J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for June, 2008

Hellboy

Posted by J on June 28, 2008

Surfing the TV, we stumbled across an episode of BibleMan.  If you don’t know who BibleMan is, he’s a evangelical superhero ripoff of other way cooler and more popular superheros.  He’s supposed to be a “holier” substitute for parents who think that Batman is the devil.  For example, Bibleman wears the breastplate of righteousness instead of Batman’s chestplate, and a helmet of salvation instead of a bat mask.  (What’s the difference again?)

Anyway, this episode featured Luxor Spawndroth, Bibleman’s arch enemy.  Spawndroth looks like a guy wearing one of those cheesy plastic masks you see in teenage goth stores at Halloween.  So he proceeds to parade around onscreen, performing some kind of unfunny comedy schtick, singing Frank Sinatra songs and acting like a teenager at a youth group party.  Later in the episode, BibleMan — played by a guy who couldn’t give a decent performance in a high school drama club skit — quotes Scripture at Spawndroth and thus defeats him.  Now, despite the disgusting mask, who has been portrayed as being cool?  Undoubtedly, Spawndroth.

We mention this because we think some of our evangelical readers might object, “Why did we watch something evil with the word ‘hell’ in it?”  In terms of presentation and visual spectacle, we don’t see any difference between BibleMan and Hellboy.  Hellboy, in fact, is a superhero who fights against ultimate darkness.  He doesn’t quote Scripture — actually, he’s got an attitude problem, but the movie looks down upon him for this — but he does grind down his horns to fit in better with other people.  And he likes kittens.  So, actually, we felt like Hellboy presented the good v. evil battle in much clearer terms than the episode of BibleMan we saw.  The bad guys in Hellboy are Rasputin and a couple of freakish Nazis, and they didn’t parade around the set singing Frank Sinatra.  They were genuinely bad.  They didn’t have a problem with killing people and bringing about the end of the world, and for Hellboy, those are pretty terrible things.

Now this is not a praise in Hellboy‘s favor. Let us explain.  What was good about Hellboy, like other Guillermo Del Toro movies, is that it’s visually outstanding.  Del Toro is like Spielberg on steroids.  In fact, Spielberg hasn’t been able to figure out how to make CGI look really good, while Del Toro is a master.  (This means that Del Toro’s version of The Hobbit, unlike the recent, watered-down Narnia movies, could be very good.)

But Del Toro is too much like Spielberg in that he’s given over to hokeyness about spiritual matters while pretending to be serious.  There’s lots of humor in Hellboy, but it’s directed at the superhero and his relationships, and not at the inherent structure of the comical plot, which is taken entirely seriously.  Nazis opening dimensional portals that pull in giant slimy monsters from space?  A devil character and his fish-faced sidekick trying to defeat the Ograd Jahad from the seventh dimension?  This is the kind of stuff that needs to be satirized, not used as if it contains a teeny-tiny possibility of being true.

Like Spielberg, Del Toro is quick to exploit religion for the sake of spectacle. Religious iconography dominates a movie that pits sacred icons against occult practices.  In the real world, this would be serious business.  In a Hollywood flick, it’s an action-packed two hours of fun.   For example, one character wears a relic from the Vatican to ward off hellhounds.  To give another example, the object that defeats the Ograd Jahad (the bad guys) is a rosary.  In the final moments, ready to give himself up to the bad guys, Hellboy accidentally touches a cross, which restores his “goodness.”  Here, sacred icons win out against the occult.

To us, this stuff is not about Christian witness or the positive portrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s fundamentally all about being entertained by what’s on-screen.  The credits roll afterward, reality kicks back into gear, and for most folks, the spectacle has done its job to degrade matters that shouldn’t be taken so lightly in the real world.

We think some people take movies like Hellboy too seriously, when in fact a movie like this exploits religious symbolism because that symbolism is a kind of visual language that almost everybody understands.  It then repackages religion in a comicbook movie about a superhero devil character who must combat Nazis and mythical creatures.  The whole point is the spectacle, not the potential “religious message.”

In that sense, religion is reduced to a lame sideshow for entertainment purposes.  In contrast, the Bible describes the cosmic scope of the contest between religious worldviews as something of ultimate importance.  That’s the point of the First Commandment. You won’t see that contest given much meaningful treatment in any modern movie.

Entertainment: 6.5

Intelligence: 5 (for everything but the plot)

Morality: 4

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Reality-Fantasy, Silly but Entertaining | 1 Comment »

The Bucket List

Posted by J on June 26, 2008

We can’t describe The Bucket List any better than this

Moreover, Morgan Freeman’s character is some kind of New Age guru who represents the 92% of all viewers who believe in the afterlife.  Consequently, Freeman is a believer in “God.”  In one scene, his family prays to this God. In the rest of the movie, Freeman is content to recite Hindu and Buddhist platitudes.  So we weren’t sure whether the family was praying to Vishnu or the River God.

The movie does have one puzzle.  Is Freeman’s voiceover narration delivered from some kind of heavenly realm, or has he been reincarnated?  This is deliberately ambiguous, because no one in the audience is to be offended.   It’s also anathema to the dogmas of orthodox Christianity, but the millions of Christians who have spent time and money on this flick probably took away “spiritual truths” that have long been staples of mushy sermons, rather than ignoring it for giving the old heave-ho to the First Commandment.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 0

Posted in Modern Drama, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

Dan in Real Life

Posted by J on June 26, 2008

Dan in Real Life is an okay movie up until the ten-minute mark.  It doesn’t try to nail you with the fact that the main character, Dan, still grieves over the death of his late wife.  It’s also content to portray Dan’s rich Yankee family as warm and tightknit — a rarity in contemporary film.  The subdued melancholy combined with the joy of family persists throughout the movie.  It’s a shame, therefore, that the movie takes a terrible turn so early, embracing one of those contrived “she’s the girlfriend of my brother!” situations that is the hallmark of every stupid situation comedy ever made.

Reading the critical reactions will show you that people are evenly split on liking or disliking this movie.  So it was in our household.  One of us picked up the laptop and surfed the web midway through, while the other watched contentedly, though without being charmed.  If you want a picture of a decent family life (we’re talking brothers, sisters, their children, and grandparents — no less than 15 people gathered together at once), Dan in Real Life might satisfy your hankering for that.  It’s not going to do anything else for you, so we don’t see any reason to pay more than 2 cents to see it.  (You are already paying two hours of your life to do so.)

There’s always that one scene.  In the case of this movie, Dan decides he needs to talk to his potential girlfriend — who is dating Dan’s brother — in the bathroom.  Dan’s daughter knocks on the door.  Quickly, Dan hides in the shower, while the girlfriend tells the daughter that she’s taking a shower.  No problem, says the daughter, I can talk to you in the bathroom while you’re in the shower.  Thus begins a scene in which the girlfriend has to pretend to take a shower while Dan hides in it.  Yuckety yuck yuck.

I think there’s a reason why Dan’s nice, big family enjoyed one another’s company.  Instead of sitting around and watching movies like Dan in Real Life, they didn’t have a TV in sight.  They interacted, and it looked like a lot of fun.

Entertainment: 3 or 7, whichever

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 4

Posted in Modern Drama, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Leave a Comment »

Escape from Alcatraz

Posted by J on June 17, 2008

Escape from Alcatraz has been made twice.  The second time they called it The Shawshank Redemption, which everybody went gaga over, but nobody realized that it’s the same plot plus Morgan Freeman.  Maybe adding a guy who’s played the President and God twice is all you have to do to make people love your movie. Heck, if we were making one, we’d get Morgan to do voiceover narration.  Wouldn’t matter if it were superfluous or not. Had he narrated Dude, Where’s My Car? or Jackass 2, those might’ve had a chance at Oscars.

Escape from Alcatraz is exactly what you’d guess it is.  Some inmate wants to break out of jail, so the story is about how he smuggles contraband into his cell past the guards and then hightails it in one night of triumph (while swelling orchestra music plays and, maybe, Morgan Freeman narrates the escape).  If we have to watch a movie about this, we’ll take Clint Eastwood over that hippie numbskull Tim Robbins.  So that’s another point in favor of Escape from Alcatraz over Escape from a kind of Alcatraz (aka Shawshank Redemption).

It’s also straightforward that the warden in prison movies is going to be a jerk.  He represents the cruel institution that keeps these jailed welfare recipients in their cages.  Eastwood, feeling the repression, needs to break free of this harsh institution.  It doesn’t take much to see that the moral of these movies is the power of the individual will that overcomes the repressive aspects of social institutions.  The Shawshank Redemption is all about escaping from religion, mainly Christianity.  Tim Robbins carves out his Bible to hide his tools of escape, keeping it from the hypocritical warden who mouths a lot of Scripture.  In Escape from Alcatraz, Eastwood and his pals escape from a warden who apparently hates paintings and flowers.  In other words, he can shut down free expression and creativity whenever he wants.  The only difference between this movie and Shawshank is that one of them is completely ambiguous about who triumphs in the end (the warden or the escaped con), while the other celebrates the victory of the escaped con.

If a Christian were going to write an escape-from-jail story, he might try a new angle.  Instead of championing the idea that the prisoner is a hero because he used his own ingenuity and willpower to escape, let some outsider graciously free the convict by taking his place.  Well, that one’s already been done too, with Barabbas as the convict.  But it obviously conveys theological reality far better than the two prison movies mentioned above do.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 3 (watchable, except for a couple of taboo words and shots of prisoners’ naked backsides; in other words, it’s not PG by today’s standards even though it says it is)

Posted in Modern Drama, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Leave a Comment »

Say Anything

Posted by J on June 11, 2008

One reason we watch movies is to analyze their moral statements, to discover what they say about human values and ethical priorities, especially as they relate to a Christian ethical system. By watching in this way, we arm ourselves. Either we get recommendations for movies with worthwhile viewpoints (very few and far between) or we can provide others with reasons for avoiding popular movies with warped morals.

Say Anything is a classic example of a movie that’s founded on a certain moral principles. Or, really, many moral principles. It’s chiefly about love — that is, about how men and women get together, and how in the process they break away from their parents. Like Jane Austen stories, Say Anything aims to get a guy and a girl together. When we see this kind of plot, we immediately ask ourselves a few key questions. How does it think they should get together? When and why should they get together? These point us toward the moral.

Now, we admit that we liked the guy’s relentless pursuit of the girl in this movie. That’s about all we can say that’s good, but it’s something. He’s courageous, determined, and zealous, but not so much that he alienates everyone else in his life.

But then there’s the rest of the movie. The male and female characters are freshly out of high school. She’s the brightest student in the country, headed to England on a full-ride scholarship. He’s a Seattle slacker — the kind made famous in moronic early ’90s movies about recent college grads — who likes martial arts and has no direction. Not that he has to have direction, but if he’s going after this girl, he probably should. Anyway, he makes her laugh, she begins to like him, and the rest of the movie plays out towards the ultimate goals of modern guys and girls: pre-marital sex and then a “committed” relationship. Nevermind that that commitment can be broken off in a heartbeat by either party. As long as they are together, it’s all great. That’s where the movie ends, and we’re all supposed to feel happy. It’s not like your typical Victorian English novel, where you know it’ll all pan out when the characters get married and are happy. No, in Say Anything, the guy and girl just need to be “more than friends” after having sex.  Then the credits roll.

In order for the guy and girl to get together, the girl’s father has to get out of the way. The movie at first presents the girl and her father as a closely-bonded pair who have surprisingly great communication. But — and you probably knew there was a ‘but’ coming — there’s one big problem: the dad is cheating old people out of their inheritances. He’s covered this fact up from everybody, including his daughter, who is so offended when she finds out that she might not speak to him again. Now the father is a much more complicated character than we’re presenting here (the movie generates a lot of sympathy towards him), but the fact is that he ends up looking more fraudulent than the IRS agents who are after him. And any movie that makes the IRS look somewhat respectable, in our humble opinion, has its priorities backwards.

So, in the end, the older parental generation is fraudulent or non-existent, while the younger generation is peppy, hopeful, and decent. And the main characters, the two lovebirds, fly away to England together to pursue the female’s career. Make no mistake, these are moral statements. If you attend a church that champions them, you’d better leave that church.

What makes the movie seductive is that these moral statements are sort of hidden under its presentation, which is fresh and realistic. The dialogue resembles real people talking, and the sequence of scenes keeps pushing the story to where it should go, not to where it will become like every other date movie (i.e., it’s doesn’t feel cliched, even though it basically is). For those reasons, we wanted to like this movie. Maybe some Christian director can study this one and separate the good from the bad, in order to learn something about movie-making and storytelling.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 1

Posted in Clever but Immoral | Leave a Comment »