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Jesus made me hate you: Moore in Saved!

A Jesus Is Here
By Shawn Stone

Directed by Brian Dannelly

‘Are you ready to get your Jesus on?”

The above shout-out from Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) to an auditorium packed with swaying, praying kids is followed by even more bewilderingly gangsta-flava’d exhortations for Christ. (Such as: “Jesus is in the house!”) The world of American Eagle Christian High School is very different from the upscale public schools usually portrayed in teen films like the recent Mean Girls. Yes, there are the same petty jealousies and flirtations, and, yes, the milieu is trés comfortable upper-middle-class. The difference is that at American Eagle, everyone knows they’re right because Jesus is on their side.

If you’ve never had much contact with Christian schools, Saved! is a very funny, through-the-looking-glass experience. This is a world in which everything is filtered through the assumed will of God. The effect this has with regard to teen hormones and the usual adolescent cruelties is the film’s best joke.

Mary (Jena Malone, in a nuanced performance) has it all: a nice home, a nice Christian boyfriend and a nicer place at the top of the American Eagle social pyramid. She’s disgustingly nice. She’s best friends with golden girl Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, in an over-the-top performance), who rules the school with her well- manicured fist. Hilary Faye is not nice at all. When Mary’s trust in Jesus to help solve her boyfriend problems leads to a descent into sin, the fallout is of biblical proportions.

A good part of Malone’s achievement lies in her ability to make Mary genuinely innocent and faith-driven. Screwing your possibly-gay boyfriend in order to “cure” his homosexuality—and additionally believing that Jesus will restore your “spiritual” virginity—may be moronic, but Mary’s no moron. When everything starts falling apart for her, Malone captures both the teenage angst and spiritual alienation of the character.

Moore, who had previously played only good-girl parts, proves to be an astute comic villain. Hilary Faye (now there’s an inspired name) is a classic type: beautiful outside, vile inside. Moore has mostly downplayed her glamorous pop-star side before on screen, but here she deploys her beauty as an instrument of God’s wrath on those who would oppose her. There’s something shining in her eyes, and it sure isn’t the love of Jesus.

The film would have been funnier if it had toned down its sugar-coated pleas for tolerance, and more textured if the school’s outsiders were also born-again Christians, not a handicapped kid, a gay athlete and a Jewish hellraiser. (Though it was very funny to have Hilary Faye refer to the latter as “the first Jewish” she’d ever met.)

These multi-culti clichés make the ending of Saved! a bit too uniform and sunny. Everyone comes together for a cinematic group hug, when we all know that teenagers just aren’t that nice to one another—Jesus or no Jesus. This is especially true considering that the various paternity issues and complex ambisexual relationships would easily earn the characters a full hour on Jerry Springer. Still, in its forthright message that a too-rigid belief system will inevitably be smashed by reality—and in its occasionally cutting wit—Saved! is redeemed.

Bores in Space

The Chronicles of Riddick
Directed by David Twohy

The Chronicles of Riddick, starring Vin Diesel as an interstellar renegade, is purportedly a sequel to Pitch Black, the unexpectedly suspenseful 2000 sci-fi thriller whose humanist subtext earned it a cult following. Pitch Black also gave Diesel his breakout role as Riddick, a murderer with a conscience whose enigmatic menace winds through the artfully tricky cinematography like noxious vapors in a catacomb.

So, after creating one of the most involving scary-planet movies since Alien, what do Diesel and director-writer David Twohy concoct for an encore? The exact opposite: A bloated, numbingly obvious vanity vehicle that implodes under the sheer dead weight of its special-effects supernovas and reams of back story. And by the way, it barely qualifies as a sequel, employing just enough tie-ins, such as Keith David’s imam (a groundbreaking character in the original, here reduced to a plot convention) to suck in fans of the original. Considering its meaningless overlay of philosophical and cinematic iconography, what the Chronicles really has in mind is to outdo The Matrix Revolutions, Alien Resurrection, and Conan the Barbarian with a single almighty narrative.

Bypassing all the pseudo-socio-political mumbo-jumbo, the plot goes something like this: Five years after escaping from the planet of the batlike monsters in Pitch Black, Riddick is captured by a mercenary (Nick Chinlund as a nastier Han Solo), and taken to his “homeworld,” where we discover he is the last of his kind—his kind being the notoriously rebellious Furions. We discover another kind of kind when Judi Dench’s ethereal sage floats across the screen like a hologram, which is how all wise old Elementals transport themselves. Dench’s primary mission, however, is to conduct herself like a Great British Thespian—GBTs being all the rage in fantasy these days—while convincing Riddick that only he and his mutated eyeballs can defend planet Helion from the invasion of the Necromongers, a fascist nation intent on subjugating every civilization in the universe by eradicating free will.

Needlessly, the Necros have a fearless leader (Colm Feore, heroically keeping a straight face), who has an ambitious heir apparent (Karl Urban in a repellent black mullet), who is under the influence of his scheming wife (Thandie Newton in a ridiculous pillbox braid). After a failed attempt to lobotomize the Last Furion, much strobe-lit regime-smashing ensues, and somehow, only Riddick’s bulging trapezoids, quick reflexes, and sarcastic comebacks can deliver the Helion solar system from wholesale brainwashing. As proof of the Necros’ cruelty, Linus Roach as the chief washer must wear a metallic-fried-egg thingie on his head. Oddly enough, Riddick’s famed night vision rarely comes into play, although he does don those dashing goggles as often as possible. And despite a startlingly gymnastic prison break from a planet called Crematoria with 700-degree sunbeams, there isn’t a single effect that can rival Harry Potter’s pet hippogriff.

Apparently learning a lesson from his recent stink bombs XXX and A Man Apart, Diesel does not try to play Leading Man, instead sharing the overstuffed screen with a parade of extraneous characters while trumping one mortal combat after another. But since there’s nothing Riddick can’t do, and no one he can’t defeat with his bare hands, Chronicles is more exhausting than exciting. Even with glow-in-the-dark eyes, intergalactic saviors can be such a bore.

—Ann Morrow

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