The 80s Gay And Straight Buddy Cop Film ‘Partners’

Anyone remember Partners? The film starred Ryan O’ Neal from Homicide Division as Sgt. Benson and John Hurt as Officer Kerwin, a records clerk. It was a buddy cop film from 1982 with a straight white male and a closeted gay man who go undercover to catch a killer murdering beefy magazine pinups. Yes? No?

Partners-1982-movie-poster

Okay, it wasn’t a big hit and it wasn’t the finest hour of these notable actors, who by the way are both straight (I was certain John Hurt was gay until I read up on his marriages).

Here’s the reason why I remember the film and why I picked up the DVD to watch it again. I was around 10 when I stayed over at my friend Ryan’s house. His parents rented Partners, but because it was R-rated it was hands off for us two. So Ryan waited until his parents left the next morning to run some errands and then popped the VHS tape into the VCR (yes, VHS!) and we started watching. I honestly didn’t know what we were watching except that it was R and if you were a kid with no access to HBO or Showtime and your allowance of TV at home included The Disney Channel and reruns of Mr. Ed you were desperate to know what all those restricted movies were about.

I can’t remember at the time if I understood what “gay” was? I mean I knew what it meant in terms of slang or derision, but not “gay love.” What I did understand was this movie had female nudity as well as male and so I was fine with seeing gratuitous tit shots…that is until Ryan’s parents returned home about 45 minutes into the film and I never got to see the ending. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I rented the movie for myself and watched the whole thing one night after working my glorious fast food job.

What’s interesting about my life around 20 is that I was a Jesus Freak and I would say it was fair to call me a fundamentalist in my views even though I didn’t look the part. I was into Christian Metal and wore ripped jeans, T-shirts with gospel messages and long hair. I also volunteered my time with a pro-life group that had as part of its agenda to fight “the gay agenda.” After all, man on man sex didn’t equal babies and being pro-life is all about babies. Add to that the political climate with the OCA (Oregon Citizens Alliance) who put an anti-gay rights initiative on the local ballot and it was definitely the right time to watch a film like Partners. And yes, sadly, I voted with the OCA based on my Christian beliefs. Told ya I was a fundamentalist.

I know from doing a little surfing that Partners is not well liked by gay reviewers and Gene Siskel and Rex Reed hated it when it came out. The complaints range from stereotyping to  John Hurt’s character being a mouse of a gay man to the use of the word “fag” with no repercussions to outright homophobia. The other film that attracts this kind of criticism is William Friedkin’s Cruising starring Al Pacino, which I also watched when I was 20. Fact is, Partners is almost like a light-hearted version of Cruising.

As a straight male, I’m sure I don’t have the perspective to grasp the complaints of the gay community or be offended by stereotypes. I do know that certain movies are maligned by activist groups (gay, political, religious, etc.,) because they are perceived to represent every gay man or every Christian or every Democrat or Republican and so forth. In reality, the gay community is very complex and it has a multitude of personality types–some, dare I say, are stereotypical because I have met them–and it does include a leather scene and an interest in gay porn (which is what Partners and Cruising focused on). So to say that Partners is homophobic simply because it is not about showing gay people in a perfect light I think is unfair. You can certainly say it is a two star cheesy movie though and critique its shortcomings.

And it’s shortcomings are that the comedy is lacking, many of the jokes are cheap, the mystery is convoluted and it fails to show more of what the movie was supposed to be about: the gay community, or rather for the sake of straight couples what it was like to be gay. But I will defend the film for what it’s worth because I don’t think this movie was meant to be mean-hearted or its intention was to make fun of the gay community. It’s a curiosity film for straights. At least that’s my best guess because what was the profit motivation for Paramount Pictures? To make a minor gay film to sell tickets to a gay audience? I don’t think so. The profit was to be found in straight people who wanted to know what gay people were like (without having to get near them, let’s be honest) and to laugh at the awkward moments between gays and straights. In a way, you could view it as an exploitation film. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing with Partners.

When I watched Partners at 20 it was exactly for that reason: a matter of curiosity (how can a man love a man?). And I can say I didn’t react like you would think a homophobe would. My mind didn’t shut down with fear, I didn’t start praying over the TV or vomit over the thought of male on male intimacy. I liked the character of Officer Kerwin, he was human. That may sound patronizing, but this was important because the religious political right was making the gay community less than human. At the same time I watched Partners I also watched a propaganda film that said gays wanted special rights in order to spread disease and indoctrinate kids as well as molest them (that’s not an exaggeration). If you were looking for negative stereotypes, the propaganda film had it in droves. Imperfect as Partners was, it countered the negative propaganda. Even Sgt. Benson in the film, who acts like a dick and is filled with straight male anxieties, changes his outlook and looks forward to Kerwin’s attention (as long as it doesn’t involve touching).

Between Partners and the propaganda I was left in a constant debate about the gay lifestyle. Was it a sin above others or was it just a failure to procreate? Did God hate fags or did God forgive all? The Bible certainly didn’t seem to like gay people which unfortunately is what I kept coming back to as a conclusion. Rules are rules! But still, it’s not like gay people were all that bad, were they?

Four years later I lost my Christian faith (a story in of itself) and as far as I was concerned it didn’t matter if you were gay. One of the reasons was that after going to art school I had met several gay people and I really couldn’t think of them as “them” anymore. Since then I continue to work with coworkers/friends who happen to be gay and I would suggest that Officer Kerwin helped straight people like myself get to know someone who was gay before actually embracing real world gays. Wasn’t it Will and Grace that helped straight audiences get to know the gay community? You can view it as cultural propaganda, as exploitation, as stereotypes for straights, but whatever it is I think it works. Too bad there isn’t a popular sitcom about atheists (well, Big Bang Theory, sort of–talk about atheist stereotypes!).

The one complaint I do want to address by reviewers is the accusation that Officer Kerwin is a verbally abused wallflower. I say so what? He’s human! In the film, Sgt. Benson forces him to dance with another gay man and go up to the man’s apartment to have a drink in order to obtain information about the murders. I don’t understand why a gay man can’t be reluctantly shy, or why he should feel the need to hop in bed with every gay man he meets? My interpretation of Kerwin is that he is a closet homosexual who is a romantic traditionalist (old-fashioned, if you will) and just hasn’t met the right man.

There’s plenty of straight shy and insecure guys and gals out there who are the same way towards the opposite sex. Because Kerwin works for the police he may feel alienated from both the gay community and his peers. His main sin by today’s standards is that he’s in the closet. I get that positive films about gay people were rare in the early 80s, but can’t we consider Kerwin to be a person with flaws and insecurities and even strengths that make him an interesting character versus a shiny super gay man with a seal of approval by the LGBT crowd? And yes, he falls in love with his straight partner (another criticism). Isn’t that possible? (It’s also a friggin’ movie! A fantasy!) Sgt. Benson doesn’t seem to care in the end, he deals with it much like any of us would deal with that kind of awkwardness because it can happen with an unwanted gay crush or an unwanted straight crush. Have we never dealt with the adoration of the opposite sex who we were not interested in? As long as Kerwin is not forcing himself on Benson there’s no foul. It’s just uncomfortable at times and that’s life.

Again, Partners is a two star rental for those interested in 80s films and how the gay community was depicted. I’m not denying there are valid criticisms, but I think it’s worth a look and I don’t think it counts as homophobia. It’s cheesy fun. It may also remind you of how far we’ve come in our attitudes about being gay. Most young people growing up these days don’t think twice about it. “What’s the big deal about being gay?” If only they knew how much has changed.

How are ‘Grizzly Adams’ and ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ Related?

I’m probably one of the few writers who would even come up with an article including Grizzly Adams and Silent Night, Deadly Night in the same paragraph, but weird is weird and find Charles Sellier (sometimes called Charles Sellier, Jr.) weird. Or maybe weird is the wrong word, maybe he’s just a huckster.

Charles Sellier died in January of 2011 and was a footnote on the history of entertainment for a slew of cheap titles, but freethinkers and faith-based purveyors of entertainment should take note. What he did is still going on in family friendly films or “faith-based” films because, ultimately, this kind of entertainment comes down to exploitation for money. No one seems to think there is such a thing as “family friendly film exploitation” or even “Christian film exploitation,” but that is exactly what’s going on. It’s no different than blaxploitation or other exploitation films that cater to a certain crowd that will pay money regardless if what is produced is mediocre or outright crap. It’s the idea that “safe” is good and anything slapped with an “R” rating is unfit for a sanctified mind. The only major exception I can think of is the masterful exploitation by Mel Gibson and his Passion of The Christ because Christ beating is acceptable violence.

I’m not referring here to target marketing. All film companies figure out who their audience is. What I’m really referring to is cheap entertainment that producers know will be bought or viewed because of an audience that can be exploited. If the producers had an opportunity to produce a film based on a Shakespeare play resulting in a family-safe production of fine art and a rehashed film about a big, lovable dog that brings a struggling Christian family towards god, which one are they going to pick? The dog movie–it has more potential to make money.

Recently, on a whim, I picked up the first season of Grizzly Adams at the local Target store. It was an approved-of show in a prudish home when I was a kid and I watched it regularly on Sunday afternoon reruns. I can’t say I was a fan of the show, but it did have an appeal with the wilderness and the wild animals and the supposed freedom of living alone with a big bear. Now as an adult, watching Grizzly Adams is like watching a cartoon. It has some nostalgic appeal, but the storylines are awful–incredibly awful considering there was a real Grizzly Adams who was ten times more interesting than this wimpy, PETA version of the mountain man.

What kind of mountain man would stop a trapper from shooting a turkey for his dinner? That’s exactly what Grizzly Adams did when he first met Mad Jack and his mule Number Seven in an early episode. And then Adams offers his jerky as a trade off  to chowing down on juicy turkey (as if the killing of a turkey is worse than the killing of cows?). The whole show features a man-child who doesn’t seem to understand nature and yet mystically attracts the friendships of all kinds of critters like The Beastmaster (the 1982 Don Coscarelli fantasy film). It’s absurd and insulting to your intelligence.

The real Grizzly Adams did tame bears, he even used them as pack animals, but he also killed them and captured them for exhibition. He trapped, he hunted and he died from wrestling bears in the circus that exacerbated a previous bear wound to the head. This Grizzly Adams was not necessarily a bad guy for the time period he lived in (though now we would find some of his activities appalling) and he obviously had an understanding of how brutal nature can be. The Grizzly Adams in Sellier’s show is so watered down and weak and without historical value that you wonder why it was even called Grizzly Adams?

So how does all this lead to Silent Night, Deadly Night–the infamous 1984 Christmas horror movie that upset parents and critics alike? Charles Sellier produced and directed both. You might ask, big deal? Bob Clark did the same thing with Black Christmas (1974) and A Christmas Story (1973),  except, Grizzly Adams was just one of Sellier’s family offerings. He specialized in family films and Christian offerings. Mixed in were psychic phenomena and pseudoscience documentaries. It’s no wonder we have a confused public when it comes to religion and science. Here are just a couple of his family friendly productions for Christians:

1976 In Search of Noah’s Ark
1979 In Search of the Historic Jesus
1979 Greatest Heroes of The Bible
1993 Ancient Secrets of the Bible
1993 The Incredible Discovery of Noah’s Ark
2004 The Evidence for Heaven
2004 George W. Bush: Faith in the White House
2006 Miracles in our Midst
2006 Apocalypse and the End Times
2007 The Case for Christ’s Ressurection

According to Wikipedia, Sellier considered himself to be an Evangelical Christian. Previously, he was raised Catholic and then converted to Mormonism until becoming born again. So why would an Evangelical Christian direct Silent Night, Deadly Night? A movie that starts out with a family road trip singing holiday tunes until they are accosted by a felon who proceeds to shoot the father, molest and stab the mother and then traumatize the young boy who is an eyewitness to it all? The kids grows up to fear Santa and Christmas until he is made the store Santa at his job and snaps. Then the killing really begins. It’s exactly the kind of movie you would expect during the popularity of Friday the 13th and other eighties slasher films. From Jesus Christ to an ax in the head!

The same year of  Silent Night, Deadly Night, Sellier released Snowballing. A brief look at the cover will tell you it was made in the tradition of Porky’s (1982) or Hot Dog… The Movie (1984). Snowballing is also a sexual reference whereby one woman sucks off a guy and spits the cum into another girl’s mouth (and no, I’m not making that up). Even if Sellier didn’t mean it in that manner, the term “balling” is pretty obvious from the cover art (to have sex).

I would contend the reason Sellier made these movies is he needed money. Much like he exploited the family genre and the supernatural genre, he decided to exploit the teenage genre of horror and sex comedies. Charles Sellier was nothing more than a schlockster (is that a word, hell, I’m going to use it anyways). I love schlock, but I don’t think most Christians know when they are seeing schlock: Noah’s Ark Schlock, Jesus Resurrection Schlock, End Times Schlock–any documentary or movie that promises to reveal evidence to confirm what you already have blind faith in.

Sellier got paid, Christians got ripped off. Those documentaries were filled with pseudoscience and unverified claims. At least with Silent Night, Deadly Night we were exploited with entertaining nudity and violence and laughable acting that put a smile on your face because you knew it was all fake and badly staged. Can Charles Sellier be considered an Evangelical Christian in good standing when he was willing to switch gears to horror and sex for convenience and money and then switch back to faith films afterwards? Seems like the kind of weak, hypocritical Christianity you see on TBN and Daystar. Producers of family friendly films are still schlocking. It’s all about the love of money and Christian pop culture plays right along.

SIDENOTE: It was actually hard to find a lot of good material on Charles Sellier and why he did make Silent Night, Deadly Night. One of the best resources on him is from the site Temple of Schlock. It has original articles from the controversy of when the film was released. For awhile, I thought Wikipedia had made a mistake including Silent Night, Deadly Night in Charles Sellier’s resume–there must be another Sellier?! But no, there’s an article on Temple of Schlock that confirms it is the same man who made Grizzly Adams. Technically, making Santa into a figure of fear is not anti-Christian so maybe that’s what Sellier was thinking. It’s still questionable to show the violence, blood and nudity though if you purport to be an Evangelical and the morals they espouse.

Article by Cartoonist Jeff Swenson

‘The Master,’ Pretentious Art Film or ‘Master’piece?

The Master — * Star

My first instinct is to tell you that after watching The Master, the new film by director Paul Thomas Anderson (of Boogie Nights fame) is that it is pretentious shit. And part of that is because of all the rave reviews I saw of this film before going  into the theater. I have a fairly high tolerance for self-indulgent directors and wandering films that provide no guidance for the audience as I can always read up on any visual cues or background information later, but halfway into this film I started to get bored and really annoyed. I also felt this from everyone around me and the crowd was an older, introspective group who, like me, was looking for a literary experience (based on the rave reviews) and some insight into how cults may have started after World War 2.

If you don’t already know, The Master mirrors Scientology (in the film they call it “The Cause”) and founder L. Ron Hubbard. The producers and I believe even the director are quick to dismiss that the film is a critique of the religion–it’s supposed to be a period piece fueled by character studies; only observations with no judgments. That is exactly true. The Master isn’t a  critique of anything, purely observational which is the problem. We feel so damned lost with these characters that it’s like a bad dinner conversation that’s gone off into some bizarre direction where you can’t remember if there ever was a topic of interest. Then throw in some odd sexual moments for additional confusion. It also suffers because the film isn’t dangerous. You would think with a director taking on subject matter inspired by L. Ron Hubbard that the film would have some bite. Not so, there’s no teeth and we’re slowly gummed into apathy.

The only good thing I can say about the film are the performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as his protege  Freddie Quell. Joaquin especially seems to transform himself into the ultimate war vet loser who can’t embrace the new religion but is loyal to its leader since he has no other friends.

It’s not that Director Anderson had to take a stance against Scientology, but he should have explored it more than what was pictured. Yes, he did take some time to focus on “processing” which is code for Scientology’s “auditing” and it did show some of the techniques used to break down a person’s resistance to it’s strange ideas. However, as there was no apparent transformation of Freddie Quell (he starts off as a boozer with violent tendencies and after a long session of manipulativel exercises continues his life in the same manner as shown by his attack on a book publisher). We learn nothing. The excuse is that the film is really about Freddie Quell, but Quell is not likable in the least and he’s not even that fascinating from that perspective. I found him a dull character study, the guy who should have been left on the side while we spent time with Lancaster Dodd and what made him start a new religion.

According to Wikipedia, Tom Cruise was allowed to screen The Master ahead of time and report back to Scientology headquarters, like the good soldier that he is. The offense they took was that at one point in the film Lancaster Dodd’s son tells Freddie Quell that his dad is just making it up as he goes. In other words, L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer, just made up Scientology too. Honestly, Scientology doesn’t have much to worry about except the drooling critics. The public at large isn’t going to care about this film and even geeks like me are likely not to recommend it (as we can see here with this review). It may be worth one curiosity viewing  if you can tolerate some of the boredom and want to see the performances, but expect to be checking your watch (when is this over?). There is some random nudity (such as a party scene which I don’t know if it was meant to be real or imagined by Freddie Quell), fart humor, a hand job and masturbation, in case that helps (though again, these small offenses add nothing to the story).

If the director wanted to make a film just for himself, he succeeded, but for an audience it’s frustrating. I really went in wanting to like a film that dared to show Scientology in its infancy. All we got is a tease of the potential filled with unexplained moments and yawns.

‘Cellmates’ Movie Review

Cellmates — ***Stars

Released last year in theaters (didn’t see one ad for it, but…), Cellmates is the story of a KKK Grand Dragon named Leroy Lowe who gets thrown in jail by the US government and eventually has to bunk with a Mexican immigrant Emilio. The real story, though, is not how these two manage to get along, but how Leroy falls in love with another Mexican, the warden’s office cleaner (derogatorily referred to as “the maid”). Leroy and the cleaning lady begin passing notes back and forth to each other without the warden catching on. Eventually, as expected, Leroy turns his back on his former life and racist views and, like a puppy, follows after his new love Madalena.

The official website has the tagline: “A Heartwarming Buddy Comedy With Something To Offend Everyone.” …This film is not offensive. It’s very sweet and I think that tagline was a mistake in promoting the film. I suppose some people may be offended initially by the depiction of a KKK leader, but even that is so toned down that I can’t imagine there being an objection. For instance, I don’t remember hearing any racial slurs thrown about by Leroy Lowe, not one. He gave his politics about Mexicans staying in their own country, that’s about as dirty as it got. Dare I say, with the exception of maybe a couple of swear words, this is a family film. There isn’t even so much as a kiss shown when Leroy and Madalena are left alone for the first time.

The sweetness is in the transformation of Leroy Lowe from stubborn white guy to soft-hearted American championing the rights of others because of his friendship to Emilio (falsely arrested because of a labor dispute) and his love for Madalena, hard working cleaning lady who wants to start her own restaurant. There really isn’t much more to the story except the direction is very light-hearted and offbeat. We’re always waiting to see what happens next with the letter passing. The letter where Leroy tells Madalena that Mexicans should stay in their own country is pretty hilarious as her eyes get real wide reading it and then the subsequent lover’s spat in the form of broom sweeping.

Hector Jimenez plays Emilio with the same quirky feel of his other character Esqueleto in Nacho Libre. He has American dreams and strangely enough wants to look like a TV doctor named Ben Casey so he has to figure out how to tame his wild hair (I did find this little subplot kind of weird since it ironically is a rejection of ethnicity even though it’s played for laughs).

You might think that Cellmates is a liberal white man’s fantasy about friending someone of another race and falling in love with a beautiful Mexican woman–which may be true–but I noticed Hector’s credits were listed as an executive producer. He obviously believed enough in the film’s premise to back it and overall it is a relevant story even though the time of the story takes place in the late seventies. There has been so much racism in the last decade about Mexicans taking American jobs and sucking the healthcare system dry it’s hard to imagine we’ve made progress. Sure, Mexican music can be annoying (yes, I said it!), but Mexicans are just the next wave of immigration and they are integrating with our society even as they change our society–it’s called diversity and it can be uncomfortable for the existing population. AND it’s happened before with the Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Chinese, Germans, etc. Get used to it, bigots. If you were stuck in poverty surrounded by druglords (caused by an American black market) and American run sweatshops, you’d be running for the border too.

Ultimately, the lesson of how to get rid of bigotry is one we know works, because it’s hormonal and natural. A white bigoted man meets an attractive, caring Mexican woman and he’s going to retain his hatred for Mexicans? I don’t think so. Cellmates won’t make you laugh out loud too much, but  you will be smiling by the end of it. It’s a feelgood movie.

 

‘The Billionaires’ Tea Party’ Movie Review

Since we’re in the political season and since America has just gotten seriously nutty with the upcoming election, I figured I’d catch up on some political video editiorials (documentaries). The Billionaires’ Tea Party is from 2010, but is definitely still relevant since Mitt Romney has been catering to this bunch (in particular the racist birthers). While I do realize that in every movement the absolute fringe is what’s caught on camera, director Taki Oldham is from outside the USA (he didn’t specify in the beginning but I assume it’s an Australian accent–I could be wrong though) and went in undercover to the Tea Party rallies and lectures…so what you see is what you get. Some Tea Partiers are calm, down to earth and frankly irrational and then some are completely insane like the woman who thinks Obama is out to get all nonblack people or another rallier who equated Obama with Hitler.

The Billionaires’ Tea Party —***Stars

 

Whenever someone throws out the Hitler word, left or right, I stop taking them seriously. In addition, the archaic references to communist Russia in association with Obama’s agenda are really the equivalent of the red fear in the fifties with Joe McCarthy (a position fulfilled now by Glenn Beck, thankfully he’s not a senator). The eerie part about what is captured in The Billionaires’ Tea Party is a religious zeal. This is a cult.

This is not to say the concerns of Tea Partiers are invalid. We all care about government waste, impositions on freedom and most importantly jobs. The problem is that the Tea Partiers are not being pragmatic. They are sticking to an ideology whether it works in every situation or not. I had to come to a moderate pragmatist position a couple years back after being Left then Libertarian then undecided. My conclusion is that it’s impossible for any political ideology to be completely correct.

For instance, the idea that all government is bad. No, it isn’t. The far left might vilify corporations in the same manner, but all corporations are not bad either. Some of what government does works and some of what government does fails. The same is true of big business. Government can also be a big bully, but the same is true of big business. The point is not to tear down government or big business, the point is to keep maintaining the checks and balances because power corrupts. We also need to consider if there are some things that government, subject to the will of the people, needs to provide including defense, infrastructure, environmental regulations and healthcare.

In the documentary, healthcare or “Obamacare” as it is derisively referred to, is the hottest button to push on a TP’s chest. And yet, for-profit healthcare should be questioned. Do we think bottom-line business structures are what’s best for sick people? I don’t know all the answers on this, but I do know there has to be some compromise. It’s interesting that even the Republicans make sure senior citizens know they won’t dismantle Medicare. Per Wiki, “Medicare is a national social insurance program, administered by the U.S. federal government since 1965, that guarantees access to health insurance for Americans ages 65 and older and younger people with disabilities…”  Hmm, kind of sounds like government run healthcare to me?

The other hot button is climate change and the consensus seems to be among all Tea Partiers that it is impossible for mankind to affect mother nature–which is the stupidest position ever. Even if climate change wasn’t agreed upon by mainstream science, of course there’s the potential for mankind to screw with mother nature. We’re the most powerful species on earth! The reason why most Tea Partiers deny climate change is honestly faith. They believe God made it so the earth could withstand humans. …However, God’s going to destroy this earth in the apocalypse because humans are damned sinners? Couldn’t part of that sin BE destroying nature?

The same people who deny climate change or dare I say “global warming” are the same people who deny evolution. It’s not that we know everything about  climate change yet and certainly there are alarmists who go too far, but let’s recognize that humans leave a footprint. It’s also not a communist plot to suggest we look for green alternatives to oil. That’s called progress–it’s called being smart.

The one thing about this film that absolutely appalled me was the Tea Party guerilla warfare tactics lecture. An ahole lecturer gave directions to go on to Amazon.com and rate liberal books and DVDs with one star. Then find far right books and DVDs and rate them with five stars–without reading or watching them!! And explicitly stated this. From the perspective of someone who has been rated and commented on and bashed thoroughly for my postings, published art and commentary, if Tea Partiers have followed this advice, you are completely dishonest and shameless. I have never–ever!–done this to a person with a counterpoint. I rate their talents as writers or filmmakers based on their intellectual capacity to make a good argument, whether or not I disagree with them does not matter.  Rating books and DVDs you have not seen is lying to the public in general. It’s a disgrace.

The Billionaires’ Tea Party is short and sweet as a film. I’m sure there are better TP representatives not depicted that could have been interviewed to create a more “fair and balanced” viewpoint and I’m sure there’s more to investigate. However, what is fueling this movement (and by now, there are suggestions that Americans are growing tired of Tea Partiers) is hatred of a black president whose name sounds Muslim, and a misunderstanding of his agenda. I don’t know if Obama is the best choice for America, but I know he’s not out destroy America either.

If Tea Partiers would stop with the hyperbole maybe there’s an intellectual discussion to be had. But remember, The Boston Tea Party was not about destroying government, it was a protest against lack of representation when taxed. And what happened after the American Revolution and we disavowed ourselves of the British government? We formed another government, one which allowed slavery, Native Americans were tread upon and where women didn’t get to vote. History isn’t always golden. We need to be careful to recognize progress and then set the appropriate limits to power.

Julia Sweeney’s ‘Letting Go of God,’ She Got it Right

Letting Go of God review, ****Stars

The one thing I’ve noticed about various intellectuals in the “new atheism” movement is that they can be very good at explaining science or philosophy in a dumbed down form (let’s face it, we’re not all university professors so I appreciate this approach), but when it comes to entertainment they often fall short. I remember seeing a couple of early examples of skeptic organizations trying to create TV Shows or TV spots that were supposed to grab viewer attention and, frankly, they were kind of boring and failed. Along come some Hollywood veterans like The Mythbusters and Penn & Teller’s Bullshit and suddenly you have shows that are great introductions to skeptical thinking which have spawned other like-minded shows.

I don’t believe we’ve seen that happen with atheism yet. We’re still in that awkward stage with very little entertainment and whole hell of a lot of information. There are films like The God Who Wasn’t There  and Religilous which relate personal stories, but are not quite what I call entertainment, more like editorials. I’m not knocking these entries or the numerous documentaries on religion, these are valuable, but what would you recommend to a friend or relative who is trying to understand your atheism? What would you recommend as an introduction to unbelief that isn’t going to deluge the viewer with so many arguments they’ll tune out? Or, let’s face it, that will offend them so much they’ll ignore anything being said (I know Penn & Teller and Bill Maher can rub people the wrong way and the language is hard for some Christians to take).

Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God has been around for quite some time now, it was filmed in 2007 and premiered in 2008. I had seen clips of it and the TED version where she did the introduction to her monologue, but never the whole stage show until I rented it off Netflix. This is the DVD I would give to someone trying to understand atheism. There are laughs, there are tears and there a moments of revelation. Even if you disagree with the direction Sweeney went in her life, it all adds up. It’s not like she woke up one day and was–KAPOW–an atheist! It was a process of time and questioning and self-examination. It was, in a way, a spiritual journey as she confronted something bigger than herself–not God, but the universe and the implications of there not being a god (s).

I shared this with my “believing” wife, she tolerates my “biased” documentaries and other “atheist” entertainment, and she found much of it interesting because she also came from a Catholic background like Sweeney. Letting Go of God didn’t suddenly make her let go of God, but it gave her some insight in to how I felt and where I left god behind. The stage show is genuinely funny and very personal because it often has to do with family and their reactions to their “crazy” daughter asking all kinds of questions and then rejecting basic arguments for God that no longer make sense. Julia uses her talent to make it all come alive for the audience as she depicts her mother and a priest and various characters in her life she finally had to diagree with. There’s no mean-spirited attitudes, it’s all very sweet and, honestly, comes close to some of the presentations I saw as a kid at my church with Christian testimonies. Maybe that’s what we need, more atheist testimonies about lost faith. People think when someone becomes an atheist they fall down a set of stairs into a dark dwelling filled with depression and hopelessness and usually this is the farthest thing from the truth. In my situation, I felt like a big burden had been lifted. I no longer had to worry about heaven and hell and defending the contradictions of the Bible…I could relax and study and observe how things really were. It’s not always pretty, but knowing what you’re up against prepares you. It allows you to live life realistically versus jumping into prayer everytime something goes wrong.

Letting Go of God isn’t an entertainment blockbuster (it wasn’t meant to be, again, it’s very personal), but it does show a direction that can be taken to communicate with believers and even those who don’t believe but think atheism is horrid (because it goes too far). Really, I’m referring to creating similar story-like films (inspired by real life or completely new stories) with characters who happen to be atheist and how their unbelief affects their lives and others around them. This is territory that we need to tread into. Yes, we could start “The Atheist Hallmark” channel!  The horsemen, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (now passed), are all great in what they have written and/or created, only I don’t consider them to be entertainers, but educators. I think life stories like Sweeney’s may make larger inroads to a believing public and the reason is that  life stories are easier to be drawn into than logic and science and apologetics. Religion overrides logic to begin with, it is above questioning.  Religion, in general, thrives on stories (almost every sermon I hear includes anecdotes and analogies). People will listen to a story over a lecture any day. Once someone starts to “get it” then maybe it’s time for heavier material like Dawkin’s The God Delusion.

I expect to see more direct films about atheism in the future, not just ones that hint at unbelief or that a freethinking audience can claim as their own for a freethinking theme. I think Julia Sweeney’s work is inspirational for doing this even as it is only a stage show. It works, it is early Freethunk! (my term for freethinking entertainment), and I know if you’re a Christian reading this, you may be adverse to seeing Letting Go of God. Don’t worry, it won’t make you an atheist. It’s simply a way of understanding atheism or your atheist friends. Now from there, if you go studying some of the things Julia studied, then don’t blame me or her…

‘Red State’ Movie is an Appalling Mess

Red State, *Star

I wasn’t even going to bother reviewing Red State as Kevin Smith’s films always disappoint me (except for Clerks maybe), but after finally watching Red State this morning on Netflix I was just appalled. It is a fantasically bad movie mess. Is it a horror film? Is it a commentary on Fred Phelps? Is it a criticism of the ATF? Who the hell knows!

Kevin Smith went in so many directions you don’t who to follow as a character or if there’s even a plot. This is particularly disturbing since the material should be an easy target for horror–The Phelps Clan. Phelps, if you’ve had your head in the sand, runs GodHatesFags.com and other sites where basically God hates everything and everyone except for the Phelps family. Pastor Fred Phelps is a cartoon, so ridiculous that most conservative Christians distance themselves from him. Not that these conservative groups don’t still condemn “fags,” but they don’t like the idea that God condemns other sinners or the way Phelps runs his public relations.

Generally speaking, American Christians don’t like the idea of a god that hates even as you find many instances of it in the Bible. Theologians often try to redefine the hate into justice or the mysterious ways of God or that we, the sinners, deserve what we get (as apparently punishment is for eternity for a limited number of sins). Or frankly, “American theology” ignores the Bible altogether and defines God by modern standards (The Bible is a book of myths or fables).

I’m always amused by both Christians (like Pat Robertson) who know that God is punishing us on 9/11 or some other disaster and then Christians who say they know for sure that God is not punishing us. How the hell do any of you know the mind of God? In the Old Testament God swallows up sinners with a great flood and an earthquake and other little calamities. If he exists, why wouldn’t he continue to do so now? Oh, because of Jesus in the New Testament (as if the Old Testament stuff never happened)? I’m not sure why Jesus would make a difference except to save your supposed soul? The honest answer for someone who believes in God is to say: “I don’t know.” Otherwise, it’s the same old shit of Americanized Christianity redefining God as the current morals and ethics of our society.

So how does Kevin Smith miss the mark so badly in Red State? First of all, why call it Red State? Republicans don’t endorse figures like Abin Cooper, the Fred Phelps knockoff character. Yes, a large percentage of Red State Americans are homophobic, against gay marriage, but they don’t want to kill and torture gay people. If anything, they want homosexuals to kill themselves after taking away any rights and calling them “unnatural” (as if natural is always a good thing). Abin Cooper is outside of America–he is truly “not of this world.” The title alone seems like a mistake unless the commentary tied into the anti-gay marriage crowd some way and how the belittling  of gays is a small part of the bigger horror.

Then what happened to the horror? And why would Abin Cooper’s middle-aged daughter be luring teenage boys into group sex in order to kill them? If the focus is on gay bigotry, why not have at least one of the boys be gay? Or at least a closet gay? I would have had the three boys captured for the sake of converting them to the church or maybe it was a scare tactic to get them on the straight and narrow road; then this closet gay is discovered and The Coopers decide he has to be killed. The rest of the film would be the horror surrounding our victim’s escape and whether or not his friends will turn on him or rescue him in an extreme situation. Instead we have The Coopers ready to execute three boys for wanting to have group sex with a female? I’m not saying that the Coopers wouldn’t condemn group sex, but what’s the point? If you’re going to target a representation of The Phelps Clan then keep on subject; make the horror about homosexuality and the reality of how the Bible instructs to kill gay people (How about a stoning scene? More horrific than shooting someone). Admittedly there is a long list of offenses in the “good” book for which to be executed for (see EvilBible.com’s list on murder in the Bible), but it’s an hour and a half movie–you can’t terrorize every sin, pick one and stick with it.

I am guessing that Kevin Smith chose three straight boys so there would be a larger audience that might identify with these main characters, only they are hardly main characters at all. They get picked off at random, two of them killed by the ATF. A horror movie with the lead being a terrorized gay may not have garnered enough interest? I don’t know, I think it could have worked with a gay lead if it was smartly written.

Then, literally, after no real horror with the three boys being tied up and a gay man saran-wrapped on a cross and shot (Hmm, obvious symbolism there. As if a religious zealot would tie his victim to a cross.) we get the ATF coming in who are more scary than The Coopers. They are there to kill everyone to make sure the government looks good and hide any possible screw-ups on behalf of an anxious sheriff who fired the first shot outside the compound and ended up killing one of the hostages.  Oh, and yeah, that sheriff is a closet gay and is shot in the standoff too because he is such a coward (at least that’s the feeling I got).

In the end, The Coopers are tricked by environmentally sound pot growers into thinking the trumpets had sounded the lord’s return. And lastly we have a weird conversation between a disciplinary panel and John Goodman’s ATF character Special Agent Keenan. Some stupid story about his pet dogs that is supposed to enlighten us on the human condition.

I’m sorry, what a wasted opportunity to actually enlighten us or scare us. The Coopers represent The Phelps and The Phelps are representative of a dying type of Christianity in America where bigotry was in your face and hellfire breathed by the adherents.  The bigotry of Christianity against supposed sinners is wrapped up in Christian love and bumpersticker slogans that say Jesus is Peace (even though he comes bringing a sword) and God is Love (yet there are passages that say God hates specific people or groups of people and love is shown by drowning all of humanity except Noah and his family). The new Christianity is not as honest as the old Christianity. The confusion may lie in picking and choosing the bits from the Bible that fit with a personal philosophy of love. The problem is the Bible is full of passages that contradict and confuse  the reader if read as a whole.

Horror has regularly used religious zealots to terrorize us. Red State had that opportunity and failed. The only bright spot in the movie is Michael Parks’ performance as Abin Cooper. What a shame he didn’t have a decent script or directorial insight.

Cheaper by the Dozen, Pro-Life Moment

“Pro-Life” or “Anti-abortion,” however you want to term it, Cheaper by the Dozen, the original 1950 version based on the book of the same name, has an encounter with Planned Parenthood. It took me by surprise since I didn’t expect an issue like birth control to pop up in such an old movie with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy (Myrna is one of my favorites, by the way). I decided to originally watch the film after some quaint reviews on Netflix and that it was based on a true story of an efficiency expert who decided to have 12 kids. I figured it might be similar to Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation with Jimmy Stewart.

In the scene in question, Myrna Loy’s character Lillian Gilbreth is approached at her home for her expertise as a psychologist to speak at a local chapter of Planned Parenthood. The Planned Parenthood lady is shown as stuffy and uptight and there are hints that she is basically a child-hater of sorts. Lillian decides to show her up after receiving her invite by calling in her husband who tromps in with sarcastic politeness and then proceeds to whistle for his twelve children to appear within seconds. This of course stuns the Planned Parenthood lady and thus we are amused. The Planned Parenthood lady comes off looking like a bitter single woman and you can chalk one up the happiness of family excess.

I wonder how many women these days would be amused by the prospect of not having access to birth control, birthing 12 children and having the house run by their dominant husband, Mr. Efficiency Expert? The movie is very lighthearted, sometimes funny, and is what we might expect of the time period, but ohhhhh how times have changed. I will say the movie does reflect a pro-woman stance on education and accomplishment. Mr Gilbreth didn’t want any female dummies in his squad and they were all expected to go to college. However, how does a woman have a career if they are constantly pregnant?  The end of the film indicates that Mrs. Gilbreth goes on to lecture in place of her husband on efficiency and is successful enough to become woman of the year–but then her childbearing years are over for an obvious reason (which I won’t give away if you haven’t seen the film).

I would be curious to see women’s reactions watching this film again as most Christian women these days use birth control to usurp God’s domain–the womb. “He” doesn’t decide when they get pregnant, they do. My wife didn’t care much for the Steve Martin remake and I’m not going to be able to get her to sit still to watch this one. She likes children but not THAT many children.

If you don’t think there are people who are against birth control any more, since this is a movie from 1950, think again. I knew the fringe for a short period in my youth in the nineties (pre-atheist days) when I was involved in the Pro-life movement and they had a no tolerance stance on birth control. They’re still around, though.  Ironically enough, mainstream pro-life women still use birth control even as it can be considered an abortifacient.

I guess I can’t blame people for being sentimental about such movies (it’s a kind of fantasy we love), but if someone came to your door today and suggested the opposite–that you join a group against birth control–you’d probably close the door in their face and think them a nut. Cheaper by the Dozen is a decent film from the past, but it’s one you watch with amusement about how times and attitudes have changed. Looking at the NetFlix members’ reviews I wonder how many of them realize it.

SIDENOTE: Inevitably, someone will comment that Planned Parenthood did this or that in the past (“Margaret Sanger was a Nazi!”). Yes, there are skeletons in the closet, not denying that. The organization is a far cry from the Sanger days and so family planning has had its moments of ignorance too. Debate it all you want, but birth control is here to stay and most women love it.

SIDENOTE 2: Clifton Webb’s Frank Gilbreth character gets on my nerves at times. This is supposed to be a true story and we’re to assume that Lillian is using feminine wiles to steer her loud husband so he isn’t as dominant as he thinks. She is the ideal wife (submissively quiet but also clever enough to get her way). Do we really think that a woman pregnant 12 times never snapped back at her constantly barking husband and wanted to murder him in his sleep? Thankfully the daughters start to rebel in what is the repetition we constantly see with kids who turn into parents and then are dismayed by their own kids’ actions (“Kids these days!). Remember that showing a pretty knee leads to sex.

‘Pontypool,’ Movie Review

Pontypool - *** Stars

My new favorite film is Pontypool from 2008. Fans of horror I’m sure are already familiar with it and I had heard about this film quite some time ago and put it at the end of my long and growing Netflix Que. Well, Pontypool suddenly became available for watching instantly over Wi-Fi so I sat down on this Saturday afternoon and was drawn into a horror mystery. It’s a film that I’m still thinking about a couple of hours after because what I’m trying to figure out is, “Is it possible?”

Maybe not, but the premise is very intriguing and for some people who are only amused by straightforward zombie films or series like The Walking Dead it may upset them–it is not a zombie film even though it has the feel of a zombie film. The explanation for the virus is strange, almost ridiculous and yet the brain is a computer and can’t computers crash?

The premise is very simple and very effective. Stephen McHattie plays Grant Mazzy who apparently was a former shock jock who was fired and is now broadcasting in the small town of Pontypool in Ontario, Canada. He’s rather bored by the local news of school closures and cold weather and longs for news he can use to snare more listeners. He gets it in the form of a riot said to be happening in town but only bits and pieces of information flow in and lack of confirmation only makes him, his producer and a station assistant more confused as to what the hell is actually going on. When the station assistant starts acting odd Mazzy turns scared even while in his soundbooth he is one of the safest places he could be.

SPOILER ALERT!

The virus or viral transmission of the brain disorder is an infected word or several infected words. Author Tony Burgess doesn’t tell us exactly what words except they are likely to be terms of endearment. He calls the persons who are infected with “infected” words “conversationalists.” The conclusion is also that it’s not the sound of the words, but the understanding of a the words and the language involved has to be English. For example, someone says “sweetheart” to you, you understand the meaning of the word which trips something in your brain to where you start repeating yourself. Eventually, you cannot think correctly and the only way you think you can fix your condition is to, as posted on Wiki, “…chew through the mouth of another person.”

This is a thinking person’s horror film. While the idea may be complete nonsense like Dr. Seuss writing a zombie flick, it still sticks with you. You want to dismiss it but I keep thinking of all the psychiatric disorders there are. Can one person, in an isolated event, infect another person? In jest, we could say husbands and wives make each other crazy, but what if you were isolated with a psychotic on an island? Would their behavior eventually drive you mad similar to if you were infected? How powerful is behavior and speech in comparison to actual diseases transmitted by saliva, blood and other bodily fluids?

If it is all nonsense and irrational, I believe the author still tapped into something very haunting as a commentary on the human condition. Making the ability to communicate a source of infection is a horrific idea.

SIDENOTE: Some viewers have compared Pontypool (2008) to Dead Air (2009) directed by Corbin Bernsen. The only comparison is the radio booth location. Dead Air is a zombie film. Pontypool is not. Pontypool is an abstract horror film (the best description I could think of) because it doesn’t follow any zombie rules and is about language infection. If you’re looking for a good B-movie horror film I personally still like Dead Air, mainly because of the performance of Bill Moseley at the microphone. Stephen McHattie as Mazzy is very good in Pontypool as well. Now I know for a fact that more scenes were planned for Dead Air and critics dismissed it, but the claustrophobia of being in a radio booth and not being able to visually see zombies attacking the city is one that spurs the imagination. It’s not a complete film, in my opinion, but worth watching as a horror experiment.

The radio booth scenario has been done before. I recall listening to Cape Cod Mystery Theater about a crazed killer calling in over and over until he shows up at the radio station. The concept is to dispense with special effects and let your imagination sit in the dark until you come up with the horrifying visuals on your own. I wonder if we will see the concept done again with podcasting? Unless it has been done?  Feel free to comment with more info.

‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ Movie Review

Don't Torture a Duckling, *** Stars

Don’t Torture a Duckling is a hidden gem within Italian Horror films of the seventies. Fans of horror will already know the name Lucio Fulci for gore films like Zombi 2 (that’s how they spell zombie, with an “i” only) and City of the Living Dead though Don’t Torture a Duckling may not be on their favorites list. It is a murder mystery filled with speculations of magic and a small town psychopath.

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SPOILER ALERT! Before you read further you may want to watch the film first. The English dubbing is reasonably good, though I had a little trouble following all of the character motives in the first part of the film. The latter half starts to tie together all the loose ends so the story makes sense. I can guarantee that most freethinking horror fans will like the film and it has some relevance to the last couple of years even though it was made in the seventies.

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The plot is simple enough. Small town, suspicious locals, a supposed witch, a priest, a woman of questionable morals and a trio of three boys who are killed one by one. What makes the film unique, as far as my tastes, is the condemnation of the character Magiara. Magiara is brought in by the police for questioning of the child murders and she confesses. Only she claims she killed them by using voodoo dolls or magic and doesn’t seem to be aware they were strangled or hit over the head. The police decide she’s a bit crazy but innocent. The local townspeople think she is guilty and has indeed killed the boys with magic. So much so that in in one horrific scene a group of  local men surround her and beat her with chains and other objects until she crawls up near a modern freeway and dies by the side of the road as drivers ignore her. Fulci uses gore to full effect when she’s beaten. Even though it’s fiction, you may wince and then wonder how anyone could do such a terrible act–but then they truly believed she was a killer using magic.

Now the townspeople have blood on their hands, and yet, they don’t really seem to care and director Lucio Fulci doesn’t make them pay for their crime. They simply realize they were wrong when another boy is killed and Magiara is already dead so she couldn’t have done it. As the writer, I would have been tempted to burn the town down, but then this storyline is more realistic. How many people have suffered due to small town superstition and the town goes on like nothing bad ever happened?

The director then misleads us into thinking it was the “town harlot,” Patrizia who may be the murderer; a woman who likes to wear modern clothes and has escaped to the area because of drug charges. In one of the early scenes, a soon to be victim named Michele, a boy who couldn’t be older than maybe 12 or 13 is asked by his housekeeper mother to bring up some juice to Patrizia. Patrizia is found wearing only a smile and shows no shame in making the boy come to her so that he can see her naked. She even teases him about having sex with her. For a boy that age, hopped up on hormones, I’m sure he would not mind (something he would tell his friends) even as you can see how uncomfortable and unsure of himself he is. For adults watching the scene, we’re a bit creeped out. Which is why I initially thought she might be the killer.

So who is Fulci’s killer? A man who wants to save the boys from sexual sin–a priest! The final scene has Father Don Alberto trying to throw his mentally challenged sister off a cliff because she may have seen him murder one of the boys. He is stopped by the investigating journalist and Patrizia. In the end, it wasn’t a witch who was the killer, it was a representative of the church–a church who historically burned witches. The locals should have suspected their own religious leader.

According to Wiki, the film was not widely released in Europe due to the killer being a Roman Catholic priest and even though there was an English dub available the film wasn’t released in the United States until Anchor Bay Entertainment put it out on DVD in 1999. That’s too bad that we had to wait all this time for an Italian Horror treat. With all of the recent priests scandals of child rape, it only makes sense for a priest to be discovered as a child murderer. In this instance, it could hardly be chalked up to Catholic stereotyping as the scandal is widespread and nauseating.