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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Turkey Films Take Three (or the Oscar version)

Two years ago I shared my thanksgiving tradition of listing turkey films by placing the word "turkey" in the title. Last year I added a second list of top ten turkey films. This year I am taking a different tack and focusing on the Best Picture Turkey Oscars from the last two decades. Eliminating single-word titles, like Argo (2012) or Crash (2005), with a couple of exceptions, or simple, non-turkeyable titles (like The Artist, 2011) as well as movies I have turkeyfied in prior years (like The King's Speech, 2010, or The Hurt Locker, 2009), here is that list:
10 American Turkey (1999)
9 The English Turkey (1996)
8 The Return of the Turkey (2003)
7 A Beautiful Turkey (2001)
6 Million Dollar Turkey (2004)
5 Turkey in Love (1998)
4 Schindler's Turkey (1993)
3 Braveturkey (1995)
2 Slumturkey millionaire (2008)
1 No Country for Old Turkeys (2007)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Certified Copy (Copie conforme) -- mini-review

Director: Abbas Kiarostami, 2010 (UR)

A French woman listens to an Englishman lecture in an Italian town. She is sitting in the front row, but her son is a distraction and they leave. But she gets a message to the speaker and they meet the following day and take a car journey into Tuscany. That is the synopsis of this casually intriguing movie whose plot superficiality belies the depth of questions it raises and fails to answer.

Juliette Binoche (Blue) plays Elle, the intelligent and cultivated French woman who seems to be attracted to the Englishman. William Shimell, a famous British opera singer in his feature debut, plays James Miller, a writer whose new book posits that certified copies of art are as valid and valuable as the works of art themselves. For art gallery owner Elle, this proves alluring if not challenging.

As she drives him on their journey, their relationship takes center stage. As it slowly reveals itself, it seems to transform in front of our eyes leaving us to wonder what it really is. The secret that slowly emerges remains vague and just out of reach. Is it real? Or is it a good copy, one that convinces and hence carries value?

It reminds us that we are certified copies of an original. We bear the likeness of our maker (Gen. 1:26-27). Though we may not see it when we look in the mirror, we still carry this image. Defaced and hidden behind other colors on the tapestry of our humanity, it still remains waiting to be renewed and reclaimed. Regardless of if or when this occurs, there is inherent value, even in this certified copy.

Like Richard Linklater's fabulous trilogy of films (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) this movie focuses primarily on the dialogue between the two. This offers a fine treat, if just to see Binoche verbally spar with Shimell.  And also like Linklater's films, there seems to be no firm resolution. It is all in the eye of the beholder.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gravity - awe, oxygen and rebirth


Director: Alfonso CuarĂ³n, 2013 (PG-13)

What are the two main things we take for granted each day that have a major impact on life on Earth? Oxygen and gravity. We breathe in thousands of times a day rarely giving a second thought to the influx of oxygen that carries with it the sustenance of life. And gravity keeps our feet firmly planted on terra firma. But in Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men) latest thriller, both are lacking leading to life-threatening circumstances.

The film opens with a long pan of space, silent, stark, stars twinkling in the far distance, earth appearing below. Three astronauts appear, in space. One, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side) is working on the Hubble telescope, trying to fix a defective comms board. Another is goofing off. The third, Kowalski (George Clooney, The Descendants), is space-walking trying to break the record. All seems calm, until the voice of mission control (Ed Harris, Apollo 13) warns them of space debris hurtling at them faster than a speeding bullet. Before they can return to the space shuttle, disaster has found them.  One dead, one floating, Ryan finds herself literally cut off and cast adrift in space. Untethered, she has no way to control her motion, and finds herself spinning crazily around and around, disorienting her. To make matters worse, her oxygen levels fall dangerously low and her panicked breathing sucks it lower and lower.

With this start, the movie falls into the suspense genre of danger following on danger. Only two characters fill the screen. Even these could not really be called characters, as we learn little about them or their backstory. Kowalski is the veteran spaceman, on his last mission always ready with a quick quip (“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” Or, “Well, it reminds me of a story,” one no doubt he has told time and time again.) Stone is on her first mission, a rookie experiencing space-sickness and claustrophobic fear. All we learn of her is a tragedy that has left her hopeless and relationless, driven only by her work. She has no one who cares about her.

What makes Gravity work are the stunning visuals. This movie must be seen in 3D on the big screen. Although much of it has been created with cgi, it still amazes. The cinematography captures the vastness of space while juxtaposing with the confines of a constricting spacesuit. Cuoron switches between third-person camerawork, letting us look on, and first-person camerawork, when the camera slowly goes inside Stone’s helmet. We see from her vantage point, including the slightly misted visor as her panic increases.

This brings me to the first of two theological points of contact with this film. The camerawork conveys the awesomeness of space, its infinitude, and in contrast the smallness of man. It brings to mind the words of David the Psalmist: “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psa. 8:4). Or as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass” (Isa. 40:6-7). In contrast, God is infinite, and cannot be contained: “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you” (1 Kings 8:27). If space is big, God is bigger.

Bullock carries the film. Facing danger in each scene, she communicates her feelings in body and facial moves, rather than dialogue. Clooney acts as support rather than lead here. And she pulls it off in perhaps her strongest performance yet.

At one point, in a pivotal scene, Stone is inside a ship alone. She turns the lights down and though she now has oxygen, dials the oxygen down to a deadly low level. Metaphorically, she is turning out her own lights. Her hope has gone. She wants a quiet, cozy descent into death. For her gravity and oxygen are gone. She has cried out to herself that no one on earth remains to pray for her soul, and even she cannot pray as no one ever taught her how. But a vision springs to mind to bring her hope.

Cuaron clearly has rebirth in mind. Through the trials of adversity, Stone’s hopeless and lack of life are burned away until she is reborn. Even his visuals bring this out. One scene has Stone relaxing in zero-gravity in a fetal-like position, clad only in her space underwear. This picture portends her later change. Then her awakening brings with it hope, a hope that she might return to earth. The journey, difficult and dangerous, with no friendly voices to help her on, brings with it a literal burning away of the dross. All that is left is life, primordial. Until the very last scene shows Stone crawling out of the sea, clawing her way across the sandy-mud, until she has the strength to stand: alive. She has been reborn. Cuaron’s visuals communicate a rebirth pointing strongly to evolutionary beginnings.

Rebirth is the second point of intersection. Stone was dead inside even while she was alive in space. She had no hope. Such a life holds only despair. But God knows that hope is the anchor that we humans need (Heb. 6:19). And he gives us this hope in the person of Jesus (2 Cor. 1:10). God knows that we live as dead men and women (Eph. 2:1), walking and talking but cut off from the source of life and hope. We, like Stone, need a rebirth, an emergence to true life. And it comes once more in the person of Jesus. If we receive him (Jn. 1:12) and follow him (Matt. 4;19) we will rise from the dead, to stand up in new life.

Gravity has been panned by some critics as slow and pondering, with poor characters and dialogue. They certainly have the right to their opinions. But despite the overt and manipulative message, I felt the wonder of space and the grave dread of impending death. Stone is no everyman (or everywoman). She is no Ripley-like heroine. But her rebirth from hopelessness is an experience that all can savor if they cast off the heavy gravity of sin and its lack of oxygen, and experience the freeing breath of life that comes from Jesus.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Monday, November 11, 2013

Romero -- incarnation and social justice

Director: John Duigan, 1989 (PG-13)

Romero presents a true biography of man who wanted to live in the cloisters but who was forced to live in the crosshairs. Produced by the Paulist Fathers, a Roman Catholic order of teachers, it paints the picture of internal transformation, focusing on the message of social justice not political revolution. Despite a known ending, in an assassination on March 24, 1980, the film still presents a compelling character drama and a challenge to Christian viewers.

Set in El Salvadore in the late 70s, the film immediately sets the scene. The country is led by a government that is repressing the common people, while communist revolutionaries fight a guerilla war against the military. The peasants are caught in the middle and no one seems to care. We meet Bishop Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) talking to another priest, one more active and vocal. This priest appeals to Romero: “Jesus is not somewhere up in the clouds lying in a hammock. Jesus is down here with us, building a kingdom, Oscar, what else can I do? I cannot love God whom I do not see if I do not love my brothers and sisters, whom I can see.” But Romero suggests he might be considered a subversive.

This brings to mind the exact sentiment the apostle John declared in his first epistle: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). We will not see God in this present life, but we will see his children who live all around us. How we treat them, as Jesus pointed out, indicates how we would treat him (Matt. 25:31-46). In being called to love God, we are also being called to love people. That becomes our yardstick.

In this first interaction and its subsequent scenes, we see Romero as a man who leans towards the government, who is more comfortable with his books than with his congregants. Apolitical, Romero wants to be left alone. So when the archbishop dies and must be replaced, Rome selects Romero become archbishop as “a good compromise choice”, as one observer points out. His uncontroversial manner and desire to avoid rocking the boat, would make him a perfect choice, both for the distant Roman Church and the oppressive government.

His archbishopric inauguration shows him quietly receiving numerous gifts from the upper classes and the government. And then a subsequent reception contrasts starkly with an out-door mass held by one of his priestly friends. While well-decked out guests swill champagne, poor peasants take mass. But a government death squad shows up to take action against this gathering, resulting in bodies in the street and blood in the gutters. This juxtaposition of scenes communicates the disparity in class and highlights Romero’s initial position.

As the film progresses, Romero experiences the effects of the government’s authoritarianism in death of priests and others, and slowly his views change. Though still a somewhat introspective man, he begins to pull away from his earlier position and becomes more radicalized. In the middle of the movie, the social justice theme emerges: “The mission of the church is to identify itself with the poor, and to join with them in their struggle for justice.

The bible underscores this them of social justice any number of times. The psalmist declared, “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psa. 140:12). The prophet Isaiah said, “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isa. 11:4). If God’s heart lies with the poor and the oppressed, so too must that of the church. We must align ourselves with the victims of such oppression and injustice. When society ignores them, we must embrace them. Jesus did this for the marginalized, and so must we in the church.

The heart of the film is this gradual transformation, from complacency to commitment. Raul Julia gives a controlled performance that powerfully portrays this change from bookish to brave until he ends up a leader that the people will follow. Through his rhetoric from the pulpit he challenges the enemies of the church and calls to Christ’s followers to live as he has called us to do.

Indeed, by the final act Romero’s “conversion” is complete. His voice emerges, as evidenced in a radio address he quietly yet passionately gives: 
I am a shepherd, who with his people has begun to learn a beautiful and difficult truth. Our faith requires that we immerse ourselves in the world. I believe economic injustice is the root cause of our problems. From it stems all the violence. The church has to be incarnated in those who fight for freedom, and defend them, and share in their persecution.
Although economic injustice may not be the root of all problems, it certainly contributes to the problems in many regions. Romero offers a real solution. The church has a role. As God incarnated himself into history in Jesus Christ to solve our sin problem, we must incarnate ourselves in situations where social injustice prevails and play our part.

Steven Greydanus, in his review of the film, offers a fitting conclusion:
Archbishop Romero was killed in the very act of offering the sacrifice of the Mass, almost in the act of elevating the Eucharistic elements. Simply by portraying this event essentially as it happened, Romero presents the archbishop’s life and death as a sacrifice in union with the sacrifice of Christ. 
This final sacrifice is foreshadowed by other Masses offered under threatening or difficult circumstances. The Mass, we see, is a bold and radical act, even in a way a revolutionary act: for in the Mass Jesus is with us and in us. The Mass is the fullest earthly expression of that divine solidarity with which the Lord himself challenged one of the church’s earliest oppressors: "Why are you persecuting me?"  
It’s a question that continues to apply to all who persecute God’s children anywhere in the world.”
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mud -- awesome screening at Mosaic

We had a wonderful turn-out for last night's screening of Mud at Mosaic. Fifteen or so film-lovers watched Matthew McConaughey look like a hobo (not a bum), complete with grizzled beard and chipped tooth. Despite early technical difficulties, we managed to make the technology work.

Awesome big-screen makes the sanctuary seem like a cineplex not a church. Blu-ray lets us see each whisker on Mud's face. All we need now is 3D and Dolby surround-sound. Then we'd have to charge!

Big shout out to Scott Hicks who loaned the HD projector and screen, and to Jerry and Phil from Mosaic who were there when we needed support. Biggest shout of all goes to Ward and Andrea Jenkins, co-leaders and set-up crew alongside my wonderful wife, Sharon. They put in the long hours and various rides to get the missing cables to connect the equipment. They connected so this connect group could subsequently connect.

Here are some photos of the set-up. Discussion afterwards was a blast. So many insightful comments from the very artistic audience.