Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hugo -- films, God and purpose

Director: Martin Scorsese, 2011. (PG) 

Based on his recent films, such as Shutter Island, The Departed and The Aviator, it’s hard to imagine Martin Scorsese making a family friendly film where violence is replaced by vivacity, adventure replaces avarice, and crime is supplanted by charm. Yet he has done that with Hugo, this wonderful film that is based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 award-winning book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” that was part story, part graphic novel. Moreover, Scorsese manages to include his ever-present theme of redemption and his love of film history and preservation. In so doing, he demonstrates a resurgent optimism that is infectious.

The plot centers on Hugo (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) throughout the first two acts, then orbits Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley, Elegy), a real-life figure, in the closing act. It is part adventure, part mystery, all feel-good.

Hugo is an orphan boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station. Avoiding the officious station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat), he winds the clocks to keep them working, and then steals food to keep his body working. He also forages for mechanical parts to repair an automaton, a mechanical man his father brought home. His father (Jude Law, Repo Men), a watchmaker, passed on these fix-it skills to Hugo, but tragically died in a fire. Melies, meanwhile, runs a toy shop in the same station, making clockwork toys for kids to buy. Both have secrets to discover.

When Hugo’s life intersects with Melies, he meets Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), another orphan who lives with Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne Melies (Helen McCrory). She is a book-worm but craves adventure. Together, they embark on an adventure while introducing each other to favorite activities.

Butterfield and Moretz have marvellous youthful chemistry together, and portray the wonder of discovery well. They carry their own alongside veteran actors like Kingsley and Christopher Lee.

Isabelle brings Hugo into a dusty bookstore, where books hold all the adventures she has experienced. Hugo, in turn, takes her to the movie theater, sneaking her in to see a Harold Lloyd silent film. This is her first movie experience, and it is eye-opening. She is filled with awe and wonder, as we are at the terrific use of 3D in this film. If you see it, try to see it in this medium. From the opening chase through the station, as Hugo avoids people and the police, to the expansive views of Paris, the 3D works to enhance the film experience. My favorite use is the slow zoom of the camera into a talking head until the head fills the screen. When this happens, the head is rendered in lifelike 3D like it is right there in front of you. And we forget it is a 3D illusion.

And here is the beginnings of the focus on film that predominates the third act. David Roark, in his review for Christianity Today, describes one character talking about film in the movie:
he paints a beautiful picture of film, describing it as something special and miraculous. His words evoke the theories of the renowned French film critic, Andre Bazin, whose work began soon after the death of Melies. Bazin believed that every shot of film reflects God manifesting creation, a concept that Hugo implies.
Film is the medium of the masses in this day and age. The power of film is in the dreams they stir up, as one character says at the end, “Come dream with me.” And just as God created in the beginning (Gen. 1-2), so the film-makers create something new with each new movie. But many miss the fact that the films can be an avenue to meet God. Robert Johnston, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, commented in his book, “Reel Spirituality”: “God can be experienced through film’s stories and images in a myriad of ways, and these experiences both invite theological dialogue and feed into our constructive theology.” God can speak to us through the movies, if we are open and willing to listen.

If film is perhaps the over-riding theme, tying all three acts together, another moves Hugo towards his discovery. He is consumed with trying to fix the automaton, believing it contains a message of some kind from his father. He needs a key to unlock the secret and turn his machine on. Explaining his passion to Isabelle, he reveals his philosophy: “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.” He goes on, drawing out the implications: “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose . . . it’s like you’re broken.”

Broken people have lost their purpose. We are all broken people, damaged by original sin (Gen. 3) and we have lost our reason for being, our purpose. Only when we are restored to wholeness in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:23) can we find our intended purpose. Spiritual healing precedes spiritual service.

Of course, this is not to say that people who have broken bodies have no purpose. Some find their true purpose after tragedy strikes. Christian speaker, writer and artist Joni Eareckson-Tada discovered her mission in life after she was paralyzed in a diving accident when she was 17. She has used her art, even as a paraplegic, to broadcast the gospel of Jesus Christ, and probably reached more people than she ever would if she were unbroken in body.

Like Hugo, we all have a place in the world. None of us are extra parts. God has formed us in his image (Gen. 1:26) and placed in us a passion and a purpose. We are unique; we all have special skills and gifts that differentiate ourselves from others. Finding these gifts and our place is key. Like the key that unlocked Hugo’s automaton, we need to search out our raison d’etre and then seek to use these gifts for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

In the church, we know that we have different spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12, Rom 13:3-8). We cannot choose them, and should not envy others what we don’t have. We must be satisfied with the uniqueness God has gifted us. We fit with each other and when any withdraw and refrain from using our gifts, we all suffer. There are no extra parts in the church.

By the time Hugo closes, the boy has discovered the secret, dealt with his father’s death and found personal redemption through finding his place. He has learned the message in the machine and has been reconciled to Melies. Melies, in turn, has found forgiveness, self-forgiveness and experienced redemption, too. And we the audience have been transported through the medium of 3D film to 1930s Paris and experienced the joys of classic film through the marvels of modern movie technology. It’s worth the price of admission.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar Party Wrap-Up

Well the Oscars are done, it's all a wrap. Billy Crystal was fabulous in his ninth spell as host. He kept the show moving, and introduced it with a hilarious skit, spoofing all 9 (what an odd number) of Best Picture nominees.

Congratulations to all the winners. The Artist was a wonderful Best Picture, and it was great to hear the thank-you speeches in fantastic French accents. And it was worth it just to hear people say the name, "Jean Dujardin"!

I'm happy to say I called 5 out of the top 6 awards. I didn't think Meryl Streep would win the Best Actress Oscar, but she is a superb actress and deserves another golden trophy. I also picked the two screenwriting awards, but that was about it.

As for our own Oscar party, the honors this year went to Chad DeHart, KGW cameraman and film buff. He picked 18 correctly, one better than movie group co-leader (and last year's winner) Ward Jenkins. Ward had to pass the baton, or the new improved trophy on. Oh, and he got a toblerone bar, too! Coming in very close third was son of movie man, David, with 16 correct.

Consolation prize of another candy bar went to Hannah and Becca for getting the fewest right. Maybe they were going for the candy and not the wooden man. Kudos to Hannah for making the trophy by hand, and all in the space of an hour. It's a far better trophy than last year's one, which was made from juice boxes wrapped in aluminum foil. It just goes to show, a critic is not an artist

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscar Predictions

It's less than 24 hours to the Oscars, the grand-daddy of the awards ceremonies. Here are my predictions for the top six awards:
  • Best Picture: The Artist
  • Best Director: Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist)
  • Best Actor: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
  • Best Actress: Viola Davis (The Help)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
  • Best Supporitng Actress: Octavia Spencer (The Help)
You can see all my predictions in the attached ballot sheet (full disclosure from movie man) -- maybe they'll help you win the party pool wherever you're watching the Oscars. Here's hoping your Oscar party is as much fun as ours will be.

By the way, you can catch my reviews of The Help and Hugo coming up in early March.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Artist -- passion, pride and reinvention

Director: Michel Hazanavicius, 2011. (PG-13)

Do you remember the days of silent films? Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, movie theaters filled with the strains of live orchestras playing the score that signals the emotional changes scene to scene. And audiences in rapt attention, captivated by actors mugging and posturing, with simpler plots and minimal effects. No, most of us don’t remember those days from almost a century ago. Yet bring on The Artist, the heavily Oscar-nominated silent film that is a true homage to the early golden years of Hollywood.

The year is 1927 and the film opens with footage of a silent film starring George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), Hollywood’s leading man, the George Clooney of that era. As the film cuts between the film on screen and the leading man in the actual theater back-stage, we get to experience the pride and the ego of Valentin as he savors the audience’s laughter and joy. An interesting viewpoint has us watching the footage on screen with this audience, so we are watching an audience watch the film we are watching.

This is a black and white silent film, shot in the old-fashioned 1.33:1 aspect ratio that predated the wide-screen ratio. According to director Michael Hazanavicius, this ratio is perfect for actors, giving them “a presence, a power, a strength. They occupy all the space of the screen.” And they do!

But it is more than just a black and white silent film. It is a romantic comedy (not a rom-com in the current use of the term) with a charming and endearing heart. Cue the girl.

We meet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, wife of writer-director Hazanavicius) when she literally bumps into Valentin as he mugs it up for the cameras as the premiere of his latest film concludes. Kissing him, she earns 5 minutes of fame, with everyone asking “Who’s that girl?” She turns this into a bit part dancing in one his films and before you can say Hazanavicius, she is moving up the cast list.

Back home, Valentin is in love . . . with himself. His palatial home is dominated with a lifesize painting of yours truly. Yet, his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) seems less thrilled. An early scene has Valentin putting his ever-present sidekick dog on the table so he can act dog-faced, mimicking the dog to try to make his wife laugh. But she doesn’t. Instead she doodles on his photos, giving him mustaches, glasses and black teeth! An homage to Citizen Kane shows these two eating meals together over a period with a descending relationship evidenced by their degenerating interaction, just like Kane and his wife.

As their relationship deteriorates, Valentin’s work changes too. As times march toward the Great Depression, the technology of the movies marches to talkies. Valentin’s producer (cigar-chomping John Goodman) cuts all silent-films and focuses on the new mode of sound, hiring new stars like Peppy Miller. As Miller’s star ascends, Valentin’s descends. A terrific visual scene illustrates this when Valentin descends flights of stairs at the studio and runs into Miller going up. As they talk, she stands half a flight above him on her way up. Moreover, the film reemphasizes this through the judicious use of movie posters themselves, telling the story in the titles of her new films as Miller takes center stage.

Part of the charm of the film is in the acting itself. The two main actors are unknowns in America. Dujardin has the classic good-looks of the era. With his suave charm and thin mustache, he could be Douglas Fairbanks. On the other hand, Bejo has the fresh-faced look and peppy personality of a newcomer grabbing at her opportunity. She represents the Katherine Hepburn of Hollywood, transitioning from one form to the next. Both have great presence, and use their mannerisms and facial gestures to great effect. Both display the art of acting, rather than speaking. For this, both have been nominated for acting Oscars.

In the words of Leonard Maltin, the film critic (quoted in USA Today, 2/17/12), “to paraphrase an old saying, a look can be worth a thousand words. An actor’s expressive face or the timing of a scene that leads up to dialogue can have far greater impact than the dialogue itself.” This is so true here. There is precious little sound; there is wonderful music. And it’s not until the end that we wait for and expect some form of dialog. By them we are beginning to feel uncomfortable with the silence, as the screen depicts talkies being made and characters talking together.

Alongside these two foreign actors, Goodman, Miller, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell have strong supporting roles. Perhaps the best supporting actor, though, is Uggie the Jack Russell terrier who is simply delightful as Valentin’s pet and acting side-kick.

The core theme of this nostalgic movie is not nostalgia itself, as in Midnight in Paris (another best picture Oscar contender). That is just a sidebar. The themes that emerge are passion, pride and reinvention.

Passion does not focus on the romance between Valentin and Miller. Rather, it focuses on their joint passion for their work. It is beautiful to see them passionate for their craft and career. Miller, in particular, exudes joy and passion as she begins a career in acting.

This kind of passion is often missing today. In an era of unemployment (mirrored in the film’s depiction of the Great Depression), many are forced to take lack-luster jobs that employ their hands but not their hearts. Such work is simply trading time for money. It lacks passion. And it is often done poorly. In the context of work, Paul spoke to slaves, saying: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” (Col. 3:22) Work is a gift from God and intended to be done for him, as an act of worship (Rom. 12:2). We can and should do it with pride.

Pride is another theme, and a characteristic that causes Valentin’s downfall. Refusing to move into talkies, Valentin’s pride stops him from seeking help from others. Even when his driver (Cromwell) calls him to account, he refuses to humble himself and swallow his pride. Pride, of course, is mentioned negatively in Scripture. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall,” declares Proverbs 16:18, a verse that almost characterizes Valentin in the second and third acts of the film. Isaiah puts it this way, “The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:17). The apostle John labeled it most plainly as a sin: “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 Jn. 2:16)

Indeed, the third act shows Valentin’s plummet and turns the sparkling charm of the first two acts into the gloomy gray of despair. Unemployment and loss of everything plague Valentin. Worst of all for him is the loss of identity as an artist. Not making movies, he has lost his raison d’etre.

Valentin’s problem is not just pride, though that is clearly present. It is his reluctance to reinvent himself. As technology changed his way of life, he fought this change, seeing his art in acting without words. But that form of art was ultimately destined for extinction. He could either reinvent himself in his art or find himself redundant and useless. He chose the latter.

Artists even today face this challenge. Once they have mastered an art form, the tendency is to stay there, milking it, churning out more of the same. This may be lucrative in the short-term, but is artistically suicidal in the long-term. The best artists constantly challenge themselves by moving out of their comfort zones, trying new things, embracing change.

Heck, it is not just artists that need to reinvent themselves. Most if not all workers today will find themselves facing forks in the roads of their careers. With jobs moving offshore or being outsourced to larger, cheaper companies, retaining a job means reinventing yourself multiple times in your career. Being open to change, even looking for it, is an art and a survival skill necessary in the 21st century.

Valentin was wrong. His art was not defined by a lack of words. Some of his artistic creations were defined in this way. But he had the ability and talent to move beyond this wordless boundary. He could use his talents to create different forms of beautiful art. But it took a mindset change, as it does for us even today.

With the technological changes that we are experiencing in the second decade of the 21st century, this movie is relevant for us, even clothed in a 20th century skin. How we watch movies is changing. No longer do we need to go to theaters or even buy a DVD. We can stream into our living rooms or into our iPads and iPhones. How we read books is changing (if we still read books!). The smell of paper has transformed to the feel of the Kindle as we become digital readers. Even how we do church is changing. We must not be so absorbed with the outer shell that we lose the inner being.

As Oscar Sunday approaches it is a pleasant surprise that this anachronistic tribute to the 20s has 10 nominations, only being bested by Hugo, another nostalgic film with a nod to the silent pictures. And it is strange to consider that this is the front-runner to pick up the Best Picture award. If it does, it will become only the second silent film to score that top prize, the other being the 1927 film Wings in that inaugural Oscar year. As delightful as it is, I am hoping it does!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Midnight in Paris -- nostalgia and fantasies

Director: Woody Allen, 2011. (PG-13) 

Anyone that has been to Paris recognizes that the City of Lights is one of the most romantic cities in the world. And given that, there is a tendency to look back on earlier visits with a nostalgic smile, wishing for a return. Woody Allen’s latest movie is a romantic comedy set in this beautiful city and deals with the theme of nostalgia. Lighter than much of his work (such as his pessimistic Whatever Works), this is a charming movie with splendid cinematography that captures the spirit of Paris.

After a long series of establishing shots that make it clear that this is Paris in the 21st century, a city of wonder and warmth, we see the protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson, The Darjeeling Limited) and his fiancĂ©e Inez (Rachel MacAdams, State of Play) from a distance across a peaceful park. When he tells how wonderful Paris is and how he would love to live there, she replies, “You’re in love with a fantasy.” He responds, “I’m in love with you.” Who or what is he in love with? Inez has it right. Gil’s concept of love is romanticized and dwells in his fantasyland.

Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter, a person dabbling in words. What he wants to be is a serious writer, and he is working on his first novel without really getting anywhere. He is a perfectionist and is stuck. He and Inez have come to Paris courtesy of her parents, who are there on business. They are rich, conservative and pragmatic, while Gil is surviving, liberal and dreamy.

The opening act brings another couple into the mix, the smug and self-absorbed academic Paul (Michael Sheen, The Damned United) and his wife, friends of Inez. Unable to avoid going on trips with them, Gil finds himself verbally castrated by Paul a number of times right in front of Inez. So, when they want to go off for dancing at the end of an evening, Gil elects to go for a walk alone, to savor Paris and try to find his muse. What he finds, instead, is some magic. Lost and alone, waiting at midnight in Paris on some stone steps, a magical car stops and the occupants beckon him to join them. And they take him back in time to his “Golden Age” magical fantasy period, the 20s, where his favorite writers, painters, musicians and artists lived.

Owen Wilson is well cast as Gil. He brings a west-coast laid-back appeal to Gil whose charisma is restrained by his lack of confidence. MacAdams plays against type, being bitchy and anything but charming. What Gil sees in her is unclear; maybe an attraction of opposites. And Sheen is brilliant as the obnoxious professor who seems to know everything and is willing to correct even the tour guide.

Gil’s nightly walks and time travels bring him pleasure and help him find his writing voice. But they raise suspicion with Inez and her parents. They also bring him into contact with a French beauty, Adriana (Marion Cotillard, Contagion), whose own fantasy is La Belle Epoque, the Paris of the late 19th century.

Both Gil and Adriana are pining for their fantasies. They are looking back on the past and seeing it through rose colored glasses. As Gil puts it, “Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the ‘20s. Paris in the 20’s, in the rain. The artists and the writers!” And when he gets to experience this, he is in heaven. But he doesn’t live there long enough to become familiar with it, to experience the dross, the chaff with the wheat.

We can be like this, too. We dream dreams. We create fantasies and then wish to make them real, not realizing that they are deceptively unreal. They may make us smile for a while, but they cannot sustain their appeal. Satisfaction will turn to discontent. This is evident in Adriana. She lives in the 20s and she wishes to go back another 30 years to her “Golden Age”. Clearly they have different ideals of the true golden age of Paris, just as we all do. Such subjectivity cannot be ratified externally. It is for us alone. But not for us to live with or live in.

Nostalgia is clearly a key theme in this nostalgic film. The dictionary defines the term as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life”. Paul, the insufferable professor, gives Gil a much harsher definition: “Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present . . . the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Nostalgia is one thing; living in the past is another. Gil has problems with the present: “That's what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.” He cannot deny the allure of the past, but he cannot deny the dissatisfaction of the present. Paul maybe right, but a little nostalgia does not hurt provided we maintain perspective and avoid disillusionment with the present.

The present is where we live. That seems obvious, but it is worth pointing out. And we live with the highs and lows in the immediate. Hindsight allows us to magnify the highs and minimize the lows. But we cannot do that in the here and now. Jesus comes to offer life to each of us: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). This life is present and ongoing. But it is centered on the life-giver, who also said “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). This Jesus also said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (Jn. 11:25). The point he was making is that he offers life now, as well life later. Life may be unsatisfying, but it may also be satisfying. Sometimes it is a matter of perspective. Sometimes we need to see the glass half-full, rather than half-empty.

Nostalgia would have us live in the past. Paul would have us focus on the painful present. Christ would have us cherish the past and all we have enjoyed or experienced (or wished we had experienced) while living in the present and looking ahead to the future: “And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). Past, present and future all have value. They combine in the one who lived before time and outside of time (Jn. 1:1), who has entered time as one of us (Phil. 2:6-8). That kind of nostalgia will leave us with hope for today. This is like the hope that Woody leaves us with in the final scene.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Feb Movie Group: Hugo 3D; Sat 2/18/12, 3:50pm at The Living Room Theaters

Here are the details for the movie group outing this Saturday.  
  • Movie: Hugo 3D (PG)
  • Place: The Living Room Theaters (which is at 341 SW 10th Ave)
    Note there is no parking lot, so you need to park off street at a meter or find a Smart Park
  • Date: Saturday 2/18/12
  • Time: film shows at 3:50pm; meet in lobby at 3:30pm
  • Coffee and Discussion: Starbucks after the film (which is at 1039 NW Couch Street)
    Note there is no parking lot, so you have to find off-street parking. However, the coffee shop is within walking distance of the theater, just accross Burnside and a block past Powells. So, once parked you won't need to move the car.)
This Martin Scorsese drama , starring Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterfield, has received critical acclaim and has picked up 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. Some have said it's Scorsese's most family accessible film ever. 

Hope to see you on Saturday for this first foray for our group into 3D. Come "unlock the secret" with us! 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- animal experimentation

Director: Rupert Wyatt, 2011. (PG-13) 

As the title makes clear, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a prequel seeking to show how the apes took over planet earth. However, it does not go that far, merely showing how the apes became sentient simians. Really, it is a vehicle for Wyatt to get the major fight scenes on the Golden Gate bridge that climax the film. The rest is mostly fluff.

The story begins with Will Rodman (James Franco, 127 Hours), a scientist working on a drug to cure Alzheimer’s disease. Using chimps as test subjects, he believes his experimental drugs is ready for human trials. But when his big chance arrives to present to the company’s board of directors, his star ape goes ape and attacks, having to be shot to protect the humans. With the other chimps being put down and his lab being shut down, Will discovers a newborn chimp, the baby of his test monkey. Naming this newborn “Caesar” (played impressively in motion capture by Andy Serkis, familiar to this technology from his role of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), he takes him home to live with him and his Alzheimer’s-ailing father Charles (John Lithgow).

The movie skips ahead in batches of years, showing Caesar gaining intelligence from being infected by the drug in the womb. Able to learn sign-language, he can communicate and advances in intellect. Along the way, Will meets primatologist Caroline (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire) and falls in love. He also tries his new experimental drug on his father and the disease is immediately reversed. Life returns to normal, at least for a while.

When Caesar attacks a neighbor, seeking to protect Charles, he is captured and moved under court order to an ape sanctuary just outside of San Francisco. Run by a corrupt official (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son Dodge (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter films), Caesar finds himself caged with other chimps, apes and orangutans. Here, he is able to move to the top of the heap, due to his intelligence, eventually to lead the revolt and the ensuing battle.

The plot is weak and shoddy, too contrived to be believable. Indeed, one scene where Will faces down the business leader of the drug company has them both effect a sudden and major turn-around from previous expressed values that is just too far-fetched to accept. And the characters themselves are undeveloped, being mostly caricatures, not drawing us in enough to really care about them. The actors don’t put much into their roles. The most enjoyable is Felton, who seems to relish the villain role.

Regardless of the quality of the movie, it does raise some interesting ethical questions. Is it morally acceptable to experiment on animals? Is this addressed in Scripture? At creation, God said to man, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:28). This dominion over the animals does not include cruelty but does not necessarily preclude experimentation if undertaken in a humane manner. Certainly, the use of animals such as chimpanzees enables scientific breakthroughs in drugs that benefit humanity. Without these we would limit our medical progress. But we need to draw the line between what is necessary and what is cruel.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bad Boys -- marriage or singleness?

Director: Michael Bay, 1995. (R)

Buddy cop movies have been around for almost half a century, but Bad Boys was perhaps the first that paired two black cops. And they bring with them a new take on the genre: more jive talk, more swearing, more negro jokes, more action. Indeed, billed as an action crime comedy, it is shorter than expected on the laughs but longer on the action.

Fresh from his TV role as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" Will Smith was cast as Mike Lowery in this film that turned him into a full-fledged movie star. From here, he went onto Independence Day (1996), Men In Black (1997) and Oscar nominations for Ali (2002) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2007). His charisma and screen presence are obvious in Bad Boys where he plays bachelor Mike Lowery.

Against Smith's playboy cop, Martin Lawrence costars as Marcus Burnett the family man. Unlike Smith's meteoric rise to fame and award-worthy films, comic Lawrence has gone on to make forgettable fodder, such as Big Momma's House and Black Knight. In this film, though, he has clever chemistry with Smith, and that is what made this a hit.

The plot is simple. The two cops are Miami vice detectives who have nailed $100 million in heroin. When this massive amount of evidence is stolen from under the police's noses, the pair are given 72 hours to recover the dope, find the thieves, or Internal Affairs will bring them and Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) down. With little to go on, they cut a break when a young woman, Julie (Tea Leoni, Tower Heist), witnesses a murder by the criminals.  The catch is that Julie will only trust Lowery. But Lowery is not available, so Captain Howard persuades Burnett to become Lowery as Julie does not actually know either one. With Burnett pretending to be Lowery, Lowery has to pretend to be Burnett. The bachelor becomes the hen-pecked husband, and herein lies the laughs.

This Smith-Lawrence vehicle really focuses on the contrast of the two types of relationship. Lowery enjoys his playboy lifestyle, wearing designer clothes, driving a limited-edition Porsche and bedding numerous women. Burnett, on the other hand, drives a limited-life station wagon, sleeps with his loving wife and enjoys his three energetic kids. Which lifestyle is better?

The Bible has much to say about marriage. Even from the beginning, man and woman were united and joined in a one-flesh relationship (Gen. 2:24). And although the Old Testament is rife with polygamy, the New Testament makes it clear that monogamy is God's plan for the family (1 Tim. 3:2). In fact, marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:21-33). There is one bride for one bridegroom. And it is within the marriage relationship that sexual relations should be enjoyed (Heb. 13:4).

On the other hand, the Bible also addresses the single life. The apostle Paul comments, "Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried" (1 Cor. 7:8). Being single allows singleness of mind: "I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided" (1 Cor. 7:32-34). Singleness is not an excuse for playing the field, for sleeping with women, for living irresponsibly. Such a lifestyle is anathema to Jesus' teaching.

So, the right answer to the lifestyle question is dependent on the person.

But looking at Lowery and Burnett, we also see two friends comfortable with each other. Indeed, they bicker and complain to each other much like an old married couple. They know each other too well. Marriage is intended to lead to a level of intimacy that enables such knowledge. Would that we would all attain such a relationship.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Monday, February 6, 2012

Feb / March Movie Group Plans

Here are the tentative plans for movie group for February (2/18) and March (3/10). In February, we are plannnig to go out to a theater to see one of the big Oscar contenders, either Hugo or The Artist. We have not decided which film or which theater. But the date is firm for Saturday 2/18.

In March we are considering watching Terence Malick's The Tree of Life at church on 3/10 around 4:45pm. This is also up for the Best Picture award.

I will repost once we have firmed up the February selection.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Shaun of the Dead -- zombie gore, cultural parody

Director: Edgar Wright, 2004. (R) 

Before Hot Fuzz, one of my all-time favorite comedies, Edgar Wright cut his teeth with this horror comedy debut feature. Working with the same two main actors, Simon Pegg (who has gone onto fame in the Mission Impossible series) and Nick Frost (whose flame has not flared so brightly), Wright shows flashes of comedic brilliance. Seeing it for the second time it is not as funny as I remember, although it parodies English culture well.

Pegg plays the eponymous Shaun, a 29 year-old slacker with no real ambition in life. He lives in an apartment with school chums Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and Ed (Nick Frost). Pete has gone onto adult life, while Ed is a lazy low-life, sometime drug-dealer whose time Is spent playing video games and drinking beer. Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) wants to move up in the world and is seeking more commitment than Shaun is willing to give. Shaun’s idea of a perfect night is spent with Liz and Ed drinking pints at the pub. In fact that is where we first meet these characters. All problems, it seems, can be resolved over a beer at the Winchester Arms.

This pretty much nails much of British life. Growing up, most evenings out were spent at the local pub with the mates, just like Shaun. Culture was flat, one-dimensional. Expanding one’s scope meant trying new types of beer. Yet, there is much more to life than this.

Liz tries to change Shaun, urging him to give up smoking and try red wine instead of beer. She even wants a meal at a restaurant, not the pub. But it takes a challenge greater than this to knock Shaun off his tracks. When the residents of Shaun’s London neighborhood suddenly turn into zombies, something never explained, Shaun realizes he has to do something. He seeks to save his mom (not necessarily his stepdad – Bill Nighy), his girlfriend, and his best friend.

Wright chooses to show these residents at the start, even before “Z-day”, walking slowly, almost aimlessly. And he uses unknown actors who look odd, often unattractive. So when Shaun sees them as zombies they don’t appear much different to his hungover eyes.

It takes a while for Wright to get to the action, much like in Hot Fuzz. He takes his time to set up Shaun’s character, showing him at work, at home and in the pub. Yet once the zombies are in place, he splatters the screen with gore in an over-the-top Monty Python-esque manner (think the black knight from The Holy Grail). And he gives Shaun unlikely weapons to combat the zombies: cricket bats, garden spades, and vinyl LPs.

Eventually, Shaun rises from his couch to become a hero of sorts. The film shows us that even slackers can rise up to accomplish big (or bigger) things given the right motivation. When we are faced with an employee, a family member or friend who seems stuck in a rut, clinging to the couch, we can motivate him or her by appealing to his felt needs. Better yet, give him a challenge by making him an offer he can’t refuse.

Don’t look for much more than this in Shaun of the Dead. But enjoy some laughs in this tribute to George Romero, if a zombie comedy is your cup of tea.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Flirting with Disaster -- adoption and identity

Director: David O. Russell, 1996. (R)

Flirting with Disaster starts out with Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) talking to his adoption counselor Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni), a seemingly serious occasion and conversation. But very quickly its true nature emerges as it ascends into screwball comedy. And it is funny, laugh out loud funny, even if it is highly sexualized throughout.

Mel is adopted. We find that out in this first scene. And that has him stuck. His wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) gave birth to their son four months earlier and they have yet to name him. Mel is convinced that if he finds his birth parents he will get in touch with his roots and the right name for his boy will magically surface. So when Tina tells him she has found his mother, he is ready to embark on a cross-country journey to find and meet her. The catch is, Tina is joining the Coplin threesome so she can videotape the emotional reunion. She is also paying their costs.

Writer-director Russell has pulled together quite an ensemble comedy cast. Alongside straight man Stiller and Arquette, George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore show up as his brash adoptive New York parents. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Josh Brolin (True Grit) play the weirdest FBI agents you’ll come across in a long time, while Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin are his birth parents, throwback hippies. This year’s Tower Heist reunited Stiller, Alda and Leoni in a modern comedy but here we really see the comic skills of Leoni. Her timing is spot-on, and she even looks like a younger Annette Benning.

Mel, Nancy and Tina begin their trip in San Diego, but from there they move to the mid-West and New Mexico. With each leg of the journey, the plot gets wilder and the characters they meet get zanier. And along the way, the sexual chemistry between Mel and Tina heats up while Nancy meets an old school friend whose interest in her increases the tensions all around.

This is a road-trip to self-discovery for Mel. He wants to find his real identity. But how much truth is there in this concept? Certainly our identity is connected to our parental relationship. In many Western countries, we carry the surname or family name of our fathers. I am a Baggs by virtue of being born into the Baggs family. More than this, though, we bear a genetic connection to our parents, since they contributed to our DNA. When we know them and their traits, we find ourselves to a large degree. We often carry these traits ourselves, hence the sayings “a chip off the old block” or “like father like son”.

Relationship is important in terms of identity. As humans we find our identity in God. He formed us in the beginning in his image (Gen. 1:26), and from this initial creation we go onto procreate in our image and in his. Despite the fall (Gen. 3), we still bear the image of God (1 Cor. 11:7), our initial Father. We are his offspring (Acts 17:29).

But since Mel did not know his birth parents he had no information on his genetic ancestors. Yet he had a real relationship with his adoptive parents. They raised him from babyhood to adulthood. There is value and depth in that relationship, and those years spent in their home molded him into something of their neurotic image, whether part of his DNA or not.

Adoption is a key theme and is important to us, as well as to Mel. We are reminded that when Adam turned away from God in the garden of Eden, he separated himself from the father. We now bear a scar from that original sin, and find ourselves out of the family. Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to call the Pharisees, and by implication many of us, children of the devil, the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). But the good news is that we can be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18) and adopted into his family (Rom.8:15). We find our identity now through adoption. Our old nature is gone, our new nature is here.

Mel’s journey led him from his adoptive parents to his birth parents. Our journey to discovering our identity need not be as wild and crazy. But we will only get there if we submit to God’s adoption!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs