now? Pure evil?” He had been forced to face his fears and came away with a view of evil.
Evil resides in the world. Evil lies inside all of us (Jer. 17:9). Most of us restrain it for the most part, covering our sinful heart with a sugar candy coating. But some allow the purest form of evil to emerge in their psychopathic practices and are proud of it. Theirs is close to demonic. Such a personality scared Mick and it should scare us, too.
As the Lincoln Lawyer reaches its climax, we hope beyond hope that justice will prevail. In Hollywood it usually does. In life it often seems to be thwarted. Yet when we realize that God is the true Judge (Psa. 75:7), we also understand that he judges in his time: “with the LORD our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery” (2 Chron. 19:7). We just may have to wait to the other side of eternity for the full impact of justice to be realized. Meanwhile, with a defense attorney like Jesus Christ our guilt can be turned into a not-guilty verdict. As the apostle John said, “we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Director: Charles Shyer, 1991. (PG)
The camera pans across a landscape of scattered confetti, dirty cake plates, discarded champagne flutes and empty chairs. A tuxedo-clad man, George Banks (Steve Martin) is sitting alone, tiredly massaging his feet. Looking into the camera, he gives this introduction: "I used to think a wedding was a simple affair. Boy and girl meet, they fall in love, he buys a ring, she buys a dress, they say I do. I was wrong. That's getting married. A wedding is an entirely different proposition. I know. I've just been through one." The movie starts, thus, at the end, with the wedding over. But with this prolog the difference between a wedding and a marriage is identified and the two themes of the film subtly emerge: the cost of a wedding and the cost of marriage (at least from the father’s perspective).
George is a well-to-do middle-class businessman living in California, owning a successful athletic shoe company. Married to Nina (Diane Keaton), they have two children, young Matty (Kieran Culkin) and 22 year-old Annie (Kimberly Williams). They are epitome of the settled American family. So when Annie comes home from a semester in Rome and breaks the news that she is getting married to Bryan MacKenzie (George Newbern), George’s idyllic world is disrupted, and the movie plays off this.
Father of the Bride is a remake of a 1950 Spencer Tracy film of the same name. Having not seen the original, I cannot compare the two, but this version is funny, sentimental and often touching. It is more than it seems. The concept screams cliche, but the actors deliver on their comic lines. Steve Martin seems natural in the role of the father, talking to the camera and giving spot-on voice-overs of his thoughts. He makes the film successful. His character offers genuine responses that seem totally realistic.
The film touches on the journey of life and how there are key moments along the way that are the memorable signposts we look back on. A number of early scenes show this, but three stand out. The first relates to the moment when Annie breaks the good news to her family. It is over the first family dinner after she returns. She is radiant with excitement and Nina is overjoyed. George, on the other hand, is stunned, shocked even. He finds reasons why Annie cannot marry. To himself he says, “This was the moment I’d been dreading for the past six months. Well, actually for the past 22 years.”
As a father of a 22 year-old daughter myself, with two other younger girls, I totally relate to this thought. When I first saw this film, over a decade ago, I thought it cute. Now, seeing it again in a different family context, it got me all choked up. That could be me reacting to my daughter’s revelations. George looks over at Annie and sees not an adult woman ready to become a wife, but a 5 year-old girl speaking. He still sees her as his little girl. Our daughters will always be our little girls; but they do grow up. And fathers must accept this as part of life and life’s journey . . . for us and them.
The next key scene occurs moments later, when Bryan arrives. Meeting the fiancé is the second signpost. It heralds permanency. Privately, George has speculated that he might be a middle-aged loser, but Bryan unwittingly addresses this as he presents himself to his future in-laws. Speaking from the heart, he gushes:
I just wanna say that I'm an upstanding citizen. I've never been engaged before. I've never really been in love before. And I think Annie's the greatest person I've ever met. And I can't wait to marry her and one day have children, and grand children. And I'm going to do my best to be supportive of her dreams. She's a very gifted architect. I'm just thrilled that I met her. I love your daughter. The feelings I have for her are never gonna change. I'm here to stay.To Nina, it is the sweetest, most sincere speech she has ever heard. To George, it is a well-rehearsed suck-up. Of course, this is mostly because George just doesn’t want it to be happening. Life is changing for him, but he is not ready for this. Bryan is inadvertently pointing out that George is getting older and might soon be entering the grand-parenting stage of life. Fathers don’t always want to hear this, especially if their internal self-portrait comes from their younger days.
The third significant sign-post is meeting the in-laws. Here I am referring to George meeting his future son-in-law’s parents. When he and Nina go visit they discover that George’s folks are rich and live in a mansion. Given the opportunity to peek into an open check-book, George succumbs to temptation and gets himself into hot water . . . or at least cold water. The awkwardness of the initial meeting is evident from both sides, each wanting to make a good first impression, even though they don’t have to be best friends. In-laws form an integral part of an adult child’s life. Having good relationships, even workable relationships, will form a solid foundation for the future marriage.
The cost of a marriage from a father’s perspective, then, is the loss of a daughter. George comes to a final realization of this as he is about to give Annie away at the altar:
Who presents this woman? This woman? But she's not a woman. She's just a kid. And she's leaving us. I realized at that moment that I was never going to come home again and see Annie at the top of the stairs. Never going to see her again at our breakfast table in her nightgown and socks. I suddenly realized what was happening. Annie was all grown up and was leaving us, and something inside began to hurt.Everything worthwhile in this life has a cost. (Even salvation, the most important thing in this earthly life, has a cost, though it is received freely – it cost Jesus his life: 2 Cor. 4:10.) But in a strong and healthy family this cost or loss is offset by the gain of a son-in-law and the beautiful relationship that emerges in the new union. Bryan exemplifies this. He completes Annie, as George finally understands. Babies grow up into children, who mature into adults, who usually marry. This is the way of life. It has been from the beginning: “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
In the middle of the film, once George has come to accept that a wedding is on the cards, Nina decides to hire a wedding coordinator. And what a coordinator he is: Franck Eggelhoffer (pronounced “Fronk”). Martin Short plays Franck as an unidentifiable European with an unrecognizable accent. But what George cannot discern, Nina and Annie clearly understand. This is symptomatic of the wedding and marriage. And as Franck replaces George in the decision making, George realizes that the wedding is going to cost him a bundle: $250 a head, and that is 20 years ago!
Here is the second theme: the cost of a wedding. The film has a lot of fun with this aspect, but in reality weddings are expensive. Of course, losing dollars is nothing compared to losing a daughter. Yet, fathers tend to control the purse-strings and often hold tight budgets. George does. The humor comes from his attempts at reigning in the expenses while Nina and Annie just want to make a memorable wedding. George’s budget cuts backfire on him though and he ends up acting as traffic controller at the wedding, thereby missing several key moments of the ceremony and celebration.
Obviously, cost is an issue in a wedding. That is why budgets are made. But cost must not curtail memories. George ended up spending a bomb and still missed out on several key memories from the reception. He was too stressed out about cost. Most importantly, weddings are about transition and memories. They are a symbolic cutting of the ties from the parents create a new family. We surround ourselves with family and friends to celebrate but also to remember. Those of us that are married can look back warmly on our wedding day as the starting point of the new chapter of our life’s journey.
Jesus once told his disciples to count the cost before embarking on a project (Lk. 14:28), and this is true for weddings as well as. But rather than looking at what we lose (money or daughters), it is better to look at what we gain: memories and sons. Let’s hope we can learn from George when our time as “father of the bride” comes around!
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Director: Kelly Asbury, 2011. (G)
“Romeo and Juliet” is probably the greatest tragedy of all time, with one of the most famous balcony speeches (“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”) Now imagine this as “Gnomeo, Gnomeo” spoken by a ceramic garden gnome in a modern English garden, and you get the gist of this Starz Animation comedy.
