Tag Archives: Religion

Joshua (2007)

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Holy crap. The kids aren’t all right. The kids aren’t all right at all. And nine-year-old Joshua Cairn (Jacob Kogan) is such a malicious, evil little prick who commits atrocities with such a sense of glee (as gleeful as Joshua’s studiousness and seriousness will allow) that you will not feel anything but hate and loathing for the malignant little tyke by the end. But hey, this movie is pretty good, and for fans of evil-child movies, it’s that much better because “Joshua” maintains a relative sense of realism throughout.

Poor Brad (Sam Rockwell.) No sooner is little newborn Lily out of the hospital than Brad’s wife Abby (Vera Farmiga) starts to mentally deteriorate big-time (Post-partum depression’s a bitch) and child prodigy Joshua starts to act a little… well, homicidal. The family dog, Joshua’s pet hamster, and the class pets at Joshua’s elite private school (an institution that attracts snobs like a cadaver attracts flies) start to meet with fatal accidents, and Brad begins to suspect the worst when the family unite swiftly disintegrates. But could all the mayhem really be being orchestrated by Joshua?

Sam Rockwell is becoming one of my favorite character actors, bringing likability to Joshua’s very flawed dad. Vera Farmiga is a top-notch actress too, but sympathy is in short supply for this shrieking, hysterical woman (I know the horrors of mental illness all too well, but Abby’s out to lunch.) a Netflix user described Kogan’s portrayal of Joshua, the homicidal maniac, as ‘stiff,’ but I actually thought he did a pretty damned good job switching his behavior between that of a wide-eyed schoolboy and a malicious nutcase. This is nothing. Wait until the cretin hits puberty, starts growing hair in strange places. Your problems are going to triple overnight.

As a self-proclaimed fan of every cinematic psychological curiosity under the sun, “Joshua” offered more that enough bizarre insights into human nature. I like how Joshua sets his parents against each other. I love the dynamic of the struggle of power between father and son. Brad’s main concerns are sexual frustration and keeping his family unit from falling to bits. Joshua’s motivations are a little more mysterious. Is destroying his parents his ultimate endgame? Or does he have an even more sinister agenda in mind?

This is the rare movie I wouldn’t mind a sequel to (however,considering the limited release and the child actor’s age progression, the chances are next to nil.) With all the Hollywood hits that get upteen million sequels, here’s sleeper hat feels like it might actually benefit from a sequel and has a nada chance of getting one. Does that seem right? No, not at all, but that’s how the movie industry works. Better get used to it, kid.

“Joshua” achieves it’s goal of being creepy and unnerving, and not just from the initial shock of a small child doing horrible things. There’s definitely a sense of unease at watching the terrible things that happen to the these poor people (except the nine-year-old, may his snotty ass burn in Hell.) It’s a set of disasters that can befall anyone, if a real life Joshua is thrown into the mess, devoid of supernatural or demonic factors. This kind of storytelling is potent and used to good effect here, without the usual crap clichés or plot devices.

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A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

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“A Land More Kind Than Home” may well be one of the most beautiful, insightful, and gritty novels I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a rare thing for a book to take so far out of your range of experiences and hook you almost immediately, and this novel does exactly that, employing a cast of some of the most fascinating characters I’ve seen in ages. The focus is religion-gone-badly-awry and ignorance, with tragedy as a result, but never does it seem preachy or dicdactic.

Jess Hall is a precocious nine-year-old boy who is expected by default to take his thirteen-year-old, significantly Autistic brother Christopher (AKA Stump) everywhere he goes. The miracle of Jess’ character is that he doesn’t resent Stump in the least, as many young protagonists who serve as makeshift caretakers for their disabled siblings are. Jess and the gentle but entirely non-verbal Stump are as close as brothers can be expected to be, and they share a special bond that Jess doesn’t maintain with anyone else. Together they chase fireflies, catch salamanders, and amuse themselves exploring their rural North Carolina landscape.

Jess and Stump’s mom Julie is basically well-intentioned but a bit of an idiot, to be honest. She spends her time at the Baptist Church run by a shady and mysterious figure by the name of Carson Chambliss. The worshippers speak in tongues and dabble in snake-handling (AKA generally dodgy stuff,) and Jess’ atheistic pop Ben will have nothing to do with the diseased goings-on within the church. But when Jess and Stump catch wind of something they shouldn’t it is Stump who pays dearly.

The book is narrated by three POV characters- Jess, who is in too deep in the world of adults and still doesn’t entirely understand their affairs, is the center of the drama and arguably the lead. Adelaide Lyle is a good Christian and a very old lady who kind of also serves as the town wise woman. Clem Barefield is the sheriff, past his prime and dealing with his own demons. Resentments simmer in the small NC town of Marshall and explode into violent climactic confrontation.

I found the writing to be beautiful and literary without making a big show of itself (i.e. readable.) The narrative immediately grabs your attention as Addie recounts confronting Chambliss and being put in a threatening situation by the batty self-proclaimed prophet. If you’re interested in how “A Land More Kind Than Home” depicts Autism Spectrum Disorders, I found prose on Stump’s condition to be well-written and sensitively rendered.

On a side note, can I just say how much I wanted to shake Julie. I’ve NEVER seen a character in a book act as obtuse as she did. In the end, I found her almost as at fault in her ignorance as Chambliss was in his psychopathy. NO sympathy for her by the end of this novel. I thought all three POV’s worked extremely well to give us a multi-dimensional look into the story.

I want to read Wiley Cash’s second book “This Dark Road to Mercy”  as soon as possible. “A Land More Kind Than Home” is a rollicking good read and a beautiful piece of literature in its own right.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

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“Marcelo in the Real World” is a novel that, like it’s sweet but often bewilderingly naive protagonist, took time to grow on me. It gets points for offering a unique perspective on Autism Spectrum Disorders and a fair and balanced portrayal of Christianity. Marcelo Sandoval, a quiet and innocent Mexican-American 18-year-old, seems to have an Asperger’s Syndrome like condition which, on top of typical AS symptoms, causes him to hear ‘mental music’ that no one else can. Doctors can’t figure out why this happens. and Marcelo is an enigma to friends and family.

All Marcelo wants to do is stay at Patterson, his school for kids with special needs, and take care of the Hafflinger ponies that reside there. His plan for a sheltered and uneventful summer takes a detour, however, when his father, Arturo insists he work at his law firm over vacation. Marcelo complies only after pressure and is send to Sandoval & Holmes legal firm, where he begins to come face to face with some very unpleasant realities for the first time. These include manipulative and hedonistic Wendell Holmes and his bullying father Stephen, Arturo’s partner in crime. But what rattles him most is a picture of a severely disfigured teen that leads him to bitter realities about his father, the firm, and the ‘real world’ his dad wants so desperately for him to join.

Consistent with most AS patients, Marcelo has a special interest- in this case, religion. He also has an annoying habit of referring to himself in the third person, i.e. ‘Marcelo is scared’ or ‘Marcelo is hungry,’ which got some getting used to. A lot of the book focuses on Marcelo’s relationship with his attractive and sturdy co-worker Jasmine. As his sweet genuineness and her strength brings them closer together, Marcelo wonders if he is capable of passionate, sensual love. The other parts of the book are a mix of coming-of-age, theology, and a little bit of legal thriller.

At first, I had trouble of conceiving of a creature like Marcelo existing. In today’s voyeuristic, media obsessed, sex-crazed world, Marcelo is a soft-spoken, childlike, pure, all-around good guy. Wendell, on the other hand, is not someone who you’d like to be on the receiving end of when he wants his way. I felt protective of Marcelo (why can’t he take care of the ponies over the summer anyway?) but was simultaneously annoyed by him. He really did not have a clue about human err. He grows a lot as a character throughout the book, however. Over the course of that crazy summer, he becomes a man.

I found a little bit of the dialogue distractingly over-the-top, particularly at the beginning. In fact, at many ways Marcelo seems like the least self-centered, blunt, ‘autistic’ person in the firm. Everyone says exactly what they want to say, everyone gripes and gossips. Maybe this is really how the world works, but it seemed wrong to me. Jasmine is a character who I liked a bit better over the course of the novel too. Wendell was the only lead character who stayed the same throughout the book. Frankly, he needed to be slapped.

Marcelo’s voice is well-researched and genuine. He doesn’t seem like an Autistic Spectrum stereotype or a “Rain Man”-type character at all. Author Francisco X. Stork doesn’t make Autism define Marcelo and doesn’t make him a number-droning zombie, incapable of human feeling. Marcelo is only mildly on the spectrum, but honestly, you fear for him a little while reading this book. He’s so easily beguiled and taken advantage of that I myself wouldn’t want him walking the streets of Boston, Massachusetts by himself. It’s not that he’s stupid or defective, but his seemingly boundless naivete makes him such an easy target.

This is young adult fiction but it’s written in a such a way that anyone can enjoy it, and it’s not bogged down with a lot of psychobabble about Asperger’s (“House Rules” by Jodi Picoult comes to mind in the psychobabble department.) “Mindblind” by Jennifer Roy (a book about a brilliant fourteen-year-old Aspergian) would make a good companion read with this. It is a touching coming-of-age story in the same league as books such as “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky.

Excision (2012)

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What starts out as an alternately eerie and cartoonish look at teenage Suburban Hell eventually morphs into full-blown body horror in “Excision,” a devilishly entertaining horror movie that nevertheless fails to really utilize it supporting cast. Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord,) a misfit aspiring surgeon with a number of unnerving sexual fantasies, lives with her passive, well-meaning father (Roger Bart,) Her smothering religious-fanatic mother (Traci Lords, yes, THAT Traci Lords,) and her sweet terminally ill sister Grace (Ariel Winter of “Modern Family,”) a Cystic Fibrosis sufferer with a heart of gold.

Pauline is a total outcast at school, partially because she is gawky and homely, and due in a large part to the fact that she is aggressively off-putting and creepy, intentionally vomiting on others and dissecting dead animals. She’s not understood, but the brilliance of geniuses rarely is in their own time. Is Pauline a genius? Not really, but you’d rather she attempt surgery on you than, say, Martin of “The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence.)”

“Excision” is a little bit Lucky McKee’s “May,” a little bit Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” a little bit Tom Six’s “…Pede” movies but enough originality to stand on it’s own merit. It has a lot of famous faces and cult actors, including ‘king of filth’ John Waters as a priest (!), Malcolm McDowell as a teacher unsympathetic to Pauline’s deranged antics, and Marlee Matlin as a member of school staff. The movie works because it is over-the-top but remains just believable enough to suspend disbelief. The characters tend to be a little one-dimensional but still find ways to surprise you.

The gore element is mostly thrown at you at the end but also is utilized through Pauline’s bloody fetishistic dreams, which awaken forbidden desires within her. “Excision” is a bit of slow burner which becomes increasingly better after you get accustomed to the tone, which is relentlessly odd but consistent. There’s a gallows humor that made me chuckle throughout. The acting is competent (even from former porn star Traci Lords!) and each player portrays their characters well.

I was wary about watching this because so much indie horror is total shite (“Escape From Tomorrow,” particularly, was a recent disappointment) but I found myself pleasantly surprised at this quirky little horror picture, which refused to take itself too seriously while not stooping to gory slapstick or ridiculousness. I found myself having mixed feelings about the character of Pauline. She’s a total deviant and oddball, but sometimes she does something, or says something in one of her confessions to God that makes you like her- just a little bit, and just for a little while. For those with strong stomachs and open minds, I recommend “Excision” as a surprisingly good horror debut.

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The Apostle (1997)

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There aren’t a lot of balanced portrayals of Christianity in popular culture. A few really hit you in the head with how wretched and faithless you are. Mostly, though, modern media concerning Christians are vicious and mean-spirited. The storylines in “Saved!” and “True Blood” come to mind. Mostly people try to make you feel bad for being Christian or bad for being an atheist, with very little middle ground. Here’s where “The Apostle” comes in to blow you away. “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s pet project about a Pentecostal preacher fleeing the law, played by Duvall himself, is nothing if not balanced.

Sonny (Duvall) is a man with a fire in his soul and a burning desire to spread the word of God. He truly wants to make the world a better place with his faith. He’s also a liar, a adulterer, and finally, maybe even a killer as he beats his wife’s lover into a coma and hits the road. He’s pushy, dominating, and hypocritical, but the thing is the film never stoops to demeaning or ridiculing this man or his passion for the gospel. He is who he is, and this movie is okay with that, without becoming jokey or judgmental.

“The Apostle” is, above all, a character study, as Sonny flees to a small Southern town and starts his own congregation. This is neither the story of how Sonny redeems himself and inspires many or the sad tale of how a backwards preacher-man hoodwinks the townspeople. It’s complicated and tricky, just like life. All the actors do a wonderful job here, and Duvall picks ordinary-looking people to play many of the roles. This is the South as it should be portrayed more often- not ass-backwards and evil, but not glossy and idyllic either. There is racism, there is poverty, but there is also a unity between the people.

Sonny starts romancing a lady named Toosie (Miranda RIchardson,) who doesn’t know quite what to make of the preacher. Although he never physically hurts to or forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, there’s a demanding vibe to the relationship, and we can’t help thinking she could do better. Sonny misses what he’s left behind (his kids, his mother,) but is excited for a brand-new future. Will Sonny find the solace he’s been looking for?

This is quite an extraordinary movie. It’s very thought provoking and is appropriate for teens to watch and discuss with their parents, although adolescents might have a short attention span for this kind of film. The scene at the beginning of the movie with the car crash is amazing and, in my opinion, the most powerful scene in the movie. The climax goes on a bit too long, but that is a minor quibble among the many positive attributes the film has. I consider this a Christian-friendly movie that primarily appeals to skeptics, but above all, it is fair-minded and intelligent. An overlooked gem!

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Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

I pulled my paperback copy of this book of my shelf on impulse one day, and I’m very glad I did. ‘Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes’ is a compelling read, which examines a large birth of issues including bullying, obesity, disabilities, child abuse, abortion, and religion. This all sounds very ‘disease-of-the-week,’ but the ‘problem novel’ aspect of the novel is levied by genuine audacity and an unforgettable cast  of characters.

Eric, called ‘Moby’ (as in the whale) for his considerable girth, is an obese seventeen-year-old boy living in a single-parent family. His oldest friend, Sarah Byrnes was horribly disfigured under suspicious circumstances when she was three. For seventeen years she has stood strong, but now she sits, wounded and silent, in a psychiatric ward.

Eric is running out of time. He has to save Sarah Byrnes from insanity… or something worse. Because someone wants to silence Eric. And in this situation, there isn’t a wide berth for error. Subplots involve   proselytization by Eric’s Christian conservative classmate, a classroom discussion group dissecting relevant social issues, and a troubled and dimwitted boy from Eric’s past.

It might be hard to warm up to the characters at first. Eric is a unrepentant smartass who constantly describes his obesity and profuse perspiration at length, while Sarah Byrnes sometimes seems rougher (and meaner) than she needs to be. Likewise Steve Ellerby, Eric’s other friend, seems to be someone who would pick any fight with a Christian. But slowly your views change- Eric is a devoted friend, Sarah is incredibly brave, and Ellerby is a thinker  who refuses to accept someone else’s reality that doesn’t make sense to him  as his own. Even crazy-religious and hypocritical Mark Brittain shows a human side.

This in’t the best written book ever- it contains a lot of cliched language. But the plot and the characters are engrossing. The story is exciting while also being interesting and not insulting the reader’s intelligence. “Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes” was actually banned/challenged at several points by the school systems, and a Wisconsin parents actually called it ‘pornography’ at one point, which is pure ridiculousness. It is actually a pretty mature book, but nothing that older teens can’t handle in my opinion.

This is a lot darker than the last YA book I read (the Trans-friendly “Parrotfish,”) but then this arguably goes deeper into teen issues (not just GLBTQ issues.) I can’t say I liked this one better, but then, they do different things well. For compelling characters and a steady mix of drama and action, look no further than “…Sarah Byrnes.” I think you could get a tech-head  or jock boy who is committed to sports or glued to his video game system to read this book because it is so involving. I think it should be on every high school library shelf .

The book’s intriguing dedication.

Paradise Faith (2012)

What’s impressive and surprising about “Paradise: Faith” is how it takes a sensational premise (a lonely woman with an erotic fixation with Jesus) and does not use it for cheap shock value or as a vicious attack on Catholicism. In fact, it’s not really tawdry or sleazy at all- it, like it’s desperate heroine, just is. I have not seen the first movie in the trilogy, the thematically linked “Paradise: Love,” but after this movie I probably will.

Instead of building contempt and hatred for it’s fanatically religious protagonist, it develops it so that we feel a mix of curiosity and pity for strange, pious Anna-Maria (excellently played by Maria Hofstätter,) but never disgust or rage. She needs her faith desperately, as a human being needs food or oxygen.

A single woman in her mid-50’s, Anna-Maria works as a X-Ray Technician and spends her summers proselytizing the neighbors and no doubt making herself quite unpopular in her town in Austria. Anna-Maria is painfully sexually repressed and endures self-inflicted punishments for her unchaste thoughts. She fancies Jesus quite a bit and finds herself attracted to his gentle strength and kindness.

Everything abruptly changes when Anna Maria’s Arabic, paraplegic husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) returns after a long, unexplained absence. Saleh is quite good too, developing his character from merely an annoyance to a cruel misogynist who spits on Anna Maria and mocks her passionate devotion to God. Nabil wants Anna Maria to ‘fulfill her duties as a wife’ and make love to him, but Anna Maria’s only love now is God.

What follows is a battle of wills- between the fanatical Anna Maria and the stubborn Nabil. No love and friendship comes out of this conflict- only violence and bitterness. Meanwhile Anna Maria copes with her impending crisis of faith and her complex feelings for her savior.

“Paradise: Faith” is similar to the films of Michael Haneke in style- cold, unbiased, virtually devoid of music and littered with long takes. It interested me quite a bit. I hate the dumbing-down of the Christian in Hollywood, as even the craziest is a human being with complex motivations and belief system.

The film doesn’t give us a pat ending or anyone worth cheering for, and that’s just fine- Anna Maria is greeted with mixed reactions from her herd of endangered souls. No one wins, no one ‘proves her wrong,’ and there are no revelations or messages except for this- crazy-devout religion can be a temporary aid for something deeper- unbearable loneliness, repression or isolation. Sometimes someone who seems proselytizing or arrogant is simply lonelier.

Maria Hofstätter is just perfect as Anna Maria, and you can completely believe that she is this person, who she plays with total sincerity. It is interesting to see her try to ‘save’ the souls of her fellow man, and the way they react to what could be interpreted as a attempt to connect or or just pure  patronization. An essential art-house film for fans of the genre.

Buddy Boy (1999)

Buddy Boy, Mark Hanlon’s debut, is a haunting and potent film about dead end lives that provokes more questions than answers but remains bizarrely interesting throughout.

The film provides a look into the surrealistic existence of emotionally stunted, stuttering misfit Francis (Aidan Gillen), who lives with his trollish invalid stepmother (actual amputee Susan Tyrrell), in a squalid apartment.

Suffering from overwhelming guilt concerning his sexuality, his religion, and himself, he goes to confession monthly, admitting every impure thought and indiscretion. The contrast between faith and the id is revealed in the opening, which presents the viewer with a montage of religious imagery followed by Francis, uh… pleasuring himself to a pair of voluptuous breasts in a magazine.

Like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, this is the high point of his day, which soon descends into woeful monotony. He finds a new pasttime in spying on his attractive neighbor Gloria (Emmanuelle Seigner, controversial Polish director Roman Polanski’s wife) through a hole in his apartment.

Then they meet. Gloria is strangely attracted to Francis, which would be unfeasible if she weren’t clearly lonely and desperate too. She tells him she is a vegan, a word he doesn’t understand, but he catches on. According to her, she doesn’t care what he eats, but then she buys him a “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt, which is a mixed message if I ever saw one. This further accentuates the character’s conflicting beliefs and desires.

Gloria is pretty and nice, too nice, and Francis begins believing irrational things about her pastimes, focusing on her eating habits. Meanwhile he becomes increasingly psychotic (?) and has a falling out with God. Is Francis going insane? Or is meat back on the menu? Buddy Boy is an enigma — although declared a religious allegory by IMDB users it at times seems to be making a statement against Christianity.

In fact Francis spends so much time obsessing about his masturbating, sinning ways that the viewer wishes the poor guy would just snap out of it. The movie is a triumph of atmosphere — the bleakness and decay of Francis and Sal’s apartment is palpable, while Gloria’s big-windowed, pleasingly green abode seems to spell change for the troubled young man.

The problem, it seems, is the vast contrast in acting styles between Aidan Gillen (Francis) and Susan Tyrrell (his stepmom, Sal). Gillen, from the GLBTQ show Queer as Folk (which I haven’t seen), plays his character sensitively and gently, as a fundamentally benevolent albeit strange outcast damaged by trauma and psychosis. Susan Tyrrell plays his abusive stepmom more like a SNL skit. Maybe her broad performance is the fault of the material.

When an actress’ character is scripted to beat a plumber over the head with her artificial leg (one of the stranger scenes in this story), maybe there isn’t much room for subtlety. Buddy Boy, nevertheless, is an intriguing first feature and a fascinating story.

It walks a fine line between being campy and profound, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like the humanization of Francis, a character who might be written off as a scummy voyeur, or worse, as white trash. It raises interesting questions, contains twists, and transports you, which is something films should accomplish, but rarely do.

Tyrannosaur (2011)

Emotionally devastating and rewarding, a study of desperate individuals with seemingly nothing to lose, “Tyrannosaur” is one to put on your watch list. Now. Featuring electrifying performances from Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, and the criminally underused Eddie Marsan, it is as riveting as it is disturbing and shocking.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a man seething with rage and contempt. When we first see him, he is leaving a bar after a fight. Irritated suddenly by the whining of his dog, tied up outside, he gives it a fatal kick in the ribs.

Joseph seems to have this effect on everyone who crosses his path, and he certainly seems incapable of any lasting change, but that doesn’t stop kind Christian charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Coleman) from trying to help, to Joseph’s great puzzlement.


Hannah, despite her soft and motherly exterior, has a heapful of s**t going on at home. Heartbreakingly unable to have children, she is also saddled with the world’s biggest d**k as a husband – James (Eddie Marsan,) who abuses her in every way possible.

How these two lonely souls find each other is the subject of this discomforting drama, which to me is the most genuinely distressing film since Simon Rumley’s “The Living and the Dead.” “Tyrannosaur” thrives on that stark realism we’ve come to expect from the Brits, but goes deeper than most Brit flicks, let alone American films.

I was in one state of distress or another throughout the film. The violence can be upsetting, especially if you are an animal lover, but don’t let a couple of scenes prevent you from watching what is most certainly one of the best British films of the last ten years.

Writer/director Paddy Constantine (actor/co-writer of the also great “Dead Man’s Shoes”) touches his characters with a little something extra, refraining from turning them into dim-witted caricatures. You get something from this film that you don’t get very often- the feeling that you have watched a truly great movie. And how great is that? Recommended.