Sunday, October 05, 2008

Film Review - RELIGULOUS: Sinfully Brilliant!

"Tell me I'm a sinner I've got news for you/I spoke to God this morning and he doesn't like you!"
-Ozzy Osbourne,
"I Don't Want To Change the World"

This song lyric ran through my head a couple times during Religulous, the stunning new documentary from Borat director Larry Charles, as I watched the film’s writer/narrator/interviewer Bill Maher, formerly of Politically Incorrect, impishly journey through the inner-most sanctums of organized religion and spirituality. There’s an infectious coiled energy that permeates from the diminutive outlaw comedian’s illusionary facade of laid-back cool, and this devilish fearlessness makes him the ideal master of ceremonies for Religulous, a film that has proven, predictably, to be a firebrand for controversy over the last couple of months.

Opening the film standing on the site of Megiddo, the Christian prophesied site of Armageddon, Maher states his thesis immediately: that religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity. There’s a jolt that comes with hearing a statement such as this spoken aloud as we’ve been socialized in North America to practice a sense of hesitant respectfulness when discussing religion. It’s a private matter, best discussed among family and members of your spiritual community. This, to paraphrase Maher, is bull-pucky.

Maher, a lapsed Catholic whose beliefs fall on the agnostic side of the spectrum, isn’t comfortable with current political structure of his country, much less the world, where the fate of the globe rests in the hands of individuals who are more concerned with the next world than this one (a clip of George Dubya citing his Christian beliefs as being vital in forming America’s foreign policy is particularly troubling). He’s annoyed by the hypocrisies, prejudices and manipulations that are perpetrated by misguided members of the religious right. But most of all, Maher is just plain tired of people being unwilling to admit that “they just don’t know”.

So, we follow him as he journeys the world in search of answers. He talks to a gold-bedecked evangelical preacher who attempts to use Bible quotes to defend his right to wear expensive lizard-skin shoes. There’s a hilarious meet-and-greet with summer-time tourists at Holy Land, a Florida-based Christian theme park (Check out their website at and be awestruck at the wondrous depths of crass commercialism), where an actor playing Jesus catches Maher off-guard with a uniquely astute religious analogy. And in the final section of the film, our Host with the Most asks some very pointed questions inside a Jerusalem-set Islamic temple.

This is very uncomfortable territory for many, and Maher and Charles are very aware of this fact, so they’ve used their years of comedy-writing experience to mould Religulous into a comical odyssey, packed with tightly-edited beats and amusing inserted film footage and subtitles. Their attention to the golden rules of comedy story-telling has allowed the duo to create one of the funniest films of the year, a veritable playground of wit and ideas which results in a memorable and absorbing film-going experience.

Now, there’s no doubt that your own personal beliefs are going to weigh heavily on the movie-going experience that Religulous provides. Many will have a hard time dealing with the giddy cheap-shots that Maher is inclined to make (though usually in the service of a larger point). I think what makes it a worthwhile, even important, film to see is how Maher uses the film, not as a tool for vindictive intolerance, but rather for probing curiosity. He’s fascinated by religion, not afraid to lay bare his frustrations with its practices and dogma, and yearns for rational thought to find its place above personal ideology for the sake of humanity’s future.

It must be said, I suspect that the film’s latter sections will lose some viewers. Maher’s exploration into the Islamic religion doesn’t have the care-free humorousness that the sections on Mormonism, Scientology and Christianity do, but it’s an appropriate choice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, due to the more serious and sensitive current political nature of the topic, and alternately, this transition better eases into the culmination of the film: a dazzling crescendo of imagery and gospel music, wherein Maher provides an impassioned call-to-arms for “non-believers” to speak up and make their minority voices recognized, as well as an appeal for people to recognize man’s propensity for just plain screwing up a lot.

Religulous will likely be more willingly embraced by the academic (read: liberal) crowd, who will appreciate the incisiveness and lack of pandering on display. Maher and Charles have made a truly great film that will entertain the many. But I think the real strength of the film lies in the fact that once the laugher dies down, intelligent discussion and debate is likely to ensue. And there’s nothing “religulous” about that.

4.5 out of 5

*Originally published in SFU's The Peak: Oct. 6th, 2008.

Film Review - EAGLE EYE: Blindingly Stupid.

His name is LaBeouf. Learn it well. For his is the glorious face of the future of the cinematic art form!

...Or at least that’s what those thunderous voices emanating from the Titans of Tinseltown have been bellowing for the last few years, as the ever-encroaching spectre of Shia LaBeouf slowly began infiltrating the tranquility of our daily lives. From the moment he was cast in Walt Disney’s Holes (Has there ever been a dirtier sounding family film?), the buzz has been deafening, and the back-to-back-to-back hits Disturbia, Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were likened to triumphant blasts, heralding the arrival of an unstoppable box-office juggernaut. So how does one follow up two bazillion-grossing extra-terrestrial themed blockbusters? You make a paranoid suspense flick dealing with governmental surveillance, of course! (Hey, it worked for Big Willie, right?)

Which brings us to Eagle Eye, a head-slappingly absurd cyber-thriller, which pairs LaBeouf’s Jerry, a Copy Cabana-employed ne’er-do-well, with pretty single mother Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), and sets them on the run from their own government (handily personified by terse FBI man Billy Bob Thornton and gutsy Air Force investigator Rosario Dawson). The duo must obey an ominous female voice on a telephone (Julianne Moore in a wisely uncredited vocal cameo), who can see them anywhere, anytime, and who threatens their personal safety if they do not comply with her often bizarre demands. Should I also mention that amidst these energetic events a controversy swirls around a presidential decision to attack an Afghani desert funeral that may have been attended by a bin Laden-like terrorist? Could the two events possibly be related?

Now fine, the set-up for Eagle Eye is actually promising, and LaBeouf has a nicely shifty personality (though bad teenage facial hair was a questionable choice), all off-beat gesticulating and rapid-fire speech patterns, that’s fun to see plugged in to something this generic. He’s a bit like ‘Ratso’ Rizzo’s suburban nephew. But he’s badly sidelined at the beginning of the second act when the script takes a laughable turn. Before proceeding, I’d recommend anyone who yearns to experience Eagle Eye unsullied skip the next paragraph. Hark, light spoilers be on the horizon!

It turns out that the mysterious “voice” is Project Eagle Eye: a rogue governmental computer dubbed ARIA, which is modelled so closely to 2001’s HAL 9000 that I hope Stanley Kubrick’s estate is getting royalties. It has decided that the United States government is in a critical state of disarray and in need of intervention (Oh, how I wish they’d cast Michael Moore as the ARIA’s voice...). So, its plan is to stage the most overly-complex, silly scheme against the powers that be as inhumanly possible. It goes without saying that ARIA can control every single mechanical thing in the free-world: cranes, electrical conductors, iPhones and even, in a shameless plug, the Circuit City home-entertainment department. The sheer stupidity of ARIA's decisions had me pondering whether it had a virus protection program installed. Those trojan-droppers can be a bitch!

Director D.J. Caruso, who helmed Disturbia, tries to ground all this nonsense by attempting to shoot the picture like a half-witted homage to seventies’ cinema. He has the gritty filters down, but his action beats are flat out embarrassing. The film’s first intended show-stopper, a rapid-fire chase through downtown D.C., has apparently been shot and edited by a blind epileptic, while the second, featuring a self-flying attack plane, is a second-rate rip-off of Stealth and Live Free or Die Hard. I don’t even want to describe Caruso’s The Man Who Knew Too Much-lifted climax for fear of being haunted by Hitchcock’s ornery ghost.

Perhaps Eagle Eye’s most egregious crime, however, is wasting such an impeccable supporting cast. Rosario Dawson and Michelle Monaghan (who earned serious geek-cred with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) are as devoid of personality as their super-powered puppet master. At least Billy Bob Thornton, who bears a mad glint of secret self-amusement, almost manages to rouse the audience awake with his oddball behaviour and (likely improv-ed) dialogue.

This brings us back to LaBeouf: the Man, the Myth and the Legend. He’s engaging and idiosyncratic, and able to make badly-written sarcastic dialogue about trains turning into talking ducks strangely crowd-pleasing. While many would like to deny it, he’s an outstanding lead because he understands the importance of a charismatic, grounded central figure, and yet brings numerous attractive acting choices to the table. Unfortunately despite his talents, he’s incapable of redeeming this sorry project, which boasts an Eagle Eye... and a bird-brain.

1.5 out of 5

P.S.: The final scene, an obvious studio intervention, is a howlingly miscalculated attempt at a sunny ending. My fellow movie-goers tittered their way through the whole thing.

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Oct. 6th, 2008.