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Film Reviews 

Including Jesus Camp and American Hardcore

Wednesday, Sep 27 2006
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AMERICAN HARDCORE The story of American punk rock (1980–1986) isn’t a lot easier to summarize than that of any other major war, but it’s quite a bit funnier, as this belated documentary overview — based on Steven Blush’s like-titled tome — proves in each of its 90 exuberantly irritable minutes. “Normal people did not listen to hardcore, and we liked it that way!” exclaims Articles of Faith’s Vic Bondi, one of the movie’s many hilarious punk raconteurs. Like the three-chords-fast tunes themselves, director Paul Rachman’s montage is a frenzied, propulsive pull from here and there — including not just an astonishing array of milky VHS concert footage (Black Flag in 1981!), but both Ronald Reagan inaugurations, the second of which seems to foretell the end of a movement that Blush and Rachman define as radical. Alas, this is yet another rock doc that keeps critics offscreen at the expense of greater context. But not even Blush could hope to research away the vast sociopolitical mystery by which hardcore, succumbing to some mix of audience agitation, police crackdowns and the anticareerist musicians’ own exhausted self-sabotage (Bad Brains playing reggae?), takes its final stage dive. (Nuart) (Rob Nelson)


BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE The documentary Been Rich All My Life, directed by Heather MacDonald, is rudimentary filmmaking; when the screen isn’t filled with (admittedly fantastic) old sepia photos and film clips from the ’30s and ’40s, it’s basically a point-and-shoot affair whose aesthetics rarely rise above those of your average home movie. None of that matters. Her subjects — former black chorus girls from Harlem’s golden age, when the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater ruled New York nightlife — are utterly captivating. Now in their 80s and 90s, the women are billed as the Silver Belles and are still hoofing it up with style and feistiness. Failing memories and declining bodies are defied by a show-must-go-on mentality that proves to be just one aspect of the fighter spirit that inhabits these women. The film’s goal is twofold — to celebrate the rich history and youthful struggles of these undersung heroines and to honor the women they eventually became. Giving the film its heft are the larger racial and political contexts that are sketched in, as when they tell of traveling south and being denied basic services because of their race, or when they speak of the pay disparities between them and the white Rockettes. That the film fails to delve more deeply into the color biases that dictated who could or could not be a chorus girl (most of these women are so fair skinned they make Lena Horne look like LeVar Burton) is a glaring flaw but one that doesn’t negate the film’s power or charm. (Music Hall) (Ernest Hardy)


THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS The quietly radical The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, from the Philippines, sits beside Ma Vie en Rose as one of those all-too-rare films that handle preadolescent queerness with intelligence and unflinching honesty. It’s also filled with humor of both the understated and laugh-out-loud varieties. The title character are a flamboyantly effeminate 12-year-old boy who cooks, cleans and serves as general homemaker for his family of smalltime crooks — an indulgent father and two loving older brothers who don’t bat an eye at the younger boy’s sky-high flame. They adore him. Things become complicated when Maxi develops a crush on the movie-star handsome, by-the-book new cop on the block. Crush in tow, Maxi sets out to woo the man in blue with the paradoxical awkwardness and confidence of a baby homo flying solely on instinct. All the while, his family’s illegal activities set them on a collision course with the cop. Director  Auraeus Solito’s neorealist style and uneven pacing sometimes short-circuit the fabulousness of Maxi, as when the boy and his fellow young queers stage a fashion show that should shimmer and vibrate, but instead falls flat. Still, this is a lovely film that shrewdly exploits its contradictory thesis: that the young homo protagonist is fiercely loved and unquestioningly accepted by a brood that defines machismo. And Nathan Lopez, armed with a diva’s slinky cat walk and determination, is absolutely fantastic as Maximo. (Regent Showcase) (Ernest Hardy)


EVIL ALIENS Jake West’s enervating horror comedy aims for the high spirits and low production values of any number of canonical shoestring gross-outs. (Peter Jackson’s early films come to mind, mostly because West wants them to.) But for all its tacky depravity and lovingly executed expectorations of karyo-red kroovy, Evil Aliens isn’t much fun. Watching it is like baby-sitting a hyperactive child who has just learned a bunch of naughty words and gestures. Of course, if scatology is your thing, the film will have you from pretty much the first scene, in which West raises (lowers?) the bar for the cinematic representation of alien anal probing. From that inciting bout of extraterrestrial rogering springs our narrative, as a bottom-feeding tabloid-TV host (Emily Booth) gets a hot tip about a UFO sighting in Wales and assembles a crew to investigate. Once there, they’re assailed by ugly, inbred Welsh and, of course, the titular critters, who do not, as one can easily predict, come in peace. West’s direction might kindly be termed exuberant, although clumsy is more accurate, as he alternates between unflattering close-ups of the badly overcranked performers and mismatched establishing shots (day apparently turns to night and back again very quickly in Wales). The larger problem is tone: West seems to mistake smugness for genre savvy, and his aggressive, arm-punching brand of pandering quickly grows tiresome, and then unbearable. Evil Aliens is eager to offend, and it does, but not in the way West intends. The film is so pleased with itself that an audience seems unnecessary. (Playhouse 7; Sunset 5) (Adam Nayman)


THE GUARDIAN See film feature. (Citywide)


A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS See film feature. (Selected Theaters)


JESUS CAMP God is in the details, no matter what you believe, but this red-state-baiting doc is content to introduce its appalled exposé of evangelical Christian youth culture with shots of a fast-food- and flag-lined highway and the words “Missouri, USA.” Welcome to hell, kids. Art-house horror has rarely been scarier than it is in the hands of filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, for whom a drive-through car wash illustrates the evils of American cleansing. Missouri — yikes! — is also the home of Pentecostal minister Becky Fischer, a supersize general in the army of the Lord who commands young attendees of her Kids on Fire camp to worship a cardboard Dubya, clutch tiny fetus dolls and sing along to spiritual hip-hop (“kickin’ it for Christ,” y’all). The doc these kids would make with flea-market camcorders couldn’t possibly be as ugly as this absurdly hypocritical critique of the far right’s role in escalating the culture war. The classier indoctrination to which Gap-shopping urban Democrats subject their kids might look damn spooky too, but it probably wouldn’t sell. (Sunset 5; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Rob Nelson)


KEEPING MUM Exactly the sort of coy, patronizing pap you imagine actors like Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith take merely to pay debts or mortgages, Keeping Mum involves a country vicar (Rowan Atkinson), his sexually frustrated wife (Thomas, pining for Atkinson’s attention) and a dotty busybody maid (Smith) who seems to solve the family’s various problems with just a twinkle of her watery eye. If the exquisite, heather-thatch-and-old-churchyard village ambiance doesn’t assail your blood sugar, Dickon Hinchliffe’s nonstop, abusively rosy-cheeked soundtrack will. (It seems perpetually on the verge of bursting into “Que Sera, Sera.”) But — and this is where I imagine Richard Russo’s original story comes in — we know, thanks to an opening flashback, that Smith’s coot is actually a quiet, sociopathic husband killer, and the bodies begin to primly drop. (One of them, thank Christ, is Patrick Swayze, as a seductive-lech golf pro jeopardizing the family’s struggling equilibrium.) Obvious, simplistic and never funny, director Niall Johnson’s movie may be useful only as real estate porn: Cornwall and the Isle of Man never looked so supercute. (Selected theaters) (Michael Atkinson)


 KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST The knowledge that the glories of Europe are steeped in the blood of African and Latin peoples is so old as to have drifted into vagueness — unfortunately, before ever being fully considered. What continues to shock, and what is still either uncharted or underacknowledged, is the depth of the savagery inflicted on those whose lands and lives were colonized. Writer-director Pippa Scott’s towering, exhaustively researched new documentary, King Leopold’s Ghost, joins Peter Bates’ fantastic 2004 documentary, Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, as a much-needed corrective. It shines an unwavering light on the horrors inflicted on the Congolese lands and peoples by King Leopold II as he schemed to make Belgium a rich and powerful contender on the European stage. When Leopold set claim to what he named the Congo Free State (stitched together from lands swindled from more than 300 separate villages into an area three times the size of Texas), he did so through policies of rape, murder and mutilation. (The sequence in Scott’s film detailing the practice of lopping off the right hands of African workers — including children and elders — who didn’t meet their quotas is especially stomach-turning.) He also set the template for the way business is conducted in Africa today. King Leopold’s Ghost is an often infuriating (and excruciating) film to watch, but one that gets to the root of the despair that now plagues so much of the African continent. (Mann Chinese 6) (Ernest Hardy)


THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND See film feature. (ArcLight, Nuwilshire)


OPEN SEASON A pleasantly restrained Martin Lawrence voices the likable grizzly-bear hero of this computer-generated feature. Raised by a ranger, he’s lost when exiled to the woods, thanks to a wild-eyed mule deer (Ashton Kutcher, channeling Donkey from Shrek). As is usual in computer animation, the film’s look is overbright, its green world appearing as natural as supermarket produce under fluorescents. Directors Roger Allers and Jill Culton don’t trust their material in the two big comic sequences, a sugar-fueled rampage in a convenience store, and a flood, and cut them too quickly for all the jokes to register. On the plus side, Open Season enjoys a clear narrative, real rooting interest and good interspecies rapport. On the downside, there’s a surfeit of cruel bunny-rabbit gags. The film ends with a goggle-eyed rabbit being thrown right into the camera. Are we watching a Shrek knockoff, or Fatal Attraction? (Citywide) (Gregg Rickman)


SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS Jon Heder as the bumbling wimp; Billy Bob Thornton as the bullying sleazeball; Jacinda Barrett as the pretty but attainable love interest; Sarah Silverman as the bitchy roommate — School for Scoundrels is nothing if not formulaic. (There’s even the de rigueur Frat Pack cameo by Ben Stiller.) Sad-sack parking cop Heder enrolls in Thornton’s anti-self-help academy (“If you’re helping yourself,” he instructs his pupils, “it means you’re being helped by a complete asshole”) and learns valuable lessons about lobster liberation, the use of Mace in enclosed spaces, and the considerable hazards of playing paintball with Michael Clarke Duncan. This crass remake of the 1960 Robert Hamer film is kept alive for a while by director Todd Phillips (Old School), but ultimately succumbs to its weak script and hopeless typecasting. Thornton was apparently unaware that the purpose of plastic surgery is not to make one resemble plastic. And while the supporting players are a pleasure — especially backup doofuses David Cross and Todd Louiso — Heder should probably have been among them. Though Napoleon Dynamite convinced Hollywood that he was a big-league talent, Scoundrels offers further evidence that he’s better as a bench warmer. The whinging-and-wheezing shtick tires quickly, and his supposed transformation from dud to stud is sorely undermined by the fact that at the conclusion, he’s still, well, Jon Heder. A school that could turn this spastic wonder into a plausible leading man — now that would be something to see. (Citywide) (Christopher Orr)

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