Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Director: Duncan Jones, 2011. (PG-13)
Source Code is a science fiction film set in an alternate present that crosses Groundhog Day with Memento (or possibly Avatar), resulting in a thriller that is intriguing at times and frustrating at others, especially the end which some love and others hate. Jones’ second movie, like his first (Moon), focuses on an isolated person and delves into themes of identity and memory. Unlike Moon, though, Source Code clearly has a bigger budget and more extensive cast.
The film begins as Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brothers), a US Air Force helicopter pilot, wakes to find himself on a commuter train bound for Chicago. Opposite him sits Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty woman who is in the middle of a conversation with him. But Stevens doesn’t know her and isn’t who she thinks he is. He has somehow assumed the identity of another man. Confused, Stevens sees the array of passengers and cannot understand what is happening until 8 minutes later a bomb explodes and all aboard are killed.
Instead of dying, Stevens comes awake in a pod-like structure where he is strapped into a chair. With his last memory of a mission in Afghanistan, he is disoriented. His only source of contact is a military officer, Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air). Speaking to him through a video display, she tells him to focus on his mission, which is to find the bomb and the identity of the bomber on the train. She is single-minded and won’t address his concerns about memory or his desire to speak to his father. Instead she hits a button and sends him back into the train, once more picking up at the beginning. This time, though, he remembers what she has told him and recalls some of what happened in the earlier segment. Knowing that, he can change his approach.
Memory and identity. Is Steven’s identity defined by his memory? If he inhabits someone else’s memory does this change his identity? For Christina, this seems to be true. She sees Stevens as another person and interacts with him as such. But is our identity defined by memory? Or is it broader than that, with memory being just a piece of the puzzle?
Obviously if identity is synonymous with memory, then amnesiacs and Altzheimer’s patients have lost their identity. But true identity is not displaced quite so easily. If we have chosen to follow Jesus, his promise is to bring us into his kingdom for an eternity of life after death (Jn. 14:2). Such a promise cannot be broken by physical or mental damage in this earthly life. If so, God’s promises would be fragile and faulty, something potentially lost. But that is not what Scripture communicates: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20). So, even if memory is damaged or lost, God still remembers who we are and in the spiritual realm and the hereafter we will retain our unique identity. Memory will be restored to us in that wonderful place (Rev. 21:4).
Instead, identity is defined by relationship. I am the son of my parents, bearing their name. I carry their genes and have characteristics that come from them. This is the identity we are born with. We also have a new identity, one that comes from a choice to relate positively to God through Jesus Christ. We can become children of God (Jn. 1:12), uniquely defined in this new relationship. Then we find our identity in our new father, and have the image of Jesus progressively manifested in us as we grow more and more into his likeness over time (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3;18).
As in Groundhog Day, Stevens finds himself being sent back to the same 8 minutes of the train journey for the mission described by Goodwin, as well as the mysterious Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) who stands behind her in the video frame. Each time, the scene plays out differently as Stevens begins to make choices that depart from his instructions.
The second theme that emerges is that of consent. Stevens is ordered to fulfill his mission, but it is not clear that he has given his consent to this. Though he is a military officer, he seems to be imprisoned in this pod without knowledge of the project he is involved with. Is it right, therefore, that he should be subjected to these multiple deaths if he wishes not to be sent back? Does his military enrollment allow his superiors to order him into this strange scenario without giving him any basic briefing?
We tend to assume that as human beings we have right to choice, that we cannot be held against our will and forced to play a part in such a disturbing drama. Even under a “need to know” banner, the military tend to give the troops enough information to enable success in the mission. Stevens, though, is clearly being held without his consent and possibly against his will. Since this is denying freedom of choice, it is ethically wrong. And as the movie plays out, this becomes clear. Unless we commit a crime, we have the right (at least in the United States), to liberty. Consent is indeed a civil liberty.
Jones does a good job of pacing, slowly revealing information with each new 8 minutes of Stevens’ train ride, enabling the viewer to solve the puzzle. Yet he retains a twist or two for the end. He also gets fair performances out of his cast. Gyllenhaal is a sympathetic hero, a man who moves from confused to concerned with a growing interest in Christina. Monaghan does what she can with a character who has no backstory.
The final theme centers on changing the past. Even though Goodwin tells him, “The program wasn’t designed to alter the past. It was designed to affect the future,” Stevens becomes more and more fixated on saving the passengers on the train, especially Christina. He thinks of the past even as Goodwin looks to the future.
This raises an interesting question: if you could change something in the past, would you? And if so, what would it be? To go along with the premise of the film, if you could go back 8 minutes in your life, is there one scene you would return to and make changes that would alter the trajectory of your life and those around you? If you answer yes, you probably carry some regret for mistakes made. Yet, we need to forgive ourselves for these, knowing God has already forgiven us (Eph. 1:7), and move on in the knowledge that we cannot go back and make such changes. Source Code is science fiction so allows for time reassignment; real life is linear. Maybe we should be thankful for that!
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs
Saturday, September 24, 2011
- What: The Ides of March (rated R)
- Where: Century Theater, Clackamas Town Center
- When: TBA (around 4:45 pm showtime)
- Meet: at the theater lobby about 20minutes before showtime
- Who: movie-lovers from Mosaic Church and friends
- Discussion: Clackamas Town Center Food Court
We'd love to see you there. If you are running late, don't worry. Come find a seat and find us in the lobby after the show. Look for the "Mosaic Faith and Film Connect Group" sign held We'll convene for a few minutes after the film before moving to the food court for refreshments and discussion.
at 8:00 AM
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Director: Greg Mottola, 2011. (R)
OK, I must confess: Hot Fuzz is one of my favorite films. No, it did not win any major awards. But this English comedy spoofs so many buddy-cop movies and Westerns and has so many classic lines (like, “Pub!” or "the greater good") that it is the mashed potatoes of movies for me: a comfort film I can watch again and again, especially with British friends. So when Paul came out written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the two stars of Hot Fuzz, my hopes were high. Sadly, this film is no Hot Fuzz. It has its moments, spoofing or referncing many older science fiction films, like Close Encounters and Star Wars, but it has too many unnecessary sexual references and borders on offensive.
Pegg and Frost are two British comic book geeks, Graeme and Clive, visiting America for comic-con. After paying homage to various sci-fi books, films and even video games, the two embark on a road trip, a pilgrimage to the UFO heartlands of America, places like Area 52. Setting out in a monster RV, these two run afoul of two redneck Americans who mistake them for a pair of gay lovers. After they crash into the rednecks’ truck, they realize have created a pair of enemies set on hunting them down. And then when they witness a car crash on an empty road later that night, they run into one survivor – Paul, an alien who speaks perfect English (voice of Seth Rogen). Taking him on board, this unlikely pair set off on an adventure to return him to his ship.
The film actually begins a half century earlier, when Paul’s spaceship crashes to earth. At that time he was taken to a secret establishment to be studied but was really a prisoner of the military. Once he understands this, and that he has told them all he knows, he realizes he must escape or be killed. But he is pursued by shadowy government figures led by Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman, Up in the Air). And that brings us to Graeme and Clive.
With Agent Zoil and the two rednecks chasing them, Graeme, Clive and Paul stop at an RV site where they meet Ruth (Kristen Wiig) and her father Moses Bugg (John Carroll Lynch, Shutter Island). They are devout, fundamentalist Christians, but clearly a gross caricature. They are a parody of Christian literalists and form the brunt of many of the jokes. Herein is where some of the humor might seem offensive, particularly to religious believers. But it is also here that some of the interesting moral themes emerge.
Once the Buggs come on the scene it is clear that there is an anti-religion, and particularly anti-Christian, message to this movie. When Paul “shows” Ruth the truths of the universe in a Vulcan mind-lock maneuver, she declares: “So, everything that I have been told my whole life is just a big fat lie? Do you know how that feels?” Graeme, trying to pacify her, responds, “Look. Just because your truth isn’t the true truth doesn’t mean there is no truth.” Here is the first theme: subjective truths.
Graeme implies that everyone has some truths that they cling to, but that most of them are not true truths. But here is an oxymoron. A truth is a verified or indisputable fact, proposition or principle, something that conforms with fact or reality. If it does not, then it is not a truth. To say you have a true truth is to be redundant. To say that your truth isn’t truth is to deny your truth. It is no longer truth. Some may say it is true to you (or to the person holding it) but that it is not objective truth; some might refer to it as subjective truth but in reality it is no truth. Truth is truth and is so for all.
However, Graeme is correct in that “subjective truth” does not preclude actual objective truth. All truth is fundamentally grounded in the Truth, Jesus Christ, who said: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). Unlike Pontius Pilate, who sneered, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38), at Jesus, followers of Jesus hold firmly to the fact that there is truth to be found, both in physical nature and in the spiritual realm. The Bible affirms that “God is truthful” (Jn. 3:33) and he does not lie (Tit. 1:2). Without such truth, there is no grounds for faith.
And this gets to the second and larger theme of the film: destroying a person’s faith. In the film, Paul comes along, an alien from a distant planet who can show Ruth that the origins of the universe are other than outlined in the Bible. Moreover, he shatters her belief in a young earth and destroys her faith in God. Once this has happened, Ruth is ready to give up all her “religious don’ts” and embark on a liberated crusade of swearing, drinking and sex. Like Paul said in 1 Cor. 15: 1-20, if the gospel is not true and Christ was not raised from the dead, then “we are of all people most to be pitied” and “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32) But even Paul refutes such nonsense and further affirms the resurrection.
So, is there one fact that could destroy a believer’s faith, the so called straw that could break the Christian camel’s back? Is our faith so fragile that we must walk on egg-shells lest we fall and come crashing down like Humpty Dumpty? No! Faith must be and indeed is stronger than that. Atheists have tried for centuries to deny and refute the Christian faith and it has only become stronger. Even when science proved that the earth was older than the 4000 years that literalists accept, theologians responded with new understandings of creation, such as the day-age theory.
Should an alien come along and tell us that our beliefs of creation are wrong, that would not refute God. He is and he exists outside of this physical universe (Heb. 11:6). We may need to revise our theories, but we would not discard our true deity. One day we will meet God. As the apostle Paul (not the alien Paul) says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Until then, “let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (Heb. 4:14)
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs
Friday, September 16, 2011
Director: John Madden, 2011. (R)
Hollywood remakes of foreign films often fail, forcing the new version into standard tropes that Western audiences want. The Debt, a remake of a 2007 Israeli film (from the book of the same name), refuses to do this, and seems more like a foreign thriller or a throw-back to the espionage movies of the cold-war era. In this sense, it is a gripping spy film that engages through characters and suspense, with less action than the typical film in this genre.
It opens in 1997 with two retired spies Rachel (Helen Mirren, Red) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom), coming together for the publication of their daughter’s book about their exploits thirty years earlier. Now divorced, they are the stars at the book launching party. But when the third member of their team, David (Ciaran Hinds, Margot at the Wedding), commits suicide, these two are forced to consider the debt they owe him, each other, and their country.
Flashing back to 1966, the three characters are shown when as strangers they come together in East Berlin. These three, Rachel (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington, Avatar) are undercover agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organization. They have been sent to locate and capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the infamous “Surgeon of Birkenau” who performed experiments on thousands of Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in WW2. He is now living in East Germany and working as a doctor. Rachel is the bait to trap him, and they have a clever Mission Impossible-type plan to whisk him away to Israel where he will face public trial.
The film moves back and forth in time showing the stress of both situations. It is in the dingy Berlin apartment of the 60s, though, where the real tension is apparent. Wiling away the hours until the mission can be green-lit, the team are locked together in a trio of romantic interests, which themselves play into the people they become. But when the fateful day arrives, things go horribly wrong and they are forced to make a life-changing decision: do they tell the truth and show their country a failure or do they lie and appear successful. Moreover, this decision is centered in the Israeli public eye and with their choice they become venerated heroes.
The casting of the two sets of actors to play the three main characters is spot on, and all bring their A-games to the roles. Chastain shows both vulnerability as well as toughness as a rookie agent in the middle of it all. The older actors portray the cynicism and hollowness that a life of deceit brings. But Christenson may be the best as a villain who seems nothing more than an old man, but is clearly as evil as they come. His sly ability to weasel his way into the psyche of his captors communicates how he could so callously carve up and kill living beings two decades before this. He is reminiscent of the cannibal Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
The Debt makes us ponder which we would choose if we could pick truth and failure or deceit and success. Would we sell our soul for fame and fortune? Many would. These three did. But perhaps it was more than that. They did it for patriotic reasons. Regardless, such a fundamental choice lays bare our inner character. Will we compromise our integrity in this way? We need to remember what the Chroniclist says: “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity” (1 Chron. 29:17). If we seek the pleasure of God (rather than men) we will hold on to our integrity regardless of the personal cost.
Of course, the weight of peer pressure can exacerbate the pressure and force us into a decision we may regret. When the three weigh their decision, one character is clear on the decision and he brow-beats the others in turn until they agree with him. When others are pressuring us to join their position it takes a person of conviction and character to stand firm. The easy way out is to cave in. The apostle Paul speaks to this when he says to the Galatians, “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). It is the devil who is ultimately trying to persuade us to lie and sin, and Peter points this out: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:9). It is by holding firm to the faith we have in Jesus that we can resist the devil and his temptation (Jas. 4:7).
Like 2009's The Invention of Lying, the main of the theme of the film lies in the effects of the lie. Whereas that earlier film was a comedy, this is a drama and takes seriously the implications of lying. The consequences of the deceit take a terrible toll. Over the ensuing years, the inner character of the three Israelis crumbles. David cannot face the students he lies to as he retells “the story” of their heroic act. He departs searching for a way to redeem himself. Stephan resorts to living the life of a lying politician, wearing his lies like a mask. Rachel takes to smoking rather than drink. It is inevitable that the truth will come out one way or another. And when it seems about to, it forces them to take drastic action to repay their debt.
The truth will come out. It may be in this life, when we are least ready. In such a case it may result in embarrassment, imprisonment or worse. But, as Jesus once said, the truth in this life ultimately will set us free (Jn. 8:32). We will be free from having to wear a mask and hide our inner person from our family and friends. If it does not emerge in this life and we go to the grave with our dark secret, the truth will still come out. God “sees what is done in secret” (Matt. 6:4) and he “will repay each person according to what they have done” (Rom. 2:6). We all face a judgment before the living God and he will expose these dark secrets. Better to get them out now and be free living in truth than to harbor the secrets and let them haunt us in this life and pay for them in the life to come.
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs
Friday, September 9, 2011
Director: Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009. (PG-13)
Have you ever lied? Of course you have! If you answered no, you are lying right there. But what would the world be like if we never lied, if we always told the truth, however uncomfortable that truth might be? That is the intriguing premise behind this film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really answer the questions it poses and tends to unravel into predictable “can boy win girl” by the end.
Writer-director Ricky Gervais, the British comic, stars as Mark Belliston, a screenwriter. But in this world, people only tell the truth and have little self-control so blurt out embarrassing and potentially hurtful facts. No one lies. No one has ever heard of the concept of lying. So, there is no fiction. Films focus on a narrator reading history to a rapt audience.
In telling these lies, the film depicts Mark bringing color and hope to a dull and dreary world. It’s as though the world was waiting for this first lie so it could come alive. But the truth is that devil is “the father of lies” (Jn. 6:44), offering the first untruth in this world to our first parents, Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), thereby tempting them to sin. In contrast, Jesus defines himself as “the truth” (Jn. 14:6).
Yet, despite this clear black and white dichotomy between truth and lies, the questions remain: is it ever right to lie? And can a lie prove beneficial to others? The writer of Proverbs says in answer to these, “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Prov. 12:22) and “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Prov. 26:28). And yet Moses recounts the story of the Israelite midwives who, if not actually lying, told half-truths to the Pharoah to save the lives of Israelite babies (Exod. 1:19). There may be times when a half-truth or even a lie might be necessary to prevent a worse sin. Consider, for example, the lies told by the resistance members who harbored Jews like Corrie Ten Boom during the Second World War. In those cases, the lies did prove beneficial in the near-term to some. Or consider a simple question like, “How does this dress look?” If it is totally ugly, telling the truth directly might be too blunt and hurtful. In such cases, it might be better to evade or avoid, but not lie. If we must tell the truth, we should do it with love (Eph. 4:15).
Once Mark has begun telling these little lies to “help” people, he tells a big one. Seeing his mother on her death-bed frightened of the immediate future of an “eternity of nothingness,” he tells her: “You will go to your favorite place in the whole world. Everyone you love will be there. You’ll dance – run and dance. There’s no pain.” He is offering her fictitious hope. Once others hear this, they flock to this new “prophet” who can receive messages from the “man in the sky” and they gather outside his home waiting for words from on high. When he eventually jots down his 10 assertions on pizza boxes shaped like stone tablets, the parody of religion is apparent.
Atheist Gervais is clearly suggesting that religion and Christianity in particular is merely a fiction, something that offers hope to people close to death but is nothing more. He seems to be arguing that it is a deceptive crutch for the weak and dying, as I once thought. But he is missing the point.
Christianity is unlike Gervais’ meesage from the “man in the sky”. God initiated the relationship that forms the heart of Christianity. He has reached down, both through prophets, as when he gave the ten commandments on true tablets of stone to Moses (Exod. 20:1-21) and most clearly through Jesus (Heb. 1:1-3). He does not leave us in a hopeless situation, though we find ourselves in such a place due to our own sin. Instead, he became one of us (Phil. 2:5-9) so that he could take our place and our punishment. Christianity truly offers a message of hope, of grace and forgiveness.
And there is heaven, too. The words that Mark tells his mom resonate with echoes of the truth. In heaven, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). It will be a place of supreme happiness because it is the place where we can finally commune physically with the living God. This message brings hope of a life “with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:17).
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Director: Peter Yates, 1968. (PG)
Famed for its car chase through the steep streets of San Francisco, Bullitt has a moodily European feel, perhaps due to its English director. Slow, with a sparing script, it relies less on plot and more on character, especially the two main players Detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) and politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn).
The movie opens in Chicago, where a man (Pete Ross) barely escapes an attempt on his life. As an accountant for the mob, they want him dead. Chalmers, on the other hand, wants him as a star witness in front of a US Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime. That hearing occurs on Monday, 48 hours away. Chalmers asks for Bullitt, and his team of two detectives, to provide protection for this Mafia informant over the weekend. Having arrived in San Francisco, Ross is staying at a secret flophouse motel beside the freeway. A milk run assignment, or so it seems until it all goes wrong.
Bullitt assigns one of his men to take the first watch and we wait for the action to occur. During this lull, we see some of the life of Bullitt as he moves around town meeting his live-in artist girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset). With a smoky jazz score used quietly, the mood is clearly the late 60s.
During the night, though, two hit men descend on the motel and both Ross and his watcher are shot. Taken to hospital, Bullitt arrives to begin the search for the killers. How did they find Ross? Why was the door not locked? What is Chalmers not telling? Bullitt is a determined cop, all guts not glitter. Unlike Chalmers, Bullitt wants to find the criminals, not necessarily deliver the witness.
Along the way comes the famous car chase involving Bullitt’s 68 Mustang and the killers’ Dodge Charger racing at speeds of over 100 mph through city streets. Although not in the novel upon which this film was based, and not in the original script, it is hard to think of Bullitt without this authentic chase. Using long, extended shots without any background music (the squealing tires and honking horns form their own cacophony), it is perhaps this that won the film its Oscar for best editing.
Despite the excitement of this chase, the movie’s real interest lies in the contrast of the two main characters, both apparently good guys. They are the antithesis of one another, as is evident in Bullitt’s comment, “Look, you work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.” Chalmers is charming but sleazy, as quick to smile for a voter as he is to threaten someone who may let him down. Full of ambition, he has little in the way of integrity.
A key interchange between the two underscores their differences. Chalmers tells Bullitt, “Come on, now. Don’t be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public. . . . Frank, we must all compromise.” Bullitt’s response is swift: “You sell whatever you want, but don’t sell it here tonight.”
Integrity forms the moral heartbeat of this movie. Its primary definition is adherence to moral and ethical principles, or soundness of moral character. Chalmers did not have any moral backbone. He was prepared to sacrifice values and lives if it meant he would advance in his career. Although his cause seemed right, his motive was selfish.
Bullitt, on the other hand, was a man who lived his life in the moral sewers of San Francisco chasing the criminal lowlife. Cathy discovers this when she accompanies him to a crime scene. Faced with a realization of who he is, she questions if their relationship can survive such darkness. Bullitt, though, is committed to a cause, a man of integrity who wants to solve crime, not compromise with crime. Relationships are important but integrity is paramount.
Integrity is a key value found in scripture. “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity,” writes the chronicler (1 Chron. 29:17). Paul tells Titus “in your teaching show integrity (Tit. 2:7). Even the opponents of Jesus recognized him as a man of integrity (Matt. 22:16).
It is perhaps in the life of Job, however, that integrity takes center stage. We all know the story. Satan is given permission by God to test him with loss of possessions, loss of relationships and loss of health. The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason” (Job. 2:3). Toward the end, Job tells his friends, “I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity” (Job. 27:5).
We may end up being confronted with someone like Chalmers, who threatens us and wants us to compromise our beliefs, our values. If this happens, let us stand up to the challenge like Frank Bullitt. Unlike him, though, we do not need to do it on our own. We can trust in the Lord. We can pray with the psalmist, “May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, LORD, is in you” (Psa. 25:21).
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs