The 1994 David O. Russell film, Spanking the Monkey, has, or seems to have, something important to say about family incohesiveness and breakdown, but that didn’t prevent me from seeing it on my first viewing as shoddy and on my second viewing as a shoddy bore. All that stuff about college boy Raymond’s lovemaking difficulties with the high school girl meanders enough to make it a bore. When Raymond and his mother childishly play with some cheese they’re supposed to be eating, it constitutes some of the tackiest film footage to be shown in ’94 and probably beyond. As for the gradual mother-son incest, why bother to comment? It doesn’t offend; I just have no idea why it’s there, why it occurs. Is it merely because mother and son are sexually starved? Not viable. Spanking the Monkey is an independent film—independent of taste and brains.
The best pop songs, besides being melodic, intelligently concern the human condition, which is exactly what the pop musical God Help the Girl (2014), by Stuart Murdoch, does, book and all. That book and those songs were penned by a bloke who proves he is one heck of a talent; moreover, Murdoch (of Belle & Sebastian fame) also directed this vigorous pic.
Eve (Emily Browning), who has been in a mental hospital, longs to make music and hopes to initiate a new life. She takes up with two new friends, one of whom—James (Olly Alexander)—wishes to love her and solidly aid her in a pop music career. Both aims prove to be a trifle too challenging.
The story grows thinner than it ought to, but the movie itself is never less than intelligent and musically delightful. Although the songs were not written specifically for the film, Browning has a lovely voice for them and is a fitting, touching actor for Eve. . . Not at all inappropriate is Giles Nuttgens’s grainy, charily lit cinematography, and the clothes too (by Denise Coombs) are fetching. With its nice characters, God Help the Girl is utterly harmless, an often cheery paean to pure pop but unsentimental about life.
The work of cinema’s most notorious nonbeliever, the Spanish lapsed Catholic Luis Bunuel, The Milky Way (1968) is a surrealistic and of course sardonic potpourri picture about 1) Catholic history, and 2) our Christ-haunted Western civilization.
Toward some things Christian Bunuel is in a sympathetic mood, but the mood doesn’t last; before long, he snickers at what he myopically considers ludicrous and trivial. Consider: a papist-hating heretic beholds an apparition of the Virgin Mary, later informing a kindly priest of it, and there is in all this a certain sweetness, no sardonicism. Afterwards, however, a beautiful girl surrealistically pops up in the heretic’s (or ex-heretic’s) room at an inn, which prompts the priest to start lecturing the fellow about the ugliness of sexual impurity and the sacredness of virginity and celibacy—all to Bunuel’s displeasure. He creates biting irony in this whole miracle-followed-by-sexual-morality spectacle, as though nothing of the sort could possibly emanate from a deity.
Most of the film’s surrealism flounders. This being a “history,” Jesus appears in the century in which He lived (as a man) but not for a second do I accept Him as the Jesus of Scripture. He is kind but so lighthearted He lacks most of the dignity I believe the Savior of the world would have. In point of fact, Bunuel doesn’t even allow Him the dignity, after He has healed two blind men, of keeping them healed, for it isn’t long before the blindness mysteriously returns. Our atheistic director could never have accepted that Jesus actually worked those New Testament miracles, but is this a good way to show it?
Or maybe he simply wanted to symbolize the figurative blindness of some of Jesus’ future followers, since Christians in this film often persecute heretics and oppose each other, but is this a good way to show that? To me it isn’t, but even if it were, I wouldn’t want to hear it from a creepy pseudo-thinker like Bunuel.