Films

Published on July 4th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck

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Jesus Camp + Four Minutes + Knocked Up + Shrek the Third

JESUS CAMPin limited release, ACMI Cinemas

Deep in America’s heartland, religious extremists are rallying an army. Home-schooled, Bible-besotted and blindly fundamentalist, the children of the Christian Right are being trained as soldiers for the cause, rigorous Evangelists whose sole purpose in life is to take back America in the name of Jesus Christ.

Becky Fischer is not an irrational woman, at least not within the context of her faith. A children’s pastor, and the director of the Kids On Fire Summer Camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, Becky is a passionate and thoughtful communicator who has an obvious love for the children she teaches. Warm and engaging, she believes that her charges are blessed because they have been born-again, and she speaks of them with great pride and hope.

Becky Fischer is not some cookie-cutter monstrosity, but she certainly is a monster. Under her tutelage, young minds are broken and reformed as militant fanatics. In a firm but understanding voice, she denounces her children for their secret sins and their lukewarm faith and encourages them to beg for forgiveness, to drive the devil out of their hearts. In the meeting hall of a backwater country camp, small children shake with violent tears; screaming, sobbing and speaking in tongues; seeming terrified, possessed and inspired all at once. They pray over a life-sized image of George Bush and ask their god to end the separation of Church and State. They tape up their mouths to share the silence of aborted babies. They clap and sing and reach their arms out in devotional orgy. They are five, seven, twelve years old, and they are utterly brain-washed.

They are also lucid, well-spoken and bright. Levi, Rachel and Tory are charming, well-behaved kids who speak enthusiastically about their call to god. At thirteen, Levi is already an Evangelical leader, preaching to the camp kids about their grand role in America’s future. His conviction is as sweet as it is chilling.

The real strength of Jesus Camp is that it is the ultimate Ambiguous Figure – the stuff of nightmares for the atheist liberal and the simple truth for the Christian fundamentalist. We watch with voyeuristic horror as young children are manipulated and abused; they watch with pride as their message is articulated by “Average Americans” and cute-looking kids. For the initiated, there can be no doubt that the documentarians that made this film (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing) are dyed-in-the-wool left wing intellectuals. The secret codes of their supposedly ‘objective’ style expose them, as does their audience (how many Christian fundamentalists check out the latest documentary fare from Sundance, you have to wonder), but there is enough leg-room in the film for the subjects themselves to be convinced that they came off well. How did the filmmakers gain their trust? And what does Becky Fischer see where we see a monster? Raising more questions than it answers, Jesus Camp is a complicated film – but an exceptionally fascinating one.

–Simone Ubaldi

Her identical twin Barbara had a strange knack of appearing whenever she looked in the mirror.

Her identical twin Barbara had a strange knack of appearing whenever she looked in the mirror.

FOUR MINUTESin limited release

“I think you are despicable…but you have a gift”, says elderly piano teacher, Traude Kruger, to Jenny, a convicted murderer incarcerated in a German prison. This sets the tone for Four Minutes, a film that revels in its own hardness of heart and curls its lip at rehabilitation-through-art cliches.

Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung) is serving a sentence for a gruesome murder. Her combustible temperament and propensity for violence is on full display in her first meeting with Frau Kruger (Monica Bleibtreu), but so too is her extraordinary gift for the piano.

At length, the sources of Jenny’s volcanic rage are explained. But Frau Kruger shows little sympathy for her student’s circumstances. Dessicated by age and disappointment, Kruger lives only for music. She’s a racist (forbidding Jenny from playing “Negro” music), a stickler for antique courtesies, and more than a little cruel: when Jenny sends her a letter requesting piano lessons, she won’t agree until Jenny eats the letter. (Dead Poets’ Society this ain’t.)

This is the bracing thing about Four Minutes – its unbending depiction of its protagonists. It’s brave of writer-director Chris Kraus to people his story with characters this unsympathetic. Neither Jenny nor Frau Kruger are likable, nor meant to be. Even when the film outlines their back stories, it’s cool explication and not a plea for love.

The film flounders a little when it turns to WWII flashbacks of Frau Kruger’s lesbian love for Hannah, a woman brutally executed by the Nazis in the very prison in which Kruger now teaches piano. Plainly this backstory is significant, yet it’s oddly unilluminating – it’s unclear whether Kruger’s relationship to Jenny is meant to be a redemption or a repetition, or something else entirely.

In all other areas, Kraus proves a dab hand with characterisation, deftly sketching miniatures of disillusion, embitterment, and rage. He’s ably assisted by a terrific cast and cinematographer Judith Kaufmann, who makes great use of the forbidding light and surfaces of the prison.

Four Minutes is an accomplished but sometimes unlikable film. Its portrait of one character’s simmering rage and another’s guilt, bitterness, and unfulfilled love is intriguingly uncompromising. The fact that it’s unlarded with icky Spielbergian sentiment fortifies Four Minutes, which repeatedly defies the expectations of audiences schooled in the feelgood formula of a teacher rescuing a troubled student.

–Hans Fruck

Gestation, he suddenly realised, wouldn't be as much fun as conception.

Gestation, he suddenly realised, wouldn’t be as much fun as conception.

KNOCKED UPin general release

It is possible that devotees of Judd Apatow’s unusual teen soap Freaks and Geeks were disappointed with the West Coast comedy director’s feature debut, The 40 Year Old Virgin. The lowest common denominator stylings of that particular foray into male bonding and inter-sexual politics gave us no sense of the sly wit and great heart that Judd’s cinema career had promised. It was just another post-SNL excursion in bad taste, which dominated the US box office thanks to the widespread yuckle factor of American cinema audiences. Many people liked it. But then, many people are idiots.

Knocked Up is an entirely different beast, worth a fast and furious shout of encouragement to those of you who are immediately turned-off by the Virgin connection. This is the movie Judd Apatow was supposed to make post-Freaks and Geeks. This is hilarious.

Apatow brought half of the Virgin family across to his second feature, including the lovable Seth Rogan, who moves from gang member to leading goofball in Knocked Up. Seth plays Ben Stone, a dedicated loser who is locked in the perpetual stasis of a stoner share-house. At a club, in a pleasantly pedestrian collision of booze and bonhomie, our unlikely hero scores a one night stand with the lovely Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl, Gray’s Anatomy), who is celebrating a promotion in the world of entertainment journalism. All’s well that ends awkwardly, or so thinks the polished princess and her directionless dumbo lover, but we know better. We’ve seen the title.

Dodging swiftly around the “A” bomb, Alison and Ben try to make lemonade out of their lemons. Not satisfied with a co-parenting arrangement, these erstwhile strangers are determined to give romance a red hot go, no matter what personality traits, lifestyle choices and personal hygiene practices stand between them.

Besides the gentle, earthy charm of the two leads, Apatow has assembled a note-perfect supporting cast to tease out the themes of gender politics and adult responsibility. In Ben’s cheer squad for eternal youth are various bit players from past Apatow projects including the wacky and wiry innocence of Jay Baruchel and the debonair deadbeat airs of Jason Segel (both from Freaks and Geeks). In Alison’s camp, we have Leslie Mann (The Cable Guy) playing the disillusioned sister and Paul Rudd (Clueless) as her bewildered husband. Mann and Apatow’s actual daughters play the on-screen married couple’s kids, with surprisingly hysterical results.

The film has such a sweet heart that the few moments of suspect sexual politics (Rudd’s face buried in the behind of a Vegas stripper is something I didn’t need to see) fall comfortably in the arena of showing men as real men, wart’s and all. Ben and Alison have an authentic, understated chemistry and the comedy is always smart, playful and wickedly realistic. Knocked Up is a genuinely touching film, but this is merely icing on the cake – you’ll be laughing long after it ends.

–Simone Ubaldi

Five minutes in makeup and Zellweger was ready for her closeup.

Five minutes in makeup and Zellweger was ready for her closeup.

SHREK THE THIRDin general release

The big green ogre is back and brighter than ever. The second installment of the beloved Shrek series, based on William Steig’s 1990 fairytale picture book, was a lesser film than the first (although by no means disappointing) but Shrek the Third has outshone both of its predecessors; big on laughs for big and little people and never a dull moment.

When we meet our chunky monster mates again, Shrek (Mike Meyers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) have been made caretaker king and queen while Fiona’s froggy father lies dying (quite spectacularly). When King Harold (John Cleese) tells Shrek that he is next in line for the throne (amidst a torrent of spluttering and several false ends), our grumpy hero starts to look for a quick route back to his beloved swamp. There is another who would be king, but Distant Cousin Artie (Justin Timberlake) is away at Ye Olde Highschool, and Shrek will have to fetch him back to Far Far Away if he wants out of his royal obligations. Donkey (the ever-fabulous Eddie Murphy) and Puss (the criminally underrated Antonio Banderas) set off with their hulking friend on the mission, leaving Fiona and a tribe of fairytale princesses to defend the kingdom against the evil plot of a spurned Prince Charming. Meanwhile, a storm of tiny green babies is brewing off the horizon.

Unapologetic in its adult references and astoundingly clever in its childish appeal, Shrek the Third doesn’t so much walk the line as pull both grown-ups and rug rats into a big green bear hug. While the story itself is fun (and reasonably gung-ho on female empowerment), it’s the odd flares in scene-setting and storytelling that make the film so unexpectedly hilarious. The coterie of pop hits is back, and often bravely used (Live and Let Die is the king’s funeral soundtrack, would you believe) and the sly stabs at Hollywood-style celebrity make another appearance, but we are also treated to a raft of absurd scenes, including Shrek’s disturbing nightmare of fatherhood and the legalese defense of a deceptive Pinocchio, that surprise and delight. The ensemble cast (including Eric Idle, Rupert Everett and Julie Andrews) is note perfect, falling over each other in their race for the biggest laugh, but Eddie Murphy, as ever, steals the show. Awesome.

–Simone Ubaldi


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