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.