Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Jesus, Bro! (2017) - Movie Review
In the year of some people’s Lord 2014, something happened. A film by the name of God’s Not Dead was released by PureFlix Entertainment. After seeing the rather intense reactions to it online, I checked it out for myself. I didn’t like it. At all. Here’s my review on just how much wrong is contained within. Ordinarily, that would be the end of it: It’s a bad movie, something we get a lot of year-in and year-out. However, this was decidedly different because God’s Not Dead apparently stuck such a chord with both its defenders and its detractors that it spawned, as put aptly by critic and filmmaker Brad Jones, “a golden age of a different kind of exploitation film”.
Over the next three years, a slew of similar Christian-oriented cinema began to spring up, from the hardcore apologetics of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas to the seemingly unaware sexism of War Room right down to the furthering of dangerous narrative of God’s Not Dead 2. Brad himself has covered several of these films on video, either in character as the Cinema Snob or just giving his immediate post-watching thoughts for his Midnight Screenings series. However, it seems that his interest in the subject still can’t be sated so he went all-out and made a feature-length production to mock the hell out of this sub-genre. But how did it turn out?

The plot: After a rough breakup from his girlfriend Elizabeth (Alison Pregler), atheist and Internet personality Rick (David Gobble) wonders where to go from here. When a night out drinking with his friend Carlos (Fard Muhammad) turns into a moment of divine revelation, with Rick meeting Santa Christ (Rob Walker) in a vision from Heaven, he decides to spread his newfound faith to all of his followers. However, between media producer Samuel (Doug Walker) not taking kindly to Rick’s religious awakening and the Devil (Malcolm Ray) lurking in the wings, that mission may prove not only far more difficult but far more dangerous than he first thought.

Gobble has come a hell of a long way as an actor. The guy manages to hold down this film as its central character, and he manages to make even the weirder bits of exaggerated dialogue he’s given feel surprisingly natural. The guy had some out-of-universe time to get into the character through a series of YouTube videos and that kind of experience in the character’s skin definitely shines through. Muhammad, or General Anesthetic as he’s known to the few people who still remember Pop Quiz Hotshot was a thing, does really well as Rick’s best friend, getting everything from the comedic banter to his increasingly disturbing backstory just right. Allison ‘Obscurus Lupa’ Pregler as Rick’s love interest really sells her incredibly expository dialogue, ultimately helping make the film’s case in terms of the kind of writing and filmmaking that it’s trying to spoof.
Rob Walker and Malcolm Ray reprise their Nostalgia Critic roles as Santa Christ and The Devil respectively, and while SC’s inclusion results in a little too much bad comedy in Rick’s dialogue, I’m still surprised that they managed to completely rationalise why SC is even here in the first place. Taking a previously-existing and rather unrelated character and fitting him in this well into the narrative is genuinely impressive. We also have a slew of other Channel Awesome affiliates here, from Nash Bozard of Radio Dead Air as a disgruntled Jesus impersonator to Brad Jones as Rick’s insanely-in-denial brother to Sarah Gobble as what is sure to be one of my new favourite depictions of the Almighty on screen.

Pretty much everything we see on-screen for this film’s not-even-90-minute run time is meant to make fun of something about the new wave of Christian cinema. Some of it is general, like how Rick is characterised to be an outright heinous person initially like all atheists in these kind of films, while some of it is more specific, like a conversation between Rick and Carlos holding coffee cups that is a direct send-up of a similar scene from Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. And it doesn’t even stop at the recent stuff, as the film’s title and the scene it comes from is itself a reference to the 90’s film Second Glance. This attention to satirical detail is what one would expect from a film created and co-written by a film critic well-versed in the sub-genre.
However, the amount of screen time that is taken up by the references to other movies (and scenes of Rick trying to describe who Santa Christ is that get progressively less funny with each iteration) ends up overshadowing the new ideas that the film has to offer. Like how Jones and director/co-writer Ryan Mitchelle draw parallels between sacramental wine drinking and just regular drinking at a bar, turning alcohol itself into a holy conduit. However, where those moments are definitely golden, I’m willing to bet that they might fall on deaf ears unless the viewer is rather familiar with the subject matter. Thankfully, Brad Jones has done heaps of videos about these sorts of films, so at least catching up is an easy enough prospect.

However, there’s a serious potential problem here. With how much it directly references Christian cinema, it could very easily just become one with the crowd. Satire is a particularly tricky business, as the line between exploiting tropes and just utilising them as normal is incredibly thin. Thankfully, there are three big signifiers that this is a film in the right direction. Firstly, it makes no secret about the kind of people it’s making fun of. Whether it’s atheists, Christians and even internet commenters, they are highlighted in the usual overdramatic style of the source material but also brings up genuine issues with each mindset. Like how the usual “the atheist majority wants to suffocate all religion” narrative within the genre highlights problems with the religious circles that push it, or how religious enlightenment can lead people to wanting to spread the message for all the wrong reasons.

The second signifier is that the effects of propaganda, particularly religious propaganda, are a main factor of the narrative itself. Through Rick’s quest to find the right way to bring his message to his fanbase, we see how a person’s standing in a community can give them a chance to spread new ideas, possibly even ideas that the fanbase could make use of. But it also shows how the intent of making people change their minds, sometimes forcing them to do so, can end up doing a lot of damage. One of the reasons why Christiansploitation is as reviled as it is is that it is so often used as a vehicle to push ideas onto people. Not saying that religious messages are inherently bad but, when the front-runner of the sub-genre tried doing so by depicting literally anyone who wasn’t a Christian as the worst kind of human being, the message becomes far less sacrosanct.

And the third and final signifier of this film’s true intentions is that it does what few other religious films would dare to do: It says that a person’s faith doesn’t matter; not if the person who holds that faith is a complete Rickhead in the first place. It emphasizes actions over thoughts and beliefs, not making direct attacks at faith but rather at what that faith leads people to do in the outside world. One of the many films taken shots at is the previously-eviscerated War Room, a film that itself emphasized faith over action and just being a floor mat while letting God sort it all out. Having seen that travesty for myself, seeing a film like this that manages to be respectful, funny and even poignant is a sight for sore eyes.

All in all, while not exactly the roundhouse kick to the face of Christiansploitation that I was looking for, this is still a very good spoof film. Hell, just the fact that this is a modern spoof film that doesn’t make me want to burn everything is cause for celebration. The acting is among the best I’ve seen from the usual CA suspects, the specific targets for satire are not only well-deserving of some criticism but are all given their just desserts, and while theology gets played with and has fun poked at it, the writing shows an understanding of not only Christian cinema but why it so often turns out as bad as it does. In doing so, Jesus Bro! (I’ve become slightly addicted to just saying this film’s name in real life, I love it that much) sends up an entire sub-genre while also outclassing a hefty amount of it in terms of efficacy of message.

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