Friday, October 28, 2011
Director: George Clooney, 2011. (R)
The closing scene mirrors the opening: the same person sits in front of TV cameras in a large room. Yet as he looks coldly at the camera in the final frame, we realize he is not the same person. Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl) has changed. And the film follows the change in his character, a dark deterioration of his soul.
This political drama, directed by George Clooney from his own screenplay, focuses not on the two political parties, but on the two leading Democrats vying to run for President in 2012. The story, then, centers not on politics per se, but on the impact of politics on the characters at the center of the storm.
Friday, October 21, 2011
Director: Tim Chambers, 2011. (G)
What was the last movie you saw whose main characters were a married Baptist woman and a pretty young nun who drank together in a bar? If you can’t remember, why not see this one where these two become the coaching force behind a women’s collegiate basketball team. Written, directed and produced by Tim Chambers, The Mighty Macs is a feel-good family film that is wholesome and engaging. Despite a “by-the-numbers” approach, it elicits a strong emotional appeal as it carries us along the journey of an underdog team. Based on the true story of the Mighty Macs, the film keeps us enthralled, even if the end is known, till the last buzzer sounds and the champion is crowned.
The year is 1971, a time when women mostly stayed at home while their husbands worked. But like Rita O’Grady in Made in Dagenham, a contemporary film also centered on an inspiring and liberating woman, Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino, Watchmen) is a woman ahead of her time. Recently married, she decides to apply for the coaching position at Immaculata College in Philadelphia, a small Catholic school not known for their sports programs. Offered the position by Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn, The Fountain), she discovers the obstacles that stand in her way: there is no gym, she has little support from the school’s administration, and the school is in dire financial straits. Worse yet, the students aren’t overly interested in a basketball team.
But team is what the film is about. And with the first national championship for women’s basketball at stake, teamwork is what is needed. Right from the start, Coach Rush tells the team that trust and teamwork are what win a championship.
Teamwork is the first value in this values-oriented sports drama. In an era when we emulate stars, the franchise players, The Mighty Macs calls us back to our place among others. Coach Rush tells her team to destroy ego. There is no I in TEAM. Five good players working in perfect synchronism with one another are better than five excellent players working apart. Whatever teams we find ourselves in, whether in sports or work, focusing on the team above self is a sure recipe for success. The apostle Paul tells us “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3-4). This is the foundation of teamwork.
As the team begins to gel, Coach Rush needs an assistant and she finds one in the young Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton, W). A former player, she agrees to work with the team and finds her downcast view of life in the convent uplifted and changed.
Change and commitment are two more positive values stressed in the film. Sister Sunday comments, “Change is vital.” It is, but it is conjoined to commitment. They go hand in hand. To win, the players had to want it, they had to be committed. But they needed to change, to improve. And that took sacrifice, and was painful.
No one likes change. Well, most people don’t like it. But without change we die. Growth is change. We cannot reach our goals if we do not embrace change. We cannot realize our dreams unless we are committed to them and push through any and all obstacles that come our way.
Daring to dream is the film’s tagline. A key scene involves the main player, Trish Starkey (Katie Hayek). Coming from a poor family, she approaches Coach Rush privately to inform her she has gotten a part-time job. She wants to be able to practice with the team on a limited basis. But Coach Rush tells her she must choose one or the other. The team requires complete commitment, not part-time participation. Then she asks Trish if working at the store is her dream. Obviously, it is not. Daring to dream requires stepping out in faith and making the commitments needed.
Do we dare to dream? Are we prepared to look above and beyond our current existence and see something bigger and better, like Rush? Or are we trapped in the here and now, eking out a sterile survival like Trish almost did? Are we so settled into our ruts that we refuse to change? Dreams motivate. Dreams inspire. Dreams move us forward.
Dreams drive us to discipline. In a key pep talk to the team, Coach Rush quotes Paul’s comments on athletics: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). Because of the teamwork, she tells them they deserve to win, to attain their dreams. They have made the sacrifices, they have changed together.
As the film progresses, the underdog Macs go from being lackluster losers to competing to finally winning. Their rivalry with Maryland reveals a secret in Coach Rush’s past and gives them opportunity to banish the ghosts of the past. Of course as with most Cinderella-sports films, while the Macs don’t appear to have a prayer, their commitment and teamwork prove that such appearances can be wrong. Even if they play in outdated uniforms with second-hand sneakers, their heart is in the right place and the “W’s” appear in the box-score.
Gugino and Shelton have excellent chemistry as the two women pushed together to change the Mighty Macs. They are the heart of the film and they win us over. The players are largely unknowns and that plays to the concept of teamwork over ego. Their acting is adequate alone but remarkably acceptable together. And this turns an ordinary sports film into an uplifting charmer, one that runs over with sentiment and energy. I must admit I shed a few tears along the way.
My favorite scene occurs in a bar where Coach Rush and Sister Sunday stop for a beer on the way home from a game. Letting her habit fall and her hair down, Sister Sunday recounts the story of her unconventional journey to the convent. They are from different faith backgrounds but both believe in the Lord Jesus. And my favorite line comes when Sister Sunday says, “Jesus likes to dance”. That was her reason for becoming a nun.
What does this mean? I think it refers to the fact that Jesus is not a humorless rule-keeping, fun-avoiding fuddy-duddy. He wants to live life to the fullest just as he wants this for us, too (Jn. 10:10). Sister Sunday points to the wedding at Cana in Galilee (Jn. 2) where Jesus turned water into wine when the wine ran out. He was deeply involved in this celebration of life. He enjoyed the victories, he laughed with his friends. But he was also committed to his mission and vision and poured himself into that (Matt. 16:21). We can, no we must, see Jesus as the Savior who leads, who loves, who dances and who dreams. And we must dare to believe!
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Director: Joe Wright, 2011. (R)
“I just missed your heart.” The main character Hanna (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) utters this line to open and close the film. And it aptly sums up the movie: it has no heart. Moreover, the characters seem heartless, cold and detached. None display enough emotion to warrant the viewer caring about what happens to any of them.
We meet Hanna in the wilds of Finland, where she and her father Erik (Eric Bana, Star Trek) live an isolated life, existing on the barest essentials. No electricity, running water or central heating, they hunt their food and chop their wood. He teaches her multiple languages, and facts from the encyclopedia while putting her through rigorous physical training. She is being groomed as an assassin. Erik comes at her by day and by night to attack her with knife or bow, fists or feet, to ensure that she can defend herself against attack. Not what you’d call the normal upbringing for an American teenager.
Hanna has come of age, though. She is ready to face the big bad world. When she challenges Erik about this, he puts a radio transmitter on the table and tells her she can push the button that will send a signal out to the world. More specifically, it will alert Melissa (Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a high ranking CIA operative who wants both Erik and Hanna dead. Of course, Hanna presses the button, that sets of a three-way chase that is the body of the film.
Erik departs alone to Germany, telling Hanna to follow him later. Melissa sends a military team to capture Hanna. But when she eventually escapes her captors, Melissa sends Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a dirty ops man and his two team members to follow Hanna, and track Erik.
Director Joe Wright has done period pieces before, helming Atonement in 2007, so clearly knows how to create stylish films. But even that Oscar-nominated film was cold, with characters who seemed unrelatable. In Atonement, the best character was played by Saoirse Ronan, the main character here. But Wright seems a little lost with an action thriller. He gets the pacing wrong, fills the screen with people with no personalities and flubs the story. The plot, what there is of it, remains a cipher, unresolved at the conclusion. In a word, it seems pointless.
Melissa is a cold and callous killer. Hanna is a young and robotic killer. Erik is a cynical killer. Isaacs and team are sadistic killers. You get the picture.
Along the way, Hanna meets a liberal English family travelling across North Africa and Europe. Their teen-aged daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) wants to befriend Hanna but does not realize how unaccustomed to relationships Hanna is. As she spends time with Sophie and her family, she shares some moments of tenderness, and the film offers some moments of levity. But even these seemed forced and somewhat extreme.
Early in the film, as they face their isolation, Erik tells Hanna they have everything they need. She denies this, telling him she craves something more. She never says what it is, but the contrast of Erik and Hana with the RV-traveling family underscores her real need: tenderness and love.
A family that focuses on utilitarian pragmatism, teaching survival skills and language lessons but ignores love and friendship, is no family, just a shell. The apostle Paul spoke of love in 1 Cor. 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (verse 1). He went on, “Love never fails” (v.8), and then concludes this love chapter with these words (v.13): “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” We may need to learn to hunt and fight and that will keep us alive. But life without love is empty and meaningless. That is Hanna’s life. That is Hanna!
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Director: Nigel Cole, 2010. (R)
Many people will ask two questions of this movie up front: where is Dagenham? And what is made in Dagenham? Well, Dagenham is a suburb of London, and in the 1960s Ford cars were made in Dagenham. Indeed, Ford Motor Company was one of the largest private employers in the United Kingdom and carried some clout with the Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Wilson, and his cabinet. More than this, though, they employed thousands of men but only 187 women.
Made in Dagenham presents the true story of these women, focused on Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky), a normal working-class mother and wife, who took on this giant and won. It is a David vs Goliath story that has tremendous heart, and much of this goes to the stellar casting. Hawkins delights as Rita, giving her a lightness of spirit that charms and endears, even as she fights valiantly for what she believes in. Bob Hoskins provides excellent support as the union rep Albert Passingham who sees the potential in Rita when no one else does, including her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays).
Rita and her fellow female workers sew car seat upholstery as machinists. They slave away in sweatshop conditions, literally, having to strip down to bra and panties in the heat, and having to put up umbrellas to catch the drips when it rains.
Since these women have been reclassified as unskilled, rather than semi-skilled, workers they decide to stand up to management. Albert takes shop steward Connie (Geraldine James) and Rita as his team to present their claims to the snotty managers. When the “old-boys school” manner takes over and management offers empty promises, Rita interrupts the chief union rep, speaking her mind. And she tells the managers the truth, setting the stage for a strike by the women, something no one believed would happen.
With this, Albert realizes Rita is a natural leader. Taking her aside, he tells her why he, alone, of all the men supports the women. He shares a heart-felt story of his youth. And she picks up the baton, becoming the leader he envisions, even though it undermines her marriage and family.
Rita offers a wonderful picture of leadership. Not looking for such a position, it found her and she rose to the occasion. People often claim that leaders are born not made, but leaders can learn and be groomed. Leadership is a talent that can be developed. In Rita’s case, she becomes visibly stronger as her opportunities to speak increase. Her leadership flows from her passion, commitment and integrity. She is reminiscent of David, the second King of the Israelites in the Old Testament. He, too, fought a giant, and he, too, was not seen as a leader initially. When God sent Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king, Jesse thought of his older and bigger sons. Even Samuel looked at the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:6ff). But God had chosen David, and groomed him. Indeed, he had “sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people” (1 Sam. 13:14). We all possess some talent in leadership, and may find the opportunity to demonstrate it, especially if we stand prepared.
The main issue involved lends weight to the plot. When Rita learns that even if they are regraded as semi-skilled, the women will earn an appalling fraction of the men’s wages, the stakes are raised. No longer is it a matter of pay grade; now it is a matter of pay equality. Rita lifts the banner high for women everywhere, and her peers follow her. Leadership in action!
Thursday, October 13, 2011
I have firmed up the time of the first movie group meeting this Saturday:
- What: The Ides of March (rated R)
- Where: Century Theater, Clackamas Town Center
- Showtime: 4:45 pm
- Meet: at the theater lobby at 4:25pm
- 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. We'll pick up discussion in the food court after we have bought some refreshments.
See you Saturday!
at 6:34 PM
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Director: Claude Berri, 1986. (PG-13)
Ten years on from Jean de Florette, all has changed. The Soubeyrans, Cesar (Yves Montand) and nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil), now own the Florette land in Provence, France. They have used the spring of water on that land to irrigate the carnation farm and they are thriving. Life is good to them. Manon (Emmanuelle Beart, 8 Women), on the other hand, remains in the Provence countryside living the lonely life of a goat-herder, apart from her mother, who has returned to her former life as an opera singer.
In the first film Cesar focused on the land, and acquired it through deceptive means at the cost of Florette’s family. Here, though, his focus is on family, not land. As an elderly bachelor, he wants Ugolin to find a woman to marry to continue the Soubeyran name. Of course, when he by chance stumbles on Manon, bathing in a spring, he falls in love and decides this is the woman for him. Meanwhile, Manon has eyes for the new young school-teacher Bernard (Hippolyte Girardot).
at 7:00 PM
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Director: Claude Berri, 1986 (NR)
A pastoral scene emerges at the start of Jean de Florette, a slow but beautiful French film. The rustic beauty of a sleepy French village in 1920s Provence appears tranquil, almost idyllic. But this belies the truth: the greed inherent in man can destroy life, turning a prosperous farm into a dry and dusty ruin.
This is the story of two families, the Soubeyrans and the Florettes. They are the old and the new, the cynical and the modern. Cesar Soubeyran (Yves Montand) is the old bachelor running his vineyard, living alone, a sad life. When his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) returns from military service, Ugolin has a dream of developing a carnation farm. But this dream is stillborn since they have no water on their land. They need a well or a spring; this is what their neighbor has. But he won’t share with them or sell his land to them. And, despite his age, Cesar is not afraid to get his hands dirtied with blood.
When the hunchback Jean de Florette (Gerard Depardieu) and his family, wife Aimee Cadoret (Elisabeth Depardieu, Gerard’s former wife) and daughter Manon Cadoret (Ernestine Mazurowna), move into the farm they inherit next to Soubeyran, they have a dream of raising rabbits. Jean has a modern plan, relying on statistics and methods. And he has money to carry him through the initial set-up years. But, like Cesar, he needs water. Unbeknownst to him, the two Soubeyrans have blocked his spring and are waiting for a drought to force him to sell.
There is a biblical parallel that springs to mind: the story of Ahab’s desire for Naboth’s vineyard, told in 1 Kings 21. The king wanted Naboth’s land but would not take it, so his evil wife Jezebel hired two scoundrels to make slanderous accusations against Naboth that led directly to his execution. When he had been stoned to death, Ahab took the land for himself. Desire births greed which in turn births wicked schemes that ignore the pain that they bring to others.
What underscores the tragic consequences of Cesar’s greed is the behavior of Ugolin. Sent by his uncle to befriend Jean and his family, he gets close to them appearing to be a good neighbor who is at hand to help. In reality he is a spy for his uncle, doing all he can to undermine Jean’s plans.
Jean has two enemies in the film: the Soubeyrans. He sees Ugolin as a friend but misses his true nature. Yet he never even meets Cesar, who remains an unseen foe, one hovering at the periphery of the picture watching and waiting, patient for the fall of Florette.
In real life we often fail to see our real enemy: Satan (2 Cor. 11:14). He roams like a ferocious lion seeking to devour and destroy us (1 Pet. 5:8), yet we cannot see him and so often ignore him. This is a mistake. Visible enemies may have some power but this pales in comparison to that of Satan. On our own we cannot stand in his way. Only in the power of Christ, who has already conquered Satan (Col. 2:15), can we expect victory. But to gain such triumph we must first trust Jesus and then we must accept that we are in the midst of a spiritual war; Satan is the commander of those opposing forces.
Director Berri refuses, however, to sink to melodrama or to rise to suspense. He prefers to lay out the film like a slow walk in the meadows. The characters are clearly on display without hiding their motivations. Though Jean cannot see what is going on, we can. And the long expansive shots in the cinematography capture the idea of the vastness and value of the land, even the difficulty of working the land. This gets to the point of the film: the relentless nature of human greed subjugates the value of the human spirit. It is willing to sacrifice people for the goal of gaining the land and its water. Further, the slow deliberate pace underscores the patience of the greedy as they wait slowly for their schemes to come to fruition.
Two scenes stand out. In one, Jean is forcing his mule and himself to make multiple treks across his land to a neighboring well to carry water back. Like his mule, he is a beast of burden. Seeing his “friend” Ugolin, he asks if he can borrow Ugolin’s mule as well, to make his task easier. Ugolin appears sympathetic, but lies to him and gently refuses to help. Ugolin wants to see him wither and waste away, but Jean does not know this. In another scene, the storm that Jean predicts will come arrives in the middle of the night. Seeing lightning strikes and hearing thunderclaps, Jean throws open his windows and runs out into the rainy night . . . only to discover the rain is falling across the valley, not on his fields. He stands there with his family, looking up into the night sky, and shakes his fist at the heavens and rails at the God who has forsaken him.
The tragedy is that the answer to his problems was staring him in the face. He had a spring, he just didn’t know. How often are we like Jean de Florette? Our problem seems insurmountable, yet the solution is right in front of us, we just can’t see it. Too often, though, we cry against God, seeing him as the enemy, thinking he has put us in the difficult situation and then left us. We blame God. It is his fault.
God is not like this. He does not leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20). Quite the opposite in fact. He has promised that “he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) We need to trust God and see his hand working in and around us. Paraphrasing Elisha’s prayer in 1 Kings 6, we might pray, “Open our spiritual eyes, LORD, so that we may see” and then we will likely discover the answer to our problems.
Jean de Florette evokes life in the pre-industrial world of rural France and bears watching. But if you do, be aware that it is only part 1 and it ends suddenly, leaving the viewer frustrated at the final turn of events. You had better have part 2 of this epic, Manon of the Spring, ready to bring this to a hopefully more satisfying conclusion.
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Director: Christopher Morris, 2010. (R)
Four Lions is a funny, often hilarious, black comedy about a most deadly subject: suicide bombers. Given its nature as a parody of Islamic jihadists, it is certain to offend viewers. Of course, radical Muslims are unlikely to watch this, but moderates and followers of other religions with sensitive sensibilities will be affronted. But viewers with a tougher skin or who love spoofs and can follow thick British accents will roar with laughter.
The film focuses on a small group of British terrorist wannabes, living somewhere in the English Midlands. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is the blond-haired white Islamic convert who thinks he runs the group. But Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the real brains behind this bomb-beholden band of brothers. Along with Waj (Kayvan Novak), Omar’s sheep-like follower, and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), they meet secretly at one of their homes to plot their attack at the Great Satan of Western Europe. Yet, while the focus is on the ideology of the terrorists, the film really focuses on these four idiots embracing this ideology.
Razor-sharp verbal dialog abounds. For example, Waj excitedly tells Omar, “We’ll blow up something.” When Omar asks, “What we gonna blow up Waj?” he asnwers with complete conviction, “The internet!” Or when Barry’s getaway car almost breaks down due to his lack of maintenance, instead he blames “the parts . . . they’re Jewish. Spark plugs! Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”
The comic set-pieces, too, provide tremendous opportunity for farce and slapstick. When Omar and Waj go to Pakistan to boot camp to become ‘real soldiers’ in the war of terrorism, they cause death and destruction on a grand scale . . . only to their own army. And they get sent back home as failed terrorist graduates. Soldiers they are not! Or there is Faisal’s idea of flying bombs. Instead of hijacking airliners and having them fly into buildings, he is training crows to carry miniature bombs into stores. And rather than target something grandiose like the World Trade Center or perhaps the Houses of Parliament, they are satisfied to bomb Boots, a local pharmacy store.
Yet, Four Lions offers some thoughts on religion and radicalists. The appeal of the jihad and the terrorist cell for some of these lions is camaraderie. They have a common mission and sense of belonging. It underscores the human need for relationship and fitting in. The normal way to meet these needs is through clubs, societies, organizations or churches, where healthy relationships form and foster. When people feel ostracized by society or are indoctrinated to see society as decadent and depraved, they may turn away and seek to destroy this society forming their own “reform group” for this various mission.
What is strange about Omar at least is his very normality, or appearance of such. Married with a child, he would seem to be a successful Muslim in the land he wishes to destroy. He even tells his wife and son that he wants to be a martyr and they are proud of his desire to kill himself and others. From all outward appearances, he would not be a suicide bomber. Yet, like the thriller Arlington Road, Four Lions makes clear that we can be deceived by our neighbors. We could be living next door to a killer or suicide bomber. Those like Barry are much more likely to be picked out by Homeland Security to their outspoken threats.
More than these, though, Four Lions forces us to consider what religious commitment really means. Is a suicide-bomber bent on jihad a better Muslim than a moderate who goes regularly to mosque to pray and worship Allah? Why is killing these “infidels” a sign of religious conviction?
Closer to home, what is true religious commitment in the Christian faith? Is a disciple of Jesus called to be a suicide-bomber? Yes and no. Jesus tells those following him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). The cross was the Roman implement of death, a painful execution via crucifixion. So Jesus is telling them to put themselves to death, not literally but spiritually. This is a form of suicide, but one that does not kill others. The apostle Paul echoes this idea many times, telling us to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13) or that “we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:11). No, instead disciples of Jesus are to be suicide-lovers, disciples of love. We are to obey the new command he gave us: “Love one another” (Jn. 13:34). And instead of blowing up our enemies, Jesus says “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
We might ask, if we want to show our religious devotion to our God how can we do it? This is the question raised by the prophet Micah, centuries before Jesus walked the earth. “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). There is no justice in suicide bombing or terrorism. Those are unjust and despicable acts. Love, mercy and humility are the true characteristics of a radical follower of the Lord God. These qualities produce life-giving and life-affirming acts rather than bringing death and destruction. Radical Christianity lifts Jesus up, helps those in need, and benefits society positively. Our jihad is against Satan, the true enemy of humanity.
Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs