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Entries in Religion (3)

Friday
Sep302011

Machine Gun Preacher

If you’re anything like me, the title Machine Gun Preacher gets you excited. It’s a great name that forced visions of a good, old fashioned exploitative Grindhouse movie to rush through my head in excited anticipation. I could see the poster all too clear: a man of the cloth holding a giant gun front and center with the tagline in dripping red, “Jesus died for your sins. He’ll kill you for them.” I assumed the title was an all-you-need-to-know type, like Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys & Aliens, but perhaps I let my excitement get the best of me because Machine Gun Preacher is not what I pictured. It’s a true story with religious significance that thinks its artistic endeavors are reaching something profound when, really, it isn’t.

The story begins in Southern Sudan where we get to witness the brutality of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious military group that abducts and murders the people in surrounding villages. Flash forward to “Pennsylvania, USA, a few years earlier” (a title card that is, oddly, both specific and unspecific at the same time) and Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. He is a violent, abusive junkie who treats his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), like a lesser individual. After a night of drug use with an unnamed pal (Michael Shannon), he attacks and stabs a man, placing him in critical condition in the hospital. Thankfully, he seeks help and begins going to church with Lynn, where he finds God and considers it his calling to help others. He begins by building a church across the street from his home, but soon winds up in Africa, rescuing orphaned children and fighting back against the LRA.

Machine Gun Preacher strikes me as a movie that only a select few will enjoy. Despite its Christian themed story and values, it features explicit sex, graphic violence, atrocities of war and offensive language, including racial slurs. It will undoubtedly turn off the more conservative viewers who would not normally watch this sort of thing. On the other side of the coin are the non-believers who, if they even venture into the theater at all, will see everything through cynical eyes. At one point, Sam is distraught and thinking about giving up after the LRA burns down the church and orphanage. Lynn tells him it was merely a test from God, but if He truly sent them to destroy, then surely He must have condoned the killing of the innocent too, a conundrum that goes against the very basis of religious indoctrination. It’s moments like these where the more skeptical among us will roll their eyes.

Still, at least Sam has that thought. As any normal human being would, he begins to question his own faith after witnessing the murder and destruction around him, wondering how a just and loving god could allow these terrible events to occur. It’s a natural progression that is, unfortunately, impeded by a screenplay that doesn’t take the time to develop it. His character goes through the motions without ever truly experiencing them. His loss of faith is barely touched upon (perhaps so as not to alienate the Christians in the audience) and his journey into it is rushed past the point of credulity. For the first 20 minutes, you watch him attack, steal from and abuse those around him, but after attending one, only one, church service, he finds himself a changed man. Before you know it, the racist you just watched shove a gun in a black man’s face is sharing a Coke with an African. This is a moment that should be heartwarming, but it instead feels forced, cheesy and manipulative because the necessary work to get us there had not been done.

Machine Gun Preacher has a rough start. The performances and character actions are so wildly over-the-top, they’re hard to take seriously, the heavy-handedness gets grating—the filmmakers try far too hard to make Sam an outrageously sinful man, so as to make his eventual redemption that much sweeter— and the churchgoers are stereotypes, waving their arms around in the air like they’re swatting bugs. Eventually, as the title suggests, Sam goes Rambo on the rebels, emerging from clouds of smoke with rocket launcher in hand, and it begins to pick up. Regardless of what one may think of his violent approach to helping, it can’t be argued he doesn’t make a difference.

So many people use religion wrong, but Sam Childers is a guy who uses it right. He was a lowlife, drug using criminal who turned his life around and dedicated it to helping others. He’s still going strong today. One can’t help but admire him, but his biopic is decidedly lackluster. Machine Gun Preacher feels like a made-for-television movie and is missing the gravitas it needs to tell its story.

Machine Gun Preacher receives 2.5/5

Thursday
Sep012011

Seven Days in Utopia

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Isaiah 30:21

Seven Days in Utopia begins with this Bible verse, which works in multiple ways, as a hint at the story to come and as an indication that, yep, this is a religious movie. These types of films come in two forms: those that are preachy and those that aren’t. The former is much more common than the latter, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this follows suit. Based on the book “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia” by David L. Cook, Seven Days in Utopia is silly, unrealistic and condescending. Religious or not, this isn’t worth your time.

Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) is a down on his luck golfer. After botching the 18th hole in a recent tournament, thus costing him the victory, he hops in his car and begins to drive. He ends up in Utopia, Texas, his car broken down after swerving to miss a cow. It’s a small town with a population of only 373 (375 if you include the twin babies born last week) and a place where everyone knows everyone and going to church isn’t a decision; it’s your duty to the Lord. Luke eventually runs into Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall), who just so happens to be a PGA legend and tells Luke he can help him get his game back if he stays in Utopia for one week. Besides, his car is broken down, so what does he have to lose? Luke agrees and through Johnny’s lessons, he begins to learn that golf is only a sport and winning isn’t everything. It’s the people in your life that matter most.

Basically, Seven Days in Utopia is Cars, only with golf instead of racing. The difference between the two is that Cars wasn’t pushing a Christian agenda. Both movies were simple stories about finding your bliss, but this one has the gall to suggest you can’t truly be happy without Christianity, a message that, of course, is false and misleading. During his weeklong stay, Luke is forced to fly fish, paint and even fly a plane (the latter a ridiculous and dangerous stunt), which teach him to be patient, trusting and calm, traits that don’t only describe the game of golf, but also faith. To these characters, everything relates back to Christianity and they see divine intervention everywhere, even in stark contradictions. They’re like the devout religious folks who thank God one day for the beautiful sunshine and the next for the rain replenishing the Earth.

When they talk of dead relatives, taken away by cancer well before their time, they speak in religious clichés (“God works in mysterious ways,” one says), which suggest certain lives are more important than others, a mindset I’ve never truly been able to comprehend. Still, it’s not like these characters are bad people, though that’s probably because they’re hardly people at all. They’re not fleshed out in a way that makes them feel real. Watching the film, it feels like you’ve stumbled on an undiscovered civilization of people so stern in their beliefs that they’ve never heard the other options (come to think of it, I don’t recall a single science book in the entire movie), and they act oddly, never in the way expected of certain situations, which makes each scene feel like a contrived and manufactured set-up.

Late in the movie, after Luke has learned his life lessons, a song pops up with lyrics that detail exactly what has happened up to that point (“Today I found myself after searching all these years” and “I was lost when you found me here, I was broken beyond repair”). The song is supposed to work the emotions; the only one it does is laughter, so, you know, success. The song is a relatively minor part of the movie and hardly means anything when compared to the mess of the larger picture, but its minor problems don’t end there. The cast is wasted—I simply cannot fathom why Melissa Leo was in this thing—the golf scenes are inauthentic (the audio cues are too loud in relation to the crowd) and it ends on an ambiguous note, directing the viewer, I kid you not, to a website to “continue the journey.” As of the time of this writing, the website is blank, but one can only assume it will do little to clear the air of the film and will instead spend more time trying to convert its visitors.

Seven Days in Utopia wants to teach life lessons about being at peace and loving one another, but when I walked out, I found I had learned only one thing. Thanks to the aggressive product placement of all things golf related, including hats, clubs, club covers, shirts, bags and balls, Callaway must be a damn fine company.

Seven Days in Utopia receives 1/5

Friday
Jan152010

The Book of Eli

The end of the world seems to be all the rage these days. Everywhere you turn, some nonsense theory pops up. If it's not the Mayan calendar proclaiming Armageddon, it's cries of the Antichrist finally coming in the form of Barack Obama. Both have zero validity, but that doesn't stop Hollywood from capitalizing on them (though we're still yet to see that Obama movie). In recent years, post-apocalyptic movies have flooded our screens. Just in the last few months we've seen director Roland Emmerich blow stuff up real good in 2012, the Oscar worthy picture The Road, and the vampire and zombie apocalypses in Daybreakers and Zombieland. Chalk another one onto the ever growing list with The Book of Eli, a moderately entertaining film that will appeal to the following interests. If you want to see three decapitations in about that same amount of time, you'll like The Book of Eli. If you want to see a guy get an arrow through his crotch, you'll like The Book of Eli. However, if you want to see a post-apocalyptic tale with heart and meaning, you may want to look elsewhere. It's basically The Road meets Mad Max, but it's only about half as good as either of those films.

The movie opens with Eli (Denzel Washington) as he embarks on a trip to the west (as opposed to the trip down south the characters take in The Road—totally different). The world has been destroyed by a war and something they call "the flash," assumably referring to a nuclear war, which blinded many of the remaining survivors. It's been thirty years and a new generation has now grown up not knowing about the times before where, as Eli puts it, "people threw away what they kill each other for now." On his trip, Eli stumbles into a broken down town where he is violently confronted. He asks for no trouble, but is forced to kill a whole bar full of people. Carnegie (Gary Oldman) takes notice. He's the leader of the town and has a slew of henchmen he uses to track down an old book, one he claims will be able to control the lives of those he reads it to, thus giving him power. Little does he know Eli has that book.

What transpires is nothing more than a battle between the two factions for possession of the book. But what is the book? Well, if you have half a brain, you should be able to figure it out fairly quickly, though some still deem a reveal a spoiler, so I suppose I should offer up a warning. I will discuss what the book is and how this affects the overall picture, so if you want to go into the movie in the dark, stop reading.

Now, with that out of the way, the book is the Bible. Again, that shouldn't be too hard to figure out. A quick glance at the poster should be enough to give it away. "Deliver us" isn't exactly the most subtle of taglines (nor is the more succinct Gary Oldman one-sheet, "Religion is Power"). Then again, there's also a giant freaking cross on the cover of the book, which you see very early on in the movie. But why did I feel the need to bring this up? Because it is necessary to discuss the message, one that is admittedly fresh in a business that seems to continuously be at odds with it.

The recent comedy, The Invention of Lying, made it a point to deem religion a falsity. In fact, that was the whole basis of the film. The documentary, Religulous, does exactly the same (given the snarky title). But The Book of Eli is decidedly different. Its message here, without giving away the ending, is that there most certainly is a God and he (excuse me, He) uses people for a greater purpose. There's no doubt about it. He exists and works in all of our lives in ways we cannot possibly imagine. It's refreshing regardless of your religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, I've always been one to lean on the side of thought and interpretation rather than the straight forwardness of The Book of Eli. The Invention of Lying may have been anti-religion, but it posed questions. Would the world be better without it? Would there be war? Would it even exist in a world where nobody could lie? The argument it makes is that religion is merely a temporary solution to life's problems and that speculation about the afterlife is time wasted when we could be doing so many other positive things right now. Religulous, in it's own sarcastic way, does the same. These films make us question our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us, which is fascinating. The Book of Eli doesn't.

Sadder still is that it sets itself up to do just that, but never does. As noted before, Carnegie is searching for the book, knowing full well that it is the only Bible left in existence. He wants to use it to control people, insinuating its power and how it can be, and most certainly is, used for evil. At one point, Eli mentions that some people even think that it was the cause of the war that destroyed their planet. Well, religion is used to justify wars. Why not explore those themes?

Regardless of its missed opportunities, it was nice to see a pro-religion film. It just would have been nicer for it to pose questions rather than state facts, something too many religious people do already. But there's more to this thing than just its religious message and, unfortunately, not much of it is particularly impressive. It may be supporting Christianity, but boy does it get bloody. This is an action movie after all. Though the action is stylish and fun, it usually comes about arbitrarily. One scene that ends with multiple bodies strewn across the floor is initiated by Eli shoo-ing a cat away from his things. The cat's owner is none too happy and attacks Eli. Too many action scenes felt randomly placed in the movie rather than working out of necessity of the story.

The Book of Eli is a moderately successful, sporadically entertaining post-apocalyptic film that borrows from other, better movies ranging from a shot taken directly from The Road to a scene that mimicked The Devil's Rejects. Outside of the admittedly clever twist, which nevertheless is never completely satisfactory, The Book of Eli doesn't offer much other than an unexplored message stated matter-of-factly. This might work for some, but for those who like to think about religion and discuss it rather than have it shoved down their throats, The Book of Eli is a bust.

The Book of Eli receives 2.5/5