Here’s another of the “small, quality” films up for an Oscar that, like Her, is really not that great. Dallas Buyers Club has many things to admire, but I’m pretty sure its nomination and ecstatic reviews have more to do with its “worthiness” than its actual effectiveness as a motion picture.
The movie is based on the true story of Texas bad boy Ron Woodroof. According to the picture, Woodroof, a gambler, druggie and rodeo rider, contracted AIDS from his wild heterosexual lifestyle back in 1985, when the epidemic was just going public in a big way. Frustrated with government’s incompetence in dealing with the new health crisis, he became a smuggler of experimental drugs. Along the way, as Homer Simpson might say, he learned an important lesson about tolerating the gay people who were dying all around him. (There’s apparently some evidence Woodroof was actually bisexual and that the movie’s homophobe-to-gay-liker story is bogus, but I’m just writing about the movie I saw.)
Matthew McConaughey does his usual fine job with the lead. Jared Leto is nominated for a supporting Academy Award for playing a gay transvestite heroin addict and he deserves to win. I know this sort of role is meat and drink to actors (it’s a lot harder to play a vanilla accountant and make it sing) but Leto just kills it, winning your heart the second he comes on screen with the character’s kindness, intelligence and vulnerability.
What’s strange about the picture, though, is its overall lack of feeling. It’s cold and seems to be operating on autopilot — as if director Jean-Marc Vallée (who did a good job with The Young Victoria) expects the audience to do the work of feeling things he never takes the trouble to make them feel. McConaughey’s transition from gay-hating good ol’ boy to tolerant good ol’ boy is told rather than shown. The payoff delivers no punch whatsoever. The end of Leto’s character arc actually occurs offscreen, leaving you without much sense of resolution for the one really sympathetic guy in the story. I wanted to bring in my unshed tears for a refund! And McConaughey’s character never really achieves the level of AIDS Schindler because, while his fights with the idiots in government resonate, his crusades against AZT and “Big Pharma” seem misguided. Pharma was doing what it had to do, and the drug ultimately turned out to be helpful. It’s silly to make villains out of well-intentioned people swamped by crisis.
This is a film-worthy period. The AIDS epidemic at its height was a genuine historic event. Good people died — a lot of them — and attitudes — toward health, toward homosexuality, toward sex in general — were changed forever. It’s a good setting for a story. But this weirdly flat film just doesn’t bring it to life. It’s not a bad movie. It’s certainly watchable and the good cast delivers some entertaining moments. But strange as it may sound, it could’ve used a little more Hollywood, a little more hearts and flowers all around.
One of the reasons I don’t write many reviews in mainstream venues anymore is that I don’t like panning things. Books are hard to write, movies are hard to make. It’s easy, and often amusing, to sneer at the failures but I know the process of creation well and hurling slings and arrows at another man’s heart and soul is not as much fun as it looks. It especially bugs me when people attack an artist’s work because they don’t like his politics or off-screen antics. Jim Carrey may be a screaming idiot when it comes to the subject of guns but he’s made some very good movies and there aren’t many people who can say the same.
But a reviewer’s first responsibility isn’t to the artist, it’s to the audience, the folks who are going to spend their good money on the product. If you’re not willing to pan something, you shouldn’t agree to review it in the first place. So I turn down a lot of review assignments on the off-chance I’ll have to slaughter a colleague in the name of honesty. And even in a blog, more often than not I pass over the movies and books I don’t like in silence.
Her, however, has been nominated for an Academy Award so I feel compelled to at least say this: no freaking way. I understand the idea that some smaller movies that aren’t necessarily popular with the mainstream crowd might still be deserving of award attention. But Her is not one of those movies. It’s bad. Its plot — a guy falls in love with the artificial intelligence of a new computer operating system — is an already played-out and unoriginal version of Pygmalion. (See everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to 2002′s Simone). Its characters are collections of ideas rather than actual personalities — even the wonderful Amy Adams has to struggle to make her cliched nothing of a part come to life. And, most importantly, its central performance is just brutally dull.
In a surprise to liberal media outlets and no one else, the film Lone Survivor is cleaning up at the box office. This is a surprise to media lefties because, as the New York Times put it with near radiant gormlessness, “Moviegoers have stubbornly refused to care about war movies set in Afghanistan.” It apparently never occurred to the Times that stubborn moviegoers just didn’t want to see war movies like Lions for Lambs in which America was falsely made out to be the villain!
But the folks are showing up for this baby, even despite the occasional Pajama Boy critic whining into his cocoa about having to watch American heroes being heroic in the battle against Islamist bad guys. Reality makes their tartan singlets itchy, I guess.
Even PJBs who, like the Times‘ A.O. Scott, made sure to hint in their reviews at their ever-so-nuanced disapproval of patriotism, heroism and fighting bad guys, have been forced to admit the movie’s central battle scene is powerful and effective. It’s a well-directed, gripping, intense tribute to the men who keep America safe for the movie critics who complain about them.
The picture, as you no doubt know, is director Peter Berg’s version of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s memoir of a good mission gone bad in Afghanistan. Luttrell and his fellow SEAL’s were sent out to kill a high-profile Islamist terrorist but were unfortunately spotted by two goatherds and a small boy. The Americans made the merciful but unwise decision to spare the civilians, who proceeded to betray their position to the Taliban. The title tells you what happened.
I love the Coen brothers when they tell stories. Fargo is one of my favorite crime films. Blood Simple was great. So were No Country for Old Men and the much-improved remake of True Grit. But when the Coens leave narrative behind and go all ironic and surrealistic on me, I got to admit: I don’t get it. I thought Barton Fink was a cool attitude in search of a movie. A Serious Man was soporific. And as for their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis — currently scoring a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes with critics, a 75% with human beings — my general reaction was: Hanh?
It’s the story of a good-but-not-great folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac) in the folk singing heyday of the early 60′s. He wanders around Greenwich Village and other parts of New York being kind of an SOB to the other not-very-interesting people around him. Then he makes a pseudo-epic journey to Chicago to audition for a folk song guru. Then more stuff happens and the movie ends.
I guess the theme has something to do with the late, great Jacques Barzun’s theory that genius requires a city-full of lesser lights to bring it to fruition. That is, according to Barzun, the genius is nourished by a community of non-genius artists who lift him to greatness. The Coens are taking a moment to consider the journey of one of those other artists, a performer who will soon be rendered irrelevant by the rise of Bob Dylan. Attention must be paid to such a man, they seem to be saying. Not sure why.
The movie’s not boring, but it’s not very compelling either. And as always with this sort of Coen movie, I can’t help feeling the bros are living off irony and attitude instead of going to work making the sort of film they’re capable of. Having said that, I should add that several people I respect thought this was a great picture. And I myself respect the Coens’ work enough to think that maybe I missed something.
Here’s an entertainment find for lovers of Sci-Fi and the supernatural: Black Mirror, a British TV anthology series that is billed as a cross between Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected. That’s actually not a bad description. What it shares with TZ, at least, that so many imitators do not, are big ideas that are genuinely creative and original. Most of these ideas tend to center around current technology amped to the level of madness. The stories are often set in a world in which computers, cameras and screens increasingly stand between us and real life. Oddly but compellingly, the look of the stories is often retro, the jazziest tech offset by oldish cars and clothes.
The show is created, and often written, by Charlie Brooker. I never heard of him either, but apparently he’s some British guy and clearly a very talented one. I’ve now watched all of the six available episodes and most of them were very entertaining, spooky and thought-provoking.
Unfortunately, the first episode — The National Anthem — is the weakest of the bunch. It tries a little too hard to get our attention. It’s about the Prime Minister being blackmailed into screwing a pig on TV. I know — yawn, right? But it’s done well and the resolution is smart and insightful. Anyway, don’t let it put you off. After that, Brooker and his gang settle down and the stories are much less self-conscious, much more exciting. The second episode of the second three-show season, White Bear, is a small masterpiece: a piece of terrifying science fiction and a piece of slashing social satire at one and the same time. The episode before that, Be Right Back, is chilling and fine. The final episode of the available bunch, The Waldo Moment, isn’t as viscerally chilling as the others, but it’s as thoughtful a piece of political satire as you’re going to find on TV. Excellent stuff.
I got this for no extra charge through DirecTV’s Video on Demand. You can also buy the DVD set from Amazon. I’m sure it’ll be streamed elsewhere soon. If you’re a Twilight Zone fan, look for it. It’s really good.
Saving Mr. Banks is the movie version of how the (apparently awful) P.L. Travers gave Walt Disney and his writers holy hell before she would allow them to turn her Mary Poppins novels into a film. It’s a sentimental re-invention of the true story, but it works. Sweet, good-natured, gentle and uplifting, the movie basically makes the argument that all of life should be rewritten as a Disney musical. There’s some truth to this, and the film gets at it.
As with so many films this year, the performances are unbelievably great. Emma Thompson humanizes Travers — no small thing, given her character. Colin Farrell is touching as her disastrously alcoholic father. And Paul Giamatti is absolutely wonderful in the role of her lovable chauffeur.
But after watching this and Captain Phillips in short order, I have to say: Tom Hanks may be the greatest actor/movie star of his generation. He takes the role of Walt Disney and goes right to the heart of the American self-made man. Upbeat but hardboiled, generous but also relentless, Hanks’ Disney has a deep understanding of the sources of his own success and he uses that understanding to bring others to success as well. Optimistic without being blind, he can reflect on his pain at the same time he celebrates his achievement. It may be fair to say the Disney Corporation is hagiographizing its founder here — okay. But Hanks does something so deep with the character it becomes a comment on America itself — a comment that is positive without being sentimental or dishonest. It’s a case of an American treasure portraying an American treasure.
I won’t argue that this is a great film, but it’s good heartfelt entertainment with wonderful performances. Nice holiday- or even post-holiday viewing.
Director David O. Russell’s last two films were wonderful. Both The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook gave us painfully exact depictions of family dysfunction, then magically transformed that dysfunction into old-fashioned movie-style happy endings. Cynical cranks could complain that that’s not the way it works in real life. But, in fact, they would be wrong. People do redeem their lives, even if they don’t do it with the neatness and glamour of the big screen. The style was pure Hollywood, but the underlying point remained honest and true.
What is not true is that corrupt politicians really care about the people they serve and are just taking that suitcase full of money to help the poor citizens of their communities. Lowlife pols have been pushing that line of garbage since before Caesar and it is now what it was then: self-justifying crap. Corruption bleeds a city, a state, a nation dry. A Boss Tweed may deliver a poor family a turkey on Christmas — and Barack Obama may give you a “free” phone or confiscate another citizen’s earnings to pay for your health care — but in the end, what these self-serving phonies do saps the polity of money, freedom and energy. Corruption benefits the corrupt — unless and until, for whatever reason, they get caught by the law.
American Hustle buys into the political liars’ lies with wide-eyed childlike innocence. As a result it’s a movie with no moral or emotional center. It’s well-directed and well-written, and it would be impossible for me to overpraise the performances of its wonderful cast. Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and an almost unrecognizable Jeremy Renner are beyond brilliant. They are the closest thing this starless age has to stars.
But the thesis of the movie — loosely based on the 1970′s Abscam sting that busted several corrupt mostly Democrat politicians and was therefore deemed a questionable enterprise by the Democrat media — is this: the FBI are the over-ambitious bad guys for running down the pitiful, good-hearted pols who only want to help the poor, the black, the disenfranchised of their states and cities. Those pols never would have taken that money for themselves. Oh no! And even if they did, it was just because they let their egos lead them astray. The real bad guys, the real money guys, are getting away scot free! So we’re supposed to root for con men who steal from fools, and we’re supposed to boo and hiss the lawmen who bring them to justice.
Well, in a pig’s eye. The point is not that the FBI are saints. The point is they are doing what’s right here and the politicians are just what they seem: corrupt, connected, greedy skunks who should be in jail not in office. The emotional emptiness and flatness of the film come directly from its silly and skewed morality.
The movie gets a 96/98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I guess Russell put one over on the audience. But despite his obvious talent — and the acting genius of a powerhouse cast — this is a bad film that distorts reality in a way his previous happy endings never did.
I don’t mean to make a profession out of commenting on the Pope, but since I put up a post about his first exhortation last week, it seems only fair to update it. In the previous post, I put forward the opinion that — notwithstanding a range of defenses from loyal Catholics, and some virulent attacks from conservative commentators — the new Big Hat Guy had been a bit unwise in his remarks. It was impossible to tell from the text whether he was attacking free markets or simply criticizing them, and given that free markets help the poor far more than Marxism, clarity is important. Well, since the Pope and I are like this, Francis immediately responded by clarifying his comments. This, I feel, is in keeping with the ancient church doctrine of Menschliness — which is to say, he did the right thing and good on him.
According to my friends at Truth Revolt, Francis responded to accusations he was a Marxist or some kind of South American Social Justice type by telling the Italian newspaper La Stampa, “Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.
This, in turn, means that Peggy Noonan — whose Pope column I criticized — pretty much got it right when she pointed out the Pope was not speaking as an economist.
Priests are like soldiers. I’ve never met a member of the military who cared much about taxing and spending. Their general view is that taxes should be high enough to allow a great nation to support a first-rate military to keep you safe, end of story… Priests tend to be like that, too… How high should taxes be? High enough for a first-rate country to help its citizens get the good things they need, end of story.
Having criticized Noonan, I (following the menschly papal path) have to give her props for “Coming Closest To Papal Intentions,” in her interpretation of the exhortation.
Mostly, I think, the story is a good reminder that you simply can’t see everything through a political or economic lens. For one thing, it makes you crabbed and angry all the time which isn’t good for you. And also, it distorts the points of view of people who are speaking from another perspective, like the Pope. If you read some of the comments under my previous post, you’ll see what I mean.
Finally, to all those who attacked me for criticizing Ayn Rand, I double checked my facts and I’m right and you’re wrong. Glad we could clear that up.
As a non-Catholic fan of the last two Popes — one a hero, one a genius — I’ve been following with interest the controversy over the new Pope’s first exhortation. Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium sparked a firestorm with its criticism of free markets and “trickle down theories,” and its apparent call for the state to take action against them. The great Rush Limbaugh confessed himself “befuddled” by the message which sounded to him like “pure Marxism,” and Breitbart’s Big Peace site had a post headlined, “Pope Francis Attacks Capitalism, Calls for State Control.” In response, Peggy Noonan wrote what I thought was one of her weaker columns defending the Pope as a non-economist and saying, “I don’t think he’s saying be a leftist but something more revolutionary and fundamental: Be a saint. Be better, kinder, more serious and loving, and help create systems that reflect good, kind, loving people.” I much preferred the touchingly ferocious and loyal post from Rebecca Hamilton at Patheos, “If You’re Looking for Me, You’ll Find Me Standing With the Pope.” She lets go with both barrels at commentators on the left and right who try to tailor Catholicism to fit their political point of view:
These people have become so arrogant that they think they can talk to the Pope the way they talk to their toady political religious leaders that they’ve bought and own. Since they can’t even get an audience with the Pope, they are going directly to their cult-like following among their readers and listeners and are doing their best to get them riled up into a froth of Pope-hating.
Best of all, by my lights, was the scholarly Michael Novak’s piece “Agreeing With Pope Francis,” over at NRO. Novak points out that the original Spanish of the Pope’s message is more nuanced than the English translation, and that Francis’s South American experience might have given him a different view of capitalism than he would have gotten here in the states. Novak feels that what the Pope means is that capitalism alone won’t help the poor without restraints of both law and conscience.
A hilarious lead in Great Britain’s socialist newspaper The Guardian reads: ”It has picked up almost universally positive reviews and is being tipped for Oscars glory next year. Now Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has begun to pick up praise from a surprising source – Christian critics who say the 3D space spectacular celebrates the presence of God in the universe.”
What is hilarious about this is the word “surprising.” Who, after watching this picture, could fail to see that it celebrates the presence of God in the universe? Oh yeah! Socialists — who also can’t see that the universe celebrates the presence of God in the universe!
Life intervened and I didn’t get to see Gravity in a theater. And after being told that it could only be fully enjoyed in 3D, I was reluctant to watch the screener DVD. Ultimately, though, I felt I ought to know what was in such a popular flick, so I turned it on. And I thought it was terrific, 3D or 2: innovative, minimalist, sincere. A good old-fashioned adventure with heart. A two-handed play with special effects, its cast, characters and plot stripped to the bone. And it’s ironic that a film that depends so little on human presences onscreen should be one of the most humane movies of the year. But Gravity works because its filmmakers understand that in the vast emptiness of space the human heart is the only oasis, and in the vast emptiness of the human heart God is the only center of, you guessed it, gravity.
The plot’s so small, I won’t give anything away. But it’s also so outspoken in its point of view that it’s difficult to miss the point. Anyone who can’t see that this is a story about the Love that dies for us and returns to save us and give us abundant life is so blind… well, he should be working for The Guardian.
I watched this film over the Thanksgiving weekend and the more I think about it, the more I think its approach to its subject is kind of remarkable.
Kill Your Darlings is based on the true story of a murder that took place at the inception of the Beat literary movement. It stars former Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe as the poet Allen Ginsberg and details how, as a student at Columbia University, Ginsberg came under the sway of his charismatic fellow student Lucien Carr, played by Dane DeHaan. With William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), the group conceived the idea of the New Vision, which ultimately produced Ginsberg’s famous neo-Whitmanesque poem Howl, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Kerouac’s On The Road.
But before all that happened, Carr stabbed then drowned his sometime lover David Kammerer (played by Dexter’s excellent Michael Hall), claiming Kammerer had attempted to sexually assault him. Because of a law that gave special dispensation to straight men under attack by homosexuals, Carr got off with a light sentence and went on to a long career with United Press International. I will refrain from making any comments about the kind of people who go into mainstream journalism. The facts speak for themselves — or would, if there weren’t mainstream journalists to cover them up!
My friend and City Journal colleague Myron Magnet has delivered an absolutely terrific new book for history buffs and lovers of America. It’s called The Founders at Home and it’s a wonderfully retold tale of the intellectual underpinnings of the nation’s founding, with a special eye toward what the founders’ houses had to say about their ideals.
I’ve been reading portions of this book as they were published in City Journal, but the book includes lots of new material. And, as I expect from Myron, the writing is graceful and the scholarship and thinking are profound:
A key reason the Revolution succeeded was its strictly limited scope. The Founders sought only liberty, not equality or fraternity. They aimed to make a political revolution, not a social or economic one, and they didn’t seethe with an Old-World intensity of social rancor or class rage. … Because democratic self-government requires a special kind of culture — one that fosters self-reliant selves — the Protestantism of the Founding Fathers also helped the Revolution succeed. Their Protestant worldview placed an intense value on the individual — his conscience, the state of his soul, his understanding of Scripture, his personal relation to God, his salvation. It was an easy step for them to assume that, as each man was endowed by his Creator with an immortal soul immediately related to God, so he was similarly endowed with rights that are “not the Donation of Law,” as Constitution signer William Livingston put it, but “prior to all political Institution,” and “resulting from the Nature of Man.”
You don’t need me to tell you that the work of these past giants is under threat from the intellectual pygmies who command the political heights today. A book like this isn’t just a delight, it’s also a bulwark against the ignorance and misinformation that leaders like Barack Obama encourage and on which they depend.
Great Christmas gift, truly. A 35 dollar list price, but only around 22 bucks from Amazon. It’s about 17 dollars on Kindle but, in my opinion, the beautifully produced hardcover is well worth the extra fin. This one you’ll want to keep on your shelf.
[If you have a moment, please watch the wonderful three minute movie scene above through to the end.]
It always annoys me when a church waxes mealy-mouthed in celebration of the military. They do this, I know, because the church leaders think such celebrations detract from their aura of Christly peace. “We pray for those serving in the armed forces around the world,” goes one Episcopalian formulation — which is twice mealy-mouthed because it not only fails to pray for the right people, it’s fashioned to make you think that you ARE praying for the right people. You can tell yourself you’re praying for those serving in OUR armed forces around the world, but you’re not. You’re praying for the soldiers of North Korea too — and, Lord, if you’re listening, as far as I’m concerned, you can feel free to smite those sons of bitches at any time. Don’t hold back any smiting on my account.
Jesus blessed the peacemakers. In this fallen world, that sometimes means good guys with guns. Just as neighborhoods are safer where homeowners go armed, so the world is more peaceful where free nations maintain a strong military. I am aware every day — every day — that I read, write, love, pray and simply walk down the street — because there are those who risk their lives to protect me from the armies of the bad guys. If you think that detracts from my aura of Christly peace, so be it. Personally, I think it gives the aura a fresh layer of realism and honesty.
Love is not love that will not stand and fight.
God bless our veterans and those serving today. Just like the Man said.
Today — November 5th — is the official publication date of my new young adult thriller — an adventure story and ghost story combined — Nightmare City. I seriously hope you’ll consider getting a copy or two to read secretly before giving them to the young adults in your life.
Meanwhile, here are some brief thoughts on writing stories for the youth market.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story called The Imp of the Perverse. The imp was that demon inside all of us that pushes us to do the wrong thing, the thing that is certain to harm ourselves and others. You feel the imp inside you when you stand on a precipice and have the urge to throw yourself off. Maybe it’s just another name for the devil, or maybe it’s a personification of that sinful nature that, to paraphrase St. Paul, makes us do what we would not while being unable to do what we would.
Nowhere is the Imp of the Perverse more active today than in the stories and images we give to our young people. The imp is in the beckoning toward self-degradation and self-destruction that underlies so many songs and movies and books, in the blithe romanticization of promiscuity, drugs and foul language, in the strutting pride in transgression not of outdated social mores but of one’s own inner conviction of what is noble and good. There are plenty of wonderful songs and stories out there, but there really does seem an aggressive movement in parts of the entertainment industry to sell behavior to young people that, simply put, will make their lives not better but worse. I don’t have to name the garbage. You know what it is.
Criticize the selling of self-destructive behavior to the young and you’re “puritanical,” or “slut-shaming,” or being “unrealistic about the modern world.” But in fact, this effort to normalize the degraded is itself perverse in the extreme. It’s the incarnation of that imp within who urges us to do ill to what we love the best: ourselves and our children. The people who peddle this trash curse those who dare to criticize them so loudly precisely because they know they are doing wrong and can’t stop themselves. Believe me: the person who accuses you of “slut-shaming,” is herself deeply ashamed.
[CONTAINS SPOILERS TO THE FILM THE EAST.]
A cute new Ford commercial (echoing a cute old Coke commercial) promotes the superiority of AND over OR. Good horsepower AND good mileage is better than horsepower OR good mileage, just as hide AND seek is better than hide OR seek. And so on.
This is largely the way I feel about the arts. I have no desire to silence the cultural voices of people I sometimes disagree with. I only want to ensure that other voices aren’t gray listed, demonized, or stifled out of existence.
When I saw the film Prisoners the other day, it had moved from the mainstream theaters to one of the local art houses. As I waited for the show to begin, I wandered the lobby looking at the posters for upcoming shows. There were four: a movie about a gay Catholic priest who falls in love with a man; a movie about a lesbian love affair; a movie about a little Muslim girl who has to learn the Koran in order to win a bicycle; and a Yiddish film about a love affair during the Holocaust.
Now truly, I have no problem whatsoever with any of these films being made or distributed. A gay priest choosing between his religion and love is an inherently dramatic situation, as is a Jewish love affair during the Holocaust. The film about the little girl is by Saudi Arabia’s first female director and so should have some real insights into a world we rarely see. And when the lesbian film comes out on DVD, you’ll be able to skip ahead to the ten minute sex scenes. (Oh, all right, I’m joking…)
My problem, as always, is with the films that aren’t getting made. Like, say, the one about the not-gay Catholic priest who heroically tries to help sex slaves in Turkey until he’s assassinated by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar!” Or the one about Norman Borlaug, who led the green revolution credited with saving over one billion people from starvation, despite the attempts made to stop him… by environmentalists.
Speaking of environmentalists, the other day my wife and I sat down to watch an obscure thriller called The East, which I’d heard was good. It began with a terrorist attack on an oil executive by radical environmentalists. ”Don’t tell me the environmentalists are the bad guys,” said my wife, surprised. “No,” I said wearily. “The female agent will go undercover to stop the terrorists but will fall in love with their leader and discover that they’re actually the good guys and the oil companies she works for are evil.” To which my wife replied, “You know, it’s not always that much fun to watch movies with you.”
But it’s not me, really it’s not. When only one point of view is being told, the arts will by necessity become boring, predictable and solipsistic. It’s the sound of one hand patting itself on the back.
In an article called “Who Killed the Halloween Horror Movie?” USA Today recently noted the dearth of big budget horror films this Halloween, the Carrie remake being the exception. Don’t blame me for this, since I’ve done my little all to provide you with a Kreepy Klavan Holiday via my new young adult ghost story Nightmare City (now available to pre-order) and the reboot of Neal Edelstein’s ghost story app Haunting Melissa — script by me — now getting a shiny new 2.0 reboot.
And in fact, it’s not that there are fewer horror stories out there, it’s that there are so many that they can’t be confined to one time of year or to one medium. Horror has gone mainstream, and the zombie-like hunger for Halloween fare can be satisfied at any time and in any number of ways. The Conjuring was released in theaters in the summer, and is out on DVD for October. World War Z, The Evil Dead and Insidious 2 all broke this year and two out of three are available now. And whatever other spooky-dooky tale you want to experience on Halloween or any other time, you only have to stream it or DVR it or, for all I know, have it injected directly into your brain. Like the real world, the fictional world has no shortage of horror — none at all.
Does the mainstreaming and mainlining of eerie fare tell us anything about ourselves, I wonder. I’m always suspicious of such generalizations, but here’s something I’ve noticed for myself. After a career of realistic crime writing with only occasional forays into ghost stories, I’m finding it harder and harder to describe my vision of the world in fiction without resorting to the supernatural.
I guess it says something about the state of movie-making these days, that I sat watching Prisoners thinking, “Wow, this is so sharp, it could almost be a TV show!” The two and a half hour thriller about two girls who go missing in suburban Pennsylvania would have made a great three part drama on New Television but it holds up well on the big screen because of its cast and its theme.
There’s just about nothing I love more than good crime writing, and this is very good. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s excellent script languished for six years, and was even put on the famous Black List of the best unproduced scripts in the business. Hollywood doesn’t like bleak and likes children in danger even less. (It took ten years for my kidnapping novel Don’t Say A Word to get produced, and then it only happened because of a threatened strike.) I suspect it was the writing quality and the sheer number of good roles that finally got this to the screen. Guzikowski’s only other produced film is Contraband, an intelligent but flat remake of an Icelandic film. He has an original series coming up on the Sundance Channel, The Red Road, and I’ll watch for it after seeing this.
Look, you can pick at points of the Prisoners plot, but why would you? It’s intense, suspenseful, smart and the characters and actors are terrific. Hugh Jackman plays the troubled but devoted father who takes the law into his own hands in the ugliest possible way. And Jake Gyllenhaal plays a great cop, but one so disconnected from life that he can only mouth platitudes in the face of the parents’ emotional agony. It’s one of the script’s signal features that it makes you root for both these guys, even when they go over the line. Also, I should point out that while there are disturbing story elements, the gore and boo scares are kept to a minimum. The film earns its suspense through good ideas instead of cheap shots.
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
– Matthew 9:11-13
Because pompous judgmentalism feels good and loving forgiveness is difficult, it’s no surprise that some Christians come to sound suspiciously like the Pharisees. The guys who criticized Jesus for having dinners with sinners are alive and well, leveling charges of moral relativism at anyone who repeats the Christly injunction to judge not and has the bad manners to mean it. One trick to achieving the Pharisaical mindset is to take those portions of Scripture that condemn stuff and read them as broadly as possible, then take the lines calling for forgiveness and read them as narrowly as possible. Thus if you can find a 6th century BC verse in Leviticus demanding the death penalty for homosexuals, then by gum Neil Patrick Harris must die! Whereas when Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” he only meant if you happened to get slapped by a Roman Centurion. “Love your neighbor but…” “Judge not but…” “Forgive your enemies but…” If such people would take their buts out of their heads, they would discover that the interior task assigned to Christians is so difficult that it leaves very little time for condemning other people. Damn it.
All of which I mention on the way to explaining why I so thoroughly enjoyed and admired the raunchy, drug-filled, scatological comedy This Is The End and why I wish openly Christian filmmakers made films more like it.
The plot: a group of raunchy comedy stars — Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill and so on — play themselves as shallow, backbiting, pot-smoking narcissists. They’re gathered at a party at Franco’s new mansion when the Apocalypse hits, complete with Rapture. At first, they can’t believe it because, if the good people are being taken up into Heaven, why would actors be left behind? They’re actors! They bring joy to people’s lives! But as things go from apocalyptic to worse, the sober truth begins to dawn.
“This means there’s a God,” says Rogan, in one of the movie’s best exchanges. “Who saw that coming?”
“Like… 95 percent of the world,” answers Baruchel.
Novelist Lars Walker — a friend of this blog and an insightful reviewer of some of my own novels — makes a trenchant comment in the Elizabeth Smart post below. I know it’s trenchant because I was about to make basically the same comment but Lars beat me to it! In the comment, he makes a delightfully concise reference to “the Osteenian view that suffering is always a sign of God’s displeasure.” This, of course, refers to popular preacher Joel Osteen, who has been promoting his new book at the Blaze and other places. He basically preaches that God wants wonderful things for your life and you only have to open yourself to God’s will in order to receive those blessings.
I stumbled on Osteen before he was famous. It was more than ten years ago, when I was wrestling with my own conversion to Christianity. I was struggling deeply with the fear that faith would limit my freedom of thought (it didn’t) and the idea that I might be betraying my Jewish heritage. Late one night, while channel surfing, I came upon one of Osteen’s half hour sermons on some religious channel. I (who generally dislike religious programming) was bowled over by him. He was brilliant at conveying God’s love for his human creation and I found his words very moving and comforting. I remember telling my wife about him over our morning coffee. I was well aware of the intellectual flaw in “the Osteenian view.” If God wants only good things to happen to us, and we have to “activate his blessings,” by our positive prayers and good actions, then indeed, as Lars says, suffering must always be a result of some failure on our part. Still, I found his optimism and generosity of heart compelling.
And there is some Biblical support for his point of view. “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all,” says the Psalmist, whereas “Evil will slay the wicked.” This attitude dominates both Psalms and Proverbs. But it is offset by Job and Ecclesiastes. The latter tells us: “Here is a pointless thing that happens on earth: A righteous man receives what happens to the wicked, and a wicked man receives what happens to the righteous.” And Jesus, who knew a thing or two, remarked that the sun shines on the evil as well as the good and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.
Not surprisingly, the Bible is right on both counts. That is, of course, in general, a good life is likely to make you happier than a bad one, and good habits will probably make you healthier and more prosperous than bad ones. No good parent tells his child, “My son, go forth and treat yourself and others like garbage, it’ll be great.” There’s a reason the proverbs say what they say.
Elizabeth Smart is making the rounds, flogging her new book My Story (written with Congressman Chris Stewart). Smart is, of course, the beautiful Mormon girl who in 2002 at 14 years old was abducted for nine months by evil lunatic Brian David Mitchell and his wife. Then, miraculously, she was found and reunited with her family. Today, she’s married and says she “couldn’t be happier.” She does good work fighting human trafficking and speaking to sexual abuse survivors.
I’ve always been kind of fascinated with Smart (I’ll read the book and get back to you on it if it’s any good). Her kidnappers dragged her around the country, chaining her up like an animal and raping her daily. And the two questions everyone always asks her are 1) why didn’t you run/call for help and 2) how come you’re not, like, bats**t crazy?
The first question doesn’t mean much to me. Fourteen-year-old-girl, threatened, brutalized, terrified: in the movies, she’d have run away. Real life, not so much. I think anyone with half an imagination can figure that one out.
But that second question — that haunts me. It really does. Nine months of trauma, raped every day, mentally tortured by these demonic lowlifes with their threats and their sick religious delusions. Hell, I know women who’ve been assaulted once and have never gotten over it. I know people whose whole lives are defined by the cruel things that were done to them. I myself just have to hear Smart’s story and I start having angry fantasies about what I’d like to do to Mitchell (hint: it involves a ball-peen hammer and pliers). So how does she, who actually went through this stuff… how does she live her life without being consumed by rage every day all the time?
Don Jon — a romantic comedy about a bartender with a porn addiction — is not the sort of movie I usually go to. But my wife wanted to see it, and I’m extraordinarily fond of her, so here’s what I thought. Not bad at all really. Well-acted, well-written, with an interesting point to make — although once you understand what the point is (in about 20 minutes) you can pretty well write the rest of the picture yourself. Still, it held me for all 90 minutes and there were some laughs and some genuine feeling — so not bad at all.
The idea is that porn — and romantic comedies and promiscuous sex and even religion — can all become addictive ways of losing yourself in a fantasy in order to avoid connecting with other people, and maybe losing yourself in them. This is all true and very relevant in the connected but weirdly disconnected world we now live in.
I especially appreciated the comparison between porn — in which the women have perfect bodies and do all sorts of stuff that real girls aren’t always willing to do — and romantic comedies, in which men find salvation through apologizing to their girlfriends and subjugating themselves to feminine values. Both are equally one-sided visions of relationships — and the movie illustrates it through the simultaneously luscious and distasteful predator female played excellently by Scarlett Johansson.
The one wrong move in the movie comes at the end, when the film smacks Catholicism. I have nothing against smacking Catholicism now and then — the horrifying portrayal of a pedophile priest in the last episode of Showtime’s Ray Donovan struck me as right on the money. But it’s no fair attacking the church for something it doesn’t actually do. The idea that religion can separate us from reality is true enough — it can. But the portrait of what confession is like and how modern priests react to problems struck me as dated and unrealistic. I’m guessing a guy with a porn addiction could do much worse than going to his local priest.
But other than that, a good show, all in all. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and starred and did them all well.
My YA thriller Crazy Dangerous just went on sale for $3.99 in all ebook formats. This is the one about a preacher’s son who befriends a girl sinking into schizophrenia — then begins to suspect her hallucinations are actually prophecies of an oncoming disaster.
You can also still pre-order Nightmare City, likewise for $3.99 in all ebook formats. It’s the story of a young man who wakes up to find his hometown empty — except for the voices of the dead and strange shadows moving in the fog. That one is published in about a month.
Get em while they’re cheap!
Two articles that complimented one another caught my eye last week. One was in the Wall Street Journal‘s Friday “Houses of Worship” column. Ari N. Schulman pointed out (what many, including C.S. Lewis, have known) that arguing in favor of faith because prayer makes you healthier or happier is a fool’s game.
The faithful may be winning at the game of life, but they’re playing by rules that social scientists have written in essentially post-religious terms. While churches define the highest aims of life as salvation or enlightenment, social science research replaces these with health and wealth, well-being and satisfaction.
Once you accept happiness as an argument for faith, you will ultimately lose the argument entirely, because the result can be arrived at without the supposed cause.
This was driven home by the second column, this one in the New York Times by T.M. Luhrmann, the author of When God Talks Back. Luhrmann tells the story of Sigfried Gold, a man who cured his tobacco and food addictions with prayer while never believing in God at all. He was essentially tricking his brain into a healthier life without buying into the supernatural.
Well, sure, why shouldn’t he? The joy of faith is not proof of God and God is not required to produce the “joy of faith.” Hell, drugs will do that for you — you don’t even have to bother to pretend pray. There is a God, but not because it makes you happy to think so. (If you ever want to read a mind-crunching but wonderfully reasoned article on why proof-talk about God is always nonsensical, check out this brilliant Reason magazine piece by Mark Goldblatt.)
The larger point, of course, is that bad argument weakens the case for truth. Carrying this over to politics, it explains why leftist venues like the New York Times and NPR avoid highlighting conservative intellectuals like Jonah Goldberg, Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn and instead give the conservative cause over to anyone they can find with a thick backcountry accent and a tendency to bloviation. They know they don’t have to win the argument. They just let some under-smart right-winger get it wrong.
The religion-politics parallel is a good one. As it is with faith, so freedom, too, makes people happy. But happiness is not an argument for freedom. Freedom, like faith, is a good in and of itself because the fact is no other human good makes sense without it.
Image courtesy shuttertock / Aprilphoto
Okay, I know I’m not the only person who had this experience. Watched the first season of The Killing. Loved the characters, the actors, the ambience. Got caught up in the story. Reached the last episode. Got so pissed off by the cheat that I vowed never to watch it again and to take the Mireille Enos mask off my inflatable companion… although maybe that’s too much information.
Enough people seemed to feel this way that AMC canceled the show after the second season — then they rethought that decision when Netflix and DirecTV threatened to put it on instead. So they put on a third season. And I thought, “Oh, okay, I’m a gentle, peace-loving, forgiving guy. I can’t hold a grudge forever.”
So I watched the third season. And I loved the characters, the actors, the ambience. Got caught up in the story. Reached the last episode…
You’re kidding me, right?
Let me say up front, there was a lot of good stuff all the way through. Strong writing. Great scenes. And I do think Enos is terrific as the troubled homicide detective. And beautiful, despite everything they do to try to make her look plain. And Joel Kinnaman, who plays her partner, turns in a performance of such depth and charm that he clearly deserves the same success here he had in his native Sweden. And kudos to Peter Sarsgaard for a powerful turn as a guy on death row.
That last episode though. Woof. Bad. Really bad. Contrived, unbelievable. It’s one thing when the killer is “the last person you’d suspect,” but another when it’s the last person you’d suspect because he/she just wouldn’t have done it! Also, it’s truly annoying when one of the very few believable female cops on television suddenly starts acting like a ditzy girl in a sitcom, all flustered and irrational and governed by emotion, not like a cop at all, just so the writers can maneuver her into a suspenseful position. Plus if you’re going to steal the end of a movie, try not to make it one of the most famous ends of a movie ever. The whole final episode felt like they’d written it in a hurry, not knowing the resolution until the last minute.
Look, it’s a season-long mystery. We’re watching to find out whodunnit. Great characters, great setting — all well and good — but you gotta deliver on that last show! I’m writing to AMC to ask that they return thirteen hours of my life. Not at the end either. I want them when I’m 27. It’s only fair. The Killing is killing me.
Cross-posted from Klavan on the Culture