Thursday, December 20, 2012

Eli Is Back!

My laptop is back and I'm up and running!  Next Tuesday, I've got a review of some Denzel action from the '90s, and right now Chapter 5 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 . .

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 . . .

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. 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.