Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mud -- can we believe in love?

Director: Jeff Nichols, 2012 (PG-13)

It’s hard to believe Jeff Nichols has only made three films. Like his previous two, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Mud is set in the south and has a slow pacing that fits the character-driven nature of the film. Until it explodes with violence at the end. It is not a thriller in the classic sense, but certainly increases the tension as the film progresses.

Nichols wrote all three films, but of the three Mud is the most ambitious and most developed. Prior to shooting the film, he described it as Sam Peckinpah directing a Mark Twain short story. And that seems apt. Peckinpah’s violence manifests itself, but Twain’s river-bound story is crucial. Indeed, the Mississippi is central to the film, being almost a character in itself.

Despite this, the movie is at heart a coming-of-age story, intermingled with thriller and crime genres. This sounds implausible, possibly impossible, but Nichols pulls it off with aplomb, mainly due to strength of script and quality of acting. In the lead role as Mud, Matthew McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer) delivers one of his best performances. Looking every bit the bum, with dirty clothes and chipped tooth, he conveys an easy charm that covers a latent danger. Reese Witherspoon (This Means War) is his white-trash on-again, off-again girlfriend. But the star of the show is Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life) who plays Ellis, a high-school freshman who drives the film and its theme of “can love be trusted”.

The film opens with Ellis and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) making plans to secretly take the outboard-powered skiff on the river to an island in the Mississippi. En route, Ellis overhears his parents arguing loudly in their redneck houseboat. Not all is well on the home front.

When the two boys arrive at the island, they find what they are looking for: a boat in a tree. But they find more than that. There is someone living in it, and returning to their skiff they discover Mud. An enigmatic, almost legendary figure, he wins them over with tales of wonder and adventure. But he needs them, and has a hidden agenda. He is in love with Juniper, who is staying in a motel in town. He needs them to contact her.

While in town, Ellis sees a high school girl he has a crush on. Though two years older than him, he is prepared to voice his interest and his desire. Indeed, he does this in a visible confrontive way that somehow wins her over, yet in a vague and ambiguous manner.

There are three love relationships entwined in this tale. All are in different stages. All are in trouble. Ellis’ parents are in the midst of separation. Mud and Juniper have a complicated relationship that is related as the film unfolds. And Ellis and MayPearl experience the beginning flickers of love.

Indeed, when Mud asks for the boys’ help, Neckbone sees the danger and the self-centeredness in the appeal and wants to dismiss it. But Ellis, still a romantic and innocent teen, shouts out, “He loves her, Neck. He told me.” For him, love is central, love is critical. Love is worth pursuing, love is worth risking all for. Even if that love is experienced by someone else. Ellis wants to believe in love. He needs to believe in it.

We all want to believe in love. We were created to love, to relate to others. There is no wonder that one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13, centered on love itself. And God is love (1 Jn. 4:8); our maker is defined in essence by love.

But we are also by nature broken people. Original sin, encountered at the fall (Gen. 3), has caused this. Though we are capable of love, in our natural broken state we have a tendency to selfishness that hurts and damages even those we love. We fail them. And then comes the question, can love survive our brokenness? Is there a love we can really believe in?

In the film, Mud’s history inevitably draws dark characters to him. Southern mafia and bounty hunters appear, and with them the inexorable violence. This is a violence that destroys people and relationships, just as the harsh and violent words of Ellis’ parents destroys their marital love.

Ellis’ quest is really for this love he can believe in. When he discovers that the love he trusted in, through all three relationships in view, has failed, his innocence dissipates like the morning mist. The climax leaves him slightly more worldly and jaded. He has come of age. His childlike trust has given way to an adolescent twinkle, one that now looks on other May Pearls. And Mud? Well, his role as catalyst in the story is fulfilled.

Despite the somewhat tragic view of love on display, we can look for a better answer to the question in mind. There is a love we can really believe in. It is rooted in a person who is pure to a fault, unlike Mud. God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). His essence is love, and he beckons us to come embrace that love (Jn. 3:16). Only as we do so, as we taste and see that he is good (Psa. 34:8), can we begin to banish the bitterness and cynical boredom we often experience. In him alone, is true love, because he alone is love. If we believe in him, we can really believe in love.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Now You See Me -- illusions and deceptions

Director: Louis Leterrier, 2013 (PG-13)

Now You See Me is razzle-dazzle fun, a Vegas-type of entertainment: not much depth, but plenty of showmanship on display. Leterrier brings magic and hectic chase to the caper-heist genre and manages to captivate the attention despite the escalating ridiculousness and multiple plot holes.

The film focuses on four street magicians each given a mysterious summons to an obscure New York apartment where their lives are changed by an unknown benefactor. One year later they are calling themselves “The Four Horsemen” and playing a show in Vegas itself, a huge step-up for these illusionists.

Eight people share the spotlight in this film, none of whom have any real  depth of character. J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, TheSocial Network) is an old-fashioned sleight-of-hand magician, and the apparent leader of the group. Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, Confessions of a Shopaholic), his former assistant, is a Houdini-like escape artist, but much prettier. Woody Harrelson plays Merritt McKinney, a mentalist or hypnotist, scamming adulterers to make a living. Dave Franco, brother of James, plays the fourth horseman, Jack Wilder, a street-wise con man. Helping them is millionaire businessman Arthur Tressler (Michael Cain, Inception). Trying to catch them, however, is FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right) supported by beautiful Interpol Agemt Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent, Beginners). The final character is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, The Bucket List), a magician-turned-debunker, who now makes millions showing TV audiences how the magic tricks are pulled off. Bradley acts as a narrator of sorts, to help us the movie audience follow along. And this is needed, as the movie is quite complicated, with multiple twists and turns.

The Vegas show climaxes with a trick that has a random audience member, French as it turns out, teleported to his bank in Paris to pull off a multi-million Euro robbery. When the money is floated down over the Vegas audience, they applaud but the authorities are embarrassed. They cannot argue that a crime was perpetrated by magic. But they cannot understand how it was done. Hence they call in Bradley. And Rhodes does not want an Interpol agent on his team, but is forced to make do.

Two other flamboyant magic acts are queued up, each bigger and more deceptive than before. Each leads to further plot trickery.  But after act one, in essence the film becomes one long chase, with the FBI always one step behind. Along the way, a subordinate plot-line related to a supernatural group, “The Eye”, is introduced which makes little sense and adds little value, but the sheer energy and enthusiasm carries us along unthinkingly, as all good magic should.

When the climax occurs, the mysterious stranger from the introduction is revealed, and we want to reflect back on how it all played out. The film does this, to some degree, but not in enough detail. It warrants a second viewing, but that one might disappoint compared to seeing the magic of the first viewing. It’s all an illusion.

Indeed, J. Daniel Atlas tells the FBI (and hence us) this in several scenes. In one, he says, “What is magic? Focused deception. But deception meant to entertain.” In another he declares, “The more you look, the less you see.” And in another, “The closer you think you are, the less you’ll actually see.”

This concept reminds us of Satan, the great deceiver himself. “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Cor. 11:14) He wants to tempt us to partake in the guilty pleasures of sin (Heb. 11:25). Through this entertainment, we think we are enjoying ourselves, but in reality we are digging our own graves. Satan’s focused deception is intended to draw our attention away from Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:1).  The more we look at Satan’s glitzy baubles tantalizingly dangled in front of our faces, the less we see. But we become blinded to the truth. Only in and through Jesus, can Satan’s magic be exposed for what it really is: an illusion. Unlike Now You See Me, Satan’s great deception in life ultimately leads to death. A second viewing is not what is needed. A savior is. 

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines -- fathers, sons and generational sin

Director: Derek Clanfrance, 2012 (R)

Following his critically-aclaimed but dark and depressing debut, Blue Valentine, which also featured Ryan Gosling, Derek Clanfrance brings an ambitious but ultimately disappointing movie about fathers and sins and the consequences of generational sin. Despite some terrific acting, the narrative fails to realize the potential of the director’s vision.

The film is set in Schenectady, New York, a blue-collar town. Interestingly, the name Schenectady comes from the Mohawk tongue and means literally, “the place beyond the pines”. Metaphorically, the title refers to a place in the forest beyond the town where three key meetings occur, one in each act, to drive the main characters to action. But it is a forced use of the place that seems unlikely in reality.

We meet Luke (Ryan Gosling) in the initial scene, a long tracking shot that sees him from behind, shirtless and tatted-out, walking through a carnival fairgrounds to a tent for cage riders. Like his character in Drive, Gosling is silent and mysterious, a motorcycle rider that performs cage riding in a nomadic lifestyle. But this time, Romina (Eva Mendes, The Other Guys) shows up, an old flame with a new secret. She has birthed his child, Jason. When he discovers this truth unexpectedly, he quits his job and determines to win her back, despite the fact that she is now in a relationship with another man, one who is far better suited to a normal and lawful lifestyle.

Luke has no real skills, except his riding abilities, and a chance encounter with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a redneck loner, puts him on a path to self-destruction. While working for Robin for minimum wage, Robin suggests they rob banks, thereby utilizing Luke’s unique skills. And he is good at it. Until he runs into the sights of rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook). This intersection leads to devastating consequences for both men.

One of the failures of the movie is its limitation of the screen time between these two actors. Perhaps the hottest young actors working today, the trailer suggests we will see them facing off against each other in a long-standing hunt, much like Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. Not so. Their screen time together is less than the time needed to brew coffee.

The second failure is the lack of an overriding narrative for the whole film. Clanfrance divide the film into three acts, as most movies are. But each act forms its own story, interlinked by the theme of fathers and sons. Seeking to be an epic American Gothic crime story that spans generations, perhaps akin to The Godfather trilogy, it fails because the stories are not well-connected.

The first act, featuring Gosling, is terrific. Gosling conveys a palpable sense of repressed sexual tension and violence with his slow moves. And when each surfaces, it is swift and sure. He is a man underestimated at huge cost, a cost to both parties.

The second act focuses on Cross, himself a man married with a young son the same age as Jason. A hero, he becomes engaged in corruption in the police force and faces a tough moral choice: to become a whistleblower and face rejection and career destruction, or go with the flow and compromise his ethical convictions (he is a cop trained as a lawyer). Cooper gives an excellent performance, believable as a man whose choices will cause problems for him and his family regardless of which way he decides to go. But this act loses some of the momentum of the first, despite a type-cast Ray Liotta as a corrupt detective that brings tension to every scene he is in.

When the film moves abruptly ahead fifteen years, the story shifts to the two sons. The film of the fathers becomes the film of the sons. And it loses its way. The glib one-line from a character in act one, “If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder,” feels like a prophetic criticism of the film itself. It crashes in act three, as we really don’t know enough about the two kids to form an emotional connection. We simply don’t care. And the film drags on about 30 minutes too long.

One of the themes of the film is given in act one, when Luke declares: “He’s my son and I should be around him. I wasn’t around my Dad and look at the *#!@in’ way I turned out.”  We need fathers. Their absence damages children. The vacuum cries out to be filled. Like Luke, we learn in act two that Avery is an absent father, and his son has copious problems. Sons need a man to help them grow from babes to boys to men themselves. God has designed it this way. Fathers bear a great responsibility in this regard, and have been warned, “Fathers, do not embitter your children” (Col. 3:21). Being separate and apart causes the worst form of embitterment.

The second theme follows from the first and is less vocal but more clear: the sins of the past haunt the present. Or to be even more focused: the sins of the fathers are passed on to the sons. This is a biblical concept, oft misunderstood, that arises in the second commandment in the Decalogue: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents” (Exod. 20:5). There are consequences of generational sin. It does not mean a person is held accountable for the sin of another. Rather, it means we learn from our parents. We do what we see. When we see sin modeled for us by our parents when we are young we unconsciously embrace it and take it on ourselves. When our fathers sow sin in the fields of their sons, they will reap sins in the generational harvest later.

Generational sin is evidenced in the film in the lives of the sons. But whereas the fathers offer no hope, the Father does in the life of Jesus Christ. We cannot avoid sin. But Jesus offers us freedom from sin and condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs