The Best Films of 2015

It was the year of the Western (five of them on this list) and strong examinations of feminine power. Other themes included the Holocaust, the Mexican drug-war, and an alternate world out of Hieronymus Bosch. Watch them all. It was a strong enough year that I extended my usual list of ten to almost double that amount.

1. The Hateful Eight. 5 stars. I’ve seen this three times since the Christmas release. It’s a bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these men will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s not a political film, by any means, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War, and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the n-word to a vengeful use of the b-word, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works for rather than against.

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2. The Walk. 5 stars. The Exorcist affected me physically more than any other film, but The Walk is a close second in this regard. Audiences suffered extreme vertigo, and I was sweating and shaking non-stop during the final act. Obviously I have an extreme fear of heights, and I can only imagine the harm my psyche would have suffered had I seen it in 3D. I still have a hard time with the fact that this story is entirely true. How anyone could want to do what Philippe Petit did on that morning of August 7, 1974, is well beyond the reach of my understanding. He walked back and forth over that wire between one tower and the next, eight times, for over 45 minutes, while spectators and police officers could only look on aghast. This man was (is: he’s still alive) an artist in the purest sense.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/victoria4.jpg?w=1920&h=9513. Victoria. 5 stars. The entire 2 hours and 15 minutes was shot in a single take and it’s not a gimmick; it’s immersive as hell. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. Frankly I could have watched their casual conversation forever; the characters are that compelling. But the second part is even better in full throttle: one of the guys passes out drunk, and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist which the guys are being blackmailed into doing. The best scene is their celebration after the heist in a dance club, with the loud rock music fading in favor of a minimalist piano score playing over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but is strangely precious. The final sequence is the police chase on foot, and while an unhappy ending is guaranteed, it’s impossible to predict. Full review here.

4. Hard to be a God. 5 stars. Based on the 1964 sci-fic novel about an Earthling observer on a distant planet trapped in the middle ages. This world is basically an alternate European village as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Grotesque peasants muck about in mud and blood, doing all they can to avoid being decimated in petty factional wars. There is an imperious chieftain called Don Rumata, whose sovereignty derives from being supposedly descended from a god. Torture is the way of life, intellectuals are killed, and progress never comes in this filthy world. (Just as in the first Narnia book, it’s always winter and never Christmas, so on this planet it’s always the middle ages and never the Renaissance.) It’s an entirely convincing portrayal of a world in arrested development, and a trip to hell that competes with some of the worst horrors of Dante’s Inferno.

5. Room. 5 stars. The power of this film has to do with the way it sets fire to the imagination. The acting performances are fine (the child actor quite excellent for his age), the script adequate, and the escape scene at the midpoint incredibly intense. But I don’t think any of these elements are responsible for Room’s massive acclaim. The emotion and pain I felt for the mother and child had as much to do with imagining every possible consequence on their psyches, especially the boy’s. The five-year old Jack has lived his entire existence inside a single room (a shed) with his captive mother, believing “Room” to be the entire universe. Suddenly freed, she is reunited with family in the real world to which he is shockingly introduced for the first time. It hurts to watch this play out, but it’s worth it, and the film does end on the triumph of the human spirit.


6. Bone Tomahawk. 4 ½ stars. The horror Western had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.

7. The Force Awakens. 4 ½ stars. I’m not a Star Wars fan, so take my praise with a mountain of salt. But I do think this episode blows away most of the franchise, including A New Hope. The bone of contention is the recycling of countless plot points: another Death Star; Rey, the “new Luke”, climbing around inside it; watching Han Solo’s death by lightsaber, as Luke saw Obi-Wan’s; BB-8, replaying R2-D2, carrying crucial information for which the baddies hunt him down. Yet it hardly amounts to a mild bother, due to the dramatic scale. They are so numerous and comprise the infrastructure of the film that gives deeper resonance with the past. In the case of Return of the Jedi, the second Death Star was lazy and unoriginal, but here the repeats come together purposely. I was taken aback by how a Star Wars film, of all things, could affect me. Especially, of course, Han’s death.

8. Sicario. 4 ½ stars. The Sicarii were “dagger men” who assassinated agents of Rome. Sicario are modern hitmen, in this case an American task force stabbing against an empire just as vile: the Mexican drug cartels. The force is a mix of DEA, CIA, and FBI agents, and their motives range from the vengeful to the impersonal to the unwitting. That last is Emily Blunt’s character, who hardly knows what she’s involved in, and is appalled to find herself on illegal missions involving murder. (There’s an unforgettable scene where she is shot twice by her colleague for daring to question him — in her bulletproof vest, to be sure, but fucking still.) On one level, Sicario is about the hopeless drug war, but it’s really the story as old as Rome, showing how people react to the might of an enemy outside their borders: by becoming monsters like them. Mexico and America emerge as twin purgatories; the only difference is that America has moral facades to duck under.

9. We are Still Here. 4 ½ stars. Here’s a savage homage to cinema’s golden age, set in the ’70s and shot exactly like a ’70s horror film. The first half is a slow burn that gets us familiar with the town and characters, with lots of lingering shots of New England winter scenery. It’s a remote snowy town in Massachusetts, and the characters are a married couple who move in to a house with a nasty legacy. Soon they believe they can hear the voice of their dead son (who was killed months ago in a car accident months), but they’re being fooled by the spirits of the previous residents who are starving for torment and slaughter. When one of their guests holds an impromptu séance, the slow burn is over, the shit hits the fan, and Hell comes to this little home and tears people apart. A rare horror film that’s really scary.

10. Carol. 4 ½ stars. A love affair between two women was unspeakable in the ‘50s, and that era provides the perfect canvass for an examination of feminine hungers and pains. The novel on which it’s based (The Price of Salt) left the sex unspoken; the film gives it just enough voice to make it a worthy retelling in the 21st century. (Sort of like the Jane Eyre miniseries of 2006 did.) It was shot on Super 16 millimeter film, resulting in muted colors and a grainy anthropomorphic look that feels like a ’50s effort, especially on top of all the shots through through windows and glass. Watching Carol is like being pulled through a looking glass and tasting forbidden love in an austere time. I’ve always been in awe of Cate Blanchett, and this is probably her best performance. Which is saying a lot.

11. Joy. 4 ½ stars. You don’t have to be a hard-core capitalist to be inspired by this true story of Miracle Mop creator Joy Mangano. It’s a testimony to the classic American dream, as well as a woman-empowerment story, that drives the message home not by preaching, but rather by the sheer drama of the events. This is third time David O. Russell has used Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper together, and as far as I’m concerned their best outing. (I thought Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were okay but nothing great.) Joy has the balls to portray capitalism as brutal and unforgiving, but in the end rewarding if you can persevere through endless setbacks, getting shafted and kicked in the teeth umpteen times, without ever playing the victim card or assuming entitlement. Jennifer Lawrence nailed this big-time.

12. Son of Saul. 4 ½ stars. Not to ride my contempt for Spielberg, but this Holocaust drama is far superior to Schindler’s List. It’s set in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, focused on a Hungarian Jewish prisoner who is a member of the “elite” Jewish prisoners given privileges (like more food rations) in return for removing corpses from the gas chambers. Saul discovers the body of his young son, and attempts to find a rabbi among the prisoners to give the boy a secret burial. It’s the most intimate Holocaust movie I’ve seen, and Director Nemes is right in critiquing other efforts: “Films seem to have taken the Holocaust for its dramatic value, and not really interrogated its essence and the human situation. It’s not a story about survival, for the rule is death. Films try to avoid crematoriums, but the crematoriums are the heart of the Holocaust.” Filmmakers take heed.

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13. The Keeping Room. 4 stars. You could call this a frontier feminist piece, and a terrifying home invasion set on a South Carolina farmstead in the last days of the Civil War (1865). The bad guys are two northern deserters who besiege three women: two sisters played by Brit Marling and an older Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit; their slave is played by Muna Otaru, and for me she is the understated star of The Keeping Room. The farmstead exists in a quiet dreamy aesthetic until shattered by the arrival of the union men, and what follows is a Western version of Straw Dogs. The younger sister is raped in her bedroom; the older sister mistakenly shoots the slave’s brother returning in the night, thinking him to be one of the union men; she is appalled by her error, and her slave forgives her in an emotional scene. There is paradox too, in the way one of the union men, fatally wounded, begs for a sort of understanding before dying.

Image result for crimson peak14. Crimson Peak. 4 stars. The problem is not with this film. It’s going into it with the wrong expectations. It’s not half as scary as the hype promised, but that doesn’t diminish the effect of Allerdale Hall, a mind-blowing set piece of haunted housery second only to The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel. There’s your rewatch value. Crimson Peak, however, is less about the haunted hall as it focuses on the character interplay inside it. For all the Kubrick homages, the tone is more Jane Eyre, with heavy doses of Rebecca and Notorious (the latter for the poison tea served up “benignly” by Lucille), which means that those who fault the film for not being ultra-scary are completely missing the point. The ghosts are supplementary devices to the love triangle of Edith, Tom, and Lucille, which involves fraud and murder to keep an incestuous flame alive.

15. The Revenant. 4 stars. I can hardly think of another film that has made me so grateful for my comforts in life. You can feel the cold and horrible working conditions that made crew members up and quit. They were really out in this god-awful wilderness. Leo DiCaprio ate a real bison liver. He swam in that freezing water. (But no, he did not get raped by the grizzly bear.) Like The Hateful Eight, this western is all about a director’s nostalgia for the pre-digital era and a return to old-school reality. Parallels to Tarantino’s film continue; as the New Yorker critic puts it, the two films were released on Christmas Day, and would have been a suitable double-feature of “malice and mistrust, in which characters are trapped in extreme weather conditions and settle their differences with extreme violence”. Merry Christmas.

16. Ex Machina. 4 stars. I haven’t seen a cerebral sci-fic movie like this since 1997’s Gattaca. It’s a character study that explores what kind of “soul” might lurk inside an artificial intelligence, and the Swedish actress (Alicia Vikander) had the tall order of playing an AI nearly indistinguishable from a human being. She must be neither too human nor too robotic, and she pretty much nails it. The surface plot involves an imitation game hinging on the idea that if someone doesn’t know that he’s is talking to a computer, it makes sense to call the computer intelligent. But the experiment devolves into a multi-layered web of deceit, and it’s never clear what’s real and misdirection, or just how dangerous the AI is. Ex Machina offers as many thrills as it does abstract rewards, a rare accomplishment in an arthouse film.

17. Slow West. 3 ½ stars. This was the first of the five Westerns from this year. It’s a road journey in 1870, taking a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his bandit protector (Michael Fassbender) through Colorado and Indian territory. The youth is looking for a fugitive woman who was his girlfriend in Scotland, and has paid the bandit to protect him, but it turns out this bandit it looking for the same woman to kill her for a bounty. The way things turn out isn’t predictable. It’s a romance, but also an examination of manifest destiny and the way the American legacy has impacted natives and immigrants. It hardly qualifies as a thriller, and yet the final shoot-out is exactly that — a prairie barrage so tightly edited and savagely orchestrated that you find yourself ducking for cover as the bullets fly. This one flew under the radar and while not excellent by any means, deserves more attention.

18. Mad Max: Fury Road. 3 ½ stars. I have to give it credit as an impressive road chase, but unfortunately that’s all it is. There is no real story to be invested in, hardly any dialogue, and frankly not much thought driving the plot, which makes it ultimately a disappointing heir to The Road Warrior. Here’s where it does score: considering the constant barrage of crashes and explosions, I never once felt battle fatigued. That’s saying something, as I’m easily tired by action sequences (I disliked Braveheart for this reason). But there’s enough variation in technique to keep the action above redundancy. On big screen this is an orgasmic ride, no question. It’s also not likely something I’ll ever watch again. See here for truly great post-apocalyptic films; The Road Warrior remains one of the best.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2016.)

Race and Gender in The Hateful Eight

the-hateful-eight1Tarantino doesn’t try to please social critics, and The Hateful Eight is his boldest effort of that in-your-face artistry. In some ways it’s my favorite of his. I love bottle dramas, slow burns, and murder mysteries, and when you put all this in a Tarantino stew, it’s hog-heaven. The film is basically Twelve Angry Men, except these men will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. Some are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works for rather than against. Some are also calling it his most political film, but that’s a supremely relative statement; this isn’t a political film.

Nonetheless, there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War, and a wonderful use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. This may not be a film “about” racism and misogyny, but it has some fun working with the ideas. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the n-word to a vengeful use of the b-word, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Daisy is the one character whose backstory remains elusive. We know she’s a killer and there’s a bounty on her head, but that’s it. What little we do learn is relayed by her captor John Ruth, and the other men in the roadhouse accept what he says with an air of indifference. Daisy doesn’t get a voice in anything spoken about her. She’s trivial, or at least rendered so through the perception of the men; in actuality she’s the reason for the whole mystery that explodes in a bloodbath.

The Hateful Eight2Long before that end game, we learn plenty about the men, especially the two pairs from opposite sides in the Civil War. Bruce Dern plays the crotchety old Confederate general. Walton Goggins plays the son of another Confederate legend, also steeped in southern values. Kurt Russell and Samuel Jackson are the two northern bounty hunters, and the closest thing The Hateful Eight has to offer as heroes. Russell plays the more traditional American hero (John Ruth), with a moral code that dictates he bring in his captives alive rather than dead, despite the dangers and personal inconveniences; yet he also dishes out extreme violence to his woman captive, Daisy. Samuel Jackson plays the rugged individualist hero (Marquis Warren) willing to do anything to survive. He’s a decorated soldier of the war, but forced to live in a world with white men (on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line) who regard him as his natural inferior. He carries around a personal letter to him from Abraham Lincoln, which he finally admits is a fake that he forged to impress white people — which Ruth takes as the ultimate betrayal and falls back on racist indictments: “I guess it’s true what they say about you people; you can’t trust a fucking word that comes out of your mouths.” Warren retorts with a speech about black people having to survive in a white man’s world, which they can only do by disarming white people, both literally and figuratively. His “Lincoln letter” had the latter effect — awing people by its proof that he’s a pen-pal of the American president — which is indeed precisely what enabled him to bond with Ruth in the first place.

Right after that stirring speech comes a most ugly one, as Warren proceeds to explain to the old Confederate general what he did to his precious son: forced him to march naked in the freezing snow for hours, and then give Warren a blowjob. This comes in a long, drawn-out, mean-spirited delivery by Warren (if you really want to watch the outrageous scene, it’s here), and ends in the enraged general going for a gun, with Warren shooting him in self-defense.

the-hateful-eight3Then comes the intermission, and when we return, the film turns. As I said, the n-word suddenly takes a back-seat to the b-word, as the Daisy plot revs up. People die; an Agatha-Christie like murder mystery ensues; more people die. By the final chapter, blood, puke, and brains are sprayed everywhere, and Warren has bonded with the young Confederate against “the bitch who must die”. They recline on the bed together, bleeding like pigs, in a hilariously demented face-off against the remaining survivors in the roadhouse. For whatever reason, I was reminded of an All in the Family episode from 1973, in which Archie and Henry engage in their usual race wars, in this case the question of a black president. Suddenly they find themselves allies against Gloria and Louise over the question of a woman president. Here’s the clip:

This was the sort of thing All in the Family did so well — shifting expectations, reversing allegiances, showing victims of bigotry to be bigots just as bad. (Side-note: this clip is fun to watch in light of contemporary politics, with our first black president on his way out, and the first likely woman waiting in the wings.)

The Hateful Eight is no mere social satire, any more than Inglourious Basterds is about the fetishizing of violence. Tarantino’s stories are too immersive to be nailed down that way. But it incorporates satire and suggests that none of us is terribly clean.

The Star Wars Films Ranked

I’ve never been a Star Wars fan. Never felt invested in the mythology. As a kid I remember my friends and classmates loving the early films as I would later love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. But with the exception of The Empire Strikes Back, they didn’t make an impact on me. Empire remains an outstanding achievement, however, and I’m also pleased to join the chorus of praise for the recent entries, The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Here are my rankings of the eight episodes to date. Fans of the series will no doubt think I’m too harsh with some of them.

father1. The Empire Strikes Back. 5 stars. This is the Star Wars film that engages me on all the right levels. It’s important to remember that Irvin Kershner directed it, not Lucas, who is always the problem. There’s never a dull moment in Empire, whether in its action scenes or pregnant pauses. It introduces Yoda, and the drama on the jungle planet is transcendent. For an ’80s blockbuster it’s dark as hell: the rebels get slaughtered at the battle of Hoth, which is brilliantly shot; Luke faces his dark side and loses a hand; Han Solo is kidnapped and frozen in carbonite. And of course it’s capped off by the brilliant reveal of Vader as Luke’s father, over a vertigo hang that still makes me sweat. It almost seems like Empire is an accidental masterpiece, sandwiched in between two films into which Lucas poured his more misguided efforts.

rogue-12. Rogue One. 4 ½ stars. You can actually make a case for this being the best entry in the franchise, but there’s some choppy pacing throughout the first half. Rogue One is Star Wars for adults, which is how I wish the franchise had been done from the start. The third act is a whopper, unquestionably the best battle of the franchise, and ends on the appropriate tragedy of all the Rogue One crew dying for their efforts. Had Disney not given the green light for all the heroes to die, this would have been a wasted film and insincere. It’s the foreordained conclusion that makes us appreciate what the rebels went through to get those Death Star plans. And, as if Jyn dying wasn’t a perfect enough ending, it’s improved on with the surprise “second ending” of Darth Vader kicking ass with his lightsaber and telekinetic abilities on the rebels escaping with the plans, seguing perfectly into the very first scenes of A New Hope.

star-wars-force-awakens-teaser-lightsaber-promo3. The Force Awakens. 4 stars. The only weakness is the recycling of so many plot points that it sets a record history in cinema. Another Death Star. Rey, the “new Luke”, climbing around inside it. She watches Han Solo’s death by lightsaber, as Luke saw Obi-Wan’s. She locates the hermit Luke, as Luke found Obi-Wan. BB-8, replaying R2-D2, carries crucial information for which the baddies hunt him down. Jakku is the new Tatooine; the winter planet evokes Hoth. The repeats fill pages. And yet it hardly amounts to a mild bother, due to the dramatic scale. Rey is believable and likable in every way that Luke was frankly not. Now that he’s back (in the final frame), I have every confidence he will deliver as Rey and the other characters. There is none of the Flash Gordon feel of A New Hope; only first-rate performances by all involved.

star-wars-episode-iv4. A New Hope. 3 ½ stars. As I said, I never fell in love with Star Wars as a kid, and as a young adult I blamed the franchise for killing the Golden Age of ’70s cinema. A New Hope may have been “unlike anything before”, as people claimed, but it was a pastiche of tropes and storytelling techniques that certainly had come before (throughout the ’30s-’50s), and it all meshed for me artificially. It felt like a kid’s story putting on adult airs. The whiny character of Luke is frankly almost as embarrassing as Hayden Christensen’s Anakin in the prequels. Still, I can’t deny the epic sweep, and there are impressive sequences — the Tusken raiders in the desert, conversations on board the Millenium Falcon, the infiltration of the Death Star, and of course the final attack on it. The Olympics-medal epilogue is offensive beyond words.

jabba5. Return of the Jedi. 2 ½ stars. The first 45 minutes of Jedi are actually not bad. Jabba the Hut is a wonderfully obscene character, and I love how Princess Leia is used as his implicit sex slave. The metal bikini is so trashy and politically incorrect, and a refreshing reminder of the days before such elements would be decried by regressive leftists. Yoda’s passing on the jungle planet is also fine. But from that point on, Jedi is a complete wreck — nothing like A New Hope and workaday as Empire is grand. And it’s not just the damn Ewoks, though they’re obviously the lead offenders. The entire tone is juvenile. The dialogue could have been scripted by a high-school sophomore. There is no vision, just a lazy Death Star repeat.

anakin-obi-wan-fighting-mustafar6. Revenge of the Sith. 2 stars. It’s the best of the prequels though that’s not saying much. Consider how good it could have been: Anakin turns to the dark side, helps the Emperor take control of the galaxy, and destroys the Jedi Knights. His transformation into Darth Vader, in parallel with the dying Padme giving birth to Luke and Leia, is the stuff of classic tragedy. The tone is as dark as Empire’s, sometimes even more so. The slaughter of the kids in the Jedi temple (granted it happens off screen) is an admittedly shocking move that I never expected from Lucas. Sith could have been a masterpiece in the hands of a competent director. In the end, Hayden Christensen is a horrible casting for Darth Vader, and the cheesy prequel elements remain — lame dialogue, cardboard plotting, and digitally overwrought battle scenes. This is the story that needed soul, and it’s not there.

Attack-of-the-clones-Yoda-mbjr9cjdjugbly26nfauyr8906wnmv9tfr0qqzykfs7. Attack of the Clones. 2 stars. This one is pretty dire, but something of a guilty pleasure because of Yoda. He’s always been the best Star Wars character, and Clones milks him for all he’s worth. His grammar goes hilariously off the scales, as in imperatives like “Around the survivors a perimeter create”. Worth the price of admission alone is his lightsaber duel with Count Dooku, which begins with him hobbling into the room like an old geezer to then explode into CGI acrobatics. There’s some other decent stuff too, like Obi-Wan’s investigation that takes him to visually impressive worlds, Anakin’s encounter with the Sand People, and the plot conspiracy of the clone army. I realize I’m damning with faint praise, but I would watch this film over Phantom Menace any day, and I’m stunned at the number of lists which rank Clones the worst in the franchise.

star-wars-episode-1-the-phantom-menace8. The Phantom Menace. 1 star. One thing can be said for the prequel trilogy. Many of the light-saber duels are superior to those of the classic. And the very best one comes in the worst entry of the franchise. The face off between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is so amazing to qualify as one of the best melees in cinematic history. Which makes it all the more tragic that the rest of this film is so abysmal that nothing can keep it from a rock-bottom rating. This isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a movie that goes out of its way to be bad, indeed to shit down the throats of fandom. Jar Jar is the foulest to swallow, but like the Ewoks of Jedi he simply encapsulates an overall texture that channels the Force of Disney. What a mess.

The Same God? Wheaton College vs. Larycia Hawkins

hqdefaultEveryone knows by now that Wheaton suspended Larycia Hawkins for her “bad” theology.

Hawkins: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Wheaton: “While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer.”

It’s hard to see what the problem is, since Christianity has a tradition of affirming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, while taking pains to distance the faiths at the same time. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), forerunner of crusade theology no less, admitted to Anzir of Mauritania that “we believe and confess one God, although in different ways”. Of course, that tension is the rub, but cardinals have never called for banishing the pope — whether an iron-fist like Gregory, or a pacifist like Francis — on account of it.

According to the Vatican II Council, Muslims figure in the plan of God’s salvation, not in the sense that they are saved as Muslims (that is, by means of Islamic observance), but at least insofar as they try to heed the voice of the creator who speaks to their conscience. The church also adds that Muslims “profess” to hold the faith of Abraham — not that they actually do so, necessarily, but at least try. Some Protestants have juggled the “same God” tension in their own ways throughout history. So again, Hawkins’ statement in itself hardly warrants expulsion from her faith community.

If Islam began as a sect of Judaism or a Jewish sect of Christianity (either is plausible), then the historic roots of Allah being the Yahweh-god are obvious. But when this proto-Islamic group grew into Islam, differences emerged that were more pronounced than those between Judaism and Christianity. In this light, the Wheaton administrators are piling on appropriate correctives. For example, Allah isn’t a Father as he is for Jews and Christians. In the Islamic faith, human beings cannot be considered children of Allah. The Qur’an excoriates that idea in an explicit rejection of the Jewish and Christian views (5:18).

Nor is Abraham an ancestor. He isn’t the “father of many nations”, as he is in Judaism and Christianity. He is a role model, to be sure, but a fiercely intolerant one. Qur’an 60:4 specifies that Muslim believers should imitate Abraham when he says — to even his closest relative — that he hates someone and will hate him forever because he is not a Muslim. Conversely, believers should not imitate Abraham when he says that he will pray for a non-Muslim. So in the Qur’an, Abraham is an exemplar of intolerance and hatred for non-Muslims.

This isn’t to romanticize the Jewish and Christian ideas of God. The Jewish view is ultimately an ethnic supremacist one (God is father of all, but he does favor Jews), and the Christian view is a spiritually supremacist one (God may be the father of all on an equal basis, but following Christ is a pre-requisite for that salvific benefit). But it’s nonetheless a huge difference that the Islamic God isn’t outreaching or encompassing, but rather the opposite, and a model for hatred. If the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) can be spared slaughter, it’s only by paying for it and being willing to “feel themselves subdued” as second-class citizens (Qur’an 9:29).

Professor Hawkins chose to stand with Muslim people in an increasingly toxic climate. By her testimony she saw herself as simply following Christian and humanitarian principles. She also dared to make an equation between her God and Allah. Unqualified that’s a misleading statement, but it’s not wrong. And even it were, that’s no reason to be suspended from a university position. I mean seriously, how embarrassing for Wheaton.

Vampire Films That are Actually Good

Let’s face it, most of them aren’t. The aristocratic model is cliche, and the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is beyond offensive. It’s hard to do the vampire justice. Unlike demons and psychos, they fascinate us more than terrify, because they tend to be driven not by a willful desire to do evil, but by simple need. Sometimes they loathe what they are, other times embrace it in tragedy; and sometimes they’re just mindless savages. Accepted on those terms, what follows are, in my opinion, the truly excellent vampire films.

neardark1. Near Dark. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987. The best vampire film fuses elements of the American Western with a nihilistic mayhem that anticipates Tarantino. The word “vampire” is never even used, as if to keep stereotypes at bay. To these bloodsucking outlaws, life is purposeless boredom for which the remedy is yahoo killing sprees. The famous roadhouse slaughter remains one of my favorite movie sequences of all time. And yet, while there is certainly no seductive glamorizing of these vamps, the romance between Caleb and Mae remains one of the most tender in any vampire story. The happy ending and return to the nuclear family betray the ’80s period; had this been made in the ’70s, Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one of them likely met some tragic end. But the film is so awesome that its faults are invisible.

thirst2. Thirst. Park Chan-wook, 2009. Like the director’s classic Oldboy it revels in sex and violence yet still manages to impress the cinephile elite, mostly for its creative adaptation of a literary work and hard look at human nature. The priest is a good man who becomes a vampire by accident, and does all he can to avoid killing people, mostly by sneaking through hospitals and slurping the intravenous tubes of comatose patients. But when he turns a woman he falls in love with — the wife of his best friend, whom they both end up murdering — it’s not long before she brings out the worst in him. Thirst explores the duality between blood-feeding as sacramental and its more honest Satanic counterpart, which revels in the glory of the hunt and the honesty of evil.

Dusk-Till-Dawn-3. From Dusk Till Dawn. Robert Rodriguez, 1996. This doesn’t become a vampire film until halfway through, which caught me completely off guard. I first saw it in the 90s thinking it was a Tarantino-esque crime thriller, and that’s basically what the first half is — Quentin himself stars as one of the fugitives on the run, who enjoys raping his own hostages. It’s nasty, hard-core, and so well done that it could stand as a short film on its own right. When things take a sudden turn in the Titty Twister bar, the ensuing nightmare is an orgy out of hell. The main cast and bar patrons fight non-stop for their lives, pounding stakes into the beasts, shooting their heads off, most of them dying for their efforts. I wish there were more films like this. The structure is brilliant, the horror an adrenaline rush, and the characters a great mix of scumbags and innocent (including kids) driven to common cause.

let the right4. Let the Right One In/Let Me In, Tomas Alfredson/Matt Reeves. 2008/2010. The Swedish original is the better version, but only by a slight margin. As remakes go, Let Me In is actually very good, and it even improves in some ways by omitting extraneous material, like the small town dynamics that did nothing to help the story. On the other hand, as good as Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee are in their roles, they don’t quite match the brilliance of the Swedish kids. Lena Leandersson somehow exudes the aura of an older soul inside a little girl, and Kåre Hedebrant plays the bullied victim without overdoing it at all, which is a tall order for most child actors. In either case, this is a precious story of two lonely and despairing kids (one not really, of course) who find some measure of peace in each others’ horror and misery.

stake_land_jim_mickle-35. Stake Land. Jim Mickle, 2010. I don’t know why it took so long to do vampires in a post-apocalyptic setting, because it’s the perfect mix: an American wasteland overrun with bloodsuckers. The scenario is reminiscent of the zombiefest 28 Days Later though far superior, and the story centers around a teen taken under the wing of a hunter who slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a road-like odyssey and come across small pockets of survivors in barricaded and fortified towns. Worst of all are the religious fundamentalists who see the vampires as instruments of God’s wrath, and use them to turn what’s already a hell on earth into utter annihilation. Their favorite tactic being to load the creatures into helicopters, fly them over barricades, and crash them into the towns.

nosferatu6. Nosferatu the Vampyre. Werner Herzog, 1979. This is the Dracula film to see. Not the Bela Lugosi classic (which is cheesy), nor Coppola’s modern treatment (which is silly). This and only this. It’s a tribute to Murnau’s silent film of the 20s, which was the earliest adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Herzog basically fused Murnau, Stoker, and his own fevered imagination to create one of the most expressionistic films in the history of cinema. Set in Transylvania and Germany, the love triangle between Harker, Lucy, and Dracula plays out over a grim castle and city overrun with rats and plague. As in Murnau, Dracula is grotesque and ratlike, which works better than the handsome aristocratic version. He’s still a tragic character and full of self-loathing, and remains by far the best interpretation of Dracula to date. All the others besides Murnau’s are awful.

the-hunger-undead7. The Hunger. Tony Scott, 1983. Scott is known for his avant-garde action thrillers (most of which feature Denzel Washington) that his early vampire film gets forgotten. This is a character film entirely, though the style is the same — fast cuts, overlapping dialogue, edgy camera work. It’s about the fear of getting old, the loss of sexual appetite, and a person’s terror in letting go of youth. As someone nearing 50, watching it today affects me totally differently than it did thirty years ago. The scene where John has accelerated into an old man (after 200 years of vampire youth) and the eternally young Miriam is holding him in her arms, is absolutely heartbreaking.

spring8. Spring. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2014. I’m cheating a bit with this one, because we never learn if Louise is a vampire or some kind of alien. Mostly because that element is circumstantial. This is a romance that has been endlessly compared to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. If you love the conversations between Jesse and Celine (as I do), and if you’re a horror fan too, then you’ll eat up Evan and Louise. Their relationship evolves out of witty and entirely organic dialogue, and on the occasions when Louise’s body rebels and transforms, and she has to go out and kill, it seems like we’re suddenly in a different movie. The clash works wonderfully, and it’s the kind of cinematic daring I’d like to see more often.

30_Days_of_Night_2007_m_720p_BDRip_x264_SC4_R_mkv9. 30 Days of Night. David Slade, 2007. If you need an antidote to bubblegum crowd pleasers like Blade and Underworld, look no further. Slade’s bloodbath takes vampires seriously and makes them utterly savage. An army of them invade an Alaskan town during the one month when the sun doesn’t shine at all. They’re are a lot like the vamps in From Dusk Till Dawn (#3) and Stake Land (#5). They kill first, listen later, and they’re bloody fast, jump-pouncing like insects from roof-tops and around corners. The slaughter of the town is non-stop. And yet for all the primitive aggression suggesting little more than beasts, there’s a hint of noble antiquity. The leader coughs up obscenities in a guttural tongue that sounds like archaic Russian. This film was released around Halloween, and it’s a perfect flick for that time of year. It’s the rare vampire film that’s quite scary.

girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-a-2014-004-girl-walking-at-night_110. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014. A feminist spin from the Muslim world is what we need in today’s climate, and this Iranian piece is pure feminine defiance. It’s not preachy; it doesn’t let its message get in the way of a good story. It’s set in a remote town full of pimps and thieves, where a young man is trying to rise above the depraved, and the vampire preys at night. She’s endearing like the girl of Let the Right One In/Let Me In, a lover of music and skateboarding, and her victims tend to be abusive males. Dress attire serves a brilliant inversion. The Iranian chador keeps women stifled, but here it looks like a “Dracula cape” symbolizing the girl’s ferocious liberation. If the movie is light on plot it’s filled with atmosphere, and the Farsi language is a big part of that.

Jihadists, Refugees, and the Use/Misuse of Statistics

Facebook feeds are fascinating to watch these days, with a lot of misleading graphs and statistics about the realities of terrorism. Take this one from the Dec 4 issue of the New York Times (click on to enlarge):

Muslim-vs-non-Muslim-extremist-deaths

Robert Spencer explains why this graph is ridiculous:

1. It begins after 9/11. Including nearly 3,000 jihad deaths on 9/11 would make it look significantly different.

2. It does not include foiled plots, which also would make the jihadi line dwarf the non-jihadi line.

3. It does not include the global component of the problem. There is a global jihad. Jihadis have murdered people all over the world. There is no global “right-wing extremist,” “white male Christian” threat.

4. It ignores the fact that a minuscule part of the U.S. population — Muslims — is responsible for around half of the successful attacks represented on the graph. (Whites make up 77% of the population, Muslims less than 1%, and yet even without counting 9/11, Muslims are responsible for half of these killings.)

5. It lumps together shootings by clearly deranged people such as James Holmes with those of other deranged people who seem to have some ideology, such as Adam Lanza, to create the impression that there is some ideological movement and threat equivalent to that of Islamic jihad.

He’s right. There is no justification for graphing terrorist patterns since 9/11 without including 9/11 itself. (If, on the other hand, the New York Times could somehow have worked in the Timothy McVeigh bombing of 1995 without having to include the jihadist attack of 2001, you can be sure they would have.) There have been many foiled jihad plots, which obviously count in assessing proportions of danger. The third point is one that I dealt with at some length my Top Five Attacks in America Committed By Christian Terrorists, showing why comparisons between Christian and Islamic terrorism hardly even constitute such. Spencer is right about the media’s ongoing failure in using statistics properly, and the New York Times graph is laughable.

On the other hand…

I disagree with someone like Spencer on the refugee question. Acknowledging Islam as an especially problematic religion, and jihadism as a disproportionate threat, doesn’t justify sweeping measures against Muslims as people. Barring refugees isn’t a proper way of dealing with refugee plights. If I’m more likely to get killed by a jihadist than a Christian extremist, I am still, for example,

1904 times more likely to get killed in a car accident driving to work in the morning

452 times more likely to die from risky sexual behavior

just as likely to be crushed to death by moving heavy furniture around my home

Recently John Oliver (who I’m no fan of) made the point that we can never eliminate risk entirely, only manage it as best we can. He’s right: risk is built into our everyday lives. In considering refugees we have to balance the huge numbers of Muslims who need our help against the comparatively few jihadists who will get through. I’m certainly not trying to minimize the jihad threat. Even a few getting through is bad, and liberals are wrong to ignore this by comparing Muslim refugees to the Jewish refugees in WWII or the Vietnamese during that war, who obviously didn’t pose any threat at all. But we also have to keep a humane perspective, and be careful how we apply statistics — even the correct ones — and exactly what questions we’re trying to answer.

Mass Shootings and their Alleged Causes

jacksonWords of wisdom on the right, from Samuel Jackson. But what has caused the increased “devaluing of life” in America?

Weeks ago a Facebook acquaintance, Bob Kruger, took a stab at this question, isolating five causes of mass shootings. I think he’s right about the first three, less so about the other two. I include a sixth since it’s often invoked by those on the political right.

Relevant factors

1. Wealth disparity/ubiquitous media. Kruger argues that young men who see themselves at a permanent disadvantage become dangerously antisocial. He’s right that this is a cross-cultural phenomenon; men as a rule are highly attuned to their social status as it impacts their economic and sexual prospects. In the context of current American climate — i.e. the increasing divide between the 1% and everyone else — the combination of wealth disparity and ubiquitous media exaggerates everyone else’s achievement (financial, sexual, or otherwise) and this is hugely provocative to unstable young men. If I had to isolate a #1 cause, it would probably be this one.

2. Social media. Kruger points out that online interactions allow people to find easy reinforcement for their antisocial concepts, to narrow their exposure to news and articles, movies and games, and to communicate with like-minded people. Browsing habits keep people immersed in alternate realities that can be at hazardous odds with a broader consensus reality. This is true.

3. News media. Adding to this, says Kruger, is the diligence of the American news media, which goes out of its way to make celebrities out of mass shooters. Each incident is widely broadcast in the internet age, and becomes a ready inspiration for the next shooting. To this I would add that many shooters were bullied at some point, and in their minds failed to get the attention they deserved. By their murderous martyrdom, mass shooters finally get the attention and fame they were denied in life.

Not-so-relevant factors

4. Easy access to guns. Leftists tend to think this is the absolute root of the problem, but that’s an overreaction to the right-wing. I do agree that we need tighter gun control laws — certainly assault weapons should be banned — but such measures wouldn’t make a dent in mass shootings. The vast majority of mass killers use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban, and listing people against any kind of weapon is usually futile anyway. Mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do. Nor would improved background checks help, since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization.

5. Deficient mental-health services. Leftists also insist that better mental health care would cut down on mass shootings. With Kruger I agree that Ronald Reagan set America on the wrong path by undercutting funding for subsidized living and outpatient counseling/medication. We should indeed improve mental-health services, for the general betterment of our society. But as with gun control, I doubt this progressive move would have significant impact on mass shootings. These killers externalize blame, see themselves as victims of mistreatment; the problem always lies with others and never themselves, and they would resist any encouragements of seeking help.

6. Antidepressants. Right-wingers (especially NRA affiliates) have blamed mass shootings on antidepressant drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, Ritalin, and Paxil. While it’s true that many mass shooters use these drugs, it begs the question as to whether or not their behavior was the product of the drugs, or a condition for which the drugs were prescribed to begin with.

Plain sanity and human decency demand better gun laws and mental health care. But neither of those are leading causes for mass shootings — they are certainly not the “smoking guns”, to make the obvious pun. Improved legislature would go a long way to curbing other gun abuses (like domestic violence), but not the staged slaughter variety. The dispiriting reality is that American culture has deteriorated in ways that require redress in ways that are more complex, and in that sense I think Bob Kruger is entirely right.

And as an afterthought… it’s astonishing to see people jumping on the anti-gun bandwagon in the aftermath of yesterday’s shooting in San Bernardino. First of all, this was an obvious Islamic jihad-related attack from the get. Coordinated efforts by multiple attackers make this a sure bet almost all the time. The main shooter went back and got his partner, and they suited up in camouflage jackets, ammunition belts and assault rifles. They apparently planted IEDs when they left the facility. They had a getaway plan. The main shooter was soon revealed to be Syed Rizwan Farook, a devout Muslim and had been hanging out for weeks with a group of other men from the Middle East, working late into the night in a garage. (Pipe bombs have since been found in the garage.) To see people harping on “gun laws” in the wake of this kind of attack shows how blinkered our perspective is.