Sunday, December 29, 2013

Parkland -- mini-review: graves

Director: Peter Landesman, 2013 (PG-13)

Fifty years on from the tragic day of November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, ostensibly by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone (see JFK for more comments on this), the effects of that day live on in the American psyche. We still bear the scars and want to better understand what happened and why. Oliver Stone sought to answer the latter question in his momentous JFK. But Landesman, in his directorial debut, wants to answer the former question.

Parkland presents the perspectives of a number of people, mostly ordinary, around that day. Indeed, the movie is based on the book, “Four Days in November”, by Vincent Bugliosi and hence only goes to the Monday after the death on Friday. We don’t get to explore conspiracy theories. We don’t really get to know Oswald. His guilt is assumed. Rather we see his brother and others peripheral to the event.

The title refers to the hospital that both Kennedy and Oswald were taken to after their gunshot wounds. Doctors and nurses fought valiantly trying to save Kennedy, to no avail. Marcia Gay Harden gives a strong performance as Head Nurse Doris Nelson, seen supporting doctors, such as Dr Carrico (Zac Efron) and Dr Perry (Colin Hanks). Billy Bob Thornton puts on his Texas twang as Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels. And Paul Giamatti plays the ordinary businessman Abraham Zapruder, the man who took the most-watched documentary of all time: the Zapruder film that archived the final seconds of Kennedy’s life. Perhaps the most bizzare acting here is that of Jacki Weaver as Mrs Oswald, Lee’s mother.

The movie interweaves historical footage to lend an air of authenticity. And then weaves a tale of several people, focusing on Zapruder, who profited immensely by selling his film to Life Magazine, FBI Agent James Hosty (Ron Livingstone), who had talked to Oswald’s wife and had him in the office a week earlier, and Robert Oswald (James Dale), who bore the brunt of the hatred of Dallas police and others.

Perhaps the best scene occurs toward the end, on the Monday, when it juxtaposes the two funerals. While President Kennedy’s funeral procession moves through the streets of Washington, Oswald’s funeral is attended by few. At his graveside, there are no pallbearers and Robert Oswald has to ask the attendant press photographers to help out.

What the movie most brought to mind for me was the similarity with Jesus’ burial. Like Oswald, Jesus died a criminal’s death in public view (Lk. 23:35). He, too, was placed in the grave with no funeral procession (Lk. 23:52-55). Despite being the King of Kings, his burial garnered no pomp or ceremony. In contrast, “he was assigned a grave with the wicked” (Isa. 53:9). Like Oswald, people still talk about Jesus and his innocence and have done for two millennia not just half a century. Unlike Oswald (who may have been no criminal), we know Jesus was no criminal. We know he lived a sinless life and that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (1 Cor. 5:21). And in his death and subsequent resurrection, we can find righteousness and life.

Unfortunately, despite the potential, the movie lacks a central narrative plot that really ties it together. It shows the consequences on the lives of these people, but so what. There is no satisfying conclusion. It seems more a film exploiting the historical anniversary.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Love Actually -- love is all around

Director: Richard Curtis, 2003 (R)

This Christmas-centered romantic comedy both opens and closes with scenes at London's Heathrow Airport. The introductory sequence shows numerous people, irrelevant to the movie, waiting for and greeting their loved ones while a voice-over from David (Hugh Grant), the new Prime Minister declares:
"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around."
Curtis has assembled a premier cast from the cream of British acting. Most shine, although Hugh Grant is miscast as the prime minister. He does not ooze political power, although thankfully he goes light on the trademark Grant fluttering eyelids. Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley, feature alongside Americans Laura Linney and Billy Bob Thornton.

As an ensemble comedy, multiple love stories interweave with one another. Curtis cuts from one to another with little or no fanfare. Although they appear disparate, they do have interconnected elements which come together in the final climax.  Some of the stories are funny, some tender, some touching, some awkward. All focus on how love is present, even if not in the form that we would expect.

Three stories stand out. One focuses on Bill Mack (Bill Nighy), a bad grandad rocker, trying to make a comeback with a corny rip-off Christmas song that even he knows is crass and crap. Yet this cynical singer discovers a philadelphian love that has been starting him in the face for decades. Nighy, terrifically funny in almost all his films, is flat-out hilarious in every scene he is. But given the number of actors, that's not too many and not nearly enough.

This homage to love highlights that love can be friendly and not necessarily amorous or erotic. Jesus commands his followers:  "love one another" (Jn. 13:34). Paul adds to this, "you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more" (1 Thess. 4:10).  Those around us may indeed be our true friends, the ones we must love in this way. It's a surprise to find this message wrapped up in a cynic's coat.

The second story is bittersweet, highlighting the painful nature of love. Carl loves Sarah (Laura Linney). Sarah loves Carl. It is apparent to all in the office, yet neither will make a move. When they eventually connect and clothes are cast off, her omnipresent and ever-ringing cell phone twills. This interruption makes clear that her brother, on the other end, is more important than a love affair. Sibling love, in this case, trumps all. Certainly sibling love has real value but Sarah has swung too far to the end of the spectrum on this one.

The final story, too, is bittersweet. Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman) are a middle-aged couple with kids. Happily married, or so it seems, but Harry is being pursued by his assistant, a tempting vixen whose desires are quite apparent. Sadly Karen discovers this at the worst time: opening presents on Christmas Eve. But she understands the sacrifice it will take to show true forgiving love while maintaining a brave face in order to sustain a family.

Love is all around us. Love has many faces and many forms. Love should be uplifting, building up, strengthening, protecting, persevering (1 Cor. 13:7). When it seems to be pulling us to someone younger away from our spouse, it is not love; it is lust. Lust must be avoided, as it damages and destroys. Only through the power of forgiveness can trust slowly be rebuilt.

There are so many stories and characters in this film it is hard to keep up. Like a cup of sweet eggnog, it is enjoyable, but too sugary to be taken too often. Every couple of years would be fine, just to remind us of the omnipresence of love.

Merry Christmas to all! May you discover the love that is all around you.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Saturday, December 21, 2013

JFK -- conspiracies, truth and justice

Director: Oliver Stone, 1991 (R)

2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas during a motorcade. The fourth president of the USA assassinated, he was the first lost on the watch of the Secret Service. His death changed the nation and the nation’s politics.  Even a half century later, the interest in Kennedy’s death persists, undaunted. This is evident from the clutch of new books issued in remembrance of this event, including Jesse Ventura’s “They Killed our President” and Jerry Kroth’s “Coup D’Etat” as well as the new movie Parkland. More than ever, the mystery surrounding Kennedy’s death polarizes along the lone gunman/multiple gunmen conspiracy spectrum.

Oliver Stone’s JFK may be his magnum opus. An epic in itself, the director’s cut runs almost 3 ½ hours. But the 200 minutes are captivating, not just due to the Oscar-winning editing and cinematography. Neither is it due to the superb cast of Hollywood A-listers, including Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones (nominated for an Oscar here), Gary Oldman, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. Rather, through the use of flashback and interspersing of historic footage, Stone brings a profound sense of conspiracy and mystery unfolding. It leaves the viewer eager to learn more, to do subsequent research in the literature. I certainly felt that way.

The movie begins with sound-bites from President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the nation in January 1961: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence – whether sought or unsought – by the military-industrial complex. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” This, and the title cards, set the context for the film, and the second half of the movie sheds light on this.

The film focuses on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). Like many other Americans, he hears about the assassination from television news accounts. But it is only three years later that he begins to question that government’s account of the death at the hands of lone-gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). Since Oswald used to live in New Orleans and had involvement with various anti-Castro organizations in his city, he begins to investigate Oswald. With his team of assistant Das and investigators, the search begins to uncover facts that dispute the government’s account.

While Oswald is the center of the inquiry, it is not long before Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), businessman and closet homosexual, comes into the crosshairs, brought their by David Ferrie (Joe Pesci).  Little by little, other agencies seem to be involved, from the CIA to the FBI as well as Naval Intelligence and the mob.

The screenplay (written in part by Stone) is based on Garrison’s own book, “On the Trail of the Assassins.” And Garrison comes across as a man on a mission, even if it is at the expense of his wife (Sissy Spacek) and family. Once the JFK bug bites him, he cannot let it go. Weaving through the dense web of lies and deceit, it is not until he travels to Washington DC to meet mystery man X (Donald Sutherland, actually playing Fletcher Prouty, a Colonel in Military Intelligence) that Garrison begins to understand the depths of conspiracy he finds himself in. X tells him: “Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth. And the truth is on your side, Bubba.” Garrison comments later, “Telling the truth can be a very scary thing sometimes.” He wants to find the truth, and the American people are behind him, even if his government is not.

People want to find truth. Lives cannot be built on lies. Truth is found in Jesus Christ, “who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). When we know the truth we can live in the light of truth (Jn. 3:21). Then and only then do we find ourselves free (Jn. 8:32). Although the enemy seeks to deceive, as the father of lies (Jn. 8:44), God shines his light of truth on us; he wants us to cut away through Satan’s conspiracies.

X, though he only appears in one extended scene, helps Garrison understand the motive behind Kennedy’s murder: “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers. Kennedy wanted to end the Cold War in his second term.” Garrison echoes this, “The war is the biggest business in America, worth $80 billion a year.” This ties back to the comments from Eisenhower at the start.

Stone’s movie hence ties the murder to the military-industrial complex. And we see backroom meetings of key military leaders. Beyond this, Stone posits that Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice President, is involved, extending the conspiracy to the highest levels of government. With his ascendancy to the presidency, he reversed policy and moved to continue the Viet Nam War, despite its cost in lives and dollars. Bombs and bullets brought profit to the corporations supporting the military.

In contrast, biblically the organizing principle of God’s society is peace. He sent his son to earth as the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Though this first advent did not solve the world’s problems of wars, Jesus offered internal peace and peace with God (Rom. 5:1). But after his second advent and into eternity, there will be true peace in society. As Isaiah prophecies, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isa. 2:4)

It is in the latter stages, when Garrison takes Shaw to trial, the only trial ever brought in relation to the Kennedy assassination, that the movie presents indisputable evidence of conspiracy. In the best scene of the film, Garrison comments on the so-called magic bullet:

The Warren Commission thought they had an open-and-shut case. Three bullets, one assassin. But two unpredictable things happened that day that made it virtually impossible. One, the eight-millimeter home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder while standing by the grassy knoll. Two, the third wounded man, James Tague, who was knicked by a fragment, standing near the triple underpass. The time frame, five point six seconds, determined by the Zapruder film, left no possibility of a fourth shot. So the shot or fragment that left a superficial wound on Tague's cheek had to come from the three shots fired from the sixth floor depository. That leaves just two bullets. And we know one of them was the fatal head shot that killed Kennedy. So now a single bullet remains. A single bullet now has to account for the remaining seven wounds in Kennedy and Connelly. But rather than admit to a conspiracy or investigate further, the Warren Commission chose to endorse the theory put forth by an ambitious junior counselor, Arlen Spector, one of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people. We've come to know it as the "Magic Bullet Theory." This single-bullet explanation is the foundation of the Warren Commission's claim of a lone assassin. Once you conclude the magic bullet could not create all seven of those wounds, you'd have to conclude that there was a fourth shot and a second rifle. And if there was a second rifleman, then by definition, there had to be a conspiracy.

With this conspiracy supported, the question is who was involved. Garrison argues that it had to reach to the highest levels and so concludes that this was in fact a coup d’etat.

Even though the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Warren, concluded that the assassination was the result of Oswald acting alone, and that Jack Ruby (Oswald’s killer days later) acted alone, there is simply too many unlikely coincidences for this to be likely. Witnesses killed in the most suspicious circumstances. Autopsy results that simply don’t match the evidence from the Dallas Parkland doctors who attended Kennedy’s death. The killing bullet that entered from the front, despite Oswald firing from behind Kennedy. The magic bullet that has to explain so many wounds that it has to defy the laws of physics. Former Governer Ventura does a fine job of collecting sufficient evidence to provide more than reasonable doubt of Oswald’s guilt. Indeed, in contrast to the Warren Commision’s report, the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, established in 1976, concluded that Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy, although it did not determine who exactly was involved.

Late in the film Garrison, frustrated with the thwarting of his mission, declares to the press: “Let justice be done though the heavens fail.” In the JFK murder, justice has not been done. The American people deserve better. But Stone and Ventura and Kroth and many others have at least opened the curtain on the great deception and conspiracy that has plagued the country for 5 decades. Oswald could not have acted alone. He may not even have been the shooter. His guilt, never proven in a court of law, may never be undone. We may never know the real truth. And justice will surely never be done.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Grifters -- Mini-review: the price of deceit

Director: Stephen Frears, 1990 (R)

The movie opens with a triple split screen. Each shows one person; all turn and look out at the camera, wearing sunglasses. This is a movie about three people, a love-hate triangle with a noir twist.

Set mostly in sunny California, the film tells the story of Roy (John Cusack), a small-time short-con artist who takes marks for a few dollars here, a few dollars there. The second person is Myra (Annette Benning), a roper who ropes hapless saps into the long-con, worth thousands of dollars. But since her partner's departure, she uses her looks and her body simply to pay the rent. The final person in this triad is Lily (Anjelica Huston), Roy's mother. She works for mobster Bobo by placing high bets at the horse race tracks on long-odds nags to mitigate potential mob losses.

When a bar-con (switching a $20 bill for a $10 and getting more change than he deserves) goes bad, Roy takes a baseball bat in the stomach and starts slowly bleeding internally. The ensuing hospital stay causes Myra and Lily to meet and mother bear's claws come out. The natural antipathy between the two women set the scene for the second and third acts.

In between these two female sharks stands Roy, totally out of his league though he does not know it. He simply wants to make it in the farm leagues while Myra wants to score the big one. Roy does not even recognize another con-man.

The Grifters show these three people trying to survive on the grift, living only for themselves, not caring much about others even those in their own family. As a film noir, it bears all the elements, including the femme fatale and the sense of inevitable and inescapable tragedy. There can be no real winners here. The climax has two of the characters facing off, both wanting the same thing: money not love. In an unexpected turn of events, the one who gets it has to pay a deep price. Even survivors survive only at a sharp cost.

There is little of redemptive note here, even though the film works as a noir. We do not truly root for any of the characters, each carrying his baggage of deceit. It does underscore the inherent wickedness, in large or small, that lies in the very depths of each one of us. The prophet Jeremiah said it clearly enough: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) We could be Roy. Better, perhaps than being Myra or Lilly. But the end result is the same.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Catching Fire -- hope, celebrities and enemies

Director: Francis Lawrence, 2013 (PG-13)

After last year’s smash hit, The Hunger Games, the second installment comes along bigger and better. A new director, stronger supporting characters, and a leading lady who is really a girl on fire, after winning an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, make this a film not just catching fire, but burning up!

A year on, Catching Fire picks up right where The Hunger Games left off. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), victors of the prior games, are living a lie in District 12. She experiences the after-effects of the brutal violence of the arena: PTSD. We see this in an early scene when her hunting arrow seems to enter a person, not a turkey.

Katniss still loves Gale (Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor’s Chris Hemsworth), but the dystopian world of Panem wants to believe she loves Peeta, the object of her “kiss” in the cave last time. But the creepy and tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sends them off on a victory tour, accompanied, of course, by handlers boozy Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and effervescent Effie (Elizabeth Banks).

As the two victors take the microphone at District 11, they dispose of the pre-scripted speeches and speak from their hearts, paying tribute to the two young lives lost. In doing so, they gain respect from the crowd, but their eyes are opened to the extreme measures that Snow will take to quell any potential revolution. With such harm that emerges to all who deviate even with a three-finger salute, Katniss and Peeta realize they have a role to play, one that has life or death consequences to those around them, even to those they love.

With the 75th Games just around the corner, Snow’s eyes are opened too. In the first movie he said that people need fear and hope, but not too much hope. Here he recants that idea. In talking to his new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt), he declares: “Fear does not work as long as they have hope.” Hope must disappear. No longer does it have a place in Panem.

Hope, however, remains fundamental to life on earth (if not in Panem). It keeps us going when all else would hold us back. It is one of the three greatest virtues, faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13: 13). God offers true hope to us through the gospel (Col. 1:23), a hope that centers on Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:19). This life may lead us into circus games, or battlefield arenas, but God’s hope looks to the glory of the future (Col. 1:27). With that as a guiding light, we can bear up even in the midst of dystopian despair.

Given that the 75th hunger games is the third “Quarter Quell”, President Snow decides to alter the rules. The reaping will occur from prior victors, thereby ensuring that Katniss will enter the arena once more. In this way, she finds herself in the crosshairs of the Capitol as well as seasoned killers.

Back once more in this stellar cast are Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the over-excited host of all the shows, Toby Jones as jis co-host, and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ dresser. Seymour Hoffman makes the most of his limited scenes. And there are some new characters, including Beetee (Jeffret Wright), Johanna (Jena Malone) and Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair). They all give believable performances that raise the acting a notch. But Lawrence steals the show, acting at the top of her game!

The end of the first act leaves the victors once again in the Capitol, surrounded by vapid fashion-followers. Haymitch tells Katniss, “From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.” When she and Peeta enter the grand ball, at which they are the premier guests, over-dressed and over-made up characters offer them a drink that will cause them to purge their bulging bellies so they can stuff themselves further. Then, dancing with Plutarch, he tells Katniss that is she suspends her moral judgment she might even have some fun.

Here is a major commentary on today’s predominance on entertainment culture and celebrities. Everyone watches Katniss and Peeta wherever they go. And they are expected to perform, even though this performance is an act for the cameras. We want to see our favorite celebrities, and savor the juicy gossip about the minutia of their lives, as if it would have an iota of an effect on our own.

We think our lives are so humdrum we must live vicariously through others, whether they are the stars of the latest Hollywood hits, the celebrity contestants of reality TV (our version of the arena), or the royalty of old-style Europe. But our lives do have meaning. We were made to love God and serve him (Deut. 11:13). Our real vicarious living is through Jesus, whose vicarious atonement was for us, when he carried our sins in his painful death on the cross (Heb. 2:17). We can enjoy entertainment, but must not be ruled by it. We must place limits on its hold over society. We must lift our three-fingered salute and refuse to becomes gluttons to its insidious draw.

Once the victors enter the new arena, one focused on a watery environment cut into twelve sectors (“tick-tock”), the film moves into action genre. Allegiances are formed, vicious baboons appear, tributes are killed. Once more the brutality takes center stage. But once more Haymitch offers Katniss sage advice, “Remember who the real enemy is.”

This advice is relevant for us, too. Too often we can get caught up in the immediate, seeing troubles and tribulations before us and seeing the human hand involved. But as followers of Jesus, our real enemy is not human beings, even if they are involved. The real enemy is the devil (1 Pet. 5:8). He wants to hurt God and targets humanity, both Christian and non-Christian, to do so. He comes to “steal and kill and destroy” (Jn. 10:10).  Each person he prevents from hearing and accepting the gospel is another person absent from heaven, and a notch in his gun. Each Christian he can cause to sin or to shrink in their faith, is another person who loves God less. We may not see him physically but that does not lessen his reality or his danger. He is our real enemy

In the (hunger) games of real life, we would love the odds to be ever in our favor. But knowing the brutality and ferocity of our real enemy, we must recognize we have no control over these odds. Unlike President Snow, we do remain pawns in the hands on the game board. Yet we know the true ruler. We have read the true script and know how history ends. The odds will be ever in our eternal favor.

