Death of a President

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dir. Gabriel Range

Long a staple of dog-eared paperback originals, the alternate-history genre—the sort of thing where a small deviation from the established norm ultimately ends up permanently altering the course of humanity—carries a pulpy hook that's hard to deny. Wonky as these excursions can often be (I fondly recall an instance where the Civil War was won for the South by aliens with ray guns), the very act of monkeying with the established timeline can evoke a feeling of catharsis. Hey, the audience is left thinking, things could be worse, after all.

Set roughly a year in the future, Gabriel Range's film posits a scenario where an otherwise mundane Bush meet-and-greet ends in a hail of sniper fire. Before too long, Arab scapegoats are sized up, the newly appointed President Cheney goes xenophobically ape, and the USA PATRIOT Act gains a significant clause or two. On a technical level, this is all impressively rendered, with a fairly seamless mixture of documentary footage, staged reenactments, and a determined cast of unknowns combining to create an uneasy feeling of reality. Unfortunately, far too much time is spent trafficking in the procedural, bogging down in minutiae about ballistic reports and fiber samples while offering only a few tantalizing hints of the larger picture. Although occasionally stirring—the staged scenes of angry Bush protesters, in particular, carry a remarkable, chilling ferocity—Range's film never quite makes the imaginative leap promised. When judged against the real-life outlandishness piling up on a near-daily basis, this what-if scenario can't really measure up. Bring on the ray-gun-toting aliens. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Bridesmaid

dir. Claude Chabrol

Unlike the blind director in Woody Allen's film Hollywood Ending, French director Claude Chabrol could continue making films even if he lost his power of sight. That is the kind of mastery or control he has over his art. Chabrol has been making movies since the late '50s; he inaugurated the French new wave with Le Beau Serge; he is obsessed with murder, with crime, with locating and exploring the roots of evil. The Bridesmaid, a film he completed two years ago, is so Chabrol that one can go beyond imagining that he made it without his eyes and imagine that it was made in his absence. He did not need to be there for the production of The Bridesmaid to happen. The purity and unity of this work is such that he erases even himself from it, dissolving, as it were, into the film's atmosphere of tension, into the pagan luridness of the film's score, into the disturbed (disturbing) expressions and gestures of the actors.

The story is about a working-class family that's anchored by the industrious eldest son (Benoît Magimel). An incestuous something exists between him and his single mother (Aurore Clément). Something weird is also going on with the youngest daughter (Anna Mihalcea). And a third sibling, Solène Bouton, is engaged to a fireman. During the wedding, the son meets Senta (Laura Smet), a bridesmaid and cousin to the fireman. The two fall in love instantly. Senta (sensual, sexual, instinctual), however, has the same dark view of power that led Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov to murder "the hag." She is beautiful, she is Icelandic; he is handsome and enthusiastic—in the original Greek sense of that word, meaning, she possesses him like a demon. Will he kill for her? Can he break her spell? Evil is everywhere, the director is nowhere. "The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails," wrote James Joyce. This God, this refinement is Chabrol. CHARLES MUDEDE

Conversations with God

dir. Stephen Simon

It'd be easy to call Conversations with God a bad movie. I could sit here and tell you that it's smug, creepy, and exploitative. A seeping carbuncle on the back of the ever-expanding Neale Donald Walsch merchandising juggernaut. Mass-produced spirituality for boring people. A stinky, ugly, self-aggrandizing crock of shit. But that would obfuscate the main issue here, which is that Walsch and his legions of suckers are also suuuuuper kookoo krazy-go-nuts!!!

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The movie tells the "true" life story of Walsch (Henry Czerny), a successful radio professional who, finding himself suddenly wifeless and jobless, comes to inhabit a tent in an Oregon park—a literal bum! (How quickly a tweedy intellectual beard can become a wet hobo beard.) Things are looking dire (garbage sandwich!), until Walsch begins receiving sassy advice from a disembodied chatterbox calling itself God: "Is it FEAR that you need in order to be, do, and have what is intrinsically right? Must you be THREATENED in order to 'be good'? Who gets the final say about that? I tell you this: YOU are your own rule maker." God speaks with Walsch's own voice, the point being, of course, that God is you. God is me. God is a hobo and a douchebag and a blowhard named Neale Donald Walsch. And now Neale Donald Walsch is a millionaire.

Now, the God-is-everything scheme is, like, the fifth-oldest trick in the theological book. Walsch is no inventor, just a shrewd repackager, aware of modernity's needy self-obsession. Boring old capitalism, right? Wrong! A little internet research reveals that he's also an endlessly entertaining wacko, peppering his books with spicy nuggets such as, "Hitler went to heaven," "Establish a one-world government," and "Play with sex. Play with it! It's wonderful fun." He's on his 648th reincarnation, and also, apparently, has established something called "Humanity's Team," hoping to bring about a "second Reformation." It's a long way from eating a garbage sandwich. LINDY WEST