The documentary about the religious right shows just how frighteningly fervid the evangelical movement is. Elsewhere, John Lennon gets immortalized again, and the Pussycat Dolls rub me the right way.
Most of this weekend’s column was written in agony – who cares about movies and music when your beloved St. Louis Cardinals are at the brink of one of baseball’s greatest regular-season collapses? Well, crisis averted for now – we’re in the playoffs and I’ll take my chances from there. On to the list...
Jesus Camp (Magnolia Pictures)
At my screening, many critics laughed derisively at the people presented in Jesus Camp. Evangelical Christians meeting in their mega-churches or congregating at their hellfire summer camps – listen to how silly they sound! I don’t think that’s the response that directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are aiming for in their documentary, but it is the niggling problem of what is otherwise a bone-chilling film.
Ewing and Grady want to show the un-evangelical world just how motivated, organized and scary serious the right is. (If you find the sincerity of these true believers’ fervor funny, then you haven’t quite digested why Republicans keep winning the important elections.) But the filmmakers’ fervor sometimes has them acting silly as well. (For example, young children weeping to the heavens and decrying abortion with angry looks seething on their faces without music is upsetting in its starkness. But if you show those same images with "creepy" music that suggests a Cylon attack or a hockey-mask-donning killer is fast approaching, it’s overkill.)
Jesus Camp could have done more to delineate the differences between the genuinely religious – they exist in America, too, ya know – and the more frenzied devotees we see in the movie. But when they let the images tell their own story, Ewing and Grady present with shocking clarity that, no matter how whacked-out you may think they are, the religious right are simply no laughing matter.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon (Lionsgate)
If Jesus Camp isn’t enough to make you understand the mind-set of some in the right, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary about John Lennon’s troubles with the Nixon administration will further fill in the blanks. Ironically, though, the film may unwittingly end up helping you understand just what it is about liberals that drives conservatives crazy.
In a film that means to draw connections between then and now, Nixon and Bush – in both cases, patriotism being used as a shield to defend those who wage unpopular wars – you’re left with the impression that many of the ‘60s counterculture icons exhumed here as talking heads are just whiny pudding-heads or grating, droning grumps. The posturing Yoko Ono, the insufferable Gore Vidal, the faux-poetic Ron Kovic: These are the people on our side? And any film that uses Geraldo Rivera as an expert witness to the times is barely a notch above the one that might use William Shatner or Richard Simmons. As for John Lennon, the kind words said about him feel as if they're being done by rote – a myth gets sold while the really interesting, complicated artist gets left far, far behind. Only bright spot in an otherwise unremarkable film: Plastic Ono Band and Imagine sound terrific on theater-quality stereo speakers.
The Pussycat Dolls featuring Snoop Dogg, "Buttons" (from PCD, Interscope)
One of those pop sensations that stays on the radio for a year, annoys everyone over the age of 14, and then disappears into the ether, unless someone from the group goes on a reality show or does something embarrassing in public – or so I thought. But not since the Black Eyed Peas’ "My Humps" has a song from a useless pop entity worked its way through my internal reviewing engine from "God, that song again" to "All right, that song again!" with such velocity.
I think I have an initial resistance to these sorts of "sexy" songs because of their calculated come-ons – their libido feels artificial and antiseptic, like those storefront displays you see for really scummy lingerie shops. But what I first dismiss as shallow and unsophisticated starts to reveal just how shallow and unsophisticated it is – and also how undeniably fun it is, too. With the king of shallow Snoop Dogg providing Hollywood street cred, this fabricated burlesque group taunts and teases with a chorus that’s all soft-core glee. It’s for soccer moms and junior-high girls alike. It’s not real sex, but rather the popular illusion of what being desirable feels like.
Fergie, "London Bridge" (from The Dutchess, Interscope)
Give credit where it’s due: It was her so-ditzy-it’s-hot vocal hook that made "My Humps" stupid awesome, so even if she appears to be largely untalented you have to admit that she’s tenacious and opportunistic. Too big for her band – who only rose to prominence once they brought her into the fold – Fergie now continues to follow the Gwen Stefani road map to success: She goes solo as a tomboy hip-hop floozy. And, trust me, I’ve given this single as much time as I did "My Humps" or "Buttons" – this is just plain lame. As high-tech as a big-budget artist track is these days, sure, but lame lame lame. The song doesn’t make me think of sex – it makes me think of studios and expensive recording equipment and machines machines machines.
Todd Snider, The Devil You Know (New Door Records)
For a long while, I figured my review for this record would go under the great-stories/OK-music heading that’s the fate of so many respectable singer-songwriters who have more to say than hooks to adorn their great insights. But then the title track came around again. So angry that the words fly off into passionate, indecipherable syllables, "The Devil You Know" is all about its forward momentum. And then there’s "Looking For a Job" where a surging tune gives extra muscle to a tale of a day laborer who puts the boss in his place. "Thin Wild Mercury" is a Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs story with urgency; it’s sad and funny and mean, and so are the words.
Those who resist the poor-pitiful-me whine of contemporary country will find a friend in Todd Snider: He lives in Nashville and he seems ambivalent about the music scene. So, yeah, his protagonists may be screw-ups, but he doesn’t expect us to empathize with them, which is why I probably came to love these people. As for the Bush song, here’s the greatest compliment I can give it: "You Got Away With It" is so subtly furious that I can’t always listen to it. Just get too damn mad all over again.
Goldenboy, Underneath the Radio (Eenie Meenie Records)
From the evidence available to me at one concert where he opened for Stephen Malkmus and another where he played with the Eels, Shon Sullivan is a sweet, funny, nice guy. His band’s latest album, Underneath the Radio, is equally likable – I can’t imagine a single music critic putting it on his or her top ten list, but I can’t imagine any of them having much room to complain, either. Light but not insubstantial, his songs traffic in lonely hearts, and he borrows from the stylebooks of Elliott Smith, Belle and Sebastian, and Eels because, hey, he likes their sounds. So his ambitions are well proportioned to his talent, and he doesn’t make you feel like you’re wasting your time. Don’t you wish your friends were always so consistently pleasant?
Method Man, 4:21… The Day After (Def Jam)
"Expect the unexpected," he advises early on, followed by a very popular 12-letter expletive. But who’s he fooling? The expected is what he’s selling and what we want. Resting on his laurels and letting That Voice be his career, he’s in the same creative plane as Snoop – charismatic lazy asses who rise or sink to the level of their material. Here, he floats nicely, stormy and thuggish, reminding us that the Wu-Tang Clan really used to be something back in the day. Sure, utterly disposable. But I forgive a lot with Snoop too.
This past weekend ended the first half of the film season – the one where the industry just wants to make as much money as possible. This weekend begins the second half – the one where the industry wants to win awards (and make as much money as possible). The prestige films are coming – there’s even one called The Prestige – with their pretensions, serious intentions, and raised expectations. That sea change between film seasons was most profoundly felt watching this trailer, which is serious, pretentious, and extremely effective. Using the sound of an oncoming train as its aural hook, these scant moments of Todd Field’s upcoming film play like porn for award-season devotees. So dramatic! So riveting! So many quality actors exchanging meaningful glances! Trailers are the ultimate tease, giving their designated audience visual cues to get them excited. I’m the audience for this film, and now I can’t wait.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.