Don Verdean

(USA 2015)

Some movies are hilarious and even endearing because of their silliness. Take, for example, Napoleon Dynamite by Jared and Jerusha Hess. Other movies are just plain stupid. Don Verdean, also written by Team Hess and directed by Jared, is the latter. Too bad, because the premise has potential: Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a “biblical archeologist” hellbent on proving Christianity—apparently through science. When he accepts a patronage of sorts from aggressive Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), founder of an evangelical church named after himself, Verdean is slowly sucked into a big fat lie that spirals out of control. He goes along with it for the purported not to mention dubious aim of “inspiring” faith. Needless to say, things get sticky.

There are some funny moments here, like an Israeli police officer (Yaniv Moyal) reading Verdean the riot act for digging in the desert without a permit; a cringeworthy date between Verdean’s assistant, Carol (Amy Ryan), and his Israeli guide, Boax (Jemaine Clement); and ex-hooker Mrs. Lazarus (Leslie Bibb) performing an outrageous ditty about not ending up like Lot’s wife. Ryan plays Carol with the right balance of sweetness and tragedy, and Will Forte as Pastor Fontaine, former Satan worshipper and Lazarus’s nemesis, is a breath of comic fresh air. Everything else– the story, the execution, even the acting– falls flat. Clement is a terrible Jew, and his weird French-sounding accent is fucking annoying. The jokes are not funny, the characters are tiresome, and the story gets old fast. Don Verdean feels like a lame ripoff of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show). Easter mass is more entertaining than this. Yawn.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D

Heart of a Dog

(USA 2015)

At first blush, a film about a pet might sound funny, even stupid. Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s first feature-length in 29 years, is neither. The film’s center is Anderson’s rat terrier, Lolabelle, but don’t be fooled: there’s a lot more to this piece.

Focusing on “Lola”– who “fingerpainted,” “played” the keyboard, and apparently had a Facebook page– Anderson reflects on life, death, loss, grief, and love in an emotional yet restrained, objective way that probably only she can pull off. Drawing from her experiences growing up in the Midwest, life in Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11, her dreams, and even topics she must have researched, she zigzags between personal anecdotes– both serious and goofy– and information and the topic of death. Death is clearly on her mind: she circles back to Lola, her mother, children in an intensive care burn unit where she was stuck for months as a child, and eventually her famous husband, whose presence hovers like a ghost in the love story she references– it’s fitting that he sings over the closing credits (“Turning Time Around”).

As one might (or should) expect, Heart of a Dog has strong visual and auditory sides. Visually, it’s a pastiche of drawings, paintings, animation, home movies, dramatizations, and natural scenes that blur and mix together. The soundtrack is cool, with bits and pieces of orchestrated sounds and Anderson’s soothing, robotic cadence. The effect is a dreamy, airy, semi stream of consciousness. In the end, it’s a touching elegy that struck a chord with me. Heart of a Dog is an art film that manages to be accessible without losing its impact.

(Music Box) B+