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Review: “Saved!” (2004)

American Eagle Christian School — could there be a more perfect name for the central location of a sharp-toothed satire about the highly sanctimonious? Doubtful. Somehow name-dropping an ace seller of artfully preppy attire signals the ride director Brian Dannelly intends to take us on. For “Saved!” is full of people (adults included) who devote themselves full-time to crafting perfect-looking Christian lives. Queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), in fact, could make praising Jesus while insulting someone’s outfit an Olympic sport. She’s a mean girl wearing a cross pin.

The thing that keeps “Saved!” from seeming wholly hateful and mean-spirited is the abundance of unfake people. The film’s heroine, the aptly named Mary (the supremely talented Jena Malone), possesses none of Hilary Faye’s venom. She’s simply a Christian girl enjoying her walk with God and her life. She has a considerate boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust); a hip-but-still-parental mom (Mary-Louise Parker); and a group of what she believes are kind-hearted friends (Moore, Elizabeth Thai). Then, during an innocent pool-side game of telling secrets, Dean lowers the boom: He’s gay. Mary bolts out of the water, knocking herself unconscious on the pool ladder, and has a vision of Jesus (actually the burly pool guy who saves her from drowning). She is to help Dean become ungay, and she knows only one way: sex. This leads to Mary staring down the barrel of a definitively positive pregnancy test. It’s a life interruption she didn’t account for, and it shakes her faith.

Although teen pregnancy is involved, “Saved!” does not head into Lifetime Movie Network territory. Considering it’s a film that revolves around teens, “Saved!” is unexpectedly witty, good-hearted and intricate. Writers Dannelly and Michael Urban do not pander; nor do they proselytize, either, despite the obvious parallels between Mary and the Virgin Mary. The writers are more interested into navigating the murky, perilous waters of high school life, which looks the same at every high school. The outsiders, not surprisingly, are the most interesting characters. Cassandra (Eva Amurri), the only Jew — called “a Jewish” — at American Eagle, is a foul-mouthed, hard-living smoker, but she also has a good heart. She accepts people as they are. Hilary Faye’s brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin, delightfully sardonic), confined to a wheelchair, hovers on the outskirts as well. New kid Patrick (Patrick Fugit), son of terminally clueless principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), is low-key about his faith, and he admires Mary for having the guts to question hers openly. These students, not Hilary Faye and her minions, are the ones who rally for Mary; they offer her support and kindness she doesn’t ask for but desperately needs. They also see through Hilary Faye’s phony piety to her bitter soul, and they help Mary see it, too.

As teen satires go, “Saved!” is not exactly “Heathers” or “Clueless,” but it doesn’t retract its fangs. Dannelly and Urban aren’t afraid to venture into potential blasphemy to drive home their points. For devout Christians, the most controversial scene, no doubt, is Mary’s showdown with the giant cross on a church building. Faced with an uncertain future, she curses at the cross, daring God to react. There is blasphemy in this scene, but that’s what makes it so powerful. It is a poignant depiction of one woman’s crisis of faith, her need for some kind of solution to the mess she’s gotten herself into. Both her anger and her demand for answers are near-universal. And certainly Malone’s performance lends immense depth to “Saved!” — not shocking considering Malone is a major talent. She is never melodramatic or whiny; she finds the right tone.

So do Parker and Donovan, invaluable character actors playing uncertain lovers. Amurri, an actress with crackerjack comedic timing, and Culkin serve up plenty of great one-liners, but there’s an edge of earnesty to both characters. Moore proves she can be nasty (“I am filled with Christ’s love!” she screams at Mary, hurling a Bible at her back) and take shots at her squeaky-clean image. For all the good-natured ribbing, though, it’s through Hilary Faye that we get the clearest message: The people who yell the loudest have darkness to hide.  

Grade: A-

Review: “Apartment Zero” (1988)

Apartment_ZeroJack Carney (Hart Bochner) considers himself something of a Renaissance Man, able to do what needs to be done — however strange the task — with a pinch of flair. “I should have been a chiropractor,” he jokes to his roommate Adrian (Colin Firth). Problem is, he uses that line after he cracks a dead woman’s back to fit her body inside a trunk. That Jack, what a jokester. And such a showman to boot.

Viewers, gird thy loins for a venture into the murky world of this beguiling sociopath in Martin Donovan’s “Apartment Zero,” the most unbelievably tense and profoundly unnerving thriller to slip past everyone in 1988. Donovan, who cowrote the screenplay with “Jurassic Park” writer David Koepp, creates a deliberate and slow exploration of Jack, a drifter who charms his way into the life of socially awkward loner Adrian LeDuc, who runs a failing revival theater in late 1980s-era Buenos Aires, and everyone who lives in LeDuc’s building. The unknown circumstances surrounding Jack’s arrival and his disturbing ability to play all things to all people form the sticky heart of “Apartment Zero,” and it’s not long before we find ourselves snared in that complicated web.

Adrian, too, finds himself swept up in the inescapable mystery of Jack, an amiable, handsome stranger who shows up on Adrian’s doorstep looking to rent a room. Since running his crumbling theater has emptied his bank account, Adrian agrees, though not without hesitation — he’s an emotional shut-in who despises his prying neighbors, particularly Margaret (Dora Bryan) and Mary Louise (Liz Smith), a pair of nosy gossip hounds. Jack, however, begins to draw out his nervous roommate, bating him with talk of classic movies and, at times, openly flirting with Adrian. The two develop an unusual bond — one with definite homoerotic undertones — but things go sour when Jack starts chatting up the neighbors. He seduces each individually, exploiting their weaknesses with such ease it’s clear he learned Lesson No. 1 in the art of seduction: Assess your target, then act accordingly. 

Here, in the midst of all these romances, is where Donovan sneaks up from behind and quietly loops the wire around our throats. With claustrophobic camera work, he lets us glimpse snippets of the truth behind Jack’s real reason for showing up in politically tumultuous Argentina. There’s a disappearance here, a body there, and Jack never seems to be accounted for when people start to ask questions. None of these murders take place on camera — violence implied has twice the scare power — and no one can be sure if or how Jack’s involved. Is he a political assassin? A serial killer? An innocent man? Though Jack plays cool, Adrian can’t shake his suspicions. But as the credits close in, “Apartment Zero” reveals itself to be a thorny whodunnit with no easy answers, a movie that keeps us guessing and squirming until the final minutes.

Much of this unease comes from Donovan’s structure and his eye for details. His decision to eschew bloody murder scenes is a wise one, since it allows viewers’ imaginations to run wild. We guess, we assume, we form our hunches, but we cannot be certain without visual evidence. Oh, what crushing weight that doubt has. The cinematography, with its focus on dark corners and lingering shots, adds much to this tense atmosphere. The camera work gives us clues and yanks them away in equal measure.

Neither do the actors give much away. People trickle in and out as apartment dwellers or victims, but “Apartment Zero” belongs to Bochner and Firth. Why this role didn’t give Bochner his big acting break is utterly baffling, for he conveys impressive menace and serpentine charm as Jack. We know virtually nothing about this man, and yet Bochner makes him the kind of character who haunts our dreams. The only person possibly more troubling is Adrian LeDuc, who, as Firth plays him, is so repressed it’s shocking that he hasn’t turned inside out. A repressed man is a dangerous man, and it’s an excruciating wait to see how Adrian will melt down. We know “Apartment Zero” will do the same. Not since Hitchcock has a thriller this spare been so exhilarating.

Grade: A