Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 10 Books Read in 2014

I read a lot of books in 2014, some non-fiction, mostly fiction. There were some dogs. There was some pulp fiction that helped me escape from the stress of work. But there were some real winners. Below is my top 10 list, formed without any real criteria; just the books I liked the most and would therefore consider reading again at some point. I recommend all of these for your reading enjoyment.

10 Consumer Detox (Mark Powley, 2011) This book was recommended by a friend. Lowly, a British clergyman, details how consumerism runs counter to the teachings of Jesus. For those that have become consumed with today’s consumerist culture, this book offers advice on how to detox and escape.

9 Moving Day (Jonathan Stone, 2014) A con man has created the perfect scam: show up to move the belongings of senior citizens one day early and drive away with a lifetime’s worth of stuff. But when he pulls this con on Stanley Peke, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, he has thrown down the gauntlet. Pete will not let some punk walk off with his belongings. This thriller pits two men against each other in what has become about more than just money. For Peke, this is about absolving the ghosts from his brutal past.

8 The Auschwitz Escape (Joel C. Rosenberg, 2014) Rosenberg’s latest novel is based on a true story. Jacob Weisz is a German Jew, who faces the terrible nightmare of the Nazi regime of World War 2. Captured and sent to Auschwitz, he determines to escape.

7 Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand, 2010) By now, everyone must have heard of Hillenbrand’s book, as Angelina Jolie has turned it into a major motion picture. This is the story of Louis Zemperini. A defiant and delinquent teenager, he became a legendary runner, before the Second World War brings him to an Army Air Forces bomber. Crashing into the Pacific, he survives over 40 days afloat before being rescued by the Japanese. The real story is his survival in the brutal prison camps in Japan, where the days of torture test his endurance to the limits if he is to remain unbroken.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl, 1946, 2006) Like Zemperini, Frankl was a survivor. As a psychiatrist in Austria before World War 2, he had the opportunity to emigrate to America but chose to stay with his family. But he lost them in the Nazi death camps. Sent to four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, the first half of the book tells the story of life in these camps while second half outlines Frankl’s pilosp[hoy of logo therapy and how man searches for meaning even in the midst of suffering.

5. Caught (Harlan Coben, 2010) Cohen’s thriller centers on a 17 year girl old gone missing along with a female reporter whose mission is to bring down sexual predators. The catch is she may have got it wrong with her last target, and she can no longer trust her previously reliable instincts. Bringing the focus on internet safety and the ease of destroying reputations on the internet, this thriller surfaces some challenging and relevant questions.

4. The Last Alibi (David Ellis, 2013) I do like legal thrillers. I came across defense attorney Jason Kolarich in this fourth installment. When a client comes into Kolarich’s office telling him that he believe he will become a suspect in two murders, Kolarich thinks this strange. But when more murders take place, Kolarich finds himself being framed and he goes from being defense attorney to defendant. This book twists and turns to the very end.

3. Blink (Malcolm Gladwell, 2007) I discovered Gladwell this year and this was one of the first books of his I read. In Blink he addresses how we make instant decisions. Bringing various stories to illustrate his points, he looks at why some people are brilliant decision makes while others aren’t, why following instinct brings success to some and failure to others, and why we can’t explain the best decisions. This is the book about “thin-slicing” — filtering down to the few factors that matter when making a decision.

2. Bright Empires Series (Stephen Lawhead, 2010-2014) When I read the first book in this sci-fi/fantasy series, The Skin Map, I was intrigued. A man has found the way to navigate the multiverse, moving from one place and time in one universe to another, and he has tattooed markers to help him remember on his skin. The second book, The Bone House, was a bit of a let-down the first time, as it has too many characters and plot lines which are left hanging. But, then I waited till all 5 books were done and went back to the start to read them all in sequence. And that is the way to attack this feast. By the time you get through books 3 and 4 (The Spirit Well and The Shadow Lamp), book 5 (The Fatal Tree) brings it all together for a satisfying conclusion as the band of intrepid questers seek to save the universe from the end of everything.

1. I am Pilgrim (Terry Hayes, 2014) Terry Hayes debut thriller is an epic and book-of-the-year nominee on goodreads. It starts with a shocking murder and moves from mystery to spy thriller. When the murder uses techniques written in the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation, it becomes clear that the author might help. But he is a pseudonym for a man who doesn’t exist: Pilgrim. Pilgrim, a spy for US intelligence, has retired, but is forced back into the game. What starts as a murder becomes a race-against-time to save America from oblivion. This is Bourne taken to the next level.

