Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Supernatural Movie Reviews: The Devil Wears Prada

So, this week's movie review was a little perplexing for me. There wasn't nearly as much supernatural content as the title would suggest. I expected spiritual warfare, possession, curses, etc...which is weird, since this was like my third time watching this movie.  Whatever; let's try and salvage this thing anyway, shall we?



The Devil Wears Prada

Year: 2006
Director:  David Frankel (Hope Springs, Marley & Me, Chainsaw Slaughterhouse XII)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Emily Blunt, The Mentalist

I submit that, despite its lack of CGI demons or Aramaic curses, this film gets closer to identifying the character of the devil than most of the others I’ve reviewed. Why? Because she’s easy on the eyes, soft-spoken, and very persuasive.  If only she came across as having your best interests, not hers, in mind, she’d be a perfect representation of the Old Serpent.

The devil in question is Miranda Priestly, the head of a major fashion magazine called Runway (which is totally not Vogue). I absentmindedly asked my wife if she thought Miranda Priestly was related to Jason Priestly, to which she replied, “Well, they do have the same haircut,” outing the elephant in the den: why on earth would a sixty-year old female fashionista have that early-’90s skaterboy hairstyle? I mean, I’m no fashion expert, but all that thing needs is some sideburns and a leather jacket with popped collar and she could be “shredding it” on her “deck” in no time... In fact, I think the natural next step here would be to shave around the sides and back, but leave the top intact. 

Anyway, this all just goes to prove that Meryl Streep is gorgeous no matter what Vanilla Ice-era phenomenon is thrown at her. Flank her with Stanley Tucci (who should be in every movie, ever) as the eventually-empathetic layout designer and Emily Blunt as the vicious former assistant to the Devil, who hates anyone less fashionable than herself and who would later reprise this role in 2011’s The Muppets (working for Miss Piggy, which is weird, as Blunt also played Ruthie “Pig Face” Draper in Dan In Real Life, which is probably a better movie than this one, despite Dane Cook’s attempts to make it into a Dane Cook movie). And you thought St. Paul wrote long sentences.


Now enter Andy Sachs, a plucky, young aspiring journalist whose last hope at working for a NY magazine is this job opening (that millions of girls would apparently kill for, but not really) as Miranda Priestly’s new assistant. Andy is played by Anne Hathaway, who cut her teeth in another plain-to-glamorous transformation movie as an awkward adolescent in some Disney princess-flick with an aged Mary Poppins (and who will someday be forced to answer for ruining Cat Woman for a generation).

Through a twist of plot-contrivance, Andy gets the job, struggles greatly for a time, and then slowly finds her sea legs, while (gasp!) becoming more like the people she works with! We know this is happening because she starts dressing more like a prostitute and because her trollish boyfriend, who is always cooking and/or moping, starts cooking less and moping more. That and she answers the phone a lot when her boss calls. Upon first laying eyes on Andy, Tucci’s character asks, “Who is that sad little person? Are we doing a before-and-after piece I don’t know about?”  Answer: yes.  Before and after the Devil gets her hooks into poor Andy.


The “Dragon Lady”
So what makes Miranda such an accurate Devil? It’s not that she is curt and demanding with her employees, but that she enjoys turning friends against each other and manipulating people into betrayal. Perhaps even more than that, it’s that she wants to turn everyone else into her miserable,
hard-hearted self.

And like the Devil, Miranda works slowly and methodically, not caring about instant change. She’ll happily spend years molding Andy into her own image, but in just a matter of months, we see her young assistant already conforming to Miranda’s wishes, even failing the fairly obvious, “Do I answer the Devil’s phone call or tend to the last hanging thread of my closest personal relationship?” test.

Andy, for her part, deals with all of this the way most of us deal with the relentless work of the Enemy in our lives: she justifies herself. A lot. She’s just trying to stick it out for a year, she tells herself. She just can’t let Miranda “get to her.” But when you dance with the Devil, the Devil don't change—the Devil changes you. Before long, her boyfriend has stopped moping long enough to whine that, “You used to make fun of the Runway girls. Now you’re one of them.”

As they are wont to do, Andy’s self-justifications grow quickly from, “Same Andy, better clothes” to throwing up three lame, half-hearted objections, followed by a defeated, “I’m out of excuses,” followed in turn by sleeping with the creepiest looking dude in the history of film, despite having a committed boyfriend.

At the heart of all this is, of course, the believing of lies. That’s the Devil’s whole gig. Mopey accurately calls it, when he declares, “Looks like somebody’s been drinking the Kool-Aid.” We, the viewers, see it when Anne Hatheway says, with a straight face, “I’m not skinny.” What?! Everybody’s skinny in this movie! Everyone! Even the perpetually-chubby Harry Crane from Mad Men is skinny here. But once we start letting ourselves believe little lies, it’s not long before we believe the big ones. In the world of Andy Sachs, deliverance comes in the form of quitting her job and getting back to who she originally wanted to be (i.e. a reporter for a NY newspaper that hasn’t existed in a century). When dealing with the lies of the actual devil, deliverance lies not in ourselves and our self-justification and self-affirmation, but in denying ourselves and being justified by Jesus Christ.


Best Scares
  • The first appearance of the creepy (and less than helpful) twins. Come play with us, Andy. Forever and ever...
  • The first glimpse of Miranda sans makeup. But, after a second, you again realize that Meryl Streep is always beautiful (except when she’s doing that Margaret Thatcher voice, which gives me all kinds of the willies). 

Memorable Quotes
  • “The person whose calls you always take—that’s the relationship you’re in.” BTW, Andy, for crying out loud: change your ringtone! Seriously, what person (under 70) leaves the annoying Nokia jingle that comes default on their phone? I can’t imagine they paid for product placement here, seeing as how the phone essentially destroys the protagonist’s life, relationships, and character.
  • “By all means move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.”
  • “That's all.”



Monday, January 14, 2013

Revival

It's a new year and everyone wants a new start. People want to be thinner, more energetic, more productive, and to enjoy life more.  We writers want to write more regularly and crank out some really inspired stuff. Pastors like myself want to reach more people with the Gospel and to feed our sheep a diet of rich, biblical truth. But more than that, we want to see God moving in our midst. In short, we want to see Revival.

The word revival, of course, is not found in the pages of Scripture (at least not in any version I’m familiar with), but the concept surely is. Despite the evangelistic thrust of “tent revivals” and the like, the biblical notion of revival begins with those inside the church, the saints.  For example, in Psalm 85:6, David asks, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Re-vive means to return life to something. Now, I certainly don’t pastor a “dead church,” but I do believe that any of us could stand to re-discover the New Life that we have in Christ, the joy of our salvation, and the certain knowledge that we have been rescued from the darkness and now dwell in the light.  All of us can use a re-infusion of that sense of life. Revival is when a whole congregation re-discovers this at once.

Praying for revival is an essential pursuit for any congregation wanting to be used by God and to see his power to save the lost and transform us more and more into His image. We pray for it, because the movement of the Holy Spirit is not something we can control—not with emotional music or human excitement or perfectly written statements of purpose or doctrine. But I’ve realized that simply praying for revival may be akin to an able-bodied young man who wakes up every morning and prays for food, but never gets off his couch to go earn some money, purchase the food, bring it home, and prepare it. He just sits there and prays. One of my favorite preachers of all time, A.W. Tozer had a few things to say on this very subject. In his book, Born After Midnight, he writes:

"Have you noticed how much praying for revival has been going on of late - and how little revival has resulted? I believe the problem is that we have been trying to substitute praying for obeying, and it simply will not work. To pray for revival while ignoring the plain precept laid down in Scripture is to waste a lot of words and get nothing for our trouble. Prayer will become effective when we stop using it as a substitute for obedience."


Tozer is just echoing the words of Jesus who complained of a generation of religious people whose lips were working double time in the religious department, but whose hearts were far from Him. (Matt 15:8) To obey, He reminds us, is better than sacrifice. If we pray, “Lead me not into temptation” while willfully leading ourselves into temptation, we’re acting like spiritual schizophrenics. Again, Tozer writes:

"Revivals come only to those who want them badly enough. The problem is not to persuade God to fill us, but to want God sufficiently to permit him to do so. The average Christian is so cold and so contented with his wretched condition that there is no vacuum of desire into which the blessed Spirit can rush in satisfying fullness."

I think this is why the Bible never refers to salvation simply in terms of something added to our lives. It’s never just “Jesus coming into my heart” . . . it’s much more violent than that. It’s the upturning of everything, the expelling of many things, and the rearranging of all things under the headship of Christ. 

For Christmas this year, I received a little gizmo called a “Boogie Board,” which basically lets me jot down notes to myself and then erase them with a push of a button. (No more little scraps of paper and sticky notes floating all over the place).  When I came into my study at church the following day, I brought the new device with me and set it down right next to my tape dispenser. Everything on my desk—my lamp, my blotter, my cards and pens and such—is still there and very much organized in the same way. I’ve just added one more thing.  Salvation is not like this. Salvation does one of those cinematic moves where you clear the whole desk in one big motion, knocking books and papers to the floor, then it starts over from scratch. Some items are placed back on the desk in a different spot. Some are tossed in the trash. And when habit kicks in and we find ourselves slowly putting things back the way they were, that requires repentance, asking God again to swipe everything off and put it back in order.

Revival brings this about on a larger scale. When the Holy Spirit moves to convict Christians and we don’t plug our spiritual ears, entire congregations can find this process taking place—both individually and corporately. And when that happens, there’s no question of whether revival has taken place.

Church history scholar J. Edwin Orr has written about a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Welsh Revivals of the nineteenth century. As people sought to be filled with the Spirit, they not only looked to add some spiritual passion and excitement to their lives, but to expel anything that was not in keeping with their faith.  This led many people to make reconciliation and restitution. This caught on to the point of creating a serious problem for the shipyards along the coast of Wales. Over the years workers had stolen all kinds of things, from wheelbarrows to hammers. However, as people repented of their “addition-only” Christianity and listened to the Holy Spirit, they began to return what they had taken, with the result that soon the shipyards of Wales were overwhelmed with returned property. There were such huge piles of returned tools that several of the yards put up signs that read, If you have been led by God To return what you have stolen, Please know that the management Forgives you and wishes you to keep what you have taken.

Would that we had such problems today! In 2013, I’m praying for revival—huge revival—and I hope you’ll join me in doing so. But I’m also, with God’s help, going to obey in the little things as well as the big. I’m going to ask the Holy Spirit to move, but also to move me. And I hope you’ll join me in that as well.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Cup Boileth Over...


Chapter 7 of 42 Months Dry has now been posted.  Bullets fly as Eli confronts the prophets of Baal on their own turf.

If you need to catch up, click here.

Otherwise, click the page below . . .



Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Supernatural Movie Reviews: Fallen

Both of the novels I've written (42 Months Dry and Demoniac) 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. 

Fallen


Year: 1998
Directed by: Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, NYPD Blue)
Written by: Nicholas Kazan

This movie has a rating of 6.9 stars on IMDb. Seriously?! 2007’s The Mist, which I consider to be one of the five worst films made in the last twenty years, has a 7.3. There’s no accounting for the horrible taste in movies of the general public.

From the outset, you have to realize that this is not a horror movie and barely even a thriller. It's an intense story with supernatural elements and a great twist ending, written by a guy who seems to have mainly written a bunch of junk before this (including the late '90s J-Lo vehicle, appropriately named Enough). He did pen a 1986 movie staring the amazing Christopher Walken and Sean Penn, but the fact that a Walkenophile like myself has not seen it leads me to conclude that it was unremarkable.

But that doesn't matter.  I mean, have you ever seen Identity? If not, see it post haste (if you like horror/suspense/thrillers). It was written by a man whose most noteworthy writing credit to date had been the “horror” B-Movie Jack Frost, which basically replaces Chucky with a snowman and has him murder a bunch of people. I guess you never know who has a brilliant story inside of him.

The Cast
This is one of the best all-star ensembles in a decade filled with all-star ensembles.

Let’s start with Denzel Washington, my yardstick of cool, who plays the main character, a Philadelphia detective assigned a series of grisly, baffling murders. In addition to being distractingly handsome, he looks so insanely young here, reminding me anew that my early twenties were fifteen years ago. The coolness he exudes is manifest in some great one-liners and a habit of flipping a coin through his fingers, a la Iceman in Top Gun.

The rest of the ensemble fires on all cylinders as well. John Goodman plays Denzel’s partner/sidekick, the loveable wisecracking cop, who somehow does not seem like a tired cliche, despite being a loveable wisecracking cop sidekick. Seriously, name a movie starring John Goodman that wasn’t improved three-fold by his very presence. Donald Sutherland also nails his roll as the police captain who loves the status quo and doesn’t want to deal with the possible supernatural elements at play. Add James Gandolfini (for once not ending anyone’s career by appearing in a movie) as the cynical, semi-dirty cop and Embeth Davidtz, who I only recognize from a bit-part on Scrubs, and who looks like the female version of Johnny Depp. (I mean that as neither a compliment nor an insult.)

Then you’ve got the serial killer, played by Elias Koteas, who has turned in great performances in everything from Apt Pupil to Benjamin Button to The Prophecy (which I will soon be reviewing), but who is always first and foremost Casey Jones to me. But he’s creepy enough here and seems to do a decent job on the Aramaic lines.


"Cowabunga, dude! I'm a demon-
possessed serial killer!" [translated

from the Syrian-Aramaic]

Merits and Demerits
It starts with a black screen and Denzel saying, “I want to tell you about the time I almost died.” The narration throughout just works. It’s done, not as a horror movie, but as a straight-forward detective story (complete with smooth sax riffs over rainy establishing shots and research montages). The editing is likewise smooth and the picture, unlike a lot of late-'90s fare, really showcased my HD TV; the shadows were very deep without the whole picture coming off as too dark.

As to the story, as I've mentioned it starts with a bang and ramps up from there. Denzel's character watches a serial killer he spent years tracking down be executed in the gas chamber (the depiction of which only further cements my hatred for this barbaric practice), but not before he tells Denzel that he will be seeing him soon and then drones a series of very specific curses in Aramaic. We slowly (and satisfyingly) learn with Denzel that the killer was possessed by Azazel, an ancient demon who has the power to pass from person to person, generally by touch. Azazel decides to use one human host to kill an innocent victim, then transfer to another host and kill the previous killer, creating a baffling string of murders.

The only weak link in all of this is the character of Gretta Milan, the daughter of a cop who died trying to defeat Azazel. She “teaches theology at the university,” which comes off incredibly forced and which the screenwriters use as license to skip a few steps and drop a few sandbags of exposition on the viewer. According to what I read, this character is actually a combination of two characters: one who knew about Azazel and one who was simply the daughter of the cop who Azazel killed up in the woods; this would have worked a lot better and left a lot fewer questions hanging (e.g., where did she get the phone numbers of all the other “demon fighters” and, if her whole life’s purpose was fighting Azazel, why did she keep sending the one man who would provider her that opportunity away again and again?).

The twist at the end was the best kind—the kind that was clearly planned from the get and which retroactively changes the way you view everything, making you want to view the film a second time the moment it comes to light. The movie even teases you with it; fifteen minutes in, Denzel says (via narration): “Even the most casual thing. It registers. Often, you don't remember till later on, but then—you look back and you realize . . . you knew."


The Nineties
As with all the nineties films I’ve reviewed thus far, the credits feature the then-cutting-edge “symbols in the font” motif, which probably felt ultra-edgy at the time. I mean, VHSs of Se7en were still on some new release racks when this movie hit the theaters.

In addition, within the first two minutes, the viewer is treated to Beck’s “Two Turn Tables and a Microphone,” which is just one example of great use of music. Unlike the unforgivably corny Tiny Tim Fiasco in Insidious, Fallen knows how to use a well-known song to incredibly creepy intent—in this case, The Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side,” which a dozen characters sing to non-diminishing returns.

Other nineties gems include a prominent placement for Web Crawler (Tagline: “Search before you surf!”) and the giant brick of super-computer required to provide Denzel with caller ID. Which is weird, since I remember having a display built into a digital phone several years before this movie came out.


Theologica
From a biblical viewpoint, the main canyon here is the whole Azazel thing. The word comes from Leviticus 16 and is part of the description of the Yom Kippur ritual, namely the release of the scapegoat into the wilderness. I won’t bore you with a bunch of Hebrew, but it’s pretty likely that this is just the term for a creature sent out (having had the sins of the people confessed over it). Even if one views this as a reference to some sort of demon, the idea that some demons were “deprived of form” and now have to live out their existence in human hosts is . . . well, made up. But, then again, it’s a movie. Likewise, the whole passing by touch thing is fictional nonsense, but it’s never presented as anything but.

Besides, if there’s a takeaway (beyond entertainment) here, it’s not a message about the spiritual world; it’s more of a general moral application, like Pay It Forward, but in reverse. And, of course, the negative stuff is generally the most consistently paid back and paid forward (think of cycles of bullying, child abuse, sexual abuse, etc.) Somebody hurts somebody else, and that person carries it around for a while before finding someone else they can unleash it on. That’s what I see happening in some of the more clever scenes in Fallen, as the demon is passed from person to person, tearing lives apart.

Still, simply being a fictional romp does not give the movie a license to twist Scripture. There are times where the script gets things biblical 180ยบ off. For example, Gretta and her doctorate of made-up theology tells Denzel, “The demons want the fall of civilization, the fall of Babylon as they put it.” Um, NO! Jesus will bring about the fall of Babylon (corrupt and idolatrous society). In fact, I was just preaching on that out of Revelation 18 this morning (click here for the sermon). Satan isn’t all about chaos in every situation (think of the great order in the Third Reich). He can use society just fine and he’s pro-civilation most of the time, as long as he can set the values.

Another big dud also comes from Gretta’s lips: “God limited demons and made them mortal and he put a few of us here to fight them . . . ” Nah. Fighting demons is not the concern of some special class of people (your John Constantines or Carmen-the-CCM-gunslinger types). In fact, fighting demons is of itself no one’s concern. St. Paul tells us to submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Jude tells us that even the archangel Michael left the fighting to God.

And speaking of Michael, there are little trinkets and pictures of angels all over the place, so why don't they factor in to the plot at all? As in most Hollywood takes on the subject, only fallen angels seem to really exist. The good kind are just mascots. Along the same lines, even while the dialogue is full of God(i.e. “Do you believe in God?” “Maybe it’s God . . .”  “God willing”), God doesn’t make so much as a cameo appearance.

This last phenom is an ever-present shortcoming in Hollwood's treatment of the supernatural: the glorification of man. Too often, when movies acknowledge the existence of a spiritual world, devils are the problem and humans (digging down deep into the vast reservoirs of their goodness) are the solution, even (apparently) in attaining salvation, as Denzel tells his nephew, “If anybody deserves to go to heaven, it's your dad.” That may be true, Detective, but since no one is righteous and no one seeks God (Rom 4), no one “deserves to go to heaven,” so the conversation is moot. In the end, though, (SPOILER ALERT), he fails to defeat Azazel, even  by giving his life, which could certainly be used to arrive at some biblical conclusions, as Azazel in the Old Testament, is part of a clear foreshadowing of the One who gave his life so we would not have to.
 
 Memorable Quotes
  • “Well, thank you. You're . . . [under his breath] you're a white man.” 
  • “He had bad teeth. They found a piece in the cornflakes.”
  • “When it's a perfect world, let me know.”
  • “We need a translation of the translation.”
  • “Without pizza and other fine Italian foods, there would be no happiness.”
  • “We're not supposed to know; we're not supposed to see. It's like the mafia--they don't even exist.”
  • “There are certain phenomena that can only be explained if there is a God.” Yeah, like, the existence of . . . anything at all. 
  • “Nobody likes to get hit from every angle, but evil just keeps on coming...”
  • “I mean, do we care what ants do, ya know, from a moral standpoint?” 

Inevitable Cheese
  • “Beware my wrath.” (spoken by a senior citizen, perhaps the only bit player who couldn't pull off the creepy I-was-just-possessed-via-touch vibe) 
  • “Everything's personal if you're a person.”  Bet that looked clever on the page. 

Best Scares
Fallen doesn't have a bunch of sudden-loud-noise, make-you-jump scares; it's a different kind of film. But there were plenty of very creepy, slightly dread-inducing moments that were pulled off skillfully.  The pregnant pause after, “Art, what's wrong with your eye?” was one, as we realize that Denzel just looked the demon in the eye and greeted him (in the form of his nephew).  And the repeated (but not too often) demon's-eye view was understated and effective. And, while the whole “word written in the mirror” phenomenon has been done to death, it really worked with the plot and landed well as one of the few moments that made the viewer flinch. It worked because it was allowed to scare us by itself, rather than throwing in a really loud musical cue and a wacky video effect.

Wha-?
The demon in the book had a face on his butt. Am I the only one who saw that? A butt face! Perhaps that's the real take-away from this movie: Next time the devil tempts you or tells you that you're worthless, just remind him he has a butt face.












Friday, January 4, 2013

The Calm Before the Storm

What do you do the night before facing off against 450 heathen prophets? You clean your gun, and . .

Click the image below to read the Chapter 6 of 42 Months Dry: A Tale of Gods and Gunplay.