Saturday, March 30, 2013

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2 - O Inimigo Agora É Outro) -- corruption and the cosmos

Director: José Padilha, 2010 (R)

The film opens with a man exiting a hospital. Others watch and track his movements. When he drives away, cars pull out. Two block his forward progress, two his rear. When men with automatic weapons emerge and let loose a steady stream of bullets into the vehicle, it is a like a scene from a Godfather film. Despite the voiceover from the man who is about to be killed, it is not clear who he is or what he has done. Not until the film moves back to 4 years prior.

 I picked this movie up from the library, as it looked like a neat foreign crime thriller. A Brazilian film, I thought it might be in the style of another great film from that country, City of God. Indeed, The Enemy Within has become the most watched film in Brazilian cinematic history. Yet, I didn’t know this at the time. Nor did I realize that this was actually a sequel to the 2007 thriller, Elite Squad. If I had, I would have known that the man leaving the hospital was the hero, Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura). However, this sequel stands on its own, not requiring a viewing of the predecessor to pick up the story. And we catch the characters quickly enough.

Four years before a high security prison riot forces Nascimento, the commander of the BOPE militia to send in troops. They are ready to storm and shoot, despite the hostages held by the drug-lord criminals. Most of Rio have lost faith in the justice system and would prefer these criminals executed or killed, even if it is in the riot. But the Governor of the State leans left and sends in Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a left-wing liberal professor who champions civil rights. When things go wrong and Captain Andre Matias (André Ramiro) shoots, the blood on Fraga’s civil rights shirt becomes a flag for his cause. This event puts Fraga and Nascimento on two different trajectories that will ultimately coincide at the climax.

While Nascimento is hailed as a hero by the populace, he is vilified by the politicians. As a result, he is promoted to a ministry job to remove him from the force. And Fraga uses his new-found fame to become a politician, a legislator.

To complicate matters, Fraga is now married to Nascimento’s ex-wife, and is pushing his thoughts into the mind of Nascimento’s young son. The two men cannot stand one another, but both aggressively pursue one end: justice and an end to the corruption prevalent everywhere in Rio and by association the whole country.

As Nascimento plots to remove drug lords through the use of BOPE, he inadvertlently gives the slums on a silver platter to the corrupt police and other militia. With drug lords gone, the cops turn the slums into their own commercial centers of corruption, with the common citizens being paralyzed by fear. To speak up is to be silenced by a bullet.

The film presents the paths of the two men who are inextricably intertwined. But it is told mostly from the perspective of the protagonist, Nascimento, whose beliefs are crushed one by one before his very eyes. His respect by Matias dissolves as he is told he has been changed by his new position of under minister. His belief in the system dissipates as he sees the crooked police plot assassinations and murder. Even his own son breaks the law and then lies, turning away from the father who loves him.

Violent and bloody, the film is an indictment of the system itself. As Nascimento works harder and harder to beat the corruption in the cops and politicians he begins to realize that the corruption is inherent in the system, which is bigger than he ever imagined, and difficult to conquer.
It reminds us of the biblical concept of the world. The New Testament authors use the term “world” (Greek kosmos) to refer to the system, and all that is hostile or rebellious to God. For example, John says: “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 Jn. 2:16). It is this world system that is the root antithesis of God’s good gift. Peter goes on to say, “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet. 1:4). We all have an ingrained sin nature, a result of our familial connection to Adam and the fall (Gen. 3), but we fight, too, against this system of corruption that is temporarily ruled by Satan, the prince of this world (Jn. 16:11). Like walking uphill in a treacle, it is hard to resist. The system feeds on corruption, growing, evolving.

In the film, Nascimento and Fraga eventually find themselves on the same side, the side of the angels fighting the demons who have control. But the unsatisfactory ending leaves us wondering how anyone can ever beat the system. Is it even possible?

On the other hand, in our system of kosmos, there is a solution. We can escape the corruption of the world through Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 2:20). We may still face and even feel the impact of corruption in the present, but we can rest assured that we are citizens of a better place (Phil. 3:20) and will find our future dwelling free of sin and corruption. Heaven will bear no resemblance to these Brazilian slums and their corrupt crime-lords.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ruby Sparks -- change and control

Director: Jonathan DaytonValerie Faris, 2012 (R) 

How often do those of us in a relationship wish we could change the other person? Perhaps it is the quirky habit that seemed so cute when dating but now seems so irritating. Calvin (Paul Dano, There will be Blood) gets the chance to do just this, in the indie romantic comedy.

Calvin is a  young Californian novelist whose first novel, written while in his teens, was a huge bestseller. But he cannot come up with a second novel. He spends his days in front of his typewriter staring at the blank sheet, living on his past reputation, and dreaming of a girlfriend. He literally dreams of a girl called Ruby Sparks from Dayton, Ohio. But when she magically appears one day in his apartment, exactly as he envisaged her, he is confronted with his own creation.

It takes him a little while to believe she is real. But it is his brother Harry (Chris Messina) who tells him to rewrite his story, changing her in the lines on paper. When he does, she changes in “real-life”. And right then, Calvin realizes he has the power to change his girlfriend in any way he wants.

The film brings other characters in, although most don’t really add much to the plot. Elliot Gould has a few scenes as Calvin’s shrink, mostly to allow Calvin to verballuy process what he is going through. Annete Benning and Antonio Banderas play Calvin’s mom and step-dad, an earthy couple who have embraced the post-hippy organic lifestyle. But this is Zoe Kazan’s film as Ruby and it is her chemistry with Dano that makes this interesting.

In fact, it is Kazan’s film in more ways than one. She not only stars here, but she wrote the screenplay and produced the picture. Her diverse pedigree is unsurprising, since her grandfather Elia Kazan directed On the Waterfront, her mother Robin Swicord wrote the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and her father Nicholas Kazan wrote the screenplay for Fallen and Reversal of Fortune.

As the relationship between Calvin and Ruby develops, Calving falls into his old ways of withdrawing to be alone and reading. But Ruby wants more. She is now a real live, red-blooded woman, and she craves companionship and communication. She wants more from Calvin than he wants to give. And she has moods, which affect Calvin. So, he begins to rewrite her, changing her to what he wants regardless of what she desires. He acts like God, but in a selfish way. He seeks control.

Herein lie the key question at the heart of Ruby Sparks. Can we change or even control our partners? Moreover, what are the consequences of such attempts and how much free will is involved in the relationship?

Most of us come to relationships with an ideal in mind. For Calvin, it was Ruby. For us, it may be something entirely different. But our uniqueness makes us create a unique ideal, which no one can possibly fit or fulfill. But we somehow think our boyfriend or girlfriend, or our spouse, will be that person. When reality rocks that picture, we face one of two options: acceptance or control. If we try to control the relationship, we are actually trying to do what Calvin did: play God by changing our partner. This rarely works. Relationships are built on trust and respect, not control. If love is at the heart of the relationship, love finds a way to accept. As the Bible says, love “is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13: 5).

Even though in the magical realism of the film Calvin could actually change Ruby, in reality we cannot change another person. The only person we can really and truly change is ourself. And when we do change ourselves, we often find that we look upon our partners differently. We become more accepting and the things we wanted changed in them, no longer bother us as much.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Limitless -- drugs, blindness and healing

Director: Neil Burger, 2011 (PG-13)

Our brains, we are told, use a mere fraction of their potential. If we could harness all of this, our intelligence would be limitless. At least, that is the premise of this mindless but surprisingly engaging thriller.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) is a struggling writer. Looking like a bum, his writer’s block has him one stop from eviction. And when his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) dumps him, he appears to have lost it all. But after chance encounter with his brother-in-law, a low-level drug dealer, Eddie finds himself with a new experimental drug, NZT. When he takes it, his brain is opened up to its fullest potential and his mind is blown in an apparently positive manner. As he comments in voice-over, “A tablet a day and I was limitless.” He knocks out half his manuscript in no time flat, and wants more NZT. He gets it, but it comes at a cost.

With the drug, Eddie is able to learn a language in a week, connect forgotten facts from his past memory to solve problems, and he can read the stock market like a children’s book. He even gets his act together and wins Lindy back.

The story escalates when he borrows money from a Russian mobster to use in the stock market under his new guise as a broker. And here he meets Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a Warren Buffet-like figure who is hard and ruthless but who will use Eddie to enable his current merger.  With the mob after him, Van Loon needing him, a mystery man tailing him, and the pills in short supply, Eddie finds his life is less limitless than he thought.

Limitless is actually rather limited. As an action-thriller, it does keep up an excellent pace. With the excellent camerawork and intriguing effects to communicate Eddie’s transition from normal to “superhuman”, the film carries us along, enabling us to overlook the numerous plot holes along the way. Cooper even gives a nuanced performance as a man who is in total control one minute, and a panicked addict craving another fix the next. But there is little depth to the other characters and the ending leaves us wondering as it seems inconsistent with the rest of the film.

Then the film offers little in the way of a moral message, not commenting positively or negatively about drug use, its central tenet. It seems to suggest that self-improvement is the goal for all humanity and any way to reach that goal is justified. But the ends really do not support the means involved here.

Self-improvement is not our ultimate goal. Of course, if we can grow and improve, that is wonderful. But it is a secondary part of our journey. Learning Italian just so we can impress a date in a restaurant is a mostly selfish and shallow motivation.

Using drugs to feel good or to escape the pain of living is immoral and illegal. It is temporary and defers additional pain, both for the abuser and for those around. Even if it is does offer some physical or mental enhancement, these wear off and often leave the abuser worse off than before. The cost is simply too high. Some of the characters in the film realize this, but not Eddie. Somehow, he beats the odds and becomes the one drug user who can conquer his addiction, an unlikely event.

Our real goal, though, is to heal our brokenness. We are broken and blind. As Eddie says, early in the film,  “I was blind, but now I see.” This is more than a biblical allusion. It is a direct quote from the blind man who was healed by Jesus (Jn. 9:25).  Jesus came to offer that solution to our brokenness, which includes physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Most of all, through his sacrifice on the cross, he offers all of us a chance to be restored into relationship with God. We can enter into the family of God as children (Jn. 1:12), redemptively healed even as we will find full holistic healing in the age to come.

We will not find experience limitless intelligence in this life, through drugs or other means. But we will find relationship with the one who has limitless intelligence if we give ourselves over to Jesus Christ. With him, there is no need for NZT.

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 17, 2013

50/50 -- facing death, embracing life

Director: Jonathan Levine, 2012 (R)

“You have cancer.” No one wants to hear those dreaded words, especially when mumbled from the mouth of an insensitive oncologist who knows you not at all.  And to discover that the odds of survival are 50-50, a coin-toss, would be devastating.  A movie based on this premise would seem depressing, yet Levine’s film, based on a screenplay by Will Reiser, is actually both poignant and hilarious, in a raunchy sort of way.

Joseph Gordon-Leavitt (Inception, Looper), the new omnipresent movie star, plays Adam, a 27 year-old writer for NPR in Seattle (although the film is actually shot up in Canada). His life is fine. He has a good job, a beautiful girlfriend Rachael, (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help), and a tight best bud Kyle (Seth Rogen). He is avoiding his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston, Manhattan Murder Mystery), since she is overprotective and overbearing. He doesn’t even drive, as it is “too dangerous”. All in all, his life is pain and risk-free.  Then he sees his doctor for some nagging back pain. He finds out that he has a rare form of spinal cancer, one with sufficient syllables to spell big trouble. Researching on the internet, as we all do now when faced with medical problems, he discovers that the likelihood of beating this thing are 50-50. So, he begins chemotherapy with a good attitude, determined not to be a bother to anyone. He even tells Rachel she can move on, if she likes. He gives her an out, which she refuses to take, succumbing to the societal pressure to stay . . . at least for a while.

As he begins his life after diagnosis, Adam starts seeing a psychologist. But he is surprised to find she is even younger than him. Katherine (Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air) is a grad student, and he is only her third patient.

Reiser has created a terrific script. Based on his own life circumstance of battling cancer as a young man, he describes the effects of friendship and relationship on the patient. Indeed, his friend Seth Rogen was one of the friends that helped him through, as he is here for Adam.

One of the emphases of the film is on how we as a society deal with the imminence of death. How do we relate and even speak to those facing their own mortality.

In the early diagnosis scene, Adam drops into denial: “A tumor? Me? That doesn’t make any sense, though, I mean. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I recycle.” Initial response is to downplay and deny. But as the patient, that cannot last too long, since chemo will put a sudden halt to that.

But those around him face the awkwardness of not knowing what to say, how to treat him. When Kyle throws a “celebration of life” party for his workmates, even though his chemo has barely begun, his friends gather around to awkwardly hug or speak to him. Adam points out, “That’s what everyone has been telling me from the beginning. ‘Oh, you’re gonna be okay,’ and ‘Oh, everything’s fine,’ and like it’s not. It makes it worse. . . that no one will just come out and say it. Like, ‘hey man, you’re gonna die.’ “

Even Katherine, who is supposed to know what to say and what to do, says the wrong thing. She speaks book knowledge, as though reciting her text books from memory. But without knowing and relating to her patient, this is superficial and not helpful. She thinks she has the right words, but they come out hollow and empty.

We don’t want to speak the truth, because we are afraid it will not help. Saying some kind untruths, like these, seems a safer and perhaps nicer thing to do. But as Adam declares, it’s actually much worse. It’s alleviating ourselves without helping our friend.

The Bible gives us an example of saying the wrong thing as well as doing the right thing. In the Old Testament, Job lost everything: his fortune, his family (Job 1) and then his health (Job 2). His three friends came to visit and console him. For seven days they simply sat with him quietly, just being there with him and for him (Job 2:13). This silent sympathy helped, but then they opened their mouths and started berating him. Trying to help, they poured more trouble on a hurting man.

When we can’t say the right thing, it is better to say nothing. Paul tells us in the Romans, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12;15). He also tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). If we cannot speak the truth, we must avoid speaking the lie, that all is well when it clearly is not. To say the wrong thing pours vinegar on the open wound. Kyle understood this, even in his childish way, and tried to speak truth. The most honest friend to Adam was a fellow cancer patient he met in chemo, he told him he would die. Perhaps too blunt, at least he pointed to the elephant in the room.

What makes this film work, apart from the excellent script, is the chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen. They fit well together, as chalk and cheese buddies. Where Adam is quiet and calm, Kyle is loud and raunchy. Yet, in his way Kyle really wants to help.  Unlike Rachael, who can’t face the reality of nursing a person through cancer, Kyle remains a friend, even when he does and says things wrong. His love is evident even in those moments.

One scene stands out, and is the turning point in Adam’s journey. It is when he goes back to chemo to find one of his new friends missing. This man has died. Though he seemed full of life the day before, he is gone. This, more than anything, forces Adam to face up to his potentiality. And when he does, he realizes relationships are more important than his ordered living.

Perhaps here is the message of the film. Life is risky. Danger surrounds us. But so, too, do our relationships. We may push away those who seem to be too much, our parents or siblings. But life is too short to avoid risk, even if we could. We must accept what we are given. We must embrace our loved ones. We must savor our relationships. They may be disappear in an instant. As the apostle James says, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (Jas. 4:14) 

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Marie Antoinette -- materialism and values

Director: Sophia Coppola, 2006 (PG-13)

Anyone coming to Coppola’s film expecting dramatic retelling of the story of the iconic queen is in for a major disappointment. Rather, this film, based on Antonio Fraser’s book, offers an imagined glimpse into the self-contained world of its heroine. This is a world bereft of poverty and purpose. An early quote makes this clear. When Marie Antoinette says, “This is ridiculous,” the Comtesse (her female valet) replies, “This, Madame, is Versailles.” This is Coppola’s film. Ridiculous it may be, but it is pretty and painless way to enjoy two hours.

The film begins with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) in Austria, a young 14-year-old enjoying her pug and her innocence. But political relations between France and Austria need to be cemented by a marriage, and Marie Antoinette and the 16-year-old Louis (soon to be XVI, played by Jason Schwartzman) are the unfortunate twosome. Marie Antoinette is taken from Austria and psychologically and literally stripped before entering France to begin a new life in the court of Versailles as the fiancé to the next king.

Life in the court is ridiculous, ruled by conventions. For instance, she cannot dress herself but must be dressed by the most ranking lady in waiting present, which might change as new ladies enter her room. Privacy is a thing of the past. Her palace becomes her prison, with bars of gold and cells full of cake.  “Let them eat cake” seems to echo throughout the long corridors.

This is no conventional period piece. Of course it overflows with sumptuous settings, gorgeous gowns, frivolous feastings. But Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides) backs it with an anachronistic soundtrack, full of modern tunes, and allows her actors to maintain their American accents. They may look French and effete, but they sound most modern. This is Coppola’s point – to make Marie Antoinette’s position accessible and hence to offer social commentary on today’s values.

In her new world, detached from the reality, isolated from family, Marie Antoinette focuses on things she can control: clothes and shoes, fashion and food. She surrounds herself with friends to share gossip and good times. Partying and gambling become her way of life. She fights boredom with self-indulgence and materialistic indulgence.

After her marriage, her main purpose in life is to produce an heir to the throne, a son to Louis. But consummation of the marriage is a problem, as Louis refuses to do the manly deed. As a result, Marie Antoinette suffers from the pressures of the French expectations.

How are we like Marie Antoinette? What pressures do our families’ impose upon us? What does society expect of us? And how do we respond?

Today’s society, like the 18th century French court, focuses on amusement, literally non-thinking entertainment that wiles away the hours of our lives. We have become obsessed with fashions and fashionistas, slathering over the lives of celebrities rather than enjoying our own lives. Our values have devolved to consumeristic materialism. We treasure the impermanent. Fifteen minutes of fame is pursued. But the permanent is forgotten, if it was ever known.

As then, so now God is forgotten and removed. Our society has trivialized religion. We see this in the removal of Christ from Christmas, which has now become a politically correct “Holiday”. No longer we do trust in God. Instead, we trust in things. We strive after toys, as though they would fulfill. And when they fail to do so, we turn to something else. But only God can satisfy. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” King Solomon put it this way, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecc. 3:11).

Marie Antoinette paints a perfectly pretty patient portrait of her world, never getting into the politics of the period. But it ends too soon . . . or not soon enough. The last ten minutes of the almost plotless movie picks up the revolutionary mood, as the mob descends on the palace.  We know that the Queen eventually ended up being beheaded months after her husband, a victim of the French Revolution. But Coppola chooses to sidestep this ending, and leaves us with the Queen pondering her place, looking back, a woman who has matured into a caring mother even as she continues to care about her stuff. Will we end our lives like this? Or will we leave it with our eyes looking ahead to the one who cares for us and who is calling us home? How we live in this materialistic moment of history will define our place outside of history.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs