Monday, January 30, 2012

CT's Critics Choice Movies of 2011

"Christianity Today" just released their list of their Critic's Choice Movie Awards for 2011. At the top of their list is Terrence Malick's contemplative film: The Tree of Life. Other films on this top ten list include: Win Win, Drive and their most redeeming movie of the year Of Gods and Men.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Drive -- moral ambiguity and gratuitous violence

Director: Nicolas Refn, 2011. (R) 

The opening scene is a car chase through the dark streets of Los Angeles. The Driver (Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid Love) tells the two robbers, before letting them out for the robbery, “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. . . . I drive.” Offering no margin for error, Driver has his own set of morals. Yet, as we will explore, one of the themes of Drive is moral ambiguity, and the film itself enters into the realm of genre ambiguity.

Marketed as a thriller, Drive is modern film noir with themes of crime doesn’t pay and bad choice eventually catch up with you. But the unnamed protagonist, only referred to as Driver or Kid throughout, is a sweet-avenger with a gentle voice, not a typical macho noir hero. Yet, it resembles just as much a modern Western, bringing to mind Clint Eastwood’s "Man with No Name" trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, etc). Like Eastwood’s character in those spaghetti westerns Driver is the strong, silent type, a solitary figure with a sardonic smile. Alienated from others, he has no emotional links, he owns little and keeps to himself.

Drive gives us no backstory on Driver or any of the characters in the film. There is only present, no past and ultimately no future. Driver never focuses on the past, never analyzes his actions in the present. It is almost symptomatic of our current age where living for the now is the epitome. Nothing else matters.

The initial chase puts Driver’s skills on display: his oneness with his car, his acute sense of the presence of the police, and his absolute calmness in the presence of danger. Throughout he refuses conversation. He has one focus: the job. Later we learn that Driver works by day as a mechanic in a garage for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also gets him gigs as a Hollywood stunt driver. Shannon also gets him the gigs as a getaway driver by night, for crooks he does not know and never meets again. We never know why he lives this life of crime; he does not need the money, as he seems to have littler consumerist tendencies and no obvious future planning.

When Driver runs into Irene (Carey Mulligan, An Education) and her young son, his emotional hardness is pierced and his barriers fall. With her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), in prison, she needs help. As he comes to her aid as a savior, he begins an unexpected relationship. Long quiet drives deepen their platonic friendship. Her innocence contrasts with his brokenness and may provide the reason why he protects her in a messianic fashion.

Meanwhile, Shannon gets into a shady relationship with two mobsters played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. They agree to fund his idea of buying a stock-car that Driver will race. But getting into bed with the devil is a bad idea, and will come back to haunt a person.

When Standard gets out of prison, thugs come looking for him: he owes cash, lots of cash. Seeking to help Irene, Driver offers to do one last job with Standard, to get him out from under his debt. Of course, this job goes wrong, horribly wrong, and Driver finds himself with a duffel bagful of cash being hunted by hit men.

Having just spent a weekend in a coaching class, I was struck by one scene. When Driver finds Standard beaten and bloody, he stands facing him and asks him what happened. He listens quietly. When Standard finishes his explanation, Driver pauses to think, then asks, “So, what are you going to do about it?” Such attentive listening and focused questioning, helping the person to look inside for answers to his own problems is the definition of co-active coaching. It’s a great summation.

The first act is actually slow and quiet. Driver and Irene make little conversation, they mostly communicate through gazing at each other. With a synth-laden soundtrack, and a hot pink font for the credit’s typography, the film is sleek and stylish, oozing visual flair. And then with a suddenness that shocks, Nicolas Refn brings on the violence. From the first shotgun killing to the fork in the eye, the violence is gory and over-the-top, brutal and bloody. With each new killing, Refn ups the stakes and amplifies the graphic nature of the bloody scene. And it is unnecessary. Indeed, its gratuitous nature becomes an affront to the audience.

This theme of violence highlights the cyclical nature of violence. Greg Garrett, professor of English and author of  The Gospel According to Hollywood (a book on film and culture), comments, in his blog review on Drive, on the impact of violence:
In pop culture, our Christ figures - whether they are Neo in The Matrix or The Preacher in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider - employ violence to save innocents, and that understanding informs what we do as a nation. Executing criminals, torturing terrorists, bombing opposing nations-we are believers that violence can solve problems, perhaps because, at least in the short run, it does.
But violence has its costs. When we employ violence against others it results in more violence, usually of a greater kind, as Refn shows. Garrett goes on to say,
If there is a positive Jesus-y message from the film, it clearly cannot be about the efficacy of violence. As Martin Luther King preached in Strength to Love, ‘Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.’ A stage littered with bodies is always the sign that we are watching a tragedy.
Driver wears an iconic satin bomber jacket thoughout, one that bears a scorpion on the back. This jacket provides a two-fold metaphor. What started as white and shiny becomes splattered with blood after one killing. Metaphorically, the cost of violence is displayed on his back. Figuratively, this points us back to the words of Isaiah (1:18): ““Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” We all wear dirty robes, and we cannot clean them ourselves. Driver does not clean his jacket once stained. Yet there is one in life whose clothing is unstained. The Old Testament prophet Daniel pointed out, “As I looked, ‘thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow’ .” (Dan. 7:9) This one is Jesus. He is a true Messiah, and he offers to cleanse us. Another prophet beautifully painted this picture, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” (Zech. 3:4)

The second metaphor stems from a story Driver relates in a phone conversation referring to “the scorpion and the toad” tale. In the story, the toad carries the scorpion across the river. But the scorpion stings the toad and both drown. When asked why by the toad, the scorpion replied that “it’s my nature”. Driver is the scorpion. It is his nature to kill. It is his nature to be alone, disengaged. But in reality, our true nature is found only in Jesus, where he gives us a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17), one that resembles what God originally intended for humanity from the beginning. Our broken and corrupt nature we are born with pulls us to sin and self, leading to crime. But unlike the scorpion or Driver, we can change; we can be changed if we turn to Jesus.

This brings us back to the theme of moral ambiguity and Driver’s initial quotation. Driver had his own moral code. He used it to control, himself and others. He left no margin for error. He carried no guns and was determined not to shoot anyone. These morals seemed upright, until you see that they don’t prevent him from carrying out crime. Moreover, he is willing to stomp or stab someone to death but won’t shoot them. There is a paradox; there is ambiguity. His morals were relative, self-determined, baseless. A proverb says, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12). Man-made morals are like this. They seem right, but they are ultimately wrong, deadly wrong. In contrast, moral perspicuity comes from centering a life on God, following Jesus. He laid out his ethic in the classic Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-8), but it can be summarized succinctly, as he does in his upper room discourse (Jn. 13-17): “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn. 13:34).

Drive is sleek yet superficial. Ultimately, it is as empty as its protagonist. It spills gallons of blood leaving a dozen or so dead bodies on its path, but offers no solutions, just the reminder of the graphic cost of violence. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CT's Top 10 Most Redeeming Movies of 2011

"Christianity Today" just released their list of "The 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2011." At the top of their list is a contemplative yet moving French film set in a monastery: Of Gods and Men. It's worth checking out these. Their "Critic's Choice Films" follow later this week.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Attack the Block -- hoods, heroes and neighbors

Director: Joe Cornish, 2011. (R) 

British cinema saw the emergence of B-movie horror films with the Hammer studio in the 1950s. Here, writer-director Cornish’s debut film echoes that genre. The low-budget Attack on the Block has a B-movie horror feel with some very dark British humor thrown in. And the accents are thick and dark, so may be a little difficult for non-Brits.

The movie opens with Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, walking home through the streets of inner city South London. Confronted by a gang of young teenage hoodlums, she is mugged at knife-point. Before they can do anything more than steal her purse and ring, a meteor crashes through the roof of the car next to her. But this is no meteor.

Cornish himself was mugged in South London in a similar fashion. Recognizing that his assailants were as scared as he was, he began researching young thugs and was inspired to make this film.

As Sam flees to freedom, the gang, led by Moses (John Boyega) investigate and discover a creature from outer space. Chasing it, Moses kills it and carries the carcass back to his council estate flat. (A council flat is apartment housing in the projects, a low-class ghetto permeated with crime and violence.)

What this bicycle-riding and knife-wielding gang don’t realize is that other monsters will come after them. And they do. Since it is Guy Fawke’s night (England’s answer to Fourth of July), the fireworks are exploding and no one notices these creatures fireballing (and furballing) down ot earth.

After the mugging, Moses’ and Sam cross paths again, first in a police van and then after he rescues her from attack by the creature, his gang find their way to her apartment. She lives in the same project as they do. She is their neighbor. Like it or not, she finds herself cast in with the gang in a live or die effort to defeat this enemy. The hoods have become the heroes in this tale.

Cornish uses mostly unknown actors here. The two leads fare well. Whittaker is credible and does fine work as the nurse. But it is Boyega who stands out. Looking like a young Denzel Washington, he carries himself with an energy and magnetism that draws those around to him. He is a natural and is sure to go on to more and better work. And Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Paul) shows up as a stoner, Ron, who minds the weed room for the rapper-gangster Hi-Hatz, who “owns the block”. Ron is a compilation of the roles Frost has played before, so there is no stretch here, but he imparts much of the humor.

The film explores several themes and offers some social commentary. The first focuses on racial disenfranchisement. The gang is mostly black. Their options are limited and they are drifting into petty crime, with just a step from serious drug activity. Their lack of hope and potential leads them to what they see as their only hope. Hi-Hatz, the gangster, is their hero. Rich and bejeweled, they clamour to be in his gang while the younger kids want to join Moses’ gang. The gang offers them the only way up, if not out. Clearly, there is some racial stereotyping going on but this includes some truth.

A second theme looks at the class barriers and territorialism. The black gang saw Sam as a white nurse, one of the enemy, a class apart. From their perspective, she was fair game. But when they discovered she was one of them, living in the same projects they counted her as one of their own. Moreover, once the monsters attacked the block, everyone living in the apartment building was at risk and class and racial barriers meant less. Species barriers meant more.

Race and class set man against man. Hatred is fueled by these divisions. But they are false barriers. In reality, all men, white or black, rich or poor, have the same fundamental dignity and rights. We are all made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). We are all considered the same when we come to union with Jesus Christ. Paul says in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”.

The final theme is that of courage and heroism. Moses and his friends were viewed as juvenile delinquents by most, including Sam. But given the opportunity, they emerged as heroes, protecting themselves and others, even being willing to sacrifice their lives to save those in their block. We all harbor that potential, to be heroes. We may not get the chance to realize it but it is there. How we react and respond to adversity will prove our mettle. Will we emerge as a hero or a coward?

Despite the simplicity of the aliens and of the plot, Cornish does enough to maintain the suspense and keep us watching. And he reminds us of the need to watch out for our neighbors!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Jan Movie Group: Drive; Sat 1/21/12, 4:50pm at Academy Theater

We have firmed up the details for the movie group outing this Saturday. Here they are:

  • Movie: Drive (R)  
  • Place: Academy Theater (which is at 7818 SE Stark Street)
  • Date: Saturday 1/21/12
  • Time: film shows at 4:50pm; meet in lobby at 4:30pm
  • Coffee and Discussion: Bi-partisan Cafe after the film (which is at 7901 SE Stark Street)
Note there is no parking lot, so you have to find off-street parking, like on SE 78th or SE 77th. However, the cafe is right opposite the theater, so once parked you won't need to move the car.

This low-budget crime thriller, starring Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver, has been listed in numerous top 10 films of 2011 lists, and earned Albert Brooks the Golden Globe for best supporting actor.

Hope to see you on Saturday for this low-budget outing.

Remember: "There are no clean getaways!"

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

13 Tzameti -- gambling with the poor

Director: Géla Babluani, 2005. (NR)

Set in France and filmed in cold black and white, 13 Tzameti feels more Eastern European than French. That is perhaps not surprising since it is directed by a Georgian. Not only did he direct this debut feature but he wrote it and cast his brother in the main role. Quite a family project, if not a family-friendly film. And with the cold nihilistic cynical themes, this is certainly not one to watch with the kids.

Tagged as a mystery thriller, this movie breaks neatly into two halves. The first half is a mystery, the second is more suspense. Sebastien (George Babluani) is a poor roofer who lives with his parents. So poor, he carries his ladder and tools around on a bicycle. While working on a job for a customer, he overhears the man say that he has a job that will make him rich if he survives, and that he is waiting for a letter instructing him what to do. When the man dies and the letter surprisingly falls into his possession, Sebastien decides to take the man's place. What follows in the first half of the film is Sebastien obeying oblique insructions from unseen men. He is unwittingly delving into a rich man's game even while the police are following his trail.

When Sebastien arrives at his destination he finally realizes he may have made a mistake. But it is too late to withdraw. He has become one of 13 tzameti. The trailer and even the DVD box gives away the key plot point, and I won't repeat that. But once the mystery is over the second half of the film descends into a game of greed and gambling.

13 Tzameti has good intentions and an interesting premise. Sadly, Babluani does not develop the characters so we cannot connect to them. They are as cold and aloof as the game, and so we find ourselves simply not caring for Sebastien or anyone else for that matter.

When it is all over, the film leaves us not wondering whether Sebastien made the right decisions. We know he did not. Rather, it leaves us pondering the divide between the poor and the rich, and the behaviors that stem from these castes. For the poor, the question arises: what will they do for money? Will they risk life itself for the promise of a payout? Is that a gamble worth taking? Certainly life is more valuable than riches and money. There is the promise of eternity, the life hereafter. We cannot take riches with us. That was the point of one of Jesus' parable of the rich fool (Lk. 12:13-21). Yet, it is true that poverty often spawns the kind of recklessness that thinks more of today's meal than tomorrow's memory.

And then there are the rich. Here the rich men are superior to the tzameti. They are not only greedy for more, gambling with what they do have. Greed is decried in Scripture. "The greedy bring ruin to their households" and "the greedy stir up conflict" says the writer of proverbs (Prov. 15;27, 28:25). Greed was one of the evil thoughts listed by Jesus (Mk. 7:21-22). And the apostle Paul said that the greedy would not inherit the kingdom of Christ (Eph. 5:5).

More than this though, the rich also deny the dignity of the poor, discounting the value of human life. Riches can cause this kind of behavior, encouraging this posture of superiority. But it is unbiblical. All men are created equal, regardless of race or riches (Rom. 10:22). We are equal in sin (Rom 3:23), equal in need of a savior, and equal in the offer of forgiveness from Jesus (Rom. 3:22). Whether we are rich or poor, we would do well to become one of his followers!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 13, 2012

Movie Group for Jan: Sat 1/21/12, 5pm; Movie and Theater TBD

With the Christmas season behind us, we thought we'd go a little lower budget for the first movie group of 2012. We are planning to hit up a second-run theater and catch a first-quality film. Since the theater schedules are not finalized until Tuesday of next week, we will have to be a bit flexible.

So, we have selected a couple of options in theater and in film. We will likely either go to the Academy Theater, at 7818 SE Stark Street, or the Laurelhurst Theater,  at 2735 East Burnside Street. It will depend on what movies they offer and at what screen times, but preference is:
  1. Drive (R) starring Ryan Gosling
  2. Midnight in Paris (PG-13) starring Owen Wilson
We are planning to find a screening around 5pm on Saturday 1/21/12 and then stop by a coffee shop close by after the film for some drinks and discussion.

I realize this is pretty loosey-goosey, but I will update this blog the middle of next week. Hopefully, those of you that are interested will pencil in the date and time (1/21/12 at 5pm) and look for the firm blog posting around Wednesday 1/18.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol -- secrets and teams

Director: Brad Bird, 2011. (PG-13) 

When Ghost Protocol is enacted by the President, all of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) is disavowed. They have no backup, no communications, no gadgets; they are on their own with just the world to save. It’s another mission impossible!

This one, though, is full of gadgets, a new team, and a new director. It might possibly be the best of the bunch, filled with more action than ever before. It won’t win any Oscars, but it will give thrill-ride junkies the satisfaction of being swept along for two hours at a wicked pace with whiplash action.

The movie opens with an IMF team trying to break into a Russian prison to free Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). With Jane Carter (Paula Patton) running the op and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz), returning from his cameo in MI3, manning the technical consoles in the spy truck outside, they are prepared to enact Hunt’s rescue. But there is a reason Hunt is in prison, which we find out later, and a reason the IMF want him out now. A crazy European, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is planning to launch a nuclear missile from a Russian sub to spark the next stage of human evolution and Hunt needs to stop him.

Hunt’s mission, with his team of Benji, now promoted to field agent, and Carter, is to recover the launch codes for the nuclear sub, thereby stopping Hendricks in his tracks. But it is not as easy as that. To do this, he must break into the Kremlin. Moreover, when he and Benji, on his first mission and nervous as a teen on his first date, make it into the Kremlin, a bomb goes off. The American team is implicated and the President enacts Ghost Protocol. With his mission still in place, Hunt has little time to stop Hendricks.

Another member joins his team: William Brandt (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker). Apparently an analyst, he bears some hidden secrets and is carrying a bucket-load of shame. Only in the final post-climax concluding scenes do we discover his secret and even Hunt’s secret. Both have been bearing burdens the whole time, and it has impacted them and their relationship.

Secrets that harbor shame and guilt will damage relationships. In this case, we see Hunt and Brandt literally at each other’s throats without knowing why. When we carry such secrets around they become cancers, eating away at our character and sucking away our life. The best resolution is confession. Indeed, Brandt practices this at the end with positive results. Biblically, such advice is paralleled in John’s epistle. When our secrets cover up sin, we are entreated to bring them to God: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Such confession combined with repentance (Lk. 24:7) provides purification and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20). It worked with Brandt and Hunt; it will work with you and God.

Brandt may be an analyst, but once the fighting starts it is clear he knows a thing or two. He has seen field work. It was rumored that he was being lined up to replace Ethan Hunt when Cruise steps down, but these rumors have been disavowed. It is clear that Renner is replacing Matt Damon in the Bourne series. From Ghost Protocol, it seems that Cruise has years ahead of him in the main IMF role, and there is talk of Brad Bird and Tom Cruise preparing for MI5. And we hope this is so.

Indeed Cruise, even at 49, continues to do most of his own stunts. And what stunts they are in Ghost Protocol. The best is probably his attempt to climb the outside of the hotel in Dubai using electronically enhanced adhesive gloves (“blue is glue, red is dead”). Using the Burj Khalifa tower, literally the tallest building in the world, Hunt has to scale a dozen floors even while a sandstorm approaches and his gloves stop working. Then there is a tremendous mano-a-mano fight sequence in an automated car park in Mumbai. He brings new meaning to the term “head-on collision”!

And if this sounds like a James Bond film it should. There are glamorous locales a plenty. But unlike Bond, Hunt works with a team. And this is something director Brad Bird brings to this installment of the IMF series.

This is the first live-action feature film that Bird has helmed. He is better known for animated movies, like The Iron Giant or The Incredibles. Indeed, the latter Pixar film featured super-heroes who had to work together to conquer a master villain. On their own they were inadequate, together they were victorious.

Unlike earlier directors, this teamwork prevails throughout. In MI1, Hunt relied on his technical assistants, including Luther (Ving Rhames, who does have a cameo here), but he resorted to his own efforts at the end. Likewise in MI2, where John Woo brought a martial arts feel to the film but left Hunt to solve his own problems in a duel to the death. JJ Abrams directed MI3 with more of a family feel, Hunt getting married to Julie (Michelle Monaghan, who also has a cameo), but we remember that again Hunt ended up having to defeat the arms dealer without IMF support. Not so here.

At the climax, we find all four IMF team members heavily involved. All are necessary to save the planet. If any one of them fails in their sub-mission the missile will arrive and explode. Hunt is fighting Nyqvist for the launch codes. Carter must seduce an Indian to get access to the satellite. Brandt must reprogram the satellite while being levitated magnetically by Benji via a robot and a metallic undershirt. This is truly teamwork in action, just like in the old TV series. It is tremendously exciting.

It reminds us, too, of the teamwork necessary in the church. Paul uses the analogy of the human body with reference to the spiritual gifts God has distributed within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12): “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). He goes on to refer to the foot, the eye, the ear, the hand, and even our private parts. His point, though, is very clear: “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (v. 21). All are necessary for the body to function correctly, to operate as designed.

Likewise, God has given various kinds of spiritual gifts to people in the church and these are meant to function together. We are not all apostles, we are not all teachers. We are not all miracle workers. Some are, but most are not. We have other gifts, not necessarily less important, just different. This broad diversity of gifting enables the unity of the church. We should not be caught up with what we are not; rather we should rejoice with the gifts God has given us. And we should use them in the context of the church, to enable it to achieve its mission: to glorify God and to spread the gospel.

We will never be an Ethan Hunt, climbing impossible towers. We are more likely to be a Benji Dunn, cracking nervous jokes as we do something outside of our comfort zone. But we can rely on God to work through us to achieve his impossible mission as we exercise the gifts he has given us through his Spirit, the Holy Ghost. We can be certain that in this mission, he will not enact ghost protocol and disavow us!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mission Impossible 3 -- the anti-God weapon

Director: J. J. Abrams, 2006. (PG-13)

This Mission Impossible opens with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) chained to a chair and facing a man with a gun giving a countdown. Tense, thrilling, we are dropped in the middle of the film before it even starts!

After the opening credits, though, we are back to the present, where Hunt is now a trainer for Impossible Mission Force, living a sedate life in the States, engaged to be married to Julia (Michelle Monaghan, Gone Baby Gone). Ordinary life is interrupted when he gets a call during his engagement party from his boss John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) calling him back into the field. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to save another IMF field agent who has been captured (Keri Russell). Of course he accepts! What would happen to this franchise if he settled down to married life. It would become a spy sit-com.

The third installment brings a third director to the helm. This time it is Abrams, making his feature film debut. Gone are the over-the-top kung fu sequences. Back are the thrills. The plot is better than the second. Once again we have global backdrops, from Germany to America, Vatican City to Shanghai.

Hunt's diverse team this time includes Luther Stickell again (Ving Rhames) along with newcomers Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). But these are mostly support since most of the heavy lifting is done by Hunt. He, after all, is the super-spy.

This film has the best cast of the series so far. Alongside the actors listed above, there is also Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) as the somewhat shady director of the force and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz) as Benji Dunn, a Bond-esque Q-like character providing comic relief. Best of all is Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) as Owen Davian, the black market arms dealer after "the rabbit's foot". Hoffman portrays an articulate and heartless criminal who is by far the best enemy Hunt has faced. (He is the gunman from the opening scene and who laters tells Hunt, "Who are you? What's you're name? Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Because if you do, I'm gonna find her. I'm gonna hurt her. I'm gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I'm gonna find you,and kill you right in front of her.")

What we expect from a Mission Impossible film are superior action sequences, and this one does not disappoint. The acrobatics occur against the backdrop of the Shanghai skyscrapers, with Hunt showing why we should study math and physics: to determine how to swing from one building to the roof of another hundreds of feet above the ground. There is a terrific gun battle set on a long bridge that pits Hunt against drone. And then there is the elevator escape scene where Hunt illustrates the perfect use of "We are Family". But it is family that drives this film, since Hunt has to find the rabbit's foot to save Julia.

Perhaps the best part of the film is seeing one of the IMF masks created before our very eyes. And when Hunt employs this as he prepares to take the place of Davian, we also see how the voice encoders are programmed to work.

We never find out much about the rabbit's foot. Hunt has no idea but Benji tells us: "You see, it was inevitable that a compound would be created which is referred to as the 'Anti-God'. It was like an accelerated mutator or sort of, you know, like a, an unstoppable force of destructive power, that would just lay waste to everything - to buildings and parks and streets and children and ice cream parlors, you know? So whenever I see, like, a rogue organization willing to spend this amount of money on a mystery tech, I always assume... it's the Anti-God. End-of-the-world kinda stuff, you know... But no, I don't have any idea what it is. I was just speculating."

There have been several anti-God weapons: from nuclear bombs to biological viruses. All have the potential to wipe out mankind. But like Benji points out, all point to the end of the world. Yet, when we think of the end of the world we think of Armageddon and that points to the book of Revelation. In this last book of the Bible we find not an "anti-God" weapon but the judgment of God himself. The wrath of God is poured out on the world (Rev. 14-19) that has rejected him and his offer of love and forgiveness. Given the choice between God and the devil, the world has chosen the Great Babylon (Rev. 14:8). There follow seven woes, seven trumpet judgments and seven bowl judgments. Each brings further judgment and devastation on fallen humanity. Each brings us one step closer to the final judgment and the end of the world. Woe to those who remain apart from God at that time. It will be an impossible mission to save them!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mission Impossible 2 -- heroes and villains

Director: John Woo, 2000 (PG-13)

For the second installment of Mission Impossible, the producers turned to a new director. Known for his Hong Kong action films, Woo brings his ultra-choreographed set pieces to this thrill pill. And he brings doves and guns galore, two of his directorial trademarks.

Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt, IMF secret agent and all-around super-cool guy. Before he even gets his mission, we see him climbing impossible rock formations alone in the Utah desert. Hanging from the fingertips of one hand hundreds of feet above the rocky floor below, we believe this man can do the impossible. Then he gets his mission: he must find and retrieve something called chimera, selecting two agents and using one civilian. And he's off on a chase that is faster than the first film even while the plot is slimmer and less absorbing.

Working with him is agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), returning from the first film, and agent Billy Baird (John Polson). The civilian is super thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a glamorous gal who soon becomes Hunt's love-interest. But working against him is Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a former IMF agent turned bad guy.

Despite the first couple of scenes with Nyah, where she attempts a jewel heist amidst a Spanish flamenco dance, and when she races Hunt around twisting mountain passes, she does not get to take part in the action. Indeed, one of the themes of the movie appears anti-feminist. In a discussion with his commander, Ethan points out: "She's got no training for this kind of thing." But Commander Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) replies, "What? To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She's a woman - she's got all the training she needs."  Later, Sean Ambrose comments about Nyah, "You know women, mate. Like monkeys, they are - won't let go of one branch until they've got hold of the next."

This minimizing of women is anathema to feminists and is contrary to Christian teachings. Women are not innately trained to lie to men. They may do so, but so do men. Indeed, we all lie regardless of gender. The decalogue was aimed at all people, and one of the ten commandments declares: "Do not lie" (Lev. 19:11). Moreover, although they are considered the fairer sex, they are just as capable of learning to fight as men. Women serve in police forces and the military around the world.

Like the first film, Hunt employs masks. Actually there are more masks used here, too much in fact and it even becomes somewhat confusing. The action sequences, though, are more expansive if less believable (if that's possible). Seeing Hunt riding a motorcycle and firing a gun using only his rear-view mirror for aim is over the top. But then so is the motorcycle duel that climaxes the film. This is more kung fu choreography than anything. Hunt employs martial arts in his fights, something he didn't do before.

And of course, what is a Mission Impossible film with dangling acrobatics. Hunt once again finds himself dropped from a cable. This time into a lab to steal the chimera virus.

But back to themes. The opening of the film shows a scientist speaking into a camera: "Every search for a hero must begin with something which every hero requires, a villain." Sean Ambrose may be the human villain, but chimera is the real one. Indeed, Ambrose makes a less than compelling villain. He has little that is memorable. Unlike the first film, where the villain is mysterious, Amrbose is a by-the-book nemesis.

The scientist is correct. We cannot understand good unless we contrast it with evil. Good on its own has no context. In Eden, God instructed Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Obeying offered a theoretical knowledge of evil, but disobeying provided practical experience of good and evil and the introduction of sin into the world (Gen. 3). Like light shining in the midst of darkness, good stands as a clear bastion when set against evil.

More than this though, a hero requires a villain. We have one in real life: Jesus. But we would not know the extent of his heroics or his love without his nemesis: Satan. The beauty of the cross can only be understood when seen as the method of defeating the devil. We look to Jesus Christ, not Ethan Hunt, when we want our true hero.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mission Impossible -- impossible expected!

Director: Brian De Palma, 1996. (PG-13)

"Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept . . . If you or any member of your team is caught or killed, we will disavow all knowledge of you." For those old enough to remember the terrific television show from the late 1960s, this is how each episode would start. And this is how this first films begins, with Jon Voight as the Impossible Mission Force leader Jim Phelps.

For his mission, Phelps compiles quite a crew: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, Top Gun), his wife Clair Phelps (Emmanuelle Beart, Manon of the Spring), Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient), and Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez, uncredited). The mission involves crashing an official dinner party in Prague and capturing a stolen NOC list, a list of non-official covers for American spies, which would lead to extensive capture and execution of these agents. But things go horribly wrong and Hunt finds himself on the run from his own agency, looking for the NOC list. To do this, he has to recruit former agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), a computer specialist, and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno, The Professional).

Unlike the TV show, the film is expansive like a Bond movie. Travelling from Prague to Virginia to London, Hunt is a man on a mission, not only to save himself, but to find the traitor. But like the show, there are masks and gadgets galore.

The plot is absorbing with a clever storyline, excellent explosions, and fabulous set-pieces. Several stand-out. The climax on the chunnel train with a helicopter chase thrills even while it defies logic. The best, though, is the break-in to CIA HQ at Langley, where Hunt dangles inches from the pressure-sensitive floor while trying to hack the hacker-proof computer. This still has become the defining image of the MI films, being repeated in one way or another in the subsequent sequels.

Zero body count" is the tone of this installment of Mission Impossible. Ethan Hunt tells this to Krieger as the Frenchman is about to slit a good guy's throat. The erstwhile American spy chooses to keep a clean body count, but later "matures" and gets in touch with his killer nature. But that is for the first sequel.

When it comes down to it, this thriller is terrific fun but theologically forsaken. Yet consider the tagline: "Expect the Impossible". In the film, Hunt faces formidable obstacles and tasks, all "impossible" on the face of it. But we expect him to overcome and to do the impossible. In real life this seems incredible. Much is impossible for man. But nothing is impossible for God. In Luke 18:27, Jesus said “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” He can do anything and everything (except what is logically impossible, such as make a round square). He is the one who can walk through locked doors (Jn. 20:19), turn enemies into friends (Acts 9), and defeat death itself (Rev. 20:14). The next time you face the impossible, call on Jesus!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs