DocuMondays – What Would Jesus Buy?


What Would Jesus Buy? (2007, dir. Rob VanAlkemade)

Starring Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir
There’s a huge problem going on in America and it is known as the Shopocalypse, can I get a Change-alujah?! This is the message being preached by faux-preacher/political theater activist Reverend Billy Talen. Now, with his Church of Stop Shopping, he is touring the country promoting the idea of thoughtful consumerism, wherein we make choices based on where products were made and their actual usefulness. During this outing, the group traveled from the East Coast to Disney Land over the Christmas Holiday spreading their message.
I loved much of the the concept of this documentary, however, it has a problem I find common in issue films of this nature. It presents the problem very well, and I am on board with that, but it never really offers a strong solution and seems to wander too much. The filmmaker seems unsatisfied with simply focusing on Reverend Billy or actually taking piece of his “sermons” and expanding on them Super Size Me Style. In that film, Morgan Spurlock would take an idea (children’s nutrition, usage of sugar) have his bit relating to it in his experiment and then expand upon it with interview of experts and people suffering from the after effects of a process food product. There are moments that come close to that here, but ultimately fall flat.
The film hits the targets you would expect it to: Wal-Mart, Disney, Starbucks. And the bizarre sermons are quite humorous. What the film needed was a strong grounding in anti-consumption message with statistics. It needed to hit three areas strongly: Pollution, Conditions in Third World Countries, and Long-Term Economic effects of spending. The director grazes these ideas so briefly that he shouldn’t have even bothered. It’s interesting how violent authorities become when Reverend Billy and his crew start talking about people ending their unchecked spending. Before anyone is aware of their message, most people seem confused and bit amused. Once the sermons about not giving into the Want impulses drilled into your brains, the security guards and police show up and become quite rough.
Because of the title, I think the film should have centered on rabid consumption juxtaposed against the teachings of Jesus. Once, he’s mentioned in a very interesting way by a question of when was the only time Jesus became violent. The answer being in the Temple when he saw the money changers and lenders. I found it interesting that I had never contemplated his one act of aggression coming towards others in relation to people seeking to profit off of others and using the religion to do so. What Would Jesus Buy? is an interesting film, but remains constantly on the surface and never tries to breakthrough.
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Maybe Sundays – Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010, dir. Tim Burton)

Starrin Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman
So visionary director Tim Burton takes on the classic surreal children’s tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Johnny Depp at his side as The Mad Hatter. Sounds like a formula for success, right. Well, if this had been 10 years ago, maybe. However, with Burton’s work output in the 21st Century being less than stellar and lot of the visual tricks used here being old hat from previous films, the picture comes off an a utter bore. And I really didn’t want it to be.
Alice Kingsley is a teenaged girl being married off to a disgusting noble. During the engagement party she runs off and comes across a White Rabbit, whom she follows down a mysterious hole. Alice finds herself in Wonderland and the creatures there recognizing her as a prophesied savior. The two monarchs, Red Queen and White Queen and Alice is needed to defeat the evil Jabberwocky and save the day. The film is a mishmash of elements from Lewis Carroll’s two Alice tales and the 1951 Disney animated feature. And it all adds up to an uninteresting mess.
None of the Wonderland characters feel interesting in the least. Yes, they are strange and meticulously designed, but beyond their quirks they lack anything remotely resembling personality. This shouldn’t be a problem in a film based on a novel that really has no character development in the first place, and is merely a series of absurdity philosophical encounters. But, Burton has chosen to make the film a semi-sequel…or is it a reimagining? I couldn’t figure that out how they fit in with the original story. There are hints that this Alice could be the little girl from the story, but then there is a mention of Alice merely being some sort of title.
This is such a huge disappointment, especially with the exceptional cast gathered by Burton. Instead of giving us some new and interesting look at Wonderland, we get it blandly Burton-ized, with the typical spiral patterns and zany color schemes. Its nice decoration, but a great film it does not make. What the film misses are the more interesting goings on of the real world. I found myself paying more attention during the moments where Alice navigates her engagement party and, when she returns from Wonderland, and sets things straight with the people around her. I want to see a movie about THAT Alice!

Seventies Saturdays – Johnny Got His Gun


Johnny Got His Gun (1971, dir. Dalton Trumbo)

Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland
Here we have a film directed by the author of the novel on which is based. This author, Dalton Trumbo was investigated by the FBI as a result of the novel’s publication, and later blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. While blacklisted, he was given his widest recognition as the screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. And it was during the twilight of the Vietnam War he decided to adapt his controversial novel. While on the surface, the film is condemnation of war by how it treats the men on the frontlines, Trumbo is expanding his theme to comment on the fragility of life and man’s right to die with dignity.
Joe Bonham (Bottoms) is introduced as a body under a sheet. He’s not dead, but was shredded by shrapnel from a mortar shell fired on the last day of World War I. The doctors maintain an unrealistically upbeat outlook and have Joe put in a utility room so as not to upset the other wounded men. We learn who Joe is through the meanderings of his consciousness now in this eternally paralyzed state. The horror of Joe’s condition is unfolded to us gradually: first they take his arms, then his legs, ultimately he learns his face has been scooped out. All that exists is a screaming mind in a paralyzed frame.
As Joe tries to make sense of this in his mind, he returns to moments with his late father (Robards) and consults with a Jesus of his own invention (Sutherland). His memories begin as real events in his past and morph into surreal fantasies about his loss. One of the most touching moments of the film comes early on. On Joe’s last night before shipping out, he and his teenaged girlfriend decide to have sex for the first time. This scene is played with such beauty and tenderness. Every nervous movement is captured perfectly, and the scene aches with a bittersweet sense of how these characters are experiencing such great joy, a joy that inevitably will die.
The genius of the film is that it never takes political sides. In essence, it truly supports the troops, because it is all about them. Joe is a child who was sent off by old men who use their children to fight wars. He did his duty and suffered great wounds. And now, with no future besides being a lump of meat locked in a closet, he is denied a basic right to have his life ended. Joe eventually figures out a means of communicating with those around him, only to find his new voice stifled and the realization that the people around Joe, because of their own fears of death, want to simply forget that he ever existed.

Import Fridays – The White Ribbon


The White Ribbon (2009, dir. Michael Haneke)

Cruel parents create cruel children. That is the moral of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon. The object of the title is a device used as part of a technique implemented by the village minister to remind his children of purity. It’s no coincidence that children in a German village, whom will be adults when the rise of the Nazi party occurs, are shown wearing white armbands symbolizing purity. Haneke is not at work to simply tell the story of the psychological birth of the Nazi movement, rather he want to study and dissect what motivates terrorists and those who kill from a nationalist motivation.
In a small northern German village, about a year before World War I begins, a series of premeditated attacks occur. What sets things off is when the village doctor is thrown from his horse as the result of an near invisible wire strung across his property. Authorities find the wire vanishes over night and no one saw anybody tie it up there. The film is very fragmented and jumping from household to household, focusing on the interactions of parents and children. Like most Haneke films, he keeps things very ambiguous. He knows what to state outright and what to hint at.
Someone burns down a barn. A child is murdered. Another child is beaten severely and strung up in the town’s sawmill. I was reminded of Haneke’s 2005 picture, Cache, where the protagonist is presented with a mystery of someone filming the exterior of his flat for hours and hours, then mailing him the tape. Haneke cultivates mystery, presents us with plausible suspects, and then ends the film. A very similar technique is used here, so if you are someone who likes things wrapped neatly, this isn’t a film for you. However, if you enjoy philosophically contemplating the nature of evil and acts of tragedy visited on seemingly normal, undeserving people this is a fascinating picture.
German society at this time lives and dies on hierarchy and adherence to strict religious and moral tenets. In life you serve the land baron and thresh his fields, you go to church, and you never step out of place. So, for such chaotic acts to begin in the village is a cause for the erosion of propriety. As Haneke peers under the roofs of the villagers we quickly see no one submits to this system out of honest belief, they submit because they are beaten into it. What Haneke has done is make a film much less about the specifics of German society and about our own contemporary global culture of cruelty.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Naked


Naked (1993, dir. Mike Leigh)

Starring David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Gregg Crutwell, Claire Skinner
When viewing a Mike Leigh film you typically expect to see a slice of life portrayal of contemporary England. The focus will on the ins and outs of daily life for working class people. However, with this picture, Leigh creates an abrasive, violent, surreal universe which does adhere to the tenets of his standard films: there are no big illuminating answers or moments.
We first see Johnny (Thewlis), the film’s protagonist, in the middle of raping a woman in an alleyway. Hardly a way to endear us the character we’ll be following through the rest of the movie. The woman runs away saying she’s going to get brothers and they will beat Johnny to death. Johnny runs home, grabs a few things, steals a car and heads to London where he imposes himself on old flame Sophie (Sharp). Johnny gets involved with Sophie’s flatmate (Cartlidge), leaves in a huff and encounters a series of strange characters living and working in London. Johnny is paralleled by Jeremy (Crutwell) an utter misogynist and sociopath that gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money.
Director Leigh seems to be using Naked as sandbox in which to play with the audience’s expectations of their characters and the flow of plot in film. There is a palpable trajectory to the film for its first 30 minutes, and then suddenly it veers off into an episodic series of encounters between Johnny and other random characters. The introduction of Jeremy is intentionally confusing and appears to have no bearing on the overall plot of the film. Jeremy’s abusive exploits don’t feature any characters from Johnny’s portion of the film and seem as if they were cut in from another film. When the two plots cross into each other in the last 40 minutes of the film there is no explosive conflict or release of tension.
Naked could easily be seen as an extremely misogynistic film, but that would be selling short. Yes, women are brutalized numerous times throughout the film, Jeremy himself rapes about three women. However, I think Leigh is testing us to see what we will accept from characters in a film. What is the line they cross that makes them intolerable for us? In addition, every single characters is away from home: Johnny is on the run, Sophie is sub-leasing, her friend Sandra (Skinner) is off traveling through Zimbabwe. The moment the film finds its resolution is when all the characters have assembled in Sandra’s flat after she has returned home. It’s in this moment the genre of the film becomes rapid fire and even more absurd. There are elements of farce, romance, drama, and in the end it all falls apart. Johnny ends up even more broken than he had been at the start and where is going is now unknown and inevitably even further into the gutter.

Newbie Wednesday – Mammoth


Mammoth (2009, dir. Lukas Moodysson)

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams, Marife Necesito, Sophie Nyweide, Nathhamonkarn Srinkikornchot
We are constantly alone, even when we’re with the ones we love. And when the decision comes to be away for money, we seem to choose to be away even if it makes us miserable. Swedish director Lukas Moodysson examines these ideas in a very well-acted, but ultimately cold and derivative film. The strongest influences here are the work of Alejandro Innaritu (Babel, Amore Perros) and the 2005 film Crash.
The picture begins with the happy family at play: Leo (Bernal) is a video game designer, Ellen (Williams) is an emergency room doctor specializing in pediatrics, and their daughter, Jackie (Nyweide) is a precocious child caught up in her love of astronomy. Also in their lives is Gloria (Necesito), a live in cook/maid/nanny whom Jackie seems much closer to. Leo leaves for a long business trip in Thailand and Ellen becomes caught up in the tragedy of a stab wound victim brought to her and jealousy of Gloria and her daughter. Gloria is dealing with anxiety of being separated from her own sons back in the Philippines.
Moodysson’s outlook on the world is a bit too simple and feels very predictable. Ellen’s jealousy over Gloria could be seen from the opening frames of the film, and doesn’t really develop in relevant way. The situation with Gloria’s children also comes to a close on a very unsure note, and not in a thought-provokingly ambiguous way, but rather uninspired. The film also makes some bland cross cutting: a pile of elephant dung is followed by Gloria cleaning toilets. These scenes feel more proud of how clever they are than really possessing any real cleverness.
The problem with not creating any sort of metaphors between his ideas and his characters, causes Moodysson to end up moralizing to us in the most patronizing of ways. Much like Crash, a horrific example of patronizing and pretentious cinema, Mammoth slaps us over the head with its message multiple times and then with a barrage in the final scenes. At the end of the day though, the question arises “What is the point?” Yes, I think everyone is aware of the global disparity of wealth and power. The film provides no ideas as to where we go next, which makes it makes of little value.

Wild Card Tuesday – Fish Tank


Fish Tank (2009, dir. Andrea Arnold)

Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Mia is angry at everyone and everything. She headbutts a girl for simply mouthing off to her. She fights constantly with her mother. She’s considered an oddball by the boys. She’s been kicked out of school. This her last chance. Andrea Arnold’s portrait of a 15 year old girl growing up in contemporary Essex, England is an incredibly immersing film. I have to admit, I sat down to watch it less than enthused but found myself completely engrossed in the picture. Arnold’s emphasis on naturalism comes shining through and every frame of the film feels honest and real.
Mia’s world is changed when her mother brings Conner home. Conner is a handsome, charming man who treats Mia and her younger sister with kindness. The four make a nice little family, going out for a drive in the country one day, and Conner and Mia catching a fish together. But there is a palpable tension between Mia and Conner. The film constantly veers from her seeing him as a replacement father but also an object of sex. And for a girl in Mia’s situation, such a confusion would be understandable. There is no single strong male or female influence in the girl’s world, so when one comes along she clings to him for dear life.
There’s a recurring action of Mia’s that is glanced in the first moments of the film and repeated throughout. A ragged emaciated horse stands chained to large boulder in the middle of gravel covered field. Mia climbs a fence and uses a stone to smash at the chain and free the horse. With each attempt she find the action more and more futile. Another action which Mia repeats again and again is when she busts into an abandoned tenement flat and practice hip hop dancing. Music becomes a link between she and Conner and also a possible mode of escape. Where Mia and her family end up is a balanced mix of sadness and hope, and Conner’s role in it all is the most shocking.
The film is all about newcomer Katie Jarvis who, in her film debut, is absolutely amazing. Katie’s personal life is not too different from her character’s. She was a mother at 16 and was discovered while screaming at her boyfriend on the street. The same anger and fire in Mia is all brought to the film by Katie herself. Director Andrea Arnold is also a powerful force, making this world feel completely honest and knowing when and what to show the audience. An amazing achievement in contemporary British cinema.