Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mud -- Screening at Mosaic Church on Friday 11/8 at 7pm

Our Fall screening will be the award-winning indie film from writer-director Jeff Nichols. Part thriller, part crime, at heart this is a coming-of-age story with a career-defining performance from Matthew McConaughey.
  • What: Mud (130 mins)
  • Rating: PG-13
  • When: Friday 11/8/13, 7pm
  • Where: Mosaic Church
We’ll show the movie in the sanctuary and plan on hanging out for about 30 minutes afterwards for discussion.

Mark your calendars. Hope to see you at this event.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Admission -- losing all, secret formulas

Director: Paul Weitz, 2013 (PG-13)

Admission is a light romantic-comedy featuring Tina Fey (DateNight) as Portia Nathan and Paul Rudd (Dinnerfor Schmucks) as John Pressman centered around the admissions process for an ivy league university. Its shallow and superficial nature means you don’t need a degree from Harvard, or in this case Princeton, to understand. And despite a number of negative reviews, the charming chemistry between the two leads make this a likeable, if B-grade, date night movie.

Portia is an admissions officer for Princeton. Her long-term relationship with her pompous professor boyfriend Mark (Michael Sheen, seemingly reprising his character role from Midnight in Paris), is routine. He job is rote. Her life is dull. Three factors entwine to rock her world. First, Princeton drops in the college rankings to number 2. With Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride) about to retire, he wants to regain pole position, and Portia wants his job but faces stiff competition from another admissions offer Corrine (Gloria Reuben). Second, Mark leaves her for another academic snob. And third, she meets Paul and one of his students Jeremiah (Nat Wolff).

Paul is a nomadic teacher at an alternative school, one where milking and birthing cows is on the syllabus. It is here at New Quest, that Portia meets Paul and Paul’s adoptive son and student Jeremiah. Paul has a secret he needs to share with Portia, one that will define the course of the second half of the film.

Through the course of the film, Portia loses it all. But at the end, as in most romantic comedies she gains what she really needs. Indeed, she had to lose it all to get to that climactic position.

Here, then, is the first theme and a biblical one in fact. Jesus said, “whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Lk. 9:24). And in the parable of the hidden treasure, Jesus declared: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Mt. 13:44). We must lose our lives in Christ to really gain true life. Only when we have hit rock bottom are we really in a position to accept by faith the gift of God. Testimonies abound of this timeless truth.

Stealing the film, however, is Lily Tomlin as Portia’s ultra-feminist single mother. Whether wielding her shotgun or fixing her bike, she brings laughs to every scene she is in.

A second theme emerges from Portia’s Princeton pitch, which she delivers multiple times to different student audiences: “You all want to know the secret formula for getting in.” Parents and kids alike, they all sit a little taller and listen a little harder when she says this. Everyone, it seems, wants to know this secret formula.

What about the secret formula for getting into heaven? What is the admissions secret for getting into that number one ranked destination? Listen up. It’s no great secret. Jesus told his disciples he was leaving them to go to heaven (Jn. 14:2-4). When asked how to get there, he told them, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). The secret formula is Jesus.  If we believe in him though faith and receive him into our lives we will become children of God (Jn. 1:12). Then we can have confidence that when we graduate this educational experience we call earthly life, we will enter the graduate school of heaven. More prestigious than Princeton, this destination is open to all who would claim Christ. Admission is free to all who choose. Grace has paid the entry fee.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The World's End -- growing up, manipulation and unfinished business

Director: Edgar Wright, 2013 (R)

The World’s End may not be an epic, but its central premise is: an epic pub crawl. Five friends, twelve pubs, twelve pints each. That’s a perfect idea for a group of British teens, but not quite so for middle-aged men in their 40s. But this is an hilarious comedy from the writer-director that brought us Hot Fuzz and Shaun of theDead, and reunites cowriters and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost once again.

The first act introduces us to the five friends, from the perspective of Gary King (Pegg), the leader of the gang. Before doing this, Wright gives us the backstory. The five friends first attempted “the Golden Mile”, hitting up the aforementioned 12 pubs. But they lost members of the gang along the way, to drunkenness and drugs, until only three saw the sunrise having not completed the event. It was their finale at high school before moving onto real life.

Now, two decades later, they have lost track of each other, having careers and families. Andy (Frost) is a lawyer; Peter (Eddie Marsan) is a luxury car salesman, still working for his dad; Oliver, or O-man as he was called (Martin Freeman, The Hobbit), is a successful real estate agent with a blue-tooth headset permanently attached to his ear; and Stephen (Paddy Considine) is an architect. But Gary has not moved on. He is trapped in the cigarette end of his teens. Dressed just as he was in school, he remains irresponsible and free, not holding down a job or a girlfriend. He has not grown up. He is a teenager in a mid-life body, addicted to drink and drugs, without life focus.

Growing up and maturing is one of the themes of this terrific film. King fondly remembers that earlier crawl  as “the best night of his life” despite its unsuccessful conclusion. But we are designed to mature. Adolescence has its place but it’s expected to terminate with the teen years. Physically, we were intended to move from baby food to solid food (Heb. 5:14). Emotionally and socially, we were intended to move on from dependence on parents and others (Gen. 2:24). Independence is a biblical goal, even as we realize we are interdependent with our community.  Gary King has missed the memo.

King was always the leader. He had the plans, the others were his followers. But it takes all his childish charm and powers of persuasion to convince his former friends to join him in reattempting this fabled pub crawl. They agree because Andy is going. But there is bad blood between Andy and Gary because of an earlier incident which we learn about later. Andy won’t go until Gary manipulates him using excessive doses of guilt.

Manipulation and guilt are terrible if effective motivators. They may accomplish near-term goals, as Gary realizes, but they will eventually catch you out as Gary discovers to his chagrin. When we lay our guilt on God, confessing our sins to him (1 Jn. 1:9) who has paid the price for us on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24), we find that our consciences have been cleansed (Heb. 10:22). Guilt disappears. True motivation lies in love, focusing on the good not the bad. Rather than control, this focuses on choice, allowing the person we are encouraging to determine for him or herself what to do. It makes room for free will, as God has done with us.

When the film moves to act 2, the friends board “the beast” as Gary drives them back to their childhood hometown of Newton Haven, famous for the golden mile and the first roundabout in England.  There the drinking begins. But the friends notice strange things in the pubs. The town is not what it was. Once Gary picks a fight with a young teen in a pub toilet, the weirdness comes into perspective. An alien apocalypse has occurred. The town is populated by aliens looking like humans. Violence and hilarity ensue. At this point, it becomes clear that The World’s End is a cross between The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The acting is spot-on, the dialogue razor-sharp pitched with perfect timing. The comedy comes thick and fast, if doused in gallons of blue blood. This is British humor at its best. Along the way, Rosamund Pike (Made in Dagenham) shows as up as Oliver’s sister, a love interest of both Gary and Steven, as well as Pierce Brosnan (The Ghost Writer) as a former teacher (so both a former Bond and a former Bond babe in one of the Cornetto trilogy films). Even Bill Nighy makes an “appearance” towards the end. Of the cast, Pegg, Frost, Freeman, Considine, and Nighy all featured in Hot Fuzz.

Speaking of Hot Fuzz, The World’s End concludes Wright’s brilliant “Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy” (also known as the “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy). The first, Shaun of the Dead, featured the red (or strawberry) cornetto (British ice-cream cone) symbolizing blood and zombies. The second, Hot Fuzz, was blue (vanilla) symbolizing the police. This one is green (mint chocolate chip) representing science fiction and the extraterrestrial aliens, which become the dominant theme in acts two and three.

Brett McCracken, in his review of this film for Christianity Today, goes further. He says that this trilogy “is a pseudo-homage to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colors’ trilogy, inspired by the three colors (blue, red and white) of the French flag.” He goes on to compare and contrast the British and French philosophical approaches to the world’s end, stating that: “The World’s End feels like a skewering of the French tendency to wallow in existential and misanthropy in the face of finitude.”

One of the pleasures of the film, from my perspective, is the way it captures British culture from the 80s through today. Having grown up in England and having graduated from English schools, the whole exit school experience rings true. Friends and pub crawls were a significant social engagement. The idea of attempting multiple pubs, a pint in each, and not making it is so typically British. Roundabouts, small English towns, even pubs now “Starbucked” to become indistinguishable from one another, losing their allure in the process, is spot-on social satire. I found myself laughing throughout the movie, even when the rest of the theater was silent.

Two other themes are apparent. One is the fallibility and laziness of humanity. Gary is a slacker and revels in it. At the climax, he declares: “To err is human, so err. . .” The movie plays our innate weakness for fun. But it is true that we are weak and fallible, broken even. This is a true biblical concept. Created perfect, humanity fell when Adam sinned (Gen. 3). From that moment onwards, we have felt the effects. Our intellect, our bodies, our souls all have become corrupt (Psa. 14:3). We can only become restored in Jesus.

The second theme is voiced by Gary himself: “We’re going to see this through to the bitter end. Or the lager end.” It is his unfinished business. He has not moved on and needs to close this to find himself.

We sometimes have unfinished business that haunts us, holding us back in our lives. Whether it is a relationship that is estranged, a goal never accomplished, or a dream that has died, we need to face it so we can move on. Leaving it unfinished stunts our emotional and spiritual growth. That is why God says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23).

The World’s End may be filled with drunkenness, drug use, and reckless daring, it may be redemptively hollow, but it is side-splitting entertainment. And if it makes you think of some unfinished business of your own to take care of after the credits, that’s a bonus for you.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Saturday, October 5, 2013

World War Z -- time to become undead, time to come alive

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for World War Z

Director: Marc Forster, 2013 (PG-13)

World War Z had terrific promise. It featured Brad Pitt in most every scene, a story based on a best-selling book, and a zombie-apocalypse theme that seemed likely to resonate with “The Walking Dead” viewers. Sadly, it fails to live up to the potential and becomes a somewhat lackluster action-adventure.

Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a family man. Former UN investigator, he has exchanged his travel visas for pancake flippers and now spends his days cooking and caring for his family: wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two sweet little girls. He says he doesn’t miss the life of travel and danger but it will drag him back. . . . else this film would be a certain dud.

On a routine car ride in downtown Philly, one of the movie’s best scenes introduces the film. A traffic jam suddenly becomes chaotic when zombies swarm over cars and trucks. It is here that Gerry witnesses a zombie transformation, setting himself up as expert investigator when the UN eventually take him back. Before this happens, he and his family must escape the city carnage, and survive a night of terror in an apartment.

Once we move beyond the introduction, we discover this is a world-wide epidemic and no one knows why. Reenlisted, Gerry is sent on a global voyage seeking patient zero and the cause of the breakout hoping to discover a cure.

We see much of the world: Korea, Israel, Wales, but the scenery is not beautiful. After all, it is plagued by zombies and severe destruction. Gore abounds, but so do plot holes. And by the time the movie goes from fast action to deep suspense in the third act, the climax has been telegraphed. It is so obvious that most of the suspense dissipates.

The book focused on interviews with multiple characters to share different aspects of the zombie wars. Rather than writing this for the screen, Forster’s film focuses on one man, leaving even his family behind for the most part, and sadly loses much of the narrative drama. What results is a typical zombie flick, but with Brad Pitt. He performs well, looking like a middle-aged dad with long-hair, but even he cannot retain interest with this screenplay. Apparently it was so disappointing that the entire third act was completely revised and reshot after screening for the studio. That is always a bad sign.

There is not much of redemptive value here. But one scene caused me to reflect on life and death. In the opening chaos in the streets of Philadelphia, Gerry sees a man bitten and go from being alive to being undead. It took a mere 10 seconds – Gerry counted them. How long does it take us to go in the reverse direction?

The Bible points out that we are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1), even while we walk around thinking we are full of life. We are the walking dead, despite not chomping on other’s flesh. But if we make a confession of faith (Rom. 10:9), in a single moment we can go from death to life. In an instant we can become born again (Jn. 3:1-10). Once this occurs, there may be no outward sign of change but there is an inward reality. Life infuses us. The Holy Spirit becomes our inner companion (Acts. 2:4). And we begin the process of life transformation whereby slowly God makes us more and more like Jesus (Rom. 8:29-30).

It may take 10 seconds to become undead (in this zombie movie) but it takes only a twinkling of an eye to attain life, and become really alive. The film may be fictional trivia, not worth much of a viewing, but Jesus’ life is literal truth and worth all you can imagine.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs