Partially Recommended. Just why they called this Gothika, I’ll never know. It’s about a psychiatrist played by Halle Berry, who helps mentally insane criminals. One of them is a woman who killed her husband (Penelope Cruz). Halle tries to help the woman but she responds, “How can you trust someone who thinks you’re crazy?” Halle has this strange dreamlike experience with a young abused girl in the rain and wakes up in the insane asylum. All memory of her last three days has been lost to her. Turns out she has killed her loving husband, the head of the Psych ward, and she is now in the asylum with her patients trying to figure out what really happened to her, while at the same time being haunted by this girl who turns out to be dead. Although this is a formula movie, I think it is a pretty good ghost story. The great thing about modern ghost stories is what they do for the social moral conscience. Modern ghost stories are usually about the ghosts of dead people haunting because of unfinished justice for their deaths. A Ghost story is not about being scared for the sake of being scared, it is about moral conscience. It is an embodiement of the biblical principle that the blood of a murdered person cries up from the ground to God (Genesis 4:10). It is a metaphor for the repressed conscience in man (Romans 1:18). Man represses the sin he does, hides from his guilt like Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden when they sinned. But since man is created in the image of God, the truth cannot be repressed forever, so it haunts him in the form of a ghost “crying out for justice.” Ghost stories are a symbolic incarnation of the conscience. This is why they are so important to a culture like ours that has embraced moral relativism. The scariness of the haunting should be scary because of the seriousness of man’s repression of sin. And Gothika itself even refers to the nature of repression that abused people suffer as a means of survival. This movie reminds me of a few better ones with the same theme, A Stir of Echoes, The Others, and The Sixth Sense, all dealing with the same need for unpunished crime to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the glaring weakness of this story is that the heroine really did kill her husband because she was possessed by the spirit of the dead girl who was killed by that same man. So the murder is justice for the ghost. But I have a real moral problem with such vigilanteism. It places the hero in an immoral bad light. She really is guilty of a crime and no matter how evil her husband was, it does not justify her murdering him. (For more detail, read my article on vigilanteism in the movies: Vigilanteism in the Movies.

21 Grams

Hard to say whether I Recommend or Not. Great for conversation about the meaning of life. This is a powerful hard hitting story of intersecting lives written with depth and acted brilliantly by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. It is an Existential movie that raises questions but gives no real answers, or shall we say, proposes a toothless redemption in a nihilistic world. Let me explain. It’s about an ex-con Jesus Freak (Benecio), who is trying to overcome his “bad luck” life by living a Christian life, rather alien to his nature. While speeding home, he accidentally kills a father and his two daughters and hides from the law. The father was also the husband of a woman played by Naomi Watts, whose life is now shattered by her loss. In the meantime, Sean Penn is dying of heart disease and a diseased relationship with an Englishwoman. Penn gets the heart of the father killed by Benecio in a transplant and seeks out his donor’s wife out of gratitude and curiosity, and of course, falls in love with Naomi and plans with her to kill the guy who killed her husband and kids, ala Benecio. Well, first off, it’s edited non-linearly to be oh so pomo. This hurts the film because it confuses the storyline which is strong enough on its own to carry interest. It’s okay for a gimmick like in Memento, and it worked well in Pulp Fiction, but the technique just adds unnecessary confusion here. And a gratuitous sex scene makes it difficult to recommend this one.

But I have a major issue with this movie. It is a story that attempts to portray Christianity as without any real transformative power in changing a life. Benecio is sincere in his attempt to be religious, but we can see that he is really just the same kind of man underneath. He is harsh on his kids and wife and others. He almost beats up a punk rebel for not himself repenting for the good life. What irony. He is portrayed as having no real victory in his life over his old ways, but more of an avoidance mechanism. And Benecio seems to just draw trouble to himself. His wife tells him that since he became a Christian, she doesn’t know him anymore, that he’s not himself, it’s like he’s been body snatched. So, his faith does not draw him closer to his family, but farther away. While Jesus did say that a family would be divided over such faith, he meant that those who are changed by their new natures of faith, truth and goodness are often rejected by family members unwilling to leave their own selfish wickedness. But the movie portrays Benecio as the one at fault here. His faith has not made him better, but has merely alienated him like a cult member. His unbelieving wife is more of a “real person” than he is. He comes to believe he is cursed by God with all his “bad luck.” He ends up leaving his wife and kid because he does not want to bring his cursedness upon them. He is not good enough for them. The filmmaker seems to consider Christianity a mere façade that tries to cover over an unchanged nature. Although it is very interesting that Benecio turns himself in because of his “duty to God” for the guilt of his crime, something 9 out of 10 movies would never even touch. For that I praise it. This has the potential of being a powerful victorious moment of moral character, but in the context and hands of the storytellers, seems more the negative pressure of guilt induced fear than godly repentance. His faith commitment is portrayed as alienating him from family rather than building his love for them. A truly godly man would weep over his love for his family, but do the right thing out of moral character. But Benecio yells at his wife and alienates her, storming out of the room.When Benecio goes to jail for the hit and run, he gives up on God because Jesus “betrayed him” for giving him all the trouble. But this is the conclusion of a long string of “bad luck” problems in his life. What Benecio neglects to learn is the lesson of Amadeus, Signs, Magnolia and Simon Birch, and that is that GOD IS IN CONTROL, not him. But instead, in this film, Benecio dumps God and goes back to his family, presumably as his old nature. Faith seems to be portrayed as a tool rather of avoidance or ignorance of true issues. Now, I have no problem with showing honest struggling with such issues, even the pain of a suffering life and a person who gives up on God because of his struggle. What I cannot forgive is the lack of understanding of the nature of true transforming power of Christianity. You see, the character who hates God for his suffering has the problem of CONTROL. Remember the story of Job? Rather instructive here, I would say. That is, what he needs to learn is that the very source of his problem is his unwillingness to accept God’s sovereign governance of his life. A humility and brokenness before one’s Creator, like in the movie Signs, where Mel Gibson learns that his rejection of God was selfish blindness to the wonders all around him. He merely had to open his eyes and yield to God’s greater wisdom. 21 Grams reminds me a lot of another indie movie, Levity. Similar idea of a man, Morgan Freeman, living a double life in the inner city as a Christian helping troubled youth. Another excellent story written well that fails to understand the true deliverance of Christianity. Faith becomes a cover for a double life. Why? Because, evidently, to these filmmakers, people do not change, or at least genuine transforming faith is not possible. Now, granted, there are some frauds or failures out there, I would not contest that. But my point is that these people who made these films obviously have not experienced or seen the kind of transformed lives that are in these inner city ministries. For every failure, there are a dozen successes of lives forever changed for the better because of faith. Hardened men humbled to the point of true repentance and a changed NATURE. Sure, they may still even have hard edges, but they are changed, truly changed, and people in their lives see the difference – FOR THE BETTER. I know, it happened to me. Okay, one qualification: I’d prefer movies like this that try to criticize Christianity, than ignore it all together, which most movies do. So for that much, I am grateful for this movie. At least it deals with something that is so important, it is a sin to ignore it.

I do have a caveat to my negativity though. When Sean Penn finds Benecio to kill him, he realizes he cannot kill him and fires the gun into the ground, telling Benecio to go and never come back. But Benecio tracks Penn down to his hotel room and tries to force Penn to go ahead and shoot Benecio. In other words, Benecio wants to die, accepts the wages of his sins. But Penn cannot and instead shoots himself in the shoulder to get it all to stop. Why? I don’t get it, other than a possible “atonement” theme. It is because of this event that Benecio ends his self-imposed exile of self flagellation and returns to his wife and kids. I’m willing to acknowledge that this might be a self sacrifice notion of substitutionary atonement, the innocent for the guilty, a man finding forgiveness in the sacrifice for another on his behalf, but the movie makes everything so guilt-ridden that it is hard not to see it all as a cynical retreat from true goodness.

At the end, the Penn character muses that 21 grams is the amount of weight that a person’s body loses when they die. The weight of a soul? He asks a bunch of questions but gives no hope of an answer: “How much is lost. Where do we lose 21 grams? How much goes with it? How much is gained? 21 grams. The weight of a stack of nickels, a hummingbird, a chocolate bar. How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? How much of life fits into 21 grams?” Well, these are very thoughtful questions, but the context seems to emphasize the insignificance of life and the inability to determine its value in light of the irony of life’s inequities and tragedies. Great questions. Great issues raised. Too bad no real hope is provided, and faith is discouraged as inadequate or ineffective. Contrast that with the redeeming nature of faith in the true Jesus Christ found in the Gospels and in Christian’s lives. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). And, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and YOU SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. “For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

Shattered Glass

Highly Recommended. This is the true story of Stephen Glass, who worked for the New Republic and was discovered to be fabricating most of his stories written for the magazine. It’s a powerful moral tale about the nature of deception and the importance of integrity. The kid was one of the best storytellers and he learned how to manipulate the system of fact checking and journalistic integrity to avoid being spotted for a long while. The story tells the discovery through the eyes of Chuck Lane, his editor, with the help of competitor Adam Penenberg at Forbes magazine. Like a cornered rat, as Stephen’s web of deceit is unraveled, so his deceitful and desperate manipulation of coworkers increases. He whines, whimpers, flatters, apologizes and makes more lies to cover for his first lies to make it appear he has been fooled by bad sources rather than being a lying liar himself. Interestingly his coworkers are drawn in on his side because of his flattering personality toward them. He is a master deceiver. There is a powerful juxtaposition at the end of Chuck proving the lies and receiving the applause of his coworkers and Glass creating a story in his head of receiving applause from his alma mater high school as he speaks to students. This story shows how easily we are deceived by such liars as Glass, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times and The Boston Globe’s Mike Barnicle and The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, and who can forget the entire crew of CNN in Iraq who for years denied Hussein’s torture and murder in order to maintain a presence for the network in Iraq. This brings me to one of my personal hobby horses. You know, this movie really read like a metaphor for the monsters that are created by our postmodern culture that exalts subjectivity and story, and denigrates fact and rationality. It should be no surprise to us that we have an epidemic of lying, cheating and swindling amidst young people, because our institutions are creating these beasts of deception. They are being taught that there is no absolute truth (lying isn’t really wrong), there is no objective reality (only subjective prejudice) and there is no ultimate truth, everything is fiction, everything we believe is merely metanarrative stories that we make up to create reality. Story is all there is and none of it is ultimately or universally true. To these people, language is a prison house that we use to create reality, not discover or communicate it. So many schools of journalism are bastions of activist propaganda, teaching students that the purpose of journalism is “to change the world,” with their agenda because “truth” is a social construct anyway. “Making the news” is not merely a marketing tagline anymore. So of course, more and more people are going to start taking these ivory tower rants against modernity and actually apply them to life and become LYING STORYTELLERS who “construct” their truth for the good of the ignorant masses (that’s you and me, folks). When you teach children to lie, they will lie (duh). CS Lewis wrote, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” In the movie, Chuck tells a colleague who has been too dullheaded to recognize the seriousness of Glass’ fraud: “He fed us fiction after fiction. And we printed it as fact. Because it was entertaining. That’s indefensible. Don’t you know that?” A culture that foments relativity and storytelling as ultimate should not be shocked at the traitors and monsters it creates. This relates a bit to my blog on Second Hand Lions below. Okay, so the world has always been full of liars since day one, I know, but the point is that people do live out what they ultimately believe and some worldviews (postmodernism, relativism, atheism) LOGICALLY, philosophically lead to evil behavior because they negate objective absolute morality, you know, those nagging little Ten Commandments (or the seven deadly sins as the movie Se7en). The hypocrisy of those promoting traditional morality while living a lie is not the same as the consistency of those who promote relativism while living like scoundrels. The former is a contradiction in values and lifestyle, the latter is a fulfillment of promise (duh again). As Voltaire, the atheist even admitted, “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, and I think that then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.” That infamous libertine knew one thing, people act upon their beliefs, and he full well knew the ugly result of his own humanism. He didn’t want others to do to him what he so willingly would do to others.

Beyond Borders

Not Recommended. This was a potentially great idea ruined by Romanticism. It follows the path of Sarah, played by Angelina Jolie as a married woman in the English high society who awakens to the true plight of the third world one day when an activist doctor, played by Clive Owen, crashes a high falutin dinner party that is raising money for such projects. He brings a real kid who is really suffering and chastises everyone for their fraudulent “help” because the plug is being pulled on his project and lives are going to be lost. SO Sarah is inspired and gets involved in relief work. She travels around the world to the Sudan, Cambodia and eventually, Chechnya to help the suffering in the midst of political and military upheaval. Of course, she meets Clive, the doctor and they fall in love, but do nothing because she is married. The Romanticism of this movie lies in making Angelina stay with her husband for the sake of her child, even though he is an adulterer. But as she gets more involved in her work, she keeps seeing Clive and eventually falls for him. They consummate (read: fornicate), but realize they can never be together because they are in different worlds and can neither of them leave their own world for the other. So they are doomed to seeing each other every few years in different lands. This sets up the Romantic notion that doing the right thing versus following your passion leads to tragedy. Angelina and Clive are created as characters of true love and passion and connection who cannot be together because she stays with her family. Her husband’s adultery becomes the pragmatic justification for her embracing her adultery. Hey, after all, they weren’t really in love anyway, right? And hey, he’s an adulterer too, so there! This movie reminds me of the despicable Bridges of Madison County, that justified Meryl Streep’s character in her adultery as the only true experience of love and passion in her life. And even though she stayed with her husband, even though she “did the right thing,” she treasured her adultery all her life as the one true experience of life and love from which she thrived. Rather than work out the issues and grow to love her lifelong partner LIKE AN ADULT, no, she had to follow illicit passions and treasure those experiences of lust as love. What a selfish child, if you ask me. At least in Beyond Borders, her husband was an adulterer. In Bridges, the husband wasn’t even half bad. Well, same story in Beyond Borders. They even have a tragic ending where Angelina gives her life to save her lover so he can be with the baby that resulted from their union. Very epic and melancholic sadness. Great acting, good emotional writing and storytelling. It’s all very epic feeling and grand, and a compelling story. Unfortunately, it is immoral Romanticism.

The Magdelene Sisters

Not recommended. I had no interest in seeing this film. But I was stuck at the DGA because of a bad parking situation and had to stay to watch it. I just had no interest in watching yet another Catholic bashing diatribe, which ends up implying all Christianity as negative. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of the Roman Catholic church and am fully aware of it’s abuses (Hey, I loved Luther!). I think there is definitely a place for the exposé of such abuses, it’s just that this is all we ever seem to get from movies, and it is usually propagandistic. You know something is propaganda when they only show negative stereotypes of people who are part of institutions they are attacking and don’t show any positive characters to balance the bad ones (like Thelma and Louise, Titanic). That is what happened in this movie. It’s based on a true story of these reform schools in Ireland for “wayward girls,” which usually amounts to sexually promiscuous girls. It follows three girls, Margaret, Rose, and Bernadette. One of them is pregnant by accident, another is raped and the third is flirty with the boys, but never “done nothing.” Okay, so they set up all the girls as roughly innocent, who are thrown into this punishing institution because of the evil patriarchal male abuse. While there, they are forced to engage in slave labor and are deprived of food and rest. It’s supposed to discipline the immorality out of them. A girl gets raped and the father treats HER like trash when the rapist should be the one thrown in jail. SO, basically, all the women are victims, which right away sets up the entire school as unjust. Again, no doubt this stuff does happen and should be decried as wicked, but come on, who are you trying to fool anyway? And all the people in prison are innocent too? It would be less propagandistic if they showed girls who did deserve to be there to contrast with innocent ones, but you see the filmmakers cannot do that because they believe that all punishment of sexual immorality is intrinsically evil, so they are required by their prejudice to show it as only negative without showing any of the destruction of untold thousands of lives from promiscuity and rebellion. Also, all the nuns and staff are wicked stepmother types who enjoy punishing the girls with total ignorance of any goodness. NOT ONE SINGLE NUN WITH A GOOD HEART in the entire place?? Again, who are you trying to fool? That just is not reality, it is propaganda. Even one good nun would have been a redemptive element and more true to reality. But Propaganda cannot show a positive example of an institutional character because it would weaken its argument because propaganda is not interested in reality or truth, but only AGENDA. And so propaganda really on weakens an otherwise compelling story in the Magdalene Sisters.

Mystic River

Medium Recommended. This film is a brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, superbly directed and edited piece of nihilistic cynicism. The story of three boys tied by fate, when one day, while playing hockey in the street, they are approached by a couple of men who are impersonating undercover police. They take a kid away under pretenses of bringing him home to his mom, but instead kidnap him and sexually abuse him for several days until he escapes. The whole point of the story is how it affected each of the three kids as they grow up. The one who was kidnapped and raped becomes a psychologically troubled nobody, one becomes a criminal and tries to reform and the third becomes a cop. They are united when the criminal’s daughter is killed and the troubled friend becomes a suspect. All the clues keep leading to the Tim Robbins abused character. Abused people abuse, right? Well, an entire irony of situation is set up so that Robbins is killed by the criminal guy who lost his daughter as his revenge, but it is discovered that he did not do it after all. So there is an ironic cynical fate of victimization. Only the strong survive. No hope in this story. Nice guys finish last. Even the ending is ambiguous about whether or not the criminal will get his due for killing the victim Robbins.

Intolerable Cruelty

Not Really Recommended. I love Coen Brothers’ movies for their characters and unpredictable stories, and usually with rather moral themes, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? And Fargo. And this story has the usual interesting Coen characters and bizarre plot. But unfortunately, it falls apart. It’s about a sleazy divorce attorney, played by Clooney, who is hired to help a philandering husband to keep his riches from the hands of his divorcing wife played by Zeta-Jones. Well, Clooney falls for Jones and starts his pursuit of her. Turns out she is just as sleazy of a person who marries men to bilk them of their money so she can live a pampered life. Well, the Clooney character doesn’t care, he goes after anyway her until she captures him and takes him for all he has. SO the story sets up a great tragedy that even has references to a lot of Greek things in the script. They eat at a place called, Nero’s, they end up at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas, etc. But, at the end of the story, just after Clooney is tricked by the conniving Jones, and is about to get his due from her, she pulls a complete turn around and falls for him. Unfortunately, this does not fit the story at all and has the effect of an arbitrary happy Hollywood ending. No reason for it. The characters are set up as total sleaze bags and then for no reason at all, they just change and become loving sacrificial lovers? NOT BELIEVABLE. It was jarring and came out of nowhere and was not germane to the characters or story. Really unsatisfying. A Greekish tragedy/Hollywood Ending is a double-minded two-faced story. This movie is a cheat.