Utne Reader Film Reviews, May – June 2008

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Black Sheep in the Flock
For The Bible Tells Me So
(First Run Features; on DVD)
Few people walk around carrying “God hates fags” signs–thank God for that–but plenty of U.S. Christians ascribe to some variation on this line of thought, from “the Bible disapproves of homosexuals” to “stone them to death.” And some of these Christians have children who turn out to be gay. (Mysterious ways, indeed.) The documentary For the Bible Tells Me So focuses on several such families and how they’ve grappled with the earth-shaking clash of their faith and their family bonds.

The parents tell wrenching stories of their sons and daughters coming out, soul-searing struggles with their beliefs, and, for most, an eventual coming to terms that ranges from grudging to wholehearted acceptance. (One mother never got the chance: Her daughter committed suicide.) Interspersed with these emotional interviews are religious experts who dissect the biblical passages often wielded by antigay religious crusaders, notably the “abomination” line and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. A clever instructional-style cartoon addresses the social, psychological, and genetic foundations of homosexuality and soundly debunks the notion that it’s a choice.

Two of the film’s subjects are public symbols of gay assimilation: Gene Robinson, the groundbreaking Episcopal bishop, and Chrissy Gephardt, former U.S. representative Dick Gephardt’s famously lesbian daughter. Their families are like most of ours, though, full of love and tension, and at the end of the day their ordinariness wins you over. Bishop Robinson’s father says: “We got a couple of books and read about gay folks, and we tried to learn all we could about it.” Way to go, pops. –Keith Goetzman

Syndromes And A Century
(Strand Releasing; on DVD)
Produced, directed, and written by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Syndromes and a Century presents a bracingly alien experience for anyone bred on plot-driven cinema–that is, pretty much all of us. Set in a rural clinic and an urban hospital, the film has no overarching narrative. Instead, it features scenes of tentative romance and tenderness (all the characters seem to be flirting with each other) and, near the film’s end, hypnotic tracking shots of statues and ductwork. The pacing is glacial, but the cast’s wacky, near-impaired sociability is captivating. When a doctor in the hospital asks a young patient, “What will you be in your next life?” the teenager replies, “Human, I guess.” Uncertainty never seemed so much to the point. –Michael Rowe

Standard Operating Procedure
(Sony Pictures Classics; in theaters)
Taxi To The Dark Side
(ThinkFilm; in theaters)
One day, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will end, but the horrors will never die. Here are two riveting documentaries about the U.S. military’s actions overseas that offer the images and arguments to ensure that no one forgets the nightmare. Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure explores the psychological complexities that lie outside the frame of the infamous prison torture photos, while Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side connects the dots between Gitmo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib. Both films arrive at the same verdict: The soldiers were scapegoats for the larger crimes committed by their superiors. The most disturbing revelation may be that both high-ranking officials and lowly military police, many with smiles on their faces, disavow any responsibility for the torment and murder of innocents. –Anthony Kaufman

Chop Shop
(Koch Lorber; in theaters)
A neorealist gem, Chop Shop looks like it comes from some poverty-stricken forgotten pocket of the world: Think of the Brazilian favelas of City of God or the Mexican slums of Los Olvidados. But Chop Shop takes place in Queens, just a stone’s throw from Shea Stadium and a billboard that declares, ironically, “Make Dreams Happen.” In this urban wasteland, 12-year-old Alejandro survives by working at one of the area’s many chop shops, hustling clients and stealing hubcaps. He wants to make a better life for himself and his older sister, but life’s cruel realities inevitably stand in the way. The coming-of-age story may sound familiar, but director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart) finds transcendence and tragedy in the intimate details of the everyday. Something as simple as a flock of pigeons takes on a whole new resonance. –A.K.

Lili’s Apron
(First Run Features; on DVD)
Bitter, sweet, sad, and funny, Lili’s Apron depicts the downfall of a working-class family following the Argentine economic crisis of 2001. After losing his job in a dingy restaurant, Ramón Sobrero assumes his wife’s identity (and her maid’s outfit) to work as a domestic servant for an upper-class, but equally unrefined, household. Much of the comedy comes from watching the depths to which the prototype of Argentine machismo is willing to stoop. Couched in oddball situations, the not-so-veiled social commentary points to the psychological damage inflicted by the economic collapse. The film begins and ends with music in the style of a famous Argentine tango, “Cambalache,” whose lyrics describe the 20th century as “problematic and feverish.” For the Sobreros, the 21st century has been more of the same. –Bennett Gordon

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