erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Saturday April 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Other Woman (2014)


“The Other Woman” wants to be the cheating husband version of “9 to 5,” the 1980 comedy in which Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton take revenge on their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman).

It’s not. It’s mostly unfunny, often awkward, at times painfully bad. But don’t just trust me. Trust the several members of the movie’s key demographic (30-40something women) who left two-thirds of the way through the Friday evening show at Pacific Place theater in downtown Seattle. Was it during yet another make-up/break-up between the principle characters, Carly (Cameron Diaz) and Kate (Leslie Mann)? Was it the umpteenth time Kate was thinking of taking her awful husband back? Maybe it was when the movie, with the obviousness of movies, pushed Carly, tough, high-priced, mergers & acquisition attorney Carly, into the arms of Kate’s laid-back, bearded brother, Phil (Taylor Kinney), a so-sweet-he-doesn’t-register carpenter who is in the midst of building an extension to his home. On the beach. In the Hamptons. On a carpenter’s salary.


Man, I envied those women leaving. That’s the burden of the movie critic. You all are free to go but we’re doomed to stay until the credits roll.

Revenge served stupid
The movie begins with Carly and Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: Jaime Lannister of “Game of Thrones”) humping in a hotel room, then enjoying that idyllic glow of the early part of a good movie relationship in New York: snogging in front of MOMA, sailboats in Central Park, and high-rise, open air dinners, with Etta James’ “Sunday Kind of Love” on the soundtrack. The Other Woman with Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate UptonThen the alarm rings and the woman in bed with him isn’t Carly but Kate, his wife, sweet, ditzy Kate, who has no idea he’s sleeping around on her. Neither does Carly for that matter.

But the alarm clock is a good bit. It’s one of the last.

Eventually, Kate finds out about and confronts Carly, then cries on her shoulder, then gets drunk as Carly watches. Seems Kate has no one. All their friends are his friends, too. And she worries about being single again. The last time she was single, she says, she was 24, when you could date anybody. Now the possibilities have shrunk to “a shallow puddle of age-appropriate men.”

I liked that line. It was my first laugh-out loud line. It was one of the last.

The movie is about female friendship but I never bought any of it. There’s no chemistry between Diaz and Mann, and Kate is way too clingy and pathetic while Carly is way too icy and unencumbered. Yet the latter keeps coming to the aid of the former. Why? And when Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton turns up (in the Hamptons) as a ditzier, boobier, second mistress named Amber, and all three plot against Mark, well, I didn’t buy that, either. Upton is supposed to be the Dolly Parton character here, but Dolly had a spark. Upton tries, but there’s no there there. There’s only there there.

The revenge they want to serve is cold. Carly puts laxative in Mark’s scotch and he shits his pants at a high-end restaurant. Kate puts estrogen in his veggie shake and hair remover in his shampoo. Halfway through, his hair begins to fall out and he gets super-long, super-sensitive nipples. I assumed by the end he’d be bald and bloated. Nope. Neither. It’s all forgotten. Because? Who knows? Maybe because we needed another scene of Kate having second thoughts about breaking up with him.

Besides being a serial adulterer, Mark has a bit of Bernie Madoff in him. He takes money from investors and deposits it in the Bahamas in a dummy corporation under his wife’s name (so he’s not liable). But she finds out, and, with Carly’s help, and with Amber along for the bikini shots, she removes all the money and gives it back. Then the three gal pals confront Mark in a conference room at Carly’s high-rise law firm. When he discovers he’s broke, he turns furious in a way he never has in the movie. Then he does the following: 1) crashes into a glass wall, breaking his nose; 2) crashes through a glass wall, breaking who knows what; 3) watches his car getting towed; and finally, 4) he’s punched in the face by Carly’s dad (Don Johnson), who has a thing for younger women.

Revenge! Yay!

9 to 5 + 34 = ?
I actually wonder about Mark a little bit. At least, I wonder about him more than the movie does. Why, for example, did he stay with Kate all of those years? Was there something there he needed? Did he love her? Did he love something about her? Was it comfort or dummy corporations? But “The Other Woman,” written by Melissa Stack (her first), and directed by Nick Cassavetes (his unremarkable ninth), is only interested in Mark being awful, and getting his bloody comeuppance.

How odd, too, that Carly’s dad gets the final shot since he’s a womanizer himself. At least he dates women his daughter’s age. But that’s cool because it’s not cheating. He also frequents a “no hands” bar, where customers get backrubs from Asian beauties, and are fed their drinks, and, one assumes, their food, by same. One assumes a lot. But that’s cool cuz not cheating.


Nearly 34 years have passed since “9 to 5” debuted, and, for all its faults, at least it was about something: sisters doing it for themselves, etc.

Here? What’s the point? That this one man is awful? That people like to sleep around and handsome people are better at it? Or is it just about personality? Kate has to stand up for herself more and Carly has to open herself up more, so that happens. In a quick afterword, we’re told that Kate starts her own multimillion-dollar business as an idea-person for start-ups. Because she had that one. Meanwhile, Carly winds up married to and pregnant by Phil.

And Amber? Who may or may not have ever had a job? She winds up on a beautiful, deserted beach with, of course, Carly’s dad, Don Johnson. He’s 64 and she’s 22. But that cool cuz not cheating.


Come back to the 9 to 5, Dabney Coleman, Dabney Coleman. All is forgiven. 

Posted at 07:43 AM on Apr 26, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday April 22, 2014

Movie Review: Under the Skin (2014)


Walking to the Harvard Exit theater last Sunday my main thought was this: “Will ‘Under the Skin’ be my kind of arthouse film?” Based on the trailer I saw last month, I thought not. But I knew it would be a topic of conversation this spring. I knew it would turn up on top 10 lists at the end of the year. Critics would heap praise. And they have: 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.

What is my kind of arthouse film? Something with story. Something that’s not mostly mood or atmosphere. Something that resonates. In recent years, my kind of arthouse film includes “No,” “A Hijacking,” “Footnote,” and “Rust and Bone.” I go for “Drive,” not “Only God Forgives.” I loved “The Tree of Life” and was disappointed by “To the Wonder.”

“Under the Skin”? Not my kind of arthouse film.

It has moments of genuine human and extraterrestrial horror but it’s mostly mood and discordant soundtrack music and different shades of incomprehensibility.

The white dot
For a brief period in college, or maybe after college, I often saw human beings as if through alien eyes. What odd creatures, I’d think. These sticks to walk on, these sticks to grab with, that circular protuberance on top. It lasted, off and on, a few years. Under the SkinI think I thought I was being profound.

That’s the feeling throughout most of “Under the Skin”—viewing human beings through alien eyes—for the simple reason that we are viewing the world through alien eyes. Also because we’re in Scotland.

The movie begins in darkness. We get a few credits, then director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) lets the screen go dark. He holds it, and holds it, and holds it. Gradually we hear noise—traffic? static?—before we get a white dot in the center of the screen. The Earth? The sun? The iris of an eye? A 1960s-era TV turned off? All of the above? Then we get the title.

There’s a man on a motorcycle. He picks up the body of a woman in a ravine and deposits her in a white van. Then we’re in an all-white, bright room, like in a 1970s sci-fi movie, and one woman, naked, is removing the clothes of the woman from the ravine. Then she puts her clothes on. The first naked woman is Scarlett Johansson, the woman from the ravine is ... a dead prostitute? The previous alien on earth? I assumed the latter since I knew ScarJo was an alien in this thing. But I could be wrong. Or right. Or who knows.

In the novel by Michael Faber on which the movie is based, the alien woman is named Isserley but Glazer doesn’t bother to name her. So what should we call her? ScarJo? Alien? Species? Because that’s what this is: an arthouse version of “Species” (from what I understand of “Species”): a hot alien lures men to their doom. In the novel, it’s for their meat. They’re a delicacy. Here? Who knows?

It’s a fantastic scene, though. She takes them to a home on the outskirts of town, and then they’re in an all-black room, as opposed to the earlier all-white rom, and she’s walking ahead, slowly removing her clothes. They follow, doing the same. Then they begin to sink in the water. Are they at a lake? No. And there’s something wrong with the water: it’s viscous. And she’s not sinking. The first man we see—a man without family, a man who won’t be missed: that’s ScarJo’s m.o.—simply disappears beneath the smooth black surface and we don’t know what happens to him. We stay with the second man, and watch as he watches ScarJo walk back above him while he remains underwater. Is it underwater? Is it water? He looks around. He’s not panicking. Not yet. It’s like in a dream that hasn’t become a nightmare. Yet. He sees another man, the first man, naked but bloated, and slowly, with the painful, takes-forever-to-get-there movements of a dream, reaches out to the bloated man, even as the bloated man seems to pull back. Is he pulling back? His skin ripples. Then it’s like a popped balloon. There’s a fury of movement, and when it stops he’s just skin floating in the ether.

It’s a great, creepy scene, and it’s followed, from what I remember, by blood being channeled somewhere? Harvested? Sluiced? Like in a slaughterhouse? But we don’t know where or what it means.

There’s another great scene of genuine horror, but oddly it’s disconnected from ScarJo, or connected only in her imperviousness to its horror.

She’s walking along the beach, the cold, rocky coastline of Scotland, where a young man in a wetsuit emerges from the water. She talks to him, flirts with him in that dazed, extraterrestrial way she has. Nearby a couple with an infant is having a ... picnic? Their dog is in the water. Then panic, crisis. Now the woman is in the water—trying to rescue the dog?—and her husband follows her in, and the man in the wetsuit follows him to drag him out. To save him. Except he goes back, while the heroics have exhausted the man in the wetsuit. He lays prone on the beach. So ScarJo walked up to him, looks around, grabs a heavy rock, and bashes his head. Then she drags him away. Later she returns to retrieve a piece of clothing. By this time it’s evening, it’s growing cold and dark, and the infant, 18 months old, is alone and crying, even as high tide approaches. As the baby keeps crying, ScarJo walks up, picks up the clothing, and walks away. The baby remains. Soon it will be dead. It’s the helpless, abandoned.

Do these cries eventually get to ScarJo? Is it that, slowly, ScarJo is beginning to see human beings, her prey, as more than just meat? She encounters all kinds: the self-sacrificing swimmer; a pack of hooligans who threaten her in her van. There’s men who help, men who hurt. And men who are hurt.

The last man we see her pick up is disfigured. The actor who plays him, Adam Pearson, suffers from neurofibromatosis, which causes non-cancerous tumors to grow on the body. His tumors grow on his face, and his character is on his way to the grocery store—a lonely, disconnected man—when she pulls up beside him and talks to him. You can see, in his reaction, a disbelief. He’s waiting for the moment she’ll be horrified by his appearance but she never is. She probably can’t tell the difference. It’s probably all the same to her. So we get the scene again: in the house, disrobing, leading him on, as he sinks beneath the surface. Then she puts her clothes back on and gets ready to leave the house. Then he’s there again. And they both leave the house.

Did the system reject him for his disfigurement? Did she let him go? Because she’s beginning to feel for these creature? Us creatures? We watch as he’s being pursued by the man on the motorcycle, whom as I think of as the alien version of The Wolf, Harvey Keitel’s character in “Pulp Fiction.” He’s the cleanup crew. And he stuns the disfigured man, deposits him in a car trunk, drives off. Then he goes looking for ScarJo.

What is she doing? She’s trying a piece of cake. She looks at it, cuts off a piece of it with her fork, lifts the piece to her mouth and deposits it in there. Then she gags it out.

For most of the movie we know what she’s doing; for the rest, we don’t. She’s lost, I suppose. Like E.T. Has she failed in her mission? Has she gone over to the other side? Our side? She started out predator and now she’s prey. Maybe that’s all there is. She’s walking in the cold drizzle without a coat and a man urges her over to his bus stop. He takes her home. To take advantage? No, he makes her tea. Later, he attempts sex. Later still, she’s in the woods being pursued by a logger who wants to rape her. But in tearing her clothes, he tears her skin and sees what she is. So do we. She’s all shiny black beneath the ScarJo outfit. Then the logger returns, pours gasoline on her, and lights the match. She runs out of the woods on fire and falls to her knees. We watch the smoke rise. We watch the snow fall. We watch the credits roll.

Incomplete communication
Norman Mailer once said that art depends upon incomplete communication so the audience can respond “with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.” But there’s incomplete and there’s incomplete, and I suppose my incomplete isn’t necessarily yours. Some may have thought “The Tree of Life” incomplete. They might have wondered why go from Texas in the 1950s to the birth of time and the creation of life on earth and then the extinction of the dinosaurs, but that made sense to me. The main characters in the movie are questioning why God lets horrible things happen—this boy burned, this son killed—so writer-director Terrence Malick gives perspective. God let entire species go extinct and you’re asking Him about a fire? There was enough there for me to complete the communication.

Here, there’s not. “Under the Skin” is a moody piece about an alien cultivating humans in a borough of Scotland (for some purpose), who stops doing that (for some reason), and whose story plays out in this inconsequential way.

Other perpsectives are welcome.

Posted at 07:18 AM on Apr 22, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday April 17, 2014

Movie Review: Finding Vivian Maier (2014)


“Finding Vivian Maier” is the “Searching for Sugar Man” of photography. It’s about the artist who is discovered after the career or the life. It’s about resurrection and redemption: finally coming into the light after years in the neglected dark.

Both movies are also mysteries.

The mystery of “Sugarman” is this: How did the singer/songwriter Rodriguez die in the early 1970s and why was he huge in South Africa and unknown in his native U.S.? The answers to these questions are intriguing. The mystery of “Vivian Maier” is this: Who was Vivian Maier, and why was she content to take tens of thousands of beautiful photographs and never show them to anyone?

The answers to these questions are less than satisfying.

Not a nice person
You know whose name I was surprised I didn’t hear during “Finding Vivian Maier”? Franz Kafka’s.

Kafka, private and reclusive, published only a few things in his lifetime but had written much, much more. On his deathbed, he instructed his friend Max Brod to burn the rest. Brod didn’t. Finding Vivian MaierHe published. The rest is literary history.

Vivian Maier, private and reclusive, was born in 1926 and began work as a nanny in the 1950s because it allowed her the freedom to pursue her art: photography. She took pictures all the time but showed them to no one. Sometimes she didn’t even bother to get the film developed. After she died in poverty in 2009, some of her things were bought at an auction by real estate agent John Maloof, who saw value in it. He developed some of her photos and posted them to flickr. They took off. The rest is photography history.

Here’s another connection: Kafka once wrote, “A writer is not a nice person.”

That was one of the questions we batted about after the movie: Can you be a nice person and a great artist? Or even a crappy artist? Doesn’t art demand both empathy (to understand someone else’s life) and its lack (to use it for your art)? For the street photographer, how close to these strangers can I get? How much of them can I steal without their knowledge or permission? There’s a scene in the early 1960s in Highland Park, Ill., where one of the neighborhood kids is hit by a car. Everyone rushes around trying to help. Vivian? She’s taking pictures with her Rolleiflex.

The Rolleiflex helps in this regard. She can set the shot and take the picture without appearing to take the picture. She can look people in the eye as she steals from them.

For what it’s worth, I love her work. I love black-and-white street photography from bygone eras anyway and hers seems of a high standard. She’s got a good eye and a quick finger. She captures moments and lives. We see a lot of the photographs. But the doc, directed by both Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“Tosh.0,” producer on “Bowling for Columbine”), is mostly about Maloof’s search for her.

Initially, he knows nothing. He just has trunks of negatives and prints and undeveloped film and 16mm movies. He buys more of her things and lays them out before the camera like in a Wes Anderson movie: campaign buttons, for example. She was a pack rat. Later we learn she was a hoarder. And worse.

He discovers she was a nanny and find her former charges, and their friends, and the parents of their friends, who may have been her friend.

They describe her similarly: tall, domineering, to-the-point, political. She wore odd, heavy clothes and hats—like she was living in the 1920s rather than the 1960s—and walked with long strides and stiff arms. She had an odd French accent. There’s some debate about whether it was real or not. One man says yes; a linguist says no. Even we debated it afterwards. I assumed it was fake since she was born in New York, but my friends said no, it was real, since she lived half of her childhood in France with her French mother. We visit France, her mother’s village, Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur in the French Alps, and meet people there, and some part of the mystery is solved. A letter she wrote to a French developer about how she wanted him to print her work. She had high standards and wanted those standards met. This is a great, necessary revelation for Maloof, since he’s a nice person and is plagued by the doubt that Vivian wouldn’t have wanted her work exhibited the way he was doing. But here was proof. He could continue.

That’s hardly a revelation for us, though. We’re watching the doc, so we know Maloof continued with it, so getting a kind of posthumous permission isn’t news. Besides: permission? Did Vivian get the permission to take half the photos she took?

No, greater revelations comes in the final third, while interviewing her charges from 1968 to 1974. Apparently she became worse, and cruel. She force-fed one girl and hit her. She swung her around, then let her go. She brought her to the stockyards to watch animals being slaughtered. Somehow she kept her job for six years.

We lose the thread of her story in the ’70s and don’t pick it up again until the late ’90s. By then she’s homeless, and alone, and lonely. Some former charges—whom she didn’t abuse, apparently—pony up for a small apartment, where she lives until she dies in 2009. A few years later she’s an internationally acclaimed street photographer with exhibitions all over the world. Luck? Happenstance? Was she the one preventing her own success? Once she was out of the way, it came rather quickly.

Some day my Maloof will come
Question: do we get the wrong gerund in the title? Given the power, I would switch it with “Sugar Man”’s, since they actually find him. They interview him. We get a sense of who he is and who he was and why he did what he did. But Vivian? Do we find her? Not really. Too much of her remains unknown and unknowable. We’re left with questions. Why would she print nothing? Why would she show no one? Buddy Glass has a line in “Seymour: An Introduction,” “I always want to publish,” and that’s me, so I don’t get the opposite urge. But I admire it. Sort of.

I admire it for this reason. Besides being redemption songs, “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Finding Vivian Maier” are both wish-fulfillment fantasies for every would-be artist out there toiling in obscurity. It’s the “some day” wish. Some day they’ll know. Some day they’ll see. Some day my Maloof will come and the world will open its arms wide and take me in. And it’s an awful, awful wish. 

Posted at 06:12 AM on Apr 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday April 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Unknown Known (2014)


One of the first things we hear him say in the doc is a riff on one of his more famous (or infamous) press conferences:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

What did former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld think he knew but did not? WMD come to mind. Al Qaeda. Tora Bora. Quagmires. Henny Penny. He thought he knew the sky wasn’t falling in postwar Iraq when that’s exactly what it was doing.

But the ultimate unknown known of the doc is Rumsfeld himself, who talks and talks about the thousands of memos he wrote during his public career but gets us nowhere. The Unknown KnownIn the title alone, one senses the frustration of filmmaker Errol Morris, who, in his Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War,” had a more open subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of our disastrous war in Vietnam. Indeed, Rumsfeld, with his nitpicky, overly semantic arguments and pleased-with-himself “aren’t I clever?” grins, makes McNamara, the numbers cruncher and company man, seem like the most soulful person who ever lived.

We and they
I’ve spent most of the 21st century despising Donald Rumsfeld and his policies so I didn’t even consider this question before I began watching; but I consider it now: Do I like Donald Rumsfeld by the end of the doc?

I’m frustrated with him, certainly. I get tired of the petty deflections and semantic arguments. We’re there to learn something and Rumsfeld seems forever blocking our attempt to learn something. In a way, Rumsfeld is to Morris as Osama bin Laden was to Rumsfeld and the Bush administration: forever escaping.

There’s this exchange, for example:

Morris: If the purpose of the war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, why can’t we just assassinate him? Why do you have to invade his country?
Rumsfeld: Who’s ‘they’?
Morris: Us.
Rumsfeld: You said ‘they,’ you didn’t say ‘we.’

Well, he actually said “you.” But onward.

Morris: I’ll rephrase it. Why do we have to do that?
Rumsfeld: We don’t assassinate leaders of other countries.

At this point, I expected Morris to bring up, oh, I don’t know, the coups that the CIA, or “we,” have backed: Iran in ’53, Vietnam in ’63, Chile in ’73. But he doesn’t. He brings up Dora Farms.

Morris: Well, at Dora Farms we’re doing our best.
Rumsfeld: That was an act of war.

In case you’re unfamiliar (as I was), Dora Farms was where the U.S., on March 19, 2003, at the very beginning of the Iraq war, attempted to kill Saddam Hussein with a missile strike. It didn’t work. It might have been faulty intelligence. He might not have been there in the first place.

But it takes a second for the circular logic to filter down.

Wait: So Rumsfeld is arguing we had to go to war because we don’t assassinate foreign leaders—even though we do, or have. But once we’re in that war, all bets are off. Then we can assassinate him.  

No wonder he’s big on semantics.

In and out
We still learn things. He didn’t get along with George H.W. Bush and less with Condoleezza Rice. Morris details much of Rumsfeld’s early career: running for Congress in ’62, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for Nixon, director of the Cost-of-Living Council for Nixon. Then run-ins with H.R. Haldeman that led to being banished to Brussels. This probably saved him, since, when Watergate blew up, he wasn’t near the explosion. He was one of the last Republicans standing. He became Pres. Ford’s Chief of Staff, then his Defense Secretary, where he argued against détente and for a stronger military. In 1980, probably because of this stance, he was among the top potential picks for Reagan’s vice president. “If that [VP] decision had gone another way, you could’ve been the vice president and future president of the United States,” Morris tells him. There’s a long pause. It’s not a thoughtful pause. It just leads to this: “That’s possible.”

Oh, Don.

In the 1980s, Rumsfeld became the CEO of a Midwest pharmaceutical company but was called back into public service after the bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut. Reagan sent him to the Mid-East as his special envoy, which led to the famous (or infamous) footage of Rumsfeld meeting and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—an image the left made much of during the Iraq War. Not me. You need to meet the world to understand the world. And Rumsfeld did. He said this about the megalomania of dictators in general and Saddam specifically:

You know, if you see your picture everywhere, and you see enough statues, pretty soon you might even begin to believe that [you’re a great leader].

In November 1983, he also dictated this memo to himself. You wonder how the man who said it could have done what he (or we) did 20 years later:

I expect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We’re too big a target. Let the Fijians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.

He almost sounds like Pres. Obama here. Cue Danny Elfman’s ghostly (and obtrusive) soundtrack music.

Don and me
That’s part of what’s so frustrating with Rumsfeld. How can someone so serious and studious, who’s a student of history, who dictated thousands of memos to himself and others to clarify his worldview, who was in Congress when the Vietnam War began and in the White House when it ended so badly, who foresaw in the 1980s that it’s easier to get into the Middle East than it is to get out of it, how can such a person preside over our disastrous war in Iraq? And not even see it as a disaster?

Rumsfeld is a tragic figure who doesn’t realize he’s a tragic figure. That’s his tragedy. He’s too busy playing small ball with semantics to see the larger picture.

Maybe that’s why, surprisingly, shockingly, I wind up liking him a little bit by the end. I guess I feel sorry for him. I see his faults. Keeping Morris’ questions at bay doesn’t hide his nature but reveals it. He wins the arguments but loses the war. 

Posted at 06:47 AM on Apr 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday April 09, 2014

Movie Review: God's Not Dead (2014)


I don’t know about God but godawful is very much alive.

Haven’t heard of this movie? It’s already grossed $33 million against a budget of $2 million. Conservative Christians are out in force. Too bad. There are better movies for them to see. Pretty much anything, to be honest, but if they’re looking for something Christian-y, then “Noah” isn’t bad. If they want to be stunned by spirituality and artistry and beauty, then, you know, the usual recent suspects: “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone,” “L’heure d’été.” But these are movies that raise questions rather than give self-satisfied answers. They embrace the mystery rather than have a college freshman solve the origins of the universe.

Philosophy 101
God's Not DeadOn the first day of college, freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a tall, bland, nothing of a kid, greets his hot blonde Christian girlfriend as asexually as possible, then heads to Philosophy 101, where Prof. Radisson (conservative Christian, and former Hercules, Kevin Sorbo), he of the Mephistophelean goatee, shows the kids a list of famous philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill, and asks what they all have in common. Answer? They’re all atheists! So is Radisson! He’s such an atheist he demands that each student write on a piece of paper “God is dead,” and sign it, or they’ll get a failing grade. After some vague screwing up of his face, Josh politely refuses. He feels like it’s wrong. So he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles. If he can convince a majority of the class, in three presentations over the next three weeks, that God is not dead, he’ll be allowed to continue the class. If he doesn’t, he’ll fail, and his dream of law school will go up in fire and brimstone.

This is the main, awful plot of “God’s Not Dead.” But don’t worry: there are other, awful subplots, too.

For example: A conservative Muslim father makes his super-pretty daughter, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), wear a hijab to school, which, when he’s out of view, she takes off and exhales like she’s just been given a new life. Which she has. A year ago, she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She lays in bed and listens to Corinthians on her smartphone. How to tell this to Dad? She doesn’t. Kid brother blabs. At which point, amid great histrionics and crying jags, Dad physically beats his daughter and throws her out of the house. Because you know Arabs. I mean the Muslim ones. Not the super-pretty ones who have already accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savoir.

There’s also a nerdy Chinese guy named Martin (Paul Kwo). He’s in the same class as Josh, or “Mr. Josh,” as he charmingly calls him in the manner of the backward Oriental. He, too, likes Jesus, despite, you know, growing up in communist China—represented here by his businessman father riding in the back of a limo. But eventually Martin tells his father about Jesus. He does so in Cantonese even though his father speaks Mandarin. I guess the Lord speaks in many tongues.

Let’s get the rest of this out of the way quickly, shall we? So Prof. Radisson’s put-upon girlfriend, Mina (Cory Oliver), his former student no less, is Christian, too, but her Mom’s in a home with dementia and her older brother, Mark (Christian conservative, and former Superman, Dean Cain), is too busy being an asshole of a lawyer to care. Plus he’s dating this ... entertainment blogger? I was never sure. Her name is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), and she’s, you know, rude and late in the manner of non-believers, and has bumper stickers on her car reading things like “Meat is Murder” and “American Humanist.” (Right? Because I see that “American Humanist” bumpersticker everywhere.) Plus she engages in ambush journalism like Bill O’Reilly but from the left. She tries it, for example, on Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, who is just trying to worship at the local mall Worship Center. But Willie’s cool with her rudeness. He can take it. He’s also cool with Jesus Christ, the Lord, which she totally doesn’t get. Until, that is, she’s diagnosed with inoperable cancer. At which point her asshole boyfriend dumps her, she can’t write for crying, and, when she tries ambush journalism on the Christian rock group Newsboys, they pray for her and convert her backstage. Then they put on a show before Mina, Ayisha, Josh and Martin, and dedicate their song, “God’s Not Dead,” to Josh, “the defender of God,” while they encourage everyone to text “God’s not dead” to all of their friends, even as, across town, Prof. Radisson lays dying in the street after being hit by a car.


Josh vs. Aristotle, Darwin, Hawking
So ... a philosophy professor who makes his students write and sign “God is dead” pledges? Is this based on anything anywhere? Wikipedia calls it a popular urban legend, but I might dispute both “popular” and “urban.” To me, it feels like projection. Philosophy is generally about the search for truth, not shutting down that search. The shutdown comes from absolutists.

The final credits suggest the movie is based upon many legal cases supported by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly: Alliance Defense Fund), most of which, apparently, it lost.

Josh, of course, doesn’t lose. He defeats his Mephistophelean professor. How? By taking on Aristotle, Darwin and Stephen Hawking single-handedly—like Daniel in the lion’s den. By offering the students, as God offered humanity, free will.

He also uses science to his advantage. Josh says the Big Bang is like “Let there be light” more than scientists will admit, while the creation of life on Earth is more like Genesis 1:21 than Darwin’s evolutionary theories. After that, it’s mostly gotcha moments. Sure, Hawking said what he said about religion, but he also said, “Philosophy is dead,” which totally burns the philosophy professor. The biggest gotcha, though, is personal. Why does Prof. Radisson feel how he feels about God? Because when he was 12, his mom, a believer, died of cancer, so he cursed God, and has kept on cursing God, and wants the world to curse God. Josh, in fact, gets his professor to admit, in front of everyone, that he hates God. Which leads to Josh’s final trump card:

How can you hate someone ... if they don’t exist?

That’s the final straw for the straw man. He folds. And that’s when the class, in a “Spartacus” moment, all stand and say the film’s triumphant title: “God’s not dead.” Then they all go to the Newsboys’ concert and party while, nearby, Prof. Radisson dies after being hit by a car. No, it’s not vindictive. At the last moment, Radisson is converted by Rev. Dave (Christian movie staple, and bad hair-dye model, David A.R. White). Radisson accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Because there may be atheists in college classrooms, but there are none on deathbeds.

Nice and comfy
What a sad thing this is. I’m agnostic but this will convert no one. It’s a tepid bath for true believers.

I did like one scene. Near the end, the asshole lawyer, Mark, finally visits his addled mother in the old folk’s home, and wonders aloud why he, who is the worst person he knows, has a great life, while she, the most devout, has been turned into a living vegetable. At which point she suddenly starts talking:

Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn't want them turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn't seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.

She says all of this staring straight ahead. When she’s done, she blinks a few times, then her dementia returns. “Who are you?” she asks her son.

But think about how her words relate to “God’s Not Dead." The movie is popular with Christian conservatives because it’s their wish-fulfillment fantasy. Within it, secularists are awful and tyrannical but are punished, while believers are victimized and humble but prosper. No wonder they're going in droves. It’s a nice, comfy vision from which there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave.

Posted at 06:40 AM on Apr 09, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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