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Jesus Camp, The Science of Sleep

New Releases

JESUS CAMP Just in time for Halloween comes Jesus Camp, featuring a monster more frightening than either Jason or Freddy. Her name is Becky Fischer, and she's a Missouri pastor who runs a summer camp in which children roughly between the ages of 6 and 12 are trained to be soldiers for God. That'd be fine if this were an ordinary Christian organization that practiced Jesus' messages of peace, love and tolerance. Instead, this is yet one more example of the insidious and far-right Evangelical movement that's helping destroy the fabric of this nation. Scene after scene in this sobering documentary shows young children being brainwashed at every turn by the fanatical adults surrounding them: Kids enjoying the telling of ghost stories are told to cut it out because it doesn't serve God; parents home-schooling their children sneer at the very notion of fact-based science; and Fischer herself informs her young charges that had that "warlock" Harry Potter been around in the days of the Old Testament, he would have been put to death. Offering the film's lone voice of sanity is radio talk show host Mike Papantonio, a devout Christian who, like the rest of us more level-headed believers, is aghast at how these zealots are turning the religion's saintly sentiments into something ugly and brutal (Fischer discusses everything in terms of war and battles, failing to note the similarities between her methods and those of the -- what's the popular term these days among Republican parrots? -- Islamofascists). The most surreal scene finds Fischer bringing out a cardboard standup of George W. Bush for the kids to worship -- and one can't help but note with amusement that it seems no less intelligent than the real thing.

***

Current Releases

ALL THE KING'S MEN Writer-director Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is an unmitigated disaster, choked by miscast actors, suffocated by illogical editing and drowned by a choppy script that offers no real sense of period and no clear delineation of its central themes. Zaillian has stated in interviews that he deliberately avoided seeing the 1949 film version (an Oscar winner for Best Picture), preferring instead to take all material from the printed source; in retrospect, that was a faulty decision, since studying that movie would have enabled him to see how weighty material can be effectively thinned out and streamlined for the screen. The film's faults are many, but let's start with the grotesque miscasting of Sean Penn as self-proclaimed "hick" politician Willie Stark. Penn, who's about as folksy as a Manhattan Starbucks, turns in one of his worst performances, second only to his shameless "Look, Ma, I'm retarded!" showboating in I Am Sam. Still, he's hardly the only one who was hired for name recognition rather than because he was right for the role: Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins are similarly ill-used in this stultifying boondoggle.

*

THE BLACK DAHLIA Until it derails heading into its final turn, The Black Dahlia represents Brian De Palma's most assured moviemaking in at least a decade, a gritty neo-noir which reminds us that only Scorsese and maybe a couple of others can match this maverick filmmaker when it comes to astonishing feats of technical derring-do. Based on the novel by James Ellroy, it presents a fictionalized take on the real-life slaying of Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short (touchingly played by Mia Kirshner), with Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as the cops on the case and Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank set up as the potential femme fatales. Working from Josh Friedman's initially sharp screenplay and backed by tremendous production values, DePalma spins a compelling murder-mystery that clicks until the last act, at which point the movie madly dashes through its messy resolutions, pausing only long enough to succumb to some ill-placed camp. Yet even if the movie had kept its head from start to finish, it still wouldn't have survived the critical miscasting of Hartnett, whose complete inability to project anything more than glazed befuddlement leaves the film with a cavernous hole right where its noir heart should beat.

**1/2

FLYBOYS Long before cultural divisions involving "freedom fries," there was the Lafayette Escadrille, the World War I squadron of American flyers who gladly lent a helping hand to the French before the U.S. officially entered the conflict. Flyboys is inspired by true events, though its veracity often makes it seem about as believable as that Brat Pack favorite Young Guns, another picture which sought to marry young hunks to a dusty Hollywood genre. Stereotypes are acceptable, often even desired, in this sort of red-meat picture, but when no room is left for surprises, boredom invariably rears its head -- more so in this film, since it runs a punishing 135 minutes. Because of his smoldering good looks, James Franco (as swaggering farmboy-turned-pilot Blaine Rawlings) has been repeatedly compared to James Dean; given Franco's lack of edge and mystery (two qualities Dean possessed in spades), this is like comparing David Spade to Cary Grant. The movie ends in a battle between Blaine and a ruthless German pilot known as the Black Falcon. Given my druthers, I'll take Snoopy vs. the Red Baron any day of the week.

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