The Count of Monte Cristo

A naive but faithful man gets the Job treatment, losing his freedom, possessions, family, and love.  Somehow, he becomes bitter over this (I can’t see why), and loses his faith in God (or maybe he loses his faith in God and then becomes bitter, since it’s clear that only nonbelievers are bitter).  Naturally, as an atheist, he has no morals and is consumed by thoughts of revenge.  Unable to take joy in anything, even his bloody deeds, he is brought back to God and sees the folly of his ways.  Amen.

I was very fond of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo when I read it many, many years ago.  I was also a fan of the 1934 film staring Robert Donat.  So, I was quite surprised upon watching this newest version that I was completely wrong about the theme and plot.  I thought it was a light adventure yarn (with some nice, dark moments) about a wronged man seeking revenge, when really it was an overly serious morality play about the dangers of losing God.  Huh.

In this The Count of Monte Cristo, whenever possible, somebody blurts out that God is “in everything.”  Mercedès recites it like she’s gazing at the Virgin Mary, for no reason but to slide another dose of Christianity into the picture.  She prefaces it with:

I don’t know what dark plan lies within you. Nor do I know by what design we were asked to live without each other these 16 years. But God has offered us a new beginning.

So, she (and thus the writer) believes that God is involved to the extent that He is responsible for offering this new beginning.  Where was God when Edmond was getting his life pulled apart?  This is one scumbag of a God.

The old hermit has his “God is everywhere” moment too, but he was a priest, so it seems a reasonable thing for him to babble.  Edmond spends a lot of time saying “God is absent” during the section of the flick when he’s grumpy (because atheists are grumpy folk), but switches back to “God’s all around” when he’s happy.  Watching the film today, I’m not surprised by Edmond’s obsessive preoccupation with God, but it seemed odd when I first saw it in 2002.  That was before Jim Caviezel took the role of the hit-me-baby-one-more-time Jesus in Mel Gibson’s porn experience, The Passion of the Christ.  This was just practice for him.  He got to be tied up, show some skin, and then get whipped.  I’m seeing a pattern here.  Since gay S&M films are the next step, I’m not clear what his career plans are.

During the segments when someone isn’t either praising God or noting his absence, is this Monte Cristo any fun?  Eh.  It’s OK.  It is maudlin from the beginning (and over-acted; what happened to the Guy Pearce from L.A. Confidential?) but it’s not bad for a depressing swashbuckler, at least for about an hour.  Then things turn sour.  Jay Wolpert must have figured he knew better than Alexandre Dumas, so he dumped the end of the novel, replacing it with revenge scenarios that no longer relate to the victims, a mixed up paternity (don’t ask; it’s best not to think about it), and a climactic sword duel instead of a trial.  I am a fan of swashbucklers and love a good swordfight (which this really isn’t.  Hint: if your duelists spend more time running back and forth and searching for their swords in the grass than attacking each other, you need to work on your fight choreography), but I prefer there to be some emotional drama involved.  Or some laughs.  Neither are here.

If Caviezel had given some life to Edmond, or any of the villains had been threatening, then The Count of Monte Cristo might have worked as a hardcore revenge film.  But probably not, since Luis Guzmán plays the Count’s sidekick purely for laughs.  And any movie with this bad a Superman/Clark Kent problem (Dantes hasn’t changed during his years in prison, yet no one recognizes him because he’s grown a goatee; couldn’t this production afford some makeup for Caviezel so that he’d at least look older?) needs to keep things light.

Richard Harris has some nice moments as the tutor.  The scenery is attractive, the ship looks nice, and there are swordfights, even if they aren’t high caliber ones.  There are even a few humorous lines (which are very noticeable in the sea of wretched, melodramatic dialog).  But unfortunately, it is a perfect fit with the other Dumas failures, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Musketeer, forming an unholy trinity.  The only thing that makes it stand out: it has 20% more God.



Eleanor, a driven scientist and skeptic, because her mommy and daddy are gone, finds a message from extraterrestrials with instructions on how to build a really big ball.  She also discovers super-Christian and telescope groupie, Palmer Joss, and since he looks like Matthew McConaughey, she sleeps with him, but then ignores him because, you know…the daddy thing.  Lots of people argue endlessly (really, it never stops) about how only God-types should get into the really big ball, but Eleanor is helped by a rich nut who floats around and is only in the movie to further the plot.  Oh, there’s a terrorist too, but that part is too silly to discuss.  So, Eleanor must fight evil religious guys and her own lack of faith until she can reunite with Palmer Joss (I’m not kidding, his name is Palmer Joss) and realize that we’re all religious, in our own way, so its OK to sleep with him, even if daddy is gone.

What makes Contact so excruciating, so painfully unpleasant that it sends any alert film critic into spasms, gnawing at his own leg in hopes of escaping, is the insidiousness of it.  Coming as it does from a book by atheist and scientist Carl Sagan, it pretends to be an intelligent look at the implications of extraterrestrial life.  It’s not.  What it is is a love letter to religion.  At least The Passion of the Christ makes no bones about what it is.  It clearly states Jesus exists and he got the shit kicked out of him for you, so you better be grateful.  Contact‘s message is much more dangerous and tries to hide under a false aura of intellectualism.  The message: Science is a religion.  Atheism is a religion.  And of course, Christianity is a religion.  It’s all religion, so let’s all worship together.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who is quite adept when working with comedy (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is lost when the subject becomes sincere, and there is black, viscous sincerity hemorrhaging from Contact.  You can almost hear Zemeckis shouting “I’m so meaningful” as part of the soundtrack.  With his ode to stupidity, Forest Gump (a far superior movie, and that should frighten you), Zemekis learned the basics of pretentious storytelling, and he’s mastered it here.  Keeping the plot moving just slightly faster than a complete stop (because slow things are more sincere), his characters preach, lecture, and cry for the camera (everything is aimed at the viewer; this is hardly a movie at all; it’s more of a lecture on the meaning of life).  And because it worked in Forest Gump, he sticks his actors in footage with a celebrity, this time President Clinton.  But it isn’t for laughs now.  It, like everything in Contact, is in deadly earnest.

To earn its pseudo-intellectual street-cred, the villains are religious.  One’s a pure zealot, one’s a political/religious demagogue, and another is a hypocrite using Christianity for his own gain.  They are all a smokescreen.  The only complete and happy person is Palmer Joss.  He is the voice of truth, reason, and purity.  And he is the president’s religious advisor.  He’s the goal.  You see, once you have faith, everything is OK.  And that’s the route of the film.  It’s all about Eleanor finding God.  Oh, this is large-tent Christianity, so God is such a broad concept as to be even more meaningless than usual.  But then it doesn’t matter what God is, as long as you believe.

The way that Eleanor finds her faith has become a South Park joke.  I’ll only say that her great trip into the beyond to meet aliens is…anticlimactic.

Contact is a horrible film, both from an atheistic/free thinking/philosophical/intellectual perspective, and in terms of general storytelling.  It is not only ignorant, but dishonest—a Trojan horse for scientists.  Beware of Hollywood Christians bearing gifts.


Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Four children find a magical passage in a wardrobe to a strange land of talking animals, fauns, centaurs, and an evil witch, who may or may not be Satan, depending on how much you want to stretch the analogy.  A prophecy proclaims that the coming of four youths will mean the end of the witch’s reign, which makes her a bit peevish.  Luckily, a furry Jesus is there to reenact a passion play before saving everyone, making it pointless for the kids to have shown up in the first place.

It is always a bit creepy to realize that the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia series is propaganda for children.  Through allegory, metaphors, and, as Lewis considered it, speculations on what it would be like if Jesus popped up in a different world, the stores sneak into a child’s mind, getting him to believe rather than think.  This is the most dangerous kind of propaganda, creating black-clad Christian Templar-Ninjas, who sneak out at night to destroy unbelievers in the name of Aslan, as there is but one Aslan, and Lewis is his prophet…

Except it doesn’t work that way.  There’s no kid’s army.  No Children’s inquisition, no matter how you might view the boy scouts.  Sure the books are Christian propaganda, but the thing about hiding your religion in symbols is that your readers might miss it.  Certainly no adult will.  For anyone over the age of eighteen, the message is so obvious it has the same effect as someone screaming in your face—with his spittle hitting your nose—that God is great.  Even a believer is going to get annoyed.  But these are kid’s books, and while Children can be quite clever, they tend not to be at their best when forced to interpret the theological experience via pagan representations.  At least not until they are at least eight.  It’s still kind of creepy, just not all that important.

Literary scholar and pop Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis was a troubled man.  Abused in a series of boarding schools (and his time in the trenches of WWI probably didn’t help), he was a sexually unfulfilled submissive, who meekly took orders from his thirty-years older married lover at home, and a domineering, spiteful, luddite in the classroom.  He was also highly intelligent with reasonable writing skills and a keen interest in mythology.  An atheist who longed for a world that fit the great folk legends, he was converted to Christianity by J.R.R. Tolkien (yes, that’s the Lord of the Rings guy for anyone who reads this but not books), who pointed out how much the story of Jesus matched the pagan myths.  Tolkien was pleased with his success, but less pleased when Lewis joined the Anglican church instead of becoming Catholic, even less pleased when he wrote Narnia (which Tolkien hated, finding the religious framework too confining), and still less pleased, to the point of giving up on his friend when Lewis took up with the less-than-proper Joy Gresham.  The final bit was actually Lewis’s salvation, though a bit late in life.  In the arms, and more importantly the bed, of a passionate woman, Lewis apparently recovered from his sexual problems, discovered ecstasy in something other than the abstract, and tempered his religious fanaticism.  The Chronicles of Narnia were written after his conversion but before his salvation.

The books are full of the mixed messages of an overly devout and troubled man who could not rise above the prejudices of his time.  While females are given the most important roles, they are often denigrated, particularly if they don’t accept their traditional social position or show signs of sexuality.  The most famous example is that Susan is kept from Heaven because she becomes a sexually mature female.  The novels also show a strong bias for English imperialism (but then so do most of the Swashbucklers, so these flaws should be kept in perspective), and the villains are referred to as “darkies.”  It’s not exactly what I find desirable in children’s literature.  I’m more of a Winnie The Pooh kind of guy.

For the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Disney and company stuck pretty close to the book (as best that I can recall; I didn’t find it necessary to re-read it for this review).  The Christian symbolism is everywhere, but it is much harder to notice and easy to ignore.  Outside of Aslan’s crucifixion, the religious elements are vague.  However, the film, like the books, has an uninteresting plot due to the Christian belief that you cannot save yourself.  Good stories pit humans against some kind of adversary and have them work out a way of winning the struggle (or they fail).  But in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, none of the actions of the four leads makes any difference.  It’s the lion that matters.  What he does will determine the outcome (he is God, after all)  After spending two hours with these people, I would have liked to have seen them do something.  But the point is that Jesus saves.  All people have to do is wait and have faith.

So, the story goes nowhere, and the characters don’t matter.  But what The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has is pretty special effects.  You think effects can’t make a movie?  Wrong.  This is pretty, pretty stuff: talking animal that walk on two legs, flying griffons, centaurs that actually look like centaurs.  Damn, these people knew how to run a computer.  Yes, people have suggested that a movie should have a good plot and interesting characters, with clever dialog and deep themes.  Well, sometimes.  And sometimes they have cool CGI work.


Child of Darkness, Child of Light

Father Justin O’Carroll is a Vatican miracle-investigator so common in movies.  His latest job is to check on two teenage girls who are pregnant and claiming to be virgins (yeah, that old story).  If they are telling the truth, one is carrying a fetal Christ, and the other is carrying a fetal Antichrist.  With the help of Sister Anne, one of those sexy and occasionally naked nuns that fill the Catholic church, he must determine which is which, because none of these people ever read The Bible so they don’t know what’s supposed to happen.

Child of Darkness, Child of Light is the film you make if you don’t have much money and realize that someone already made The Omen.  It starts with the same premise, then ignores Revelations and tosses in an early Second Coming of Christ (and isn’t he supposed to pop in as an adult the second time?  I guess the Bible is vague on all the interesting stuff).  Gone are ferocious dogs and dark Satanic deeds.  In their place are crows.  Granted, these are pretty nasty crows as they manage to kill people, but a crow isn’t my idea of the coming apocalypse.  More my idea of the coming corn harvest.

The idea of the Antichrist, even if matched by The Second Coming, is fitting for suspenseful horror, but here it is a mystery because it is cheaper to shoot a guy asking questions and dwelling on the answers than demonic creatures creating chaos.  But if you’re going to construct a mystery, you should make the answers important to the viewer and relevant to the film’s world.  The question here is: which girl will give birth to the Son of God, and which to the Son of Satan?  And the answer is: Who cares?  The two girls are painted with the same brush.  Both are nice, clean-cut schoolgirls with similar home lives, and they take up equal screen time.  Both are living through the same events, which, unfortunately, the filmmakers decide to show us (so we see everything twice, a huge problem for pacing and for keeping the audience awake).  There is no sentimental favorite for the viewer, so what difference does it make?

While the investigation is taking place, The Devil (as well as God) is strangely silent.  What the good priest finds is that being a pregnant teen takes all the fun out of study hall.  Now I’m sure you can make an interesting movie about the trials of a pregnant high school student, but when the end of the world is at stake, how badly schoolmates tease isn’t gripping.  Things pick up at the end, but that doesn’t excuse the dullness that came before.

For a film that accepts the existence of God, The Devil, Jesus, and virgin births, follows a faithful priest and a nun, and is vaguely based on The Bible, it might be considered strange that I gave the film an extra , but this is a movie uninterested in religion.  The setting is merely a fantasy setting.  No one is trying to convert you or cares what you believe.  Since it is concerned with mystery over fright, it isn’t important for the viewer to believe in the devil to feel all those scary bits.


Left Behind

Big time TV reporter Buck is interviewing a Jewish guy in a field when he is horrified, absolutely horrified, to see CGI planes attacking overhead. How had these CGI planes escaped the bounds of computer screens? Naturally, his fear of CGI planes sets him off to London on a plane (which isn’t CGI from the inside) flown by Rayford Steele (possibly the gayest name on the planet, which is ironic), who just ran out on his son’s Christian-themed birthday party. Suddenly, millions of people disappear, leaving behind their clothes (if only this was the story of those clothes that were *LEFT BEHIND*). Buck sets out to uncover what’s happened while Rayford prays for the next hour of screentime. Could everything be tied in to all-around-swell-guy Nicolae Carpathia’s plans for world peace? Might it be connected to the rebuilding of a temple in Israel? Will the UN destroy society? Does Kirk Cameron need acting lessons? Is it all pretty much down hill after the 35 minute mark? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as a librarian. Gwyneth Paltrow as a deformed dwarf. Sylvester Stallone as a diction instructor. Steve Buscemi as Superman. These are casting decisions that are just wrong. They won’t work. The reasons are legion, not that it matters. What counts is that if you make these kinds of choices, your movie will fail. Add to that list Kirk Cameron as an action reporter and news anchor. I can’t for the life of me think of a role he would be suited for, but let me assure you, this isn’t it. At least the part didn’t require him to engage in macho fistfights… No, that would have been better because then I could have laughed.

But you might still find plenty to laugh about in Left Behind, a feeble end-of-days melodrama based on the never ending series of Christian books, graphic novels, t-shirts, note pads, stickers, greeting cards, and lapel pins. Considering the result, I’m betting the film was primarily based on a note pad. As a humble film critic, I can’t judge how faithful (a term that pops up a lot) the movie is to that note pad, or even the first Left Behind noveloid, as I’ve never read any of the source material. You see, no one has kidnapped me, put a gun to my head, and screamed that they’ll pull the trigger if I don’t read them, and that’s what it would take.

The idea is that everything connected to liberal politics is really a tool of the Antichrist, and that God has sucked all the good people to heaven so they won’t get beat on for the next seven years. The first would be silly if so many fundamentalists didn’t believe it. The second kills any suspense in the picture. If you went it not knowing why people disappeared, there might be a reason to watch till the end.

Is this right-wing, fundie, love-fest the worst thing ever put on film? Surprisingly no. There are moments when it looks like it might be mildly entertaining. The setup (even with those CGI planes) has a solid apocalyptic feel. There is a nice mystery with the head of the UN and the openly evil bankers trying to control him, and the rapture, shown almost entirely by its effects on a plane in flight and one multi-car accident, has substantial tension built in. There’s even an emotional moment when a preacher, who has been Left Behind, realizes he’s been a fraud all his life.

But Left Behind shoots its wad at the rapture. After, there’s nothing with any energy or interest. The story splits into Buck’s investigation and Rayford Steele’s conversion. The spy stuff just doesn’t hold together. It makes no sense (why does an assassin shoot at Buck in a house, and then the assassins put real effort into not killing him a few scenes later?) and is less entertaining. Perhaps if someone other than Cameron was there to put some weight into the role…but perhaps not. The conversion subplot is far, far worse. I’m not sure that any conversion story is going to be engaging if there is nothing else involved, and this one offers nothing. Rayford sulks around, reads The Bible, and prays. Even if you are a huge fan of scriptures and prayer (and sulking), watching someone else do these things isn’t a trip to the amusement park. Brad Johnson lacks any sensitively, which might have helped slightly. He plays the role like a WWII Ranger (picture Clint Eastwood with his hands clasped and you’ve got the idea).

The direction is TV movie-of-the-week quality. The occasional Christian pop-rock song cheapens the production even more. But the dialog would sink this puppy even if everything else was brilliant. Script writers McElroy, Lalonde, and Goodman are hacks of the lowest order. Let’s take a look at what they consider acceptable:

Evil Banker 1: Dirk Burton. He used to be an info-tactics ferret at the Pentagon before he joined my Manhattan office. Regrettably, he’s found it hard to give up his meddling ways.

Evil Banker 2: Well, I’d say that Mr. Burton will have to sacrifice his pension (evil pause) and his health benefits.

What the hell! Say those sentences out loud. Try it. Can you do it without giggling? And the entire film is filled with gems like those.

Left Behind is a mess that promotes its message to the detriment of the story, artistry, and sense. Fundie Christians that give it high marks (and those are the only ones who do) are blinding themselves to the quality of the work simply because it agrees with their delusional world view.

While Left Behind is poor entertainment, it is sweet ambrosia compared to its loathsome sequel, Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force.