Archive for March, 2008

The Ultimate Gift?

March 13, 2008

Now, back to the criticism

My wife and I rented & watched The Ultimate Gift this week.  It has an impressive cast of older actors, as well as the ubiquitous Abigail Breslin (this is the second movie I’ve watched in as many weeks with her in it, sheesh!).  I will try – as always – not to spoil the movie with specific details, but trust me, this isn’t exactly a puzzler of a movie.  You’ll probably have the ending all figured out long before you actually turn on the DVD player. 

Let me say that nothing grates on my nerves more than the author/director/whatever of a work coming on in advance to tell me how important and wonderful whatever I’m about to read/watch/whatever is.  And I *REALLY* dislike it when said author/director/whatever is also taking time before the movie starts to advise me of all the very valuable special features included on the DVD – as well as the merchandise related to the movie that can be purchased through their web site.  Trust me.  If I think your book/movie/whatever is *that* impressive and worthwhile, I’ll search out more information about it – and you.  Let me watch the movie without you attempting to persuade me how wonderful it’s going to be.  You should have let go of that need to justify your work when you published/released it.  Or else you shouldn’t have published/released it in the first place.

So that was a bad start.

Unfortunately, it was only foreshadowing the poorness of the film itself.

I detest movies with preternaturally intelligent and wise children who manipulate clueless adults.  It bugs the snot out of me.  And once again, Breslin takes on this role.  She’s good at it, but that’s hardly a good thing, in my opinion. 

The story is of the moral development of a rich trust-fund baby.  Said development is undertaken with the carrot of some mysterious inheritance amount from his uber-wealthy and recently deceased grandfather – a person we are told very quickly, the protagonist has no love for.  Moral development is to be accomplished, *wink wink* without him knowing it at first, through the performance of tasks.  If he succeeds in a task, he moves on to the next one and theoretically closer to whatever his inheritance might be.  If he fails, it’s game over and he gets nothing.  The grandfather is attempting to foster something in the protagonist different from the self-absorption and greed of the rest of the family, including the protagonist’s mother.

I’ve always liked James Garner, and even in his limited role here, I like him.  While I don’t have any huge opinions about Brian Dennehy, he does a good job in his limited role here. 

Of course there’s an incidental love interest.  Of course there are predictable situations of frustration and infuriation by the protagonist, Jason, played adequately by Drew Fuller.   The plot is predictable.  The characters are two-dimensional.  We aren’t shown anything in any of them that makes them real.  There are no internal dilemmas, no character twists, nothing that isn’t color-by-number obvious from the first five minutes or so of the film.  

All of which is lamentable and makes for a poor movie in and of itself.  But my crowning infuriation with the movie is literally the last five minutes.  I’ve sat through the predictable rehabilitation of Jason from a self-obsessed jerk to a pillar of the community and model of self-sacrifice.  I would have respected the movie a thousand times more if it had just left it at that. 

But it didn’t.  In one final ‘surprise’, the movie follows in the lead of American Christianity and the heretical teachings of prosperity theology.  It’s so obvious I could watch the two by four being swung at my head in slow motion.  In case you haven’t seen, heard, or read Joel Osteen and the rest of the prosperity theology heretics, this movie delivers their message to you on a golden platter.  God is your sugar daddy.  Give till it hurts, and you’ll be rewarded tenfold, or twenty fold, or two-hundred fold. 

This is the ultimate crime of this movie.  The rest can be overlooked as just a bad movie.  What makes it criminal, spiritually damaging, is the last five minutes.  I hope that nobody else goes out and sees this movie.  Especially impressionable or desperate people who might pick up on those final five minutes as the key to their deliverance from whatever it is they’re dealing with in their lives right now.

God is good.  God loves you.  God has and will continue to provide for you.  But don’t expect God to hand you a winning lottery ticket, or the crown jewels, or anything else to ‘reward’ your faith and moral uprightness.  You insult yourself, you insult God, and you insult the millions of Christians who have died in their faith or because of their faith, who didn’t sell out, didn’t sell short, and still trusted in their Savior. 

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A Cinematic Caution

March 13, 2008

I begin to suspect that I should return to not watching movies as a basic life rule.  At least based on my limited viewing of late, there seems to be such a dearth of movies with any sort of message or meaning that would be cause for celebration and lifting up. 

That being said, here is my philosophy on film and cinema.  If a movie purports to be proclaiming a theme or a message, then I’m going to evaluate the movie on exactly what I see it to be communicating.  It’s as simple as that.  I don’t believe that ‘feel-good’ movies exist in some sort of vacuum wherein the ‘feel-goodiness’ of them is not something to analyze and evaluate.  I believe that if I feel good, there are reasons for it.  If a movie wants to make me feel good by watching it, then there is a method by which they’re going to accomplish this.  That method is subject to analysis & criticism as necessary.

When I went to see Broken Arrow or Face/Off or Con Air, I wasn’t expecting there to be some deep underlying message.  They’re action flicks.  They make us feel good through an adrenalin rush and a simplified encounter between varying degrees of good and evil.  They can be good or bad in how that adrenalin rush is approached, the quality of the acting (to a certain degree), and how outrageous the plot is (willing suspension of disbelief does have limitations!).  But I wouldn’t think to criticize Con Air for philosophical or theological issues unless the movie itself invited that sort of critique based on off-hand dialogue or other situations. 

I enjoy a good mindless movie every now and then.  Shaun of the Dead – the portions I saw of it – seemed to be a hilarious example of such a movie.  I don’t care for mindless movies that rely on steady streams of profanity and nudity to achieve their entertainment, mind you.  You don’t have to be vulgar to be entertaining (or mindless, actually).  But there are plenty of movies that can and should be enjoyed on a very non-intellectual level.  You know they’re bad.  They don’t pretend they aren’t.  It’s a match made in heaven.

No, the ones that give me stomach cramps are the movies that aspire to something more.  They want an emotional response from the viewer.  They have a message to convey.  They are Important pieces of work.  These are the movies that I find myself more and more disgusted by.  These are the movies that frustrate me to no end, either because their message is completely contrary to my beliefs and the beliefs of millions of people like me, or because they are a tragically awful attempt to represent (or exploit) the beliefs of myself and those millions of other people.

And I’ll admit that I’m more analytical than some people.  My life experiences and educational background have equipped me and trained me to examine things critically, looking past the surface, weighing and testing what I find.  Partly, this is the writer in me – the lazy perfectionist who finds it easier to criticize than to take the time and effort necessary to craft something worthy of my own.  I’m not your average movie-goer, and this allows me to look at/for things that someone who sees movies on a regular basis might forget to look for, or see as unnecessary.  Movies are more than just entertainment to me, and I treat them that way.

So, if I seem critical, I am.  Messengers have important jobs.  And messages are important to analyze and evaluate.  Sitting back and just allowing your emotions to be manipulated without examining how it’s being accomplished is dangerous and irresponsible, ultimately. 

Some Reservations

March 11, 2008

So I get it that casual sex is no big deal.  At least that’s the way our culture wants us to think.  I just find it odd when this sort of mind-set is mixed with children.

We rented No Reservations the other night, the summer-flick with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart as competing chefs.  It’s a light film, so I won’t bother criticizing it on the basis of storyline or plot development or any number of other points (character development, lack of originality, etc.). 

But in the course of this movie, the two main characters sleep together.  It’s tastefully done in that this is implied rather than spread out in graphic detail for us.  But it’s implied.  So much so that, the morning after, the guy is the one to wander into the 10-year old niece’s bedroom, and ask if she wants to make pancakes with him. 

Yes, she knows him.  They’ve been chummy when she hangs out at the restaurant watching he and her aunt cook.  And yes, they all worked to cook a wonderful dinner the night before.  But there’s no surprise in her (played by Abigail Breslin).  No why are you waking me up?  No where the heck is my aunt?  The kid is very cool with a near-stranger appearing in her bedroom one morning. 

Of course, the understanding seems to be that the child understands what has happened.  She knows – at some 10-year old level – that her aunt and this guy have spent the night.  So of course it’s no surprise when he makes a big deal of kissing her aunt at breakfast the next morning.  Kudos to Zeta-Jones’ character for hesitating and suggesting it’s not appropriate.  BECAUSE IT’S NOT!!!  But of course, she’s overruled.  And it’s cool with the kid that they spend the whole day in a fast-forwarded montage of fun and togetherness.

And when the characters break up (which is a charitable description, since they haven’t really been ‘together’ up till now in the film), the child is devestated.  Well, that appears to be a reasonable description of what you might expect when you dangle paternal figures in and out of a child’s life – let alone the life of a child who has just lost her mother.  At some point though – I can’t remember exactly where – the girl offers Zeta-Jones her favorite stuffed animal to sleep with.  The implication seeming to be (at least at one level), that Zeta-Jones needs someone to sleep with, even if it’s just a stuffed animal. 

It’s another movie with a preternaturally wise child – or what our culture considers wise these days.  And, like Martian Child, it’s another film with a young child who is able to run away and navigate across town somehow on their own.  I have no idea how this happens, and I don’t happen to know many (or any) 10-year olds that – in a new city that they aren’t familiar with – could run away and figure out how to navigate public transit or taxis (and with what money!?!?!?) to get across town to their destination.  Gimme a break!

I won’t spoil the ending, though I suspect that’s practically impossible with a movie of this type.  If you don’t know how it’s going to end, you probably see even fewer movies than *I* do, and that’s pretty hard to do!  I just get irritated when Hollywood attempts to utilize children to foster the impression that casual sex is not only acceptable, it’s natural – even to a 10-year old.  Ugh.

Age Appropriate?

March 11, 2008

I hate how our culture segregates by age.  I hate it.  I don’t understand it.  It’s counter-intuitive.  It’s self-destructive.  And yet it’s soooo pervasive.

As soon as you’re old enough to go to school (well, pre-school these days), you’re divided up by age.  You’re constantly associating only with those who are your age.  Well, and adults.  That can’t be avoided – otherwise I assume we’d even avoid that.  People more than a year or two apart from you in age might as well be aliens from another planet.  If you don’t have younger & older siblings, you’re plumb out of luck.

This of course continues well beyond school.  Once people are used to being only with others of their same age group, they seem at a loss to deal with anyone more than a few years outside of it.  Having had the opportunity (been forced?) to work with people both much older and much younger than myself, I don’t seem to have as many hang ups as others do. 

Am I the only one who finds this segregation thing to be rather bizarrely unnatural?  Other cultures seem to maintain a healthy appreciation for inter-generational interactions.  I wonder why it’s so problematic in the US (at least in my admittedly limited frame of reference!).

Tolerable Cruelty

March 11, 2008

Our community newspaper recently ran an article about a Holocaust survivor who had made a visit with his family to a local school, where excerpts from his life story were read to children.  Having had the opportunity to see Elie Wiesel, and to tour the Dachau death camp, I know what power a Survivor has in sharing their story.  It was duly noted that the kids were clearly impacted from the presence and words of this man.  There was also a brief quote from some school official or another, decrying the hideousness of hatred, and espousing the cultural party line about the importance of “practicing tolerance”.

This strikes me as such a horrible statement. 

However, before starting this entry, I went to dictionary.com to look up the definition for tolerance.  I found it interesting that the primary definition for the word has to do with permissiveness towards other views and those who hold them.  This surprised me.  While this certainly is the popular use for the word these days, in my mind, tolerance has to do with permitting or allowing something.  It is a capacity to deal with a situation – or a person – and has always in my mind also implied somewhat of an unpleasantness.  Tolerance is what you practice when you can’t genuinely enjoy or appreciate something.  So it seemed strange that the primary definition has to do with objectiveness and freedom from bigotry.  I wonder if this has always been the traditional, primary definition for the term.  I need to do more research!

Yet a search on the definition of tolerate came up with definitions more along the lines of what I expected.  You tolerate something when you allow it or permit it.  It seems to imply that you don’t *have* to tolerate something or someone, but you choose to.  Further research seems to indicate that tolerance is related to tolerant, as opposed to tolerate.  While dictionary.com is probably not the best source for an exhaustive etymology study, it’s still food for thought.

(In case you’re wondering though, tolerant has the same connotations as tolerate.  While it may be linked in some respect etymologically more to tolerance, definitionally, it has more in common with tolerate.  Frankly, I’ll be shocked and humbled if there is any actual difference in root linguistic source.)

So, until I or someone else proves me incorrect in my definitional assumptions, I’m going to continue to assert that tolerance is not the ideal we should be shooting for as a culture. 

Tolerance is held up as a virtue of the first magnitude now.  It forms consistent thematic backdrops to just about every children’s show I’ve watched in recent years (Sesame Street, etc.).  The words used to explain or define it may differ based on the target age range of the show, but it’s clear that everyone has marching orders that tolerance is what kids need to learn, and learn but good.

But tolerance is such a limiting goal.  Tolerance has more to do with behavior than a way of thinking or feeling.  Tolerance implies nothing beyond an ability to keep our innate attitudes, prejudices, etc. under the surface, out of the way so they don’t impact anyone.  Tolerance seems to me ultimately to be a favor that I extend to other people.  A favor I don’t have to extend, but should.  Tolerance is the result of my self-control and good pleasure, and has nothing to do with the other person. 

What a lousy goal. 

It’s a popular theme that tolerance is one of the many layers of civility that we don to make ourselves feel good, but which is quickly cast aside when times are tough.  Read Heart of Darkness (or watch Apocalypse Now).  Or think back to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.  How long did a veneer of tolerance last?  Tolerance is a luxury that we indulge in, and seems definitionally to imply that such a luxury could quickly be cast aside if things got rough.  I dislike tolerance because tolerance is reliable only so long as the person doing the tolerating is in a good mood, feeling charitable, well-fed and provided for.  When those variables are gone, what happens next?

I much prefer the old fashioned Christian notion of “love thy neighbor”.  Of course, we can’t have that sort of religious claptrap in our classrooms these days.  And yet, even as an atheist – perhaps even especially as an atheist! – I’d choose love thy neighbor over tolerate thy neighbor every day of the week. 

Loving my neighbor requires a change in me.  It indicates that I need to really do some work if I’m going to be able to love that person.  It doesn’t imply that I can keep my specific ideas or preferences or habits intact.  Not if I really want to love that other person.  Loving my neighbor has nothing to do with me.  It’s not a luxury, but a part of who I am.  It means that I can’t just stand back and aloof, permitting the other person to continue existing, but I need to enter into relationship with that person, to seek to know and understand  them so that I can know best how to love them.  You can’t love someone you don’t know and don’t understand.  You might idolize them or lust after them or admire them – but you can’t really love them.

So I’m all for scrapping the whole tolerance agenda.  It gives me the willies.  If you want people to really work, really change, really make an impact on the world, teach them to love.  Teach them to love everyone, even those who are hard to love.  Teach them the distinction between loving someone and accepting everything that person does or says as valid and legitimate and good.  While you’re at it, I’d be all for teaching them the example of love we see in God the Father, and in Jesus the Christ.  But I know that will never fly in public schools.  So leave that off if you must.  But please, preach love, not tolerance.