I love garden gnomes, probably a peculiarity of my English heritage, and so when I heard this was coming out I had to see it. Moreover, my teenaged daughter wanted to see a family friendly film, so we rented it and were not disappointed. The screenwriters have taken some liberties with the plot, realizing that younger kids might not know the Bard’s tale and might not want such a dark ending. And it works well. Furthermore, with Elton John and his partner David Furnish as Producers, the soundtrack features a number of Elton’s songs, including classics like “Your Song” and “Crocodile Rock”. Elton himself even gets an animated cameo!
Lady Blueberry rules the blue gnomes while Lord Redbrick leads the red gnomes. Both have a child they care about, each with a strange friend. Gnomeo (voice of James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class) has a blue mushroom while Juliet (voice of Emily Blunt, The Adjustment Bureau) has a talking frog. Of course, the Reds hate the Blues and the Blues hates the Reds. That has been the way of their world for as long as they can remember.
Setting the story in England, director Asbury makes full use of a stellar British voice cast. McAvoy and Blunt are pitch-perfect as the star-crossed lovers. But alongside them are Sir Michael Caine as Lord Redbrick, Dame Maggie Smith as Lady Blueberry, and even Shakespearean thespian Patrick Stewart as the Bard himself. Jason Statham shows up as the macho red villain Tybalt, while rocker Ozzy Osborn voices Fawn. Even American wrestler Hulk Hogan has a cameo, announcing the “terrafirminator” on the internet, a monster lawn-mower.
Speaking of lawn mowers, apart from keeping their gardens spick and span the gnomes enjoy competitive lawn mower races, such as the one where Tybalt challenges Gnomeo.
The story, though, takes off when Gnomeo and Juliet meet one another while on a quest to pluck an orchid. It’s love at first sight, a love that cannot be allowed in the midst of a feud. Yet it needs a little help from Featherstone, a pink flamingo missing one leg and his better half, to fan the flames into a blazing fire.
The heart of the film is the feud between the reds and blues. The feud, fueled by hatred, separates two families of gnomes and two young lovers. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Hate brings on more hate and further violence. Love is the medicine that can absorb hate and dissipate its power. God showed us this on the cross (Rom. 5:8). As Satan poured out his hatred on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the love of God absorbed this like water into a paper towel. And despite the apparent victory when Jesus died, ultimate victory comes through the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:54) to a better life, one characterized by love. Turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) is better than killing the other gnome!
When Gnomeo comes to a shattering end, the blues feel a hatred bordering on murder. For them, revenge is the only solution. But with a weapon like the terrafirminator, victory will devolve into mutual assured destruction, that concept from the nuclear-threatened cold war. Neither side will emerge happy victors.
Vengeance is a terrible thing. That is why it should be left in the hands of a God who can control it. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” he said in Romans 12:19. When we seek to pay back our enemies, we are pouring gasoline onto the fire, escalating the violence. Instead, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). That is the message that we can glean from Gnomeo and Juliet, amidst their tragic devastation.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Director: Dominik Moll, 2000. (R)
The movie opens with Michel (Laurent Lucas) driving his family in an old car en route to their vacation home. With no air conditioning, the three young girls are hot and cranky, whining and screaming from the back. Up front Claire (Mathilde Seigner, sister of Emmanuelle Seigner, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is tired and Michel loses it. He pulls off for a break at a highway gas station. It is there, in the men’s rest-room, that he meets Harry (Sergi Lopez).
Harry is everything that Michel is not: well-dressed, hair combed, cool and confident. He drives an air-conditioned BMW, not a beater. Recognizing Michel as an old school-chum from years ago, he greets him warmly. Though Michel cannot remember him, Harry remembers even the smallest of details from their time together. What a coincidence!
When he emerges from the bathroom, Harry introduces his beautiful but brainless fiancée Plum (Sophie Guillemin) to Michel and his family. Though they decline Harry’s invitation to dinner, Harry wheedles an invitation to Michel’s farmhouse for a drink. There, he recites from memory an old poem that Michel wrote for his school newspaper and has subsequently forgotten. Michel’s dormant literary talent is news to Claire, and she wants to hear more.
This French film layers on suspense slowly and carefully, mixing dark humor with tantalizing intrigue. We know something is up; Harry is too good to be true. He manipulates his way into Michel’s vacation home but he is creepy, with his midnight wanderings and his strange rituals.
Harry is a self-declared problem-solver. He is quick and decisive in taking action when he sees a need, offering concrete and permanent fixes.
Problem-solving is clearly a good thing, a skill worth obtaining. Far better to dispatch a dilemma than to whine and pout over it. In the Old Testament, Daniel was looked on as a wise man because, “I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems” (Dan. 5:16). But the solution must match the problem, and not create further problems of their own; else we are simply shifting the issue, jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Therein lies the difference between a wise man (like Daniel) and simply a man of action (like Harry).
When Harry begins to offer advice to Michel, related to his writing and his relatives, we begin to see a motive underlying his manner. Yet this motive is never really fleshed out. We don’t get to see beneath Harry’s charming exterior to his inner soul. We just see a well-to-do and wealthy sociopath who seems socially normal.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Director: Terence Malick, 2011. (PG-13)
Films today are often formulaic and superficial, entertaining perhaps but lightweight and forgettable. Few aspire to become works of art. Rare is the movie that can actually be called art. Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life is that rare film. Like an impressionist painting, it needs to be savored and studied. Critics have used grandiose terms to describe it, such as awe-inspiring, a masterpiece, Malick’s magnum opus, epic; yet others have called it ponderous, pretentious, slow and boring. Clearly, it is not a middle of the road film. Rather, it is a slow almost philosophical-theological meditation on human life and mankind’s place in the universe.
With such monumental themes, the film needs a grand scale. And Malick delivers this. Although he tells the story of a mid-20th century Texas family, he bookends the plot, what there is of it, between an almost wordless segment showing the origins of the universe up to the dinosaurs and a similar segment showing the end of the universe. One critic sees the film as a symphony, with these segments as movements, illustrating the progressive structure and nature of life. Certainly, the expansive sweeping montage of the construction and deconstruction of the heavens is humbling. In a way, it brings to mind the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Unlike most American directors, Malick is non-prolific. Since his first feature in 1973 (Badlands), he has directed only four other films (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life) in the intervening 38 years. That’s one film every 7.5 years! Yet each has the distinctive Malick approach, characterized by long shots of nature, views of trees (including a gargantuan 65,000 pound live-oak featured as the titular tree here), upward glances towards the heavens, vivid images rather than extensive dialog, and elliptical editing. All of these are present here. Indeed, the dialog is virtually non-existent, depending more on short softly whispered voice-over sentences to add meaning to the images on screen.
The main story is centered on the O’Brien family. Father (Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds) and Mother (Jessica Chastain) have three boys, with Jack as the oldest. The film moves in a fragmentary, almost narrative-free fashion between this family in the 1950s and Jack as a grown man (Sean Penn, Fair Game) today, focusing on his journey through life. The innocence of his youth is impacted by two major factors: the loss of one brother and the difficult relationship with his father.
The younger Jack, played fabulously by Hunter McCracken, is caught between two opposing views on life. His mother comments, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” Mother represents grace and father represents nature, and this is played out in front of Jack in his daily routine, from how they rouse him from bed (one playfully with ice cubes, the other by swiftly pulling the sheets back) to how they expect him to react at dinner.
The way of grace is the way of God. Mother whispers, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” How reminiscent this is of the great love chapter in 1 Corinthians:
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. (1 Cor. 13:4-6)Despite veering towards caricature, Mother characterizes mothers everywhere, whose love is evident in their familial relationships. The way of grace is the way of self-giving, of loving as Christ loves (Eph.5:25).
