TONGUES ON FILM – JUNE 2010

by Ross Sharp

Here’s just a few of the movies I’ve caught up with this past month …

“RELIGULOUS” (2008)

I’ve only read one of the so-called “new atheist” books, and that was Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” which was okay if a bit laboured. I felt Hitchens made his point adequately enough in just the introduction alone, which was, essentially, “I’m happy for you to believe what you want, just leave me the fuck alone”.

Yes.

Unlike Hitchens and others like him, comedian Bill Maher doesn’t present in “Religulous” as the angry polemicist railing against fairy tales and illogic through spittle-flecked lips (though his concluding statements about “self-fulfilling prophecies” are presented with surprising passion and force). Instead, Maher approaches his interview subjects with irreverent humour, not ridicule, yet at the same time doesn’t hold back in conveying out loud his dumbfounded disbelief at much of the quackery he encounters …

You’ll visit the “Holy Land Experience”, a biblical theme park, crucifixions at 10.00, 2.00 and 4.00pm, kill a first born, stone a heathen, why not crucify the kiddies for a fun day out with the whole family?

Then there’s the “Creation Museum” which features an exhibit of a dinosaur with a saddle, ‘cause humans used to round ‘em up and race ‘em way back when, all of 6,000 years ago.

On a Saturday. In the afternoon.

With tea and fine pastries. And fashionable millinery.

I’m sure many of these people are quite pleasant in many respects, it’s just that they’re stark raving bonkers in so many others.

But Maher also meets a few others of a religious bent who are a little despairing of all the claptrap that often clusters about their faiths, and are openly dismissive of such things as “scripture science” and the widening gap between what they feel the scriptures teach and what is actually being taught.

And what is being taught can be something of a worry at times.

Because there really is no “new atheism”, no new “anti-religious” movement. What there is are a bunch of people like Maher and Hitchens who are getting increasingly rattled at the growing influence religion, especially the more ratbag elements of it, is having on our social and political life. In Texas for example, it allows a fucking dentist to vet the content of school textbooks lest there be some pagan godless heathenry a-lurkin’ in the calculus.

And here at home, we’ve had a couple so-called “Christian” political douchebags who have no qualms at all about holding an exclusive private leaders debate with various “religious leaders”, most notably Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby, the man who, in cohorts with Senator Stephen Conroy, is trying to bring the world a G-rated internet, and who thinks the sight of your naked child in the bathtub will turn anyone who looks into an instant-whip Dennis Ferguson. And their sacred goal in life is to bring the beliefs, morals, standards and behaviour of those they deem less godly than themselves into line with their own and do it by influencing and trying to define government policy, forcing their way into your life regardless how you feel about it.

Frankly, if these people are not prepared to leave the rest of us the fuck alone, then I have no problem if “the rest of us” and people like Maher and Hitchens take them out occasionally for some target practice, and pop a few well earned spitballs of disdain and disbelief in the general direction of their bizarre death-cult obsessions.

In the earlier parts of his film, Maher recalls how religion just never “stuck” with him as a child as he was far more interested in Superman and baseball to pay it much of a mind, and my own (very brief) experience with religion as a child was quite similar. I was far more interested in Superman as well. And Greek and Roman myths and legends. Sunday School sermons about some random fucker farting about in the desert for forty days and nights and some flaming shrubbery can’t quite hold up against Argonauts and gorgons and sword-wielding skeletons and such.

And so, one Sunday morning when I was about 9 or 10 and my grandmother was attempting to rouse me from my comfy kiddie slumber to pop off for some Sunday schooling in the art of self-righteous sanctimony, I rebelled by protesting thusly …

“Why do I have to go to school on a Sunday? I already go to school five days a week, why do I have to go to another one on a Sunday? No one else here goes to church, why do I have to? Why can’t I just sleep in on a Sunday and have a normal weekend like normal people?”

And it worked, for I never went to Sunday school that day, and I never went again. I think I’ve only ever stepped foot inside a church twice since, once for a funeral and once for a wedding.

Maher’s (Catholic/Jewish) parents stopped going to church in the early 1960’s because they were using birth control pills, in direct contravention of standing Catholic doctrine, so they simply decided, “Bugger it, we’re using the pill and the Pope can go hang”, and that was the end of that.

Sensible people.

“BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK” (1955)

How’s this for a cast …

Spencer Tracy. Robert Ryan. Walter Brennan. Lee Marvin. Dean Jagger. Ernest Borgnine.

Works for me.

Spencer Tracy plays an ex-serviceman who travels to the two-bit “town” of Black Rock after the end of World War II to seek out a Japanese farmer who owned a plot of land there prior to the outbreak of hostilities. The townsfolk want Tracy to fuck off out of it and go about making this clear to him in various not so subtle ways.

With a minimum of dialogue and action, John Sturges establishes an expertly oppressive sense of dread as the townspeople of Black Rock threaten Tracy’s character through constant needling and intimidation in order to get him to leave before he uncovers their dirty little secret.

A modern day noir western with a not-so-subtle social message about race relations up front and centre, “Black Rock” was hugely successful and influential in its day, garnering Oscar nominations for Tracy and director Sturges and, fifty five years on and despite some occasional lapses in pace, still holds up as a tight, taut and terrific work of subtly played suspense.

Borgnine and Marvin turn in great work as a couple of heavies, Tracy and Ryan are both fine, but my favourite performance belongs to Walter Brennan as the town Doc, the only man in town who’s managed to retain some scrap of human decency for himself.

Beautifully shot in widescreen Technicolour, the DVD (not available in region 4, get it from Amazon) features a first-rate print, no extras, but it’s well worth shelling out fifteen bucks for.

(While you’re over at Amazon, check out some of the great 1940’s and 50’s titles available in the Fox and Universal “noir” series. Most of them aren’t available in region 4, but there’s some seriously yummy stuff to be had.)

“THE ROAD” (2009)

Maybe the book was better. Maybe I should’ve read the book.

Oh, well.

Too late now, I know what happens and to whom.

People raved about this movie …

I was fully expecting a “searing”, “harrowing”, “bleak” and “relentless” wallow in the lower depths of human experience amidst the rubble of a ruined and denuded world, devoid of civilisation or the barest remnant of orderly society …

Something uplifting, in other words.

And this wasn’t it.

It’s well made. The performances are fine. Robert Duvall turns up for a couple scenes. And Michael K. Williams (Omar from “The Wire”). Which is good.

But I’m buggered if I can see the point of it all.

It just plays out on the same note from beginning to end. Nothing develops. The situations of the characters and the sheer desolation of the environment they find themselves in is such that it seems a little pointless investing any sort of emotional commitment in them.

Because they’re fucked, that’s about the sum of it.

They’re fucked at the beginning, they’re fucked at the middle, and they’re fucked at the end and you know they’ll still be fucked after the credits stop rolling.

Everyone in this film, they’re fucked.

This is a movie about fucked people, who are all gonna be fucked forever.

Isn’t that just swell to know?

And it’s a little predictable, too. One of the main characters develops a cough. Which is a portent of ill, don’t you know? … Clint Eastwood did the same in “Honkytonk Man” .

How about 1983’s “Testament” with William Devane and Jane Alexander instead? That was excellent.

But “The Road”?

Maybe I should’ve read the book.

“THE STEPFATHER” (2009)

Remake of the ripping 1987 movie of the same name which had Terry O’Quinn give the performance of his life in the title role. What a fine little thriller that was, yes indeedy-do.

So how does this reboot stack up? …

$###@!!! %$$$#ARSE!$& ##!!$## @@FUCK!@@%%%## $$$$$SHIT!!!$!$!$# $$$ $$#$& @%%BLOODY!!%## @%%%## %$$$#$FUCKING& ##!!$## @@ $$RUBBISH!$$!!$!$ $###@!!! % $###@!!! %

$@@!!&#SHIT#!!$$!! ^%$$&*CRAP!!*@####!!!! ##!##$$$!!!&& ^^&%$**#!&FUCKOFF!!!&& $$$$$!!!!! ***@!$$!!! &&%STUPID!!$ STUPID!!!%%$FUCKERS!!#%&!$ $$$!!!

Not well.

Not well at all.

“SHUTTER ISLAND” (2010)

Martin Scorsese can’t just make a movie anymore, he has to make an “event”. Same with Tarantino and Spielberg. They put their names to a project, suddenly it’s not just a movie, it’s an “event”, and after a period of time, it will become a “long-awaited event”, maybe even a “much anticipated” event, and, all hopped up and jittery from this excited sense of eager “event” anticipation, the critics will file in, watch it, and say “But you haven’t made an event, you’ve just made another movie”.

Poor buggers.

Martin Scorsese has just made another movie, a cod-gothic psychological thriller, a genre crime piece, a nod to the nuthouse film, a la “The Snake Pit” and “Shock Corridor”, and he makes it in the manner we have come to expect of him.

Which is well. Technically proficient and visually compelling.

And he gives Leonardo Di Caprio oodles of time to practice his frowning face a lot, and my, doesn’t Leo give that expression a thorough flogging for a couple hours. After sixty, seventy minutes, I thought his face began to look like a punched pillow.

I need to let a cat out of the bag …

This is one of those movies that hinges on a big reveal, a big twist at the end. I like to call them “Oz” movies, as in “The Wizard of Oz”. That is, you’re following the story and taking it all in and wondering where it will all go until, right at the end, somebody wakes up and says “Oh, it was all a dream. Phew. Just as well.”

And I feel a bit cheated when that happens. I feel like saying, “So, you’ve just spent two hours pulling a con instead of simply telling me a story with characters and a plot. Why?”

Because, far as I’m concerned, it’s arse-lazy storytelling and I just don’t like it.

All this “Oh, it was just a dream”, “Oh, it was all in his or her head”, “Oh, none of that was real” stuff – Why, what’s the point of it, what do you think you’ve achieved? …

“We’re going to fabricate an alternate reality, but we’re not going to tell you that until the last 10 or 15 minutes when we reveal something that completely invalidates anything and everything you’ve believed that’s come before. Aren’t we clever?”

No, not really, I just feel you’ve wasted my time with a cheap and shoddy cheat.

Though, as cheap and shoddy cheats go, it is a Scorsese picture, so …

… I just wish it had been a bit more “Gone Baby Gone” and a little less “The Sixth Sense” (not that it’s anything like “The Sixth Sense” thematically, it just uses a similar big, twisty tactic at the end).

I’ve probably just ruined it all for you now.

Whoopsy.

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