Waiting for Armageddon (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I may never accept the radical beliefs of Christian Evangelicals regarding Armageddon or any of their methods but I hoped that I would learn something slightly profound from this documentary. Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi, the directors, didn’t have laser-like focus in the way they presented the arguments from the big picture so I was periodically left confused. Since the movie was only about an hour and ten minutes long, it constantly jumped from one issue to another such as how religious extremists were committing self-fulfilling prophecies, concerns about what would happen to Israel once God returned, and the tension between Israel and the Muslim world. It gave me the feeling that perhaps the movie was more designed toward people who didn’t know much about Evangelicals and their beliefs, not toward people who wanted grasp at information beyond the obvious. The film didn’t go into too much depth so it became redundant in terms of the individuals being interviewed essentially saying the same thing but with differing words. However, I felt a certain sadness in a few scenes such as when some of the teenagers interviewed who believed that the end of the world was coming expressed how they wished they could live full lives without having to worry about the end of the world and how it’s not fair that the end will pretty much happen in their lifetime. It also made me feel angry because I couldn’t help but think they were simply being brain-washed and all their worrying would pretty much amount to nothing. In a way, I thought their wasted youth was something to almost mourn about. Worse, they could pass on the paranoia to their own children and then their children will go through the same fears. Although I thought the movie was difficult to watch because of the opinions being expressed, I found it more frustrating that the movie didn’t have a natural flow so that it would be easy to follow. It certainly had potential to be really engaging because of such a controversial topic but it really needed to work on its pacing and the order it presented its ideas. Still, “Waiting for Armageddon” surprised me because I initially thought that the goal of the picture was to support the radical beliefs of its subjects. It wasn’t the case. It may seem like it does support its subjects’ radical beliefs in the first few minutes because the directors allowed the Evangelicals to really speak at the camera without holding back, but it ultimately allowed us to form our own opinions in the matter.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) agreed to have his last exorcism to be documented on camera. In the first few minutes, he admitted to us that exorcism was only real in the minds of religious Christians plagued by something they cannot explain. In other words, the placebo effect guided the effectiveness of an exorcism. Despite Reverend Marcus being a sham, strangely enough, I understood why he made a career out of it because he had an obligation to provide for his family, especially his son who had difficulty hearing. Understandably, people feel the need to compare the movie to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” because of its faux-documentary style. But I say it was more like John Erick Dowdle’s chilling remake “Quarantine.” However, I think “The Last Exorcism” had its own identity and therefore its own strengths and weaknesses. The film was its best when it described the history of the practice, the circumstances in which one should get an exorcism, and the religious heretics so willing to go to the extreme to the point where they became blind to more conventional explanations such as the so-called possessed person having an undiagnosed disease or mental disability. I was also happy with the fact that it acknowledged the cruel act still happening today in various forms depending on the culture. The picture thrived on the build-up of strange information especially when we finally met a farmer (Louis Herthum) with a creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) and “possessed” daughter (Ashley Bell). The rising action of the girl sleepwalking, killing animals, being violent and making strange noises was unsettling and sometimes downright horrifying. However, the movie’s weakness was its own conceit. The faux-documentary style did not always work because there were times when the daughter, in an altered state, would pick up the camera and we saw what she saw and did. I loved that the film was purposely comedic, especially in the first half when the techniques of the scam were revealed, but the comedy and horror did not always complement each other in one scene. Instead of feeling scared, I felt detached and I almost felt the need to laugh because there was an underlying message that the devil despised the constructed false (if not almost illusory) reality like in movies mentioned earlier and reality shows on television. I also found some inconsistencies such as the addition of music during the scarier scenes (it was supposed to be a found footage!) and camera angles that only one cameraman can normally accomplish. Although I give kudos to Daniel Stamm, the director, for infusing a sense of (sort of campy) fun and intelligence in his project, I wanted more scenes where I find myself cowering in my shoes. I suppose that’s the reason why a lot of people did not like the movie: they wanted to feel more scared. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed “The Last Exorcism” because it was concise, confident with where it wanted to go and what it wanted to achieve, and its constant build-up was elegant. It made me think of respectable horror pictures from the late 60’s and ’70s.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The people who claim that this is another “Borat”-style kind of documentary are the exact same people who believe in god to such an extent that they’re willing to delude themselves that Bill Maher is not asking questions worth answering. I do think that Maher asks valid questions to the religious individuals featured (whose religions range from Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Scientology) but he is smart enough to not let go of that trademark sense of humor that made him so famous. Even though I was born a Catholic, I do not affiliate myself with any religious group because, to be blunt, I think the whole thing is a crock. Even though my parents are Catholics, they provided me the freedom to choose and think for myself so I’m going to exercise it until the day I die. When I watch documentaries that challenge any religion, excitement comes over me because I love taking apart people’s arguments from both sides and decide which side is weaker. Although Maher did bring up a plethora of excellent points, I can admit that there were times when I wished he went straight for the jugular instead of dancing around the issue and eventually reaching it. However, Maher had enough insight to keep me on my feet and such insights made my arguments that much stronger the next time I get into a debate about religion. Another thing I liked about this film was its fast cuts to random images like Jonah Hill, cartoons aimed for children, older films that tell a story from the Bible, nuclear weapons going off, and even Maher’s childhood videos–all of which serve to provide a sense of humor and to support certain arguments on how ludicrous biblethumpers really are. One downside about this documentary, however, was that it lost a little bit of that great momentum in the final twenty minutes. There were less laughs because the jokes weren’t as sharp even though it’s still making fun of religion and people who build their lives around it. I highly recommend this film especially to agnostics and atheists. I doubt anyone with a strong set of religious beliefs will change their minds. There were a couple of quotes that stood out to me but this quote pretty much embodied the film’s argument: “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.”
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie provided me bucketloads of nostalgia because I used to watch the cartoons when I was younger. Starring and written by Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Raymond Stantz) and Harold Ramis (Dr. Egon Spengler), “Ghostbusters” is really fun to watch because of its originality and bona fide sense of humor. The film also stars Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddmore (an eventual Ghostbuster), Sigourney Weaver as their first client and Rick Moranis as Weaver’s mousy neighbor. I was impressed that each of them had something to contribute to the comedy as well as moving the story forward. I usually don’t like special and visual effects in comedies because the filmmakers get too carried away and neglect the humor, but I enjoyed those elements here because all of it was within the picture’s universe. Although the movie does embrace its campiness, it’s not completely ludicrious. In fact, since the Ghostbusters are part of the Psychology department, I was happy that the script managed to use the psychological terms and ideas in a meaningful way such as the idea of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. I also liked the fact that it had time to respectfully reference (or parody?) to “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Although the humor is much more consistent in the first half, the second half is where it manages to show its intelligence such as the fusing of ideas from gods of various cultures and Christianity’s armageddon. Without the actors providing a little something extra (such as Murray’s hilarious sarcasm), this would’ve been a typical comedic spookfest. The special and visual effects may have been dated but it still managed to entertain me from start to finish because the film is so alive with ideas and anecdotes with universal appeal.
Angels & Demons (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I enjoyed “Angels & Demons” more than “The Da Vinci Code” for several reasons. First is Ron Howard’s direction: In its prequel (even though, chronologically, “Angels & Demons” happened before “The Da Vinci Code” so it depends on how one looks at it), I felt that Howard was all over the place and missed some crucial information from Dan Brown’s novel. That is why the ending was not as powerful as it should have been. To me, the facinating locales were at the foreground instead of the story. It was so concerned with being so fast-paced that it almost sacrificed its emotions and the details that made the book such a page-turner. In here, the director has more focus and confidence when it comes to tackling certain scenes and some of them are downright impressive (whether it’s about thrills or visual effects). I also liked Tom Hanks a lot more here than I did in “The Da Vinci Code.” Aside from the absence of his ridiculous hair that distracted millions of audiences from the first film, I felt like Hanks is more comfortable as Robert Langdon–he has that certain intellectual swagger but he doesn’t take it too seriously. I have to admit that there were times when I forgot about Hanks playing a role; I was so interested in what was happening, trying to recall if the events that transpired in the novel were being accurately portrayed in the picture. I also liked the lack of chemistry between Hanks and Ayelet Zurer. As strange as that may sound, films have the tendency to attach a romantic angle to “spice things up” when they really do not need to. In fact, most of the time such romatic interests weigh the picture down so I was glad there was none of that nonsense in “Angels & Demons.” It’s really focused in Langdon’s quest to solve the mysteries that were unfolding in the Vatican. Lastly, I have to mention Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna. I’m not religious in any sense but the way he delivered some of his speeches were so powerful, I couldn’t help but have my eyes (as well as my ears) glued to the screen. He has a certain subtlety that is both charming and dangerous. Overall, “Angels & Demons” is a pretty entertaining summer blockbuster flick that really shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. It’s interesting to me how religious groups respond to these type of films. If they are so secure about their faith, films like this should not matter in any way. Its goal is to simply entertain and I think it achieved just that.
Save Me (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Coming into this film, I knew that there was no chance in hell that I was going to change my mind about these so-called institutions that aim to “correct” people’s homosexuality. I’ve had friends that were sent to these morbid places and I can attest that they do not work. Correcting homosexuality is like trying to will your body to not to respond to pain when you touch an extremely hot surface; nature is not something that you can simply “correct” no matter how hard you pray. It took me a while to get used to this picture because the first few scenes show gay people only in a negative light–that they’re all about sex with no strings attached and hard drugs. Eventually, though, we see characters that are complex and worthy of screen time so I somewhat forgave that distasteful first few minutes. Chad Allen and Robert Gant may not have that much of a chemistry, but they tackled their characters with enough dignity to the point where I was interested in their own personal battles instead of the forces that keep them together. One of those forces is Judith Light as one of the leaders of the ministry. Even though I thought her character was never someone that I would ever get along with, I still felt sorry for her because she desperately wants redemption for the way she treated her son after he told her that he was gay. Since her son died in his teens, she tries to find a way to forgive herself by taking in homosexuals and “correcting” their proclivities. I thought Light was the best thing about this flawed film mainly because of her acting. I thought it was true to life how she’s friendly and approachable when she’s around other people but judgemental (not to mention extremely homophobic) when she’s alone with her husband. For a character that I can immediately dislike, Light was able to get me to care for her even just a bit. I think this film would’ve been stronger if the romance aspect was completely written off. The topic of redemption was not really at the focus most of the time because the movie had to spend time shaping Allen and Gant’s relationship. For a subject this controversial, you don’t need a romance angle for people to find it interesting. Whether one supports homosexuality or not, one will have something to say after watching this film.
Hamlet 2 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I’m not a big fan of slapstick comedy and it’s dispersed throughout this movie, but Steve Coogan’s enthusiastic performance as a drama teacher who wants to inspire his students prevented me from becoming completely bored by it. The presence of familiar faces such as Elisabeth Shue, Catherine Keener, Melonie Diaz, David Arquette, and Amy Poehler made it that much better because their sometimes subtle performances contrast to the all-too-obvious elements of the picture. Not to mention that “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” song is not only satirical and catchy but just plain hilarious if one is not too sensitive when it comes to making fun of religion (Christianity in this case). I think I would’ve liked this film more if the slapstick that plagued the beginning were completely removed. Not only were they not funny, they also slowed the story down. Instead, the filmmakers should’ve dealt with race relations in the classroom; they tried to move in that direction but I got the feeling that the writers were afraid that the movie would get too serious. What is a comedy without a little bit of dramatic gravity? Despite my coming from a high school with a diverse group of ethnicities, self-segregation is not uncommon; it would’ve been nice if that was explored because I could relate to it and I think it’s still an important issue. I also liked the fact that the story of “Hamlet” was not just randomly chosen to make a play. Coogan’s character can relate to it, in his own strange way, so we get that sense of purpose. I don’t necessarily recommend this movie to just about anyone because it is targeted toward people with a specific sense of humor. If one is a fan of “Napoleon Dynamite” (which I hated with a passion), he or she might enjoy “Hamlet 2.” For me, this film is offensive (in a good way), satirical, and had heart but it could’ve been more insightful and moving if they had toned down the slapstick.