Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Vow -- permanence and memories

Director: Michael Sucsy, 2012. (PG-13) 

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. That’s a well-known aphorism that’s not quite true. Sometimes there are free lunches, meals with no strings attached. Here’s another one: there are no do-overs in life. We don’t get a mulligan on our mistakes. That’s more or less taken as gospel truth. But in this based-on-real-life movie, even this truism is in question. 

Most love stories start at the beginning and progress from boy meets girl to boy loves girl. Some start at the end, with boy loves girl and then proceeds how this happened. This one unconventionally starts with boy married girl, then proceeds to show this happened before showing telling the story of the do-over, with boy trying to woo girl all over again. 

 Channing Tatum stars as Leo, happily married to Paige (Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris) and living in Chicago. He has a recording studio, she is a budding sculptor with an impressive portfolio. With voice-over narration, act one tells the story of their whirlwind romance and quirky wedding. Absent are any family, present are friends only. 

Then there is a moment that changes everything. A snowy night, a freak car crash leaves Paige in a coma. When she awakes she has no memory of their relationship. She can recall her childhood and her family, but not Leo or their 4 years together. To make matters worse, her parents Bill (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and Rita (Jessica Lange) show up out of the blue to pay her medical bills and reclaim her daughter. Leo is pitted against the parents for the final two acts. 

 “Life’s all about moments, of impact and how they change our lives forever. But what if one day you could no longer remember any of them?” Leo’s comment centers the conflict in the movie. And it raises a question to ponder: can a person be held accountable for a vow s/he cannot remember making? Even though Paige is shown video evidence of her wedding, she cannot remember it and the groom is a stranger to her, though she is not to him.  

Memories. Who are we without them? Does our identity reside in these ephemeral and intangible ideas? Certainly, the quality of our identity is enhanced by them. But our fundamental identity is defined by our soul or spirit as it relates to God, our creator. We will one day be made whole, and presumably will have our memories restored. So memory cannot be the ultimate arbiter of identity. 

So let’s move on from memories to oaths. How permanent is a vow? In the Old Testament, Moses gave us this view of a vow: “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said” (Num. 30:2). Of course, this is a vow to the Lord, but marriage is a commitment before God and so should bear the same weight. Indeed, a vow is a solemn promise, a pledge not just a probability. But is a vow forgotten, a vow fractured? No, absolutely not. In today’s environment of aging boomers, there are more and more people suffering from wiped memories, dementia or Alzheimers. Their vows remain even if their relationships suffer. But for many the relationship persists; it is not ruptured. 

In The Vow, Leo finds himself pushed to the sidelines as Paige’s lack of memory makes him an outsider to her. Her family does not accept him. Her father offers him a deal with the devil to move on, to let her go. It is clear that he loves her, but desires her true happiness.  

Their vows are non-traditional. Theirs is a modern marriage. But does he fulfill his vow? And does she? As the movie progresses, Leo’s frustrations and temptations increase. Yet so do Paige’s. Both are victims, but she perhaps more than he. With Leo being given center stage, the movie falters a little, since we don’t get to experience the perspective of the person who has lost the remembrances. 

For such a great concept, the film is lacking true depth. It does not explore the ramifications nearly enough. Rather, it sets up obvious situations and plays them out fairly predictably. And the acting is no more than solid. No one really stands out here. 

But as mentioned this is more than a concept. It really happened. Kim and Krickitt Carpenter were in an automobile accident in the 1990s that left her (Krickitt) with no memory of her 18 month long marriage. Like Paige, she woke up to a man she did not know claiming to be her husband. But unlike in the film, the Carpenters had a strong Christian faith, and they drew strength from the Lord to rebuild a relationship together. Today, they are married with two children, but Krickitt still has no recollection of the 18 months prior to the car crash. In their book, “The Vow”, Kim says, “This story is not about me. It’s about the Lord and how He brought my wife and me through a terrible time to a life that is greater than we could have ever imagined. It’s about a commitment to the Lord and to each other.” This is a marvelous example of the truth of Rom. 8:28.  

The Vow, in the truest sense of the underlying book, is about a commitment to God that precedes a commitment to another. But that vow to God undergirds and provides the foundation for the vow to the spouse. Should a vow be permanent? Yes. Can it be? Absolutely, especially if it is centered in God above all. 

 Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Avengers -- manipulation and teamwork, freedom and subjugation

Director: Joss Whedon, 2012. (PG-13) 

The Avengers is awesome, an action-packed blockbuster that finds time to allow the characters be real and grow. It is both fun and funny, with numerous throw-away one-liners.  

With Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all together in one film, the fear is that the screen would not be big enough to hold them and the story too small to give them their space and freedom. The good news: such fears dissipate rapidly. Even without watching some of the individual superhero movies that told their creation narratives (I only saw Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk), the story still makes sense. Surely, there are some nuances that are missed by skipping those films, but it did not detract from the enjoyment of this film.

The plot is simple. Loki, the evil Norse god of mischief and half-brother to Thor, has come to Earth to bring it into slavery to him as its king. To do this he plans to open a portal in the universe to bring an army of reptilian aliens as his soldiers in this war. The earth and all humanity is at risk and only the team of superheroes stand in the way of supreme subjugation.

The film opens in the headquarters of SHIELD, where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists investigating the tesseract, a curious other-worldly cube with infinite energy potential. When Loki appears from nowhere right out of it, the movie kicks into high-gear and rarely lets up.

Recognizing the enormity of the danger, Fury begins calling his team of Avengers together, using Black Widow to manipulate and persuade Dr Banner (aka The Hulk) to join the “team” and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to invite Tony Stark. He himself meets with Steve Rogers (aka Captain America).

But this is no normal team. In fact, it is a collection of egos, massive, superhero sized egos. And they argue and fight, literally butting heads while causing massive destruction! Used to working alone without a rule book, Thor, Iron Man and The Hulk are not team-players by nature. Only Hawkeye, Black Widow and Captain America understand the need for order and following orders. And they should, after all they are soldiers and agents. It is only after they have figuratively gone at each other’s throats, a result of uncovering some of Fury’s secrets, that a final piece of manipulation via Fury’s “pep talk” pulls them finally together as a true team.

Manipulation and teamwork form the first pair of conflicting themes in The Avengers.

Manipulation usually refers to delusion, deception and betrayal, and carries negative connotations. For example, the Gibeonites manipulated the Israelites into letting them live with their careful deception in Joshua 9. And for much of The Avengers, manipulation masks such deception.  But the definition of manipulation refers to the skillful art of managing well. And Fury’s final manipulation, though deceitful, has a positive purpose – to form a team. This act is indeed artful management, even of superheroes.

Teamwork focuses on the cooperative or coordinated effort on the part of a group of persons acting together in the interests of a common cause. The superheroes here were a ragtag collection of individuals at the start. Characters all, but cooperative they were not. The scene with Iron Man battling Thor with Captain America intervening tells that story. But when given the right motivation and faced with a challenge that none alone could defeat, they bonded as a team.

It reminds me of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Not superheroes, they were ordinary men plucked from ordinary jobs by an extraordinary leader. During his three years of earthly ministry they bickered and postured for the better positions of power (Mk. 10:35-45). They were not yet a true team. But once Jesus died and rose from the grave, he formed them into a team and challenged them with the great commission to reach the world with the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20).

As we consider working with and forming teams, we might consider these lessons from the Avengers and the Disciples. Teamwork is more than simply bringing talented people together. They must be forged into one team, with a common mission. Artful manipulation and motivation is necessary to challenge them to put petty personal issues aside and look to the greater good of the common cause. It takes a true leader to create a true team.

It is this team that plays together in the final act where the war comes to New York. Director Josh Whedon brings all the sound and fury we would expect to the climax with a solid half-hour of non-stop action that explodes with thrills. This brings with it a satisfying culmination in the character arc of most of the superheroes, most notably Tony Stark, the narcissistic playboy.

The second pair of opposing themes is freedom versus subjugation.

Early in the film, Loki appears in Germany and cries out to a crowd of humanity:
Kneel before me. I said... KNEEL! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.
 God created humans as creatures with the freedom of choice. And their choice in the garden led to the entrance of sin into the world (Gen. 3). From that moment on, humanity was condemned to be slaves to sin (Rom. 6:20). For thousands of years we have been subjugated by an invisible force. But through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Our freedom came at the price of Christ’s death.

But what is true freedom? Is it total absence of external control? Surely this form of freedom would lead inevitably to anarchy and chaos, just as pure anger led The Hulk to constant destruction. Paul tells us “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). But he goes on to put a voluntary restriction on anarchic freedom: “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13). Clearly there is a positive freedom and a negative freedom. The bright lure of positive freedom in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit enhances your life’s joy through the cultivation of the fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Yet there is still a truth to the concept of subjugation. Loki is a demi-god. And he wanted to be worshiped. The true God, Yahweh, deserves to be worshipped and loved completely. Jesus told Satan, “‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’ ” (Matt. 4:10). In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, ““No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Money here can represent anything that stands in the way of devotion to God. We must choose. And God is a loving master; his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30). 

Loki is correct that we will kneel, but not to him. Paul tells us that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). We will kneel before God. We can choose to do so voluntarily here on earth, knowing Jesus as a loving and caring Savior. Or we will do so involuntarily in the afterlife when we face God as our just Judge who will confer on us what our hearts unfortunately wanted, a life apart from God and his grace and goodness, a life, not in subjugation to Satan, but a life of eternal isolation and loneliness. If we are ruled with perfect love, will we consider this a gift or a curse? You decide.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

(500) Days of Summer -- like versus love

Director: Marc Webb, 2009. (PG-13) 

“I like you” is totally different to “I love you” in a budding relationship. So, when does like become love? What happens if it doesn’t? This cute and quirky but unsentimental comedy addresses these relational questions.
“This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he'd never truly be happy until the day he met the one. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie 'The Graduate'. The girl, Summer Finn of Shinnecock, Michigan, did not share this belief. . . . Tom meets Summer on January 8th. He knows almost immediately she is who he has been searching for. This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.”
The opening narration makes it clear that this is not your typical romantic comedy.

In the middle there is a marvelous musical scene where Tom is walking with a skip in his step and breaks out into song, with those around him joining in. It is a clear reference to Central Park musical number from Enchanted, down to the animated bird that lands on his sleeve. Cute.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception) plays Tom, a romantic looking for the right love. He is a puppy dog looking for an owner. Zooey Deschanel (Elf) plays Summer, attractive but not gorgeous. She turns heads but wants no relationships or labels. They have a certain postmodern chemistry that is neither classic Hollywood nor current rom-com. The charm fades after a while but is enough to carry the viewer to the credits.

Tom is an architect from New Jersey who finds himself in LA working as a greeting card writer of the Hallmark-variety. When Summer joins the company as the new office assistant, it is love at first for Tom but not for her. Webb brings a non-linear approach to the movie, cutting back and forth across all 500 days of their relationship to show its ascent and descent. Framing each new scene with a day number, colored to indicate positive or negative, he enables us to place it in context.

One careful editing juxtaposes Tom reflecting on the same scene of Summer asleep and coming up with different reaction depending on the state of play: “I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love how she licks her lips before she talks. I love her heart-shaped birthmark on her neck,” he declares wistfully to his best friend when he is in the deep in the heady days of the relationship. But when it has soured, he says, “I hate her crooked teeth. I hate her 1960s haircut. I hate her knobby knees. I hate her cockroach-shaped splotch on her neck. I hate the way she smacks her lips before she talks.” Time and attitude can certainly color our memories.

This exemplifies the clever comedy. 

Supporting the two leads is Geoffrey Arund as McKenzie, Tom’s best friend and colleague, who is full of bluster but not able to sustain a relationship himself. And there is young Chloe Grace Moretz as Tom’s middle-school aged sister Rachel, who is wise beyond her years. She counsels him when things start to fall apart, and seems to be the only one he will listen to.

Summer likes Tom. She even gets close to letting her defenses down with the six special words, “I never told anyone this before.” But going from like to love is like crossing the abyss. It takes an act of magic or faith. 

Tom wanted love. We all seek love. To love and be loved is what makes us human, well at least one aspect. Love demands action. It demands that we give of ourselves so that we might receive of the other. When the Bible talks about love it gives us the greatest picture of all: Jesus. The best known verse, John 3:16, declares: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love was made manifest in the gift of Jesus Christ, a gift that cost his son his very life (Rom. 3:25). 

The Bible goes further, commanding us to “love one another” (Jn. 13:34). In context, Jesus is telling his disciples to love those like themselves to give evidence to the world of who they are. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes even further: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). This is difficult.

Anyone can like another person. That takes common interests or charisma, even charm. But not everyone loves another person, despite these biblical mandates. That takes something else. It takes commitment.

There’s a classic scene in 500 Days where Summer comes back to Tom to apologize. Tom says, “Look, we don’t have to put a label on it. That’s fine. I get it. But, you know, I just … I need some consistency. . . .I need to know that you’re not gonna wake up in the morning and feel differently.” To this Summer replies, “And I can’t give you that. Nobody can.” That is so not true. She is afraid of labels and unwilling to commit.

When love enters the equation commitment becomes central. “I do” resounds in the vows and the happy couple commits to consistency. This is the very heart beat of marriage.  The apostle Paul tells the couple, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5: 25) pointing to the act of sacrificially giving to the wife. And although he talks about “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands” (Eph. 5:22), this is really in the context of mutual submission (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” – Eph. 5:21), and the fundamental idea is commitment, love and respect.

We may be like Summer, afraid of labels and love, or we may be like Tom deeply craving love and commitment. But until we are ready to give ourselves away completely in a consistent commitment, we will not progress beyond liking one another. If this is the case, we must press on, believing in love and believing that another season will follow summer!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Super 8 -- innocence, mothers, and bad things

Director: J. J. Abrams, 2011. (PG-13)

Ah, for the good old days of the late 70s and early 80s, when life was simpler and innocence was not yet lost, and blockbusters had Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints all over them, such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. Well, with Spielberg producing this movie, Super 8 is like a trip down memory lane. Director J. J. Abrams (Star Wars) takes us back to those days, creating a movie that is so reminiscent of Spielberg at his best, yet not quite rising to the bar set by that most influential of film personalities.

Set in small town Ohio in 1979, the film is an intertwining of two stories. One focuses on six middle-schoolers who are making a zombie-movie on their super-8 video camera for a film festival competition. The other zooms in on the town itself as mysterious things start happening. But it is the character-based journey of the kids that sparkles.

The film starts with a wake. Young Joe (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother, and his father Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) doesn’t really know how to relate to him. Anyway, he is too caught up in his job as one of the town cops. This short scene sets the tone.

Moving forward several months, we find Joe and his friends intent of their movie-making. These are kids innocent and carefree, unencumbered by responsibility. Needing to add emotion to their story, the young director Charles (Riley Griffiths) decides to add a wife to the detective. He approaches Alice (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s sister) to drive them to the railroad station at midnight for the shoot, not telling her what he really wants. When there and asked, she does agree and one of the magical scenes in the film takes place. She delivers a phenomenal performance with little preparation, bringing tears to eyes and dropping jaws in the process. But as suddenly as the scene occurs, immediately a train wreck happens. Staged completely with cgi, this is the mother of all train wrecks, going totally over the top.

Escaping to prevent notice, they are surprised to find it is an army train. And the train was carrying a mysterious cargo. When the military descends on the town, the inhabitants accept it with a naivety born of the 50s. Today’s cynical citizens would demand more explanation, but not here. Yet, even as the military extend their reach, the boys continue their film-making and look on with awe.

One of the themes of the film is the innocence and wonder of youth.  This is captured beautifully in the performances of the young actors, especially the two leads Courtney and Fanning. Undisturbed by all around them, they can look at life and enjoy what they see. Life is still an exciting adventure for them. 

Today’s teens sadly have been tainted by too much television and technology. We no longer see this kind of innocence and wonder in young people this age. It still resides in elementary schoolers, but even that is disappearing.  The age of innocence is dwindling too rapidly.

Children, or in this case young teens, have an innate sense of wonder and innocence. Luke tells us, “Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’ “ (Lk. 18:16). In another context, Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). We must bring this child-like wonder to our relationship with God. We must discard our grown-up sense of doubt or distrust, even guilt, and look on Jesus with awe. Truly, he is worthy of worship as we worship him in spirit and in truth.

A second theme emerges from Joe and Alice’s relationships. Not so much theirs, although they are clearly drawn to one another, even if she fights it. Rather, the impact of the loss of their mothers. While Joe’s mother has died, Alice’s has departed leaving her with her dropout dad Louis (Ron Eldard). Both have suffered from one-parent homes where the father is falling down on the parental job, either due to laziness or due to workaholism.

Children need both parents. The nuclear family is not just a nice concept, it is God’s ideal from the very start (Gen. 1-3). When the mother is absent, the nurturing and feminine side is lost. When the father is preoccupied, children are forced to fend for themselves, putting on them responsibilities too early. Innocence can be lost, or relationships with the opposite sex can be damaged. Mothers play an important role in the upbringing of their offspring. Even if that has changed over the last thirty years, it is still so important to have a balance of parental influences.

After the train wreck, inexplicable events start taking place. People disappear. Property is damaged or destroyed. The army, under Nelec’s command (Noah Emmerich), comes to clean up, but they are hiding their true motivation. Bad things start happening. Indeed, Joe tells one character toward the end, “Bad things happen. But you can still live.”

For an innocent kid, this is a pearl of wisdom. Life is not fair, yet it is good. Bad things happen to good people as well as to bad ones. There is often no distinction. Jesus tells us that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Whatever may befall us, life still goes on. And we can trust God when he says, through the Apostle Paul, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The “all things” includes the things which seem bad from our perspective but which are used by God to mature and perfect us, ultimately being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In Time -- immortality and sacrifice

Director: Andrew Niccol, 2011. (PG-13) 

“I don't have time. I don't have time to worry about how it happened. It is what it is. We're genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. The trouble is, we live only one more year, unless we can get more time. Time is now the currency. We earn it and spend it. The rich can live forever. And the rest of us? I just want to wake up with more time on my hand than hours in the day.”  Will Salas (Justin Timberlake, The Social Network) narrates these lines at the start of the film, explaining the curious twist at the heart of this science fiction film: time is currency.

Niccol does a fantastic job in the first half hour of showing how time has become central to everything. The 13 green glowing digits on every person’s forearm blink continuously showing how long they have left to live, in years, months, days, hours, minutes and seconds. When the number hits zero, you time-out; with a sudden jolt you expire. Store prices show in minutes or hours. A car might cost 57 years, a cup of coffee 5 minutes. There is even a 99 second store, just like the local dollar stores. There are Timekeepers, who enforce the law and “keep the clock running;” Minute Men, who rob others of their time; and time zones that separate the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots.

In the first act we meet Will, living at home with a beautiful woman who we discover is his mother. It could be his girlfriend. It is a shock to see multiple generations all looking the same age. After work, he goes to a bar and intervenes when a stranger loaded with over 100 years of time is about to be mugged by Minute Men. Saving the man, Henry, Will takes him to a deserted building to spend the night. It turns out, Henry is over 100 years old, from New Greenwich in the rich zone, and tired of living. He just wants to die. While sleeping he transfers his time to Will, then leaves to expire, essentially committing suicide. He writes an apropos message on the window for Will: “Don’t waste my time.” This intended pun becomes Will’s mission.

With time on his hands, or literally on his arm, Will goes to New Greenwich to fix the system, to rebalance the economic (or is it temporal) disparity. There he encounters Philippe Weis, a billionaire in years, while gambling with his life in a casino. When he wins, he meets Philippe’s beautiful daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried, Letters to Juliet). At first, she is opposed to the risks that Will takes, such as swimming in the sea, since those with time on their hands avoid making mistakes that might lead to a premature death. Instead, they dawdle through life, without really experiencing it. But with Time Keeper Leon (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins) doggedly pursuing Will believing him to be Henry’s murderer, Will kidnaps Sylvia. As she spends time with him, she rejects her father’s values and totally embraces Will’s. 

As unlikely as this seems, her life is turned upside down in under a day. And she goes from uber-rich kid to uber-outlaw. What was an outstanding concept descends into typical Bonnie and Clyde pulp material.
As far as acting goes, Timberlake shows the work he did in the Facebook film was not a flash in the pan. He is not an Oscar-contender, but he carries this film in a worthy manner. Seyfried has little to do but look pretty with huge green eyes. Her character is a caricature. Likewise, Murphy has little material to work with. He is the pursuer but not really the villain. The system is the antagonist, chiefly manifested in Philippe but really beyond that single individual.

There are any number of parallels with the gospel message which emerge through a number of contrasting statements from these central characters. Sylvia says at one point, referring to her life of time and ease, “We’re not meant to live like this. We’re not meant to live forever.” The biblical account contradicts this. We were meant to live forever. Adam and Eve were created innocent and pure, intended to spend eternity in the presence of God in the garden (Gen. 1-2). They were meant to live forever.
But obviously we all die. Our body clocks run down and we expire, even if we don’t remain looking young. The original sin in the garden (Gen. 3) resulted in the consequence of physical death (Gen. 3:19). With  a few exceptions, no one is physically immortal. Death is our destiny.

Earlier in the film, Henry tells Will, “For a few to be immortal, many must die.” Here is the idea of sacrifice. In context, Henry is talking about the rich feasting parasitically off the lives of the poor. But Will retorts, “No one should be immortal if even one person has to die.” The biblical concept refutes Will and takes Henry’s idea but turns it around. For many to be immortal, only one must die.

Jesus Christ came to earth with a mission to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10). He essentially was the second Adam, the perfect man (1 Cor. 15:45-49). He willingly went to the cross to die so that we might be offered to the chance to live (Rom. 3:21-26). As the high priest at the time said, becoming an unknowing prophet, “it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (Jn. 11:50). Now, though we die we still can live in an everlasting life that begins now and continues in heaven. All are offered this gift of life, but not all take. The death of one provides immortality for all who would receive Christ (Jn. 1:12). In contrast to Will’s comment, no one can be immortal unless one person dies – Jesus. Without his sacrificial death, our sin would go unpunished, unatoned for. We would remain unforgiven, destined for death. But since the death was willing and voluntary, no one should refuse to be immortal, no one should ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. This gracious gift should be gratefully claimed. It is the gift of time, the gift of immortality.

In Time is enjoyable but clich├ęd. The end leaves too many implications, and the ethical themes are simply not explored. When Philippe tells Sylvia, “You’d steal from your own father,” she asks, “Is it stealing if it’s already stolen?” This opens up an ethical dilemma, but rather than interact with it, the film turns the thief into a Robin Hood figure. It is saying it is OK to steal if it is redistributed to the needy, a take on social justice.

Moreover, the disparity between the two social classes could have been mined for moral material. But it was left alone. How Will could possibly solve the problems of his society remain a mystery. Yet as an action movie it delivers some thrills. On the whole, these 109 minutes is time reasonably well spent.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rango -- heroes, hope and history

Director: Gore Verbinski, 2011. (PG)

The Western is a waning genre. Oh there have been flashes of genius in this category, such as the 2010 remake of True Grit, but these have been few and far between. But animated Westerns – that’s another story completely. Those have been like an honest politician: almost impossible to remember. That is, until Rango. Although it is set in present day America, the action takes place in a town that is a throw-back to the 1880s, an anachronism.

Rango is the first animated movie from Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company created by George Lucas to work on Star WarsIV. And it is quite a movie, picking up the 2012 Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The creative team has crafted a stunningly beautiful film. The colors are vivid, the sound is impressive, and the animation simply spectacular. Even with desert creatures that are hideously ugly, the movie is still marvelous. Gore Verbinski seems a master of animation, despite this being his debut in the medium. But he does know how to make silly action films, as evidenced by the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies he helmed.

The movie opens with a pet lizard (Johnny Depp, Chocolat) in an aquarium. Posturing amongst his props, this chameleon is acting and directing in an imaginary stage play. But when the car he is travelling in swerves to avoid an accident, the aquarium goes flying out the back, only to shatter on the blazing blacktop somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The lizard finds himself in the middle of the road, left abandoned. Isolated, he is called by Roadkill (Alfred Molina, Chocolat), an armadillo who is, well, . . . roadkill. Roadkill offers him some sage advice about “the Spirit of the West,” an unidentified deity, and then tells him to go to the other side. He is encouraging the lizard to go on a spiritual quest of self-discovery to a town called Dirt. There, the currency is water, but the water supply is dwindling.

When he gets to Dirt, after several misadventures, the lizard enters the saloon. Seeking to impress the locals, the budding thespian spins some tall tales about his exploits taking out the James gang, 7 of them, all with one bullet. When asked his name, he looks at the label on the cactus juice bottle, and shortens Durango (where it was made, in Mexico) to Rango. When he subsequently breathes flames into a thug’s face and then kills the hawk that terrorizes the town, he becomes the town hero and is made sheriff.

Indeed, hero is a key theme of the film. Rango is an unlikely hero. He is an actor-wannabe, obsessed with playing a role. He doesn’t really know who he is, evidenced by his character as lizard with no name, until he becomes Rango. (A nod to the spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood famous; even the music here is reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's haunting score in those films.) But he wants to be a hero, at least while it is still easy. Later, he is told a hero is known by his deeds.

What is a hero? He is a person who commits an act of remarkable bravery, or shows admirable quality of strength or courage. Is he born or does he become one through a combination of circumstances? Most heroes rise to the occasion, not knowing that they are heroic. Rango is like that, at least eventually. When they follow the perceived need and realize that they can meet the need or fill the void, they become the hero that is needed. 

We can be like that, too. We are not born into the hero’s mold. But when we follow God’s calling in our lives and allow him to use us, we find he has set out works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Challenges face us, like Goliath facing David (1 Sam. 17). When we face the giants that oppose us, we become heroes in our own way. 

More than this, though, heroes offer something special to those around them – hope.

In the town of Dirt, with the water running dry, the inhabitants are losing hope and leaving. They look to the Mayor (Ned Beatty), a tortoise whose shell forms his wheelchair, but he controls the water and offers little hope. He supervises the weekly doling of the water ration, a zany ritual where the townsfolk dance their way to the spigot whereupon the Mayor leads them in an old-style “worship service”, complete with hallelujah choruses. But Rango’s entrance and presence gives them hope, even while his leadership should be raising questions. He is an actor, after all. What does he know about possees and hangings.

Hope, like water, is crucial for life. Without either life dries up and expires. When times get tough, we long for hope, to find someone to turn to. We want that hero with hope. The Bible gives us this hope-inspiring hero: Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, Matthew tells us, “In his name the nations will put their hope” (Matt. 12:21). In the Old Testament, the psalmist points to God for this hope: “We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield” (Psa. 33:20). With this hope in a hero who does not disappoint (Isa. 49:23), we can find anchor for our soul, and thirst for our weary souls (Psa. 42:2).

Verbinski throws in the mandatory love interest, in this case a female lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher, Confessions of a Shopaholic). She sparks Rango’s attraction. He also stirs in a mean villain, Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy, Hot Fuzz), a killer snake with a six-shot shooter in place of a rattle. The most intriguing character is the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant), who literally looks and sounds like Clint Eastwood in his famous “man with no name” role (A Fistful of Dollars). He is the godlike figure who offers more wisdom to Rango: “It’s not about you, it’s about them.” And perhaps more sagely, “No man can walk out of his own story.” 

This statement underscores the concept of destiny. We each have a story, a part that we play in the bigger scheme of things, the grander story of history. Mordecai alluded to this when he wrote to Esther in the Old Testament, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14). We have an obligation to play out the roles we find ourselves in. In this way, a man makes his story into history.

But the real history is centered in His story, the wonderful story of the hope-giving Christ. As Paul said, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Elsewhere, he wrote: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:17). Indeed, Jesus Christ “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3).

Rango accepted the wisdom of the Spirit figure and turned and embraced his destiny. Jesus accepted the wisdom of the Spirit of God (Matt. 3:16) and fully embraced his destiny, even if meant setting his face like flint (Isa. 50:7) to approach crucifixion and death. And while Rango rose to become a hero, Jesus literally rose from the dead to become our hero!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Carnage -- social hypocrisy and original sin

Director: Roman Polanski, 2011. (R)

We all remember middle-school: name-calling, bullying, shifting alliances. This movie centers on these, but it is the four adult protagonists that display these juvenile traits, not the children. And the carnage of the title is not the violence of the boys, but the verbal violence of the parents.

The film opens with a scene in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, where one boy hits another boy across the face with a large stick, breaking two teeth and leaving him injured. But it is their parents who come center stage in this play-turned movie. Like the play, all the action takes place in one of their homes, an expensive condo in Manhattan. Polanski's earlier film Repulsion exuded a pschological claustrophobia, with its protagonist trapped in her apartment, but here he brings a cultured claustrophobic feel. Yet we still seem trapped like the two couples as their social interaction degenerates into cutting and vicious criticism.

New CARNAGE movie poster imageThe Longstreets, Penelope (Jodie Foster, The Brave One) and Michael (John C. Reilly, The Gangs of New York), are the parents of the victim, and they invite the Cowans, Nancy (Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road) and Alan (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds), parents of the attacker, to work through the incident in a civilized manner. After they formulate a letter, they are all done until Penelope and Michael want to discuss in more detail

At first, the two couples are superficially friendly and socially accepting. Polite discourse over coffee and cobbler ensues. But as the conversation progresses, the couples begin to drop their guard until they lose it, literally. When Nancy throws up over the coffee table and Penelope’s precious art books, long out of print, the gloves come off. Verbal jousting begins. And while the two couples face off against one another initially, as alcohol enters the picture, the couples degenerate into individuals, fighting anyone who is near. Finally, gender lines are drawn, as the men sit together drinking single malt whisky pouring disdain on the women.

The performances are stellar, even if the plot ends suddenly. Each main actor has terrific dialog to work with, and brings the character to life. They are all different. Penelope represents the liberal do-gooder, whose theoretical commitment to Dufur is trumped by Alan’s experiential put-downs. But when push comes to shove, and vomit hits her books, she is as consumerist as the next Manhattanite. Michael is the average working man, who wants to keep the peace, and pours oil onto the conversation until he is belittled for his work by lawyer Alan. Alan, in turn, is a workaholic glued to his cell phone. Everything takes second fiddle to this omnipresent device. All conversations get put on hold when his cell rings. And when Nancy drops it in the vase, he is useless, reduced to sitting aimlessly on the floor. And there is Nancy, a professional woman whose marriage is a sham, a facade, and who desperately wants more out of her family relationships.

The underlying theme of the film is social hypocrisy. We put on a face to the world, even to our own family at times. These masks hide our true selves. When confronted with others, we go through the motions of social expectation, saying the right thing until we are stretched to the breaking point. When that happens, the mask falls off and the inner personality emerges ready to fight and defend, like a mama bear protecting its cubs.

Hypocrisy comes from the Greek word for play-acting on a stage, where the actors wore masks to hide behind. Jesus scathingly berates those who practice hypocrisy: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matt. 23:13). He repeats this verbal attack multiple times, and warns his disciples, ““Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Lk. 12:1). Hypocrisy in all its forms is a form of sin that must be avoided.

When we remove the thin veneer of civilization we find the evil lurking beneath. The root problem is sin, that ugliness that has tainted the human heart (Jer. 17:9) since the dawn of time. Adam’s sin caused his offspring to become fallen (Gen. 3). Such depravity impacts the wholeness of a person, making him selfish and sinful. We don't want others to know our true selves, so we hide behind a mask that projects to others what we want them to see. Only when we accept our brokenness, realizing we need healing from a savior can we experience wholeness. Jesus offers us such healing and true life (Jn. 10:10). In him we can discard our masks and live freely with our true face showing. In him we can let go of the carnage that cripples relationships.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs