Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town
dir. Micha X. Peled

Sat Nov 30 at the Little Theatre.After watching this sad little documentary about a small Virginia town's attempts to prevent Wal-Mart from opening a local supercenter (spoiler alert: The bad guys win), I couldn't help but think that the critical question raised by the matter had less to do with economics than with presentation.

This point is raised by a member of the opposition, a reasonable Southern man (the kind you don't see in films), who reports with some dismay that he's been advised to remain dispassionate in the battle. Such advice is unthinkable to him and his cohorts, because passion is at the heart of their protest--passion for a way of life, for a model of commerce, for smallness. This passion doesn't prevent them from making a strong, eloquent case, but it does lead them into a quaintly theatrical style of discourse that undermines their argument. They adopt a trivial name (the Pink Flamingoes) and appeal to sentiment--not cheap sentiment, but sentiment nonetheless--in the face of cold, economic truth.

The spirit of the opposition's effort isn't entirely misplaced, but neither is it entirely sufficient to combat the reality of modern corporate dominion over cities and states. The townfolk freely admit to a complete lack of experience in such matters, which makes the sight of one protester dressed up as a gorilla in a party dress shouting at cars all the more frustrating. It's somewhat heartbreaking to see their desire thwarted by the Wal-Mart juggernaut, especially when the argument in favor of the superstore is presented by drones and semiliterate boosters. Credit goes to director Micha X. Peled for resisting the impulse to make the pro-Wal Mart forces and fence sitters look ridiculous or corrupt. There are many sides in this argument, and Store Wars distinguishes itself by treating a question like a question, even when it's clear that nobody likes the answer.

Emotions aside, the scenario presented in this documentary is familiar enough that one begins to focus on the inevitability of the outcome, rather than the injustice of it. A sense arises that the struggle is a struggle against social evolution--which, needless to say, is a worthy struggle. But it's a struggle that demands more than pink flamingoes. SEAN NELSON

Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping

dir. Dietmar Post

Sat Nov 30 at

the Little Theatre.This documentary about a performance-art culture jammer named Reverend Billy, who stages public protests against everything from Starbucks to NYU's School of Law, contains several scenes that reveal the filmmaker to be either credulous or subversive. The camera holds on the tirelessly self-aggrandizing Billy between his rabble-rousing "sermons"--which are full of both useful information and maddeningly juvenile rhetoric--allowing us to witness the very human frailty behind his civil disobedience. Though it's hard not to sympathize with his causes, at least morally, the actor's ego that fuels his bluster is singularly alienating, contemptible even, calling into question not only Billy's motives but his sincerity as well. Is this just another New York wannabe-celebrity, or a genuinely righteous crusader? The documentary lets the viewer decide, but also provides an inescapable sense that Reverend Billy is fighting a both necessary and hopeless cause, and for only some of the right reasons. SEAN NELSON

Alias Betty

dir. Claude Miller

Fri Nov 29-Thurs Dec 5 at

the Varsity.Wow! You don't often come across a film so exhilarating and so resolutely dark as this French adaptation of Ruth Rendell's 1985 suspense novel, The Tree of Hands. It's a film equally full of life and death, love and neglect, passion and frigidity--and director Claude Miller revels in the dusky overlap. The plot is fraught with twists that not only surprise the viewer but fundamentally change the thriller's progress; the film's neatest trick lies in never letting us know whose story we're actually watching. I know this sounds vague, but really, to synopsize this movie just feels irresponsible. The ever-shifting narrative positively relies on the audience not knowing what comes next (whereas most film narratives just lean on it); to reveal much of anything would be a violation. What I can say (other than "Trust me") is that Alias Betty is a film about the constant environmental and human dangers that threaten the safety of young children, and the unforeseeable ways that parents can (often simultaneously) both embody and combat those dangers. The only other thing I feel comfortable revealing is that Miller's film is the nearest thing to a response to the captivating, candy-colored whimsy of Amélie the French cinema has created yet. SEAN NELSON

Die Another Day

dir. Lee TamahoriAfter about two hours of workmanlike action and suspense, and a battery of sexual innuendo about as subtle and charming as a herpes sore, the 20th James Bond film finally surrenders to its own muddled identity. After being chased by a giant laser across a vast ice tundra to a sheer cliff, James Bond parachutes down onto the ocean surface, where he then parasurfs to safety. The bluescreen effect (or whatever it is) is so all-fired phony and dumb that it makes the whole film--indeed, the whole series of films--ring retroactively camp. Likable Pierce Brosnan has long since outlived his inevitability in the lead role, and takes a turn for the Roger Moore with this film. His heroics, his sexual bravado, his body hair--they all seem to indicate an epic disjunction between the supersmooth ultraspy we keep hearing about and the vaguely handsome tool we see onscreen playing him. Predictably, this film's only real recommendation lies in the stuffing of Halle Berry's wild bikini, but frankly, you can get to that more easily by doing a Google search. SEAN NELSON