Favorite of the Month: Jesus of Montreal (1989)
This French Canadian film is a witty and provocative interpretation of Jesus’ last days, first told through a radical theatrical production staged by four actors at a Montreal church. The play garners critical praise and audience adoration, and then, once the Catholic Church threatens to close the play, the actors find themselves enduring their own version of the Stations of the Cross. The movie is engagingly unpredictable, both sly and moving, and delivered with a stimulating intelligence. What movie would Jesus recommend? This one!
New Release of the Month: Sicko (2007)
In his latest documentary, Michael Moore delivers a vital but utterly depressing piece of agitprop. He doesn’t just condemn the privatized health care business in the United States, but also finds something rotten at the very core of the country. How is it possible, Moore asks, that in the wealthiest nation in the world we are at our most poor in how we take care of each other? Thanks to lobbyists, anti-socialist rhetoric and back door political deals, America has a health care system that actually rewards CEOs and administrators for denying people medical care. The fewer mammograms, cholesterol exams, diabetes tests, etc. that a hospital performs, the fatter the bottom line will become for insurance companies and HMOs. This being America, where greed trumps every other motivation, that is a good thing. By the end of Sicko, you’ll either revoke your citizenship and move to Paris, or you’ll do exactly what the powers that be want us to do: Retreat even further into a fetal cocoon of paralysis. The most alarming theory that Moore offers is the idea that a populace locked into a cycle of debt, work and fear has neither the time nor the will to change the system, especially when their elected leaders continually betray them. Are you depressed yet?
Classic of the Month: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
If you somehow manage to get the whole family gathered together to watch a movie this holiday season, why not skip the usual pablum starring Tim Allen in a fat suit and watch something that will truly put an ear-to-ear smile on your face. Isn’t that what Christmas should be about, happiness? This re-mastered classic starring the Fab Four is a wondrous testament to their infectious, enduring music and it also is an amazingly prescient filmmaking document. Who can deny that the sequence of the Beatles frolicking on a helicopter landing strip to “Can’t Buy Me Love” is not the first full-fledged music video ever created? Director Richard Lester and the boys were on a once-in-a-lifetime lark, full of enthusiasm and utterly lacking in guile. The songs, of course, are timeless, the performances brilliantly naturalistic and the uncle is “very clean.” Skip the screeching remake of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and rent A Hard Day’s Night. It will keep you bouncing right through New Year’s Day.
Documentary of the Month: Into Great Silence (2006)
This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful documentaries ever filmed. Set in France in a reclusive, ascetic monastery, the film follows the daily rituals of the monks as they pray, read, eat, sing, garden, get their hair cut and sled down a nearby hill. There is no real dialogue, no music other than the monks’ chanting, and only the occasional onscreen religious quotation obliquely commenting on the scenes that follow. Shot entirely with natural light and augmented by the natural sounds of life in and around the monastery, Into Great Silence is a meditative, enthralling and quite gorgeous viewing experience.
Under-the-Radar: Bug (2006)
This William Friedkin freak-out stars Ashley Judd as a white-trash loser who hooks up with a loose-screw stranger (ozone-eyed Michael Shannon) in her rent-by-the-month motel room. He claims to have escaped from an experimental laboratory where scientists injected his body with parasites, which are now breeding and infecting the room they’re staying in. This movie version of the critically lauded play by Tracy Letts is a slow-burning, wild ride in which the only creepy-crawlers present are the characters and their paranoid delusions. The performances by Judd and Shannon are astonishing in their intensity, with Harry Connick, Jr. nearly stealing the whole show as every girl’s worst nightmare of a stud ex. Bug is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a fine return to form for the once-great Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection, To Live and Die in LA).
Give this a Miss: Once (2006)
I am completely baffled by the enormous art house success of this small, grungy Irish picture, which appeared to be lit entirely with 60-watt desk lamps. Dublin couldn’t look less inviting even if the filmmakers coated the town in chimney dust. Directed by the first-timer John Carney, Once was a surprising theatrical mini-smash in the early days of summer and I wonder if its success is due to serious moviegoers’ starvation diet: denied depth, charm and organic believability in their film menu, they’re willing to gorge on the empty calories of a movie dressed up as handmade art starring two unknown musicians who turn their mediocre busking into a self-produced CD. Spine-tingling, no? There are two or three wonderful scenes of music being created seemingly in real time, and one charming sequence of a makeshift jam at a house full of beer, food, Dubliners with great voices and plenty of instruments. But the rest of the story is undernourished. The movie’s main liability could be the music, the kind of singer-songwriter folk-pop infused with opaque metaphors and sung in a high, whining key more suitable for showers than recording studios. There isn’t one hummable tune on the whole soundtrack, which is unfortunate for a movie whose main character expresses himself mostly through his lyrics.