Archive for September 2005

Bam Bam and Celeste

September 13, 2005

Bam Bam and Celeste (2005)Margaret Cho has described Bam Bam and Celeste as “a fag and fag-hag Dumb and Dumber.” It’s actually closer to a gay-friendlier Romy & Michele’s High-School Reunion (which was already pretty gay-friendly), and even shares two of its stars, Alan Cumming and Elaine Hendrix. I guess Janeane Garofalo and Camryn Manheim were busy, or they’d have done cameos as well.

I’m a Margaret Cho fan, though in a couple of her recent concert films she has drifted away from comedy into liberal call-and-response sessions meant to offer catharsis to her audience. All to the good, I suppose, though I like her better when she isn’t telling me stuff I already believe. Then there’s Bam Bam and Celeste, which mostly isn’t especially political, but also isn’t especially funny. Amiable enough to produce the occasional indulgent chuckle, and colorfully photographed to resemble the cotton candy it obviously wants to be, the movie is light and inoffensive but lacks the depth and revolutionary bite of Cho’s best stand-up material.

Celeste (Cho) and Bam Bam (Bruce Daniels, Cho’s frequent opening act) are misfits stranded in DeKalb, Illinois. Celeste has the Manic Panic pixie look going on; Bam Bam, a makeup artist, is the sort of man-hungry, swishy queen that’d be considered a stereotype in any other film — and, though the film (written by Cho) clearly has affection for him, he is a stereotype. Almost everyone else in the movie is, too, except Celeste, who is allowed quirks like running a website called dictatorssuckass.com. That doesn’t have much to do with the plot, except that it sets up Celeste with Eugene (Alan Cumming), assistant on the New York makeover show Trading Faces; turns out he’s a fan of her site. Eugene is there so Celeste can pair off with someone, I guess, though the sight of Alan Cumming kissing a woman in the gayest film I’ve seen since 300 has its own amusement factor.

Cho must’ve enjoyed Elaine Hendrix as one of the three bitches who tormented Romy and Michele in high school, because she returns here as essentially the same character, played with snarky brio (“I am not…done… TALKINNNG!” she snarls at Bam Bam at one point; “Actually, I’m done,” she adds — the comedy’s all in the delivery). Hendrix is now allied against Bam Bam and Celeste in competition on Trading Faces (hosted by a smarmy John Cho); Bam Bam will make Celeste over and show off his genius. The result is unintentionally funny, as Celeste comes out looking perfectly presentable and professional and rather dull (shades of Ally Sheedy’s makeover from goth to boring in The Breakfast Club), something like how she comes off here in general. Neither Cho nor Daniels really commit to their characters; they just seem to be “doing” their respective types as they would in a brief onstage bit.

Bam Bam and Celeste starts out as a road comedy, allowing Cho to bring out the butch-dyke stereotype with Jane Lynch as a shotgun-totin’, trailer-dwellin’, wood-choppin’, everythin’-but-tobaccy-chewin’ lesbian living in an otherwise racist, homophobic backwater. Bigots in this movie exist primarily so that Cho can yell “Fuck you” at them, a touch calculated to elicit many “You go, girl” whoops at gay film festival showings. This is Cho’s first feature-length screenplay, and it has the rambling, slightly dizzy quality of her blog entries. It’s cute enough, a box of chocolates for her fans, though probably lost on the uninitiated.

As onstage, Cho’s most inspired moments find her in old-Korean-woman drag playing Celeste’s mom, who looks and sounds exactly like Cho doing her own mom in concert. That alone earns this friendly but uneven movie a fourth star. Speaking in her mom’s halting, sweetly oblivious but accepting voice (“Use condom!” Mom barks at Celeste; “No glove, no love! Hah! Your mommy cool!”), Cho hits genuinely surreal and hilarious notes. One day, perhaps, Cho will learn to write other characters as quirkily ornery and individualized. Failing that, she could always just hand an entire movie over to her mom. 4

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

September 9, 2005

EmilyRose010805-13Back when The Exorcist was terrifying millions, Pauline Kael dismissed it as “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Well, The Exorcism of Emily Rose might be trying to be the biggest recruiting poster since The Passion of the Christ. This glum and undistinguished drama — it’s certainly nothing so crass as a horror movie, despite the spooky come-on of the marketing — focuses on the battle between faith and science. A nineteen-year-old girl, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), died of malnutrition and general physical disrepair. (This isn’t a spoiler — it’s established from the start.) The solemn priest entrusted with her care, Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), has been charged with homicidal negligence; clearly Emily’s problems were medical, not spiritual. Who’s right, Father Moore or the law?

Enter Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), the worldly lawyer tapped by the Archdiocese to defend Father Moore. We know she’s worldly because she sips martinis at an upscale bar after getting a murderer off on a technicality. Also, she’s agnostic, which is important. Grudgingly, she takes the case, going head to head with aggressive prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott with a bad-guy mustache), a self-described man of faith who nonetheless can’t hide his contempt for Father Moore’s handling of Emily’s ailment. (Also, he’s not Catholic. That’s important, too.) The noble priest doesn’t actually care whether he goes to jail — he just wants to tell the truth about what happened to Emily.

What about the movie? The Exorcism of Emily Rose claims to be based on a true story — the story of Anneliese Michel, a German girl whose death resulted in her parents, as well as the two priests who “exorcised” her, being charged and convicted of manslaughter. Some have said that Anneliese’s symptoms were consistent with major neurological illness and the psychological complications that can arise from it (a devoutly religious person, as Anneliese and the fictionalized Emily were, might interpret her affliction as demonic). So, too, with Emily, and everything the disapproving prosecutor says made perfect sense to this agnostic critic. Your mileage may vary if you believe that exorcisms are anything more than throwing pretty words ineffectually at brain damage.

We get a few flashbacks illustrating the possible rational explanation for Emily’s behavior, but they are fleeting. The real meat of the flashbacks takes Father Moore’s interpretation completely to heart, including an admittedly intense, high-pitched exorcism attempt in a barn. More significantly, Father Moore warns Erin that “dark forces” are surrounding the trial — keeping up with it on CNN, one assumes — and that she may find herself “under attack” from demons. Which she does. She wakes up at 3:00 every night, and eerie things happen. Since we see things happen that can’t be explained away by science, there’s no question which side the movie is on. It’s neither a serious film nor a horror movie (aside from the exciting sequence in the barn); it’s just an agenda put on celluloid. And the agenda is, Father knows best; the Church knows best, and never mind all those lurid stories about child-molesting priests.

I don’t know whether Jennifer Carpenter can act in a more everyday role — she was neurotically amusing in the few minutes of White Chicks I could stand — but in the demanding role of Emily Rose she performs with more energy and pathos than even Linda Blair all those years ago. She has a haunted look even before the demons take her. She manages to outshine her more high-powered costars, who both look stranded; Linney has to pursue a murky, ill-defined character arc, and tormented sincerity comes a bit too easily to Wilkinson. (I prefer the libertine-in-a-collar he played in 1996’s Priest.) The direction by Scott Derrickson is pleasingly realistic in spots — the heavy creaking floor in the Rose household after tragedy — and TV-ish in others; the only scene of any real visual sophistication, when a hysterical Emily skitters through the rainy night past blood-red windows, looks like an outtake from Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

After mean old Ethan Thomas delivers his closing statement insisting on facts — boo! hiss! — Erin takes her turn, and doesn’t actually refute anything, merely asks the jury to accept that Father Moore’s version of events might be possible. In other words, the possibility of the Catholic Church’s absolute authority in all matters should guide a serious legal decision (next week, Father Moore takes on Roe v. Wade!). The movie doesn’t miss a button-pushing trick. Emily’s problems don’t start until she leaves her religious family and goes to college — that hotbed of (gasp) intellectualism — and, worse yet, starts dating a boy. Poor Emily goes from one paternal hell to the next, and at the end, in court, Father Moore reads a letter she wrote that, in effect, exculpates him and his role in her death. Could this letter be interpreted as the delusions of a deeply sick girl in the throes of religious mania and terror? Could this movie be a reactionary tract disguised as a horror-drama? As Erin might say, it’s possible.