Catching Fire ends abruptly, leaving as good entertainment should: on a cliff-hanger. As a middle movie of three (actually four), we know this is likely to happen even as we enter the cineplex. But the film pulls it off remarkably well, with a final scene that is as stark and sudden as a Snow execution. But that only leaves us eager for more. The holiday season of 2014 will provide more entertainment when Mockingjay emerges. Will we be ready for this, emotionally and philosophically? That depends on how we have allowed Suzanne Collins’ books and these films to attack our in-built biases and prejudices.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Casino -- mini-review: trust

Director: Martin Scorsese, 1995 (R)

The movie opens up with a car bombing. Violence erupts  and a body goes flying. The tone is set for the next three hours. And with it the over 400 cussings (or more than two per minute), which is an awful lot of f-bombs.

Scorsese bases his film on a true-life book detailing the history of the Stardust Casino, although here it is called the Tangiers Casino. He tells the rags-to-riches story of Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a mobs odds-maker who is sent from New York to Las Vegas to run a casino, and his best friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) whose muscle and fearlessness make him the real ruler of sin city. The glamor and glitz of the high life in the bright lights contrasts starkly with the savage and brutal underbelly of the city where everyone has a hand in the game, from the valet parkers to the gaming commissioners whose relatives get job security.

Along the way Ace meets Ginger (Sharon Stone), a working girl hustler who has a soft-spot for a low-life pimp (James Woods). Stone earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actress, but she seems to be playing a woman acting a role. Her affections towards Ace appear superficial, but perhaps that's the point.

The opening lines present the theme of the movie, apart that is from greed, deception and violence: "When you love someone, you've gotta trust them. There's no other way. You've got to give them the key to everything that's yours. Otherwise, what's the point?" Trust (or lack of it) underscores all that happens. Several times Ace asks Ginger, "Can I trust you?" He recognizes that she does not love him, and accepts that. But trust is the non-negotiable here. Surprisingly paradoxical, since it it missing from everyone present. As Ace says,
In Vegas, everybody's gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men. The pit bosses are watching the floor men. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I'm watching the casino manager. And the eye-in-the-sky is watching us all.
Trust remains central to the human condition. Without it, we cannot sustain relationships. Apart from relationships we live alone and lonely, isolated from our fellow beings. The Bible says, "Those who trust in themselves are fools" (Psa. 28:26). But it also says, "Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils" (Isa. 2:22). Humanity cannot be trusted. Our best friends will let us down. Even our spouses will disappoint us. But God will not. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart" (Prov. 3:5). We must balance total trust and dependence in God with realistic trust in people. Only in this way will we avoid the pitfalls of relational devastation or paranoid isolation that bring despair and desperation.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Friday, November 29, 2013

The East -- separatism, gleanings, and moral questionings

Director: Zal Batmanglij, 2013 (PG-13)

The East tells the story of an ambitious private investigator who finds herself questioning her own morals and those of her employer. In contrasting the excesses of corporate America with those who drop out of society to live in anarchist collective, Batmanglij’s film tries to balance techno-thriller with societal commentary and manages to miss slightly miss at both. The movie does have moments of tension, but its slow pacing tends to suffocate the suspense. Yet it’s worth a watch for the ethical themes not often found in American cinema.

Sarah (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with Batmaglij) works for an elite private investigative and intelligence company that seeks to protect its large corporate clients from terrorists and other activists. She wants and wins the job of infiltrating an anarchist group known as “The East” who execute covert attacks on American corporations they believe have trashed the environment or deceived us over pharmaceuticals. In other words, they are self-anointed corporate consciences but with a twist. They repay an eye for an eye, and act as judge, jury and executioner all themselves.

Telling her boyfriend she is leaving the country for a short-term job, an act of deception in itself, she changes suits and shoes for hoodies and birkenstocks, and sets off in search of the eco-terrorists. After striking out with the initial target, she strikes gold with Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), an androgynous hobo who leads her to an abandoned and distressed country home that is now occupied by the members of the East: Izzy (Ellen Page, Juno), an intense zealot; Doc (Toby Kebbell), who has suffered from the side-effects of a major drug; Tess (Danielle Macdonald), expert hacker; and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the soft spoken but charismatic leader of the group.

The East has committed to hitting three major corporations in six months, performing “jams” on them that will put them negatively in the public eye and will give them an appropriate taste of their own medicine. Batmanglij wants us to root for these people, who are living separate from the society that is impacted by their actions. But he overly demonizes corporate America. There is no doubt a semblance of truth in the corporate excesses, from the shocking oil spills to the nasty pharmaceutical side-effects. But this is too simplistic.

Separation forms the first point of contact with biblical ethics. This group has chosen to live apart, not reconnecting with the world except to undertake their operations. They want nothing to do with the world as they see it. In contrast, Jesus told us in his upper-room prayer that we, his disciples, are not of this world but yet are sent into it (Jn. 17:14-19). Though we may find this world lacking, we have no recourse for separation. Instead, we must go to the world as his ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Rather than commits acts of violence to draw attention to the problems of this broken world, Jesus would have us commit acts of love to slowly bring the kingdom into the world.

When one of the group leaves suddenly, Sarah finds opportunity to become an active member of the group, which is what her corporate boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson, Lars and the Real Girl) wanted her to do. But as kidnap victims often succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome, so too does Sarah. And she finds herself questioning Sharon’s commands.

In one key scene, Sarah in the middle of a jam sneaks away to surreptitiously call Sharon to let her know what is going on so that she can take action. But the company being targeted is not one of Sharon’s clients and so she does not care to intervene. She sees more benefits to her and to her employer to let this take place as a visual warning to potential clients of what might happen if they don’t sign on with her. This moral relativism offends Sarah, as it should. Her employer wants profit even if it means some will be hurt in the process. There is a real message here. Some situations should preempt the bottom line. But Sharon’s failure to rise to the occasion forces Sarah to reconsider her priorities. She finds herself caught between the job she wanted and the life she is living; between her normal but boring boyfriend and the charismatic but driven collective leader. Ultimately, she has to find herself and determine who she wants to be.

Both Marling and Batmanglij based the screenplay they wrote on their own experiences from the summer of 2009, when they practiced freeganism and lived in an anarchist collective. Freeganism describes the lifestyle that employs alternative strategies based on limited participation in the conventional economy. One aspect, shown in the film, is searching for food that has been discarded: dumpster diving. When Luca looks for and finds some donuts in a dumpster, Sarah finds this distasteful. But later, once she has embraced some basic principles of a freegan approach, she picks up a half-eaten apple from a garbage can and eats it enjoyably.

Freeganism may not be for many of us, but its underlying philosophy of avoiding waste has merit. Too much edible food is discarded because it has past its due date. Gleaning is becoming a popular approach to reusing this food. With people starving, we cannot really afford to simply toss such food out. Non-profits, such as Birch Community Services, collect food from companies that cannot sell it and make it available to the needy, often along with educational services to help them get out of poverty. Gleaning dates back to the Old Testament times. The Israelites were instructed: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you” (Lev. 23:22) This practice allowed the less fortunate to still survive even without owning land of their own.

Wherever you fall on the anarchist-capitalist spectrum, there is likely something in this film for you to wrestle with even if you end up disagreeing with its position. But perhaps you’ll find yourself like Sarah questioning some of your own moral foundations. If you do, maybe you’ll hear that still small voice of God who calls you to follow Jesus living a counter-cultural life. You don’t have to be an anarchist freegan to make a difference!

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs