Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Supernatural Movie Reviews: Stigmata

So, I was torn between End of Days and Stigmata for this week, wanting to bang out another nineties non-classic before hitting up a current blockbuster next week. Ultimately, it was the latter’s availability as a Netflix streaming title that clinched it.

So let’s do this.


Year: 1999
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne
Directed by: Rupert Wainwright

Basic Plot:
Frankie (Arquette) is a care-free, worldly hairdresser (working at a tattoo/piercing parlor where you can almost see the hepatitis) whose life changes when she receives a gift from her mother in the mail—the crucifix of a priest who recently died in Brazil. She starts experiencing the stigmata (although she has no idea what it is). Enter Garbriel Byrne (who plays the devil in the other movie I was considering), an investigator sent by the Vatican to look into alleged miracles surrounding the priest’s death. He is intrigued, but must leave his work to investigate Frankie's alleged stigmata. Eventually, it becomes clear that Frankie is actually possessed by the dead priest (via his rosary?) and this all has something to do with the “Missing Jesus Gospel,” which the movie goes on to identify (in more than one way) as the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.  Hijinx ensues.

Cast and Crew:
Okay, the writer of this thing hasn’t really written anything else of note. He did an episode of the short-lived Nightmare on Elm Street TV spinoff, “Freddy's Nightmares,” which I probably watched as an eleven-year-old through the fuzz on FOX 66, and then regretted it when I was too freaked out to sleep.

The director’s résumé is similarly spotty. Apart from directing Disney’s kid comedy Blank Check, he seems to have been mostly a music video director, including MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”  and some stuff by N.W.A.

The cast, on the other hand, is all-conference. I love Patricia Arquette (even though her acting is frequently panned). I love that she talks like a regular person and that she never got her janky teeth fixed. I love her work so much that I almost watched an episode of her show Medium once. But then I did something else instead. I’m also a big fan of Byrne, going back to the Usual Suspects.  The two leads share great chemistry on-screen.

In the background, it was nice to see Lindsey Bluth in a bit part. And...is that emergency room doctor Joan Cusack? Nope. It's Ann Cusack. Bet you didn't know there was an Ann Cusack. Well, there is. The corrupt milquetoast Cardinal is played by the now-easily-recognized milquetoast governor Weatherby Swann (of Pirates fame) and, if I had seen the new GI Joe reboot a couple years ago, I’d probably point out that he also played the milquetoast U.S. President in that.

Billy Corgan (who once penned the heartbreaking words, “And I still believe that I cannot be saved!” and who may or may not have become some strain of Christian in 2009) provides the Dust Brothers-esque score.  I think it’s pretty much awesome, although I remember IMDb as a whole condemning it when this movie first came out.

Merits and Demerits:
I honestly don’t mind formulaic movies, but come on . . .  Here’s the routine: candles blow themselves out (and re-light themselves), birds fly away loudly, stuff randomly starts on fire, the main character bleeds a bunch, people cross themselves. Repeat. Add demons. 

And again with the Virgin Mary statuette crying?! Really? Only this time it’s tears of blood, so it gets extra credit for lameness. Add to that a scene of a possessed girl levitating over her bed; nothing played out about that.

All the same, I find much to commend here, film-wise, and I realize that it’s probably because of my own foibles. First of all, unlike last week’s subject, Stigmata was filmed in California, but makes great use of establishing shots and well-designed, well-lit sets to convince us we’re in an extra-depressing version of Pittsburg. It’s very urban in a stylish way and this pleases me. I love this sort of post-Grunge thrift strore chic so prominent in this era of popular moviemaking.

The main character has the requisite black friend with purple hair who calls her “girlfriend.”  You have the arty shot from inside the microwave, (including a mug that says “cup”on it). In other words, this is the late-'90s, when music video directors still thought they could go big by channeling Tarantino through Fincher without irony and self-reference,  resulting in lots of cool shots of chipping paint, flickering flourescent lights, rain running down windows, grimy coffee shops, and desaturated colors (a la like Fight Club and Se7en). Honestly, watching this made me miss the '90s a little bit.

This premature nostalgia for my college years is magnified by the presence of old school scanners, 3.5" disks, and giant laptops. Oh, and DOS (DOS!) is central to a very tense scene involving evil Vatican officials and anachronistiaclly monochrome screens.

But the story. Ugh.

Theological Lowpoints:
Where to begin? How about with the name? For a movie called Stigmata, there’s a real lack of understanding about what the stigmata are. Granted, I’m a Protestant minister, so I don’t put great stock in this phenomenon anyway, but even I know that the back of Frankie’s shirt being ripped up will she is “scourged” by an invisible whip is a ridiculously ill-informed portrayal.  I know wikipedia didn't exist in 1999, but this kind of research would take mere minutes.

And then, how about the complete misunderstanding of what possession is?  I guess in Hollywood, where good people turn into angels when they die, it’s not too big of a stretch to have someone possessed by the spirit of a dead man, but from a biblical perspective, it’s beyond absurd. And really, I can’t figure out if the dead priest was actual “a holy man, very holy man,” as one character tells us or not. If so, why does he say all that filthy, somewhat blasphemous stuff that he does (through Frankie) and beat the crap out of one of his colleagues repeatedly (again, through Frankie)? It seems like they didn't really think this through . . .

And when I try to (think it through, that is), here’s what I come up with: the tears of the statue really are the blood of Christ. Why? Well, God is extra upset about . . . something. So much so, that he singles out the poor lady who has this dead priest's crucifix and starts torturing her with horrible violence and visions of freaky stuff like women dropping their babies into traffic. But, then again, maybe that’s just a result of being possessed by the spirit of a nice old priest who who has turned into a demonic figure. Other side effects include: automatic writing, your eyes turning different colors (like Teen Wolf), and receiving the stigmata, which (according to the movie) is usually reserved for the very pious. And all of this is happening in order to somehow get the word out that the Gospel of Thomas exists—a fact which is already common knowledge in our world.

But this movie clearly takes place in an alternate reality, one where an experienced and educated priest can be shocked by the news that there are (gasp!THIRTY-FIVE Gospels?! And a Vatican linguist can respond (with a straight face) that this is to be expected because “everyone had a different experience of Jesus. All the Gospels are just interpretations, memories, dreams, reflections.” Yes, this makes him sound like a college sophomore, but the guy says it with an accent, so we’re supposed to buy it, along with Gabe’s expositional response: “And there’s no one Gospel in Jesus’ actual words?” No, there’s not, says Fr. Accent.  “We’re all blind men in a cave, looking for a candle that was lit 2,000 years ago.”

And herein lies the real theological lowpoint. You see, I pastor a week of Christian summer camp (7th and 8th graders) each summer.  And the summer after Stigmata came out, at least five kids asked me about the Jesus Gospel spoken of in Stigmata.  (Who the heck would let their twelve-year-old watch this movie?)  I actually did a full-on exposé/talk on the subject, correcting the tapestry of factual errors presented in this flick, starting with the errors about this particular document.

In addition to the direct quotes included in the movie, the 'Dude, this stuff is real' text at the end of the film confirms that the writer was thinking of the Gospel of Thomas all along. But there’s no reason in the world to think that the Gospel of Thomas was written in Aramaic or that it predated the canonical Gospels. Or that it is the “actual words of Jesus.” That's just a claim of convenience, forgivable as a plot contrivance in a movie, but not when it's presented as fact and confusing my youth group kids and campers. The truth is readily discovered, as is the fact that the Vatican has done nothing to suppress the so-called “Gnostic Gospels.”

And, by the way, that’s Paleo-Hebrew you’re writing on the wall, not “Aramaic from the time of Jesus.” (Ironically, by the time of Jesus, Jews in Palestine were writing Hebrew with an Aramaic script, not the other way around..)

Beyond that whole mess, there’s the perpetually adolescent vibe that permeates the film, reminding me of those QUESTION AUTHORITY bumper stickers that were everywhere (including my bumper) fifteen years ago. Let’s review: the one good church in this story is rogue, connected to no institutional body. The good priest has been defrocked and excommunicated.  The other good priest is jaded and hates the hierarchy and the very idea of the church. The real climax for his character is when he finally throws his superior across the room and then sheds his clericals for some sweet stone-washed jeans.

We might sum up the movie’s message with a line from another excommunicated priest (played by Boris The Bullet Dodger): “I love Jesus! I don’t need an institution between him and me! No priests! No churches!” He then launches into a quote the Gospel of Thomas: “The Kingdom of God is inside you and all around you, not in mansions of wood and  stone. Split a piece of wood and I am there, lift a stone and you will find me.” This is in contrast to the Cardinal, who reminds Byrne’s character that “the cornerstone of our faith is the Church, not a crying statue.” Paging Dr. Strawman! Can I maybe get a third perspective? One that holds to Christ as the cornerstone of my faith, while also acknowledging that he established for himself a Church?

Theological Highpoints:
There aren’t many to speak of. The struggle of Gabriel Byrne’s character could have been one. He’s a scientist-turned-priest and never sure which identity is really him. The look on his face while he says, “This is the blood of Christ” while administering communion (to whom, I’m not sure) sets up a theological tension that is never explored, just lazily redacted.

There is some value in seeing modern doctors and nurses dealing with the wounds that accompanied Jesus’ crucifixion (one at a time and then all at once), reminding the viewer of how horrifying a death Jesus chose to endure on our behalf.

And, while I hate the use of the crucifix as a kitschy image like a skull and crossbones or that stupid Rolling Stones tongue thing, when they intercut it with shots establishing Frankie’s carnal lifestyle we are reminded again of the reason for the cross. Some of these raw materials here could have been used for a powerful story that rings true. Unfortunately, they weren’t.

Best Scares:
  • The reflection of the old priest in the mirror in a photograph of Frankie.
  • It’s wicked-creepy the first time she speaks with a man’s voice, rolls her eyes back in her head, and “becomes” the old priest, shuffling along in her retro elevator sandles. Patricia Arquette is way underrated.
  • Even though you know it’s coming, I jumped when she shouted, “ANSWER ME!” and then beat the tar out of poor Gabe. 

Most Memorable Lines:
  • “Am I going crazy or is Frankie hitting on a priest?” Why yes, she is. And it actually helps with character development. The relationship between Frankie and Father I-forget is the only believable thing in this contrived story.
  • “You know what's scarier than not believing in God? Believing in him...if it isn't God doing this to me, then who is?”
  • “Those words weren’t nonsenese. It’s actually a very specific language—a form of Aramaic that hasn't been used in 1900 years.” A very specific language, eh? As opposed to a non-specific language?
  • “Jesus said, Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me.” Oh, just shut up, Fake Gnostic Jesus. You're boring. And you’re not nearly as deep as you think you are.

BTW, if you have a preference for next week, let me know. I'm thinking Insidious or Possessed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Supernatural Movie Reviews: Bless the Child

In this post, I will be reviewing a bad horror/religious thriller movie from a dozen years ago. And to answer your question, yes, this is going to be a regular thing.

Why? Well, both of the novels I've written (42 Months Dry and Playing Saint) could be considered “supernatural thrillers,” meaning they are action/suspense stories involving miraculous elements, demons, pagan worship, possession and exorcism, etc. And since most of what the general populace knows about these things comes from Hollywood, I’ve decided that, each and every Tuesday, I will review one of these films, looking at everything from cinematography to theological accuracy. I'll be focusing on the mid to late-’90s and early aughties, when these were experiencing a revival, as well as perhaps taking in a couple of the most recent crop.

So let's begin, shall we?

Bless the Child

Year: 2000
Starring: Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Rufus Sewell, Christina Ricci
Directed by: Chuck Russell (Nightmare on Elmstreet 3, ’80s version of The Blob)

There’s a line in the first chapter of Demoniac, where, upon encountering an apparently occult-inspired crime scene full of tired, uninventive symbols and imagery, a homicide detective disappointedly comments, “That’s a little ’90s horror flick.” And, while Bless the Child technically came out after the ’90s had come to their glorious conclusion with the non-event of Y2K, it’s exactly what Corrine the detective was talking about. I mean, look at the cover of this thing:

If you’re anything like me (i.e. male, grew up in the ’80s), it probably takes a few seconds before you can tear your eyes away from Vickie Vale, but when you do . . . Ahhh!!! inverted burning cross and creepy girl-in-baptismal-gown! (a good two years before the American version of the The Ring came out).  Any way you cut it, that's pure schlock right there. Oh, and one-word excerpts of reviews are never a red flag. Not at all.

Basic Plot:
The return of the “Christmas star” has heralded the next big figure (whatever that means) in Christendom-slash-the world. Druggie mother Jenna abandons said super-infant  (Cody) in the care of her sister (Maggie, played by Bassinger) and disappears for several years, during which she (Vikie Vale) cares for the little girl, who outwardly seems to be autistic, but may just be spiritually gifted (because one couldn’t be both?). Things are going fairly well and Cody is, oh let's say six. Enter child TV star-turned New Age guru (i.e. Satanist) and re-enter the girl’s mom, both of whom want immediate custody of Cody. Only, they’ve actually been killing kids who were born on the day the star re-appeared and only want Cody in order to flip her to the dark side. Or, ya know, kill her.

The Film Itself:
On the whole, the production (along with the pacing and dialogue) is about the quality of your average direct-to-Christian-DVD rapture movie sequel, despite being produced by Mel Gibson’s then on-top-of-the-world Icon Pictures. There’s a whole lot of very wooden lines and sloppy exposition, although most of the cast (particularly the little girl who plays Cody) does as well as could be expected with the material.

The visuals are all over the board, from pretty decent (the recurring gargoyle, the hoodied Jenna as Virgin Mary) to horrendous (most of the attempted scary stuff). This is why, as a horror/thriller, it’s largely a failure. A couple of promisingly creepy moments are ruined when the just-out-of-frame/in-the-shadows is brought out into the light with sub-Veggie-Tales special effects. The idea of Bassinger’s character having these flashes behind the spiritual veil moments is intriguing, but the graphics are just awful. Granted, it’s been twelve years since these effects were rendered, but twenty years ago, Jurassic Park pulled off stunning realism by obscuring the monsters with lots of rain, shadows, and low light (all of which tend to help in horror movies anyway). Ah well, it's nice to know that the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz can still land roles as demons in major studio work.

So realism was a problem, but I was able to suspend disbelief, even  for some of the more out-there elements. But I couldn’t buy the New York setting—not when Canadian landmarks, labels, and even currency popped up every few minutes. The occasional grainy, mid-’80s establishing stock footage of Manhattan couldn’t make up for that. I consider an inability to hide Canadian location to be a standard B-movie element.

 All that said, however, when the action ramps up, it’s actually pretty intense and well-done. The director is clearly most at home with pyrotechnics, blank rounds, blood packs, and squibs, and those moments are the film's best.

Merits and Demerits:
We’re not going to talk plotholes here, because there are too many to count. Instead, let’s just look at the use of plot devices and how the story unfolds (or is violently yanked open) . . .

Within five minutes of the opening credits, Jenna, the uber-drug-addict is handing infant Cody to her sister and basically telling her, "You'll find formula for my baby in this appropriately dingy knapsack. Oh, drat! I forgot that the first thing you'll encounter upon opening said knapsack is my pouch of herione, syringe, spoon, and lighter, all wrapped loosely in a dirty cloth! (Read: I have a drug problem)." It's the kind of rushed exposition you expect to find in cable TV shows that are trying to cram a full movie's worth of story into a 41-minute episode.

Other odd exposition from Bless the Child: If you're in charge of caring for a dozen special needs children, don't stop them from picking up a dead bird and all gathering around it. After all, they're "very curious about death."  Don't even make them wash their hands afterward.  If Michael Scott has taught us anything, it's that "you can't get sick from a bird."

As far as characters go, they're pretty two-dimensional, but at least consistent. To be honest, I love the whole seminarian-turned-Pesci-cop thing (see also: The Prophecy) for obvious reasons. But the rest of the good guys were about as inept as they come. I mean, the NYPD has to bring in an FBI consultant to notice that the five murdered children were all born on the same day?! And the news media hadn't noticed either? Really? And when the police do put it together, they don't play it up at all or get in contact with the parents of other New York children born on that day?  Riiiiight.

But the good guys are the least of the problems. Now, unlike most reviewers of this film I don't hate that the bad guys are clearly bad, wearing black trench coats, looking all menacing, etc. Sometimes bad guys are bad guys. In fact, one might say that, in the twist-ending-happy late ’90s, not having a twist was sort of its own twist. But these bad guys know they’re bad guys, which is a tricky thing to pull off. And it can get cartoony, as it does when a gang of them attacks Maggie in a subway station. You’d swear she was being jumped by the Jets or the Sharks (aside: if you want to worship the devil that’s your own deal, but wearing a leather vest with no shirt?! For shame.)

And poor Rufus Sewell, with his one half-dead eyelid and gravelly voice second only to the Sheriff of Nottingham's cousin in evilitude, is doomed to play villains for the rest of his film career..

Inevitable Cheese:
When you deal with these topics, you cannot go cheese-free. Some films go for the extra cheese option. Observe:
  • The bad guys are planning to ritually kill Cody, but first they have to take her to the dentist? Wow, that's a great opening to re-kidnap her. But . . . the dentist? Yes, I realize they were falsifying new dental records and stuff, but that could be done without bringing her in to the office. And, really, throwing a tense dentist office moment in to a suspense movie never helps.
  • Apparently only latinas with accents (i.e., nuns in full habit and housekeepers/nannies) are pro-Jesus. Everyone else is slightly annoyed by Him, especially those who work in the psychiatric field. Classic types now available in stereo!
  • I'm pretty sure Cody calls her mother "Ma'am." Just like Webster. Actually, casting Webster as Cody's friend could have punched this thing up a little bit.
  • Tears pouring from the eyes of a statuette of Mary is the most played out thing in the history of everthing ever.

Theological Highpoints:
I have to give some props right off the bat here: the fact that the girl is from God, not from Satan, is refreshing. The former has been done to death anyway. I also appreciate the positive portrayal of Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, seeing as how Bless the Child came out during Hollywood's open-season on religious smearage (think Stigmata, End of Days, Dogma, Da Vinci Code, etc.) . . . although the credentials for the mystical old priest (a role phoned in by Sir Ian "Bilbo" Holm) inexplicably include that he was "censured by the Vatican."

I also appreciate that the story does not blur and blend all religious notions of "good" together, teaming psychics and shamans with rogue priests and devout Christians in typical Hollywood fashion. The spiritual battle here is good vs. evil, using broadly Christian categories, which will irk most viewers but scores points with me. (Ironically, the movie is based on a novel by a New Age healer, in which Maggie had in a previous life commited to defending Cody and the cults of Ancient Egypt factor in strongly).

In the film (as in Peretti's classic, This Present Darkness) the bad guys are worshiping the devil under the guise of New Age spirituality. That got a lot of people angry back when it came out, but from a biblical perspective, of course New Age phrases like "do what you will, will what you do" are synonymous with Satanism, if not with the overt devil-worship of this movie.  The bad guys were obviously bad, but they were putting forth a bright, vaguely positive public face of empowerment with brochures like "There Is No God But You: Lose Your False Idols To Find Yourself." My theological gripes with any of this are minor.

And, of course, the good guys were definitively good as well. (Maybe a little too good, but good.) Intercutting nuns in responsive prayer with the climactic action sequence may seem corny to most viewers (even while intercutting assassinations with an infant baptism is somehow awesome), but I dug the heck out of it. And showing the hardened FBI investigator privately praying for help? Well, most movies just don't have the sand to even try and pull that off.

Theological Lowpoints:
The assumption that "all of us are chosen by God" is actually voiced by a major character. Jesus disagrees (Matt 22:14).  Along the same lines, there is much talk of "leading people to God," but no mention of how. This is only one gripe, but it's huge. We wouldn't (and shouldn't) expect a Hollywood movie to lay out salvation by grace through faith, but when it brings up the notion of salvation without the cross or repentence or faith, it can do a whole lot of damage by reinforcing generic notions of universalism and Pelagianism held natively by all of us.

And, really, what is the function of this girl? Is she destined to be a great evangelist? Prophet? Co-redemptrix? We just don't know.  This generic notion of "new female quasi-messiah" is present in other movies from the same era, and always equally confusing.  Her main gift/superpower seems to be making things (e.g. toys, plates) spin really fast. When she does this for the antagonist, he asks, "Is that all you can do?" I was sort of thinking the same thing.

Best Scare:
It's a tie between the reveal of the freaky ginger kid in the dress when you think it's actually Cody and the nanny-morphing into a demon and smacking the window of the subway car (the only really convincing digital effect in the movie).  I've seen the beautiful Greek actress who plays the nanny in several other movies going back decades, but now all I can think of when I see her is that she's about to morph into a monster and stab a priest in the eyes with her knitting needles.

Most Memorable Lines:
  • "First and foremost, we tried to make it theologically correct, which is something I'd learned with The Omen." -Mace Neufield, producer (from the DVD special feature)
  • "I've never fired a gun before, but I'll bet at this range I'm dead on."
  • "She's going to lead people to God. A lot of people."  (Neat! Umm... how?)
  • When the baddie tells Cody to jump off the top of a building to prove she believes in God, she turns to him and cooly says, "After you." A pretty awesome moment. And another example of how, like most '90s cinema, Bless the Child made for a way cooler trailer than actual movie.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

42 Months Dry preview

Starting today, I will be posting the first half of my novel 42 Months Dry, one chapter each week on, my website. If you are at all in to the Bible or action/suspense or if you enjoy being entertained of if you like free things, you may want to check it out. Click here for the first installment. You can read it with the built-in online ebook reader or as simple text.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

New Agent, New Blog

If you’re reading this first post,then you’re probably a reader of my old blog, in which I focused on issues of church and theology. Last month, however, when I signed a contract with a literary agent, she—how you say—strongly encouraged me to start a blog that focused on my writing, platform-building, etc.
So, here’s the new blog, along with a new website, new facebook author page, and new Twitter account. Please take a moment to click the respective “follow me” buttons. And feel free to poke around the site and see what I’m writing. And most importantly, let me know what you think.