Archive for September, 2014

“Maps to the Stars” is another film for Cronenberg to try new stuff with.  After making a career out of various types of horror or semi-horror films in the Body Horror subgenre, he has spent the last few years experimenting in different fields.  The Cronenberg of “A History of Violence”, “Eastern Promises”, and “A Dangerous Method” doesn’t feel like the Cronenberg who brought us films like “Videodrome”, “Scanners” or his remake of “The Fly”.  Supposedly his son has taken up that old mantel, though I have yet to see his “Antiviral” to see for myself.  Now the elder Cronenberg tries his hand at Bret Easton Ellis territory with “Maps to the Stars”, a film that often feels like the Ellis of “Lunar Park”, a quasi-horror satire of celebrity, or “Glamorama”, an outright satire of celebrity, albeit warmed over.  Some scenes are filmed with the quiet reserve of an Atom Egoyan film, while others have bad CGI fire or male nudity that I was surprised to find didn’t get the film an NC-17.  Egoyan, who like Cronenberg is a Canadian director, did get an NC-17 for his film “Where the Truth Lies”, a film that wasn’t quite as explicit a showbiz satire as “Maps” is, but that former film crept in to my mind as I watched the latter.

If Cronenberg made this film to be a biting attack on Hollywood, I’m afraid he fails because he embraces cliché too readily.  We have characters that we are used to seeing in films such as these: the over-the-hill starlet desperate to feel sexy and get good parts (here played by Julianne Moore in what is genuinely an excellent performance that brings to mind what Lindsay Lohan might be like if she makes it to her 40s); the self-help guru (John Cusack, whose career seems to be stuck in Direct-to-video-on-demand-hell); the bratty young star recovering from drugs (Evan Bird, who isn’t the best actor but still works in portraying his character); and the menial worker who wants to break into the biz (Robert Pattinson, who does a much better job of acting here then his laughably awful performance in “Twilight”.  I haven’t seen anything else from him, though Cronenberg also worked with him in “Cosmopolis”, making two films that they have worked on together where Pattinson spends most of his time in a limo).

The plot is perhaps a tad more original then the character descriptions may make it seem.  Mia Wasikowska, who was excellent in HBO’s “In Treatment” and is a dead ringer for a young Aurora Snow, is a young schizophrenic girl with scars from a house fire she set as a young girl.  Eighteen and having been released from a mental hospital, she returns to LA to meet up with her family, including her brother (Bird) who she harbors incestuous feelings for, and her father (Cusack) who wants nothing to do with her.  She obtains a job as the assistant to the Moore’s character, who is trying to get the lead role in a film that is a remake of one her mother starred in.  Moore’s character believes she was physically and sexually abused by her now-deceased mother in her childhood, but she is haunted by visions of her mother as she appeared in her prime.  Whether the visions are a result of mental illness or are genuinely the ghost of the woman the film leaves to the viewer to decide.

Bird’s character is a young teen that stars in a film franchise called “Bad Babysitter” and is recovering from drug addiction.  He is also haunted by a ghost that may be a hallucination, in this case a young female fan with lymphoma who he visited in the hospital prior to her death.  His sister being schizophrenic, he has reason to worry about such visions, especially since she almost killed him in the fire she started in childhood.

The film follows its plot machinations, jumping between “Entourage”-level Hollywood satire and genuine moments of creepiness, as well as quiet character moments and true pathos.  The film never feels at odds tonally, the satire and the horror-like scenes and the drama all seem to somehow fit together, and as an audience member you don’t feel jerked around through the shifts.  One has to credit Cronenberg for making these disparate moments feel like a cohesive film tonally.

The main problem, however, is that this film isn’t all that original or saying anything really important.  The satire of this film is tired and well-worn, and quite frankly beneath Cronenberg and the talented cast.  It’s clear they are trying to be Bret Easton Ellis, but the film comes across as a lazy, very easy shot at Hollywood types, one in the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel variety.  The film shines when it lets the characters breathe. Moore gets to do great work with what is a stock character. Wasikowska is unique and seems to have stepped into this stuff from a different movie.  When the films descends into murder and incest, we wind up wishing Cronenberg and his writer has dispensed with the facile shots at Tinsel Town and had this story take place in a different industry.

Still, the film keeps your attention, and Moore and Wasikowska do excellent jobs with what they are given.  Ultimately, though, we’re left with a film whose only reason for existing is to answer the hypothetical question: “What would happen if David Cronenberg filmed an adaptation of one of Bret Easton Ellis’s lesser novels?”

C+

“God’s Not Dead” is intellectually bankrupt and morally reprehensible.  While the film is better made from a nuts and bolts standpoint than other modern Christian films, like “Facing the Giants” or “Fireproof”, it is additionally hampered by over-covered and choppily edited scenes that are shot like a Lifetime TV movie where a rape is just around every corner.  While the film may be good for a few ironic laughs, the ugliness and insulting nature of the film cause it to be an insult to not just Atheists, but Christians, Muslims, the Chinese, and anyone with a single fully functioning brain cell.  This is an ugly and shameful film.

The premise is that Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), not to be confused with popular Atheist writer/director Joss Whedon….or Wil Wheaton for that matter, is a devout Christian entering his freshman year of college.  He takes a Philosophy course taught by Mr. Radisson (a hammy Kevin Sorbo), because apparently the courses taught by professors Comfort Inn and Best Western were booked.  Radisson is a saliva-spewing angry Atheist who verbally and emotionally abuses his poor, Christian girlfriend (Cory Oliver, who has had a lot of bad plastic surgery done to her face if those ridiculously fake cheekbones are any indication).  Radisson is a cartoon.  Even the most anti-religion Atheists, a group of which I count myself among the population, are nothing like this.  He is a scenery chewing villain nursing a pain from his past and lashing out with misdirected anger, much like any number of comic book villains. 

Not to mention that, as a Philosophy professor, he is awful.  In the first class of the semester, he arrogantly states that arguments for or against the existence of God are tired and useless, and wants all of his students to write “God is Dead” on a paper and sign it, before moving on to other subjects.  Never mind that no actual, real life Philosophy professor would ever make his students do this.  Naturally, Josh refuses, and thus begins the most wasted semester of college ever portrayed on film, and remember that I’ve seen “Spring Breakers”.  Radisson wastes class time and his students’ tuition money by having class after class of Josh attempt to defend the existence of a god while Radisson yells at him opposing viewpoints.

There is a large problem with the scenes in the classroom, and that is that neither Josh nor Radisson ever actually uses a Philosophical argument in this supposed Philosophical debate.  Having taken Introduction to Philosophy in college, I know that a proper argument is made in the form of a proof. Example from Google:

All whales are mammals.
All mammals are warm-blooded.
So all whales are warm-blooded.

Proofs often follow rules of Logic, such as Modus Tollens or the Transitive Property, or any number o other rules I have forgotten from my freshman year Logic course.  In this film, neither the student nor the professor ever makes an actual argument.  They merely quote different people with opposing view points back and forth and we have an orgy of the logical fallacy known as Argument from Authority.  There are, of course, ACTUAL arguments for and against the existence of god, but you won’t hear about the Cosmological Argument or the Teleological argument here.  There’s no Epicurus argument about god being either malevolent or not omnipotent.   There is no actual philosophy in this Philosophy class.  It might have behooved the writers of this film to have at least audited a Philosophy class at their local non-Christian, accredited college before embarking on this fiasco masquerading as a film.

Real life, actual Philosophy teachers, some Atheists, have written far more detailed accounts of why this film knows nothing of philosophy (see links at the end of this review), so THIS review need not cover that ground any further.  Suffice it to say that the basic premise of the film is flawed (no professor would ever do this) the execution is tone-deaf (no actual Philosophy exists in this ostensible Philosophy Class), and the film merely wants to set a martyr/persecution fetish in which ONE-LONE-CHRISTIAN must stand up to the evils of ATHEISM in Liberal Academia.  Never mind that 75% or more of the United States is Christian.  In this film they are a persecuted minority constantly challenging the status quo, yet a large enough minority to fill up the film-ending concert (the film tells us a crowd of 10,000) in what is supposed to be a small town but is very obviously Los Angeles.   Here’s a test to see who the real persecuted ones are.  Has any Christian reading this been threatened to have their pro-religion bumper sticker ripped off of their car? I doubt so.  Well my car has a bumper sticker reading “I’m not a slave to a God that doesn’t exist”.  How many do you think I’ve had? The answer is only one, but if you think my bumper sticker is equally safe or safer to have on my car than a Jesus Fish, you are sorely misinformed about what the United States in 2014 is truly like.

So yes, Josh is at risk of failing (even though a grade in introductory Philosophy is not contingent on an argument being correct or proven, but mostly if your argument follows the rules of logic and if you can explain the major argument you learn about correctly), and he even loses his girlfriend of six years because, well, she seems upset that he’s spending time doing work.  In college.  What?

This is just our main plot.  We also have an absurd and cluttered amount of subplots. Radisson’s girlfriend, Mina, has an elderly mother with dementia.  Not real dementia, mind you, but the kind of movie dementia where people become unusually lucid during critical moments in the plot, like telling her son and Mina’s brother, Mark (Dean Cain, who must have blown threw his “Lois and Clark” money too fast) that he’s a successful businessman (which the film lets us know because he wears a suit and says words like “merger” and “partners” and  “stocks”, because you see, businessmen use those words!) because of Satan.  I don’t know, this a film where Satan gives people money and success, is too powerful for God to defeat even though God is supposed to be omnipotent (maybe he’s just lazy or has better things to do?), and God in this film brutally punishes people with death by car accident (Radisson…if this is a spoiler for you I frankly don’t give a damn) or with brain tumors.

Oh yes, the film’s other major Atheist character is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFach), who has bumper stickers on her car about saving the environment and animals and proclaiming that she loves evolution.  Naturally the all-loving God of this film gives her a brain tumor.  Sure, by the end of the film a crappy Christian “rock” band prays with her, but the film doesn’t let us see her again after that, so naturally I assume a vengeful God killed her for believing in science and liking animals. The bitch.  Prior to that she accosted the Duck Dynasty guy and his leggy I’m-not-pretending-to-be-a-redneck-despite-my-millions-unlike-my-husband spouse outside of a church, though they of course graciously allow her a mini-interview.  As they would in real life, I’m sure.  Stop them on their way inside church yourself. I’m sure they’ll be just as pleasant.  Wear Kevlar.

Perhaps the most offensive subplot, though, is that of the Muslim girl (Hadeel Sittu) whose father confusingly makes her wear a scarf around her face and head, but still allows her to dress like a normal twenty-something girl and work in a secular college’s dining hall.  She secretly listens to the Bible on her ipod in her room, until she’s caught by her snooping younger brother (I assume he wanted to see something else) and is tattled on.  This leads us to a scene where her father smacks her and drags her by her hair out of the house. Yes, this PG-rated film features a Muslim man bitchslapping his daughter and horrific, misogynist domestic violence.  You see, the film doesn’t want us to think that merely faith in a God is a good thing. No.  You have to believe in the RIGHT God.  The CHRISTIAN God.  Oh, how Christians in the United States are made to suffer under the tyranny of Atheism (15% of the U.S. population if you count all unaffiliated) and Islam (2-3% of the U.S.).

Luckily, our poor abused ex-Muslim is taken in by Pastor Dave (David A.R. White, who looks like Matthew Modine if he were beaten with an ugly stick), who is also tested by God.   See, his car refuses to start until he prays on it.  The God of this film is so angry and petty that he even tests the faithful using minor nuisances…when’s not giving brain tumors or hitting people with cars.  The Atheists in this film may be portrayed as the angry ones, but the film’s assumption at the audience’s love of these Atheists getting their just desserts portrays far more implicit anger on their parts.

Oh, and let’s not forget one last subplot: a Chinese man (Paul Kwo) who’s father insists he proclaim that God is dead to get a good grade in Radisson’s class (both a stereotypical and racist portrayal of achievement-above-all-else Asian family dynamics AND a stab at godless, Communist China).

The film ends once Radisson is mowed over by a car driven by Satan-beloved Mark.  As he lies dying in the street with blood filling his lungs (yet able to speak clearly….then again, a non-doctor supporting character says Radisson’s lungs are filling with blood merely by looking at the guy) and Pastor Dave gently guiding him to the afterlife after he renounces his Atheist ways. See, Radisson wasn’t a true Atheist, he was merely mad at God for killing his mommy.  I know many religious people don’t understand that Atheists are not mad at God, but some are merely mad at believers of God, and this film showcases that ignorance. Then the rain stops, Pastor Dave is perfectly dry, and he and his friend (who maybe has x-ray eyes) talk about how the day was truly great….you know, despite seeing a man die in front of them minutes earlier….or perhaps longer if they had time to dry themselves and their clothes.

All of the other main characters end up at the Christian rock concert and we learn that Josh, after convincing his class that God is alive (a fickle group, that class) will not be dating (or courting) the ex-Muslim girl, and he has a new Chinese friend.  The Duck Dynasty guy appears at the concert and tells everyone to spam their entire cell phone contact list by texting “God’s not dead” to everyone they know. Mina texts it to her dead ex-boyfriend as he lay cold in the street in this bizarre approximation of a happy ending.  We’re also treated to not one, but two whole songs by this group, Newsboys, who needless to say play insipid and uninspired songs.  Oddly enough, their concert costumes are black suits with red shirts underneath, so apparently they share Satan’s tailor.  After 113 minutes, it seems that the film was really just a commercial for this band. Weird.

Look, I’m more than capable of liking a pro-religion film if it is entertaining and well-made. “The Prince of Egypt” is an underrated film and my favorite filmic depiction of a Bible story.  “God’s Not Dead” is offensive, insulting, and ugly.  It saddens me that Christians seem to have liked this film, judging by its success at the box office.  Almost nothing is worse than someone or something you agree with making your argument poorly.  This film portrays Christians as tasteless, weak people who accept abuse because of a persecution fetish, except for Josh, who is merely portrayed as a dull man who walks around a lot and has enough anger under the surface to maybe shoot up a school someday.  It portrays all non-believers as uniformly and cartoonishly evil, and it portrays God as an evil asshole who murders and punishes anyone who doesn’t believe in him, and even tests his faithful believers with cars that don’t start, girlfriends who dump you, or fathers who beat you and throw you out of the house.  Unless Satan does those things, which doesn’t make sense since Satan rewards another character who is not Godly with nice cars and watches and suits.

While the film isn’t quite as offensive to me as “Big Fish” and “300”, the other two films in recent history I have given an F to, and because I knew what I was getting in to watching the film, it’s not as anger causing at the worst, most morally repugnant and reprehensible I’ve ever seen.  But this film is horrible, offensive to my moral sensibilities, and the filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves. F.

Links:

 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2014/03/a-philosophy-professor-analyzes-gods-not-deads-case-for-god/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/logical-take/201403/god-s-not-dead-neither-is-philosophy