Mary, a student at an ultra-religious high school, has sex with her boyfriend Dean, thinking Jesus wants her to in order to keep him from becoming homosexual.  It doesn’t work, but it does make her pregnant, which violates her assumed agreement with Jesus to make her a born again virgin.  With her faith shaken, she realizes that her companions are hypocritical, narrow-minded fools, particularly Hilary Faye, the queen of the school, and turns to Cassandra, a rebellious Jew, and Roland, a handicapped agnostic, who is Hilary Faye’s brother.

It’s hard not to like Saved!.  It rips at the conservative right, noting the puffed-up, overly pious attitudes and the hypocrisy, promotes tolerance, tosses in some humorous situations, and does it all with engaging,  multilayered characters.  But that is also the problem.  Saved! is a nice movie.  While it did offend the insane wing of the Christian church, it isn’t because its message of acceptance is controversial, but because those folks are crazy.  It is not an anti-religious film.  Nor is it dark.  It is friendly and happy.  And that’s not what a satire should be.

It starts off right, with Mary narrating, pointing out her bizarre, extremist Christian behaviors as if they were the most natural thing in the world (like her work on the fifty-foot wooden Jesus statue).  That’s before we see her in the pool with her boyfriend where they play a game that involves telling secrets.  When he says he’s gay, she hits her head and blacks out.  Her hyped-up religious reality makes her ripe to see Jesus, which she does, in the form of a lifeguard, and she deduces from this that she should use sex to save Dean, because the Son of God will purify her afterwards.  Add in the middle-aged preacher who tries to be hip for God (“Jesus is in the hi-t-ooussse”), Hilary Faye as the school’s Heather, who can’t finish a sentence without praising Jesus, and an ostracized Jewish girl, and all the pieces are in place for a biting attack on organized and unorganized religion, and faith in general.  But it doesn’t happen.

Once it is clear the problems are part of religion, the Christian religion in particular, writer/director Brian Dannelly and writer Michael Urban change their mind.  The system, it turns out, is fine; it is a few bad eggs who are the problem.  All the myriad evils are laid upon Hilary Faye who violates even the Christian Right’s rules of behavior.  It’s just a person who’s at fault.  Everyone else is good, and before the credits roll, even Hilary Faye is revealed to be a vulnerable and kindly soul who just needs love.  That’s not much of a meaningful theme.  We’re even left with Mary, whose crisis of faith ended up being only a mild inconvenience of faith, proclaiming how a world so meaningful couldn’t be random and we all need some form of god to get by.

While “can’t we all just get along” is a reasonable basis for a film, Saved! should have been more.  It was locked and loaded, then laid down its weapons and declared universal peace.  So, instead of a classic religious variant on Heathers, we get a pleasant footnote that will be forgotten in a year or two.

Satánico Pandemonium

Sister Maria is a pure and gentle soul, until she meets the Devil.  She fights his influence, but evil is stronger, leading her to seduce another nun, attempt to have sex with a young teenage boy, aid in a suicide, and murder multiple people.  But is that really the effect of evil?  The nunnery is not a place of kindness and generosity, but rather of racism and cruelty.  Some things need to change, and Sister Maria is just the girl to get to the heart of the matter.  But maybe she should try decaf next time.

Satánico Pandemonium is a difficult film to get your head around.  It appears to have a Gordian Knot of a plot, but it’s cut at the end to reveal a very simple story.  The trick is working out the theme (or themes).  The film is filled with blasphemy, but is it anti-religious?  Is it an indictment against repressive authorities or a psychological examination of the pent up desires we all have (that probably should be repressed).  It would be a lot easier to nail it down if there was only one answer, but censorship didn’t allow that.  In order to get the OK for a general release in Mexico, a very religious country, the filmmakers had to give an out for the Church, a way of interpreting the film that wouldn’t be (overly) offensive to Catholics.

While pundits label the Nunsploitation movement (a group of films focusing on convent life, and including sexual and violent elements) as European, the best convent films tended to be made far away from its roots.  There was too much of a tradition of schlock cinema on the continent, where nun flicks could be tossed into an already defined marketing niche.  In Mexico, with a shorter film tradition and far fewer directors, there was more of an attempt at meaningful expression and artistry in what was elsewhere considered cult films.  This shows up most visibly in the art direction, set design, and cinematography.  Alucarda is memorable because of its avant-garde convent design and surreal costumes.  Satánico Pandemonium is less bizarre, instead capturing the simple Beauty of the countryside and buildings.  It is a movie where the background imagery alone make it worth watching.

We first see Maria in a metaphorical Eden.  She is picking vibrant wild flowers in a tame, but natural looking forest.  The sun is bright, and the colors are rich.  She chats to a contented boy, and holds a lamb.  It doesn’t get more idyllic.  But a man shows up, first nude, and then in elaborate garments, and offers her an apple.  From then on, nothing is quite as beautiful.  She runs to her convent where the nuns show little joy in life and abuse the two back acolytes, making them serve the others, eat alone, and sleep in the dank basement.  Had the Devil opened her eyes to the cruelty around her?  Maria was hardly the type to have ignored just behavior had she noticed it previously.

Maria uses prayer, a thorn belt, and self flagellation in an attempt to cast out the Devil’s influence.  Instead, she is seduced by an unknown nun who transforms into Lucifer, and now she literally has the Devil in her.  For the rest of the film, she switches between compassionate and guilt-ridden, and carnal and violent.

And we’re back to: what does it all mean?  The accusation that organized religions (the Catholic church in particular) are hypocritical, oppressive, racist, and fail to see the wonders of this life, is straight forward.  Less clear is what Maria’s state implies.  My best reading, is that her desires and cruelty come from her years of repression.  Once the Devil uncorks the bottle, what should have been expressed over time explodes out.  The ending supports this interpretation.  Although the famous nun orgy (yes, I wrote “nun orgy”) makes it all a bit cloudy.

Cecilia Pezet, who is in almost every frame, is an exceptionally attractive woman, whose picture should be placed in the dictionary next to the words “cute” and “adorable.”  That she is so wholesomely delicious adds to the excitement when she gets down and dirty.  Each time she puts her clothes back on or wipes the blood off of her breasts, she looks virginal again.

While the movie has few flaws, the Devil’s numerous appearances are done so poorly as to detract from the entire picture.  He pops onto the screen just like they used to in old episodes of I Dream of Genie or Bewitched, accompanied by cheesy, 1950s B-movie, Sci-fi music.  It is embarrassing, and makes it more difficult to persuade the uninitiated that this is a genre worthy of respect.

For those with no knowledge of Nunsploitation, Satánico Pandemonium contains everything the category is known for, that is, everything needed to give a heart attack to that old fundamentalist lady on your block.  There is a nun stripping (multiple times), a whipping, self torture, lesbian nuns, heterosexual intercourse, the attempted seduction of an underage boy, a horrendous inquisition torture scene, three blood splattered murders, a hanging, a strangulation, and a flock of naked nuns dancing about (many of whom where played by actual prostitutes).

There’s plenty here to admire, shock, excite and think about.  And that’s what film is supposed to do.

Samson and Delilah

Accents run amuck as dim-witted American he-man Samson battles the Philistines, the poor judgment of his people, and his own temper.  Born of oddly British parents, Samson is pushed into rebellion by the local Turkish girl, but abandons the fight to marry a doting Italian.  When his wedding ends in multiple homicides, he sets off on a course which will lead him to battle an evil German prince and a modern American general before being captured by the very hot, and very English Delilah.

Old Testament stories are just more fun.  It’s probably because New Testament God is a real prick, but he’s also big on rather boring speeches about love.  So there’s plenty of time spent on hypocritical lessons on goodness before God points out how he hates anyone different.  Old Testament God is an unapologetic prick from beginning to end.  He uses people as pawns in childish games, kills just about everyone, and does it all with a smile.  Lets face it, straight out cruelty and violence is good entertainment.  In Samson and Delilah, God is playing with Samson, the Israelites, and the Philistines.  He could have told Samson what he wanted, or just made things all bright and sunny for everyone, but that’s not his way.  His plan all along was for Samson to suffer just for giggles, and most of the young male Israelites  to get killed, all before Samson ends up in the right place to knock down the temple (and apparently destroy the entire country).  I don’t recall The Bible laying it out quite that way, but close enough.  There’s plenty of pointless bloodshed, sex, torture, and good old fashioned Biblical fun.

But when I’m in the mood for this brand of Judeo-Christian entertainment, this isn’t the version I grab.  Cecil B. DeMille 1949 spectacle is the definitive one.  While that one goes for bright colors and a fast pace, here we’ve got a dull pallet, drab, under populated battles, and a glacial pace.  The basic story isn’t that long, and could easily be told in a thirty minute short.  Grab a Bible and read it.  There’s not that much meat.  DeMille managed to drag it out to over two hours, but then he was a master at the craft of filling time with bright, shiny, vacuous moments.  Nicolas Roeg has no such skill, and his version is forty minutes longer.  New (non-Biblical) characters and situations pad the story, but aren’t the problem.  The plot embellishments are welcome, and while a few characters, like the whiny teen, could have been jettisoned, most pull their own weight.  The problem is the whole thing is dialed down to a crawl.  It would have been nice for those added events to happen with at least mild rapidity, and the characters to spit out their dialog without overlong pauses.  An hour and a half could, and should, have been cut.

Such trimming would have saved money (if done in preproduction), and money is what this project needed.  Lots of money.  I suppose the story of Samson and Delilah could be presented in a small, personal film, but that wasn’t the attempt here.  Armies attack armies and Samson tears down walls and rips apart a city, or that was what the filmmakers wanted to portray.  But there’s aren’t enough extras to give the illusion of even a dying village, much less a city.  The great “battle,” important enough to have both a general and the prince in attendance, consists of a few dozen men, and most of those must have walked onto the set that morning as it’s clear none of them know what to do with a sword.  Multiple melees are held in narrow corridors so that only a few men appear.  The temple (and an earlier wall) is obviously made of Styrofoam or an equally un-rocklike substance.  I’m pretty sure enormous pillars shouldn’t bounce.  Locations are used whenever possible to save on building sets, which was clever, as the few sets are too claustrophobic.  But the locations are mainly dull, clay ruins, which gives us a strange view of the Philistines: apparently, they all lived in ancient, crumbling, roofless homes, often lacking a wall.

A few extra dollars could have also gone for the rental of an additional camera, and maybe a steadycam.  The sweep shots get tiring, as do the many “push in” then “pull out” moments.  But that’s much better than the scenes when the camera shakes, often pointing at nothing of pertinence, or the artsy odd-angle shots, used to disguise the lack of troops and fight choreography.

The cast stands up better to comparison.  No one could match DeMille’s Delilah, Hedy Lamarr, an actress often referred to as the most beautiful woman ever filmed, but Elizabeth Hurley comes close.  I have no problem believing that a man would choose her over God.  I want to put that out there now, in case she’s reading this: I would rather have a few minutes with her than an eternity with God.  OK, not a strong statement for an atheist; just rephrase it anyway that implies she is massively, overwhelmingly, stunningly desirable.  She doesn’t feel like a Philistine of the B.C. era, but neither does Michael Gambon or Dennis Hopper, who also do as good a job as possible.  Eric Thal is adequate as the pretty-boy hero, though long speeches are a bit beyond his level of talent.  Victor Mature (Samson in 1949) wasn’t a great actor, so Thal is just following his lead.

Thematically, there’s nothing of value in the Bible tale.  It preaches against lust, sex, and sensuality (all of which I support any way I can), and gives lip service to the importance of faith (how much faith do you need when God whispers in your ear and has made you a superhero?), stresses that absolute, blind obedience is a virtue, and is strongly misogynistic.  This film sticks with lust being a great evil in the world (I feel so, so very sorry for the filmmakers) and emphasizes even more that you should never think, but just do as your told.  However, it presents a counterpoint.  When the Israelites finally attack, and get slaughtered, they believe that they are following God’s will.  They’ve seen a sign, and not being clever folk, assume it is meant for them.  So what is the message there: Do what God wants you to do without question, and just hope that you luck out, and it really is what God wants you to do?

While its views on obedience are confused, it is more definite on women.  Good news, they aren’t the source of all sin.  Samson’s wife is virtuous and kind, and his childhood friend, who picks fights so that Samson will have to kill Philistines, is shown as a complex character, and no worse than most of the men.  Delilah is painted sympathetically.  Her betrayal of Samson isn’t based on her vanity and jealousy as is normally the case, but on a real fear of the prince and the desire to be long gone before he becomes king.  And with several traitors among the Israelites, the men look worse than the women.

Feminists have less to complain about with this Samson and Delilah than with others, but it is no better for atheists, and considerably worse for anyone looking for excitement.

Satan’s School for Girls

Elizabeth, who never lets reality get in her way, is certain that her depressed sister couldn’t have committed suicide because she didn’t slit her wrists when their parents died.  Let us hope that Elizabeth is not going into psychiatry.  So, she’s off to her dead sibling’s boarding school, which is very probably the worst school in history.  While everyone is busy not learning, more depressed girls are found dead, and Elizabeth wanders around at night in a white gown and a lantern because it looks cool in the wind.  She befriends a bunch of girls who don’t have enough screen time to matter, but she does team up with Roberta, who will some day be taken away from humdrum police work by Charlie.  This is perhaps Elizabeth’s greatest test, because it is so obvious that Roberta is played by a better actress.  Together, they search for the reason the film is titled Satan’s School for Girls.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an influx of Satan films.  The Devil was popping up everywhere, impregnating Rosemary, sending his son to mess with Gregory Peck’s head, and, apparently, spending his off time running a school for girls.  Well, someone had to.  For many of these movies to work, the audience had to believe that God had an opponent who could do very nasty things, often with a pliers and duct tape.  This is not one of those films.  The Devil is taken as seriously as The Mummy or The Wolf Man.  There’s no scripture reading, and no reason for good Christians to look over their shoulders.  Nor is there any reason to be a good Christian (it doesn’t help).  This is a monster movie, with no hidden agenda.

It is also a made-for-TV flick from 1973, so it’s not going to shock or frighten anyone.  Well, it might shock cinematographers when they see what was considered acceptable in their craft thirty years ago, and it might frighten directors when they realize to what depths they could sink.  But for everyone else, it’s pretty light stuff.

However, even with the lowly production values and implicit television censorship, it isn’t a bad little flick.  The story is predictable, but not boring.  There’s one satisfying murder (beware sorority sisters bearing poles, that’s all I’ll say), and either Roberta is given some reasonable dialog or Kate Jackson has talent (and I’m putting my money on the second).  I’ve heard multiple Christians object to the ending, so that gives it an extra star right there.

If you were thinking of picking this up in hopes of seeing two of Charlie’s Angels in cute schoolgirl outfits, you’ll want to make other plans.  Might I suggest The Craft.  Jackson and Cheryl Ladd are as lovely as ever, but keep themselves covered.  Apparently, Satan isn’t interested in the sins of the flesh at his school.

If you want an undemanding, “scary” flick to watch with the whole family, you could do worse than Satan’s School for Girls.  It won’t scare Little Billy or upset Grandma Ethel, and has just enough to keep everyone watching to the end.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

A laid-back, American Christian teams up with a dignified Muslim in an attempt to make a cross-cultural buddy movie.  But non-P.C. troubles await these scalawags and their Dark age feminist friend, Marian.  It seems that the Christian’s daddy has been condemned by the local bishop for worshiping the devil, and burnt.  What’s more, the mastermind behind this, and many murders, is a guy who can’t see any difference between Christianity and Satanism (so goes with both) and is advised by a witch.  It looks like the only solution will be a good old fashioned pagan wedding.

While filled with religious imagery and 1990s-style spiritual political correctness, is there some bold atheistic (or theistic) statement you can pluck from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves?  I’m sure many will find that Kevin Costner’s performance is sufficient poof of the non-existence of God.  After all, would a perfectly good God allow Costner’s on-again, off-again, British-like accent to exist?  Or permit his detached, somnolent line readings of inspirational speeches?  Ah, but don’t fall into that trap, for any theist can turn these points around on you, saying that Costner’s complete inability to display basic human emotions is best explained as the work of the Devil, and if there is a Devil, there must be a God.  I’m afraid that this is a neutral flick, with regard to significant theological matters.  So why am I examining it?  Because of its exorbitant religious rhetoric; I just couldn’t’ pass it up.

To get the secular review out of the way: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has much of what makes a great swashbuckler.  It has fast and exciting action, a few breathtaking moments (Robin shooting the flaming arrow with the remains of the explosion behind him), and marvelous humor.  It plays with the basic story so that it’s not just spitting out the same old plot we already know.  It has many beautiful sets and locations, wonderful costumes, and a fittingly heroic score.  It has top flight performances by Alan Rickman (who steals the movie and is the major reason to see it), Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael McShane, and Michael Wincott.  Unfortunately, it has an unnecessary subplot involving Will Scarlett (terribly miscast, since Christian Slater couldn’t have made the character any more of a modern New York resident had he been plopped down in a Woody Alan film).  It also has a series of poorly conceived close-ups, and the occasional line of high school quality dialog (usually given to Costner).  Combined with Costner’s tendency to look like he’s going to drift off in the middle of his speeches, “greatness” slips out of reach.  I’ll call it “fun,” and advise you to make use of Costner’s “serious” moments to get a drink from the fridge or run off to the bathroom; then it will looks like a pretty good movie.

Enough with the secular comments.  For most of the picture, we’re in big-tent religion here; all religions are good and should be respected (well, most religions anyway).  Just ignore the part of your faith, no matter how key it is, that says that everyone who isn’t part of your church is evil and going to hell.  “Ohhhhhh.  Why can’t we all just get along?!”  OK, no one says that, but it’s the only thing missing.  Still, for those of us who aren’t terribly interested in the tenants of any particular religion, it’s a nice sentiment.

Robin represents Christianity.  He’s not too bright, but he’s brave and fair, and can learn.  Azeem personifies Islam.  He’s intelligent, honorable, and skilled.  Together, they work better than when apart.  The message is non-too-subtle, but considering the state of the world in 2006, subtlety may be overrated.

The film’s clerics are an interesting lot.  Friar Tuck is as admirable as they get, and he’s an alcoholic lout.  But he’s a good alcoholic lout.  Initially, he responds to Azeem with a Christian’s ignorance and hatred of Moslems, but he comes to realize his folly.  (Azeem was already OK with everyone, pointing out that people are different because Allah likes wondrous diversity.)  The Bishop doesn’t come off as well.  He is traitorous, greedy, cowardly, hypocritical, and aligned with murderers.  He is part of the film’s negative view of organized religion.  It’s made clear that while the people suffer in poverty, The Church is a place of luxury.  And Robin makes numerous comments about the wrong-headedness of the crusades.  If the Bishop represents organized religion, think of Tuck as the spokesman for disorganized religion.

The final cleric is Mortianna, the witch and advisor to The Sheriff.  She has a Satanic altar and appears to believe in the forces of darkness (or she just might be using it as a tool to control The Sheriff).  Satanism—that is, the one that no one really follows, that involves actual worship of the Devil—is the one religion that isn’t going to be let in under the tent.  It’s depicted as purely evil.  However, it is at the dark altar that the film makes its one unanswered jab at religion.  In a scene that was missing from the theatrical cut, but is in the latest DVD version, The Sheriff, after mentioning that his “other god calls” and he has to get up to the Christian church because appearances are everything to that lot, looks at the inverted cross, turns it right-side up, and then lets it fall back, commenting that while his faith is with the old way, “frankly, sometimes, I can’t see much difference.”

In the end, big-tent, disorganized religion stamps out Satanism and conservative Christianity, with the victory celebrated at a wedding (if it’s a spoiler that Robin and Marian get married, you really need to bone up on your folk stories and pop culture).  However, in a move, that like so many others in this picture, is more interesting than meaningful, the service looks Pagan.

Sacred Flesh

In an unspecified time in the past, the stress of sexual repression becomes too much for Mother Superior, whose hysterical raving threatens the existence of the convent.  Locked away, she imagines Mary Magdalene, a death nun, and a diseased figure arguing over purity and sin while she recounts the erotic confessions of the other nuns.

I find some entertainment value in Sacred Flesh just because it has so much to offend zealous church-goers.  There are naked nuns, masturbating nuns, lesbian nuns, S&M nuns, a nun being molested by priests, and a topless, female Christ on a cross.  That’s the sort of thing that makes me whistle my day away.

But all is not well in this reasonably graphic nunsploitation opus, as there is a lot less hot nun action than there is talking, and there is a lot more of both of those than plot or character development.  These are chatty nuns who’ve skipped the vow of silence.  Mother Superior talks to Mary, a nun with a death-head’s mask, and some twitchy green girl.  Meanwhile the Abbot and the Abbess walk around the garden waxing philosophical.  The topic is chastity and repression, and no one has much to say about it, but they say it a lot.

Sacred Flesh is the strange mating of a junior college experimental play and a playboy softcore video.  I doubt if fans of either (are there fans of junior college experimental plays?) will be satisfied.  Like a stage drama, everyone tends to stay in a confined area and do nothing but talk, and what they say could be pulled out of a freshmen psychology discussion groups (of non-majors only; it isn’t deep enough for people who are serious about the profession).  This is where the filmmakers went wrong.  They think that this is the legitimate part of the film, where actually it is the salacious moments that elevate the production.  The discussions drag horribly, telling us that repressed sexuality is not good for women and can cause psychological distress.  That’s about it.  Sigh.

The topless nuns are brought out episodically.  They do their thing and then disappear, never giving any indication of who they are.  I suppose there is a positive side to that as these girls are very attractive, but there is no reason to assume they can act (not that those with speaking parts are a credit to the profession; the males are particularly poor, fitting again with the feel of a junior college production).  If you are a fan a beautiful nuns in the throws of ecstasy (and who isn’t?), much of the gyrating will make you smile, but unfortunately, the sensuality is always undercut by yet more interspersed gabbing.  There’s some humor in the un-nun-like appearance of these sisters.  Sure, the genre dictates they be babes, but these women wear extensive makeup, trim their pubic hair, and in one case, has a navel ring.  Were piercings big during the Spanish Inquisition?  I suppose yes, but usually not done willingly.

To make time for the never ending chatter, what little story elements popped up early in the film are dropped.  There is a horny stable boy and a willing wench who meet, walk around, and then exit the story.  There is a young girl who steals some food and then runs off (apparently, she was meant to be a scantily clad girl that the priest could lust after, which would have given the scene purpose, but that isn’t how it was shot).  And then there is the Abbot.  He is sent a note to come deal with the deranged Mother Superior.  So we get to see him tell the stable boy to get his horse, ride, stop for lunch, arrive at the convent, and then meet the Abbess to discuss the situation.  And that’s it.  He never meets Mother Superior, or even enters the convent building.  There is no reason for him to be in the movie.

Yet, I can’t entirely dismiss Sacred Flesh.  Those nuns are lovely, and the nude female Jesus is a thing of beauty.  There are frames, when her head is down and her crown of thorns gives her a halo, and when blood is running over her breast, that could be pulled out and exhibited as fine art.  The warm, highly red-filtered lighting helps there, and in many other scenes.  The sets are almost as attractive.  A grand estate is used for the exterior shots and shows why British low-budget filmmakers have an advantage over their U.S. counterparts: us Yanks don’t have stunning architectural locations to work with.

So, poor acting, no plot, and dull, simplistic, faux-artsy debates verse impeccable use of color, attractive scenery, sexy naked “nuns,” and a few stunning scenes.  Perhaps Sacred Flesh works best as background.  Toss it on when you are reading and look up from time to time to see if something pretty is onscreen.  That way it doesn’t matter who these girls are supposed to be, only that they are naked…and nuns.

The Prophecy II

Gabriel is back, leading his war against heaven.  This time, it’s the girl from Flash Dance that’s causing him to raise the dead, rip out hearts, and rattle off a ton of one-liners.  It seems that ancient prophecy (like in the title) says that an angle will mate with a human who will give birth to a half-breed nephilim and yada yada yade.  Anyway, Gabriel’s against it, so he keeps suicidal goth-teen Izzy semi-alive as his slave to help him navigate the human world, and to use DOS, as he hunts the pregnant girl and speculate on why he is so much better than the material.  The extraordinarily uninteresting angel Danyael decides the thing to do is to take Valerie to see Eric Roberts, as he understands loss and failure better than any man—just look at his career.

I never would have considered Lucifer to be a big fan of sequels.  I thought of him as more of a book man anyway (book devil?), but I was wrong.  The Prince of Darkness must get a kickback from Dimension Films since that’s the only way to explain the beginning of The Prophecy II, an unnecessary but sometimes entertaining follow up to the innovative The Prophecy.  All of the events in this film rely on Lucifer releasing Gabriel, which he does, but the only explanation I can come up with is he knew a sequel without Christopher Walken would suck.

The brilliance of The Prophecy was that it took Christianity as myth, not religion.  It approached it much the same way Wagner approached the old Norse stories in his Ring of the Neblung operas: seriously, but not reverently.  The Bible is simply the basis for an epic folk tale, nothing more (and nothing less as epic folk tales can be significant).   The Prophecy II starts the same way, but then loses its direction.  It was never going to live up to its predecessor.  The ideas are no longer fresh, and some important actors are missing (Viggo Mortensen is the most glaring).  But its real failing is in falling into worship.  Here, perhaps because they couldn’t think of an ending, we don’t get a titanic physical or mental struggle between the leads, but instead its all turned over to God.  Faith is the answer and God is the guy who makes it all work out.

There are two huge problems with the Christian faith (as faith, not as legend) in any kind of story: it is a poor worldview, and it makes for a bad plot.  Good stories have the protagonists (or antagonists) doing something that resolves the conflict.  But the Christian faith demands that the hero do nothing.  Instead he, she, or it must simply submit to God’s will and the Big Guy in the Sky will do as he sees fit.  Whatever your feelings about such a notion in reality, it makes for bad cinema.

In The Prophecy II, it is even more than usually problematic because God has been absent.  Heaven is closed and the angels have been left to their own devices, and angels are neither clever enough, nor free enough, to be allowed out without a leash.  But here He is, suddenly chatting to Valerie (once she sees that God is the way) and making sure that good wins out, for the moment.  If God is awake and doing things, nothing in either film should have taken place.  It’s the old problem of evil again, but this time without free will as an out.

Dropping theology, there’s things to like, and most of them revolve around Christopher Walken.  He just repeats his shtick from the first film, but it was so much fun there that it is a joy to see it again.  He’s his normal creepy self, but with a lot of humor.  He stops Izzy from picking an apple in the garden of Eden, gets excited over radios, and has the one chilling speech of the film:

Let’s understand each other. I sang the first hymn when the stars were born. Not that long ago, I announced to a young woman, Mary, who it was she was expecting. On the other hand, I’ve turned rivers into blood. Kings into cripples. Cities to salt. So, I don’t think that I have to explain myself to you.

His sidekick this time around is Brittany Murphy, who is cute, smart, and up to the challenge of being in the same frame as Walken without fading away.  The rest of the cast and all of the story are forgettable, although Beals doesn’t embarrass herself and has great doe eyes.

The Prophecy II does not stand alone.  It has a regrettable theme and pales next to the original.  But for fans of that first film who want to bask in the wonder that is Christopher Walken in his best role (although not the best performance of that role), this is worth your time.  Don’t bother concentrating on it.  Toss it on, and look up whenever Gabriel is onscreen.

Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy

Elizabeth, a 26-year-old aspiring novelist and Brigham Young University student, lives with her close friend Jane and three other girls, all unusually obsessed with marriage for anyone born in the last fifty years, and strangely celibate for anyone not in a tight-knit religious community…  Hey.  Utah.  Brigham Young.  I get it.  Anyway, Jane falls for rich, goofy, middle-of-the-road guy, Charles, who happens to be good friends with Darcy, an unpleasantly frank publisher with whom Elizabeth has already butted heads.  Wickham, another friend of Elizabeth’s, has also had problems with Darcy, but as is abundantly clear to anyone who would pick up a Jane Austen film, Darcy might not be the villain, and Wickham might be some kind of pervert who wants to have sex with women.

Jan Austen meets the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints because… because…  Damn, I can’t think of a reason.

Taking its cue from Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s hip update of Austen’s Emma, Pride and Prejudice moves the story to that bastion of edgy youth culture, Utah, and morphs the characters into living-in-the-fast-lane LDS students.  OK, that last sentence should tell you where things went wrong.  I’m sure there are some pretty wild Mormons…somewhere…and there may be one or two parties a year in Utah that raise the roof, but those aren’t the norm, nor are they in this movie.  We’re seeing the nice and polite side of Moron college kids.  I’m a huge advocate of nice and polite people, and I’m glad that the LDS community has such a high percentage of them (at least if this film is to be believed), but nice and polite isn’t very interesting to watch.  There are plenty of modern tunes, though nothing that you’ll be running out to pick up for your next rave.  And there are plenty of jokes about the characters’ quirky behaviors, which, aren’t all that quirky outside of being celibate, never swearing, and acting like it’s 1950.

What most surprised me was how many moments were cleverly constructed and then fell flat.  “That should have been funny,” was the phrase of the night.  The culprits are loose editing, workman-like cinematography, and merely adequate dialog.  This is Clueless made by mediocre craftsman who have nothing to say.  It isn’t terrible, just uninspired.

Having previously concentrated on Mormon missionary films (The Other Side of Heaven, God’s Army), Excel Entertainment’s attempt to bring an LDS film to the masses is embarrassing both financially and artistically.  Initially titled Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy for wide release, “A Latter-Day Comedy” was lopped off, and minor cuts were made throughout to remove direct references to the Mormon faith.  So, we’re shown a religious service that is atypical for most of America, and then no explanation of what it is or why these people all go to it.  Wearing its colors proudly would have helped in numerous areas, including explaining the weird guy who keeps hitting on our heroine (he’s a recently returned missionary, but that is no longer explained), and making it clear why everyone has the same, conservatives moral principles.  A film that shows a group of people going to confession shouldn’t hide that the characters are Catholic, and this one shouldn’t have eliminated references to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The DVD has the cut version, but it has the complete release hidden as an Easter egg.  Nowhere does it mention the second version.  I’m guessing the trick to getting at the original cut has been spread in the LDS community.

But cut or uncut, this isn’t a good film.

The Passion of the Christ

A long-haired hippy-type, who appears mentally incompetent and unable to reply to direct questions, is grabbed by some evil Jews, who beat him bloody.  They drag him to a meeting, where they beat and kick him and there is more blood, and bring him before the Romans, who have him savagely beaten so that there’s blood everywhere.  He’s then forced to walk the streets with a giant T, dripping blood the whole time, while he’s beaten, and eventually nailed to the T, where even more blood drips from his wounds.  Along the way, there is a lot more beating and blood.  Did I mention the blood?

Well that was an interesting two hours.  I need a bath.  And a stiff drink.  At least I’m not a Jew since those guys killed Jesus, and they did it in slow motion in 5.1 surround sound.

It is a bit awkward giving The Passion of the Christ a quality rating because it isn’t a movie in the normal sense.  There is no plot, no character development, and no theme beyond “people suck.”  You are expected to come with your own theme and apply it to the work, but it isn’t already on the screen.  What is up there is torture: blood, whipping, skin peeled off, impaling, and even an eye eaten out.  It is nonstop gore.  What we have here is porn, religious torture porn.

Now that isn’t meant as an insult.  I’ve got nothing against porn.  It serves its purpose quite well.  If you want to see two reasonably attractive adults having sex without fear of arrest for peeping, then porn is the way to go.  But you don’t toss on Deep Throat or Anal Sluts 2 expecting a riveting story.  You don’t watch some guy cumming on a girl’s face and wonder how this will affect her character’s philosophy.  You don’t watch three meat puppets gang-banging a teen and speculate on their motivation.  And you don’t spend ten minutes with a babe bent over a table being DP’d by a bent dildo, and ask what the deeper message is.  If you’re watching, it is simply to be affected by the sensationalized material: to be excited.  You don’t need a story because you know all you need to know before sitting down in front of the screen.

And that brings us back to The Passion of the Christ.  Why is this Jesus guy being tortured?  Did he have something interesting to say?  Why do the Jewish leaders hate him?  Why does Peter want to fight while all the other apostles want to run?  Who are any of these people?  None of that is answered.  Jesus is given no personality at all.  He barely speaks and after the first few minutes of the movie, he couldn’t if he wanted to.  Outside of a brief flashback that shows him working on a table, we are told nothing.  Mary is his mother.  That’s it.  We get nothing else from her.  Mary Magdalen is some girl that Jesus helped once.  That’s her entire character development.  Jesus’ few followers are given no time and most aren’t even given names.  We don’t know these people, with the strange exception of Pilate, who is given just enough screen time to indicate that he could have been the main character in a much deeper movie than this one.

With the film not even attempting to make these characters distinct, we have a distancing movie about whipping and pain in general.  We’re never made to feel for Jesus, the individual.  Instead, it is some guy being whipped and our sympathy can only come from a broad dislike of torture.

Of course any viewer of The Passion of the Christ already knows these people as well as he needs to for the film’s purpose.  All a fan can get is the experience, the excitement of seeing a scantily clad man turned into raw meat.  For anyone with an extreme whipping and blood fetish, you’re in luck.  Enjoy.  For anyone looking to see God suffering, you should be happy too.  And if you’re both a sexual pain fetishist and a religious zealot, you’re going to be orgasming in your seat without needing manual manipulation.  Like all porn, there’s no need to watch from beginning to end.  Just fast-forward to the bit of agony that gets your heart racing, and repeat.

The ultra-religious Mel Gibson has made a film far more violent than any of his Mad Max movies.  It is thinly based on the gospels, but primarily comes from the writings of a mystic nun and the Passion Plays that were performed in Europe as a means of drumming up anti-Jewish sentiment.  (Read your Bible: only briefly does it mention the scourging.  Nowhere does it state that Jesus had most of his skin ripped off.)  So, is the movie anti-Semitic?  Sure.  Gibson, a man who denounces Vatican II (where the Catholic Church proclaimed that Jews should not be blamed for Christ’s death) and has stated that his father has only told the truth in his entire life, is not someone to make an evenhanded religious flick.  For anyone who missed Gibson’s father’s rants, Hutton Gibson is a Holocaust denier who has stated that the Jews weren’t killed in Poland, but that, “They simply got up and left.”  He also claims that Jews are ruining the world, trying to take over The Church and business, and that Allan Greenspan is a Jew that should be killed.  These are the true words that Mel Gibson accepts.  So, it is no surprise that he’s manipulated the story a bit, making the historically cruel Pilate into the only reasonable man, and placing all the desire to kill Jesus on a group of stereotypical-looking Rabbis.  They show up at the whippings, but are too icy to even enjoy it.  They are completely amoral, removed from the suffering.  But the charge of anti-Semitism on Gibson is a bit misplaced because it is the story itself, and the Christian faith that houses the hatred of Jews.  Gibson is just repeating what’s all around him.  Yes, he could have made the “story” slightly better, and instead made it slightly worse, but it is only by a trivial degree.  There are plenty of reasons not to see a man flayed for two hours that are far more immediate than the anti-Semitism that’s part of the larger context.

While the quality of the filmmaking isn’t that important in porn (as long as the music isn’t too hokey, the film isn’t too grainy, and the camera knows when to zoom in on gaping vaginas), but I would feel remiss if I didn’t say something.  So: the acting primarily consists of appearing to be in pain or crying, so none of the actors were stretched (except literally).  Again, it is hard not to see the porn-connection, where actors only need to look excited and simulate orgasms.  The camera work is quite good by any standard, and the cinematographer did know when to zoom in on gaping wounds.   The sets are attractive, although too claustrophobic, making the town overly tiny.  The non-torture special effects are reasonable, though the falling temple looks cheap.  The music is excellent if you like the new age world beat sound and does set the tone nicely.

I was quite fond of the androgynous Satan who pulls a boo!-scare on one of the apostles.  I don’t know why he/she was hanging out at the whipping, holding Fred Mertz’s love child (the anti-Christ?  Or just Gibson being weird?), but the Devil was filled with good horror film strangeness.

So, is The Passion of the Christ for you?  You probably already know.  If you fit into the already mentioned fanatic or fetishist categories, you’ll have a good time.  But it isn’t going to affect anyone else.  If you like bukkaki, then Cum on Her Face 5 is going to be a treat, but no one who doesn’t is going to watch it and suddenly be excited by repeated ejaculations.  So it is with The Passion of the Christ.  No one is going to convert who isn’t already on his knees, one way or the other.

One Magic Christmas

A disillusioned woman (therefore no fun to watch) has the worst Christmas imaginable when her husband looses his job, their house is taken away, she’s forced to work extra shifts at a thankless job until she is fired, her husband is murdered in a bank holdup, and her kids are kidnapped and then drowned in a freezing river.  Enough Christmas cheer for you?  Well, during all this, a creepy angel has been peeping, and occasionally beckoning young Abbie to come over to him, because nothing is more wholesome than a weird homeless guy trying to get a little girl to join him in the bushes.  (Now there’s a family message!  Children, always go off with deviant strangers because they might have something “special” to show you.)  Naturally, in this dark, tragic story, Santa Claus shows up to teach Ginny the true meaning of death.

In case you’re not paying attention: One Magic Christmas is a wretched, mournful entry in the Christmastime melodrama category, that steals from A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, and somehow tops it off with Santa Claus.  There isn’t a single moment that isn’t unpleasant.

Obviously made on a tight budget, it has the look of a made-for-TV quickie, and the dialog to go with.  The acting is even worse (I’m pretty sure that a wife would show some signs of grieving after her husband is murdered) and its pace is painfully slow.

So it’s a bad film.  And I want to warn parents not to be confused by the Disney name and think this is good family entertainment.  Your kids will end up crying (and learn questionable lessons about the nature of death and how to act around sleazy men who hang out in trees) and unstable Aunt Matilda will swallow her bottle of tranquilizers.  But that’s not why I’m writing about it.

One Magic Christmas has a bizarre theology that I couldn’t pass up.  Lots of Christmas movies are a bit confused on what religion they want to profess.  A Christmas Carol gives us Protestant Christianity with ghosts that walk the Earth and spirits that are neither angels nor devils, yet have extraordinary powers.  But the basic hierarchy has few surprises.  God/Jesus is (are?) in charge.  But One Magic Christmas has me baffled.  There’s an angel.  He’s a weird angel in need of a bath, but he’s still an angel, and angels are normally messengers of God.  He’s also a “Christmas Angel,” a designation you’re unlikely to find in either The Bible or in medieval angelology.  I wonder if it is above or below Cherubim in the ranking of the host of Heaven.  This angel is there to help Ginny get into the Christmas spirit, but in true angel form, he doesn’t do a lot.  He saves the kids (or resurrects them; it isn’t clear), but otherwise just stands around and occasionally tries ill-considered plans, such as telling the girl to have her mother mail her letter to Santa (because mailing your kid’s letter is certainly going to change your feelings about Christmas).  Fine, so he doesn’t do much because he’s a messenger.  But for whom?  When he’s approached about bringing Gary back from the dead, he replies that this is a job for a higher power.  That power?  Jesus?  God?  The Holy Spirit?  Allah?  The Giant Spaghetti Monster?  Nope.  Santa Claus.  Yes, the angel works for Santa.  He brings the praying girl to the North Pole, not Heaven, and Ginny must learn to believe in Santa, not God.  For if you believe in Santa then even death has no power over you.

Well, that’s just…neat!  Fundies have complained for years that Santa has been elevated (wrongly in their minds) to the status of a god, and normally they’re out of their little minds.  But not this time—probably.  Either the one true god, creator of Heaven and Earth, master of death and commander of the angels, wears a red suit, or, there is no god, and Santa is a powerful non-holy creature who has necromantic abilities (can raise the dead and controls those who have already died).  Oh, he also can reverse time, which pushes him a little closer to the god category, or he’s Superman.  It makes it difficult to give this a definite rating, but either way, this is an amusing position for a mainstream flick.