Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Brain is in Texas.

...or at least my laptop is. Who would have thought that Samsung's US headquarters would be in Fort Worth? And who would have thought it takes a laptop-sized package nearly a full week to get from Michigan to the Lone Star state, using the UPS label they provided? And if it cost twelve bucks to send it that slowly, how much would it have cost to send it in, say, two or three days?
At any rate, I've got no laptop, so I have not been blogging or tweeting much or updating new chapters for 42 Months Dry. Hopefully, I'll have the thing back in the next few days and get back in the swing of things. I hate having to steal onto other people's computers when they're not looking . . .

Tuesday, November 27, 2012



A week ago, Parker Saint was wrapped up in his own meteoric rise—growing his church, managing his brand, and building his media empire. A week ago, he would have laughed when the three Vatican operatives began intensely describing a centuries-old plot to conceal an ancient relic in a local church. But that was before the cops and the serial killer, the church fires and the botched exorcisms . . . before Parker had come to realize that he is the point where it all comes together.

Keep your eyes on this space and on my website for the latest developments on my book, Demoniac: A Novel.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Supernatural Movie Reviews: The Devil's Advocate

So, I’m reviewing this movie largely from memory. I saw it in 1997 when it first came out. I was a college sophomore and I remember thinking it was a decent movie with some very interesting biblical themes running through. Of course, as a biblical studies undergrad, I saw Scriptural themes everywhere. Well, last night my wife and I fired up this ’90s Al Pacino HOO-ah fest, only to find that I was decidedly wrong about the “decent” part. About halfway through, it decided to morph into what we used to call a “dirty movie” and we decided to turned it off. The sad part is that I didn’t even remember all that, desensitized as I had become to such things in cinema.

What I do remember, however, is the ending. And just to make sure, I watched it again on YouTube. Below, then, is my review of The Devil’s Advocate (which I recommend skipping), based on my cobbled-together half-viewing last night, my unfortunate full viewing fifteen years ago, and various clips of Pacino’s soliloquy at the climax of the film.

Why bother to review it all? Partially because I don’t want to miss two weeks in a row and partially because there really are some valuable concepts about the Enemy contained therein. It’s just a shame they gave him equal time.

The Devil’s Advocate

Year: 1997
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron
Directed by: Taylor Hackford (Proof of Life, Ray)

I'd bet five thousand dollars that someone at Warner Brothers came up with the title of this thing before they dreamed up the plot.
     “What about a movie called The Devil’s Advocate? That would look great on a hat!”
     “Sure, but what would it be about? Like, someone is a lawyer for the devil? Does that really make sense? Ah, who cares? Let’s do it!”

Apparently, the first draft was an effects-driven, storyless blockbuster. But then, according to IMDb, the original script had to be re-worked, toned down, and re-pitched to Pacino several times before he signed on to the project. Somewhere in that process, the story became strong enough to justify its existence. Parts of it are subtle, even.

But parts are not (and I’m not just talking about the gratuitous sexual stuff). For example, the movie begins with a black screen, then fire flares up over the black screen, then a red title in nineties horror-movie font on top of that. And you’ve got to be kidding me with Pacino’s Devil calling himself “John Milton” (with a couple quotes from Paradise Lost thrown in just in case we were too thick to catch on).

And then there are the effects that they did use. While Keanu and Pacino talked on the safety-rail-free waterfall balcony, I was thinking “Fifty-seven million dollars to make this movie and they couldn't make their Manhattan backdrop look more real? And, seriously, there's no wind way up there? Not even enough to move their hair a little bit?” But then I read that they used a real eighth floor balcony in New York City, so I don't know what to think. Which I guess kind of fits the theme of the movie.

And speaking of not-subtle, the story opens with Keanu's character defending a man charged with molesting a teenaged girl. While she gives an account of what happened, Reeves's character notices his client obviously (and disturbingly) reveling in the memory. I guess that’s in there to remind you of how defense attorneys have to continually lay aside their integrity and enable the wicked acts of wicked people. Although that's a weird theme in a movie about the Devil, who is pictured as the prosecutor in several courtroom scenes throughout Scripture, and whose very name means “The Accuser.” I guess it would have been harder to scare up a story where the devil is a DA (which could stand for...waaaait for it...Devil's Advocate), but I think it would have been worth the extra work.

Merits and Demerits
On the whole, the production and acting were better than I remembered. Keanu's Southern accent isn't even that bad (surprisingly better than the uber-talented Theron's), although it does occasionally disappear.  There is great chemistry on-screen, until those scenes where the filmmaker takes the lazy way out. And the script was obviously punched up by someone with a knack for dialogue. (“And the black thing, you bein' black...that's just priceless.”

Still, some of the supporting characters are a bit two-dimensional. (I realize how that sounds when discussing a movie whose main character is literally the devil, but come on...) Keanu's mother could have been a really rich and interesting character for the viewer to try and figure out.  But they leave nothing to figure out, overdoing the Southern folksiness of her character, slapping a big ugly sweater on her, appliqued with a bird house and heavy laden with button pins (literally, pins decorated with buttons) and a large cross necklace. She talks with that annoying I'm always annoyed tone that one associates with religious characters in Hollywood productions. Of course she can't just be a regular woman who goes to church and is concerned for her son. Does such a person even exist?  No. Fanatic or secularist: those are your options.

To keep with my running theme of the Nineties and their ups and downs, this particular specimen is pretty dated by its nineties fashion and flavor, without reaping many of the benefits. Check out Keanu in a bar in rural Florida with his white T-shirt, jeans, and suit coat. And then, in the next scene, we see him wearing the rest of that same suit in court in New York. What a versatile time.

Furthermore, while he's always amazing, something about Pacino's performance hasn't weathered the intervening decade and a half very well. It wasn't bad, it's just and again, he seemed to be doing a Michael Scott impression. That's the best way I can put it.

I also found myself a little distracted by the casting choices for the supporting roles. Not that people did a bad job, but for a borderline horror movie that takes itself really seriously, they sure stacked the deck with some actors known for less-than-serious fare. For example, apparently Craig T. Nelson (that's right: COACH) murdered his wife, stepson, and a maid. Riiiight. And the guy who plays Guffman on Waiting for Guffman is a higher-up at the Devil's law firm, as is Jeffrey Jones (best known for playing Principal Ed Rooney, foil to Ferris Bueller, and who also appeared in the two worst movies ever made: Howard the Duck and The Pest).

Biblical Themes
Things start out promising when Keanu (his character's name was Kevin, but, when he's not Neo or Ted, he's Keanu, amIright?) meets his mother at her church and we hear the congregation singing, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan Under Your feet, Romans 16:19-20” (yes, the Scripture reference is part of the lyrics), which is a key text to developing a biblical doctrine of Satan. Unfortunately, they don't really bring it (the Scripture or the concept) up again.

The rest of the good stuff comes from Pacino's lips, from the moment we meet him. Some highlights:
  • “I’m a fan of man. I’m a humanist—maybe the last humanist!” What an odd epiphany for a Hollywood movie to have. But, yes. Satan is a fan of man as man established himself at the Fall. What does that look like? Observe:
  • “[God] gives men instincts . . . and then, for his own private cosmic gag real, sets the rules in opposition. He’s a sadist.” If I had to update the approach used by Satan in Genesis 3, I could do no better than that quote. Unfortunately, while Kevin (see? It doesn't feel right) is somehow able to resist these lies of the Devil, he never corrects them or even disagrees. A theme of my book Playing Saint is that one cannot resist the Devil until he or she has submitted to God (that's not mine—I stole it from St. James), but in Hollywood, free will is the answer. Even though, as Pacino gloats, human free will is his secret weapon. They're both wrong. Human bondage to sin is the Devil’s secret weapon and Christ’s liberating our will through the cross is the solution.
  • “Behold, I send you out as sheep amidst wolves,” Pacino’s Devil says, quoting Christ. This (quoting Jesus) is a prerequisite for anyone trying to get the Devil right. Even better would be to have him mix in some mis-quotes (i.e., “Did God really say . . . ”). Oddly, it's the religious mom who actually misquotes the Bible (wide is the way that leads to destruction, lady, not to temptation).
  • Upon noticing that there is no bedroom in Milton's Penthouse, Keanu asks, “Where does he sleep?” to which Principal Rooney answers, “Who says he sleeps?”
  • During their first conversation, as Pacino's character is recruiting Keanu to work at his law firm (or maybe it's not a law firm; it seems to change throughout), Keanu asks, “Are we negotiating?” The Devil answers, “Always.” This is where, even with his broad, Dunder-Miflinesque gestures and expressions, Pacino's Devil rings true. “That's our secret,” he confides to Keanu, “we kill you with kindness,” later advising him, “Never let them see you coming. You gotta be small, innocuous . . . Look at me—underestimated from Day One.” Is he negotiating? Always.
And let me break off the bullets and say that maybe this↑ is the best lesson we can take from this film, which starts with the replaying of a disgusting crime against a child in a courtroom, then drops in Coach, Guffman, and Principal Rooney. But did you know that Jeffrey Jones (who played Rooney and the foppish emperor in Amadeus) now resides on the sex offender list?

Well, he does. About a decade ago, he did some awful stuff involving an adolescent boy and they found child porn on his computer. I definitely didn't see that coming. He seemed innocuous. And yet, to quote St. James again, he was enticed and dragged away by his own shameful lusts. Free will wasn't the problem—slavery to sin was. And until a movie deals with that, their picture of the Devil is going to be fatally incomplete.

Now, I normally include a little section of  “Best Scares” in these reviews, but The Devil's Advocate doesn't really play out that way.  I do have a murky memory of Keanu's (possibly schizophrenic) wife finding a baby in her house and then realizing the baby is playing with intestines of something. That's sort of scary, I guess. But we didn't get that far. I remember it being chilling and I remember the end being satisfying, and I kind of wanted to push through and see it.

I mean, really, what's the big deal? It's just a little skin. Or maybe a lot.

Are we negotiating? No, not this time.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

It's on! (Chapter 4 Is Up)

No Tuesday Movie Review this week, but Chapter 4 of 42 Months Dry: A Tale of Gods and Gunplay has been posted!

If you need to catch up, click here.

Otherwise, click the page below . .

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Car Chase, Anyone?

Chapter 3 of 42 Months Dry: A Tale of Gods and Gunplay has been posted!

If you need catch up, click here.

Otherwise, click the page below . .

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Supernatural Movie Reviews: Insidious

So, I thought I’d try my hand at a more recent flick, having been stuck in the nineties the past two weeks. But here’s the thing: last week’s movie (from 1999) made me miss the nineties. This one (from 2010) made me miss the nineties.

Year: 2010
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye (not to be confused with the one and only Shai Linne)
Directed by:  James Wan

I’m gonna level with you: after watching this movie, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there in my bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to get that stupid Tiny Tim song out of my head.  (rimshot)

But seriously, at least ten of my facebook friends called Insidious, “the scariest movie I’ve ever scene.” And I tend to agreeif by “scary” you mean “silly” and “not really all that scary.”

So what’s Insidious like? Well, I could put it two ways. First, I could point out how the trailer brags that this movie is “from the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity.” To quote Lucille Bluth: “This does not bode will.” Or perhaps we should just say:  “What if you combined Inception with The Exorcist with The Matrix with Ghostbusters, and filtered the whole thing through a post-funny episode of The Simpsons? Why, you'd get Insidious.

Basic Plot:
Josh and Renee (apparently spelled Renai, which looks like the way Forrest Gump would pronounce Renee) have several kids, but only one of them is in a pseudo-coma because he did too much out-of-body traveling during his sleep.

Natch, they had to call some kind of paranormal investigator. When she shows up, she has a bunch of steampunk-inspired equipment and a couple assistants who look and dress like Mormon missionaries. She explains that the young boy, Dalton, is currently in a place called The Further, which is apparently “an infinite realm that holds all of our dreams and all of our nightmares.” In The Further, there’s a black-and-red demon trying to inhabit the boy’s body. Did I mention that, if the kid isn’t rescued tonight, the demon will claim him forever?

Luckily, Elise (the medium/investigator/whatever) reveals that Josh (Dalton’s dad) was in pretty much the same situation at that age. A series of appropriately weathered pictures reveals that he was (and, presumably, is) haunted by an old, scary Victorian lady in a black wedding dress. So, of course, Josh “goes in” after Dalton, confronts some demons and dead people, frees his son, and then confronts the Victorian lady.  We don’t really see how that comes out until Josh (possessed by the scary lady) strangles Elise and then sneaks up behind his wife. Fade out. (Pet Cemetery called and they want their ending back.)

Merits and Demerits:
The cinematography is good. The script is solid. The acting is very good overall. I love Barbara Hershey’s work in general, and she really owns her role as Josh’s overbearing mother. I did not recognize the hauntingly beautiful older woman who played the hauntingly haunting paranormal investigator, but she stole every scene she was in. Patrick Wilson (who I loved in the Diablo Cody dramedy Young Adult) is also pretty good with his “less is less” approach.

The kid wasn’t great.

But somehow, despite a lot of good stuff, the thing just falls flat. Why?  Let’s start with the nonsensical stuff. From the non sequitur Laozi quote to the fact that old-timey cameras are apparently better at spotting the supernatural than their modern counterparts (just like microphones that look like WWI gas masks pick up better sound than, ya know, regular microphones).

But, really, the problem is in the visuals. I feel like I should point out that the release date for Insidious was April 1; perhaps that explains why the demonized boy is seen climbing around the ceiling  (already done unscarily in Exorcist III). Other visuals are just neutral in nature, but presented with a sort of Scary, eh? Eh?! vibe. I mean, could a metronome be kind of creepy? Sure, but it’s not automatically creepy just because you make it clear that you want it to be. Likewise, a dancing boy/midget in a newsie hat isn’t scary in and of itself. Neither was the “smiley family.”  And Ugh! that scene took forever to get anywhere! I have a very long attention span, but a lot of sequences in this movie reminded me of Saturday Night Live. You know how SNL milks a joke for ages, whether it’s funny or not?  That’s kind of what Insidious does, only with scares. And these scares are more along the lines of “You like-a-da-juice-eh?” rather than “Yeah, that’s the Ticket” or even “Makin' kah-pays!”

In fact, I submit that the alleged scariest part in the movie is actually the stupidest. I’m thinking of a particular scene with a particular evil monster who looks almost exactly like a particular Sith Lord from a particular George Lucas film that probably should have never been made. The first time we see this Darth Maul demon (appearing behind Josh during a tense conversation) could have been  a decent scare, except that I’d seen it like infinity times on the preview before I saw it in context. Also, it was confusing that he didn’t have any kind of Jedi weapon (Dalton, on the other hand, does rock a toy light sabre when the Darth Maul Demon first attacks him pre-coma).

So this is yet another example of a “scary movie” showing us too much, leaving nothing to the imagination, and losing the “fear of the unknown” factor that makes really scary movies really scary. This guy (the Darth Maul Demon) looks like the most generic picture of the devil you can imagine. Seriously, he has hooves. Hooves! And speaking of showing too much, let's talk about that allegedly scariest scene, which is perhaps the seminal example of this phenomenon. Yes, I’m talking about Darth Maul Demon in his bedroom (apparently decorated with Susan from Seinfeld’s creepy doll collection) sharpening his claws to the mellow tones of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Seriously, showing the bad guy at home, preparing for his insidiousness while listening to Tiny Tim? That’s scary?! And why is he listening to that?  Does “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” calm him down? Does he like it for the ironic value (after all, smearing red lipstick all over your face is, admittedly beyond hipster)? Is he just trying to be creepy? And where did he even get a spirit-world version of the album that plays on an early 1900s Victrola? 

I have the same beef with the whole climactic sequence in “The Further.”  We know it's “scary” because it’s tinted red and there are like fifteen fog machines working overtime. (I sort of got the feeling that the Kobra Kai were gonna jump out in their skeleton costumes and beat Josh down . . . which would have been awesome.) This sequence could have been done in a truly terrifying way, but it misses every opportunity. There’s none of the modified reality that makes dreams dreams and nightmares nightmarish (just steam and red lights not unlike your average Jr. High dance).

And, again, it’s a little distracting how derivative it is. When he’s contorting, eyes closed, in the chair. I kept waiting for him to open his eyes and say, “I know Kung Fu.”  And, if they were going to try and channel Inception, they should have gone a level deeper. That’s right, I’m talking about a red-tinted, fog-filled dream world within a red-tinted, fog-filled dream world.

It’s not like the director doesn’t understand how to pull off genuine horror movie scares. In fact, the whole premise of the movie (a premise which is legitimately freaky) relies on our native fear of the unseen. Some examples of Insidious pulling it off: Elise intensely describing the demon in the corner, while all we can see is the fear in her face. Also, the whole subplot involving Josh’s being haunted is much scarier because it’s much subtler and involves less direct TA-DA! Heeeeere’s the monster! element. My skin crawled at the glimpses of the old lady (who looks an awful lot like an older version of Helena Bonham Carter playing, well, pretty much every role she’s ever played) getting ever closer to Josh.

At the end of the day, though, the real horrifying stuff in this movie doesn’t leverage our fear of the dark, the unknown, or what we will see when we drift off to sleepthat would be fair game. Instead, it taps into our fear of not being able to protect our children. That’s probably not a fear we should milk for amusement.

There are other good elements in the story, but they mostly seem like they belong in a different film. Tucker and Specs are great comic relief and very likeable as Elise’s sidekicks. The relationship between Josh, Renai, and Lorraine is also intriguing and believable. If they had put that in the foreground and the demons from The Further further into the background, this would be a whole different level of movie.

If you want to see a film that pulls off the nightmarish, off-putting vibe that Insidious fails to produce, see Paper House. It’s a lot like this one, only better, in that it feels like a real nightmare . . . assuming you’re into that kind of thing.

Theological Low Points:
The main problem here is not the totally extrabiblical nature of The Further (which is clearly intended as a fictional plot device), but the blending of mutually exclusive religious systems. When Elise’s two sidekicks want to go to 60 Minutes with their video proof of paranormal activity, she responds with “Proof? Proof of what? Nine tenths of the world believes that when you die, your soul ascends to sit with God. Would you be telling them something they didn’t already know?” as if the stuff she’s selling about The Further, etc. is somehow in line with what those 90% believe.

But the Diety who may be answering Josh’s prayer seems to be on the same team as the three ghostbusters. And what’s the point of the priest who makes a super-brief appearance? He seems to have been there when Lorraine and Renai discussed calling in the three ghostbusters. Are we to assume he was cool with it? He doesn’t leave in a huff or anything . . .

And yet, this is the very opposite of the biblical gift of discernment. What this woman and her Gen X sidekicks are doing is not a spiritual gift and is not good. If we want to pair her with a character in the Bible, she corresponds, not to Anna or Deborah, but to the Witch of Endor, famous for the sin of divination. And yet, I suppose Insidious does not take a position on whether Elise’s activities are good or bad. In fact . . .

Theological High Points:
Perhaps the theological high points are found in which characters' efforts don’t work. Renai’s box of self-help books, such as Be The Better You and Inch By Inch, It’s A Cinch: A Guide To Achieving Your Goals, do not help her battle the spiritual bondage in her life. This is something of a theme in my book Demoniac. Similarly, Elise’s shouts of “Leave this vessel!” and “Leave this earthly body!” are fruitless. And why wouldn’t they be? She speaks with absolutely no authority but her own quavering shouts (reminding us of the seven sons of Sceva).

The great power of the demonized boy and the fact that the demon terrorizes and injures Dalton are also in line with the picture we see in the New Testament. I see an implied message of “Don’t mess with astral projection and the like” as well.

But the highest high point is one that never really pans out and gets sort of swallowed up in the psychic gobbledegook. I’m talking about Alanso, Josh’s student who pokes holes in the theory of evolution and tells him, “Things are simple; you just can’t see it. Put your faith in Him.” I like Alanso, but it seems like the second half of his arc wound up on the cutting room floor.

Best Scares:
  • The voice in the baby monitor. Really well-done scene.
  • Dalton breaking his own jaw.
  • “There’s someone in Cali’s room.”
  • “I don’t like it when he walks around.” That line was the only moment that legitimately made the hairs on my neck stand up.

Memorable quotes:
  • “This is the first line of a joke. Guy comes home to find his wife with a priest . . .
  • “The universe picked a fight with the wrong chick.”
  • “The thing is here. I know it.”
  • “That wasn’t psychic. Lorraine told me your name.”
  • “Your house is not haunted. Your son is.”
  • “Forget the limits and laws and logic of this world. We are treading in a different place now.” Yeah, a place where Tiny Tim can provide the soundtrack for your horror movie.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Eli Drops in on Ahab (with Guns)

Chapter 2 of 42 Months Dry has now been posted.  Eli is raising the stakes with King Ahab, and making some new enemies at the same time.

If you need catch up, click here.

Otherwise, click the page below . . .