Archive for December, 2006

Jesus Camp

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Documentary filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have created an interesting product in “Jesus Camp,” a movie focused on very young Christian charismatic evangelicals and the one-sided worldview that drives their passionate belief in an inevitably politicized brand of religion.  The directors always do their best to maintain fairness and balance in the telling, but the often incendiary arguments constructed by the movie’s subjects have a way of unnerving mainstream audience members who don’t buy “intelligent design” and aren’t ready to condemn Harry Potter to the stake.

Following a handful of devout children to Becky Fischer’s Devils Lake, North Dakota “Kids on Fire” camp and other places, the filmmakers mostly stand back and allow the voices of their subjects to provide the commentary.  The contrary view is provided by Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, a self-described Christian who at one point engages Fischer in conversation on his program.  Papantonio’s segments are dwarfed, however, by the amount of time the movie spends with Fischer, a pastor well-practiced in the art of staying on message.  Viewers will be hard pressed to catch Fischer offering her young charges anything resembling legitimate choice, as that would allow too much room for possible dissent.

The three kids featured in the movie are by any account well-behaved, well-spoken, and well-mannered.  Levi, whose awful mullet is surely a sin against fashionistas, wants desperately to be a preacher.  Tory loves Christian heavy metal music, but occasionally worries that she might be dancing “for the flesh.”  Little Rachael approaches strangers, Chick tracts in hand, asking them in an impossibly chipper voice whether they’ve considered where they will be spending eternity.  All three of the kids, as well as Fischer, are mostly likable, which cannot be said for oily Reverend Ted Haggard, who appears in a scene.  Shot prior to the sex and drugs scandal that toppled him from his position as the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard interacts with Levi, and his demeanor in the movie is standoffish, smug, and sarcastic.  In light of Haggard’s recent newsworthiness, his presence in the documentary adds a new, if unintended, dimension to the film.

One of the most remarkable aspects of “Jesus Camp” is the sheer volume of guilt Fischer heaps on the shoulders of her tiny charges.  Unquestionably, Fischer preaches with deep and abiding conviction that what she does helps and doesn’t harm, but the number of times shame is invoked as a teaching tool has a tendency to overshadow the values of love and compassion – which are eerily absent during the intense sessions that conjure up visions of a scarily personified Satan and all the temptations he offers.

Grady and Ewing clearly choose to withhold their point of view (though one can argue that it is implied), and that position of neutrality hampers some of the impact that the movie might have otherwise made.  By remaining focused only on the chosen subjects, information regarding the history of the evangelical movement is absent.  The result is a lack of context that doesn’t clearly offer viewers much beyond a colorful portrait of some unique people.  To its credit, however, “Jesus Camp” manages to appeal to viewers on opposite ends of the political spectrum (for obviously different reasons), and the conversation it generates makes it very much worth seeing.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/27/06. 

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Monday, December 18th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Potter Stewart is largely known for initially claiming of hard-core porn that “I know it when I see it,” a line that concludes “…and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Another of the justice’s best known statements is “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” This idea courses through veteran documentarian Kirby Dick’s “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” a sharp and irreverent examination of the arcane practices of the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie ratings board. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is required viewing for movie buffs and people interested in free speech issues.

Dick sets the scene by explaining, through vibrantly creative animation, the MPAA ratings from G to NC-17. While the ratings themselves are familiar to most American moviegoers, the process by which they are decided remains shrouded in clandestine obscurity that has frustrated hundreds of moviemakers and thousands of viewers. Launched in 1968 by the major Hollywood studios, the ratings board was for decades the province of Jack Valenti, a slick politico cast as the movie’s grinning villain. Dick spares no opportunity to skewer Valenti’s inconsistencies and distortions regarding the role of the board, and numerous interview clips allow Valenti ample opportunity to make himself look like a boob.

Dick focuses on theatrical exhibition as opposed to the DVD market, which means that the movie never gets around to discussing the impact of the ratings system once films are released on home video. Generalities are given regarding Europe’s inversion of the sex-violence equation, but Dick is essentially silent on government censorship in countries beyond the United States. A majority of the filmmaker’s arguments, however, are on the money. The MPAA clearly privileges heterosexuality over homosexuality, and one of the most disturbing segments of the movie provides substantive visual evidence that female pleasure is verboten while violence against women is condoned.

Dick includes interviews with a number of filmmakers whose work has been punished by the MPAA. Matt Stone discusses the puppet sex of “Team America: World Police,” Kimberly Peirce articulates her frustration regarding the handling of “Boys Don’t Cry,” and John Waters, with characteristic humor and aplomb, notes with trepidation that “A Dirty Shame” couldn’t even discuss certain aspects of sexuality, let alone show them. All of the above moviemakers dealt with the consequences of an initial NC-17 rating, a commercial kiss of death that is particularly vexing to moviemakers whose work is intended for adult audiences.

Because the people who work as raters do so anonymously, Dick hires a private eye to out them, and the results are a mixed bag. Significant sections of the movie are devoted to a kind of lowbrow investigative journalism complete with stakeouts, spy cameras, car pursuits, and garbage digging. While the energies spent on this thread connect later with Dick’s own appeal process once “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” has been branded with an NC-17, the movie would have more wisely utilized this time to cover possible ways in which the ratings system could be improved. Despite these shortcomings, however, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is thought provoking fare.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/18/06.


Monday, December 11th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

With “Apocalypto,” Mel Gibson continues to earn his well-deserved reputation as one of Hollywood’s most consistent purveyors of sadism and gore in the name of heroism.  A mostly cornball hodgepodge of obviously telegraphed movie clichés, “Apocalypto” clearly prizes drama over historical accuracy, despite the retainer of academic experts to lend a false sense of “authenticity” to the proceedings.  Period movies rarely bother much with the details.  After all, the play’s the thing.  Gibson’s thesis, however, manages to be both woeful and wrongheaded.  “Apocalypto” positively reeks with the underlying notion that decadent cultures are doomed to destruction.  It would be unfair to spoil the film’s ludicrous ending, but visitors familiar with Gibson’s oeuvre will smell it from quite a distance.

Set sometime during the Classic period of Maya history prior to the arrival of the Spanish, “Apocalypto” revels in the depiction of brutal violence as a Maya village is destroyed by a raiding party of native bounty hunters rounding up future human sacrifices.  Central character Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) manages to hide his pregnant wife and small son in a rocky well prior to his own capture, vowing that he will return.  A forced march to a teeming city center comes with all sorts of despair and torment, especially at the hands of nasty Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), Jaguar Paw’s cruel tormentor.

Along with co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia, Gibson imagines a Maya city as a chaotic hell on earth where people are bought and sold, hundreds of workers are forced into labor, and priests make gruesome offerings of young men whose hearts and heads are separated from their bodies.  The means by which Jaguar Paw is spared from the sacrificial altar is as preposterously illogical as it is visually stimulating.  The second half of the movie is largely concerned with Jaguar Paw’s desperate race back home, enlivened by the excitement of a band of deadly pursuers led by the ferocious Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo).

Gibson alludes to a handful of possible reasons for the collapse of the Maya, including agricultural failure, disease, and clueless leadership.  In one scene that should have been excised, a little girl prophesies a laundry list of horrors, basically giving away the rest of the film’s action.  Gibson typically plays to the lowest common denominator, and the second half of “Apocalypto” is bursting with ridiculously over the top ham-handedness, especially in its dealings with Jaguar Paw’s wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) as she goes into labor.

Gibson himself has suggested that the movie is designed to offer allegorical suggestions about the moral flaws of modern society and its politics, but does making a movie so attuned to the spectacle of bloodletting simply add to the list of what’s wrong with us?  Gibson completely ignores the technological and scientific achievements of the Maya in order to focus exclusively on a heightened sense of the dominating culture’s view that indigenous people are subhuman savages in need of spiritual rescue.  Gibson is all too eager to reinforce the long held stereotypes of colonialist philosophy, and “Apocalypto” is weaker for it.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/11/06. 

For Your Consideration

Monday, December 4th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Christopher Guest fans may feel the need to revisit their “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show” DVDs after viewing “For Your Consideration,” a largely disappointing outing from the talented director.  Working from the premise that the possibility of peer recognition in the form of an otherwise meaningless award can cast a powerful spell on anyone in show business, the movie musters few laughs in the course of its predictable and familiar trajectory.  Without the more leisurely takes that delivered the goods in the director’s previous mockumentaries, “For Your Consideration” never quite nails the all too easy target provided by Hollywood vanity.

Essentially eschewing the mockumentary style of “Guffman” for a more straightforward narrative, Guest nevertheless employs a number of expected machinations.  The large cast, peopled by the familiar workhorses of Guest’s roster, includes Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer, and Parker Posey in plum roles while other vets, like Jane Lynch, Eugene Levy, and Michael McKean take smaller parts.  The gang’s all here, but with few exceptions, the magic is in very short supply.  Only Fred Willard, in a ghastly Ryan Seacrest inspired faux-hawk hairdo, and Jennifer Coolidge, as a clueless producer, manage to find something special in their characters, albeit fleetingly.

Fans of this troupe, including myself, feel a tremendous amount of goodwill for all the laughs previously provided, which makes the realization that “For Your Consideration” has nothing to offer in terms of characterization sting something fierce.  The losers of this piece bear little resemblance to the losers of Guest’s other, better films.  They utterly lack the underlying layers of warmth and humanity that defined the personalities in the earlier movies.  Instead, the talented cast is relegated to playing tired stereotypes and caricatures that would seem passé on even the most poorly crafted SNL sketch.

There is no doubt that “For Your Consideration” would have made a much better film had Guest and co-writer Levy constructed something gutsier than the movie-within-the-movie “Home for Purim,” a bland, melodramatic period family drama with O’Hara as a terminally ill matriarch and Posey as her prodigal, lesbian daughter.  The humor generated by “Home for Purim” is toothless and creaky, light-years from the brilliance of “Guffman’s” “Red, White and Blaine” or the short movie confections included in the director’s feature debut, the much sharper Hollywood satire “The Big Picture.”

Given its wretched, overwrought phoniness, it is impossible to believe that “Home for Purim” would receive any kind of Oscar buzz, which seriously dilutes the punch that might have otherwise been delivered in the final act.  O’Hara’s grotesque transformation into a collagen and Botox-injected horror earns a single laugh for how closely it resembles the poor choices of any number of desperate celebrities, but had Guest and Levy written their primary character as something other than an off-the-radar nobody, audiences might have been willing to suspend disbelief.  Where “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind” are narrowly focused and bracingly deep, “For Your Consideration” is broad and shallow, kind of like a puddle.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/4/06.