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Films I Neglected To Review: Jesus & Mary & Satan & Dennis
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Ask Dr. Ruth," "The Intruder," "Mary Magdalene" and "Satan & Adam."

Unless you were around when she hit the height of her cultural ascendancy in the 1980s, it is perhaps to understand just how much of an impact Dr. Ruth Westheimer had on the subject of human sexuality for the masses. At a time when sex education in America was either cloaked in sniggering euphemisms that confused more people than they edified or, in the case of the then-exploding AIDS crisis, ignored entirely, here was someone who not only discussed sexual matters of all stripes in a direct and forthright manner but who did it in a manner that conveyed the information not as a stern physician but as the world's merriest Jewish grandmother divulging a kreplach recipe. Although the information that she used to convey through her ubiquitous TV and radio appearances can now be accessed with just a couple of keyboard clicks, it is hard to imagine any of that possible without her influence and it is her legacy that is celebrated in the new documentary ''Ask Dr. Ruth.'' Instead of focusing on Westheimer's years of celebrity--there was a time when you could hardly turn on a talk show without seeing her dispensing some form of advice only to be interrupted by the sight of her doing commercial endorsements--filmmaker Ryan White is more interested in providing viewers with a detailed look at her pre-celebrity years that saw her surviving the Holocaust and fighting in Palestine (did you know that she was a trained sniper?) before developing an interest in human relationships and sexuality that leaned more on education than hyperbole. At the same time, White also wants to reclaim Westheimer (who is still working and teaching at the age of 90) from the pop culture scrapheap where some consigned here and make the case for her as a true pioneer in her field. As a result, the film is not exactly the most penetrating work imaginable--it feels at times like an extended ''60 Minutes'' profile--and there are some moments where White veers a little too close to hagiography while leaving more potentially complex and intriguing aspects of his subject's life (such as her staunch determination to not be labeled as a feminist) largely unexplored. That said, Westheimer is as delightful as ever and to see her simultaneously looking back on her life while continuing to press forward with her lifeís mission to improve sex lives is touching, inspiring and ultimately quite entertaining.

''The Intruder'' is such an aggressively dumb movie in so many ways--even by the standards of trashy thrillers cranked out seemingly without thought in order to make a few bucks in theaters before going into constant rotation on basic cable--that even the least discriminating of moviegoers will sit through it while trying to figure out how something so idiotic could have ever made it before the cameras, let alone turn up in multiplexes. In this bizarre throwback to 90s-era yuppies-in-peril films like ''Unlawful Entry,'' ''Pacific Heights'' and ''Single White Female,'' young married couple Annie (Meagan Good) and Scott (Michael Ealy) decide to leave the big bad city and buy a lavish spread out in Napa Valley from Charlie (Dennis Quaid), a widower who has lived there his entire life but is selling the place and going to Florida to live with his daughter. Trouble is, Charlie keeps popping up unannounced to mow the lawn and stuff like that and the soft-hearted (and headed) Annie doesnít help matters much by constantly inviting him in long after he has clearly exceeded all normal boundaries. Turns out that Charlie is not all that he seems to be and is determined to reclaim his former house by any means necessary in gruesome (yet still PG-13-ready) fashion.

Some of the early reviews for ''The Intruder'' have suggested that while it is a demonstrably awful film, it is one of those that is so silly that some might find it entertaining, albeit in a wholly inadvertent manner. I understand that particular mindset but even the MST3K/RiffTrax experts would be dumbfounded by this absolute craptacular. Even the characters in ''Manos: The Hands of Fate'' demonstrate more logic and common sense than the barely sentient dimwits featured here, a group that constantly acts in such idiotic ways that their collective IQ would still pale before that of a bottle of bacon bits. The suspense element turns out to be little more than a series of poorly timed jump scares that start off as being anything but scary and move into inadvertently hilarious before finally just becoming annoying as hell. The filmís other big selling point is Quaid's over-the-top performance as the HGTV host from hell at its center and while he is clearly having fun, it never translates to the audience--his turn is presumably meant to echo the eye-rolling excesses of Jack Nicholson at his most manic but he ends up evoking the Nicholson of ''Man Trouble'' far more than he does the Nicholson of ''The Shining.'' The house at the center of ''The Intruder'' may be a gorgeous and palatial spread but trust me, the film itself is 100% pure and unadulterated crapshack.

