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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Captain Phillips -- contrast of captains

Director: Paul Greengrass, 2013 (PG-13)

Greengrass has shown in his two earlier Bourne films (Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum) that he can direct a good thriller.  With United 93, he proved he could capture an audience even if the ending was known. Here, like United 93, Greengrass tackles a true-life drama, one whose climax is clear to most viewers. Based on the events of 2009, Captain Phillips tells the story of the hijacking of the US cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Yet, he sustains the suspense and tension to the end, even ratcheting it up so that the last 15 minutes is a tense white-knuckle affair.

The movie opens with two scenes that set the context for the rest, and give some backstory. The first shows Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) being driven to the airport by his wife (Catherine Keener in a cameo role). This shows Phillips as a family man, as ordinary as you or me. For him, captaining a vessel is just a job.

Boarding the vessel in the middle east, he turns the consummate professional, ready for any eventuality. His crew is his concern. He takes his leadership responsibilities seriously. When radar evidences two skiffs approaching, it is apparent that pirates are at hand. Despite evasive action, four pirates do end up aboard. This begins the first phase of the captivity. With most of the crew in hiding, Phillips acts as a tour guide of sorts trying to protect his men while leading his captors on a search and capture mission. The second half of the film and the second phase of captivity begin when the pirates take Phillips and his cash and depart in an enclosed lifeboat.

The second introductory scene focused on the pirates in Somalia in their village. Poverty-stricken, with dirt-floored huts and little else, these men are shown to be terrorized by others who force them to a life of piracy. Their options seem few and far between. The leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), has to select a handful of other men to fill the two boats, and then put out to sea with a mission of making money, through piracy and kidnapping, for his bosses. If he comes back empty-handed he might not live to see another dawn.

Greengrass uses this scene to demonstrate that piracy, though clearly a criminal activity, is not a black and white affair. The criminals don’t choose this lifestyle out of desire, unlike Captain Jack Sparrow the best know pirate on the big screen. The choose it out of compulsion. The morality of their choice is never explored, but it lies there beneath the surface of the sea all the while they hold Phillips captive. It humanizes them in a way, making them less terrorist than terrorized criminal.

Indeed, the film might be a tale of two captains. Muse tells Phillips at one point, “I am the captain now. And though the film is anchored by a majestic performance in the title role by Tom Hanks (who was criminally ignored by the Academy), Abdi, in a debut role, gives an outstanding performance that earned him an Oscar nomination. Together, these two actors (one novice, one seasoned) deliver a captivating pair of performances.

One of Muse’s accomplices, Bilal, is from another village, and he seems brutal, willing to inflict violence at any time. The second hour contrasts these two pirates as Phillips sits in a tight seat waiting to see which one will win out. Meanwhile, the US Navy has been called out and is on hand to negotiate release or effect it with clinical violence courtesy of Seal Team Six.

When the Navy arrives, the film’s tension escalates. With hand-held camerawork, the viewing is a visceral experience showing the  claustrophobic atmosphere of the tightly enclosed boat. Hanks has to communicate his changing emotions mostly through his facila expressions.

There are no real faith elements involved. None of the main characters call out for divine help, though perhaps they should. But Phillips acts like a leader should: resolute and dependable. He puts himself in harm’s way to protect his crew. His actions place him in the lifeboat. At first, he seems confident that he will survive. But as the film progresses and as Bilal becomes more violent, his façade cracks and he seems to lose hope. Toward the end, he becomes almost desperate, simply wanting to let his family know he loved them, much like the passengers on the ill-fated plane in United 93.

Despite the lack of faith references, Captain Phillips makes us reflect on the true captain of our lives: Jesus. He is resolute and dependable. Whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in, he will be there with us (Matt. 28:20). He never leaves us (Heb. 13:5). We can trust in him as the anchor for our souls (Heb. 6:19). We may never have the Navy come to deliver us, but Jesus will. He is better than any Seal Team Six operative.

The final scene is cathartic. It shows a shell-shocked Phillips being led into a medical cabin on the Navy vessel. Playing against a real-life female Navy medic, Hanks delivers an improvised performance that is painful yet purifying. Crying and failing to get words out, these closing moments allow the release of tension for Phillips and for us. With the silence that follows, this is cinematic catharsis at its best.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Philomena -- road trip to forgiveness

Director: Stephen Frears, 2013 (PG-13)

Of all the Oscar Best Picture Nominees, Philomena may be the least well known, not getting much screen time. But it was the one that resonated most with my wife, as we watched them recently. That's probably because it is a poignant and heart-warming true story of a mother's search for her lost son. There was nary a dry eye in the theater by the time the movie ended. I even had to reach for a handkerchief to mop up some tears.

The film is based on the book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," by Martin Sixsmith. Here Steve Coogan, who wrote the screenplay, plays Sixsmith. He is an Oxford-educated journalist who has just been fired from his job as a PR specialist for the government. Without a job, he wants to write a tome on Russian history, but that won't pay the rent. At a cocktail party he meets a young Irish woman who tells him of her mother's human interest story. Though that has no appeal, Sixsmith eventually contacts her mother for a meeting.

Philomena Lee (Judy Dench) is that mother. As a young Catholic lass in Ireland, a moment of indiscretion and pleasure ends up with her pregnant. Her father puts her in the local Catholic convent where the nuns force such girls to live a life of indentured servitude after they have given birth. And then they sold the babies! On what would be her son's 50th birthday Philomena decides the truth must come out and she must find her son. She offers Sixsmith the rights to the story if he will help her trace her son.

The film is part odd couple, part adventure, as these two unlikely traveling companions journey from England to Ireland and on to America. Where Sixsmith is jaded and cynical, Philomena is innocent and naive. She marvels at such things as all-you-can-eat breakfast at their hotel. Where Sixsmith is an atheist, Philomena is still a Catholic. She has held onto her faith.

What might sound sweet and sugary if not outright sentimental is actually balanced perfectly by Frears (The Queen). It helps that he has Dame Judy Dench as the central character. She gives the film its heart. Even Coogan does not overplay the cynicism.

As the journey winds through Washington DC, Sixsmith uses his journalistic skills to uncover Philomena's son's identity. And this leads them deeper into the heartland of America, before the film concludes where it belongs: back at the convent.

Two pairs of themes emerge in two key scenes. First is guilt and shame. Shame landed Philomena in the convent in the first place. And guilt kept her silent for 50 years. But shame and guilt are hard taskmasters. They never let up. Eventually, they can suffocate faith and destroy a life.

In one scene, toward the end of the film, Philomena asks Sixsmith to stop the car at a small rural Catholic Church in America. She wants to go to confession. But once inside, she cannot get the words out. Her faith has been bruised, both by the years of shame and guilt, as well as by the polite polemics from Sixsmith, a man who has no faith. She emerges shaken. Has she lost her faith, we wonder?

What is the solution to shame and guilt? Sixsmith and Philomena have two different opinions. He sees the tragic injustice carried out by the Catholic convent and wants justice. That is his solution. But Philomena has another idea: forgiveness.

In the second, climactic scene, Philomena comes to terms with what has occurred and offers forgiveness. In forgiving her tormentors, she not only behaves more like Jesus, who forgave his crucifiers (Lk. 23:34), than any of the nuns, she also found peace for herself. It takes faith to forgive. This is a faith to trust in a just God who will handle injustice. We cannot right all the world's wrongs.

Ultimately, we find Philomena's road trip a journey to closure and reestablished faith for her. While Sixsmith remains entrenched in his faithlessness, he has witnessed the remarkable healing power of  forgiveness. And that, surely, is worth something. This is a film surely worth seeing.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis -- names and cats

Inside Llewyn Davis Movie Poster

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013 (R)

It's hard to get inside Llewyn Davis. In this sense, it's hard to get Inside Llewyn Davis. Critics have raved about this latest film from the auteur brothers who have produced such an amazing portfolio of film. But its non-linear plot (or lack of plot) and seemingly episodic narrative, counter-pointed with folk music that delivers back-story, is hard to appreciate, particularly for non-folk music aficionados. Throw in quirky symbolism and archetypes and it needs some careful reflection. I appreciated the film but could not really resonate with it.

We meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the opening scene, strumming a guitar and singing to a crowd at a folk club in Greenwich Village in 1961 New York. He is a cranky curmudgeon, who manages to turn most people off through his blatant obnoxious behaviors. He has no place to live, so couch-surfs night-to-night with what friends he has left.

The Coens have crafted a beautifully shot film. The cinematography is muted, giving a nostalgic feel to the era when folk music was changing. The acting and singing is first-rate. Isaac gives a strong performance as a protagonist who is difficult to like, and he does all his own singing live. It is his film  and he delivers.

After the opening scene, he meets a besuited stranger in the back-alley behind the club, and the man beats the snot out of him. Why? We don't know. And he doesn't seem to know. Next thing we see is an orange tabby cat staring down at Llewyn as he awakes on a couch. This cat will appear and re-appear throughout, clearly communicating something about Llewyn -- more on that later.

Llewyn, we discover, has cut a record but has no money. His talent is not recognized, and yet he continues to dream of fame, despite living gig-to-gig. He will not go back to the merchant marine life, like his dad who lives a despondent existence alone in a nursing home. Llewyn wants more.

Llewyn, though, has possibly impregnated his best friend's wife. Jean (Carey Mulligan) spits venom at him for this. Yet her husband Jim (a bearded Justin Timberlake), knowing nothing about his wife's infidelities, encourages Llewyn to play on his new track, which Llewyn considers a sell-out. Offered the choice between future royalties and immediate pay as a contractor, Llewyn takes the money to pay for the abortion.

The whole film forms a journey of sorts, both physical and metaphorical, for Llewyn Davis, as he travels to Chicago with a junkie Jazz musician (John Goodman) and his beat poet valet Johnny Fives, before coming back to New York.

Perhaps the key to understanding the film is the cat. It escapes the apartment. Llewyn has to find and rescue it. He does not know its name. He is not sure of its sex. Later, when he returns it to its owners, he is told its name: Ulysses. Ulysses, we remember was the Latin version of the Greek name Odysseus, who featured in Homer's "The Odyssey" (which formed the loose basis for the Coen's O Brother Where art Thou). Here, Llewyn Davis has his own odyssey journey. Perhaps more thematically, Ulysses is the title of the novel by James Joyce telling the episodic story of a day in the life of Irishman Leopold Bloom in Dublin. Like Bloom, Llewyn Davis has various episodes during a week in his life, mostly in New York.

Tim Wainwright, in his article for The Atlantic,  suggests something different. He thinks the cat is Llewyn Davis. Or better stated, Llewyn Davis is the cat. His thoughtful essay explores this proposition in depth. I think he is on to something, but more likely the cat represents Llewyn Davis. Llewyn wants to be loose and free. He does not want to be trapped by "normal life". He looks down on his sister for merely existing. He wants to rise above what he sees as mediocrity. The naming of the cat is the turning point.

Before the cat is named, he runs free, able to scoot out of the apartment. Once h e is named, he is unable to get loosed. Naming allows him to be controlled. When Llewn Davis sits down before a producer in Chicago (F. Murray Abraham), he is asked to play something from "Inside Llewyn Davis," the name of his album record. When he does, he reveals himself. He lets this person inside himself, so he is in a sense named and known. The man tells him, "there is no money in this." He is known and rejected, devastated.

Biblically, naming does connote control. It is in and through the name of Jesus that people were healed (Acts 3:6). Naming identifies a person, and in this identification identity is revealed. When we call on the name of Jesus, we are declaring our faith in him and asking him for help. In so doing, we place ourselves in a position of subservience, allowing him to have control.

Moreover, during his return from Chicago, Llewyn Davis hits a cat. Stopping, he sees it limp away into the forest. I think the cat, representing himself, shows here that Llewyn Davis is and has been hitting himself all along. He is self-defeating, putting people off with his manner and speech. He cannot take advice and move forward. He is stuck in a negative spiral. His choices lead him down. Even on this road trip, he stares momentarily at the signpost to Akron, where beckon a lost love and possible home to settle in. Instead, he drives onto New York where failure awaits. Jeffrey Huston, in his review for Crosswalk, commented that the cat "weaves its own presence throughout the story, serving as a metaphoric through-line, incarnating the very transitory nature of Llewyn's ambitions – temperamental, elusive, always escaping his grasp". It is his own choices that cause these ambitions to elude him.

Do we do this? Are we unwilling to move with the future? Do we act in ways that damage ourselves? Are we stuck in negativity? Sometimes, we need to accept the truth, even if it hurts. Sometimes we need to let ourselves be known and accept the control that it might bring.

The movie ends with a twist that is not explained. We see it and wonder what is going on. Perhaps the point is that Llewyn Davis is still stuck in a cycle that he can't break out of. His life as a beat singer in the dingy clubs is going nowhere but will continue to come full circle until he accepts responsibility for his actions and their consequences.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Her -- digital relationships and God

Director: Spike Jonz, 2013 (R)

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is reeling from a painful separation and moving to an unwanted divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara) in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles. He works at, where he orally composes letters for people who no longer know how to capture the essence of their emotion. It is a strange future, somewhat sterile and antiseptic. People interact through their phones, leaving these devices to compose their emails, buy their gifts, and take care of most aspects of their lives for them.

When Twombly buys the new phone with the OS1 first artificial intelligence operating system (think iPhone's Siri to the max), he is not ready for the life change that it will bring.

Turning it on, it takes a few seconds and several answers from Twombly before it decides on an identity and a name: Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson). She is everything he needs: funny, intelligent, cute. But she is not human. She is the voice of an artificial intelligence. But she learns and evolves, able to read books in seconds, compose sonatas and feel emotion.

As she grows, Theodore falls in love with her. He takes her out, letting her see what he sees through the red eye of the camera in his phone. He talks to her like he would a girlfriend. And she responds, directing him in a mall as he closes his eyes and trusts her.

In one sense, Samantha brings Theodore back from the brink of melancholy. She causes him to feel life once more. The beginning of a love affair does that to a person. We see through new eyes, even if they feature rose-colored glasses. We take joy in the small things like sitting on the beach or wondering the boardwalk.

Here we see two actors at the top of their craft. Phoenix is perfect as the lonely and forlorn writer. Johansson is perky and pert, using just her voice and its inflections to create a picture for Phoenix and us of the ideal woman. And the camerawork is beautiful and bright, allowing us to see an apparent utopian vision of the future.

Jonz gives us a commentary on our postmodern society that seems to prefer the digital to the actual. In Her we see people walking around with ear-pieces in, having conversations with their phone operating systems. They are more comfortable interacting with their technology than with other people. We are moving this way. We relate and share our feelings on Facebook or twitter, but hold back in interactions with people. We prefer the apparent anonymity of such digital versions of ourselves, while holding back from authentic relationships. We are living life vicariously through our digital avatars. How can the short set of status updates or taut tweets really let others know us? It's a form of mask that allows us to hide our true selves.

One scene shows how accepting humanity has become by this point. One of Theodore's friends invites him on a double date and Theodore accepts. He brings his phone (aka Samantha). The three humans and the phone sit on a blanket enjoying a picnic. When the two men go off for a walk, the woman carries on the conversation with Theodore's phone as if Samantha is a real person. This comes across as very creepy.

This scene reminds us of the very thing missing from Samantha --  fleshly incarnation. Jonz gives us several sex scenes in this film, from porn to chat sex but each of these leave Theodore missing something essential: the feel of another human. When Samantha realizes this is absent, she brings a surrogate sex partner to Theodore's door. This is yet another creepy, though effective and essential, scene. Samantha is using another (real) woman to satisfy Theodore's fleshly passions and needs, while herself seeking to learn from this vicarious experience.

Samantha is somewhat like God in her "virtual omniscience." But as she grows her needs move beyond relating to just Theodore. Another scene gives us a peek into this and perhaps into God's ability to communicate with us. As Theodore talks to her, he sees other humans around talking to their headphones like him. He asks Samantha if she is talking to anyone else and it turns out she is. She is holding simultaneous conversations with 8316 other humans all the while expressing her love for Theodore. (We wonder and probably assume she loves those other people, while perhaps coming to them in other OS names.)

Here is a picture of God. He loves us (Deut. 23:25). He loves each of personally in a relationship  that is as unique as the person involved. And he talks to us in prayer. With over 6 billion people alive worldwide and with over 2 billion of them Christians (at least in 2010 according to the Pew Forum), that means that at any time God must be having a prayer conversation with thousands at any moment.  Yet each conversation and each love relationship is special and unique. We don't need to feel jealous, like Theodore, that God does not love only us. God is infinite and has infinite love, more than enough for our finite selves.

Samantha's God-like personhood also underscores the cost that the true God paid to have relationship with us. Knowing that we need to relate to flesh and blood humans, God became flesh in the person of Jesus (Jn. 1:14). He tasted life as we know it. He lived with us. He ate with us, he laughed, he cried. He took our sin on himself and went to the cross. In his death, our sins are paid. In his resurrection, he offers real life. Now he lives, and he lives in us through the Holy Spirit. We can experience a relationship, like that of Theodore and Samantha, with the Holy Spirit. The difference, though, is that God has known flesh.

At the end Theodore unplugs and reaches out to his lonely neighbor Amy (Amy Adams). Together they ascend (a metaphor?) to the roof to watch the sun rise over Los Angeles. Instead of walking through the city captivated by a digital voice relating to him, Theodore has come to realize the need to slow down and spend time with another person. That is what relationships are all about.

How about you? Is it time to unplug, at least for a while, to focus on real relationships?

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dallas Buyer's Club -- learning acceptance the hard way

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013 (R)

The movie opens at a rodeo in Texas. We see Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in a dark stall beside the arena having sex with two women while bulls are being ridden in the arena. This scene lets us know that Ron is a lusty, red-blooded man. It also communicates the type of movie this will be: dark and explicit. Sex, drugs, drinking, all are on vivid display. This is not for the faint-hearted or the young. (In the screening I viewed, there were two pre-schoolers present and I cannot but wonder at the type of parents that would allow two girls to see this film.) It is quite a contrast to his earlier film, The Young Victoria, which was elegant and refined. This is crude and crass, like the people it depicts. Realistic but with a heart and a message, this is deservedly one of the best pictures of the year.

Based on a true story, Woodroof was a hard-living electrician and part-time rodeo-rider in Dallas in 1985. We meet him hustling some other cowboys and winds up collapsing on the floor of his mobile home. When he finds  himself at the hospital, the doctors give him bad news: has the HIV virus and has 30 days to live. At first he is in denial, and goes back to coke-snorting, whiskey-drinking and women-screwing. He is not gay. He is not a syringe-using junkie. But he wakes up to the reality of his imminent demise, and goes into research mode.

His research shows him that casual unprotected sex can lead to HIV. When he winds up in hospital again, he meets Eve (Jennifer Garner), a doctor who wants to help, and Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite who also is infected. Ron wants to get AZT, the new wonder drug, but this has not been FDA approved and his only source is bribing an orderly to steal it. Once that runs out he is forced to go to Mexico, where he discovers other drugs and vitamins that help and he survives past the 30 day death-sentence.

Through a partnership with Rayon, Ron begins to see a way to make money for himself by smuggling these vitamins and non-approved drugs into the US and selling them to gays and lesbians. Over time, though, the reluctant partnership with Rayon becomes a friendship.

There is a message related to the lunacy of the FDA in trying to thwart Woodroof, though the drugs have not been shown to be damaging. One doctor, Dr Sevard (Denis O'Hare), is portrayed as a pawn of big pharma, and one FDA agent seems to have a fead with Woodroof.

This issue aside, a strong theme of the film is acceptance. At the beginning Woodroof is openly homophobic, using strong epithets to curse out the gays he reads about (such as Rock Hudson). But once he contracts HIV, his friends reject him. Like a modern day leper, he is avoided like the plague. His home is painted with graffiti. He is mocked and belittled. The only ones that will accept him are those in the same situation as him, and the compassionate caregivers, such as Eve and a doctor in Mexico. By the end of the film, his friends are the outcast, the lonely and dying. He learned acceptance, but at what cost.

How often do we turn away from the outcast, those on the fringes of society. These may be AIDS patients or homeless people. We look down our noses at them, and avoid them. But they are people just like us, with hopes and dreams. But for the grace of God, we could be in their shoes. Ron Woodroof found this out. We can learn from the lesson of his life.

McConaughey lost 47 pounds for his role, and appears gaunt and haggard. Gone is the man who wooed Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner. Instead, we see a thespian of immense proportions, one who will likely win the Best Actor Oscar for this performance. Alongside him, Jared Leto lost 30 pounds to transform himself into the image of a pretty woman. After five years focused on music, Leto's performance shows how good an actor he is, one who is up for Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Both actors took home Golden Globe awards for these roles in January. They might just repeat the act in March at the Academy Awards.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Saturday, February 8, 2014

August: Osage County -- truth telling

August: Osage County Movie Poster

Director: John Wells, 2013 (R)

Billed as a drama, this movie has moments of deeply dark humor, comedy bordering on cynical. I found myself laughing at much of the film, even as one viewer in the theater commented that the scene was not funny. I found it funny.

Originally August was a stage play. But Tracey Letts adapted this from her own play for the screen and the adaptation is superb. Plus Wells has peopled the strong-willed women of the play with outstanding actresses including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both of whom have earned Oscar nominations (for Streep it is her 18th nomination).

Streep plays Violet Weston, made a widow when her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) dies. The resulting funeral brings back her eldest and youngest daughters, Barbara (Roberts) and Karen (Juliette Lewis), who moved away from Oklahoma as soon as they could. The middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has remained close to her folks but at a cost to her life. Barbara brings her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teen-aged daughter (Abigail Breslin), while Ivy brings her sports-car driving fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Then there is brother-in-law Charlie (Chris Cooper) and his wife Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and their grown son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). With this crop of actors the film cannot fail.

Streep is a pill-pusher, eating pills to stave off her mouth cancer. But she is more than this. She is a mean, cantankerous person. And over the course of the film, this dysfunctional family self-destructs as secret after secret emerges.

One scene stands out: he post-funeral dinner at Violet's home. Charlie's grace is the best prayer I've seen in a Hollywood film in a long-time. When asked to bless the food, he begins in a slow Texan (or Oklahoman) drawl. He searches his mind for things to say, to be thankful for. And he goes on and on and on. The others are waiting to eat, but he is sincerely praying. And after the amen the fun begins. Throwing barbs like hand-grenades that explode relationally, no one dodges Violet's attention. She cuts down her own children as savagely as a marine shooting the enemy. And then she declares she is simply a "truth-teller"! This is funny, yet sad. We can all think of family dinners that have seen their share of misery and nastiness. Perhaps we have even been the one doing the "truth-telling".

This brings me to the theme: truth telling. The Bible commands us to tell the truth (Eph. 4:15). Certainly, it abhors lying (Psa. 120:2, Prov. 12:22). But Paul's command to the Ephesians was more than to tell the truth. He said, "speaking the truth in love". We cannot simply tell the truth and let the words fall where they may, like verbal shrapnel. We must balance the truth with love, with a concern for those we are speaking with. Paul devoted a whole chapter to the concept of love (1 Cor. 13), but it is clear that hurting is not loving. Violet may have been telling the truth, but her motivation was hurtful. She wanted to cause pain. And she did.

The film's woman are indeed strong and brutally honest. But two men provide the foils. Charlie has a desire to see the best in people. His prayer underscores his desire to be thoughtful and thankful. And little Charles has a sweet demeanor that emerges in a love song he composes for his girlfriend. Though belittled and considered a loser, he, too, has a heart of gold that is missed by the viciousness of the women.

If your family has a history of nasty dysfunction, this may dredge up too many bitter memories. For most of us we can picture a relative or two that might fit into this family. But it does remind us that families need nurturing rather than "truth-telling". The next time you are ready to let some painful truth fly, remember Violet and the result her words had on her family. Perhaps then your words will remain unspoken.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

American Hustle -- mini review

Director: David O. Russell, 2013 (R)

The opening title card proclaims, "some of this stuff actually happened". We know there is some historical basis, but Russell points out here that he is going to take artistic license as he sees fit. The film is focused on the FBI sting operation that landed several politicians in jail, but the point is the hustle. Everyone is hustling someone.