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Top 10 films of 2014

I didn’t get to see that many movies in 2014. This is partly due to increase in work, partly due to watching more TV shows (like Dr. Who), and partly to a decrease in desire to write movie reviews. But here is my top 10 movies made in 2014 that I saw. (I didn’t see that many more than this.) What I did see tells more about me than about the film. There is a preponderance of sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian futures.

10 Transcendence (Dir: Wally Pfister [debut])
Perhaps a little far-fetched, but poses questions about artificial intelligence and the confluence of man and machine. And it has Johnny Depp, even if in voice only for most of the film.

9. Mockingjay Part 1 (Dir: Francis Lawrence)
Jennifer Lawrence has made this role of Katniss Everdeen hers, and carries the film. Although this final book of the trilogy has been divided into two films (ala the final Harry Potter), this still was intriguing, if only to see the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final role.

8. Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir: Wes Anderson)
Too many stars to name, Wes Anderson brings all his regulars together in a beautifully shot, wonderfully scripted comedy. The movie is multilayered, told through story within story.

7. Gone Girl (Dir: David Fincher)
Gillian Flynn adapted her the screenplay from her own bestseller. Telling the story of a wife gone missing through flashback from a missing diary, the film pulls back the curtains on a seemingly wonderful marriage to show the dark underbelly beneath. Did he kidnap and kill her? Or is he innocent and being set-up?

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Dir: Matt Reeves)
I liked the first reboot but found this to be even better. With Andy Serkis in the role of Cesar, this is the movie where the apes speak for the first time. We also find humans no better than apes, and some apes no better than humans. It sets the scene for the next installment well.

5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Dir: Bryan Singer)
With Singer back at the helm, this seventh movie in the series brings back the cast of the original X-men trilogy along with the cast from First Class for a mash-up of past and future.

4. Non-Stop (Dir: James Collet-Serra)
Liam Neeson stars as a hard-drinking air marshall being set up in an airplane ransom. With most of the action in a claustrophobic cabin, this is not for those who have a fear of flying. And it just happens to have Lady Mary from Downton Abbey (Michelle Dockery).

3. Edge of Tomorrow (Dir: Doug Liman)
The tag line says it all: Live, die, repeat. Lima crosses “Groundhog Day” with “Starship Troopers” and comes out with a real winner. Disregarded as a typical Tom Cruise blockbuster, this epic day, fought many times over, is an adrenaline rush.

2. Snowpiercer (Dir: Joon Ho Bong)
Though made in 2013, this debuted in the States in 2014. The dystopian future has humanity’s only survivors of a global freeze traversing the world non-stop on a train, powered by an eternal engine. The film offers social commentary on the class system, and is a violent but action-packed journey.

1. Interstellar (Dir: Christopher Nolan)
Some loved it, some hated it. I loved it. Nolan sure knows how to make great films (Inception, Dark Knight, Memento). This epic story focuses on an interstellar space flight undertaken secretly as the only hope for humanity’s survival. It reminded me of 2001, another sci-fi epic that was received in bipolar fashion. The ending will keep viewers talking much like 2001’s did.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Turkey Films 2014

It's time for the annual Thanksgiving ritual. No, not sitting down to eat the big bird with family and friends. I mean coming up with the top "turkey films". You remember the rules. You substitute turkey for one of the words in the movie title. You don't use dinde or Turkei unless you're French of German. (But come to think of it why are you reading this or eating Thanksgiving dinner if you are French or German?)

Last year was Oscars. This year, we focus simply on films released since last Thanksgiving. Here they are, then, the top ten turkey movies of 2014:
  • InterTurkey
  • The Hunger Games: MockingTurkey (part 1)
  • Turkeys of the Galaxy
  • Gone Turkey
  • Turkeycrawler
  • The Theory of Turkey
  • Turkey of Tomorrow
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Turkeys
  • Sin City: A Turkey to Kill For
  • X-Turkeys: Days of Turkeys Past
And as a bonus, here are three American literary novels being read by one of my daughters in school (at least one was made into a movie):
  1. One Flew over the Turkey's Nest
  2. All the Pretty Turkeys
  3. The Turkeys they Carried

Happy Thanksgiving! Gobble, gobble, gobble.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Warm Bodies -- love as a life-bringing force

Director: Jonathan Levine, 2013 (PG-13)

If you think back to the last love story you watched, it probably featured a beautiful twenty-something woman and a hot and handsome hunk, two of the current or emerging stars of today’s Hollywood.  Two lovers full of life. It probably did not have a gore-encrusted scruffy corpse as the leading man. Rarely has there been a zombie love story. But this is one.

Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse!

Warm Bodies begins with this voice-over:
“What am I doing with my life? I'm so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What's wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can't I connect with people? Oh, right, it's because I'm dead.”
The young man who is thinking this is R (Nicholas Hoult), who never gets a name as he simply cannot remember his pre-undead life. He merely shuffles around in the airport that he and others like him exist.

The film features a voice-over narrative throughout. Although cliché as a device to let us inside a character’s head, in this case the characters cannot speak. They only grunt. But voice-over allows us to discover that R is full of thoughts and desires, wants and wishes. We would not know this from his (lack of) communication.

In this post-apocalyptic world, three kinds of beings dwell: the undead, known as corpses (not zombies); the bonies, corpses that have devolved to the point of pulling off their own dead skin and flesh; and the humans, almost at the point of extinction.

When a team of young humans leave the city walls that protect them to go in search of medicine and supplies things go horribly wrong. Julie (Teresa Palmer), daughter of the city’s leading general Grigio (John Malkovich), and her team get attacked by a horde of corpses bent on eating live flesh. Perry (Dave Franco), Julie’s boyfriend, gets killed and his brains eaten by R, the hero of the film. Then in a poignant moment, R falls in love with Julie and saves her from Perry’s fate. He then takes her back with them, smearing gore on her face to cover the aroma of life that attracts the zombies.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that this is more than a love story. As a zombie flick, it has its fair share of horror moments. After all, zombie movies are captured in the horror genre. Warm Bodies includes some nasty images of bonies eating humans, and some violence. But the images of R eating Perry’s brains are perhaps the most gruesome.

Yet these scenes are crucial in R’s wooing of Julie. As R says in voice-over, “There's a lot of ways to get to know a person. Eating her dead boyfriend's brains is one of the more unorthodox methods, but...” He cannot put his thoughts into words to talk to her and so assimilates Perry’s memories by absorbing his brains. In this way, he does get to know her, even if she does not get to know him.

But a strange thing happens. As he falls deeper in love with her, his dead heart begins to beat. And he is able to speak words, slow and monosyllabic at first but later short sentences. Then his zombie friends begin to change, too, recognizing the feelings of love that awakens them from their long sleep of death.

Here lies the connection to Christianity. We are all zombies, dead men walking. As the apostle Paul says, “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12) But love changed everything. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

Jesus, full of love and life, came to this planet that was full of death as a healer for those that would hear and accept. He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mk. 2:17) Starting with the Twelve Apostles, his radical vision of the kingdom transformed people who in turn brought this saving love to others: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 Jn. 3:14)

Toward the end of the film, R says to Julie, in a struggling sentence, “No matter what... we stay together... we're changing everything.” This is the message Jesus left his disciples with: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” (Jn. 15:4). If we who are no longer undead corpses stay with Jesus, our life-bringing Lord, we will change everything. This is true hope for our not-yet apocalyptic world.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Le Gamin au Velo (The Kid with a Bike) -- absent fathers, needy kids

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011 (PG-13)

A recent movie I saw at the cinema (Philomena) focused on a mother desperately searching for her son. In this film, we find a boy desperately searching for his father. Both are poignant dramas. Both were nominated for awards (Philomena in 2013, Kid with Bike in 2011). But there is where the similarities end. Kid with a Bike is a French movie from the Dardenne brothers, that plays out in slow fashion, quite the opposite of a typical Hollywood film. Refusing to use a musical score to pluck the viewer's emotions, the Dardennes use a powerful device to catch attention. Four times they play a 15 second segment of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, almost the only music in the film, and in so doing force us to see the bigger picture and transitions of the film.

Kid with a Bike opens with the kid, Cyril (Thomas Doret) without a bike. More than this, though, he is a kid without a father. We meet Cyril at the group home his father has dumped him in. As an 11 year-old, Cyril needs his father, and wants the bike his father still has. So he goes searching for his dad. He ends up in a doctor's office being chased by the director of the foster home. He grabs hold of a woman, Samantha (Cecile De France), to avoid being taken back. This is Samantha's first brief and unexpected encounter with Cyril.

After this meeting, and having witnessed Cyril's passionate desire to get his bike back, Samantha buys it back for him and delivers it to the foster home. On a whim, Cyril asks her if she will let him stay with her on the weekends. Surprisingly, she agrees. This sets up the context for the rest of the film.

The Dardenne brothers show normal life for this hairdresser and her weekend foster child. He embarks on a quest to find his father. He also encounters a bully who leads him into a gang whose leader seduces him toward a criminal life. Along the way, minor violence occurs which forces both Cyril and Samantha to face up to the consequences of Cyril's choices.

Several themes emerge. First, Cyril's father refuses to take him back: "It's too much. I can't look after him." Further, he refuses to tell Cyril the truth, cowardly trying to make Samantha tell Cyril this unwanted news. Here is a father who walks away from his responsibilities. Is there a smaller coward than this? Becoming a father is a small act that bears huge consequences. A man who fathers a child must act like a father. To do otherwise is a violation of familial function. There is no excuse. A man must think before he acts, and count the cost of his intended actions (Lk. 14:28).

Cyril, on the other hand, acts like a child would. He needs his father. He desperately wants someone there for him. (We never know about his mother.) Cyril even goes out of his way to give his father what he seems to want in hope that he will want his son back. He simply does not understand how his father could not want him, could discard him like a used wrapper. God has shown us what a father should be, in his role as our father. He has also told us, "Fathers, do not embitter your children" (1 Col. 3:21). As a father, I can and do make many mistakes. But failing to love my children, even abandoning them, would be the way to most embitter them. It is perhaps the worst thing a father could do.

Finally, Samantha the hairdresser begs the question, why. Why would she take on a stranger, particularly a very troubled boy? She did not count the cost. And there was a cost to her: emotional, relational, physical and even financial cost. Why would she do this? The Dardennes never give us a clear answer,  although she seems almost as needy as Cyril.

Yet Samantha reminds us of another parent who took on troubled children: God. Yet, he did count the cost and realized it would be huge: it cost him his only son. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). His love changes us from troubled people, caught up in our own issues and sins, to those who become like Jesus, loving others. Selfishness turns to selflessness. Perhaps with Christ central in our lives, we might look to help the Cyrils we run into in our daily lives.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Talented Mr. Ripley -- deceit, lies and lostness

Director: Anthony Minghella, 1999 (R)

Two years after winning an Oscar for Directing the hugely successful The English Patient, Anthony Minghella helmed this vehicle and was nominated for another Oscar, this time for Best Adapted Screenplay (from the book by Patricia Highsmith). Like his previous film, this movie moves slowly but methodically, merging suspense with drama to form a low-key thriller with a terrific jazz score and decadent mood.

From the opening scene we find Tom Ripley (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity) a man who wears masks. In this scene, though, it is simply a borrowed blazer to allow him to play piano at a party. But this mild deception causes the lavatory attendant with delusions of grandeur to be mistaken for a Princeton grad. When Mr. Greenleaf approaches him with this mistake, Tom plays along and finds himself being offered $1000 to go to Italy to find Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, Side Effects), another Princeton grad. But Dickie is a rich kid who enjoys wasting his father’s allowance on jazz records and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). A cut to the Mediterranean scene and we see Dickie sunning himself with Marge, lazily lounging on the beach.

En route via luxury liner, Tom meets Meredith (Cate Blanchett, The Hobbit), another rich kid off to enjoy Europe. She is travelling under a different name and will later bump into him and set off a chain of events that will cause Tom to grow ever more deceptive.

Deception is one of the themes of the film, along with moral degeneration. In one of his first meetings with Dickie, he is asked what his singular talent is. Tom replies to his supposed former college buddy, “Forging signatures, telling lies and impersonating almost anyone.” Laying out the truth here allows him to be accepted by Dickie and lays the groundwork for future deceit.

The sad thing is the moral rationalization going on in Tom’s head, which we are privy to: “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” Tom clearly starts off thinking he is not a bad person, just one who has some odd talents. But the Bible says otherwise: “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). We deceive even ourselves with this kind of thinking. The Psalmist understood this and declared, “Surely I was sinful at birth” (Psa. 51: 5). We can convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but the truth stands out darkly in contrast. We are sinful and deceitful from the very start.

Tom is a prime example. A poor kid, he dreams of riches. More than this, though, he wants to trade in his boring identity and character for someone more interesting and exciting. So, to slither his way into Dickie’s inner circle, he learns jazz as a common interest and shows this at the ultimate moment to go from acquaintance to new best friend. And although he wins over Dickie he fails to account for two things. First, Dickie is fickle and will cast off a friend just as quickly as he takes them to his bosom. Second, there is Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catching Fire), another decadent, gastronomic friend. Freddie, unlike Dickie, is less trusting and can see through Tom’s character.

As Tom gets closer and closer to Dickie, he studies him as a predator would his prey. It even seems that Tom is confused as to whether he wants to love Dickie or be Dickie. But when Dickie spurns Tom’s casual homosexual advance and later reneges on a holiday promise, Tom realizes he wants more of the rich lifestyle than he can get as Ripley. He wants to live Dickie’s life as Dickie.

Tom’s character shows how an initial “white lie” can begin a journey of descent, into deceit, dark lying and murder. This slippery slope begins with lying lips. And “The Lord detests lying lips” (Prov. 12:22).  But it all starts in the heart: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder” (Mk. 7:21).

As the movie unfolds, Tom moves from the coast of Italy to Rome where he takes on Dickie’s identity and digs himself deeper into deceit. There are several super suspenseful scenes, centered on Tom almost being discovered in his lies. But Tom evolves, growing cleverer, learning to improvise on the fly with lightning-fast thinking. Though he is a monster, he is intelligent and charming. And since we see from his perspective we are drawn into his schemes. But we also realize how alone he is.

At one point, Tom says, “Don’t you just take the past, and put it in a room in the basement, and lock the door and never go in there? That’s what I do.” He has sealed off the past, including his sins, in a room he wants to avoid. But that means he cannot share his true being with another. He finally recognizes this: “I know. I’m lost, too. I’m going to be stuck in the basement, aren’t I, that’s my . . . terrible, and alone, and dark, and I’ve lied about who I am, and where I am, and now no one will ever find me.” His destiny stands before him: a dark bottomless chasm.

This is perhaps the best definition of lostness in movie history. As Tom verbalizes it, we can picture that dark, lonely basement, with the certainty that no one else will visit it.

Because of our sinful nature, we are all lost before God. We have our own dark basements we dwell in, seemingly safe and secure from the whole world. But this is not security and safety; rather, it is hell. Alone, separate from all humanity and even from the God of humanity. With no one to know us, there is no one to love us. We cannot share our humanity with another. This is terrible and a terror reserved for the darkest corners of hell indeed (2 Pet. 2:4).

But the God of humanity declared, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). Despite our self-righteous self-deceit, Jesus came to rescue us from our basements. He understands our plight. He came as a no one, an illegitimate son of a carpenter, born in a dirty stable. But in taking on our flesh and carrying our sins to the cross, he gives us a chance to put on his cloak. We can clothe ourselves in Jesus (Rom. 13:14). We can call ourselves a brother with Christ. We can identify with Jesus. And in so doing, we find a new identity, one that decries deception and murder, one that pours forth virtue and life. We can find ourselves talented with his divine talents. But only if we put on his blazer.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kill Bill Vol. 2 -- character growth and life/death incarnate

Director: Quentin Tarantino, 2004 (R)

The second chapter of the Kill Bill violent extravaganza opens with a fake shot of the Bride (Uma Thurman) driving, like the old Hitchcock car ride scenes. And the Bride sets the scene with a quick recap of volume 1:
Looked dead, didn't I? But I wasn't. But it wasn't from lack of trying, I can tell you that. Actually, Bill's last bullet put me in a coma. A coma I was to lie in for four years. When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements refer to as a 'roaring rampage of revenge.' I roared. And I rampaged. And I got bloody satisfaction. I've killed a hell of a lot of people to get to this point, but I have only one more. The last one. The one I'm driving to right now. The only one left. And when I arrive at my destination, I am gonna kill Bill.
Like its predecessor, volume 2 plays with the timing of scenes, so actually when this film starts there are three vipers left: Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Budd (Michael Madsen), and Bill himself (David Carradine). Unlike its predecessor, this revenge film limits the body count to three, as compared to over 40, and focuses more on conversation and character development than non-stop violence. There are several graphic scenes of violence, especially when Elle (also known as California Mountain King Snake) takes on the Bride (also known as the Black Mamba), but none are as severe or sustained as in the first movie (except for one particularly nasty body part removal).

The story plays longer and we see how the Bride became the person she is. We also meet (briefly) the man she would have married. This view of the past brings out the person in the present.

At one point, though, Bill asks Bud: "Can't we just . . . forget the past?" He wants to move on. But we cannot simply forget the past. The past carries the seeds of today and the fruit of tomorrow. Our former choices convey with them consequences, as did those of the Bride and her cadre of assassins. The sins of the past move on into the present, unless they have been paid. When we trust Christ, God does take care of these sins: "as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Psa. 103:12). God forgives and forgets, and then we can forget the past, too.

One of the beauties of this film compared to volume 1 is the conversation between Bill and the Bride, and there are several. The last one becomes an extended discourse that shows Bill's true character. Although he comes across as urbane and intelligent, he is fickle, as quick to tell a story or make a sandwich as he is to shoot a friend.

He offers a thought to the Bride from a parable on superman: "Clark Kent is to Superman's critique on the whole human race. Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton" (the latter being two names for the Bride). When she asks him, "Are you calling me a superhero?", he replies, "I'm calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be." To him, her nature cannot be changed. She is who she is, and will never change. This is counter to what she seeks.

This philosophy is also counter to biblical truth. We are born in sin (Psa. 51:5). We bear the corrupt image of Adam, our forefather. But we can be changed. We need not remain trapped in this destiny of destruction. By turning to Christ, we can become reborn (Jn. 3:7), a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). In him we find ourselves reconciled and remade in the image of the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Hope beckons; change remains a potential.

The Bride, aka Beatrix Kiddo, seeks revenge until she finds Bill. Then she discovers reason for a future. And with this hope she becomes changed, a new person, one with a motivation beyond vengeance. Her new motivation includes life not death.

Earlier in the film, Elle Driver gives a mini-speech on the black mamba, the Bride's alter ego: "In Africa the saying goes 'In the bush, an elephant can kill you, a leopard can kill you, and a black mamba can kill you. But only with the mamba is death sure.' Hence its handle, 'Death Incarnate.' " The Bride is none other than Death Incarnate.

The Bride contrasts starkly, in her role as black mamba, with Christ. While she is death incarnate, he is life incarnate. The son of God, Jesus Christ, came to earth as God incarnate, made into the form of humanity, in the flesh (Jn. 1:14). "In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind" (Jn. 1:4). He is the very essence of life, and he brings life to all who come to him thirsting for it. He is the white mamba who absorbs the very sting of death (1 Cor. 15:56) from the serpent of old (Rev. 20:2).

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Kill Bill Vol.1 -- mini-review: violence and revenge

Director: Quentin Tarantino, 2003 (R)

The fourth movie from writer-director Tarantino is as bloody and violent as any before, perhaps more so. The plot-line is simple: the Bride (Uma Thurman) is shot in the head by Bill (David Carridine), her former lover and leader, and left for dead during her wedding rehearsal. She emerges after four years in a coma and wants revenge on all those who involved. But the movie is far from simple and Tarantino uses all the tools in his tool-box, even splitting the movie into two volumes to spin this gory yarn.

Blending spaghetti western, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with kung fu b-flicks, throwing in Japanese anime and monochrome chapters, Tarantino pays homage to the films of his youth, and even includes a scalping. His stylized violence is excessive but clearly unrealistic, with dismemberments and lost limbs too many to count. He refuses to tell the story in linear fashion, instead interweaving chapters asynchronously and thereby retaining viewer interest.

This first volume carries an overdose of stylized violence. The Bride, an assassin known also as "the Black Mamba", realizes she has lost the baby she was carrying during her altar-walk and that adds further fuel to her revenge-soaked fire. Each chapter of this film adds more violence than its predecessor. She goes from a mano-a-mano knife fight with Copperhead (another female assassin) to a samurai sword-fight against over fifty Japanese yakuzi mobsters. She has to beat these to "earn" her right to fight O-ren Ishi (Lucy Liu), another assassin known as Cottonmouth.

We get the point from the opening title card: "Revenge is a dish best served cold." The Bride is not after justice. After all, she dispensed death with the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad Bill formed and led. No, she simply wants blood, the blood of those who left her for dead. She brings to mind the words of God in the Old Testament: "I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me" (Deut. 32:41). Like the Lord "(s)he will come with vengeance" (Isa. 35:4). But she clearly missed those Sunday School lessons from the New Testament, since the apostle Paul commented to the Romans: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, bet leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). It is not our place, nor the Bride's, to take justice into our own hands and seek to settle scores of revenge.

The Bride, though, tells us early what she is like: "It's mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack." Late in the film, she offers a bone of mercy to one enemy. But she does so with a motive: "I want him [Bill] to witness the extent of my mercy by witnessing your deformed body." In essence, this is not mercy, it is punishment and humiliation. She wants Bill, who is never really seen in this first film, to ponder what she will bring to him at the climax of volume 2.

Unlike the vengeance-seeking Bride, "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy" (Jas. 5:11). He has told us through Moses in the Old Testament, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exod. 33:19). He balances vengeance with compassion, on the fulcrum of forgiveness. He offers true forgiveness to all who seek it through Christ. We can become one of his followers, even part of his Bride (Eph. 5:25) through faith in Jesus (Jn. 1:12). The violence of his crucifixion paid the bloody price for our redemption. No further revenge needed.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Speed -- Mini-review: adrenaline rush of thoughtless thrills

Director: Jan de Bont, 1994 (R)

A plunging elevator, a speeding bus, a driverless subway train, the action in this thriller occurs above ground, street-level and underground. The opening elevator scene introduces us to two Los Angeles SWAT cops Jack (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) and Harry (Jeff Daniels, Looper). While the rest of the cops run around trying to prevent the bomber from blowing the final lines on the elevator (he wants $3M), Jack and Harry figure out what to do. They are heroes and deserve the medals they receive.

This only sets up the main act, the speeding bus. Payne (Dennis Hopper, Elegy), the bitter bomber, is on a mission for his "deserved money" and rigs a bomb on the bus. When the speed hits 50mph the bomb is armed. If it then drops below 50, the bomb will explode. Jack somehow gets himself on the bus and in a strange turn of events, a passenger Annie (Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side) finds herself driving the bus.

A bus careening around LA, city of gridlock, having to keep up a speed of 50mph provides excellent thrills. And the script ratchets the action and the challenges higher and higher. Unfortunately, the thespianism does not keep pace. Though this was the movie that made stars of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, the acting is shoddy. Reeves has but one or two expressions. Luckily for him, most of the movie only calls for these. Bullock is a little better, but does not have much to work with. Payne is a by-the-numbers villain, whose character is made from cardboard and so does not require much from the actor.

Despite these complaints, Speed is indeed a fast-paced thriller that delivers on non-stop action sequences as well as unintended laughs. Sadly, there is little of depth, perhaps its speed disallowing that. It carries us for two hours of thoughtless thrills, an adrenaline rush of excitement, but leaves us nothing to interact with theologically. Sometimes that is OK.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscar Winners

Well, the Oscars are over and the winners went more or less to form. Gravity was perhaps the big winner with 7 awards but mostly in the technical awards (Alfonso Cuoron did win two, one for best Director and one for Editing). Dallas Buyer's Club got three, with two in the acting categories (Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto). And 12 Years a Slave got three, taking one in for Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o) and the big one: Best Picture. Cate Blanchett deservedly won for Best Actress. But American Hustle shuffled off with no trophies.

As for the Oscar Party in Portland, it was a huge hit. After Sharon walked away with the honors last year, there was much hype about this year's event. The competition was tight, with several scoring over 20 correct picks. But movie man walked off with the big trophy, having picked 22 of the 24 winners.

The trophy, hand made by Miss Ava, was a beautiful silver statuette, which will grace the trophy cabinet for years to come. Sadly, the acceptance speech had to be cut short due to the Oscars going long. If I failed to thank you, my apologies. There's always next year.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Picks 2014

With less than 24 hours until the Oscars, here are my picks of who I think will win in the top 6 categories:

What are your picks? Tune in and watch the show tomorrow at 4pm to see who takes home the golden statues.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nebraska -- aging, greed and honoring parents

Director: Alexander Payne, 2013 (R)

An old man walks slowly down a main street in Billings Montana. When pulled over by a friendly police officer, the man tells him he is walking to Lincoln, Nebraska. Why? Because he has won a million dollars and needs to get there to claim his winnings.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) can no longer drive and has resolved to get to Nebraska by foot of he has to. Having received a scam letter from a magazine publisher, his family tells him he is wasting his time but Woody believes the letter. As his son says in one scene, “he just believes what people tell him.” But his lifelong alcoholism has contributed to his apparent sporadic dementia. Despite periods of lucidity, he drifts out of it for other periods and his conversational reticence make it difficult to know which state he is in.

When it is clear he won’t listen or give up, despite the harangues from his acerbic tongued wife Kate (June Squib) and his bitter elder son  Ross (Bob Odenkirk), his younger son David (Will Forte), a home theater salesman, agrees to drive him there. Nebraska, thus, becomes a father-son road-trip with an extended stop for a family reunion of sorts in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up

From its opening scene of empty Billings streets to the dying businesses in Hawthorne, it is clear that one theme of the film is aging (and dying). The movie is shot in a beautiful but bleak black and white that adds an older world feel that underscores this theme. The small town of Hawthorne itself looks like a ghost town with barely any young residents. Such dying, though a part of life, seems a sad destination.

While in Hawthorne, Woody lets it slip that he has won $1 million. Suddenly the old friends pop out of the woodwork, all with old debts for Woody to repay. Vultures all, they are driven by greed, a desire to get a guilt-induced handout from an old man.

Greed is a sin denounced by Jesus, one that the Pharisees held close to their heart (Mt. 23:25). Jesus placed it in a list of vices that included adultery, lust and malice (Mk. 7:22). Moreover, Paul considered the love of money to be a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

Though Woody’s extended family and friends greedily latched onto him for some of his “winnings,” Woody had different intentions for the money. One character asked him what he would do with the money, and what the first thing he would spend it on. His answer, and later explanation, tells a different tale. It forces us to wonder, what would you do with a million dollars?  What would be the first thing you buy? Would you use this windfall for self or others? What motivation would drive how you use it?

When Woody and David meet the extended family in Hawthorne, two cousins immediately mock them. The two road-trippers become the butt of their jokes. Indeed, these cousins are funny in their own red-necked stupidity. But when Ross and Kate arrive, and the extended family is together, the family dysfunction emerges. Kate is a sharp truth-teller. This comes out most clearly in a scene where the immediate family visits a cemetery. Kate gives a commentary on those buried: “There’s Woody’s little sister, Rose. She was only nineteen when she was killed in a car wreck near Wausa. What a whore! I liked Rose, but my God, she was a slut. I’m just telling you the truth!”

In some ways, Nebraska resembles August: Osage County. The mothers in both films are caustic, using their sharp tongues as truth-tellers. Both have extended families enjoying a dinner. And both show these extended families dysfunctioning. But while Osage County ends with the family self-destructing, Nebraska at least shows the immediate family surviving, even laughing together in a later scene. Both films underscore the point that truth must be spoken in the context of love (Eph. 4:15), else it becomes sharp and divisive.

Despite all this, Nebraska is a comic drama. While Osage County’s comedy was dark, almost black, the humor here is a little lighter. Payne paints a bittersweet tale filled with quiet poignant scenes. The movie itself is slow with a soft score that resonates with the cinematography. Like his earlier films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants) Payne takes his time and shows us the humorous ups and downs of ordinary people living ordinary lives.

Ultimately, though, Nebraska is about more than just aging, dignity and greed. It is about family, and in particular the father-son relationship. David wants to get to know his cantankerous father before it is too late. The road trip to Hawthorne does not reveal much, but the family, friends and foes found there offer up secrets his father never shared. Further, Woody’s family background highlights how his character has emerged and how his upbringing affected his parenting.

David, himself, gives us a picture of son honoring his father, an example of the fifth of the Ten Commandments documented by Moses (Exod. 20:12). He willingly and patiently does what he has to do, even though he sees the trip as a fool’s folly, to support his father. It cost him in time and money. But it was worth it, especially in the final part of the trip. In one scene toward the end, David allows Woody to drive. Woody’s eyes light up. His dignity and self-esteem emerge, and he is present if only for the length of Main Street.

Many might find this film too slow and the characters too unpleasant. But don’t be put off by these aspects. The film has a heart and a message. Money is not everything. Family relationships mean so much more. Even as our parents are slowly aging and degenerating, we should treat them with the dignity they deserve. There is more to their lives than we will ever know. We can and must honor them while they are still with us. They will appreciate it, and God will bless us for it. After all,  as Paul pointed out, that commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” was “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2).

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs