Dito Montiel's 'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints' (2006)

A Guide to Returning Your Saints has a very odd and disparate collection of reviews attached to it.
"The film's strongest performances come from Chazz Palminteri, who avoids slipping into the gangster role into which he has been stereotyped; Channing Tatum, whose Antonio is equal parts charisma and violence; and Melonie Diaz, who's a firebrand. It's hard to make much comment about the acting of Robert Downey Jr. or Rosario Dawson, since their screen time is limited. (Dawson, for example, is in only two scenes.) Shia LaBeouf doesn't always seem to 'get' Dito; there are times when his acting strikes a wrong chord." -James Berardinelli

"While ambitiously set in two time zones, the past comprises the bulk of Montiel’s autobiopic, with superb performances by Shia LaBeouf as his younger self and Martin Compston as his tearaway Scottish pal." -Empire Reviews

"The director exhibits less interest in narrative than in allowing his cast to create their own loose, impressionistic 'truths,' which amounts to a great deal of mumbling, cursing and fighting. I can't recall a movie in which improvisation has been so wildly and ruinously indulged: it's the actors' workshop from hell. The bittersweet atmosphere that Montiel aims for as Downey Jr walks around his old stamping ground would be so much more effective if we didn't fear the big set-piece barney between father and son waiting round the corner. Giving actors freedom is one thing, but Montiel has allowed them so much rope that some have gone right ahead and hanged themselves with it." -The Independent

"Also infuriating is the tendency of the performances to swing wildly out of control; Montiel instructs his cast to overact, leaving some scenes, including a cringe-inducing moment of teenage lust in a humid stairwell, resembling an acting workshop for 9th graders. Occasional moments are decimated by this directorial mandate, because, to be blunt, it’s uncomfortable to watch a limited talent like Tatum try to improv or attempt to convey complexity." -FilmJerk.com

"Sometimes it seems like Dito's father Monty -- played by Chazz Palminteri, trading his usual gangster menace for a heartbreaking fragility of body and spirit...Tatum is vivid as this tragic jackass, though it's hard to tell if the actor's range extends beyond wounded brutes...The gifted Downey, a sleazy American's Johnny Depp, makes the most of his screentime..." -filmcritic.com

So what did I think?

Downey – eh. Tatum – good. Palminteri – good. Dianne Wiest – amazing. LaBeouf – decent. Diaz – good. I've only seen Shia LaBeouf outside of this film in a brief guest starring role on Freaks & Geeks and a small (and annoying) role in Constantine. While I was not overly impressed with his performance in this movie – often it doesn't seem like there's much going on inside – I do see potential. The scene between him and Chazz Palminteri after Mike's death is heartbreaking.

I'm not in love with the flashback structure of the film -- I think that it could take place completely in the 1980s. I do love the underdog group of main characters. These kids are not the tough guys of the block -- they constantly have new wounds appearing. And they seem very real. I also like that this film challenges the notion that escaping an oppressive childhood home is heroic and courageous. In the case of this film, Dito's escape is an act of cowardice.

The critics panned some of the cinematic techniques that Montiel used, but I liked some of them. I thought that the dialogue displayed on screen was effective for the message from Antonio and the conversation between him and Dito. I think that the film is very much told through Dito's eyes. Because of how he left things, Dito has refused to think about Antonio, to form a picture of how his friend has turned out. Seeing a representation of Antonio on screen before their face-to-face meeting at the end of the film seems appropriate. Yes, a one-sided conversation would have served the same purpose, but I also like that the audience did not see Dito's reaction to an adult Antonio until late in the film. The to-the-camera confessions were a little heavy-handed. I didn't mind the surrealistic camera tricks used when Mike and Dito met, but I thought that they suggested a bit of homoeroticism between the pair, but Montiel never followed through.

Liam Lynch's 'Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic' (2005)

A comedy special trying to disguise itself as a film, Jesus Is Magic showcases the unique humor of comedienne Sarah Silverman, former SNL writer/performer.
"Nazis are A-holes. And I'll be the first to say it because I'm edgy."
"The best time to have a baby is when you're a black teenager."
"I don't care if you think I'm racist. I just want you to think I'm thin."
"Please let them find semen in my dead grandmother's vagina!"
"Guess what, Martin Luther King? I had a fuckin' dream too."

The majority of the film is Silverman doing live stand-up and these segments of the film really work. The film is framed by a weak story that Silverman feels intimidated by friends' recent success so she lies that she has written a show that will be performed that evening. She then decides to write a show and perform it herself. The stand-up is interrupted by music video-like segments featuring comedic songs that Silverman co-wrote with director Liam Lynch (of "My United States of Whatever" fame). The songs are fine and Silverman has the musical chops to perform them, but they don't have the same bite as the stand-up. The most successful musical bits are a punk-rock coda to a song about old people dying soon, a televangelist bit during a song about porn, and her encore performance of "Amazing Grace" in which her vagina and ass harmonize with her.

