Posts Tagged F-rated films

Elephant

Year of release: 2003              Directed by Gus Van Sant.     Starring John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen.

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It is certainly not uncommon for films to age poorly. What seemed groundbreaking or provocative at one time appears tacky, contrived, or even offensive ten, twenty, or thirty years later. However, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, is a uniquely appalling example of a film that has aged so poorly that watching it one has to frequently remind themself that cultural awareness now is not what it was a decade and a half ago.

I will readily admit that recent events do not help this movie age, but Elephant is still one of the most offensive trainwrecks I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. Literally, the only good thing about it is that it is a relatively short 80 minutes, even if it doesn’t always feel that way when watching it.

A story of a fictitious school shooting, inspired by details of the Columbine massacre, the film approaches the subject by using the multiple storyline technique, showing the same interval of time leading up to the school shooting from the perspective of various students. Pointless tracking shots randomly follow students from several high school cliques, except never long enough that the students become anything other than stereotypes. At the end of one of the segments, there is a brief shot of two kids carrying guns who tell one of the kids to get away from the school.

I watched this film cold, completely unaware of anything related to the storyline, but at that point I was able to figure out where it was going, and I spent the remainder of the film hoping I was going to be wrong, until I wasn’t. The lack of personality of all the students meant that the film only viewed them as statistics, so there was nothing tragic in the way it portrayed their inevitable loss of life. However, more problematically, since the film used the Rashomon technique of replaying the same time frame from different perspectives, it inevitably meant that the first moment of release and resolution would be when those different threads came together. That moment by default was the school massacre.

I am sure the filmmakers intended to build to the massacre and have it be the apex of the horror; however, because of the style of filming, it ended up being one of the most callous and offensive uses of teenage death I have ever seen in a film.

Finally, the portrayal of the two shooters is even more problematic. The film teases at motivations for them: they play violent video games, they’re secretly gay and bullied, inviting the viewer to speculate whatever motivation s/he wants. Considering the way such excuses have recently been used to blame victims of school shootings while subsequently implying that bullied or outcast kids are secretly psychopaths, the suggestion here is outrageous regardless of when this film was made.

As to the meaning of the title, it could either refer to the expression “the elephant in the room” or the story of six blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and all conclude it is something completely different. The “elephant in the room” would presumably refer to the outcast kids and the impending shooting which no one expected, but based on the film’s presentation, there would be no reason to. Since there are so many different storylines covering different points of view, those could suggest the second interpretation of various fragments of reality coming together to reveal an horrific whole.

Elephant is the sort of arty film that invites its viewers to draw any conclusion they want, whether that is in regards to the meaning of the title or why the school shooting happened. In approaching the tragic subject matter in such a way, it dulls the horror and only seems interested in eliciting a response of “fascinating” to a school shooting, because it’s too pretentious to actually care about its characters or the tragedy other than for exploitation.

 

Personal recommendation: F

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God’s Not Dead

MV5BMjEwNDQ3MzYyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE0ODM3MDE@._V1__SX1303_SY579_Warning: some spoilers

I debated for awhile on whether or not I should write a review of God’s Not Dead, last year’s surprise faith-based hit. On the one hand, it’s the type of movie at which it is easy to take cheap shots, which can be fun and cathartic, but at the same time, even if those shots are deserved, they can be unfair to the filmmakers and also unfair to people who genuinely like the movie and do not understand why it’s not only bad art but also bad theology.

However, last weekend saw the latest offering of “Christian Cinema,” War Room, top the box office, (which I have not seen and hope not to) and I decided I should comment on the movie which proved to Hollywood that “feel good” movies targeted to Christian audiences can be huge financial successes.

If you’re wondering why a self-proclaimed Catholic film critic is so emphatically negative towards a low budget film by Christian filmmakers that was intended to promote the Gospel, then please bear with me as I explain. I chose the title “Catholic Cinephile” for this blog for two reasons. First, I believe all the Catholic Church teaches and professes to be revealed by God, and that influences my movie watching. Secondly, I believe in the power of art to transform, inspire, and move us closer to the divine. Good art makes the world a more beautiful place, and bad art makes it uglier. Cinema is an art form, for which I have cultivated a love and which I wish to study in order to recognize and appreciate beauty and truth as presented by the artists who make films.

As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 letter to artists:

Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling the human artist to share in His creative power. Obviously, this is a sharing which leaves intact the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa made clear: “Creative art, which it is the soul’s good fortune to entertain, is not to be identified with that essential art which is God himself, but is only a communication of it and a share in it”.

As I said above, the unfortunate reality is that movies such as God’s Not Dead (and Fireproof and Facing the Giants) are very bad art. As a result they neither contribute to the beautification of the world nor spreading the Gospel (which the filmmakers presumably hoped to do with said movies.)

If there is any doubt that God’s Not Dead is terrible cinema, here are some examples from the script. A woman is diagnosed with cancer; when the doctor tells her, she responds: “I don’t have time for cancer; I’m too busy.” When that woman tells her boyfriend, his response is: “Couldn’t this wait ’til tomorrow?” In case it’s not obvious, both of those characters are atheists, and in the world of God’s Not Dead, atheists are terrible selfish people with no social skills or basic human decency, which makes it odd that many of the atheists have prestigious jobs, because one usually needs those skill sets to acquire such positions. The reality is human beings do not speak as either of those characters do, but the makers of God’s Not Dead are not interested in portraying atheists as human beings, but rather as fictitious boogeymen out to crucify poor defenseless Christians, as blatantly reinforced by naming the pastor Reverend Dave (against atheist Goliaths). To which I reply: if one cannot love the atheist they have seen, how can they love God whom they have not seen? (cf. 1 John 4:20)

Nowhere is the disdain for atheists more apparent than the climactic scene, when Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) who challenged college freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) to prove God exists or “commit academic suicide” and then blackmailed Josh outside of class, and is somehow next in line to be the department head, has been humiliated in front of his class, spurned by his girlfriend, and finally gets hit by a car. As he’s fatally injured, the film cuts to a God’s point of view shot (angling the camera downward at a ninety degree angle), suggesting that God has willed the vengeful humiliation and death of the antagonist, because in being injured he repents and accepts Jesus as his savior. My advice to anyone who thinks this portrayal of God as a petty, vengeful middle school bully is something to celebrate is to read Ezekiel 33:11. (I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked…)

I’ll mention three other examples of horrendous filmmaking. First is a scene in which a Muslim girl is secretly listening to Christian sermons on her iPod. The movie needs her extremist father to angrily throw her out of the house, so for no reason at all, as she’s quietly sitting in her room after school, her little brother sneaks in and takes the iPod and shows their father. Next, when Josh cites a renowned theist to correctly call Stephen Hawking’s argument against the existence of God an example of circular reasoning, Josh then turns around and uses circular reasoning to “prove” the existence of God. His philosophy professor, who’s supposedly very intelligent, fails to notice this. Finally, the woman who is diagnosed with cancer discovers her car with the window smashed in and her GPS stolen. She says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” That’s a good summary for much of the film, because in reality, the word which most actual human beings would use in such a situation is one that rhymes with duck (or maybe odd slam hit).

Art cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. Consequently, good art will be aware of the condition of the world. A whitewashed world where you can tell heroes from villains by who looks forward to a Newsboys concert is neither realistic nor does it share in the divine creativity of God, because it ignores the reality of God’s greatest creation (humankind) in favor of contrived messages and code symbols designed to give those in the know a feeling of superiority.

The common objection to all these points is that faith-based films, such as God’s Not Dead, “made me feel good.” The question to ask oneself is “why did I feel good?” Is it because my preconceived worldview was confirmed as I was pandered to? Is it because an ostensibly Christian protagonist was vindicated, even if that involved clear hatred for one’s enemy? Joel Mayward fleshes this phenomenon out in detail, but he is absolutely correct here:

The response of “I liked it, so stop critiquing it” may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world. Jesus doesn’t invite us to be nice so that everything works out to make us happy. He bids us to come and die, to live a life of sacrificial love, compassion, justice, and mercy.

The belief that if you proudly stand up and proclaim your faith, God will reward you has an obvious appeal for Christians. Not only does God’s Not Dead twist that into be a jerk to your enemies, it also prevents a version of faith so naive that books of The Bible such as “Job,” “Lamentations,” and “Hosea” have absolutely no place in its world. Remember by what act Jesus draws the world to Himself (or uplifts us)? That is completely foreign to God’s Not Dead and many other examples of “Christian cinema.”

Personal Recommendation: F

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Forrest Gump

Year of Release: 1994     Directed by Robert Zemeckis.  Starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, and Gary Sinise.

Or, as I like to call it: Forrest Junk. Be warned, I spoil the entire movie.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood. Maybe I’m just really strange and dislike movies designed primarily to play off the viewer’s emotions. But if you like Forrest Gump, do not read further. This film pulled off the rare achievement of taking everything that annoys me about cinema and combining all those factors into what may have been the most excruciating 140 minutes of my life. I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie.

It began with the opening music. It was a little sappy, but I smiled and thought the film would be sweet and touching, if overly sentimental. Instead, it was one preposterous situation after another, a cast of characters who ALL make a blade of grass look intelligent, stealing scenes from vastly superior movies (The Princess Bride reference was particularly unforgiveable), grating voiceovers that only repeat what is being depicted, slow tracking shots that do nothing assist the story, a nonsensical tweaking of history, a dating of events that makes some narratives play out too quickly and others too slowly, and stupid metaphors that make no sense at all. Life is NOT like a box of chocolates, and you always know what you’re going to get in a box of chocolates: some nutty, some caramels, some creams, and some dark chocolate, and there usually is a chart so you can identify which chocolates are what.

An example of the lousy timeframe: Forrest and Jenny reunite in the summer of 1968, the last full year of LBJ’s presidency, by whom Forrest was awarded the medal of honor. Therefore, Forrest could not have been in Vietnam for several years, because when he went off to war Jenny ran away to California where she struggled to support herself as a street performer. But that was also in 1968, because during the flashback she was performing outside a theatre which is showing Rosemary’s Baby, which first opened on June 12, 1968. Is the film saying that she spent three or four years trying to get to California, and then hooked up with a band immediately after arriving, right before Forrest came home?)

Also, someone with an IQ of 75, who is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, who has been thoroughly taught segregation his entire life, and makes comments to that extent, is not going to turn around and offer to assist a black woman who drops her books. That’s smug, audience pleasing, patting ourselves on the back propaganda, if there ever was any.

I get it. Dwelling on details like that is missing the point of the story. But let me summarize that story:

Mama becomes whore
To send stupid son to school.
He meets and sleeps with
Jenny, a pretty
Girl abused by her father.
She runs away, and
He lives through hist’ry.
After Vietnam and porn
They reunite in
Old Alabama.
They sleep together once more,
Have sex and a kid.
Then she leaves, because
The film needs sorrow. He then
Runs and runs and runs.
And that is profound,
Since Forrest was once crippled.
Then he finds Jenny,
But their time is brief
Since she was a junkie and
Dies of AIDS. The end.

What is moving and profound about that? A cynical part of me thinks this was so popular only because it was raising awareness for HIV and AIDS. Because there is no other way this could seriously have won best picture over: Quiz Show, Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood, Three Colors: Red, Three Colors: White, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Bullets Over Broadway. Heck, if the academy wanted to select a feel-good crowd pleaser with gratuitous voiceovers, The Shawshank Redemption, for all its flaws, is a hundred times better than this.

As I see it, there are two possibilities 1) all those who love this film have been duped or 2) I am weirder than I realized, and I am missing some basic human emotion gene. I am going to go with 1).

And in conclusion, to call Forrest (and this film) stupid would be an insult to stupid people.

(For those who do not know the reference)

Content Advisory: Several implied sexual encounters, some with partial nudity; references to pedophilia; one strong vulgarity many other milder ones; drug use; some wartime violence; and ham-fisted manipulative dishonestly throughout.                                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: F

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