Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Film Review: God's Not Dead (2014)

God's Not Dead falls firmly in the category of Christian Propaganda film; not because it promotes God and Christianity, but because it does so the way that all propaganda films do: by creating a straw man argument supported by characters and situations specifically designed to defeat the alternate viewpoint at odds with the message. This is not an attack on the film's message, but rather a critical appraisal of the mechanics of the film's argument, which isn't so much that God is very much alive, but that those who believe in God - or more precisely, a Christian God - face constant persecution and challenges to their faith by snotty, angry, and downright abusive Atheists.

The main Atheist and straw man of the film is college philosophy Professor Radisson, played by Kevin Sorbo, whose career ironically peaked with his portrayal of Greek demigod Hercules. Professor Radisson is the film's main antagonist, who sets everything into motion by asking his class to admit that God is Dead so they can skip theological discussions for the semester. When devout Christian and avid Newsboys fan Josh refuses, he's threatened with a failing grade unless he concedes to the demand or proves God's existence.

This main premise of the film, meant to embody the mythical boogeyman of the anti-Christian left-wing collegiate intelligentsia, is in and of itself completely ludicrous. The idea that a Philosophy professor would threaten to fail a student for not denying his own religious faith, and be notorious enough for doing so that class registrars are motivated to warn crucifix-laden students to switch classes, already stretches the limits of willful disbelief. That a philosophy professor would then demand a student unequivocally prove anything, let alone the existence of God, demonstrates an overall lack of understanding of philosophy. Radisson's thinly-veiled hostility towards Josh's faith becomes open hostility when he later physically confronts Josh and threatens to prevent him from ever getting a law degree (um... okay...) if he keeps trying to embarrass him in front of his students, an act that would most likely impact one's teaching career, God or no God.

Granted, the argument could be made that Radisson is not meant to represent all philosophy professors, just a bad one. If that were the case, however, there would be no need to include the dinner party scene at Radisson's home in which a collection of fellow philosophy professors not only support his Prove God or Fail challenge to his student, but also join him in openly ridiculing his young Christian girlfriend for being Christian and storing wine in her trunk. But there is, and the purpose of this is to show that we are not just dealing with one twisted professor, but a vast conspiracy of institutionalized anti-Christian aggression.

But intellectual snobbery isn't enough for the film, which needs to invoke a monumental David and Goliath battle between the faithful and those angry Atheists, so Josh is also pitted against his girlfriend of six years, who demands that he capitulate to Radisson's demands because flunking a humanities elective will jeopardize his future law degree and their entire future together. When he ignores her ultimatum and takes on the task of proving God's existence to a Freshman philosophy class, she immediately breaks up with him - and right after he got her tickets to see the Newsboys for an anniversary gift. This is probably the most realistic part of the film, as I can easily recall the number of girlfriends I've lost because I wouldn't deny the existence of a supreme being in exchange for course credits. We never meet Josh's parents, but he does mention briefly in a couple of asides that they want him to deny God as well. So much for parental guidance.

Despite all of these side stories, the main focus of the film is obviously the classroom debate between Radisson and Josh, and while it would be a mistake to get into a point-by-point examination of the arguments of either side, there are a couple of things worth mentioning. First, considering that Radisson starts the class reading a long list of Atheist philosophers, the bulk of the debate involves scientific arguments involving the Big Bang and Evolution, and very little time is spent examining the works or arguments of philosophers that actually do argue for the existence of God, of which there are many. This leads me to believe that the screenwriters themselves have spent more time arguing with people attempting to disprove God with science than they have actually discussing theological philosophy with actual philosophers. On a side note, I would argue that the phenomenal graphics Josh employs during his lectures are a clear sign that he should abandon his pre-law classes and major and computer programming or digital animation.

The other big flaw in the entire Is God Dead debate is that Josh "proves" that God Isn't Dead to his classmates by exposing Radisson's flawed logic using his own flawed logic. Hinging on the belief that all Atheists actual do believe in God but just deny his existence to be hip smarty-pants, Josh tricks Radisson into admitting that he hates God (because his mother died when he was ten), and then stumps him with "How can you hate somebody who doesn't exist?" Mike drop, right? Well, no... Getting the professor to admit that he believes God exists by exposing his hatred of him might expose a flaw in his own personal belief system, but his admitted belief in God's existence doesn't actually prove God's existence any more than his belief that God doesn't exist proves that God doesn't exist. The idea that Josh tricking Radisson prove the existence of God is as ludicrous as the very idea of attempting to "prove" God's existence. Josh starts his lectures by stating that you can no more prove that God exists than you can prove that God doesn't exist, and he's absolutely correct. That's what philosophy is all about, examining things that defy exact definition. But if Josh had stopped at his extremely logical introduction, the film couldn't have spent the remainder of its two hours focusing on it's true argument, which is that all Atheists are big bullies who live to persecute Christians and force them to deny their faith.

The most disingenuous aspect of God's Not Dead is that it sets up the premise that a student must defend God's existence to an elite intellectual atheist bully, set's it up so that he wins, and that's not enough. No, God's Not Dead feels the need to take the David and Goliath story one step forward and actually demonstrate God's existence through divine intervention. Because, you know, God has a plan. In this case, God's plan is to thwart Reverend Dave's attempts to leave town for Disney World by killing the starter in every car he and his missionary friend get into for the duration of the film. This is because God wants Reverend Dave to be on the scene when Radisson, in a moment of wavering atheism after reading his mother's dying letter to him (she mentions God a lot), impulsively runs to a nearby Newsboys concert only to be hit by a speeding car in the rain, so that Reverend Dave can save Radisson's immortal soul by convincing him to accept Christ into his life before he succumbs to his wounds. An ending right out of a Jack Chick religious tract, it raises a very logical question that kind, while not proving Radisson's initial point, at least justifies his anti-theistic leanings: If God was so concerned about Radisson getting a chance to repent before dying, why didn't he break the starter on the hit-and-run driver's car that night and give Radisson the rest of his natural life to come over from the dark side, instead of disabling multiple rental cars over the course of a week just so Reverend Dave could squeeze a deathbed confession out of him in the middle of a crowded intersection during a torrential downpour.

So, am I reviewing the message or the film? Again, I don't think one can exist without the other. Remove the giant fighting robots from Transformers, and all you get is 144 minutes of Shia LeBeouf trying to nail Megan Fox. Remove the message from God's Not Dead, and all you'd be left with is two hours of Reverend Dave being nice to people and having car trouble. Beyond that, the film's declared topic is nothing more than false platform created to support and obscure its message that Christian persecution is anybody that doesn't like the Newsboys, and that the quickest road to salvation is a horrible death and/or Reverend Dave.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Film Review: The Visit (2015)

I find myself defending M. Night Shyamalan more than I'd like to. I make no excuses for Lady in the Water, The Happening still gives me migraines, and even though he wasn't as in control of studio films like The Last Air Bender or After Earth, he still has to answer for his involvement as a filmmaker. Those are the rules. But his twist endings (show me a film that doesn't have a third act revelation) and distinctive directing style have become more of an excuse to bash him and his body of work, and it has reached the point where you can predict the complaints about his films ("I guessed the twist right away," blah blah blah) before they're posted in the IMDB message boards. M. Night has had the unfortunate task of having to live up to the hype created by the overwhelming success and acclaim of The Sixth Sense, and the decreasing quality of his work after The Village (some would argue sooner; I disagree) has done nothing but fueled the ire of his detractors.

Which is why I am so glad that The Visit has proven to be a sort of redemption for M. Night. Don't get your hopes up too high - this low-budget found footage thriller isn't out to break new ground or redefine the horror genre. Instead, it's doing what it set out to do, which is make an entertaining low-budget found footage horror film. Of course, you're going to have to deal with M. Night's trademark emotional soul-searching in between jump-scares, but that just comes with the territory. Beyond that, there is little here to hate (rationally, at least). The premise is plausible enough for a horror film, the characters and dialogue are as realistic as you are willing to allow (more on that in a moment), and M. Night drops hints and shuffles scenes of tension and levity back and forth enough to be textbook examples of storytelling.

The setup is straightforward and to the point: A single mother hasn't spoken to her parents since she fought with them about marrying the father of her two children, and who eventually left them. The grandparents contact her online asking to see their grandchildren, the kids agree, and so she reluctantly ships them off to a week with mom-mom and pop-pop at her childhood home while she goes on a Royal Caribbean Cruise (insert blatant product placement here) with her new boyfriend. Becca, the older daughter and film enthusiast, decides to make a documentary of the visit, giving us our excuse for the found-footage nature of the film. The situation is simple and setup early on, giving us plenty of time for slow tension-building and character development as Becca's cameras record far more than she had ever intended.

Yes, regardless of the setup, a found-footage horror films is already far from original. But that doesn't mean it is bad from the start, and compared to some of the dismal recent entries into this genre - such as The Gallows, or whichever Paranormal Activity film we were subjected to last - The Visit works at the top of the form. Less gimmicky than most, the POV nature of this film is actually used to develop the story and immerse the viewer in the main characters' perception, something a lot of the more recent found footage films have abandoned for slight-of-hand optical tricks and repeated jump scares. In short: it was fun, and I enjoyed it.

Not that I didn't have issues with the film. The Title, for starters. M. Night has never excelled at naming his films, seemingly opting for the plainly descriptive titles that actively describe the main plot or location - the worst of these being The Happening, which might as well have been called Vague Plot Description, and the best of these being Signs, which actually manages enough of a double meaning within the film to pass as clever. The Visit has that same problem, and at one point during the film I found myself wondering he didn't call the film Sundown, which for reasons evident upon viewing would have made a much better title. To his credit (and mine), I discovered later that the working title of the film was originally Sundowning, so it's probably safe to assume that the title change was a corporate marketing decision, so I'm ultimately neutral on that point.

Then there's the location. Yeah, I get it. You really like Pennsylvania. Enough already. The specific location itself doesn't actually have any bearing on the story, but just being actively aware that I'm being subjected to something for no other reason than the filmmaker's personal obsession makes this irritating to me. It's like watching a Tarantino film. Okay Quentin, you have a severe foot fetish. Very Nice. Back to the film now, please.

And on a personal level, I always hate it when a filmmaker introduces a filmmaker as a main character. There's something a bit myopic and narcissistic about this setup, as it always feels like the filmmaker is begging for understand. M. Night was guilty of this to such a major degree with Lady in the Water - introducing an evil critic character who admits to giving negative reviews out of spite and then killing him, an obvious reference to his own negative reviews - that I still feel he needs to stay as far away from this type of setup as possible. It didn't have a negative impact on the film itself, but it still left a bad taste.

So altogether, most of my issues with The Visit were minor and cosmetic. Much of the other negative criticism I've seen that isn't Shyamalan-centric is mostly nitpicking about stuff that shouldn't need a back story explanation ("Where did they get the tripods?" I'm guessing they packed them with the cameras...), and much of them aren't worth discussing. The one I feel needs some attention is one that I had issues with initially while watching the film, the dialogue spoken by the main characters, Becca and Tyler. Throughout the film, the older sister Becca is overly erudite in her speech patterns, while younger brother Tyler is incessantly uses slang ("Swerve.") and gives impromptu rap numbers more often than anybody is probably comfortable with. And yes, after an hour of this even I'm thinking that the girl is using way too many fifty-cent words and hip-hop lad needs to tone it down a bit. Most people complaining about this are resorting to the overall argument that the dialogue for the kids is "not real" or sounds "phony and unnatural." And at first I was probably in agreement.

But M. Night doesn't make normal films, and in the case of this story, these are NOT normal kids. It is explained very early in the film that the father literally picked up and left one day, severing all contact with his wife and children, and that at least two of them (the mother and Tyler) sought out therapy to cope with severe abandonment issues. In a film that involves a subtext of people playing parts - hinted to by a couple of random characters in the first act who begin reciting Shakespeare as soon as the camera is pointed in their direction - we are dealing with two children who are coping with abandonment issues by constructing personalities around their true selves, something that most children do at one point or another without a severe psychological trauma to trigger feelings of inadequacy. So in this situation, yes, we are watching two children who are not necessarily acting "naturally," whatever that is. Becca purposely attempts to act and sound important and intelligent, and Tyler seeks out attention through popular cultural signals and actions. So, in my opinion, this is more a creative decision than it is the poor screenwriting that many have labeled it as, like it or not.

As someone who recommended I see the film said to me, if you aren't expecting something completely original and groundbreaking, you're going to enjoy yourself. I wasn't, and I did, much more so than many of this year's horror film offerings.