The way of nature, on the other hand, is the way of man, epitomized in Father. As Mother points out, “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way.” Again, this reminds us of a biblical parallel, something Jesus told his disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” (Matt. 20:25) Man lives competitively, wanting to be top dog, fighting fiercely for a bigger piece of the pie. This is even the advice Father gives the young Jack.
When his brother dies, Jack feels the pain of grief which is compounded by the struggles he experiences in his relationship with his father. Cutting between the young and the grown Jack, Malick shows us how these have deeply impacted the adult. Penn has almost no dialog, yet his morose facial expression tells the whole story. His ponderous gazing over the glass and steel structures that man has created (and he is an architect so has had a hand in some) leaves him cut off from the present, still reflecting on a past that was unforgiving.
The older Jack philosophizes, “Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Neither has won. Both seek full reign. And in the midst of this conflict, there is no peace for Jack. The truth is, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” And his life, like his father’s has flashed by, leaving him in a mid-life crisis of his own.
The beauty of the film lies in its emotive power. By focusing on characters and not story Malick draws us in, without setting a plot goal. The film takes its time bringing out meaning, much like life. We need to live with the O’Brien’s, experiencing something of the life of their children before we can empathize with the older Jack. By using cameras positioned at a child’s eye level, we see as if we were children, too. And the lack of speech forces us to be in the picture, seeing not listening, imagining what it was like, feeling their pain. It is not entertaining, it is hard work. But it is worth it, as it causes us to reflect on our own relationships.
Malick, though, is an Episcopalian, and brings the bigger question of man’s relationship to God and his place in the world to the center of this film. He opens the movie with a quote from the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job. 38:4) The middle movement, focused on Jack, is linked to the opening and closing scenes of the universe. Though not narratively connected directly, they are thematically complementary pieces. They allow Malick to show us man’s place in the universe. We were not there when God formed the heavens. We may not be there when he brings it to an end. (Though we hope to be with him in heaven enjoying eternity in his presence, through the work of Jesus Christ.) We live brief lives in between these two epic events, humble yet glorious. As David said to God in one of his psalms, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psa. 8:4)
Yet there is a glory that God wants us to see and enjoy even as we live out our seemingly empty lives. The imagery of the film depicts this glory in everything around us. Toward the end, when Father realizes the error of the way of nature, he comments ruefully, “I dishonored it all. Didn’t notice the glory.” He has spent his life fighting to win and he failed to enjoy the glory around him. We can be like this, if we are not careful. The old maxim, stop and smell the roses, points to this element of the film. There is glory to be seen, if we lift our heads and open our eyes to see it. This pleases God. This gives meaning to life, as we see and give glory to our Maker (Rom. 1:19-21).
Faith and forgiveness are additional themes. It takes faith to see the glory. Jack struggled with faith in God. He struggles with forgiveness, too. Unlike Mother, who is quick to forgive, Jack resembles his Father. Yet one key scene has him reconciling with his brother, after he has shot him with a BB gun. “I’m sorry,” he says succinctly but in their eyes comes a moment of shared forgiveness. And this leads to an awakening of faith, as he prays to God, “What was it you were showing me? Always you were calling me.”
God is always calling us. He calls us back to him and then he stands waiting for us to come (Rev. 3:20). We can experience his forgiveness as we come to know him (1 Jn. 1:6-9). But it requires faith, a faith in Christ (Gal. 2:16), a faith that he exists (Heb. 11:6). Most of us struggle with these aspects of life, whether we admit it or not. Yet, when we look around, as Malick would have us do, we cannot escape the evidence of a Creator. And in seeing this evidence, we see the glory of God, and the reflected glory and humility of ourselves.
If you have never seen a Malick film, it is worth the experience, if you are willing to work at it. It is deep, sometimes disturbing, but always thought-provoking. He exemplifies the truth that it is quality not quantity that counts!