On paper, the concept of observing the story of Christ and his disciples through the perspective of one of the Bible's more misunderstood figures, Mary Magdalene, sounds like a fresh and intriguing way of looking at that particular narrative by giving a feminist spin to the material. One of the major problems with ''Mary Magdalene'' is that it introduces this conceit and then largely fails to do much of anything with it. In the early scenes, we see Mary (Rooney Mara) chafing at a society that treats her as little more than property--when she displays no interest in getting married, her own father arranges for an exorcism that results in her near-drowning--until Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples come around and she elects to go off with them instead, trading one patriarchy for another, one that is obviously gentler but still a structure where her voice is rarely heard. Unfortunately, rather than explore what exactly it was that drove her along, Garth Davisís film is more content to simply push her personal narrative to the side while going about the usual Bible-movie business and all but forgetting her presence for long stretches of time.

This is problematic but what ultimately does the film in is the bizarre casting of the two central roles. Never the most dynamic of performers under the best of circumstances, Rooney Mara so thoroughly underplays the role of Mary that it is impossible to reconcile her wan interpretation with the woman who would go on to inspire so much controversy among scholars in subsequent centuries--even though it is theoretically Mary's story, she fails to suggest any real insight into who this person really was. At the other end of the performance spectrum, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a take on the part of Christ that is so screwy that it almost defies description--between his sub-Manson appearance and demeanor and a vocal pattern more reminiscent of a second-rate Christopher Walken impersonation, you cannot imagine this Jesus inspiring a gum run, let alone a vast spiritual movement. ''Mary Magdalene'' has clearly been made with the noblest of intentions but thanks to a faulty and lackluster execution, those intentions have unfortunately paved the way to two hours of cinematic hell.

Despite the title, ''Satan & Adam'' is not another horror film dealing with satanic possession and whatnot. Instead, this documentary by V. Scott Balcerek is a documentary chronicling the surprising rise and abrupt fall of a wholly unexpected musical collaboration that eventually developed into an equally surprising friendship as well. In the mid-1980s, young Ivy League-graduate and aspiring musician Adam Gussow, reeling from the end of a romance, found himself in Harlem (not the ideal place for someone of his pedigree to turn up at that point in time) and found himself watch a one-man band bluesman billing himself as Satan (real name Sterling Magee) playing on the street for change. Entranced, Gussow asked if he could join in and the two soon became a regular fixture in the neighborhood and would gain national prominence when a brief snippet of a performance was featured in U2's ''Rattle & Hum'' album and film. From there, the two launched a career that saw them spend the next few years recording albums and playing high profile gigs at festivals and touring with Bo Diddley until, as quickly as they came together, the two split apart.

Utilizing archival footage of the duo shot during their ascendancy along with newer footage and interviews designed to bring viewers up to speed, the film then charts what happened to cause the two to split apart in the first place and the ways that their time together who go on to influence their lives in wholly unexpected ways. In telling the story of an attempt to track down a mysterious cult musical act who seemingly vanished into thin air, Balcerek is clearly aiming to make the next ''Searching for Sugar Man'' but the story, at least as it is told here, never quite hits those heights--it seems at times as if major parts of the story are missing and at an awkward 80 minutes, it often feels like an overlong version of one of the feel-good profiles you might see on a Sunday morning magazine show. At the same time, while the story at first glance does sound like another bit of emotional exploitation in which an aging African-American man teaches a callow young white person the ways of the world, it happily does not unfold along those lines and the story that it does tell proves to be surprisingly touching and engrossing for the most part even as you keep wishing that it filled in more of the details about the life and work of Satan & Adam. Oh yeah, the music is pretty good as well.

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originally posted: 05/04/19 01:19:56
last updated: 05/04/19 01:55:49
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