Friday, January 31, 2014

Crosswalk's Top 10 Films of 2013

It's awards season and that also means annual lists. Crosswalk, another excellent resource for Christ-centered movie reviews, today released their list of top 10 films of 2013. At the top of the list are:

  1. 12 Years a Slave
  2. Gravity
  3. Frozen
Check out the full list, and read their reviews while you are at it! My review of 12 Years a Slave comes out over the weekend.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blue Jasmine -- turning a blind eye and self-delusion

Director: Woody Allen, 2013 (PG-13)

Two women sitting together in first class chat as the plane jets from New York to San Francisco. One pours out her life story as the other wonders why she has to listen to the drivel. The talker is Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), en route to her sister’s apartment in California. And the small, scruffy apartment is a far cry from the spacious luxury home she has vacated and the life she has left behind in Manhattan. So begins Woody Allen’s latest movie, one in which surprisingly justice seems to prevail.

Woody has assembled a stellar cast once more.  Alec Baldwin plays Hal, Jasmine’s husband. Sally Hawkins is Ginger, Jasmine’s sister (by adoption). Andrew Dice Clay is Ginger’s ex-hudband Augie, while Bobby Cannacale plays Chili, her current greasy lover. Throw in Louis CK and Peter Saarsgard as two men after the two sisters and you round out an excellent ensemble. However, the two women stand-out. This is the first time Allen has used non-American actors in the leading roles as Americans, and they pull it off. Blanchett, in particular, is superb as a mentally imbalanced woman deluding herself throughout. She is rightfully nominated for Best Actress Oscar, and should win this easily. Hawkins gets an Oscar nod herself, in Best Supporting Actress category.

The movie cuts back and forth between Jasmine’s life in New York and her life in San Francisco. Where she had money and time before, now she has neither. Though she flies first class carrying Louis Vitton luggage, she is kidding herself. She is broke and needs a place to stay and job to bring in money.  Though she won’t tell the truth to herself, she speaks freely to her sister. When Ginger meets Al (Louis C.K.) at a party that the two sisters go to, Ginger asks: “You think Al is a step up from Chili?”, to which Jasmine replies, “Anybody is a step up from Chili.”

As her husband, Hal is a man who plays fast and loose with other people’s money in questionable real estate deals. Although the greed of white collar crime is a sub-theme here, it functions to propel Jasmine in her journey of decline. But she has a part to play, as she chooses to ignore Hal’s marital philanderings and financial dealings. Even when he causes suffering and grief to Ginger and Augie, Jasmine will not see it.

Some, such as Alissa Wilkinson in her review for Christianity Today, have compared this movie to Tennessee Williams’ play,  “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Indeed, Cate Blanchett played Blanche in that play in New York in 2009. And Jasmine, like Blanche, is a woman whose fortunes have fallen but cannot face reality.

Here is the main theme of the film: denial and avoidance of reality. Jasmine turns a blind eye to what is going on right in front of her. She does this for so long, she cannot see what is real and falls into mental delusion. But Ginger falls into this, too, when Al seems to be her knight in shining armor. And Dwight (Peter Saarsgard), a diplomat and aspiring politician, accepts at face value Jasmine’s background. He does no checking and denies the obvious until almost too late.

The Bible warns of the folly of pride and self-deception. The prophet Obadiah said, “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obad. 1:3). When we fall prey to pride, when we turn a blind eye to what is going around us because we don’t want our lifestyle compromised, we become deluded. Eventually, this delusion will be found out. And then will come the great fall.

Woody Allen’s films rarely end with the wicked getting their just desserts. But here justice prevails and those who sinned end up suffering the consequences of their sins.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Oscar Nominations 2014

Today the nominations for the 86th Oscars were announced. Three movies dominate the nominations: American Hustle and Gravity both earned 10 nominations while 12 Years a Slave garnered 9. Just two weeks ago American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave picked up the top movie honors at the Golden Globe Awards and they seem to be the two main contenders for top film here.

Here are the nominations in the top six award categories:

Best Picture

  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyer's Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Director:

  • David O. Russell (American Hustle)
  • Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
  • Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
  • Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
  • Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Best Actor

  • Christian Bale (American Hustle)
  • Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
  • Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer's Club)

Best Actress

  • Amy Adams (American Hustle)
  • Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
  • Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
  • Judi Dench (Philomena)
  • Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Barkhad Abdl (Captain Phillips)
  • Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
  • Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
  • Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
  • Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
  • Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
  • Julia Roberts (August Osage County)
  • June Squibb (Nebraska)

Some fun facts:
In the acting nominations, Matthew McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbinder, 84 year-old June Squibb, Jared Leto and Barkhad Abdl all earned their first ever nomination. As for Leto, he had devoted himself to his musical career and had not been in a film for 4 years. Most surprising is that Abdl was a limo driver before being cast as the leader of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips. Not surprising is Meryl Streep's nomination. Her total now stands at 18. Blanchett has her sixth nomination (and should be favorite to take home the golden trophy), and Dench has her 5th nomination. American Hustle is the only film to have nominations in all four acting categories.

In screenwriting, Woody Allen scored his 16th nomination for Blue Jasmine, but will likely not be present at the event, just as he missed the Golden Globes despite being honored for lifetime achievement.

You can find the full list of Oscar nominations on the Oscars site.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Book Review: AHA -- Awakening, Honesty, Action

Author: Kyle Idleman, 2014. (David C. Cook)  

Jesus taught in parables. One of his most famous parables is that of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15. Idleman, Teaching Pastor at Southeast Christian Church, a megachurchin Kentucky, bases his whole book on this parable, deriving from it a three-point message elaborated in 13 chapters. Along the way, he includes biblical illustrations from the lives of David, Zacchaeus, Naaman, and the thief on the cross. But the focus is on the prodigal son, his older brother and their father.

This short, 200-page book, is a very easy read. But don't let the ease of narrative fool you; this is not simple. Idleman puts each of us in the spotlight and makes for a tough read if we are honest. More on this later.

The three points drawn from this parable are clear: 1) a sudden awakening; 2) brutal honesty; and 3) immediate action. The book is divided into three sections, each dealing with one of these points.

The first section on Awakening is the easiest, but sets the scene for the other two. Here Idelman helps us put ourselves in the place of the prodigal son, who took his inheritance and departed from his father for a distant country.  Idleman says, "I have described the Distant Country as any area of our lives where we are trying to live independently of the Father" (p.44). He points out that we all have a tendency to go there. "If you are on the path to the Distant Country, step back and ask yourself: Where is it leading? What happened to others who have gone this way?" (p.40). When we understand this, we have awakened, as the prodigal did, to our reality and undesirable circumstances. We all need such awakening. That makes sense.

Once awakened, though, comes the need for honesty. "AHA requires you to tell the truth about yourself to yourself" (p.81). When our tendency to denial emerges, as Idleman posits it will, "confession is the only cure for denial. Every one of us would prefer to skip this part of AHA." (p.106) It is here, in the section on brutal honesty, that the rubber hits the road. He gives us a set of self-assessment questions and asks to stop reading and go to a private room and answer them aloud. He recognizes this will be hard. Harder still is telling this truth to someone else, an action he claims is necessary. This is where it got hard for me. Reading is quick. Stopping to do the exercise is slow. Telling the results to someone else is painful. But, as organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous understand, such raw vulnerability is the first step in the journey home.

From such brutal honesty, Idleman takes us into the final section on action. "Until there is action, our beliefs and convictions aren't genuine." (p.147) He adds, "passivity wants to cheat. Action wants to change." (p.151) This section, after the pain of honesty, is almost a relief.

Throughout I felt like Idleman was focusing too much on the prodigal and ignoring the older brother, a person I relate to perhaps too much. But he overcomes this perceived deficit with an outstanding chapter focused on the older brother that closes the book. He leaves him to the end as this brother never experienced the AHA. Like the Pharisees and teacher of the law that Jesus is talking to, "older brothers often focus on the flaws of others" (p.198). Those of us with a tendency to critical spirits find ourselves looking at the profligate prodigals and complaining. But we have our faults, too. We could do with our own AHA moments, even if it comes while still at home. Our distant country is spiritual not geographical. He concludes with the words, "ultimately, the story in Luke 15 isn't about two sons who disobey. It is about a Father who loves His children unconditionally." (p.205)

For those willing to listen, Idelman's book is a solid read. Jesus told those who listened to his parables, only those with ears would hear. In this case, only those willing to take action should read this book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one of more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe would be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Brick -- Mini-review: love as motivation

Director: Rian Johnson, 2005 (R)

When Brandon (a young-looking Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper which was also directed by Johnson) finds his ex-girlfriend Emily dead on the concrete bank of a sewer tunnel, he wants to find out who did it and why. He remembers a mysterious phone call he received from her two days prior in which the words "pin," "brick," "tug," and "poor frisco" occurred and seem to carry the key to his problem.

Brick has all the elements of a noir mystery but with a twist. There is hardly an adult among the cast. This is a high-school mystery, with all the main characters being teens, either in school or drop-outs. Their world is a microcosm of the real world, but with a criminal underbelly that juxtaposes with literature class.

Brandon is an outsider. He eats lunch alone, does not mix with the typical high school groups. Not a jock nor a nerd, he survives on his wits not his friends. His lone buddy is Brain (Matt O'Leary), who acts as his side-kick while avoiding any of the violence. But to get to the bottom of Em's disappearance and subsequent murder, Brandon must navigate the murky waters of high school society. From exclusive parties to jaded junkies, Brandon puts his body in the way and his life on the line to solve the mystery.

Along the way he encounters a femme fatale who wants to help him, but who might be a player working him, a teenage gang leader whose chief lieutenant wants to run his own gang, and a drug scheme gone bad.

As a noir, there seems little of redeemable value her. Yet, Brandon's motivation holds the answer. "You're the only thing I love," he tells Emily." And in another scene, the femme fatale tells Brandon that she recognizes the love that is driving him (and wants it). Love can make a loner join a gang, can turn a loser  into a winner, can make a man turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) or keep coming back when punched in the face (one scene highlights this with Brandon repeatedly being hit to the ground but getting up to take another one until the fighter accepts what Brandon wants). Love may not be kind to Brandon (1 Cor. 13:4), but it never fails (1 Cor. 13:8). Love conquers all and comes up with the answers to the mystery. Love is indeed the best motivation.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs