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A Michigan Reader Hits The Traverse City Film Festival, Sees RELIGULOUS And FLASH OF GENIUS!!

Beaks here... I'm not sure if this is AICN's first review for Larry Charles's (or is that Bill Maher's?) RELIGULOUS, but it's definitely the first I've read. What's especially interesting is that it was written by an evangelical Christian who did his best to stay open-minded as Maher unleashed a blistering attack on his faith (and, from the sound of it, the faith of just about everyone else in the world). I'm not a huge fan of Maher myself (never liked his stand-up, and only watch his show for the guests), but anything that challenges folks to more closely examine their religious beliefs is, on balance, a good thing. Did Maher convert our contributor to atheism? You'll find out after you read his review for the comparably innocuous FLASH OF GENIUS.

(FYI, the version of RELIGULOUS screened in Traverse City was not final.)

Hi Harry, Mori, et al. I just got back from a couple of films at the 4th Annual Traverse City (MI) Film Festival, and since I haven't seen anything on your site about Greg Kinnear's "Flash of Genius" or Bill Maher's "Religulous," I thought I'd chime in with my two cents. So use these reviews however you want. First of all, a few words about the Traverse City Film Festival - it might be better known nationally as the Michael Moore Film Fest, as he is the cofounder of the festival. He's a native Michigan guy with a summer cottage in the area, and though many locals here don't approve of his politics, they sure love what he's done with the film festival. His big score this year was getting fellow native Michigander Madonna to show up and show off her new documentary, but it was sold out weeks ago and I didn't have much interest in seeing it. Anyway, it's been one of the highlights of my summer each of the last few years, and I was excited to go again! The first film I saw today was the docudrama "Flash of Genius," starring Greg Kinnear, by first time director Marc Abraham. Kinnear plays engineering professor Bob Kearns, who in the first 10 minutes of the film invents the intermittent windshield wiper. Kearns is convinced he is going to make a boatload of money from Ford Motors, as they tell him they want to use his design in their new cars. Without warning, they say they are no longer interested, but soon after new car models are introduced utilizing his windshield wipers. Kearns becomes obsessed, to the detriment of his health, career, and family, with receiving his proper credit and getting Ford to admit they stole his intermittent wiper idea. This is Kinnear's film to carry, as he is in pretty much every scene. I'll admit, I usually like Kinnear in most films, and I thought he should have received more praise than Arkin or Carell did for his role in "Little Miss Sunshine," but it was a little hard for me to accept him at first as a 1960s or 70's era college professor. I kept waiting for him to make some snarky "Talk Soup" type comment. He's not always likable or rational - he's the kind of guy who turns down the advances of his lovely wife (Lauren Graham, looking great in a nightgown as the mother of his six kids) to go work in his basement on his invention! Graham has a few good lines in the first half of the film, as does Dermont Mulroney, as Kearn's car dealer friend/parnter, but the two almost disappear in the second half of the film. This being a true story, I'm sure the writers were boxed in somewhat, and I'm not sure how much artistic license they took. There are some other notable supporting performances, with Alan Alda appearing too briefly as a lawyer, Mitch Pileggi as a bad-guy Ford honcho, on-screen just a few minutes longer than he was in the latest X-Files flick, and even Daniel Roebuck (Doc Artz! Hi Node 32774 and Room 23 friends!) as a Ford engineer. I had 2 minor complaints. First, the story dragged a little in the middle, when Kearns hits bottom. That is probably due more to the story itself. Secondly, the narrative and title screens never seem to commit to a time frame. At first it seems we're in the 60's, with Kearns inventing the wipers, then we get a "Four Years Later" title card and Kearns has home videotapes in his house and leaves messages on an answering machine. Are we suddenly in the 80's? We aren't told. Overall, the movie was enjoyable. Kinnear mostly wins you over, and the audience really seemed to get into the David vs. Goliath story. I can see the studios trying to build some Oscar buzz for Kinnear's performance, but I feel it's just a very good, as opposed to a great, performance. I'd give the film 4 out of 5 stars. My second film of the day was Bill Maher's sure to be controversial "documentary" "Religulous." This film was directed by Larry Charles ("Borat"), who is also on the board of directors at the Traverse City Film Fest. He came out and introduced the film, saying we were the second audience in the world to see it, after the previous night's showing of the film. Then we immediately got to the flick. Bill Maher does his best Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock here, as he goes around interviewing various people of faith around the world, pointing out the absurdities of their beliefs. The interviews are interspersed with pop culture clips and Maher's own comments. He spends the first hour or so taking on Christianity, and he starts by examining his own background by interviewing his sister and Jewish mother, who raised him Catholic like his father was. He moves on to interview some easy targets like believers at a truck stop, an African-American "prosperity and riches" preacher who wishes to be addressed as Dr. - even though he has no degree, an ex-gay preacher, the propritor of the Creation Museum, and a Jew for Jesus, among others. After an hour grilling Christians he eventually gets to Mormonism, Scientology, Judiasm, and finally Islam. I've got to be upfront - I'm an evangelical Christian, and I went in this film expecting to be offended to some extent. I was a fan of Maher's Politically Incorrect show when it was on ABC, and though I disagree with his political views more than I agree, I appreciated the fact that he brought some diverse viewpoints and speakers onto mainstream TV. Maher brings up some goods laughs during this film, I'll admit, mostly due to his comebacks, one-liners, and creative media clips. The biggest laughs come from an interview with Senator Mark Pryor from Arkansas, who admits "there's no IQ test to be senator." I also enjoyed Maher's diatribe in London's Hyde Park, where he "preaches" the Gospel of Scientology, and his interview in Amsterdam with the stoned founder of the "Church of Cannabis." But overall this film was a big disappointment. Maher is unable to raise the level of discourse on religion any deeper than what most of use probably went through in the dorm during freshman year of college. He dismisses all of Christianity based on the supernatural events in the Bible, which he says couldn't have happened, and complains that it doesn't present itself the way he personally wants it to. Maher also attempts to mock an actor playing Jesus at a Holy Land theme park in Orlando, but the actor comes off as being much more genuine and caring than Bill ever does. When Christians in the film state that something is a Biblical fact, Maher laughs it off and says they can't back it up. But he then dismisses Jesus Christ as being = Horus, an Egyptian God, which he states as being a fact, even though he doesn't back it up himself. The last half hour of the film, when he veers away from attacking Christianity, seems to drag quite a bit. Maher does interview a few people that seem to carry some intellectual weight, such as Dr. Francis Collins, author of the Human Genome project, but those interviews are extremely brief and heavily edited. Most of the politicians he shows in clips are Republicans (Bush, McCain), though he doesn't mention Obama's faith and the fact that Sen. Pryor, who doubts evolution, is a Democrat. The kicker is the ending. (MAJOR SPOILER - I guess): After 90 minutes of interviews, Bill states that all religion is evil and must be destroyed for the good of humankind. He comes to this conclusion based on the Koran's and the Bible's predictions of destruction of the world at the "end times" and feels that these religions want the world to be destroyed because God or Allah has ordained it. Bill states, without irony, that the only certainty anyone can have in life is doubt, and that anyone that claims to have certainty over the afterlife is fooling themselves and others. (He states this with some certainty!). While extremely "subtle" images play on the screen (nuclear explosions, war in Iraq, suicide bombers, etc..), Bill continues this long sermon against religion with the passion of a fire and brimstone preacher. I wasn't sure if his venom was intentional or not, but he comes off as being no different from those he mocks in the film. The ending is especially jarring as the build-up necessary for that type of extreme statement never seems to be existant beforehand. I think this film may play well to the audiences that want to hear it. There are some good chuckles in the first 2/3 of the film, and if you're anti-religion you might enjoy the message. I saw this with a friend who is opposed to religion and she liked the film much more than I did. I think Maher might be looking for controversy to help sell this film, and I hope the Christian community won't take his bait. I'm still surprised at his venom at the end - it seemed rather out of place for a film that previously had a mostly lighter tone. Director Larry Charles did a Q&A after the film, which I missed, but I sure wish I could have stayed for the potential fireworks. I'd give the film 2 out of 5 stars. TheBigE (not a plant - I was a big contributor to the 10000 post Lost TB last year, and I live in Michigan, for crying out loud!)

RELIGULOUS will likely play at this September's Toronto Film Festival, so you can expect to hear much more on this one in a few weeks. Prepare for rancor.

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