‘Religulous’ Shows No Shame in Questioning Religion and Blind Faith

Religulous movie poster

I came into this documentary with much excitement as religion is such a fun and easy target to lampoon regardless of what your thoughts are on it. “Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles who directed one of the funniest mockumentaries ever with “Borat,” and it has Bill Maher interviewing people of different faiths. Apparently, the people interviewed were not aware Maher was going to be interviewing them until Maher showed up. This is made clear by certain moments where publicists come up to the film crew saying rather tensely that they do not want Maher talking to their clients because of what they believe he represents. Would that be logic and reason? The fact these same people still chose to be interviewed by Maher does show a lot of guts on their part as he lets them have their say even as he interrupts them when things don’t make sense to him (and this happens more than you might think).

“Religulous” starts with Maher talking with his sister and mother about why they all stopped going to church. He explains how he was brought up by a mother who was Jewish and a father who was Catholic, and of how he loved playing with his toy gun and holster which he refused to take off even when he went to church. We also get to see clips from when he was starting as a standup comic and talked about what the first circumcision must have looked like to the one it was being suggested to. Maher’s distrust and comments on religion still go on to this very day, and they are not just meant to be funny, but also to make you think about why people allow themselves to believe certain things which defy easy logic.

One thing which kept coming up is how many preachers go out of their way to purchase expensive clothes and live more luxuriously than Jesus ever did. Jesus wore robes and lived in a hut or some other dwelling, and we can all agree he did not care for making money in his father’s temple. Here, Maher interviews them while they are showing off their tailor-made suits, the kind you would never find at your average discount store, and they also wear gold rings because they feel God would want them to dress extravagantly. Maher intersperses these interviews with these same preachers hawking their own DVD’s among other items they have to offer, and it immediately reminded of L. Ron Hubbard’s response to someone who asked him why he was so keen to create his own religion:

“That’s where the money is.”

“Religulous” also opened me up to what Mormons really believe. I always thought they were the nicest people, and I did have a huge crush on one while I was in school, but I never had the slightest idea they held the belief that God is actually from another planet (I can’t remember the name of it). We watch as Maher gets kicked off of the lawn outside the Mormon Tabernacle Church, but he does get to speak with two men who have since left the church and dispute what the Mormons are taught to believe in. Every religion seems to have its own interpretation of God, and I can’t help but wonder if a consensus can ever be reached on this subject.

One of the real pivotal moments comes when Maher interviews a “reformed” homosexual (talk about a contradiction). The fact that pseudoscience facilities which practice conversion therapy exist where people are send to be “cured” of their homosexuality, will always baffle me. Furthermore, this man Maher interviews is married to a woman who claims she was “cured” of being a lesbian. This all struck me as being completely odd and inappropriate as I was always under the belief God loves us all no matter who we are. That people allow themselves to be brainwashed into what others want them to be is frightening, and practices still continue even when people should know better. Seeing Maher hug the “reformed homosexual,” I kept waiting for the “Real Time” host to do something rather provocative, but even he has the good sense not to pinch the guy’s butt.

Clearly, “Religulous” is bound to upset many religious people as Maher shows no shame in picking apart faiths of any and every kind. I personally do not see, nor do I want to see, religion as being evil, but this will not step many from believing both Maher and Charles have made something both biased and hateful. Granted, there are many Bill talks to who will ever be quick to share his problems with religion, and we even see this here from one point to the next. But “Religulous” does indeed have a strong point of view as it never hesitates to call out those religious beliefs which prove to be both misleading and very dangerous. Maher also takes the time to find similarities between Muslims and Christians as each religion has their followers believing they are the chosen people and of how the world is coming to an end and that they will be the only ones left standing.

“Religulous” ends on an ominous note as Maher discusses how religions constantly talk about the end of the world and of how we should be wary of blind faith (amen to that). Religion is supposed to be about love, and yet there is a lot of hate and fear involved in many faiths. Hearing and seeing all of this takes me back to that scene in “A Bronx Tale” where the young kid asks a known gangster:

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

His reply:

“I would rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.”

Maher remains one of the smartest, not to mention one of the most provocative, and “Religulous” is further proof of this as it shows he has balls of steel. He shows no fear as he questions the religion of those who may very well kill him for defying what they hold most holy. In the end, he makes a compelling argument of how religion can be dangerous and easily corrupted, and he also gets a lot of huge laughs out of the subject.

Like I said, there are moments where Charles puts in clips from religious shows, and there is one with a man talking in a language which makes him feel so good and yet has him sounding like a baby struggling to say their first words. It’s as gut busting hilarious as it is frightening. Whatever you may feel about religion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about it, “Religulous” will make you see the dangers of believing certain things and of the immense dangers of blind faith.

We all keep wondering when and if we will be saved from the horrors which keep engulfing this world we all live in. Maher meets a man who plays Jesus at a religious amusement park and asks him:

“Why doesn’t he (Jesus) obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s he waiting for?”

Yeah, what is he waiting for? And how do we know he is not actually a she?

Seriously, this documentary could make a great double feature with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Vice’ Examines The Most Powerful Vice President of Them All

vice movie poster

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

“I would rather be feared because fear lasts longer than love.”

-from “A Bronx Tale”

There is a key scene in Adam McKay’s “Vice” which serves as a reminder of how Dick Cheney was the most powerful Vice-President who ever lived. It takes place on September 11, 2001, and Cheney and the key members of George W. Bush’s administration are gathered together in room, but Bush himself is away from the White House. During a conversation with a military general, Cheney orders any suspicious aircraft to be shot down. Another person quickly raises an objection, but Cheney simply raises his hand ever so slightly to silence her. He doesn’t have to yell at or ask her to be quiet; just a simple movement was all that was needed to remind everyone in the room who was the one with all the power. Cheney instilled fear in everyone, even George W.

Christian Bale goes to great lengths in transforming his body into the characters he portrays, and his performance as Cheney will definitely go down as one of his memorable to say the least. There were times where I kept waiting for Bale to raise his voice a little higher as the monotone he was speaking at threatened to be more grating than the voice he gave Batman. But again, Cheney never has to speak up to get his point across. It reminded me of what Henry Hill said about Paulie Cicero in “Goodfellas:”

“Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”

Bale put on 45 pounds for to play Cheney, and he gets the former Vice-President’s mannerisms down perfectly to where you completely forget it is an English actor playing this American politician and one-time CEO of Haliburton. It is such a mesmerizing portrait as he makes us see how slowly but surely Cheney got seduced into the realm of power hungry politicians whether it was serving under his mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) or being manipulated by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). But even better is the way Bale, as Cheney, subtly worms his way into becoming George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) VP to where he has more control over certain areas of government than Bush, as he is portrayed here, would care to have.

The fact we have any kind of biopic on Dick Cheney is astonishing as he and Lynne remain very secretive about their lives to where McKay employs a disclaimer at the film’s beginning which is as wickedly clever as the one Steven Soderbergh gave “The Informant.” This disclaimer ends with McKay saying he and his fellow collaborators “did our fucking best,” and I guess that’s all we can ask for.

It’s no surprise the director and co-writer of “The Big Short” has chosen an unorthodox approach to making this biopic as it shifts back and forth in time to Cheney’s college days where he spent more time getting drunk than studying or playing football. McKay also has Jesse Plemons playing Kurt, an everyman narrator who says he has a close connection to Cheney, a connection which will eventually be made clear. Throughout, we are shown images from real life which, if they haven’t already, should forever be burned into your conscious memory. Among them is former President Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention where he vows to “make America great again.” From here on out, this is a phrase which should forever live in infamy.

One of “Vice’s” most inspired moments comes when McKay begins the end credits midway through the film. What’s especially hilarious about this is how it reflects the conclusion many of us would have preferred Cheney’s to have had in American politics; the kind where he never would have become Vice President. But those familiar with American politics and the Bush Administration cannot and should not expect a happy ending here. Cheney left a lot of damage in his wake, and his political power still remains constant even though he no longer holds public office.

Indeed, Dick Cheney is a tough nut to crack as “Vice” can only get so far under his skin to where you wonder if this man has anything resembling a soul to explore. As the film goes on, he is shown increasingly to be a heartless individual, both figuratively and literally speaking (he did have a heart transplant), and he comes across as such a cold human being to where his muted reactions to the multiple heart attacks shouldn’t be seen as much of a surprise. The fact he even noticed he was having them is more surprising.

Where McKay really succeeds is in showing those closest in Cheney’s inner circle, among which is his wife Lynne. Amy Adams gets the opportunity to play a Lady Macbeth-like character much like the one she played in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and she is fantastic from start to finish. Adams makes Lynne into the key motivator for Dick’s ascent into American politics to where she fearlessly campaigns for her husband while he is laid up in the hospital. Lynne recognized she lived in a time where she could not do all the things she wanted because of her gender, and she finds immense satisfaction through her husband’s rise to power. Adams is brilliant in portraying Lynne’s fascination with the political world and in showing her quick concerns when anything threatens Dick’s standing in Washington D.C.

Another great performance comes from Steve Carell as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Carell makes Rumsfeld into a gleefully cynical politician whose values have long since been corrupted by the quest for power. Just watch when Cheney asks him what they are supposed to be believe in. The gut-busting laugh Rumsfeld gives off speaks volumes as it illustrates exactly where his interests lie, and it is not with working class Americans.

As for Sam Rockwell, his portrayal of George W. Bush feels pitch perfect as he portrays a man whom even Cheney can see is more interested in pleasing his father when it comes to running for President. After watching Will Ferrell’s classic impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” and Josh Brolin’s portrayal of him in Oliver Stone’s “W,” it seemed all too difficult for any other actor to offer a unique interpretation of this unfortunate White House resident. Then again, Rockwell proves once again what a brilliant actor he is as he captures George W.’s mannerisms while humanizing this man in a way I did not expect or was ever in a hurry to see.

I was very much entertained by “Vice,” but I did come out of it feeling like it could have dug deeper into Dick Cheney’s life. Also, the nonlinear storytelling format is at times jarring as we are thrust from one moment in history to another with little warning. Then again, in retrospect, I wonder what more could have been said about Cheney as he seems to be this malignant vessel of a human being who is never has the look of someone who could ever be fully satisfied by anything. The only positive thing I saw of him was his acceptance of his daughter Mary’s (played by Alison Pill) sexuality when she comes out as a lesbian. If only Cheney had treated all Americans like they were Mary, things would have been much different than they ended up being. Of course, when his other daughter Liz runs for public office…

One of the last moments of “Vice” has Bale breaking the fourth wall as Cheney where he looks directly into the camera and tells all those listening he is apologizing for who he is or anything he has done. I’m fairly certain Cheney has not made any statement like this on camera in real life, but the speech Bale gives as him rings frighteningly true. Considering how complicit the former Vice-President was in war crimes which included torture and sending American troops into a war based on false evidence, he has a lot to apologize for, let alone answer to. But let’s face it, he’s never going to apologize. Ever. “Vice” has as many funny moments as it does haunting ones, and this speech is especially haunting because, let’s face it, he will die before he ever considers apologizing. Heck, he almost did.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

A Pablove Run in the Midst of Devastating California Wildfires

California wildfire

It has been a terrible week for Southern California. Last Wednesday, a lone gunman carried out a mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, a city I lived in for five years, which left 12 people dead. But as the city mourns a terrible tragedy, it is now being endangered along with a number of surrounding areas by a horrific wildfire which has now left acres upon acres in ashes. The fire has hit close to us as well as Griffith Park is being threatened by the same wildfires to where parts of it have been down, and animals from the LA Zoo had to be evacuated. As a result, us Pablove runners saw our Saturday run cancelled, but we were encouraged to do the run on our own.

This week’s run was five miles for full-marathoners, and two miles for those doing a half marathon. I am still committed to running the full marathon, so five miles it was. After sleeping in for a change, I did my run in my neighborhood which is in the mid-Wilshire area right near Museum Row. I usually do my maintenance runs on 6th Street all the way to San Vicente Boulevard and then turn back, but with this run I decided to take things in a different direction.

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As I stepped outside my apartment, I found it was a warm sunny day in November. Just when I thought the warm weather would finally depart Southern California, I was reminded of how climate change is not a hoax. The sun was bearing down on me as if I were an extra in “Lawrence of Arabia,” and this combined with the inevitability of me running on concrete instead of asphalt made it clear this run would be tougher on my joints than usual. I had my interval timer watch on my wrist, and I was all set to go and determined to be a self-starter. Nothing would stop me… except for the fact I forgot to put on my water belt. I should have known better. There is no excuse for me to go out for a run without bottles filled with grape-flavored generic Pedialyte and water containing electrolytes. Why I initially left my apartment without these necessary tools is something scientists are currently looking into.

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I decided to head down Cochran Avenue towards Washington Boulevard as it would provide me with an uneven course which had hills to run up and down. That’s right, I gave myself hills to run over! In past training seasons, none of my fellow runners ever looked forward to running up any hill put in their path, but hills are part of the Los Angeles Marathon, so we have no business avoiding them.

One thing I was reminded of as I ran the streets of Los Angeles was how we are often greeted with inescapable distractions while running through Griffith Park, Burbank, Glendale and other parts of North Hollywood. There are all those fast food restaurants like Carl’s Jr. which had posters on its windows of the most luscious double cheeseburgers, and they made their fast food meals something you couldn’t wait to sink your teeth into. Of course, once we enter any fast food establishment, we are greeted with a reality we did no ask for as the meals are never as appealing as we imagined. We end up feeling like Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” when he gets his burger and says, “Can anybody tell me what’s wrong with this picture?”

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Instead, I was greeted with such distractions like yard sales where I could buy things for an unbelievably low price, or by signs for “A Bronx Tale” musical which was based on the play by Chaz Palminteri which was in turn adapted into the fabulous motion picture directed by Robert De Niro. None of these things made me hungry, but they informed me of opportunities I just might be missing out on.

Last week, I ran at a pace of 3:1, but this time I ran at a pace of 2:2 after having done so in a maintenance run during the week. Since I came out of that run in one piece, I was confident I would do the same here despite the hot and dry weather. Surprisingly, I did quite well. I owe some thanks to the female voice on the Runkeeper app. When I did my maintenance run, the word she said which stood out most was “steady.” She never said “run,” “light speed” or even “ludicrous speed,” just “steady.” By staying “steady,” I got through this run without ever feeling winded. This training season is clearly getting off to a good start.

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One thing I was reminded of from previous training seasons is how excited dogs would get whenever we ran pass them in residential neighborhoods. It’s as if they were saying, “Hey! Wait up! We wanna run too!” In the neighborhood I live in, there are also plenty of dogs being walked around town or staring at passing humans behind gates or fences, but these ones are a little more territorial. Some were interested in running, but others were far more intent on protecting their owners’ homes. One big dog growled at me to where the “Beware of Dog” sign really wasn’t necessary. Another one came out of nowhere, and I jumped as it barked loudly at me as if to say, “GET OUT OF HERE! THIS IS MY OWNER’S HOUSE! YOU DON’T PAY RENT HERE!” I started to feel like Chevy Chase in “Fletch” when he was chased by that Doberman Pincher, but I did stay steady and didn’t go into warp speed.

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When I got to Washington Boulevard, the sun was bearing down hard but I was determined not to be turned into a human shish kabob. I even dared myself to run on the side of the street which had no shade. When I turned around and ran on the other side, I asked myself why I didn’t appreciate shade enough to run in it. What was I thinking?

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There wasn’t an alert on my phone to tell me I had reached the halfway point, so it occurred to me to take a look at it as I got closer and closer to Fairfax Avenue. When I did, it showed I had already run 2.55 miles. It would have been nice to be informed of this sooner, but anyway. I ran back the same way I came, and this time I kept my distance from the dogs. Regardless, they remembered exactly who I was and didn’t hesitate to bark at me from a distance. Excuse me for existing!

And then there were those yard sales which I did slow down by, thinking there might be a CD or a DVD worth purchasing. But knowing the weather was going to get hotter and the air quality wasn’t getting any better, I just went on by. When I arrived back at my apartment, Runkeeper made it official that I had ran 5.07 miles, and I did it all by my lonesome… Well, last season I did most of the runs by my lonesome, so this isn’t anything new.

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After all these years of marathon training, the one rule I have never forgotten is, when running, to land on the balls of my feet. You never land on the heel as the odds of getting injured will be far greater. This is one of the many reasons why I still get to train for the Los Angeles Marathon, and for the ninth year in a row.

Ben after a run

FUNDRAISING ALERT: Now this may not be the best time to ask for donations as we are all eager to help those suffering from the wildfires wreaking havoc all over California, but if you have any extra change, please consider making a donation to The Pablove Foundation. While millions of dollars are given to cancer research every year, only a very tiny portion goes towards a cure for pediatric cancer. Please click here to learn how you can help.