Silverman has been part of several projects over the years, including the short-lived Greg the Bunny, but for her comedy to really work she needs to play herself — or rather the ignorant, well-intentioned asshole version of herself. I'm eager for new episodes of her new TV show, because they're effing hilarious.

Aric Avelino's 'American Gun' (2005)

American Gun is a well-intentioned though not entirely successful film. Director Aric Avelino intertwines three separate stories into one narrative: the mother (Marcia Gay Harden) of a perpetrator of a Columbine-like school shooting and her son (Chris Marquette, Joan of Arcadia) struggle with the aftermath of that event; a principal (Forest Whitaker) of a Chicago high school fights to keep violence out of his school; and a college student (Linda Cardellini) reconsiders her attitude toward guns when a friend is assaulted.

Everyone involved in this film has his or her heart in the right place, which makes me really want to like this movie. Of the three stories, the Marcia Gay Harden narrative works best. That story — the story of the family members of the shooter and their response to the shooting — is not a story that I have seen explored in a movie before. I also liked the accompanying thread about the police officer who first arrived at the scene of the shooting. However, the final scene of his storyline (the robbery at the gas station) should have been cut. I think that the scene between Frank and Janet was an organic end — I dislike the testosterone-fueled impulse to include that gas station scene. And, really, did Tally have to die? What was the point?

The Chicago storyline was clichéed and predictable. The only piece that I found fresh and enjoyable was the bits between Carter and his son. Mary Ann's story...I think that there was some potential with that plot — again, because it offered a unique viewpoint of the mom-and-pop gun shop owner — but Avelino failed to write the story with any dramatic tension.

American Gun is not as illuminating as it would hope to be about the effects of gun violence in the United States, but it is definitely worth a viewing for the strong performances.

Nicole Holofcener's 'Friends with Money' (2006)

The advertising and promotion for this film really tried to convince me that Friends with Money was a typical the bonds of female friendship are stronger than relationships with men type of movie, but Nicole Holofcener's third film is a decidedly depressing affair.

Like her previous project Lovely & Amazing, Holofcener interweaves the day-to-day experiences of four very different women. Sticking to her strengths, Holofcener has made a modest movie, one that relies on engaging characters and dialogue rather than plot. All of the characters, not just the women, are very real and flawed. Even Christine, whose husband is obviously a bit of a jerk, is not entirely a victim in their failing marriage, as she picks fights with him while they are writing and refuses to admit that she, indeed, refuses to see the consequences of her actions. Holofcener does not glamourize her leads — Aniston spends most of the movie in sweats, McDormand's hair is almost always greasy — and all of the actresses look their ages.

Across the board, the acting is strong, but the stand-out performances belong to Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney. McDormand delivers as usual with a nuanced and scene-stealing portrayal of pre-menopausal Jane. Aaron is probably the most sympathetic character of the group and I really enjoyed his character arc. Holofcener keeps teasing the audience with "Will Aaron have an affair with a man?" and more broadly with "Is he gay?". Ultimately the answer to that question doesn't really matter. Gay or not, Aaron is a supportive husband, a loving father, and he is committed to his family. McBurney plays him with a sexual ambiguity that does not tarry into ham-fisted "queen" behaviour and a gentle earnestness that answers the audience's possible questions of why Jane would remain married to Aaron if he were gay. Joan Cusack is underused as Franny, indie queen Catherine Keener offers a customary solid performance, and Jennifer Aniston continues to flesh out her post-Friends resume with another respectable turn in an indie flick. (She really needs to stick with indie films, because all of her mainstream movies have been embarrassingly bad.)

Wim Wenders' 'Land of Plenty' (2004)

I admit that I have a bit of distance from the events of 9/11. Yes, I was living in the United States on September 11, 2001, I remember where I was when I heard, and I have been living in the US for the past 5 years. But I have never seen the footage of the planes crashing into the towers or the towers burning and falling. I have purposely avoided that film because I feared my reaction to them. I feared that repeatedly seeing those horrific, violent images would affect my objectivity, would inspire the paranoia and acrimony that consumed so many people.

Land of Plenty explores the aftermath of 9/11 more sympathetically than I imagined possible. I credit Wim Wender's German nationality for the film's unique approach to the situation. Wenders chooses to make one of his protagonists a young woman, Lana (Michelle Williams), returning from years living in the West Bank. She lives and works amongst the homeless of Los Angeles, which gives the United States a very sympathetic face. This United States is not the monolith of prosperity, greed, and capitalism that the hijackers attacked on 9/11. Paul, Lana's Vietnam veteran and homeland security-obsessed uncle, represents the possible bad guy of the film, but actor John Diehl and the screenplay give a very sympathetic, humanized portrayal. Characterized as suffering the effects of Agent Orange, Wenders also chooses to have Paul constantly listening to conservative radio in his surveillance van. Paul seems more the victim of an interfering government and paranoid cultural climate than he seems an out-and-out racist. While the audience suspects that Youssef is not the terrorist that Paul imagines, Wenders goes a step further in inoculating Muslims against the image of them as terrorists by dressing Hassan in a slightly too-tight, bright green tracksuit. How can anyone be threatened by a man wearing a tracksuit? Hassan is also cheerful and devoid of any bitterness he might feel concerning his half-brother's death or the cultural climate of the United States.

The pacing lags slightly in the beginning, but the film picks up once Lana and Paul make contact. Despite their radically different personalities and viewpoints, both Lana and Paul have difficulty making connections. Paul isolates himself out of paranoia and illness, spending all day alone in a van trying to protect the United States from terrorists. Having emerged from an environment in which Americans were openly hated, Lana remains guarded. She attempts to make connections with the homeless people with whom she lives and works, but they do not readily embrace her. She retreats into a world of technology, plugging her iPod into her ears, communicating with a friend in the West Bank via IM. Even when she prays, what she says to God does not convey her real thoughts. Paul and Lana recognize in each other an opportunity to connect, but both approach the connection with caution.

Land of Plenty is a good little indie flick that has not received the attention that it deserves. While the acting is strong across the board, Michelle Williams lights up the screen. I don't know whether to credit Williams' acting, the cinematography, or both. Williams presence in this film is practically hypnotic. When she is on screen you cannot look away. [Insert another cliché of your choice here] Though I did not always enjoy the writing on Dawson's Creek, I always admired Williams' acting, and her performances in this film and Brokeback Mountain suggest that she is a talent to watch.

Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady's 'Jesus Camp' (2006)

Documentary films such as Jesus Camp preclude the need for horror films for anyone who espouses a political agenda anywhere left of neo-conservative. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary about Evangelical children's ministry offers a bad news insight for moderates and liberals, but also offers a fairly kind presentation of Evangelicals. I can understand that some Evangelicals would resist this portrayal of their branch of Christianity because the subjects of the film are Pentecostal. Not every Evangelical service involves speaking in tongues and falling into trances. I think that Ewing & Grady could have been a little more explicit about their subjects being Pentecostal/charismatic — one of many forms of Evangelical Christianity — but I thought that Evangelical beliefs and lifestyle were well represented by the film.

Jesus Camp excels at portraying the power of this movement of Christianity. Though the glossolalia, trances, and very active worship services may be off-putting to some viewers, one is able to see how affecting and powerful that form of worship is for these constituents. If someone who felt uncertain about God or religion attended such a service, I can imagine them being at least intrigued if not involved by the style of worship. As one little boy notes in the film, God is not something that you can see or touch, but charismatics' interaction with God is very visible. Even if viewers do not believe that the people in this documentary are actually communicating with God, they cannot dispute that the act of trying to communicate with God is very powerful for these people.

Ewing and Grady entered this project without an agenda, political, anti-Christian or otherwise. Their approach to their subjects is very matter-of-fact and, ultimately, very caring. They take time to present Becky Fischer as three-dimensional: a moment in the bathroom when she sighs that doing her hair everyday "makes [her] so exhausted," a declaration that she could not enjoy heaven if she did not dedicate her life to telling other people about the love they could find in Christ. Even if one does not agree with Fischer's message, one can see why she is so effective as a children's minister. Ewing and Grady also use subjects that come off as very intelligent. The child subjects especially are unnervingly mature in their speech. The only subject that appears demonized is Ted Haggard, but the directors allow him to hang himself, so to speak, with comments that he directs at the camera operator and one of the film's young subjects. Even Levi, a true believer himself, finds Ted Haggard upsetting.

Jesus Camp raises the issue of indoctrination or brainwashing explicitly, but more subtly the film addresses notions of child abuse. Sheltering their kids through homeschooling, exposing them to ministry like the "Kids on Fire" camp — are these parents guilty of child abuse? Does the viewer support their actions as protected by freedom of religion? Should the government support these parenting techniques for the same reason?

I admire Becky Fischer for recognizing young people's ability to handle big issues. I agree that youth are often underestimated intellectually and emotionally. However, I don't think that Fischer is showing as much respect for these young people as she could. She respects them enough to share with them the Pentecostal view of sin, abortion, "witchcraft," etc.; but I think that the ultimate display of respect would be engaging them in discussion that involves examining multiple viewpoints of such issues. Fischer's lectures smack of manipulation, and the abortion dialogue gives umbrage to a complex topic.

Jesus Camp has been recognized with both an Academy Award and Independent Spirit Award nomination, and these nominations are most definitely merited. Al Gore powerfully demonstrated an inconvenient truth about the environment in his Oscar-winning documentary, but Ewing and Grady present an equally revelatory truth in their film: Evangelicals are preparing and poised to gain control of the political and cultural climate of this country. What are you going to do about it?