From the Archive — Thank You for Smoking

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Jason Reitman has a new movie out this week, reportedly an effort that finds him back on track following a couple widely derided cinematic disasters. When I was first applying my resharpened film critic pencil, I wrote about Reitman’s feature debut as a director. I was clearly still finding my way (like Reitman at the time, I suppose), as evidenced by the oddly truncated quality of this piece. It feels like it’s missing at least one whole paragraph, but this is what I put out into the world at the time. Also, please do note this was published in 2006 and adjust the “Ten years ago” opener accordingly.

Ten years ago, Thank You For Smoking might have been a helluva movie.

When Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel first saw the light of bookstore new release tables back in 1994, the story of a tobacco company spin doctor had real bite. For example, Buckley’s expert recreations of Larry King appearances and press conferences on the printed page snapped with freshness, the precise manipulation of these supposed extemporaneous events revealed through the simple accuracy of Buckley’s prose. When the fictional version feels so real, it makes it easier to start spotting the fiction routinely infused into the reality. The book felt sly and even a little daring as it exposed the insidious media messaging perpetrated by America’s deadliest industry. Years later, not only do the cigarette companies feel more toothless than the scruffy fellows watching the river in Deliverance, but our cultural cynicism has reached such nosebleed-inducing heights that each new instance of callous disregard for intellectual honesty is greeted with an amused shrug as we return to the most pressing matter of texting in our vote for Katherine McPhee. Do Buckley’s once potent points about political and social decisions being based on rearranged truths carry any resonance anymore?

Even without the intervening decade-plus robbing the story of its timeliness — and, arguably, relevance — first-time feature director Jason Reitman has rolled out a pretty shaky product here. To his credit, he seems to have toiled in the filmmaking trenches for a while, making a string of shorts instead of cashing in on his father’s well-established place in the movie biz. Then again, when your pop’s last three directorial efforts are Evolution, Six Days, Seven Nights, and Father’s Day, nepotism may actually become a hindrance. Mean jokes aside, all those short films haven’t necessarily helped Jason Reitman achieve the sort of command that helps hold a 90-minute film together. In particular, most of the performances suffer from an off-putting unevenness, as if Reitman was having the actors try individual moments several different ways (“Now a little broader! Now really draw it back!”) and pulled all his favorite takes without bothering to shape unified performances. The only scenes that work with any consistency are those with the least amount of range or plotline burden, specifically those involving the restaurant confabs between the self-anointed Merchants of Death, lobbyists for the most detested industries in America.

That leaves a good cast to go to waste, although it looks more and more like Aaron Eckhart is better served by supporting roles than leads, one corrosively brilliant turn in a Labutian poison layer cake notwithstanding. And it’s worth noting that Katie Holmes is about as convincing as a seductress reporter as she was as a crusading young Assistant District Attorney, making two straight films that she’s stopped dead through sheer force of miscasting. She’s also reached the point where the psychotic swirl of her real life is at such a constant crescendo that it’s a distraction ever time she pops up onscreen.

From the Archive — X-Men: Last Stand

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I thought by now I’d already transferred any and all writing I’ve done on superhero movies into this space, but it turns out I was mistaken. Perhaps it was a internalized defense mechanism preventing me from even taking a moment to to think about director Brett Ratner’s dreadful outing with the students and alumni of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. I wasn’t precisely correct in my dread predictions about X4, but my theory about this misbegotten outing setting the muddled tone for the mutant movies that followed holds up, at least until the odd miracle of Logan. This was originally written and posted at my former online home.  

Since I’ve recently been tagged twice by people with a certain cartoon, I’ll specifically refrain from citing any knowledge derived from the four color exploits of Marvel’s Merry MutantsTM in making my case on X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s not like the printed adventures of the X-Men are some parade of pitch-perfect stories that should be exempt from tampering, anyway. It might be helpful to look at what made the original comics successful to help contextualize the flaws and strengths (okay, mostly flaws) of the new film, but since we’re talking about the third film installment we’ve already got prior films to draw on. And when you’re writing about a sequel, those earlier outings are fair game.

And, in the case of this film, they’re absolutely necessary viewing. Maybe the home and portable viewing technology has reached such a point that it’s no longer reasonable to expect that individual films representing big studio franchises have some capability of standing on their own, but I don’t recall ever seeing a film that tried less to bring potential newcomers in the audience up to speed. Not sure why Magneto is telling Wolverine he can smell his adamantium? Sorry. Try checking Wikipedia when you get home, I guess. That problem extends to elements and characters that are new to the films, so anyone who doesn’t lean back in their theater chair with a working knowledge of the quite convoluted make-up of the mutant-driven corners of the Marvel universe is likely to still be in the dark when the auditorium lights come up at the end of the film’s important post-credits coda. This is just one of the issues with the dismal script by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, who between them have left word processor tracks on Catwoman, Fantastic Four, and Elektra, so they’re apparently Hollywood’s go-to guys for mucking up superhero movies. The dialogue is routinely flat, the characters are underdeveloped and the plot has more holes than Juggernaut puts into the converted prison where they manufacture the anti-mutant serum that drives the plot.

The flagrant missed opportunity with that piece of the story might not be Exhibit A against the film and the filmmakers, but it certainly helps lock in the verdict against their efforts. An antidote of sorts has been developed, a serum that counteracts the gene that causes mutations, stripping individuals of their special powers, but also clearing away any pesky physical manifestations that cropped up. Not a big deal if you generate ice or walk through walls, but probably a lot more enticing if blue fur and fangs were included in the power package. Rather than really wrestle with the moral dilemmas raised by this new pharmaceutical, the film makes only a few cursory stabs at enriching the material thus, preferring to use it as just something to drive the plot along and provide a handy escape hatch here and there. One of the appeals of the X-Men in the first place is the way they stand in for any outsider group, oppressed by those who fear them. That’s the subtextual pull of the greater story, and it seems to be utterly lost on the people behind the new film. This serum isn’t just a MacGuffin; it’s something that completely upends the dynamic that drives the rushing undercurrent of the story. Here it’s treated as just another piece to put in place. Another frame of film, marginally different from any other.

That’s the special skill of director Brett Ratner, who has an uncanny ability to deliver utterly pedestrian directing jobs. They’re never all that bad or muddled, simply desperately undistinguished. It’s hard to spot a baldly mishandled sequence, but the entirety of it is hopelessly bland. It’s a beautifully cooked meal, completely devoid of any of the seasoning that would actually give it flavor.

This has long been rumored to be the final film in the franchise, a decidedly welcome close given the sputtering rewards offered by Last Stand. Too bad the box office tally made a forceful counterargument. Not only is X4 likely back in play, it will most assuredly follow the lead of this film, by far the weakest in the franchise. I doubt the folks at the studio can smell Wolvie’s adamantium, but I’m willing to bet they can smell the money it helped generate.

From the Archive — Triviatown

triviatown

I’m a little weary and preoccupied (and maybe a little tipsy) at the moment this posts. There is a documentary out there in the world that helps explain why. This was my stab at reviewing the film shortly after seeing it for the first time. 

Every April the college radio station in Stevens Point, Wisconsin mounts a 54-hour on-air trivia contest as a fundraiser. The event regularly draws over 11,000 participants, especially significant since this is a community with a population just under 25,000, which provides some idea of how thoroughly the contest takes over the city during the weekend it takes place. Years ago, it was designated as the “world’s largest trivia contest,” a title no one has ever really stepped up to dispute. The new documentary Triviatown is largely about some of the teams that make this descent into minutiae a yearly ritual.

It’s extremely difficult for me to evaluate Triviatown as a piece of filmmaking. One way or another, I’ve been deeply involved with this trivia contest for about eighteen years. I fully understand the rigors of helping to organize and stage the event, and I’ve experienced every one of the strange, particular energies inherent with being a player. Everything onscreen produces an emotional response, regardless of how adeptly the filmmakers have portrayed it. It’s like watching a film adapted from a family photo album.

Oh, and I’m actually in it. Luckily, it’s fairly brief and I seem fairly lucid. Unlike one of my teammates, I managed to keep my pants on, so that’s a relief. To a degree it doesn’t matter, though. I could be enagaged in oration that was positive Churchillian, but the mere fact that the movie screen is briefly serving as a sort of mirror is enough to send me crawling under my chair.

The documentary is very much in the mode of Wordplay, the film from earlier this year that spends ample time depicting the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and those who lavish in letting their puzzle solving slip over into the realm of obsession. Triviatown is equally concerned with the ins and outs and twists and turns of the cognitive competition and picks out a handful of teams to carry the narrative. As opposed to the crossword battle between individuals, participants in the Stevens Point trivia contest assemble into teams, usually using the event as a sort of makeshift reunion weekend for family members and old friends. While the different teams generally have a few things in common–some computers, stacks of books–the style of play ranges from businesslike to raucous. The film revels in contrasting the serious, focused approach of Network, a team largely comprised of old high school buddies that has absolutely dominated the contest over the years, to that of The Cakers, a collection of radio station alumni usually shown dancing wildly or consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, seemingly oblivious to the fact that people are reading questions on the radio.

Yeah, I should probably note here that I’m on that second team.

Directors Patrick Cady and Brit McAdams effectively capture everything that any Trivia maven would want to see. They catch moments of narrowly missed questions and breakneck attempts to get an answer called in before the musically-dictated time limit (teams have the length of two relatively short songs to call the radio station). There are controversies, weird behavior, mass collections of people scrambling for information, and tales of team lore that will be familiar to anyone who has slogged their way through the hundreds of queries that parade out of speakers during the course of the weekend. But I wonder how much appeal it will have to those whose knowledge of the event derives strictly from this film. Never mind Peoria, will it play anywhere outside of Triviatown itself? I have my doubts. Time spent on side stories like teams who violate the rules by sharing answers or the dueling admiration and resentment of the top team may push all the hot buttons of the faithful, but I’m less convinced it will keep the average viewer engaged.

It’s worth noting that the station itself is almost a non-presence in the film. That certainly makes some sense; you don’t see them spending a lot of time in Wordplay focusing on how the Stamford Marriott prepares for the crossword tournment. Besides, with over three decades of learned lessons passed down to the students who make it happen they’re approaching that fabled clockwork comparison, although when you’re largely dealing with amateur broadcasters, it can get a little hairy at times. Leaving that aspect on the cutting room floor is understandable, but as someone who remembers what it’s like to have your contributions largely ignored by the teams picking up their trophies, it would have been nice to hear a few more student voices.

To a large degree, these reservations are pure guesswork on my part. I’m far too close to the pasttime held up for inspection in Triviatown to accurately gauge how effectively it passes that first test of a documentary: clearly and thoroughly informing filmgoers about some place, event and people that they previously knew nothing about. When a trivia player tells a story about telephoning Bud Somerville, I was completely drawn in, almost in a state of joyous wonderment, as ridiculous as that sounds. What kind of reaction awaits for a future viewer who has no automatic means of relating to the story? I really don’t know, and while I watched the film, I blissfully didn’t care. Triviatown is a spectacular memento of something that means a great deal to me. For that, I am plainly grateful.

From the Archive — Letters from Iwo Jima

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Last week, I dug out the old review for Clint Eastwood’s The Flags of Our Fathers. It’s time for his follow-up. Since I initially took the occasion of revisiting these reviews of Eastwood films to call into question some of the more overt veneration of his skills as a director, I now feel obligated to add that this effort nabbed a reasonably secure place on my top ten list for the year it was released. 

Well it’s a damn sight better than Flags of Our Fathers, I’ll say that.

The companion to director Clint Eastwood’s earlier film about the battle of Iwo Jima shifts the perspective from the American soldiers who charged onto this little chunk of land in the Pacific to the Japanese fighting men who held their fingers on triggers as they sat in tunnels dug into the hillsides, poised for a battle that they knew was hopeless. Eastwood was trying to cover a lot of ground with Flags, drawing in the carnage of war, the impact of images, the calculated use of heroic veterans to bring in enough money to keep the wheels of war turning, the trauma of adapting to live on the homefront again, and the far-reaching legacy of World War II. In Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood largely concentrates on the battle itself, both the preparation on the part of the Japanese and what happens when the bullets and bombs start to fly. By doing less, he achieves more.

Maybe the greatest compliment that can be paid to Eastwood in this instance is to note that Letters doesn’t feel like a movie made by an American director about a different culture. It has none of the condescension or leaden exposition that often drifts into the most well-meaning of features. Instead, Eastwood’s film truly seems immersed in the lives and ideologies of these men it depicts. For instance, the cultural norm that self-inflected death would be more honorable and preferable to facing defeat at the hand of the Americans is illustrated dramatically in several effective and harrowing moments, but Eastwood is clear-eyed about it. He passes no judgment on this men, and also offers no overt explanations for their actions. This is simply how it was, and he shows it to with the quiet assurance that he has conveyed their lives and their world effectively enough for it all to make sense.

That’s not to say that Eastwood implies a uniformity of belief or vision among these Japanese soldiers. A great strength of this film is that he commits to highlighting the individuality of these men, often in very subtle ways. Every man who pulls a pin on a grenade or aims his rifle has a different reaction to the situation he finds himself in. For every man who screams “Banzai!” with conviction, there is another who does it will heavy reluctance, and then a small fleet who stand at different points on the spectrum between those two reactions. These contrasts aren’t especially highlighted by Eastwood, simply captured by his camera. As always, he brings a great restraint to his film-making. Moments that other directors would inflate with bombastic music and technique, Eastwood lets play out with the flatness of real life. In letting a Japanese soldier read aloud the words of a dead American G.I.’s letter from home with no score accompaniment, for example, the film finds a fresh power in that moment. For a moment, it feels like it may not be a movie construction after all, but a legitimate piece of the wartime experience, the discovery that the enemy’s letters read a lot like your own.

As admirable as Eastwood’s approach may be, it has its downside, too. Like many of his films, the careful pacing occasionally becomes too languid. When you want the film to start moving more briskly to its conclusion, Eastwood keeps it at a gentle amble. That leaves time to further admire the performances of Ken Watanabe as the Japanese General overseeing the futile stand on the island or Kazunari Ninomiya as a soldier who values self-preservation over death-with-honor, but it also gives you time to check your watch and start thinking about what to have for dinner.

It’s hard to be too critical of that, however, as it really is a marker of Eastwood’s style. And when that style can yield unique accomplishments like Letters from Iwo Jima it seems a fair compromise.

From the Archive — Flags of Our Fathers

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Clint Eastwood has a new film out. It is not being especially well-received. In general, I’ve long found the movie critic discourse around Eastwood’s directorial career to be a little perplexing. I’ve liked many of his films, including proud placement of a few on various lists of laudatory accomplishment. But to refer to Eastwood as one of the great filmmakers (I remember at least once critic, circa Mystic River, positing that Eastwood was the greatest American director then working) requires turning a blind eye to a lot of flawed material, even if one generously ignores the absolute worst efforts. I think many critics keep projecting layers of intriguing subtext that simply isn’t there. They believe Eastwood is making statements, though the man himself insists he just makes movies. Arguably, the strongest illustration of the gap between the myth of Eastwood’s artistry and the actual expression of it came in 2006, when in quick succession he delivered two different films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, each from an opposing perspective. One film worked, and one didn’t. This week and next, I’ll excavate my original reviews.

In adapting the the non-fiction bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood is arguably making the most conventional important and serious-minded film of his career. From Play Misty For Me on, Eastwood’s films as a director have always had a sort of pulpy feel. Even his two Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, are immersed in the sort of from-the-gut storytelling one associates with the old school rough and tumble publications that employed the likes of Raymond Chandler and Louis L’Amour, guys who pushed away from the typewriter after rapping out story with dirt under their fingernails. This isn’t to suggest that Eastwood is out of his depth with this World War II drama because his lacks the artistic maturity or nuance to handle the material. Instead where he gets lost is in the script’s disjointed construction. There’s essentially two different films here and Eastwood simply can’t bring them together. The other characteristic of those old pulp stories is that the were unrelentingly straightforward. That’s the kind of filmmaker Eastwood is, but that’s not the kind of film Flags of Our Fathers is.

The book was written by the son of one of the men in the famous photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, one of the most iconic images in American history. His story kinda-sorta shows up in a framing sequence in the film. In the early portion of the film, Eastwood includes moments of him interviewing people about the image, the soldiers and the battle of Iwo Jima. Those brief exchanges are intercut with scenes set in the battle itself, the journey of the photograph through the American consciousness and the halls of government and the celebrations of the men captured on film. Throwing everything out there at the beginning and letting the rest of the film catch up to all the elements that have been introduced is not an especially rare technique, but it’s one that’s new to Eastwood filmmaking toolbox, and he has simply lacks the touch to pull it off. The film opens as a muddled mess, more baffling than compelling.

As noted before, it basically settles down into two different films: the Battle of Iwo Jima and the experiences of the three surviving soldiers from the photograph after they are pulled from their active duty to stump for war bonds because the funds to finish the war are not there. When Eastwood is training his camera on the bursting war itself, the film is surprisingly weak. It doesn’t help that the dusty, bleached cinematography inevitably recalls Steven Spielberg’s superior Saving Private Ryan, but even without the comparison, Eastwood rarely achieves any coherence with his storytelling in these moments. That clumsiness keeps the emotions of the battle itself at a distance. For the most part, if guns are cracking and explosions are bursting on the beach, Flags is floundering.

The film fares better when it turns it attention to men after they’ve returned home, perhaps because this is where Eastwood finally seems to be saying something fresh. As soon as the photo hit the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the military knew they had a public relations coup, the sort of simple patriotic image that would give them the needed boost of homefront morale to finish the job overseas. The soldiers were now enlisted in a different battle, moving between big city rallies and gala parties getting celebrated as heroes and raising desperately needed funds in the process. Just daring to note the last just war almost bankrupt the nation is a little bit of boldness from Eastwood, as is the depiction of the crass exploitation of the men, the way they were summarily discarded and forgotten once they’d served their purpose. Still, there’s generally a flatness to the characters themselves. Ryan Phillippe’s “Doc” Bradley is a quiet cipher, the eyes of the audience, a reduced to bland passivity. Jesse Bradford is stuck with exactly one trait to play as proudly glad-handled Rene Gagnon. Only Adam Beach gets a full-fledged, juicy role to play with Ira Hayes, a Native American soldier whose emotions are desperately close to the surface. Beach responds with a fiercely dedicated performance.

Eastwood’s most effective tribute emerges during the closing credits. He gives us the photos of the real men, simple snapshots of proud, worried soldiers staring directly into the camera, or wounded men being helped across the battlefield. At the end, it cuts to a shot of the memorial that currently stands on the island of Iwo Jima where the flag once flew and the camera drifts off to view the black sand beach from a distance, the carnage long gone, the machinery of the war absent. In that quiet moment, that gentle gesture, Eastwood does more for those men and that place than the rest of his muddled film can muster.

From the Archive — Pan’s Labyrinth

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Look, I’m well aware that the only movie anyone cares about this weekend is set quite some time ago in a galaxy that’s a significant distance from ours. Ideally, I’d devote this weekly exercise in excavation to an relevant piece of old writing, but everything I’ve ever tapped out about the franchise in question had already appeared here. I’d rather dig up some writing about an older Rian Johnson joint, but those reviews have similarly already appeared here. Instead, I’ll offer a bit of a forecast of a different new movie review that should bubble up here this week. While it’s been covered in one of my best-of-the-decade countdowns, I haven’t yet transferred over my original review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Until, you know, now. Back when this was first posted — in my former online home — I was still using mildly relevant song lyrics to headline the reviews. I’m pleased to report this one was presented under the banner “Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl, ’cause it hurts like hell.”

Director Guillermo Del Toro is, first and foremost, a visual artist. His film carry a common denominator of carefully constructed frames marked by fantastic imaginings, and these are the things that linger in the memory after seeing the film: the smoke plume of blood flowing from a head wound in The Devil’s Backbone, the perfectly realization of Mike Mignola’s comic book world in Hellboy, even the creature unfolding itself and its secrets in the process in the underrated Mimic. The emphasis on the images is never at the expense of the story, exactly. It’s just that the stories don’t carry as much richness as Del Toro’s imaginings made as real as film can make them, so the progress of the characters becomes a sort of afterthought.

So it seems a perfect match for Del Toro to craft a fairy tale, a type of story that practically begs for comforting simplicity, where unexpected marvels naturally carry the weight. The new film Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed a deep, dark fairy tale, but Del Toro also takes the enduring purpose of fairy tales as a hopeful charge into a land more wondrous than their own and dramatizes it. For many children, the fairly tales are simply an escape for the plainness of their own experience, where they world grows disappointingly smaller with every day and every new discovery. For others, it a far more necessary escape, a safehouse away from a grim, dangerous home. This is the case for the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, a ten-year-old named Sofia.

The film takes place in Spain in 1944, during the beginning of Franco’s despotic rule. Sofia arrives with her mother at the home of her new stepfather, a military leader fighting off a local rebellion while dispensing clumps of bread to the citizenry with the begrudging benevolence of a fickle deity. He’s a vicious man, which Sofia’s mother, pregnant with his child, tolerates because there are few other options for her. Sofia seeks refuge in the strange world revealing itself in the great stone labyrinth on the grounds of the estate. There is a faun that promises her she is the lost princess from a mystical land, and a quest involving an oversized amphibian, a mysterious key and an enchanted chunk of chalk.

For all the charm it holds, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark, uncompromising film. The military captain father, played with focused menace by Sergi Lopez, is no cardboard villain, but a font of malevolent rage, his self-perceived power manifested through explosive violence. The movie is not gory in the way of the new splatter renaissance but the frank violence Del Toro puts on screen is more affecting in its purposefulness. Every moment that’s hard to watch is there for a reason beyond making the audience squirm; Del Toro is establishing levels of danger and brutality that are more disturbing that that jolting gushers of blood that populate lesser films.

Del Toro has made a film that is a paean to the powers of imagination. It’s a splendid testament to the inventions of a wandering mind, even when those inventions scare us a little. It’s a terrific film, bathed in the muddy colors of dusk and yet bright with the splendor of unfettered inspiration. It is unmistakably the work of its director, from the soothing growl of its storybook opening narration to its brave, beautiful ending.

From the Archive: Jesus Camp

jesus-camp

Writing about Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God the other day got me thinking about this earlier documentary that shows another side of the way religion and zealotry can be leveraged into callous exploitation of youth. This was originally published at my former online home.

The freakiest moment in the new documentary Jesus Camp comes right at the beginning. We see a sort of performance, seemingly in some church’s multi-purpose room. There’s a young boy whose face is painted with camouflage makeup stomping rhythmically atop a riser, beating together long batons in time with a soaring, anthemic song plays and a little battalion of girls in leotards before him match his movements. It’s like something out of “Lord of the Flies: The Musical” as staged by Julie Taymor. It sets the tone perfectly. These are children being trained for war. That’s metaphorical, but just barely.

The film is about Evangelican Christians and their overt efforts to drag America towards being a Jesus-loving nation in accordance with their belief systems. It frames it all with the efforts of Becky Fischer, a cheery zealot who focuses on indoctrinating the youth (because they’re giving kids hand grenades in the madrasahs in Pakistan, after all), running a bible camp where the kids are brought to hear scary (to me) lectures about the sinners that need saving, the genocide brought on by Roe v. Wade and the evils of Harry Potter. It’s a place where the pre-teen campers are worked into such emotional frenzies over their love of Christ that they start sobbing and speaking in tongues. They cheer joyfully when asked if they’d be willing to lay down their lives for their saviour. Jesus sucker-punched me and it felt like a kiss.

The film posits that this is a concerted effort, a tactical assembling of Christian soldiers to march ever onward. To a degree the film makes a compelling case, if only because the glassy-eyed stares of the most fervert proselytizers seem so impenetrable. The greater this clan gets, the more problematic it’s going to be for us heathens.

And yet the film’s not wholly successful, largely because it follows that current trend of documentary filmmaking that involves gathering plenty of footage on a fascinating topic and slapping it together into something shambling and shapeless. It remains fairly effective when it focuses on the camp itself, but the film falters when it heads down (admittedly relevant) sidetracks to a mega-church or a Washington demonstration. These stretches may help the film reach feature-length but they don’t deepen the story, even if there are some scattered telling details that the camera captures. There’s good material, but it doesn’t really serve this film.

Even more problematic is the inserted footage of radio personality Mike Papantonio sounding off on Evangelicals on his show, the camera prowling the studio, catching the bright green modulation waves on a Cool Edit Pro computer screen in a desperate attempt to make the broadcast visually exciting. The bigger issue (albeit the one that doesn’t give me a chance to snarkily show off about recognizing the radio station’s audio software) is that Papantonio’s editorializing seems stagey and forced, a cheaply calculated way to insert a dissenting voice into the film. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are experienced enough (they made the much-admired The Boys of Baraka) to let the material they’ve filmed unspool without added commentary. The voices that are already in the film are speaking loud and clear.