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TODAY

Friday, December 6

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Airbags

Hey everyone.

It would appear that after a stellar crop of films coming out last week for the holiday weekend, very little is getting released from the major studios this week, probably because nobody has any money left to spend on going to the movies. The one fairly high-profile film coming out this week is the Hayden Christensen/Jessica Alba medical thriller Awake. For some inexplicable reason, the film was not screened for critics. Can't imagine why; it looks like a real winner…ahem. Anyway, there are a few off-the-beaten path offerings sneaking into theaters this weekend that are worth checking out.


What Would Jesus Buy?

Although the director of this riotous documentary about a group of crusading anti-consumerists traveling across the country is Rob VanAlkemade, the name you'll probably focus on is that of the producer of the film, Morgan Spurlock, who solidified his place in doc film history three years ago with the Oscar-nominated piece of genius Super Size Me. It's clear almost immediately that Spurlock's hand is well placed on this film, which blends humor with a hard-hitting message about how corporate retail chains like Wal-Mart and The Disney Store are leading America to what is referred to in the film as the Shopocalypse, a place where people, who can't really afford to, go into earth-shattering levels of debt because their kids demand that year's hot new toy or gaming system. The focal point of the film is a man known as Reverend Billy, a performance artist and activist who takes on the persona of a Times Square street preacher and goes to the centers of consumerism to preach the word. The early days of the Christmas blitz seems the ideal time for this film to come out.

The Rev. Billy's message is a bit unclear at times. Is he targeting the rich, or is he targeting those who should be saving their cash for more worthy expenditures like food and rent? I don't believe for a second he believes that Wal-Mart, Disney, the Mall of America or any other hub of consumer goods is going to stop selling or marketing their wares, so the real object of his attention (often in the form of “exorcisms” of the demons that drive us to spend, spend, spend) is the American people. The addendum to his message appears to be that if you have to spend, buy American-made products. He also loves to expose companies that use foreign sweatshops to produce their goods. One of my favorite sequences follows two teen girls from the mall to their home computer, where they attempt to uncover exactly where their clothes were made. Their discovery is upsetting to us and them. Rev. Billy advocates homemade gifts and simpler celebrations. Although he adopts the persona of a religious figure, there are few religious messages to his work. He travels with gospel singers (collectively known as the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir) that sing humorous parodies of Christmas carols and other spirituals, and puts on monthly shows in the Village in New York City.

What Would Jesus Buy? works when it gives us straightforward information about the high financial and emotional cost of the holiday season. But a little of Rev. Billy goes a long way. You see, he's a bit of a nut, no matter how sincere his message may be. I love when he shows up at the Mall of America or Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters or Disneyland with his choir and makes as much of a fuss as he can before he is arrested or escorted off the property. These are great stunts for the camera, but I'm not sure how many people are getting to hear his message loud and clear.

Still, in those rare moments when the Rev. Billy settles down to talk to his wife or anyone else one-on-one, his work seems to make more sense and his mission statement seems less about the spectacle and more about saving families from going broke. What Would Jesus Buy? is a fascinating profile of a performance artist who has woven an important message into his work, and it's a defiant protest film that comes at a time when American's credit card debt is reaching astronomical proportions. But when you combine these two facets of the film, it seems less than the sum of its parts. Rev. Billy is a true inspiration, but I don't think I'd want to meet him in a mall and get yelled at while I was shopping. Still, this is the perfect slap in the face for those of you who got up at four in the morning to go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my interview with producer Morgan Spurlock, visit http://www.aintitcool.com/node/34894.


It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE!

For those of you who missed the singularly awesome experience of seeing Crispin Hellion Glover's one-man show/movie screening last year when he was out promoting his first feature as a director, What Is It?, you have another chance to bask in his eternal glory. He'll be appearing again at the Music Box Theatre for three shows only (Friday-Sunday, 8pm showings). Check the Music Box's website (www.musicboxtheatre.com) for details about buying tickets and information on Glover's truly entertaining slide show performance and Q&A. But the bonus of this year's visit is a more accessible but no-less-bizarre second feature It Is Fine!, a more narrative tale of a man with cerebral palsy (screenwriter and star Stephen C. Stewart, who has passed away since the film finished production), who turns into a serial killer after being rejected by one too many women.

Less a collection of offensive audio-visual clues than his first film, and more of a psycho-sexual exercise that takes off the kid gloves so often used in films featuring handicapped characters, Glover's work is unlike anything you are likely to ever again see. Stewart's character is sometimes impossible to understand; he is shown naked and having sex (real sex, in some cases) quite a bit, and turning this man into a murderer of beautiful women might be more than many can take. This is the ultimate exploitation film, crossing into territory even the most daring filmmakers have never dreamed of exploring. Sure, there have been mentally and physically handicapped characters in horror films before, but rarely are they played by actual disabled people, and never in this light.

All of this being said, the more appalling characters in It Is Fine! are the people who treat Stewart like dirt, who forget that CP means that only his body is distressed but that his mind is clear and sometimes unforgiving. The film also has a sinister sense of humor and a slightly more polished visual sense than Glover's previous work. For my money, the film works best as an examination of a man who finds it near impossible to express his sexual desires in conventional ways, so he turns to sex followed by killing. It's a staggering thought, but using twisted logic, it also makes some degree of sense. The film will make you uncomfortable; there's honestly no way around that feeling. But it will also make you contemplate, however briefly, the plight and daily frustrations of this man who has a full array of emotions and urges, and no outlet to work them out of his system. This is a bold statement from a filmmaker who wants no part of the cineplex world and lets his mind go to places few do. I wish there were more Crispin Glovers in the world, but having just one is good enough for me.


The Power of Forgiveness

What I thought was going to be a New Age dissertation on the healing power of forgiveness turned out to be a really moving portrayal of many instances throughout recent history and throughout the world where organized forgiveness (which may seem like an oxymoron) for past crimes led to better living conditions and an emotional release for those involved. Director Martin Doblmeier (Bonhoeffer) collects a group of instances in which forgiving the offender(s) becomes the ultimate healing drug. A German delegate goes before a group of Israeli ministers at the behest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel to apologize for the Holocaust; the father of a young man killed in a robbery befriends the grandfather of the killer, and the two go to high schools preaching anti-violence; the relatives of 9/11 victims lobby for a forgiveness garden as part of the reconstruction design in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center; an Amish community in Pennsylvania forgives a gunman who walked into one of their schools and mowed down five schoolgirls. Each story has a different, not always happy ending, but the sense that the world is changing for the better as a result of these small shifts in attitudes is undeniable.

The Power of Forgiveness also looks at the health affects of stored rage and carrying around the need for revenge. What I found fascinating about these case studies is that, with the exception of the Amish, none of these people were particularly religious in their beliefs about forgiveness. They aren't willing to forgive because that's what God or Jesus would do. Instead, they know that in their hearts, if they don't forgive, they will lose a piece of their soul and good nature. There are some who clearly took their time getting to that place, while others felt the need to be forgiving almost immediately. In places like South Africa and Vietnam, hearings based around the concept of confession and forgiveness seem to be working wonders for the people who have lived through such horrible times. Doblmeier doesn't sugarcoat the struggles some of his subjects endure to get to a place where they can forgive, but just knowing these people exist is comforting. He's also not promoting the idea of letting people walk all over you, and you keep turning the other cheek, although he never specifically dives into the bullying aspect of the world that turns children into monsters when they get older. This is a small work of art that may make it easier for those who see it to vent with a little more control and constructive outcome than they were once able to.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Check www.siskelfilmcenter.com for showtimes. Also, director Martin Doblmeier will be on hand for audience discussion at the Saturday screening.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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