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Archive for December, 2005

My Religion Ain’t Narnia Business; or, Is Christmas Over Yet?

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 23, 2005

Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays to everyone out there reading this – whoops, hope that doesn’t offend anybody…

The funniest so-called “controversy” in recent months – at least relating to film – has been the religious right’s attempt to adopt the movie version of The Chronicles of Narnia as a big Christian propaganda film. I’ve read several articles over the past few weeks in which leaders of sham organizations such as the American Family Association point to the popularity of Narnia as an example of mainstream audiences accepting “Christian values” and rejecting the so-called “deviance” that Hollywood supposedly promotes on a regular basis.

What’s so amusing about this, you ask? Well, have you actually seen Narnia? Granted, it is a family film that doesn’t contain any really objectionable content, but if the makers of this movie intended it to be a Christian propaganda film, they failed miserably.

Yes, Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on a beloved children’s fantasy novel by C.S. Lewis, a noted religious scholar who believed very strongly in Christianity. Although I’ve never read the book myself, I know several people who read it as children and claim they never realized that the fate of one character was intended as a Christ allegory. That’s because, as in the film, it wasn’t explicit or obvious – you can see it if you know it’s in there, but if you don’t, you can easily miss it completely. That’s kinda the point of an allegory, after all. It’s not supposed to be so blatant that it hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. Lewis intended the story to read that way, and at least in the film version, that’s the way it plays. It’s in there, but it’s not the focus of the whole movie. It’s not what the whole story is about.

So how much of Narnia can be interpreted as “religious content”? Well, the talking-lion character, Aslan, sacrifices himself to save the other “good” characters, and is then reborn (due to some ridiculous plot contrivance that didn’t make much logical sense). That’s the Christ allegory. Oh, and the young human characters are referred to at times as “sons of Adam” and “daughters of Eve” (apparently meaning that they’re human). That’s it.

That’s it? Wow, not exactly Passion of the Christ, is it? There’s more religious content in Linus’ speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas than in this entire two-hour plus film. This is the movie that the Christian right wing is adopting as their own? The fact that people are buying tickets to this supposedly justifies Christianity as the one and only religion? Bullshit!

Yes, I’m sure there’s a certain segment of the audience who went to see this with that agenda in mind. In fact, as I walked out of the theater I noticed a couple of church buses in the parking lot, and I don’t think they were there to see Syriana. But the only thing this proves is that religious people apparently can’t find their way to the movie theater on their own.

Do you want to know why most people went to see Narnia? 1) It was the first real big-budget blockbuster movie of the holiday season; 2) it’s based on a beloved novel that a lot of people read as children; 3) the massive advertising campaign made millions of children nationwide demand that their parents take them to see it. For the vast majority of the audience, it had nothing to do with religion or a push by the religious right. They saw it for much of the same reasons they go to the Harry Potter movies. And we all know the hardcore Christians hate Harry Potter.

I took my nephew to see it on a Saturday afternoon, opening weekend, and the audience didn’t seem any different than the usual audiences for blockbuster movies. You had your noisy kids, your smartass teenagers who made sarcastic remarks throughout, your extremely bored adults who kept checking their watch…you know the drill. Maybe there were some Christians in the audience, but it’s not like they made themselves known as such in any way. I know some extremely religious Christians, and most of them walk around with gold crosses around their neck and T-shirts that read “Got Jesus?” and some of them even carry little Bibles around with them everywhere they go. If there was anyone like that in the audience, I couldn’t tell. It’s not like they whooped and hollered every time someone said “Adam” or “Eve” and no one yelled “praise Jesus!” when Aslan came back from the dead. People generally behaved the way they normally behave at the movies – they were either respectfully quiet or they were obnoxious in the usual way.

Seriously, no one’s going to walk out of Narnia with their beliefs changed in any way. If you’re a Buddhist or an atheist or a Satan-worshipper going in, you’re going to be the same coming out. Aslan is a supporting character – the film is about the human siblings who wander into the fantasy world of Narnia, and the things that they experience when they get there. None of that has anything to do with religion, or politics, or the proliferation of nuclear power or anything else people might want to read into it. For the majority of the audience, it’s a children’s fantasy film, and nothing but that. Saying that the movie is about Aslan is like saying King Kong is about a Jewish playwright.

Honestly, do we really have to politicize everything in this society now? Buying a ticket to Narnia doesn’t make you an extremist religious wacko, any more than buying a ticket to Brokeback Mountain means that you’re suddenly going to turn gay. It’s only a fucking movie, people! Can’t we all just get over ourselves?

The really amusing thing about the whole situation is that it’s only the conservatives who have championed Narnia as being their own little Jesus movie. You don’t hear liberals or even atheists complaining about the film’s content – because there’s virtually nothing there to complain about! It’s such a non-issue. You’d have to be a pretty extreme leftist to complain about the religious content of a movie that never uses the words “God”, “Jesus” or any variation on “Christ”. The idea that this is a movie made specifically for Christians, to “spread the word” of Christianity and convert non-believers is utterly ridiculous. It’s just not there. Even the film’s director, Andrew Adamson, said in interviews that he dealt with the allegory by not dealing with it, and simply tried to tell the story as it is in the book. Does that sound like someone trying to spread propaganda, or even force his beliefs on a mass audience? Not to any levelheaded person.

As an avowed agnostic, was I offended by anything in Narnia? Not in the least. I knew going in what I was going to see, and there was nothing in it that any reasonable person should be upset by. Then again, there are some agnostics and atheists who are offended by Christmas trees. I’m not one of them. I want presents like everybody else. But if I were that unreasonable, I wouldn’t have gone to the movie in the first place. I’m not offended by religious films per se – they just don’t interest me. That’s why I chose not to see Passion of the Christ (and still haven’t seen it) – I didn’t boycott it or try to convince others not to go. It just wasn’t a film I was interested in seeing. It’s not for me. But if I had gone to see it, out of curiosity, I would have to accept that it’s a film with a specific agenda in mind and view it on that basis, just as I did with Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and other films in that vein. You know, people who only experience a work of art to have their own beliefs validated are kind of missing the point. You can understand and accept, without necessarily agreeing. That’s the great thing about having an open mind – or at least trying to have one. I admired Scorsese’s film, and I may wind up admiring Gibson’s whenever I eventually see it. That doesn’t mean I’ll be converted by anything I see on screen, or that I’ll even want to watch the film again. But it would be foolish to be “offended” by a film that plainly states what it’s about and what the beliefs of its makers are. If you don’t think you can stomach it, don’t watch the damn movie. Conversely, one can say the same thing about Brokeback Mountain or Fahrenheit 9/11. They are what they are, they’re about what they’re about, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go.

I’m honestly more offended by movies that stuff religious propaganda in where it doesn’t belong than by movies that are clearly and plainly religious. The best example in recent years is Bruce Almighty (wow, I really hated that movie), which starts out as a raucous Jim Carrey comedy and spends the entire last half preaching to the audience in such an insufferable and insincere manner that I honestly wanted to run out of the theater long before the final credits rolled. Yes, I knew it was a movie about a guy who gets to borrow the powers of God, and that Morgan Freeman played the role of God, so I wasn’t expecting it to challenge the basic tenets of Christianity. But what I didn’t expect (or appreciate) was having privileged multimillionaires like Carrey, Jennifer Aniston and director Tom Shadyac preaching about how we all need to “pray” to get through hard times in life. Honestly guys, you know what, fuck you, OK? If we all had your money and power, we wouldn’t have any fucking problems. Who are you to lecture us about anything? Does anyone really think they believe their own bullshit? Yes, I’m sure there are many A-list prayer groups in Hollywood, and I’ll bet there’s a Christian church on every corner. Please! Not even Scientologists would have the balls to pull that shit on unsuspecting audiences. I went to that movie for a laugh, not a sermon. I’d honestly rather go out and roll around in yellow snow than watch that movie ever again.

Ultimately, I’m not so much offended by Christianity itself as by their idea that everyone must believe what they do, or suffer eternal damnation. It must be awfully convenient to know that everyone who’s not like you will eventually be punished for it, don’t you think? I’d like to be allowed to think for myself, to make up my own mind about what to believe, how to behave and even what to watch and listen to. Is that evil? I honestly don’t think so. This whole “War on Christianity” is so absurd – they act like liberals and gays and atheists are sitting around a table in an underground bunker, like in a WWII movie, planning their next assault on the poor misunderstood Christians. No. We’re all just trying to live our lives the way we see fit. Why is that so threatening? Just because someone chooses to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Jesus Christ’s Birthday”, you guys have to have a shit fit? Is that really all these people have to complain about? Honestly, this country becomes more and more like a Monty Python sketch every day.

But in the spirit of the holiday, let me send a generous message to all the conservative Christians out there. You guys are the majority. If there’s a war going on, you’re winning. The rest of us couldn’t get rid of you even if we wanted to. So why don’t you do your thing, we’ll do our thing, and you can quit whining already? Life isn’t a game of Risk, where every person is a territory that needs to be conquered. It’s more like Monopoly, and you already own all the property before the game even starts. So quit pretending you’re an oppressed minority. You’re the landlords, not the people who live in the slums. Start acting like it.

Oh, and Happy Holidays!

Now let’s try to quickly cover all the movies I’ve seen that I haven’t had time to review (I know I’ve been mostly AWOL for awhile, but this month has been a real bitch):

Derailed – yet another “don’t cheat on your wife or you’ll fuck up your life” pseudo-thriller, and a pretty lame one at that. I swear I saw this exact same plot on Cinemax with Angie Everhart and Richard Grieco. Seriously though, this was pretty awful, but it was moderately amusing due to the increasing absurdity of the plot twists – it was watchable in a “so bad it’s good” way. Clive Owen looks completely lost here, like he’s waiting for Natalie Portman to show up and strip for him. Whoever had the balls to cast Jennifer Aniston as a femme fatale – kudos on your incompetence! What’s next, Meg Ryan as a serial killer? What were these people thinking when they made this ludicrous potboiler? Seriously, did Joe Estzerhas write this thing? As bad as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to hate it, because I was too busy (as we used to say when we were kids) “laughing hysterically inside”. Ridiculously entertaining, in all the wrong ways. **

Walk the Line – an almost-great movie that does justice to the Man in Black. I still maintain that the movie isn’t really a traditional Johnny Cash biopic at all, but a dark romance about how he stalked June for years until she finally agreed to marry him (notice that the movie ends with their marriage, even though there’s plenty more to tell) and how Cash “walked the line” with her until she gave in. No one believes me when I say that, of course, but I swear that’s how it played to me. It takes a special kind of certainty and confidence to wait that long for somebody to come around. I guess they didn’t have restraining orders back then. Anyway, Joaquin was pretty damn great here, and it’s nice to see Reese actually acting again, not just propping up lame romantic-comedy fluff. My only problem with it was that, again, it didn’t tell the whole story, just the parts that fit (why no mention of his early ’90’s comeback with Rick Rubin?). But what’s there is pretty cool nonetheless. ***1/2

The Ice Harvest – a pretty decent little film-noir that fully entertained me and the six other people who saw it. They really thought this would do well at Thanksgiving? Wow, fine line between confidence and stupidity, huh? Darker and more nihilistic than Bad Santa in its wildest dreams, Harold Ramis’ film is a grim little tale of a crooked lawyer who haunts cheap strip clubs, neglects his kids and steals from his boss! And he’s the moral center of the film – everyone else is a real scumbag. Just in time for the holidays! It’s also the best thing Ramis has done in years, and I think it’ll be rediscovered on DVD and cable. Cusack is great as (almost) always, Billy Bob is fantastic, Oliver Platt is hysterical and Randy Quaid leaves Cousin Eddie in the dust with a ferocious performance. Too bad it’s the kind of movie people stay away from in droves. Give it time, though, and I think in a couple of years it’ll be a cult classic among the kind of folks who watch The Big Lebowski religiously. Trust me, you’ll see. ***

Aeon Flux – you know, it really wasn’t that bad! Not that it was great or anything, but for a movie that got more attention for not having any critics’ screenings than anything else (hey, I have to pay, why shouldn’t they?), it was surprisingly watchable. A solid attempt at some Matrix-style sci-fi, it suffered only because, well, we’ve already seen The Matrix. And there were so many damn plot twists – was the movie anti-terrorist or pro-terrorist in the end? Who could tell? And how could she fight with all that hair in her face? Wouldn’t visibility be a problem? Oh well. If I had to choose between watching angry Charlize in Monster or sexy Charlize in this…you figure it out. **1/2

Syriana – hmmm, I thought it was a good film, well done and well-acted and everything, but somehow it left me cold. I guess I was expecting to be blown away by the revelations about the oil industry, and frankly I just…wasn’t. You’d have to be pretty politically naïve to be shocked by anything that happens in this movie – “you mean our government is willing to kill people to protect its business interests? Say it ain’t so!” The various plotlines are relatively interesting, and I was never bored by any of it, but it just doesn’t add up to much that’s particularly surprising, at least not to me. Maybe people who don’t pay much attention to what goes on in the world will find this devastating, I really don’t know. It’s good enough to recommend, and there are fine performances across the board, but…I wanted it to shake me, the way Traffic did, and yet I walked out unshaken. Go figure. ***

King Kong – OK, people will sit through two three-hour football games in a row on Sunday afternoons, but they can’t sit through a three-hour movie? Get over it! I was actually skeptical about the whole project (when Jackson was originally going to make it for summer ’98, I was actually heard to say, “do we really need another King Kong movie?”) but I was wrong – wrong, I tell you! This is masterful, bravura filmmaking, and it rocks hard. I love how, even though we’ve seen this story before, it still feels completely like a Peter Jackson movie, complete with wicked creatures and a shockingly high body count for a PG-13 film. The first hour is necessary to ground us in the world Jackson has created (and it’s not just about the destination, it’s about the journey), but once the creature action begins, Jackson totally delivers. I was honestly in awe of this picture by the halfway mark, and that happens so rarely anymore. The whole thing is so fucking cool, I can’t believe people actually want it to be shorter. What’s wrong with you guys? You’d rather get less for your ticket price? That’s unfathomable. For a movie like this to work in the modern age, it has to go over the top, there needs to be more rather than less. I guarantee you if he’d cut out a half-hour, people would be bitching that there weren’t enough of their favorite parts and they wanted to see more. Somehow Jackson has gone from interesting genre director to master filmmaker in the space of a few years, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Honestly, if you don’t love Jackson’s Kong, you just don’t love movies. At least not enough. ****

That about covers it for this super-long column, and I’ll be back in the new year (if not before) with more reviews and rants for you to chew on. Until then, sayonara and Happy Holidays to you! I’ll be out there trying to avoid drunk drivers until Jan. 2. Later!

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Fun with Dick and Jane

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 22, 2005

Directed by Dean Parisot/screenplay by Judd Apatow, Nicholas Stoller/starring Jim Carrey, Tea Leoni, Alec Baldwin, Richard Jenkins, Angie Harmon/Columbia Pictures – Imagine Entertainment

A yuppie couple turns to crime after a corporate bailout leaves them unemployed and incapable of maintaining their lifestyle.

I’ve never actually seen the original 1977 Fun with Dick and Jane (I know, shame on me), so this is one remake I was able to walk into with no preconceived notions. From what I understand, the original is kind of an odd little film set against the backdrop of the economic slump of the late ‘70’s, but the filmmakers and studio thought the material was ripe for a remake given our current financial situation.

However, the remake is set in the year 2000, in a climate of corporate malfeasance and financial irresponsibility (to say the least) that suddenly left thousands of employees without jobs or pensions, and resulted in the responsible CEO’s being indicted – too bad most of them got off scot-free. It’s here that we find Dick Harper (Carrey), an up-and-comer at something called the Globodyne Corporation (we never find out what it is they actually do there, and the fact that it doesn’t matter may be the whole point) who believes he’s about to be promoted. Instead, he’s left hung out to dry as the public spokesman for a rapidly dissolving company in the midst of a rather heinous crash, while the company president Jack McAllister (Baldwin) sets up his obsequious V.P. (Jenkins) as the patsy and makes off with $400 million. Too bad Dick just convinced his wife Jane (Leoni) to quit her job, huh?

Dick and Jane are, for lack of a better term, utterly screwed. After a couple of months in which Dick suffers a series of misfortunes in his quest to find steady work, and Jane goes so far as to loan herself out for medical experiments, they finally become desperate enough to steal to pay their bills. After all, as they rationalize to each other, they’re only following the lead of the corporate criminals Dick used to work for, right?

It’s a situation that’s ripe for satirical humor, and the writers (including Apatow, the director and co-writer of The 40-Year-Old Virgin) do their best to explore those possibilities, while at the same time providing a vehicle for Carrey to do his patented wacky shtick. The result is a movie that works only in fits and starts, however, and doesn’t go nearly far enough with the subject to be a truly inspired satire.

A large part of the problem is that Dick and Jane feels like it was rather heavily cut down from a more expansive version (as has been reported) to fit a lean 90-minute running time. Evidence of this can be found by the brief appearances of well-known actors like Harmon and Laurie Metcalf (who isn’t even credited), who are barely in the finished movie and are given so little to do that it doesn’t even seem worth their time. Parts of the movie seem painfully rushed, making the slapstick seem forced at times, while more contemplative moments seem to drag on forever. There’s never a genuine sense of rhythm to the movie, and as much as people like to complain about long running times these days, this is one movie that feels like it could’ve used another 15 or 20 minutes to let its story play itself out. Some movies are meant to be short – this apparently wasn’t one of them. I’ll bet the DVD will contain at least 20 minutes of “deleted scenes”, and probably more than that.

Another problem is that the story switches gears so many times that there’s barely enough time for the writers to make their points in anything but the most broad way. The first third of the movie is devoted to Dick’s fall from grace, while the final third is given to Dick and Jane’s inevitable plot to steal from McAllister. Squeezed in between is the movie we actually came to see, where desperate Dick and Jane go on a crime spree in their own relatively safe, comfortable suburbanite way. It’s this part of the picture that works the best, and Carrey and Leoni display a nice chemistry with each other here that’s a bit lacking in the other sections. Watching these two boring yuppies, who are so repressed that they have to schedule sexual relations, discover their “wild side” by robbing the local Starbucks is easily the funniest part of the movie, and I couldn’t help but wish they had abandoned the whole McAllister subplot altogether and just stuck with that concept.

That said, Dick and Jane does manage to take some pointed shots at the increasing elusiveness of the American Dream, and how it’s become more and more difficult to “keep up with the Joneses”. Watching Dick “run” to find a job to keep his family afloat reminds us of just how frustrating it can be for all of us – not just those in the business world – to stay on the treadmill of modern life. There’s also some effective lampooning of corporate culture, where virtually identical businessmen in identical suits drive identical cars to fight tooth and nail just to be a cog in the corporate wheel. It’s all a bit absurd, no? Meanwhile, Dick and Jane’s young son is practically raised by their maid to the point where he primarily speaks Spanish (an idea that’s sharper than the entirety of Spanglish) and they seem to have no family or friends to speak of (except their neighbors, who they both despise and envy). Yet they maintain the constant struggle to stay in “the good life”. Ironic, you think?

I appreciated all of that subtext – I just wished the damn thing were funnier. While Carrey is given plenty of opportunity to do his rubber-faced physical shtick as Dick slowly loses his grip, there are few real laugh-out-loud moments here, much less any real belly-laughs. I almost wished he had played the role “straight”, because as likable as he is here, he often seems to be fighting the urge to break character completely, and it’s more distracting than compelling. He comes off like a demented version of Darren from Bewitched (the TV show, not the movie), and even when it’s funny, it’s not always appropriate for the part. After her excruciating turn in Spanglish, Leoni is surprisingly loose and appealing here (I never thought I’d be able to watch her without cringing again), and Baldwin does yet another variation on his now-patented smarmy-asshole boss role, this time playing it as a bizarre combination of George W. Bush (come on, tell me I’m wrong) and Foghorn Leghorn. Reliable character actor Jenkins provides his usual solid comic presence as well.

In spite of the cast’s best efforts though, Dick and Jane winds up as a mild comedy with only intermittent moments of real inspiration. It’s always pleasant to sit through, but maybe that’s the problem – it could have used a little more dark humor and a sense of genuine danger. It might have actually worked better five years ago, when corporate crime was constantly in the headlines (and people were rightfully pissed off about it) – now it unfortunately feels a bit dated, in the wake of issues like terrorism and a corporate war that isn’t taking care of it (oops, caught me editorializing again). And while it’s always vaguely satisfying to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them, it feels a bit disingenuous here coming from the likes of Sony Corporation (not that that’s the filmmakers’ fault, but do we really need Hollywood spending multimillions to tell us how sinister the business world is?). Good intentions are fine, but coming from the studio that spent $100 million-plus on Stealth, I have to wonder if their executives wouldn’t bail themselves out at the first opportunity and leave its employees high and dry. It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened in Hollywood, that’s all I’m saying.

**1/2 12/22/05

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