Thursday, June 28, 2012

This Means War -- picking the right mate

Director: McG, 2012 (PG-13)

This Means War is a romantic-comedy that tries to add action to catch the attention of the guy and ends up failing in all categories. It is not so romantic. The comedy is few and far between. And the action is basically to bookend the plot, what plot there is.

FDR (Chris Pine, Star Trek) and Tuck (Tom Hardy, Inception) are two CIA agents and best friends. The movie starts in Hong Kong with an action sequence that shows their ability to totally misunderstand the concept of covert. They are supposed to secretly stop a European spy from getting something (we never know quite what) and to do so without drawing attention to themselves. Well, that one goes away in a hurry. But we learn that FDR would take a bullet for Tuck, and vice versa. They are BFFs. But here is where this part of the plot is placed on hold for the next two acts.

For their failure, they are grounded. Trained field agents now sit in the office, bantering with each other. Tuck is a divorced dad, a safe and secure guy who’d surely make a great husband. FDR is a ladies man, smooth and charming, but who’s likely to be having a secret affair with an airline hostess every Tuesday. Oh yeah, she does show up for their appointment.

Meanwhile Lauren (Reese Witherspoon, Rendition) is a single woman whose been let down by an earlier boyfriend’s infidelities. She wants to date but is afraid of getting hurt. So her best friend places signs her up at an on-line dating agency. There she sees Tuck’s profile and they have a sweet first date. But when she leaves him, she runs into FDR, who badgers his way into a date with her, too. When they find out they are both dating the same woman, the competition is on. They set ground rules, but decide to let Lauren choose the best man. They agree to leave their occupation outside of their dating, but the pressure is too much. Before they know it, each is bugging her apartment and using satellite technology to track each other’s dates breaking multiple privacy laws in the process. At that point, it means war!

The movie essentially tries to combine two plots into one. The back-plot of the European spy coming after them gives pretext for two major action sequences and the finale. But the main story is the romance war between them. And these stories do play well together. The plot is lazy, the dialogue trite, and the main actors seem bored; accomplished as they are, they seem to be going through the motions here.

There are some comic moments, but most of the jokes are sexual in nature. It’s hard to root for any of these. Who do we want Lauren to choose? We don’t care because she is not that likeable. Anyone who decides a sex-off will provide the winner is a person set up for relational failure. The ending, when it arrives is simply too neat and tidy. She makes her choice, but we can see what will happen because the plot demands no loose ends.

The only piece of good advice offered in the film comes from Lauren’s oversexed married friend Trish (Chelsea Handler), who tells her to choose the man who bring out the best in her. This is surprisingly strong wisdom from an otherwise superficial and weak film.

When it comes to looking for a spouse, it is not the external looks that count, although they play an important part in the chemistry of attraction. It is the character and care that the other person brings to the relationship. A spouse completes a person. The right one will bring out the best in us, because he or she will want to see us grow to our maximum potential. Such a spouse will bring a selfless love to the marriage, just as Christ did to the church (Eph. 5:22-33). But the wrong one will eventually show a selfish nature that will focus on what can be taken from the marriage rather than what can be given. Such a spouse will limit rather than allow. Growth is stunted, relationship dries up, and divorce happens.

Would either of these men be the right one for Lauren? Who really cares? Skip this one. Its title should have been, “This Means Bore”.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Friday, June 22, 2012

Man on a Ledge -- innocence regained

Director: Asger Leth, 2012. (PG-13)

First time director Asger Leth brings an interesting concept to the heist movie: put a man on a ledge to prove his innocence through means of the heist.

The movie starts off quickly with Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington, Avatar), checking into a New York City hotel, ordering a slap-up breakfast and then stepping out onto the ledge of his high-rise room. A would-be jumper, the cops are called in to shut the block down and bring him down. But he is more than the casual suicide. 

We learn from flashback that he is an ex-cop framed for a jewel theft and sentenced to 25 years in Sing Sing. When he is allowed out of prison for one day to attend his father’s funeral, he manages to escape, outrace several police cars and survive a car wreck that would leave most people dead or maimed.

He asks for police negotiator Lt. Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) to talk him down, but he wants to use her to help prove his innocence. He believes David Englander (Ed Harris, Apollo 13), a smooth wealthy real estate entrepreneur, set him up for the fall. Meanwhile his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and out-of-his-league sexy girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodrigues) are committing the heist in Englander’s building across the street.

Worthington is solid as the cop out to prove his innocence. His time on the foot of concrete that lies between him and 25 floors of dead air is suspenseful. As an acrophobiac, just thinking of his situation, especially when the camera panned downwards, left me sweating. But the plausibility of the overall concept ended up derailing the movie. There is simply too much that could not happen, from the opening of windows that would never open, to the twist at the end that wraps it up in oh so neat of a way. And the other actors are mostly wasted, with roles that are more caricature than real people.

At one point in the film, Cassidy tells Mercer he is ready to die. Later he asks her how far she would go to prove her innocence. These two interactions are probably the most meaningful in the whole film.

How far would we go to prove our innocence? Are we ready to die to achieve this?
Biblically, the Garden of Eden scene from Genesis 3 shows how we lost our innocence. When Adam and Eve chomped on the forbidden fruit, they fell from grace. Sin entered the world. We became guilty. We can no longer claim innocence before God. All stand guilty before him, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). 

But the second question is more crucial. Are we ready to die to regain innocence? Jesus paid it all for us. He took our place on the cross as a sacrifice of atonement for us (Rom. 3:25) that we might be forgiven. We can be justified through faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). And “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). 

Yet such innocence regained comes at a personal price, as Jesus made clear: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). To take up the cross was to carry the means of death to your own execution. We must be ready to die to the old self so that we might live a new life, a life of innocence in Jesus Christ. Are you ready for this? 

If you are standing on a ledge today seeking to regain innocence, take a leap of faith into the arms of Jesus Christ. Not only will catch you, but he will give you what you always wanted: innocence, life, love.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Book Review: To Heaven and Back -- inspiring story and life perspective

Author: Mary C. Neal. MD, 201. (Waterbrook Press)

Mary Neal is an orthopedic surgeon and a self-described skeptic. So when she died in a kayak accident and experienced the peace of God in the afterlife and came back to tell about it, her story is not to be easily dismissed. Indeed, this is a compelling and remarkable story of a person who has experienced life's lows and life's highs, a person who is by nature very private, but a person who was given personal revelation from God.

The drowning in a Chilean river occurred in 1999 but it took Dr. Neal a decade to pen these words, and when she did they flowed quickly and easily. The book itself is an easy read, at a mere 200 pages. One disappointment is that the out-of-body journey is not described in more length. Yet, Dr. Neal strives to put this in context of her overall life, integrating what she learned from this into her daily living. And as such, this can be an inspiring story that enriches the faith of her readers.

Along with her own death, she relates the deaths of several close relatives including her father and step-father as well as one of her children. She recounts what she calls miracles, messages from God via angels or events, that pushed her to make decisions that ultimately encouraged and uplifted her and her family, even in these tough times.

As a surgeon, she is clearly educated and describes her injuries in detail. But as a theologian, she is uneducated. But then again, she does not write this as a theological treatise. There are a couple of theological points I felt uncomfortable with, that seem to contradict the message of the Bible.

In chapter 12 ("Going Home" page 73) she describes a hall, an entry of pure radiance and love: "It was clear that this hall is the place where each of us is given the opportunity to review our lives and our choices, and where we are given a final opportunity to choose God or to turn away -- for eternity."  Later, in chapter 22 ("Inspiration to Others" page 140), she describes a Mormon patient who, after death, got permission from the Father to come back to his wife with a message for Dr. Neal. The Bible never indicates we are given a second chance to choose Jesus and God after death. Rather, it underscores the need to choose to live a life of faith in Christ in this life, with final judgment, not final preference waiting on the other side (cf. Rev 20:11-15). Moreover, Jesus says "I am the way and the truth and the life" (Jn. 14:6) and this way is narrow, like a narrow gate. There is no way for the Jesus of the Mormon gospel to be the same Jesus from the Christian New Testament. They simply have different messages. So, here Dr. Neal's theology seems errant. But I don't want to impugn her experience, only question her theological interpretation.

On the other hand, chapter 17 ("Conversing with an Angel" page 100ff), in which she recounts her subsequent conversations with Jesus, address an age-old question "why do bad things happen to good people" and present valuable insight in a down-to-earth fashion. "Even the most terrible circumstances and events can stimulate great change in individuals and/or societies. Without observing cruelty, we would not be moved to compassion. Without personal trials, we would note develop patience or faithfulness." She concludes, "My point is this: interpreting something that happens as being inherently 'good' or 'bad' is entirely a matter of perspective." And she takes great pains, throughout the development of the book, to point out that her enlightened perspective is that God's will is constantly being done, and that there is no such thing as accidental circumstance. He is overseeing all, as indicated by Rom. 8:28-30.

Despite any minor misgivings on a theological front, this is a book that inspires faith in Jesus and encourages living a life in the present, taking nothing for granted. Dr. Neal leaves us with three key verses from Paul's message to the Thessalonian church, verses that God supernaturally inscribed on her soul. "Rejoice always" (1 Thess. 5:16); "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5;17); and "Give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:18). We could do well to live life centered on these three imperatives!

Note: I received a free copy from Waterbrook Publishing but was not influenced to provide a positive review.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Storm -- partial justice and compromise

Director: Hans-Christian Schmid, 2009. (PG-13) 

A Mediterranean beach on a sunny day, a father splashes his two daughters as they play on the shore. Such an idyllic scene opens this German independent film. But in the next scene policeman are arresting the man, Goran Duric, for war crimes and atrocities akin to those of the Nazi regime fifty years before. A scene later in the film shows a victim of this monster playing with her son on the beach, possibly the same one that Duric enjoyed earlier. In the first Duric seems happy, in the latter the victim is wary, even anxious, filled with painful memories. Both enjoy their family, but one is a monster, with delusions of racial superiority, and the other is a mensch, who wants to be left alone to live a simple life.

The movie revolves around these two characters but centers on Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox), a prosecutor at the Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal. Losing a promotion to her peer Keith (Stephen Dillane), he gives her an “easy” case to prosecute against Duric. He is a former commander of the Yugoslav National Army, a Serbian leader and current politician, who is accused of deporting and subsequently killing dozens of Bosnian Muslims in the Serb-Croat war of the 1990s. With an eye-witness ready to finger Duric, things seem cut and dried. That is, until the witness is caught in a lie and decides to commit suicide.

About to become the scape-goat for a lengthy trial that is on the brink of defeat, Hannah goes to Serbia to attend the witness’ funeral and seek out more information. Her investigation leads her to Mira (Anamaria Marinca), sister of the dead witness. Mira has left Serbia for Berlin and a new start in life with her German husband and son. She has secrets but does not want to reveal them.

Billed as a political thriller, this could barely called a thriller. Rather, it is a slow moving, restrained drama. Violence resides just below the surface but remains unseen for the most part, merely threatened. There are no car chases or guns fired. Yet for the viewer who enjoys seeing slow character development amid a thoughtful not necessarily tidy plot, this film does bring some punch.

As the film develops, the intersection of politics and justice produces a collision of ideals. Hannah, caught up personally in the unfolding secrets, wants to see Duric convicted for his brutal crimes against humanity. But her friends and lovers have other agendas, political ones that seem to trump the feelings of the individual. The question at the heart of the movie is voiced by the witness in the court: “What kind of court is this? What the hell is it actually for?” Hannah’s internal conflict is between her desire for justice and her desire to keep her job. The external conflict is between justice and politics. So, the central question becomes, is partial justice (a compromised justice) better than none at all?

Duric is an obvious cinematic stand-in for Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian leader who is widely regarded as the chief architect of ethnic cleansing in the war, and who stood trial for his war crimes at the Hague in 2009. He is accused of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II. Facing charges of genocide, for killing over 8000 Muslims, and the trial continues. Who knows if justice will prevail.

But the film seeks to bring closure to the lengthy trial that Duric faced. And it does this via compromise. Who wins in this case? Is justice done? Surely for the victims, depicted by Mira, partial justice is an empty justice, devoid of decency. She wanted to be heard, to finally face her oppressor and speak the truth without undue fear. By being silenced, she is refused this opportunity. Even if found guilty, a partial justice favors the accused, since the punishment becomes watered down too much. The truth remains hidden. Bigger agendas prevail.

When it comes to justice, to compromise is to abet the criminal. The political cost of forcing the fullness of the trial becomes the determiner. Much of our modern western justice is similar. We see so many plea-bargains because it is easier and cheaper to negotiate and compromise and slap the wrists of criminals. It helps the tax-payer, apparently, because it minimizes costly trials. It helps the accused, because he gets a lighter punishment, often being released for time spent in jail. But it usually does not help the victim. Justice itself often becomes a victim.

God’s justice is not compromised by the pale shadow of politics. In God’s realm, there is full justice, true guilt and innocence. Sadly, we all find ourselves guilty before his bench (Rom. 3:23). We cannot offer a plea-bargain to this Judge. He seeks full condemnation. Yet, unlike earthly courts, he has placed the full weight of punishment on a scapegoat, a substitute. Christ Jesus has taken this upon himself by going to the cross and dying for all humanity (1 Pet. 2:24). In an amazing display of justice revealed and forgiveness offered (Rom. 3:26), Christ’s sacrifice on the cross allows the guilty to find release; in Christ we stand uncondemned, acquitted (Rom. 8:1)! Christ was the voluntary victim. We are free, if we follow Jesus.

The storm of the title seems to be in the soul of Hannah primarily, and in the soul of Mira secondarily. This storm swirls around building up to the climax when hurls down accusations. When faced with internal conflict and pressure to silence the innocent victim for the sake of the bigger picture, will we acquiesce and settle for partial justice? Or will we put our careers (or lives) on the line and push for true justice? We may face such a storm some day.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Guard -- dignity, duty and drift


Director:John Michael McDonagh, 2011. (PG-13) 

The opening scene shows a group of young guys drinking and driving, swerving all over the road. When they pass a hidden cop car, the officer does nothing. Containing a yawn, he waits idly before slowly pulling out. By the time he reaches their car, it lies on its roof, with their bodies scattered. Picking through their pockets the Guardia officer finds some drugs and samples one, like a consumer in Costco. This picture plainly portrays Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson): an unconventional cop. Not dirty in the sense of Hollywood’s corrupt policeman, Boyle is a man with his own morals and laws who seeks to maintain the law in his little village. 

John McDonagh penned the script for his directorial debut, creating a simple plot that is strong on character filled with crackling dialogue and fast wisecracks (as well as very liberal swearing). Despite the heavy Irish brogue, most of the comedic lines come across.  This is like an Irish version of Hot Fuzz, pairing two unlike cops, one of who does not want to be a partner. 

The plot revolves around drugs in a sleepy town on the west coast of Ireland. Boyle runs the local police station, which consists of him and a new guardsman. When FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) is sent to investigate a $500M drug running operation said to be coming to the area, apparently involving a team of low-life thugs, Boyle is one-step ahead. Because of this and his knowledge of the town, the two are paired off as buddy cops. 

Yet the two are like chalk and cheese. Boyle is boozy and single, focused on his pleasures as much as his work, doing a little dope and drink to unwind. Everett is straight-laced, a family man with a kid at home. Being black, Boyle assumes he is from the projects, but not so. Boyle’s racism comes across loud and clear, but he is open about it: “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.” This is actually funnier than it sounds when taken in context. But it highlights the dry and British sense of humor prevalent throughout. It is fast and throwaway, ignoring social mores. 

While running with the drug theme, the film still finds time to focus on family. Boyle’s mother is dying but retains her sense of humor and sense of dignity while living in a hospice. Their conversations, in scattered scenes, borders on the peer friend level rather than mother-son. But their dialogue conveys the depths and openness of their relationship even to the end. 

There are few themes here. Like Hot Fuzz, this is a fun film that remains superficial. Yet, three themes do emerge. Dignity is the first. Boyle’s mother does not want to be like some of the “inmates” of the hospice, shuffling around waiting sadly to die a lonely death. No, she wants to face death with dignity. Unlike many, she is not afraid of her imminent demise. Although not a godly woman, “she is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come” (Prov. 31:25). Oh that we should be like this woman as we approach the end of our days on earth.  Dignity is a character quality to be esteemed.  

A second theme is duty. Although Boyle enjoys playing around in pubs and with prostitutes (and was ready to take his vacation day off despite the presence of killers and drug smugglers, much to the chagrin of Everett), he does take his work seriously. He has a duty to those in his community as their law enforcer. He wears his Guardia uniform with pride. He serves in a manner worthy of the uniform. 

As followers of Christ we wear a uniform: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Jesus is our uniform! And because of this we must conduct ourselves “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27). Moreover, whatever our job, the apostle Paul commands us: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Eph. 6:7). We need to take our Christian duty seriously. 

The third theme emerges from Clive Cornell (Mark Strong), the only English thief amongst the group of criminals. And he is different in many ways. Here is a thug who pines for meaning in life. He yearns for a better class of crook. He refuses to carry a body since it was not in his job description as an international drug trafficker.  

This philosophical pilfering punk voices the deep discontent each soul feels at one time or another: what is the meaning of life? What is its drift? Is there something beyond the everyday mundane? Indeed, there is. God has made each one of us to have a relationship with him. Perhaps Solomon, the wisest king to live and the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, echoed this most poetically saying of life, “All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecc. 2:17). Yet he recognized that God “has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecc. 3:11). And in the concluding verses of his book he declared, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Ecc. 12:13). 

The New Testament writers painted a clearer picture. The meaning of life is found in knowing Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6) and is the one who said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). So, regardless of our career or vocation, our job title or position, we can find meaning in Christ if we do everything for him with thanksgiving in our hearts(Col. 3:17).  

Dignity, duty and drift emerge then from the shallow depths of this slightly off-color comedy as lessons we can hang on to. If you liked Hot Fuzz, you will enjoy this also.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs