I Spit on Your Grave – A Review

There is an interesting back story to the film I Spit on Your Grave.  In 1974, film editor Meir Zarchi witnessed the aftermath of a brutal rape in a park and tried to help the victim as best he could.  Like many writers, the way that he chose to process what he had seen and went through was to write.  In 1978, he released the movie Day Of The Woman, a film with some heady notions of being empowering to women.  It had a few scenes cut to get an R rating and went on to fade into cinematic obscurity.  However, in 1980, the film was picked up by a distributor and re-marketed as exploitation cinema. The deleted scenes added back, it garnered an X rating, was given a new title, I Spit On Your Grave—complete with a sensationalizing poster—and went on to become 1981’s top-selling video release in the US.

The plot involves a writer, Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), on a retreat from her New York apartment to a cabin in Connecticut, living out the writer’s fantasy of penning her Great American Novel.   Four local men harass, stalk, and rape her.  She returns as an angel of vengeance, doling out punishments fitting their crimes.  We’ve seen such a revenge plot hundreds of times.  However, it is the leering nature of the film which has earned it such infamy.  Of the movie’s 100 minute running time, the first 45 are spent lingering on the chase and rape, the last 30 on her revenge killings.  So basically the rape and killing are only separated by a scene of Jennifer in church to ask for forgiveness for the murders she plans to commit.

Like the briefly glimpsed witness who opted to not do anything to stop Jennifer’s assault, the viewing of this movie comes with certain moral responsibilities.  Horror too often prides itself on being the “lowest common denominator” genre, not built for rigorous idea exploration.  Rarely is there a true examination of the human condition. “I’m doing an analysis of man’s inhumanity to man” usually amounts to puerile masturbatory fantasies of rape and torture justified by someone getting their comeuppance in the end.

We all have to figure out what to do with our very real emotions of hurt, anger, and the need for justice.  We see the evil and injustice perpetrated around us, to people we love, and we cry out.  It brings to mind the idea of imprecatory prayers.  Imprecatory Psalms are those petitions for misfortune, or curses, on another; the righteous asking God to carry out His justice. They are heartfelt, often angry sounding pleas for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the wicked.

Imprecatory Psalms were recorded and preserved for use in public worship; a pattern for Israel as well as the cries of individual’s hearts.  For example:

“When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation.” Psalms 109:7-13

God big enough for us to be real with? We are called to be authentic. I don’t know if there’s any such thing as being too authentic, because since we are broken vessels, the fact that we are a mess is sort of taken into account. We do have to wrestle with is whether or not it is the loving thing to do to pray for God to crush our enemies. Religion does not have a monopoly on morality, and the desire to see justice done unites the religious and non-religious alike.

Radical hatred is the right response to radical evil. We need to be angered by evil, by injustice, by the wrongs of the world. Evil needs to be resisted, opposed, even wept over. Rage is a perfectly natural, valid first response. It is human way to deal with our pent up fury. It is doubly an appropriate response if we do it before God, the God of Love and Justice. We have to expunge these “dark emotions” from ourselves. Part of forgiveness process is us venting our grief, frustration, and anger, only then can we continue with the healing/forgiveness process. Imprecatory prayers help put things in perspective. The words are, and should be, shocking to hear.

We continue to move in a Christian response by looking at circumstances in light of Christ’s mission. There is a tougher idea to reconcile: no one is beyond divine grace. We are commanded to love our enemies, returning a blessing for a curse. While often shocking, imprecatory prayers allow us to put things in God’s hands. Ultimately our prayer becomes “God forgive them and transform us.” A Christian response is moving toward reconciliation, a forgiving of our enemy. Grace doesn’t preclude justice being done. Call evil deeds what they are: evil. We must protect the innocent. However, our actions must move toward redemption.

Not that anyone expected I Spit on Your Grave to be anything more than what it is.  Not especially bright characters portrayed by terrible actors.  Trite dialogue recited to unclear direction.  This isn’t a misunderstood feminist film, it’s violence and sexually exploitive imagery reveled in for its own sake.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – A Review

Oliver Stone’s last two films, World Trade Center and W, continue his career theme of taking political and real world events and crafting compelling films out of them.  Obviously, the recent economic downturn would be not only his perfect muse, but also an opportunity to dust off one of his most iconic characters, Michael Douglas’ hugely charismatic (and Oscar-winning) villain, Gordon Gekko.

The sequel to his seminal work, Wall Street—a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of unchecked ambition and greed—Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps lacks the bite one might expect for a film seemingly positioned to critique the attitudes and mores of those responsible.  We get a peek inside the power corridors of global finance, but the depths of this is not really plumbed.

One almost gets the feeling Stone feels that Gekko became more of an inspiration to the very board room titans and Wall Street power players rather than a mirror to their amoral ways.  However, considering the real world context of financial ruin, too close an examination of complex economic concepts might not be palatable for audiences.

Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps deploys Douglas sparingly, which has the audience longing for more screen time from him.  He’s just as smart, crafty, though wiser. He at first seems to be a standard repentant sinner as he meets a young trader named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) who wants to marry Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan).  Jakes mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), kills himself after being squeezed out of his own firm.  From there the movie angles to put Gekko back in play.

Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps explores America’s value system when it comes to our pursuit of wealth and the costs of consumerism.  Too often we believe that if we can just get that dream, that castle, that we’ll have the time and the opportunity to make up the costs of what it took to get them. We have faith in the belief that once we attain the dream, everything will work out. A mirror is held up to the value system that sustains this dream:

Consumerism – From the cars we drive, to where we live, to the clothes we wear, we have bought into a lust of life.

Materialism – that quest for more stuff that shrivels people’s souls and empties their lives. We, like any good Americans, are discontent consumers, constantly on the move to satisfy our inner longings.

Entitlement – The bastard son of our lust of life is a perpetuation of a sense of the need for immediate gratification, perhaps even a sense of entitlement, as far too many of us are duped into pursuing these things.

(Hyper-)Individualism – this “me first” narcissism which fragments community.

This leads to an economy fueled by the misery and degradation of others. But Jesus didn’t die for lower taxes, smaller government, pro-business policies, and an individualistic worldview.  If your religion is to mean anything, then be about the poor, the “least of these”.  Life is not about being controlled by money, things, or greed; but about relationships.

Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps is smart and moves with a surety of someone who not only knows their craft, but also the hallways of brokerages (Stone’s father was a stockbroker). It teeters on pressing home the world it critiques, but doesn’t tear into it with relish.  Maybe that’s another function of a repentant Gekko.

The Color Purple – A Review

Nothing can capture the rich, lyrical prose of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which details the life of a rural black family on a Georgia farm starting in 1909.  The novel took home the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and proved difficult to craft a script from.  Eventually one was written by Menno Meyjes after Walker deemed her own draft unsatisfactory.  With its many layered themes—from racial identity to misogyny to sexuality to God—it is a deeply personal work that requires a deeply personal movie.

This isn’t quite that movie.  Obviously after many commercial hits, Spielberg had hit a point in his career where he wanted to be taken seriously as a master craftsman.  Steven Spielberg means well, but I think that’s part of what undercuts the film.  The other is that there’s a narrative/emotional distance between the film and the audience.  Like with the movie Amistad, the motions and production of the movie hit all the right notes, but there is a … connection to the subject matter that isn’t there.  When that personal connection is there, he can craft Schindler’s List.  When it’s not, he produces The Color Purple.

A gentle, well-intentioned whitewash—using generalities, character short cuts, and a whiff of paternal condescension—in addition to a “sexwash”, as many of the novels complex sexual themes are diluted down.  Alice Walker’s vivid characters still crackle with life despite the script.  At the center is Celie (Whoopi Goldberg).  At its heart, The Color Purple is a love story between Celie and her sister, Nettie, from whom she is separated at childhood, and, later in life, the blues singer Shug Avery.  In the novel, Celie’s story is told through a series of letters, some never sent, many never received, most addressed to God.  As a young girl, she gives birth to two children and is then married into a life of servitude to a cruel, distant man she can refer to only as Mr (Danny Glover).

Whoopi Goldberg, in her debut performance (if only she would keep picking such interesting and meaningful roles, as she never quite blossomed into the career she should have had), had a difficult job to do.  Despite the pathology porn aspect of Celia’s life, she has to gain our sympathy and propel what could be an utterly bleak story forward.

It’s stories like this that make me think that one of the greatest miracles in the history of the church (after Jesus’ resurrection) is the emergence of the black church. That somehow Christianity took root within the context of slavery and took off. At the time, Christianity was used as a weapon, pure and simple. While some people may have legitimately wanted to evangelize the “heathens,” for the most part, Christianity was used as a means of control – used to strip away any trace of the native religion–from animism to Islam–black folks were forced to unlearn this aspect of their culture.

There is a biblical story that can be used to illustrate this process. During the time of Exile, when the Israelites had been taken into captivity to Babylon, their best and brightest were re-educated. They had to adopt .the Babylonian culture, learn the Babylonian language, learn the Babylonian religion, and take on new (Babylonian) names. This is the context for the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, for example.

With American slavery, the African way of life and belief was over-ridden with a new doctrinal system, one twisted for the purpose of transformation and intended to be a spiritual opiate. Mixed in with the teachings about God–with the passages on the master-slave relationship emphasized–were fun facts like how black people were created less than a white man. How black people (via Ham) were cursed to be slaves. How black people ought to be thankful for them having been taken in by their benevolent masters.  Yet God can use the best intentions, failed methods, and even evil and unjust acts for the furtherance of His own ends. He did so with the crucifixion of Christ. He did so with slavery and the black church.

Hope is what sustains us during dark times.  There’s hope because Christ gave us a simple mission: to join Him in being a blessing to others. Reality says that not everyone will buy into that mission, even those who profess to believe in Christ, but I have hope that it’s a right and true mission. Our hope isn’t a “wait until we get to heaven and it will all work out” hope. It’s a “the kingdom begins now” hope. It’s the hope that says in light of Christ reconciling us to God, an act of supreme love, we are to love others. It’s the hope that says just as He reached out to the forgotten, those “outside” the establishment (religious or civil), we are to care for the “least of these”, widows, orphans, the poor.

Spielberg’s film is a carefully calibrated production, dodging the shame and crimes of racism in favor of a tale of the perverse trials black women faced.  It’s a testament to his consummate skill as a director that even with such a subtle failing, Spielberg can deliver The Color Purple.

Skyline – A Review

It’s a bad sign when the sneak preview for a movie is an hour before its release date.  Seriously.  Sure, we could believe that the studio didn’t have time to organize screenings or that this movie “isn’t for critics,” but most times it’s because the movie is garbage and the studio doesn’t want advance word to leak out before folks shill out for the opening weekend.  Though judging from the audience I watched Skyline with, folks couldn’t wait to tweet their outrage at this pile of cinematic poo.

“Where do you see yourself?” –Terry

The movie is directed by the Brothers Strause, whose company Hydraulx has provided visual effects for AvatarIron Man 2The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and 300.  At an hour and a half, they could have still snipped the first twenty minutes of Skyline as it gives you nothing but exposition about characters you won’t like anyway.  Seriously.   You have a couple, Jarrod (Eric Balfour, Haven, 24, Six Feet Under) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson), who fly to L.A. for Jarrod’s buddy, Terry (Donald Faison, Scrubs), who has made it big and is having a party.  After the party, mysterious lights appear and aliens invade.

The aliens use this like to lure and suck up humans like some science fiction version of the rapture, which, mind you, would have made a much more interesting movie complete with allegory.  No such risk of depth here.  This movie is what it is, aliens running around in essentially “Mars needs brains” mode and a handful of humans doing their best to elude them.  That’s it.  Seriously.  You start rooting for the aliens to hurry up and eat all of them if only to spare us the pain of watching anymore of the movie.  I will point out that the aliens pland demonstrates poor recon on their part as they could have just raided us on college football Saturday and sucked up a bunch of stadiums worth of people with no effort.  I will also say that we have come a long way as a people when it’s the black guy in the horror/sci-fi movie that says “let’s check it out.”

“Once you look at the light, it grabs hold.” –Jared

You learn to not ask why in this movie.  The most satisfactory answer you have is “just cause”.  So we got aliens running around like a pet dog, just cause.  A strange light that draws people out, just cause.  The light having some sort of effect on bodies, just cause.  People who feel compelled to shoot hand guns at vessels that have traveled through the rigors of space, just cause.

So you have a few humans running around trying to survive.  Mind you, since all of the budget went to the effects, the only set they really have is up and down a building. What are they?  Who are they?  Things like that don’t seem to matter.  You are supposed to enjoy the ride or sheer spectacle.  A rollercoaster ride of survival against an implacable enemy.  But most of the action plays out as if you’re watching a video game.  Worse, watching someone watch a video game play out.

With no plot really to work with—they aren’t trying to escape, they aren’t trying to find their way home a la War of the Worlds, they aren’t even having any end of the world conversations; they just hole up in a building and wait—the movie becomes about the characters.  Again, for emphasis, none of whom you know or much like.  The only thing worse than a character being a cipher is a character being a cipher you don’t want to get to know.

“How can you be so sure?” –Elaine

Considering the directors pedigree, obviously some of the special effects were nice.  So someone somewhere along the line was willing to spend money.  Just not on things like a coherent script.  There is literally not enough story to latch onto any sort of deeper meaning.  It’s … alien invasion porn:  no story, just folks going through the motions.

To sum up, Skyline is Cloverfield plus War of the Worlds with a dash of The Matrix (the second two) combined for a huge pile of suck.  And just when you think it’s over, it has a whole new level of untapped suck to take you to.  The sad thing is that folks are going to read this review then I’m going to get e-mails about how it “wasn’t that bad.”  You’re wrong.  It was worse.  Seriously.

Tangled – A Review

We may be at that point where not everything has to be in 3-D.  It’s one thing if this is simply where film making is heading, much like the transition from black and white to color (as opposed to cash grabs much like double dipping on DVD releases).  Otherwise, the 3-D effect will lose any sense of specialness if it doesn’t add much to the story.  A fairly tale romance plays out as the same experience in 2-D as well as 3-D.  I don’t think Pretty Woman would particularly benefit from 3-D treatment, which brings us to Tangled.

After the traditionally animated The Princess and the Frog didn’t gross as much as they would have liked (though $104M is nothing to sneeze at), Disney returns to what it believes it does best:  an extremely monochromatic princess fairy tale.  Think Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, to which they hope to add this somewhat inventive telling of the fairy tale of Rapunzel.  Leaving aside the whole message it sends to girls, needing to be saved by princes and all, Tangled still falls short of the pantheon of its princess predecessors.

In Tangled we have a script by Dan Fogleman (Bolt, Cars) that brings a Shrek sensibility to the princess mold of movie.  Sly, self-referential, and full of meant to be quotable one-liners, the movie skates by on this sort of surface charm, much like the would be rescuing prince and narrator, Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi).  We have a king and his sick pregnant wife who is healed by the magical powers of a special flower.  These healing powers are transferred to the hair of the infant girl, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore).  However, their daughter is soon kidnapped by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) who wants to keep the healing and youth restoring powers of Rapunzel to herself.

Wondering when her life is going to begin, Rapunzel comes of age in the tower she is kept in, her hair a quite manageable 70 feet long (though her neck seems awfully skinny to support that kind of hair weight).  When the handsome and charming thief Flynn crosses her path, she decides she wants to defy her “mother” and see the world on her own.  So off adventuring they go.

“Everything I did was to protect you.” –Gothel

In a lot of ways, the story of Rapunzel is one of an overprotective mother, a daughter ready to go on a dangerous road trip, and a little bit of teenage rebellion as she tests her boundaries.  Though not her true mother, Gothel for eighteen years was the only mother Rapunzel knew.  Like many parents, she struggled (even if it were a lie to exert her control over Rapunzel) with what many parents struggle with, wanting to protect their children from the world—a dark, selfish, cruel place—and keeping them in the palm of her hand or in a bubble. Yet dealing with teenagers ready to assert their independence is akin to handling a wet bar of soap: you want to keep them in your hand, but the best way to do so is in a loose grip because the harder you hold onto them the more likely they will just squeeze out. It’s the tension that parents have to walk with their children. Letting our children escape our firm, controlled grips and allow them to go their own way. By holding on to them too tight, we don’t allow them to grow.  Children have to go out into the world sometime, despite our temptation to keep them in towers.  This probably speaks to our sense and need for control as much as anything else.  You can’t teach your children from a place of fear because it only teaches them to be in a safe box, unprepared for the world.

“She was running out of time and that’s when people look for a miracle.” –Flynn

As a side note, the magic of the golden flower/her hair, and their healing/restorative powers, is like the Gospel.  I couldn’t help but think of this quote by John Eldredge in Waking The Dead:  ‎”The Scripture is abundant and clear: Christ came not only to pardon us, but to heal us. He wants the glory restored. So, put the book down for just a moment, and let this sink in: Jesus can, and wants, to heal your heart. What does that rouse in you?”

“I’ve been on this incredible journey.” –Rapunzel

Tangled is what it is and doesn’t try to be anything more so it has this sense of nostalgia grab.  The music is not very memorable, with there being no signature song or moment to latch on, your feet don’t exactly leave tapping.  While the movie moves at a brisk clip propelled by action, lush animation, and plenty of banter, both the Flynn and Rapunzel are ultimately empty shirts.  There’s not much to latch onto beyond their Ken and Barbie prettiness because they aren’t explored as characters.  She simply dreams of seeing the pretty light show up close (the one time the 3-D really is utilized) and he simply wants enough money to buy an island.  The animal sidekicks, Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the noble steed, create much more memorable figures despite having no lines.

The bottom line is that we’ve come to expect greatness from Disney princess movies.  While Tangled was was cute and enjoyable (and kids will love it), it was ultimately forgettable.  A victim of Disney’s high standard.

Conviction – A Review

No Greater Love

Based on a true story, Conviction tells the inspirational story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank).  She bartends and raises her two sons while putting herself through law school in order to exonerate her brother.  Loveable ne’er-do-well, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), has been wrongfully convicted of murder and has exhausted his chances to appeal his conviction through public defenders.  The two bonded throughout their rough childhood, two siblings of nine children by seven different fathers.

With Kenny having been imprisoned since 1983, Betty Anne has to first get her GED, go to college, graduate, get her law degree, pass the bar, and then mount an investigation and campaign to free her brother.  This singular focus comes at the expense of her marriage, but she is aided by her best, if not only, friend, Abra (Minnie Driver) and the Innocence Project, with their star attorney, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher).

The film is held together by Swank and Rockwell.  Swank especially, as she is given a meaty role to work with, including adopting a New England accent without it becoming cartoony or distracting.  Her “white trash roots” doesn’t turn into caricature the way Juliette Lewis’ character, as one of Kenny’s ex-girlfriends, nearly veers.  Rockwell harnesses his manic character, imbuing Kenny with an affable sense of humor while also hinting at his ever present dangerously short fuse of a temper.

“I hate the damn legal system.  It’s so fucking inconvenient.” –Abra

We’re hard-wired with certain longings, certain base ideas. Like the idea of justice. We have a passion for justice. We have a sense pretty early on of what’s fair and what’s not, like a dream written onto our hearts. We know there’s something like justice, but we can’t seem to get there.  We have a love/hate relationship with the law. We are fascinated by its machinations. The practice of law rarely makes sense, yet we are slaves to it.  Which is why we’re left in admiration for the Betty Anne Waters of the world and their strength of conviction to fight for justice.  Be it in the face of witnesses who perjured themselves or the police (Melissa Leo of Homicide: Life on the Streets) determined to close a case on the back of the innocent, the urge to fight for justice comes from a wellspring of love for one another.

“Knowing you were out here working hard for me, knowing that you loved me that much.” –Kenny

Betty Anne’s dedication is amazing to the point of heroic.  So when the question is asked “You’d sacrifice your whole life for me?” from one of her sons to the other, their mother is the living embodiment of the answer, found in this verse:   “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As we look around at the people around us, we’re disturbed by how people actually behave versus how they ought to behave. Even at our best, we struggle with the already/not yet tension: that we are already redeemed, though not yet fully redeemed. Already holy, not yet fully holy. Something in us tells us that there is a standard of behavior that we ought to adhere or at least aspire to.  Kenny is not a nice guy and is by no means perfect.  He has a temper and is prone to fits of violence.  Certainly he had a rough childhood, one littered with neglect and having no one to stand up for him.  For many people, what we learn or come to believe about God comes first in the form of our parents.  So Kenny, spoken or unspoken, had the question “who advocates for us?”  It’s as if there is some kind of code written into each of us, the fact that we don’t live in a state of lawlessness still points to a Lawgiver. Jesus is our Advocate (1 John 2:1), pleading our case before the Father like a defense attorney.

The story of God putting things right, isn’t that he just woke up one day, decided to pay attention, and suddenly decide to do something to fix the mess by condemning Jesus to a cruel fate to satisfy some blood thirst. Nor would his passion to put the world right, fulfilling this idea of justice involve swooping in, waving a magic wand, and cleaning things up. That would be him forcing himself on us. Instead, His plan has always been to work through people. From Abraham and Israel to Christ and the Church, he stirs our spirits and acts from within creation.

Conviction plows familiar territory but is nonetheless flawed.  Betty Anne’s single minded pursuit to the exclusion of everything else makes for a straight forward, non-nuanced story.  It is her journey and not everyone is built to walk it.  The movie needed to give more room to Betty Anne’s return to school and the drama of her struggle there.  Or even to show the disintegration of her marriage so that her sacrifice feels genuine.  Because of the narrative murkiness, we’re left with the sense that she sacrifices everything for her brother, including time with her children in whom she’s trying to instill the lessons of sacrifice and fidelity.  So the audience has to wonder if it worth it (especially in light of the fact that Kenny Waters died Sept. 19, 2001, only six months after being released from prison, a factoid left out of the where-are-they-now ending title sequence).

Aimed at  the coveted heartland audience, Conviction goes through the expected little person triumphs over the looming system.  By sheer gravitas of its story, plus Swank’s and Rockwell’s performances, the audience is carried along for the ride.

15 Movies That Stick With You [Meme]

Similar to the 15 Influential Albums, now we’re to list “fifteen films you’ve seen that will always stick with you.  List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.”  Mostly in no specific order:

1.  Do the Right Thing/Malcolm X

2.  Pulp Fiction/Kill Bill (Snatch and True Romance stick with me in similar ways, but not quite with the same impact these two did)

3.  Blazing Saddles (which may top my list of “movies they could never do today”)

4.  L.A. Confidential

5.  Big Fish

6.  Amelie

7. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly/A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More/Unforgiven

8.  The Blues Brothers

9.  Glengarry GlenRoss

10.  Fight Club

11.  Fargo

12.  Crash

13.  Heathers

14. Momentum/Inception

15.  Menace II Society

*Bonus Movie:  The Five Deadly Venoms!