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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Grace Commons Loses its Talisman

A random Sunday in October of 2006. I sat at one of my usual haunts, the quirky little brick-and-wood spot addressed at 1741 North Western Avenue in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, wondering where the hell World Can’t Wait had trotted off to this time. It was the second time this had happened – I had been given one address by the political group and told they were meeting there that Sunday, and they went someplace else without me.

So I was sitting there, nothing to do, not willing to make the return trip home because I had just dragged myself a half-mile while getting licked by the bitter winds. My health was already getting under the weather. Fortunately, no one seemed in any hurry to shove me out the door. The first person I saw was Nanette; now, I knew Nanette strictly nominally as the friendly hipster artist who was also the acting barista at the Monday jazz shows that flowed into the World Can’t Wait room’s thin walls. I thought I had a fairly accurate read on her through our brief drink and pastry exchanges then. She clearly had to be one of the many people in the building connected with the Near Northwest Arts Council. Had to be. Had that vibe.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked me that day.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t think I was in any condition to turn down an offer of tea.

Nanette brought me the tea and, as she turned to leave, casually added “Oh, we’re having a prayer service at 5. You’re welcome to come if you like.” I could swear it was an afterthought.

Whatever, though. I wasn’t planning to head out anytime soon, and I had nothing better to do. A prayer service might be good for a few yuks, at any rate. Why the hell not?

Well… My life was changed for good after I left. I couldn’t describe what about the service hit me at the time, and I still can’t. I walked into the service room flying high on some 18 months of declared, anti-religious atheism after getting pissed with two different dogmas. I thought I was done. Instead, that Sunday invitation turned out to be the beginning of a whole different path which I’ve been walking ever since. It was my welcome to a unique spiritual community called Wicker Park Grace, and it quickly became one of my life’s centerpieces. My involvement there made me a better person in a few ways, some of which I’m certain I don’t know about yet.

Anyway, of all the qualities I attached to Nanette the way I saw her then, Presbyterian Minister was among the last on my list. I figured the initial prayer service I attended was some kind of novelty thing; not a weekly meeting. Nanette, though, said she ran services like that every week, and when I returned the next week, Nanette, me, and a handful of other people sat down in a small room. You know what the service was? The small lot of us sitting down, eating dinner, and talking about the various questions and problems we all had about scriptures. I finally got to ask about all the problems I had with the two different religions I had followed in my life to that point, and had used to hammer fundamentalists afterward. It was the first time anyone ever took my questions and comments seriously. The congregation of Wicker Park Grace wasn’t there to crush opposition to religion by insisting that I just believe, or that I wasn’t reading something properly; the earliest form of the church that I knew there was just as confused, angry, and misfit as I was, and just as eager to get to the bottom of the scriptures they were familiar with.

Nanette never tried to stand pat with testimonies and reaffirmations of faith. In fact, she was the one leading us through some questions and into even more questions. For a working class kid raised in a staunch literalist religious atmosphere, this was unheard of, and it was because of this that Nanette managed to do something no other Minister I ever met had managed: She got through to me. She made me think. She challenged everything I thought I knew about religion previously, through both my experience following two different faiths and then turning my back on them both.

The new way I discovered of looking at religion had a remarkable and unexpected effect: It made me appreciate the positive aspects of the religion I was raised practicing again while managing to reinforce my atheism at the same time. I wasn’t the only person at Wicker Park Grace who started to wonder if there could ever be such a beast as a Christian Atheist. Christian Atheism or not, though, all the barriers that mentally kept me from questioning in the past finally broke down, and I began to appreciate the fact that I could be a perfectly flawed human being and still be a halfway decent person.

I had had several Ministers in my past, but Nanette is the one I consider my first real Minister. She managed to find a new life for my weather-worn soul and prevent a third form of unofficial religious dogma from taking hold of it. I learned that I liked asking questions about the big issues of religious faith and upsetting the natural order, and Nanette gave me the first real outlet I had to do that.

Wicker Park Grace grew and eventually moved to a different building, establishing a new form as Grace Commons. But people have this funny way of moving on, and Nanette was eventually installed as the Minister of a whole new congregation. Grace Commons moved yet again soon afterward, its members moved into areas of Chicago more difficult to reach – and sometimes out of Chicago altogether – and everything that Grace Commons established started falling apart. The last time I managed to get to Grace Commons, services had become bi-weekly affairs with attendance on par with the first services I ever attended there. A couple of my friends there remarked to me last year they weren’t sure of Nanette’s ability to be a full-time Minister to two congregations.

That turned out to be a good guess, because Nanette is stepping down, and Grace Commons is losing its talisman. As the Minister of Grace Commons, Nanette installed a core ethos of hospitality and welcomed everyone, regardless of their background, and was beloved for her easy, outgoing, and personable style of teaching. She oversaw Grace Commons as it turned from three people in a coffeehouse to a formalized establishment with a personality of its own. Without her, Grace Commons is taking a congregation-run course, and I can’t say I know what’s in store for it. But I think I can speak for all of the old regulars from Grace Commons when I say: Nanette, we love you.


Worst Movies I Saw for the First Time this Year

I’ve always wanted to write up one of these best/worst movies lists. Unfortunately, I don’t frequently see enough movies in the year they came out in order to pull it off. Then last year, I read a blog post written by a friend who found a novel way around that: He presented his readers with a list of the best movies he had seen for the first time that year. I thought it was a great idea and immediately knew I had to rip him off.

That, of course, gave me a whole new problem: I couldn’t look like I was ripping him off. That and I, you know, didn’t watch quite as many legitimately good movies. So I decided to go the opposite route, because let’s face it: While all of us are willing to acknowledge the greatness of an immortal classic like Citizen Kane or The Godfather, there will be days when the heft of it will get to be a bit much, and you’ll just want to shut your brain down and throw something mindless into the DVD player. That’s why people make bad movies – they’re there for comfort and immediate enjoyment, not emotional gut-wrenching that inspires suicide notes.

However, there’s a difference between bad and just plain stupid, which I why I’ve chosen to compile a list of stupid-bad movies which would should never, ever watch under any circumstances. And one more thing: I just moved across the country and I still haven’t really settled, which is why you’re reading a part-list instead of a full one.

Atlas Shrugged Part I
You know a movie is bad when the DVD case feels the need to outright lie to you. The case refers to Ayn Rand’s original novel as a book about courage and self-sacrifice. Well, if you’re even remotely familiar with Rand’s stylings, you know the way she thinks goes as follows: You see a little kid eating a candy bar on the sidewalk. You decide that it’s in your own rational self-interest to have that candy bar. So you walk over to the kid, yank it away, and then push him into the path of a speeding car. Rand’s idea’s of courage and self-sacrifice are that you were courageous and self-sacrificial by merit of the fact that you didn’t beat the kid half to death between taking the candy and pushing him. Although that would have been okay too. You’re strong, he’s weak, it’s all gravy.

Now, I don’t denounce Rand’s work completely. I’m familiar with some of it and happen to agree with a few of her ideas: A strong market, small government, competition being good for production, and the idea that there is a vein of selfishness – which we don’t dare ever acknowledge – flowing through even the most altruistic of actions. Atlas Shrugged, however, is porn for libertarian righties. Stephen Colbert was right: This is a movie in which the good guys would be the bad guys anywhere else. It’s a fantasy, and a paranoid one at that. Every character is an over-the-top stereotype, and you’re still supposed to consider the robber barons the flawless, strong good guys.

Atlas Shrugged has no grounding in real science, real government workings, or real economics. It’s trying to get the populace to rally around an idea and a group of characters who despise them so much that they run off to a fantasy island. There is a severe disconnect between Rand’s philosophy and reality because Rand doesn’t care about the people on the production end of it and insists the world would stop when all the rich people go up even further into their rich people penthouses, and they could live just fine without the labor that keeps them there. Yeah, let’s see how that works. Atlas Shrugged takes weird leaps in dialogue – the good guys contradict themselves numerous times while discussing their philosophies – and ideas and has the production qualities of a porn movie. It’s lit similarly, scored similarly, and acted similarly. On the upside, since I’ve never read the book, I now know how bad it is and know that I’m not interested in ever reading it.

Clash of the Titans
I recently found a copy of the Sam Worthington Action Movie Checklist they used to make Clash of the Titans at a garage sale. I don’t know how it got there, and I don’t care. Stoic hero who takes himself far too seriously? Check! Does he try to evade his call? Check! Deny his identity? Check! Are we remaking an old movie? Check! I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend that the movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger are any brainier than Worthington’s, but what made Ah-nuld so much fun was that he knew what he was getting into. He wanted to make entertaining movies – as opposed to statements – and just happened to stab, shoot, and explode his way into a bunch of cult classics, a few legitimate classics, and a larger-than-life screen image which people spent years trying to copy. Schwarzenegger knew a lot of his movies were full of shit. We knew a lot of his movies were full of shit. The important difference between Schwarzenegger and Worthington is that Schwarzenegger KNEW we knew his movies were full of shit, and he played to expectations accordingly.

Yeah, the new Clash of the Titans not only employs every cliche that made action movies insufferable, it plays them straight. What you see in this sucker is what you get, and there isn’t anything about it that tries to elevate itself above and beyond the bog standard to make Clash of the Titans stand out. There’s no great overarching theme, but that doesn’t stop director Louis Leterrier from going about his job as if there’s some sort of hammy diatribe about religion in the script. The script disagrees with him, and the whole movie ends up being boring and muddled.

That sucks a whole lot too, because with the surge in superhero movies, it would have been a great time to introduce cinephiles to ancient legends like Perseus, Hercules, and the Argonauts. Those guys were the original superheroes. They stole treasures like fire and the Golden Fleece; killed unforgettable monsters like the minotaur, the hydra, Medusa, and the sirens; and interacted with interesting characters like Atlas, Hades, and Poseidon. Someone should start trying to contract Marvel to write graphic novels or movies about them. Until someone grows enough of a brain to try that, though, you’re much better off playing through the God of War video game series again. It’s pretty much the same thing as Clash of the Titans, only fun.

Good Luck Chuck
People who have seen Good Luck Chuck have no doubt made the statement of it being a cinematic sin at some point. That’s not true, though. The terrible truth is that Good Luck Chuck is itself not the sin, but rather the punishment for an even bigger sin humanity committed: For a hot minute there, we made Dane Cook a marquee movie star. I’m sure more Biblical types of folks will say the reason their god didn’t flood the entire planet again was because he promised not to, but I figure God huddled up with Hell’s Ironic Punishment Division and they decided giving people exactly what they asked for would be a much harsher punishment with longer-lasting effects.

In Good Luck Chuck, Dane Cook plays Chuck, a man who is eminently punchable and who is also a good luck charm for women looking for The One. They flag him down, have sex with him, and bam! The next guy they meet is their Prince Charming. If you can’t spot something egregious about women in that plotline, then congratulations on your success, Mr. Studio Executive. Anyhow, Chuck is the good guy, and the amazing thing is that his best friend Stu somehow manages to be even more punchable than Chuck. As all men are wont to do, Chuck sees Jessica Alba and falls in love with her instantly. They hit it off, but he can’t sleep with her. Hilarity ensues, as it tends to do. Good Luck Chuck is the only movie I’ve ever seen which opens with a joke about a junior high schooler trying to rape another junior high schooler. From there, Stu shouts a lot and acts chauvinistic and you want to kill him. Chuck has an 80’s montage of himself having sex with lots of women and you want to neuter him. The movie hits pretty much all the lowbrow humor stereotypes it can think of and you don’t laugh once.

The shame of it is that Good Luck Chuck can probably be seen as the movie that killed Jessica Alba’s career. Alba was never a great actress, but in Good Luck Chuck, she delivers a performance which is legitimately sweet, charming, and endearing. If you remember the TV ads for this movie, you may remember that Alba’s character is shown being a major klutz, but that aspect of her character is downplayed. Although her part isn’t written well, Alba brings her to a surprising life and is able to redeem a lot of the bullshit the script forces her through. At the points when she can’t, the blame lies more on the screenplay than on Alba. It’s too bad for her that this movie and her widely criticized line of natural products will now have to hold her over until her inevitable landing in the Portland edition of the CSI/NCIS franchise circle.

The Lone Ranger
Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Frank Grimes was hired to work at the Nuclear Plant and ended up electrocuting himself because he was the only sane man surrounded by an idiocracy? Picture that in reverse. You know, the funny man getting caught up in a planet full of serious, straight shooters. That’s The Lone Ranger. Another great reference point would be the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which share star Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and a pair of screenwriters, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (both of whom, by the way, also wrote Aladdin, the original Shrek, and The Mask of Zorro). Pirates involved another straight man in a comic world concept – every character in those movies had some sort of comedic slant, including Elizabeth Swann. (“You like pain?” BAM! “Try wearing a corset!”) The straight man in Pirates, Will Turner, eventually figured out that his landlubbing ways washed away with the tide.

John Reid – The Lone Ranger – never really figures that out, and boy does the script ever do everything it can to ram that into your head. Although it uses a framing device in an effort to create a mythos, the titular Ranger gets used more like the movie’s comic prop. We get left with a bloated series of scenes in which The Lone Ranger is placed in a wacky situation where his ideals and behavior clash with those of everyone else around him, thus setting up his inevitable fall and humiliation. When the movie finally gets tired of giving us the same old, same old and realizes that it has a $250 million budget, it tries to make up for lost time by presenting a train sequence. Depp seems to finally be tiring of the crazy person schtick he developed after the first Pirates movie made him a superstar, which means the guy who became the best part of Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy is now acting on autopilot. There’s only so often the audience can stand to watch the same thing over and over again, and that’s ultimately what The Lone Ranger keeps giving us. To worsen the effect, Verbinski seems obsessed with kids. Seems like there’s a kid in this movie being used as a prop in every other scene, and there’s a very special hell reserved for directors who rely on using kids to create a sense of drama or danger.

Fortunately, if you’re able to wait everything out, the climactic train sequence is a spectacular feat of stuntwork which makes a clear callback to The General, the legendary silent movie by Buster Keaton. Also, Verbinski decided against creating a photoshop-looking computerized bad guy who was obsessed with mechanical spiders, which means that for everything wrong with it, it’s still not nearly as bad as the Will Smith/Kevin Kline version of Wild Wild West.

It shouldn’t be some great cause of confusion as to just why Adam Sandler chose to create his newest movie around 70’s and 80’s video games: Those old games and Adam Sandler are both very simplistic. And Sandler doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that his man-child shenanigans are dead now. They’re played out, and the more Sandler appears, the more you just want to punch him in the face until his head blows up into a bunch of those small pixel cubes that appear in Pixels whenever a bad guy blows up.

That description sound like fun? Well, in Pixels, he teams up with one of the great banes of the cinephile’s existence: The video game movie! Granted, Pixels isn’t based on any video game in particular, but it involves a plot about aliens trying to wipe out the Earth in the guise of popular old video game characters. So yes, that makes it a video game movie. Hey, Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World were both video game movies, even though they weren’t based on any video games, so yes, that’s possible.

A thoughtful and intelligent screenplay could have made Pixels work. Unfortunately, Pixels relies on those old jokes and stereotypes about gamers which make it a pain in the ass to be a gamer. The script has no concept of in-universe rules, so it looks like it was compiled in bits and pieces by people who were trying to force plot twists and unfunny jokes into it. All your favorites are here: The guy who has no clue how to socialize; the girls who don’t know anything about video games; the men are all immature; and the idea that video games are some pointless hobby that have no merit. When the inevitable virgin joke is finally made, you can almost hear the movie breathe a sigh of relief.

Robocop (2014)
Oh, the thrilling action of a bunch of One Percent suits arguing philosophy in boardrooms! The unique thing about this remake of Robocop is that it lacks any soul, despite catering to the expectations and whims of today’s public. While it does confront a handful of issues today’s audiences will find relevant, it doesn’t have the subtlety of Paul Verhoeven’s original, and what comes out is one very confused action movie.

There are action sequences, yes. Most of them are muted in some way. Robocop seems to abhor the idea of going full throttle to hit the crazy, ultraviolent heights of Verhoeven’s classic, and with that being the prevailing ethos, it seems almost to be at war with itself at times; like it wants to be the sort of philosophical rumination that Waking Life was, except good and with guns. My comment about arguing in boardrooms up there comprises a lot of the movie – they argue a lot about the morality of how effective a crimefighting robot can be if it doesn’t have the humanity required to pull back and take context into account.

As a semi-intellectual, that’s something I can appreciate. But not in this case. Robocop can’t figure out just what it is, and it doesn’t even have enough honesty with itself to present a true bad guy. The true bad guy in the movie is an ass-pull which came about because the writers remembered that Verhoeven’s movie was an action movie, and if anyone wanted to see a remake, they would probably be expecting action.