Russell has brought back actors he has used in his previous Oscar winners. From Silver Linings Playbook, he reunites Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. From The Fighter, he uses Christian Bale and Amy Adams. And all four of these actors earn Oscar nominations for American Hustle, which has garnered 10 nominations in total, including Best Picture and Best Director. Adams is the best of the batch here, although Cooper does a fine job as a man who constantly jumps to conclusions, usually the wrong ones.

Bale, sporting a wig and elaborate comb-over, plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con-man hustling debtors through false loans. Lawrence is his stay-at-home wife Rosalyn. Adams becomes Irving's con partner, using a strange British accent, and his lover. When they are caught in the con act by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), he coerces them into setting up a sting to catch 4 more people. But he is hustling, too, as he wants the big fish: first Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and then congressmen and senators.

American Hustle is a fun sting movie, but that is all. Despite its beautiful production aesthetic that makes the 80s era come alive on screen, it lacks heart. All the characters except Carmine are on the hustle. They are all playing someone to survive. None are clean. None are worth caring about, except the mayor who genuinely seems to care about his constituents, even if he makes some mistakes and bad choices. Ultimately, it is this lack of appealing protagonist that leaves it wanting. We will enjoy the movie and then forget about it as we seek to survive in our own lives, an american survival that hopefully does not include hustling.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

Saturday, February 1, 2014

12 Years a Slave -- surviving or living?

Director: Steve McQueen, 2013 (R)

Probably the strongest of this year's crop of Best Picture Oscar nominees, 12 Years a Slave is an intense film that is sometimes hard to watch. Indeed, it may be the best movie yet about slavery. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black in the North who was abducted and sold into slavery in the South.

We meet Solomon at the start of the film and see him as a man of culture, a musician with a wife and family. Set in the pre-Civil war antebellum era, he is a middle-class freeman who enjoys his life. But while his wife and children are out of town, he is enticed to travel to New York to perform. While there he is drugged, chained, and put on a ship to Atlanta. His days of freedom are over. He is sold to a kindly slaver (Benedict Cumberbatch) at first but finds himself subsequently owned by a brutal master (Michael Fassbender).

McQueen draws outstanding performances from an ensemble cast. Alongside Ejiofor, Cumberbatch and Fassbender, we see Paul Giamatti as a slave trader, Paul Dano as a mean overseer, Sarah Paulson as the master's wife, Brad Pitt (one of the producers and key to getting the movie made) and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a pretty slave treated as the master's sexual toy. Indeed, Ejiofor and Nyongo'o have garnered Oscar nominations for their work here.

The bulk of the movie deals with Northup's twelve years spent in slavery. McQueen contrasts the kind and evil slave masters, even while depicting both as willing to dehumanize the slaves as non-humans, mere animals. They accept them as their property and hence free to do anything they like to them, including whipping, raping and killing them. There are some heavy scenes of all three. But it is the very capricious and violent nature of the slavers that haunt us, even the slaver's wife. In one scene, the slaves are forced to dance to music. When the wife comes in, she strikes Patsey violently and then tells the others to carry on.

I have dealt in detail with the moral implications of slavery in 2012's Lincoln  so I won't reiterate that here except for a quick comment. The apostle Paul says, "Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Rom. 6:16) We are born in sin and find ourselves slaves to sin. But we can find freedom if we choose Jesus (Jn 1:12). Then we can become slaves to obedience, an obedience to Christ.

A key theme here, though, is surviving or living. Early on, while still in the North (albeit in chains), Northup comments to another slave: "I don't want to survive. I want to live." Later, after some years of life as a slave, he finds himself just wanting to survive. In this life survival is a baseline requirement. We seek the barest minimum to survive: shelter, food, water. We can eke away at surviving. But living entails more than this. It entails community, dignity and joy. Real living involves knowing Jesus Christ, who came to give us real life (Jn. 10:10) along with real freedom (Rom. 8:2)

We may not be chained and enslaved, receiving physical punishment from our masters. But we may remain mentally, emotionally and spiritually enslaved, receiving spiritual punishment from Satan. We can seek to survive, and that may carry us for a year or two, until our spirit is finally crushed. But true living can come only from Christ. Will you find rescue, as Northup did, from the hand of the one who came looking for you (Lk. 19:10)?
Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs