Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises -- masked saviors and mob rule

Director: Christopher Nolan, 2012. (PG-13)  

The long-awaited conclusion to Nolan's epic Batman trilogy came crashing into the cinemas with reverberating gunfire and pounding explosions. Tragically, the violence on screen was mirrored in real life in the Denver suburb of Aurora tragedy where a gunman opened fire at a midnight shooting killing 12 and wounding dozens more. This deranged individual left fear in his wake, both in Colorado and across the country.

Coincidentally fear is one of the themes of Nolan's series, a fear that impacts individuals and society. Nolan has said that The Dark Knight Rises focuses on the theme of pain, The Dark Knight centered on chaos (who can forget that chaotic figure of the Joker), and Batman Begins deals with fear.

The  film opens with a thrilling aerial escape that introduces us to the principle villain: Bain (Tom Hardy). Wearing a partial face-mask that obscures his face and modifies his voice, Bain is a hulk of a man. Physically imposing, he is bigger and stronger than Batman, certainly a match for the caped crusader.

Meanwhile seven years on from The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has hung up the cape and retired to a hermit's life in a corner of his mansion. Physically wounded, he is mentally scarred by the death of his girlfriend. He has not moved on. With Harvey Dent's death at the end of The Dark Knight, Batman left Gotham City in a cloak of shame, the scapegoat bearing the sins of the city.

Yet this is a new Gotham City, one that is seemingly free of crime. With the passing of the Harvey Dent bill that put organized criminals behind bars, Gotham has no need of Batman anymore.

When Bain descends on the city with his band of mercenaries and descends into its sewers, trouble is brewing. It is not long before crime once more appears on the streets.

Nolan sets up a frenetic pace and a pounding score. As in his previous films, he is the master at staging action sequences. Along with the opening piece, there are three more well orchestrated sequences: the taking of the stock exchange, along with the ensuing Bat-bike chase, the demolition of a football field during a game, and the finale street battle that starts like The Gangs of New York and ends like The Avengers.

Back from the earlier films are Michael Caine as Alfred, the heart and soul of the Wayne family, providing the pathos needed; Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the inventor of Batman's gadgets; and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, the principled but now compromised policeman who knows the truth. Along with these are newcomers Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as a young and idealistic policeman; Marion Cottilard as a billionaire philanthropist who wants to give the city and the world sustainable energy; and Anne Hathaway as Seline Kyle, aka Catwoman. Bale and crew are solid, but Hatahway surprisingly steals the show as Catwoman. I was disappointed when she was cast, but she delivers on all cylinders. From her opening interaction with Bruce Wayne while stealing his jewels, to the partial change of heart and character with her final interactions with Batman, she sizzles.

Yet for all this, the film does not quite rise to the level of the middle film. The Dark Knight had more moral dilemmas, two key villains and a stronger plot-line (not to mention the outstanding performance of the late Heath Ledger). Having said that, The Dark Knight Rises has plenty of twists and turns, and is a satisfying conclusion to a remarkable series that will stand with other great trilogies like The Lord of the Rings and The Godfather.

When Bane sets his bombs exploding, he brings crime back to Gotham and he isolates Gotham from the world. Taking out the bridges, he essentially puts the whole city under siege with the military waiting and watching from outside. Meanwhile, he tells the citizens to rise up and take back the city, take back what was theirs. He pits the poor against the wealthy, the rabble against the rich.

Selina Kyle gave billionaire Bruce Wayne the early warning: "You think this can last? There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Cat burgler vs playboy corporate owner, the class war is about to drop from the sky. And then later, she says, "I do what I can to survive." Isn't this the cry of the 99%, the Occupy movement?

With echoes of last year's Occupy events and hints of the French revolution, the populace rises and a form of anarchy occurs. Pulling the rich out of their penthouse hideaways, they are hauled before a kangaroo court presided over by Scarecrow (from Batman Begins), a modern Robespierre, to be given summary "justice". Presumed guilty their mockery of a trial results in a choice of exile or death. This revolution does not redistribute the wealth, but destroys the wealth and the wealthy.

Justice, though, is not served by these types of revenge-fueled actions. Injustice may be omnipresent. Indeed, the recent example of Duke Energy Corporation's CEO Bill Johnson illustrates the great chasm that divides the haves and the have-nots. Fired after one day on the job, he received a cool $44M. Most workers in the US wonder if they'll even get a pension or be able to retire after 40 years of work, and Johnson gets in one day what most won't amass in their entire lifetime. And the CEO of one East Coast conglomerate made almost $200M in the last 5 years. These compensations figures are obscene when the unemployment is still over 8% and millions are on or beneath the poverty line.

But we should not respond in kind. Jesus said, "You will always have the poor among you" (Jn. 12:8), and such economic inequality will not be solved through socialism or communism, Instead, Jesus offered a different form of revolution to his followers. His revolution is subversive, involving loving enemies and turning the other cheek. He lays out his manifesto in the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where we respond in radically unexpected ways, such as living in peace (Matt. 5:9), giving out light (Matt. 5:14), walking in truth. Ultimately, these all are subsumed by living in love (Matt. 5:44).

Peace cannot be built on a lie. At the beginning of the film, Commissioner Gordon is eulogizing Harvey Dent in a ceremony: "I knew Harvey Dent. I was his friend. And it will be a very long time before someone . . .  inspires us the way he did. I believed in Harvey Dent." He had put away his real speech, one that was the truth. Instead, he continued to support the falsehood that Dent was the hero. The preceding eight years were built on this lie. Gotham's peace was a house of cards. And it came crashing down when the truth emerged.

Lies must be exposed by the light of truth. Fears must be faced and embraced. Only then will we have a chance to emerge stronger, victorious. Gotham's citizens hide in their homes, avoiding the gangs of insurgents. Bruce Wayne lies broken avoiding the fear that stalks him. But when he and they finally stop running and hiding can fear be defeated.

Another theme of this film is masks. Both Batman and Bane wear a mask, and they are clearly symbolic. Masks can be used to hide our identity, to protect ourselves. Batman tells young Blake, though, that his mask allows him to protect not himself but those he loves. Enemies might get back at him through his loved ones, as happened with Rachel in The Dark Knight. Blake countered that a mask might provide anonymity to allow the hero or savior to be seen as an everyman. In this sense, the mask communicates that anyone could do this, could be a hero. It is not left to a select individual.

Interestingly, our savior Jesus Christ never wore a mask. He did not hide his identity; he did not protect himself. Even when challenged by the powerful Pharisees he not only continued to do his Sabbath-breaking miracles, but he also called them what they were: hypocrites (literally, the ones wearing the masks). He faced up to Herod, who held his life in his hands, and spoke truth even when he could have begged for mercy (Jn. 18:37). He went to the cross unmasked with head held up. He looked his accusers and killers in the eyes (Lk. 23:34), even forgiving one dying next to him (Lk. 23:43).

The trilogy does depict the character arc of Bruce Wayne, understanding his fears to embracing his fears and ultimately finding redemption in self-sacrifice. Coming toward the final battle, that would see a mano-a-mano fist fight between Bane and Batman, Catwoman tells Batman: "You don't owe these people any more! You've given them everything!" But Batman replies, "Not everything. Not yet." Batman is on a mission to defeat evil through his sheer acts of strength and willpower. He is willing to complete his debt and give everything for these people, much like Jesus. But unlike Batman, our savior gave us his life when he owed us nothing. He never owed us, not one iota. In contrast, we owe him everything. We owed him as enemies and sinners. His death on the cross was as a substitute for us. That kind of debt can never be repaid. "It is by grace you have been saved" (Eph. 2:8).

Jeffrey Overstreet aptly sums up the Batman savior in his review of this movie:
In his own egomaniacal fashion, guns blazing and fists flying, he’s determined to become Gotham’s savior, overcoming evil on his own strength, “taking on the sins” of others like Harvey Dent, putting his life on the line to save his city. Ultimately, he is making himself the sort of deliverer that Jesus’ own followers wished he would become. His revolution is achieved with violence rather than love. And it achieves only postponements of destruction, not the defeat of death itself.
Fear, chaos and pain can only be defeated in the true savior, the unmasked one: Jesus Christ.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Friday, July 27, 2012

5 Films about the Olympics

With the 2012 Summer Olympics starting in London today with the grand opening ceremonies, I thought it would be worth listing out my top five movies that are related to the Olympics. Why only five? Well, there are five rings in the Olympic flag. And I could only come up with 5 films I had actually seen that focus on the games. There might be others you would add to this list. If so, add a comment. Maybe you'll expand my list of movies to watch this summer. But with the next three weeks booked with sports viewing 24x7, movies will have to take a summer break.

Here's the list in a Letterman-style reverse order:

5.  Blades of Glory (2007). This is a Will Ferrell vehicle about two rival Olympic ice skaters who join forces to form a pairs team. But since both are men, this raunchy comedy is sexually charged and generally over the top. Not to be taken seriously.

4. Miracle (2004). In contrast to the previous movie, this ice hockey is based on the true story of the underdog US team that fought their way to victory over the Goliath Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Overly sentimental and jingoistic, it's sure to bring a proud tear to an American eye.

3. Prefontaine (1997). Moving on to the Summer Olympics, this is the story of Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine. He competed at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the 5000 meters. His life was sadly brought to a premature and tragic end in a car accident in Eugene, Oregon.

2. Munich (2005). Steven Spielberg's action thriller is based on the true story of the Black September assassinations of the Israeli athletes at the Munich games in 1972. It tells the story of the Mossad team of agents who hunted down and killed the terrorists.

1. Chariots of Fire (1981). Set against the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, this Best Picture winner focuses on two British runners competing against each other. A true story, it focuses on Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian missionary who runs for God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew, who runs for self. It also has an unforgettable Oscar-winning score by Vangelis.
Who can argue with the Academy Award winner as the top Olympic-themed film? Perhaps a portent that the athletes in focus are British? Who knows. I will root on the home country and my adopted country. Double-gold!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Safe House -- betrayal, lies and truth

Director: Daniel Espinoza, 2012. (R)  

Safe House looked great from the trailer: a star-studded cast, headed by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, in a thoughtful thriller. It turns out that like many movies the trailer is a tease and the film is a letdown. The characters in Espinoza's plot are cardboard cutouts there to set the dialog and the action.

Ultimately Safe House is a safe movie, playing to the action thriller genre, not bringing much novelty to the fray. Its worldview is opposed to the CIA and other espionage organizations that operate throughout the world, believing that they cannot help but become corrupted. Yet it avoids exploring this premise, preferring to play it safe with flimsy characters and preachy dialog. Covertly, though, it offers a springboard for discussion of the themes of cyncism, betrayal, lies and truth, and that is worthwhile.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, a veteran CIA agent gone rogue and now selling state secrets to the highest bidders. When he surfaces in Cape Town to buy a microfile of sensitive information, suddenly a team of killers is on his tail. The action is fast and furious, made even more so by the shaky hand-held camerawork.

Realizing his predicament, he allows himself to get taken by the Americans, his former employers. They take him to the titular "safe house" where a team of interrogators will find out all his secrets, that is they will torture him with waterboarding until he breaks.

Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a naive CIA rookie who is tasked with manning the Cape Town safe house. Lying to his French girlfriend about his job and his on-call behavior, he desperately wants to see some real action, to get some fieldwork so he can be transferred to a legitimate station, like Paris or Rome.

When the safe house is breached and the interrogators killed, Weston faces the biggest mission of his career. As Frost tells him, "Remember rule number one: you are responsible for your house guest. I'm your house guest." Weston must get Frost to a new safe house, while evading the killers on the loose.

Back in the States, a posse of CIA bureaucrats jockey around to avoid blame. Barlow (Brendon Gleason, The Guard) is Weston's handler; Linklater (Vera Farmiga, Source Code) overseers the interrogation team; and Whitford (Sam Shepard) is their superior. But there is a conspiracy under the surface, evident from Frost's comments to Weston: "I think you need to consider how your safe house was attacked in the first place. The house was a secure location. Whoever crashed it, they were invited. Someone told them, someone you know." If you watch carefully enough from the start, the real bad guy is predictable.

Corruption and cynicism provide the environment for the plot. Frost has seen it all and during his time with Westin imparts his jaded worldview to the novice. In his view, all spies end up corrupted one way or another. "You practice anything a long time, you get good at it. You tell a hundred lies a day, it sounds like the truth. Everyone betrays."

Betrayal is one of the themes. Frost has betrayed his country. Others have too. Do we all betray one another? Such a negative view of humanity is not too unrealistic. Our depravity (Jer. 17:9) leads us to focus on self and turn on others. Jesus pointed out that his incarnation itself would lead to betrayal, even within a family: "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me." (Mk. 13:12-13)  Betrayal is an established way of life, the more so for those who do not follow Jesus, even if we deny it most of the time.

Frost's wisdom to Weston on lying suggests that when you tell enough lies as part of your job, you risk not being able to tell the difference between truth and lies. We become immune to the truth, innoculated against its veracity. Just as the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, "Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Cor. 15:33), so lies corrupt our conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) and we become blinded to the light of the truth. Then our lies become a semblance of truth for us. We have become self-deceivers, just as we are other-deceivers. There is truth in this. We cannot lie and remain untarnished. To build a career on lying is to damage, if not destroy, our character and reputation.

Toward the end, after the violence subsides and Weston's character arc comes towards its climax, one character tells him: "People don't want the truth anymore, Matt. It's too messy." There is some truth in this. Truth shines in our hearts like a light in a dark room, forcing us to see things we might prefer to avoid. It is ugly and sometimes dangerous. It forces us to accept our depravity or change; and no one likes change. But the truth will set you free (Jn. 8:32) if you let it in the person of Jesus (Jn. 14:6). But Jesus is messy; he offers true peace but brings the sword of division in this life (Mt. 10:34). Those who expect the serenity of the health and wealth gospel have missed the message of Christ.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Monday, July 9, 2012

Vacation -- journeys, quests and fun

Director: Harold Ramis, 1983 (R).

Ah. The sun is up and school's out. The pungent aroma of sunscreen floats in the air. It's summer and vacation is calling out to you. What's more American than a cross-country road-trip for your summer vacation. (I know, I am going on one later this summer!) But we have probably all experienced the pains of such a vacation and that is what makes this classic comedy so much fun -- we can relate to Clark Griswold as he wrestles with the wheel and the family on this vacation. And fun and quests and journeys are the underlying themes of this archetypical road-trip movie.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is a meek mannered Chicago manager who is ready to take Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and their two kids, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron), on a summer vacation. Their destination: Los Angeles, home of Wally World and the mascot Marty Moose (think Disney World and Mickey Mouse).

Right from the start, though, things go wrong. His new car is not what he ordered. But he takes it anyway. Along the way, they experience a black ghetto in St Louis, a crummy campground in Colorado, and of course the red-neck, hillbilly cousins in Kansas. Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) is the relative to avoid at all costs and he depletes Clark's cash while adding to his stress by adding obnoxious Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) and her vicious dog Dinky to the Griswold troop.

To many, this comedy is familiar while retaining its humor. Who can forget the picture of all four Griswold's asleep in the car as it moves along the highway, steering itself. Or the problem that Aunt Edna becomes and the Griswold solution. And there is Christie Brinkley, the seductress in the red Ferrari, whose appeal strikes a note in "family-loving" Clark.

At the beginning the kids and Ellen ask Clark why they were planning on driving. He replied, "Why aren't we flying? Because getting there is half the fun."  The road trip is a metaphor for life. A road trip, like life, is a journey. It is not just getting to the destination that is crucial, but experiencing and enjoying the journey is all part of the adventure. Missing this is missing out.

The Christian life is like this. Too often we come to Christ and want to be perfected, to have all our problems disappear in a twinkling of an eye. But they don't. And we aren't made perfect. But we will be. The initial conversion is the act of regeneration and justification. We are made new (2 Cor. 5:17), reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18), forgiven (Eph. 1:7) and justified (Rom. 10:10). But we are not made perfect. This is a process called sanctification, where we become progressively more like Jesus as we grow in him (Rom. 8:29-30). Such growth culminates in glorification at our destination: departure to be with Jesus at death. To short-circuit this process, to truncate the trip, is to miss the grand venture we call life.

That is not to say Clark had it all right. He had planned the journey to the day, even the hour. I can resonate with this, having grown up in a family of detailed planners. (Heck, I am one myself!) But a road-trip or a journey should be flexible and free enough to experience the moments, to take side detours and to be able to bend when troubles appear. Without such buffer stress increases and the journey deteriorates into a drill.

This is what happens to Clark. Towards the end, his stress level causes him to explode: "We're ten hours from the *!**ing fun park and you want to bail out. Well I'll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun." Fun is now not something they will find along the way; it is something that is mandated. There is no fun in this.

Over-planned and over-troubled vacations can turn from fun into fury via such a slow simmer. This, of course, defeats the whole point of a vacation, which is to get away, to empty your mind of work and mundane matters, and find rest and recreate. We all need such sabbaticals. It is even biblical, the concept of the sabbatical arising from the seventh day of creation week when God rested from his work (Gen. 2:2).

Fun, though, is what Clark wanted. And family time, too. He wanted to spend more time with his kids and thought being cooped up in a car with them for hours on end would provide this. He was so wrong. Oh, his heart was in the right place but his mind took a left turn when he saw the babe in the sports car. At that point, fun seemed to be in the greener grass of the red Ferrari. Certainly, he would have found momentary enjoyment in the arms of this younger woman, but he would have sacrificed his family and their fun on this adulterous altar. That price is too high. True fun, for Clark or for us, should be found in familial and social amusement, not at the cost of damaged or destroyed relationships. Such a vacation would find its destination a divorce court, and that is clearly not is or was planned at the start.

All in all, this road-trip from hell is a slightly vulgar but hilarious movie that everyone should see once, if only to put vacations into perspective.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Barney's Version -- promises made, promises broken

Director: Richard J. Lewis, 2010. (R) 

Based on Modecai Richler's book of the same name, Barney's Version is a semi-comedic retrospective journey through the life and marriages of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a Jewish scoundrel.

Barney is a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed film, hockey-loving television producer who we meet at the end of his career. Looking back to his younger years in Rome, we see him marry his first wife in a simple and unplanned civil wedding in front of his few artsy friends. When she dies, he moves back to Montreal to take a job for his uncle as a fund-raiser, progressing into TV soaps from there.

At his second wedding, to a rich but loud Jewish woman (Minnie Driver) he and his father (Dustin Hoffman) get drunk. But while drunk, he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), a stunning woman from New York who captures his heart. He falls in love at his own wedding, and not to his new wife!

The rest of the film is his pursuit of this love of his life, who though while avoiding being a marriage breaker would eventually become his third wife. Along the way, his ex-cop father gives him marital advice, his best friend shares drugs and dames with him, and his ego gets him deep into trouble. Eventually, his marriage gives out and his memory fades. Divorce and dementia take a bitter toll on this loud but lovable man.

As in most of his movies, Paul Giamatti does a wonderful job in the central role, being in most scenes. He carries the film, giving it a surprising warmth not expected in a movie focused on a decadent character. Dustin Hoffman provides some laughs in his supporting role. And Rosamund Pike is warm and genuine. But the comedy is less than desired and the plot takes longer to come to its conclusion.

Ethically, the main focus is on promises. Barney tells Miriam he would give her everything and anything. He promises his heart to her. Yet he fails her, just as he failed to live up to his earlier wedding promises to two other women. It is in the human heart to break promises. We may sincerely believe we will keep our vows, but the deceit in our heart too often prevents us from following through (Jer. 17:9). We may not be as overt as Barney, but we fail our family and friends just the same.

But there is one whose promises are faithful: Jesus. Paul tells us, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Cor. 1:20). God always does what he says, and keeps his word. We stand on his word. "And this is what he promised us—eternal life" (1 Jon. 2:25). Indeed, he likens us to his bride in a marriage that he promises will last forever. We can take that one to the bank. He will not fall for someone else on our wedding day!

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs