The Man Who Wasn’t There

Albert Camus meets Dashell Hammett in the Coen Brothers’ tale of a barber, Ed Crane, who thinks his life might be better were he to dream of being in the exciting world of dry cleaning, or at least dream of being the silent partner of someone else in the exciting world of dry cleaning.  Yes, that’s right, this is an existentialist film noir about a barber putting venture capital into a dry cleaning operation.  But, wait, it’s not just any existentialist film noir about a barber turned venture capitalist. No, it’s an existentialist film noir about a barber turned venture capitalist that was specially crafted by the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen to be as dull and lifeless as possible.  Gee, now doesn’t that sound fun.

Do you force yourself to reread The Stranger only once a year for fear the binding of your dog-eared, highlighted copy will give out from overuse?  Do you repaint random rooms of your home on a weekly basis because you enjoy observing the drying process?  Do you find men that speak in a monotone sexy?  Do you wonder what happened to Sam Spade’s barber?  If you answered yes to all these questions, then… wow… I guess the Coen brothers 2001 salute to the monotone voice—The Man Who Wasn’t There—is the film for you.  Please return to your paint observations as I back slowly away.

It’s not as though The Man Who Wasn’t There is a poorly made film.  The black and white cinematography is stunningly beautiful.  The score is superb.  The plot is nicely complex and relatively free of holes.  The acting, while stilted and stylized, succeeds in portraying exactly what the Coen brothers wanted to portray.  And it’s not as though nothing happens in the film.  It’s got adultery, blackmail, embezzlement, and a couple of murders.  It’s just that all of that occurs very slowly underneath two hours of the monotone narration of a passionless barber.  After 90 minutes of this, the concept of gnawing my right leg off began to sound like not such a bad idea just so I could feel something, anything again.  At two hours, there were teeth marks in my thigh.

So, how does it fare as an atheist film?  Well, certainly, a caring god would never have engineered a universe where I would have had to sit through this film once, much less twice.  Though, I suppose that’s not really the analysis we are going for here at The Film Atheist.

The Man Who Wasn’t There, despite its failings as an enjoyable film, doesn’t do too badly on the atheist scale.  Yes, someone does a bad thing, leading to many bad things happening to them, which is usually a hallmark of the “obey god or else” school of cinematic propaganda.  However, there is no sense of universal justice behind this, and there is no counter example of someone who has good things happen to them because they live life “properly.”  That leaves the film with the depressing but difficult to argue against message that life just sucks.  While this doesn’t exactly make it an atheistic film (the existence of one or more gods managing the universe does not preclude life from sucking), this does make the film’s message antithetical to the traditional omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent god concept currently the fashion in archconservative theistic circles.

So, The Man Who Wasn’t There gets an extra half point on the Atheism scale due to blasphemy. This, however, fails to make up for the boredom this film inflicts upon the audience.  If you’re ever given the opportunity to watch this film, I can only say give it a pass in favor of doing something actually fun by comparison for those two hours, say watching grass grow.

Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun

Young Maria catches the eye of a sleazy priest, Father Vicente, who bullies her mother into handing over her savings and sticking her into a special convent.  Once there, Mother Alma abuses Maria, and Father Vicente masturbates to her not-that-sexy confession (considering all the naked nun action he can get, he’s a pretty hard-up guy).  It seems poor innocent Maria has been sent to a Satanic convent, where the nuns go at it, hot and heavy, and she is destined to be raped by the Devil himself…  Wait a minute.  That’s just some guy in a red jumpsuit with an obviously fake horn plastered on the middle of his forehead.  Well that’s just stupid.  Oh, sorry.  Back to the synopsis.  Maria wants only to escape, but Alma and Vicente can’t let that happen, so it’s time to call upon the Portuguese Inquisition, because, no one expects the Portuguese Inquisition.  really.  No one does.  Did you?  I know I didn’t.  Spanish?  Sure, all the time, but not Portuguese.

A key movie in the Nunsploitation movement, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a frustrating affair.  There’s so much good on screen, including beautiful locations (the convent is amazing), lusciously framed shots, engaging characters, compelling plot elements, and important themes.  But every good point is shattered by a huge mistake, multiple minor errors, or flagrant stupidity.  The script is the main culprit, which feels like a first draft written by moderately bright ferrets, but editing is a close second.  I can’t imagine that a professional had anything to do with the final cut.  But then this movie has been through so many censors’ hands, it is hard to figure who is responsible for what made it to the screen.

The setup is for a film about the repression and hypocrisy of Christianity, particularly the Catholic church.  Father Vincente and Mother Alma are the representatives of the Church, and they are a vile pair.  There’s also the nearby inquisition, which tortures and burns innocent girls as witches when (as the prince of Portugal says) everyone knows there are no such things.  But Vincente and Alma turn out to be Satanists, and their evil is exactly what the Church is trying to save us from.  As for the Inquisition, on the suggestion of “Hey, you’ve got the wrong villain, let her go and grab those bad guys instead,” it immediately changes its plan.  Yes, this is a humble Inquisition that’s more than happy to take outside suggestions.  And, they will be the ones penalizing the truly guilty, so it looks like the only flaw of the Church is poor judgment.  Sure, that’s a indictment of sorts, but not up there with cheating an old woman of her life’s savings and raping a girl.

For twenty minutes we’re given a serious drama with exploitation elements (and readers of this site will know I do not use that term in a pejorative sense), but then a series of soft-core sex scenes slide in.  It isn’t that I’m troubled by the sex, but rather how out of place and poorly done the scenes are.  The mother superior stripping down the acolyte and playing with her—sure, that fits in.  But a nun writhing nude on a bed, moaning for Satan to give her a baby while two nuns feel her legs, comes out of nowhere and leads to nothing.  It is also where editing destroys what little of value might have been there.  If we’re going to get a sexy, soft-core moment, then give it to us, but it’s obvious that the actresses weren’t onboard.  So, we get an orgasming nun, with any body part that’s meant to excite covered by white cloth or the intervening body of another nun, and then we’re tossed into close-ups of nipples and genitals.  I don’t know whose body parts those are, but certainly not the girl I saw on a bed a few seconds earlier.  Soon after, the story stops again for a lesbian scene between two irrelevant nuns.  Shouldn’t a major character have been involved?  And perhaps some setup would have been nice.  School of the Holy Beast and Alucarda manage lesbian nun displays that are both sexy and fit into the movie.  It can be done, just not here.

Then there is the matter of the Devil.  Nothing in the film indicates that powerful occult influences are at work, just nasty people.  But then the Devil appears in the silliest costume you can imagine, to rape Maria.  Hint to filmmakers: If you want a chilling, emotional, horrific rape scene, do not bring in a guy in red spandex with a hoodie.  So, this ludicrous apparition is the Devil?  If the nuns have the power to call the Prince of Darkness, shouldn’t there be some evil occult goings-on in the rest of the film?

And in case you were getting interested in the plot, the ending negates anything of value.  All things are wrapped up by happenstance.  The right guy comes along at the right moment and finds Maria’s letter to God (thus the title), and encounters no further difficulties.  That’s exciting.  You could try and say that this was God’s hand fixing things, but…don’t.  Just don’t.

My rating is based upon the version that I saw, and it is inferior to what should exist, somewhere, in several ways.  It was dubbed (with no option for the original German) with the expected poor quality voices.  There were optional subtitles that often varied in minor ways from the audio, such as Alma remarking that Maria is not wearing bloomers while she says stockings in the audio track.  Hmmm.  There is a difference there.  Far worse is the removal of any nudity by star Susan Hemingway, apparently because her character was underage (fifteen or sixteen, depending on the translation).  This also cuts a majority of her torture, and thus, cuts the heart out of the film.  The movie clocked in at 89 minutes, the length given for the longer “directors cut,” so I don’t know where to find the film in a more complete state.

Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a film that is going to bother me for sometime.  I can’t reject it as junk because there is the potential for excellence.  Perhaps there is some yet to be found cut that removes the devil, alters the soft-core elements, adjusts the ending, and reinstates Hemingway’s nudity.  That would be a film to see.  I’m afraid that’s too much to hope for.

The Magdalene Sisters

This is a fictionalized account of the horrors that actually took place at the “Magdalene laundries” in Ireland.  Margaret is raped by her cousin at a family wedding.  Bernadette mildly flirts with boys.  Rose is an unwed mother.  For so “dishonoring” their families, they are sent to be indefinitely confined, working as slaves for Catholic nuns.  The girls are beaten, mentally abused, sexually molested, and stripped of dignity and rights.  An ancient story of the crimes of the Medieval church?  Nope.  This is the 1960s.

Many of the films I review on this site—that either were intended by the filmmakers to promote a religious point of view or show the actions of religious figures—can be fun to watch.  You can have a good party playing Left Behind movies, laughing at the behaviors and beliefs on display.  But there’s nothing to laugh at with The Magdalene Sisters.  There is no fun to be had.  This is the ugly truth of organized religion.  It’s painful to watch.  It’s also important.  The Catholic Magdalene laundries continued until 1996.  This isn’t history; it’s current events.  I can’t think of a film that’s made me angrier.

Peter Mullan wrote the screenplay based on the accounts of survivors.  Dates and names have been changed, and lesser characters are composites, but the general events happened.  He didn’t even use the worst cases, thinking those would be too extreme for the film.

It starts at a wedding, with smiling faces and traditional Irish music performed by the local priest.  Margaret is speaking with her cousin when he grabs for her.  She pushes him away, and he locks the door and rapes her.  After, we hear only the music as Margaret tells a friend what happened.  She tells parents who speak to the cousin and the priest.  They blame her.  It’s best to prepare yourself for an uncomfortable ride, since this is as cheerful as it gets.

Margaret, Bernadette, and Rose (who is forced to change her name to Patricia because they already have a Rose) meet Sister Bridget together and are terrified, as they should be.  The sister is the worst kind of sadist, a believer.  She is sure of the girl’s inferiority and their sin.  Bernadette pleads that she’s never been with a boy, but Sister Bridget only responds, “But you wanted to be.”  In this place, all men are assumed to be base creatures who cannot avoid temptation and women (except nuns who have removed themselves from the world) are nothing but those temptations.  With this philosophy, it isn’t surprising that the nuns have little concern with the physical and mental pain of their charges.

The girls work long hours in a laundry, eat a dull and insufficient diet, and are not allowed to speak accept when given permission (such as when reading The Bible at meals). They are beaten often for the slightest offense, and have their heads shaved (including eyebrows and lashes) for trying to escape.  While far from the most extreme indignity the girls undergo, one of the nuns’ games sums up their existence.  Stripped naked for exercise, the girls are lined up so that two sisters can compare them and laugh.  They pick out who has the largest breasts and butt.  And pull two girls out of line to better choose which is hairiest.

But the nuns aren’t the only villains here.  Absolute power, the belief that God is behind them and that sin is everywhere, has made them into monsters, but they couldn’t do this on their own.  Equally to blame are parents and teachers, who have bought the religious party line, and are eager to toss their daughters and students into hell for their real or imagined transgressions.  When one girl escapes, her father brings her back, whipping her, and then yelling that all the girls are whores.  Their are no helpful policemen, questioning social workers, or crusading politicians.  Everyone plays along.  There’s no one willing, or interested in changing the punishment for these penitent, fallen girls.

I’d love to say that it all ends with troops moving in, the priests and nuns led away in chains, and the buildings demolished, but this is reality and that didn’t happen.  It isn’t as dark as it could be (the stories do come from survivors after all), but you won’t find any emotional satisfaction here.

The film looks goods, and the acting is superb, but I’m not completely comfortable with the movie telling a fictionalized account instead of stating exactly what happened.  The story has a set beginning, middle, and pat ending, but the reality is more complex, and doesn’t fit into the narrative structure.  But we have narratives dealing with The Holocaust, so my complaint is a minor one.  Besides, the region 1 DVD comes with Steve Humphries’s documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, which allows four women to speak for themselves about the horrors they endured.

The Catholic Church and religious supporters have attacked the film, not on its facts (since there are still survivors who can testify to the events, and even the Sisters of Mercy have apologized in a vague way, for the crimes of their order), but rather because it doesn’t depict some good clergy members or point out the nice attributes of the vicious nuns.  That’s a frightening position to take: that the torture that these people inflicted is no more important than their hobbies or some charity work they might have performed.  I’m sure many of the criminals of history had a few good qualities.  Caligula may have been very kind to an orphan or two.  That hardly negates his crimes.  The most important thing to know about the Magdalene nuns was the terrors they are responsible for.  Moreover, this isn’t their story.  This is the story of the victims.  When those girls were being whipped, it is unlikely that they were dwelling on the good deeds of their jailers.  This criticism is disrespectful to the women who suffered.  Unfortunately, it isn’t surprising.

The Magdalene Sisters documents a dark chapter from the Catholic Church’s past. How many times has it been necessary to utter that phrase?  How many times does it have to be said before people stop supporting that institution, and others like it?

Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force

Shortly after the rapture—that time when all the good actors ascended to heaven, leaving only C-level hacks like Kirk Cameron—a group of people, nay, a force of people…nay, let us think of them as a tribulation force, go hog wild on the sin of pride, deciding to take (Preaching break: God is great.  He is so great.  I cannot tell you just how great God is) on the AnticChrist.  Our religious hero-sinners consist of a kid pretending to be a hardboiled journalist, a grumpy pilot, a minister who is incapable of speaking (Preaching Break: Oh Jesus, we give our lives to you, no matter how stupid your plans are, because you’re Jesus) without mentioning God, and a girl who doesn’t do anything because she’s female, and females don’t count.  After extended proselytizing, a plot appears out of nowhere.  It seems that (Preaching Break: Come to Jesus, or it is no biscuit for you!) the euro-trash Antichrist is going to be declared the messiah by some Jewish guy, and the Tribulation Force needs to stop that, because everyone accepts whatever Jews say…

Based on the childishly simplistic Left Behind novels, Tribulation Force picks up the threads of the first film.  Your favorite actors who-can’t-find-real-work are back, playing the parts they didn’t fit before.  (That could be an overstatement, but with Kirk “Gosh I’m Cute” Cameron portraying a tough, world-weary reporter, all perspective is out the window.)  The story is simple enough, mainly because there isn’t one for the first hour.  Instead we get prayer, preaching, and the occasional conversion (Halleluiah brethren!).  You will never find a movie with more sermonizing.  I’ve gone to church services (yes, I’ve entered a church and neither I nor it burst into flame) that were subtler.  If this is your idea of entertainment, go to a revival meeting; you’ll find it more active and believable.  Once the plot begins, you’ll be amazed at how slight it is.  In the grand scheme of things, a Jewish scholar’s statement on the identity of the messiah is pretty small potatoes.  Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if our heroes had done something that…mattered?  But nope, the only action is this flick is trying to stop a Rabbi from speaking.

OK, so what’s the world of Left Behind 2 like?  Well, it’s fundamentalist paranoia in color.  The U.N. and world banks are the tools of a foreign Antichrist.  Catholics are part of the evil as well, but that’s played down in the film (Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force—The Movie, now with 50% less Catholic-hating than the book).  Everyone is either a Christian, atheist, or Jew.  Hey, maybe all the Muslims and Buddhists got taken to heaven during the rapture; wouldn’t that be a kick?  The Jews tend to sit around in outdoor cafes and dwell on how sorry they are for killing Christ.  Naturally, the atheists are either surly, suicidal, or joining up with the Antichrist.  Society is in complete collapse.  Strangely, everything looks fine except for some car vandalism.  All governments have fallen and currencies are valueless.  Again, this doesn’t effect people’s everyday lives (wow, anarchy works!), but it does allow the U.N. (because that’s the one organization that would survive!?!) to take over.  There are no children (they got raptured), but that no longer bothers anyone except Rayford Steele (yes, that’s the name the writers chose…while sober) and his buddy.  Apparently, most mothers weren’t all that attached to their kids.

Now, everyone remember the Book of Revelations?  Do you remember how wackos interpret it?  If so, you’ll recall that God is letting The Devil (and his kid) take over, because, well, God is a dick.  Yes, God just likes to screw with people because he can.  Luckily (and this may not be clear in your version of The Bible), the Antichrist is an idiot.  He has supernatural powers, plus rules the world, yet he doesn’t bother checking up on the people that are close to him.  This nimrod decides he wants Buck to be his personal reporter, but doesn’t have security do a profile.  If he had, he might have decided not to hire a guy who goes to public church services where they announce who the Antichrist is and that he must be stopped.  First thing the Antichrist needs to do is hire a few ex-FBI agents to do background checks since his pilot also hangs out at the same church services.  (Our heroes are so clever they realize they don’t have to hide any of their behaviors the way that normal revolutionaries do).

Back to the wackos.  In the 1980s, every evangelical with a TV show shouted with absolute certainty that the end-of-days was upon us, and that The Bible clearly states how the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States would start Armageddon.  Jimmy Carter was also in The New Testament, along with multiple political events that are no longer relevant to anything.  As the world didn’t end (or did it?  No, I guess it didn’t), the whole mapping of Revelations onto the current world comes off as pretty silly to anyone who thinks.  But hey, when has thinking and The Bible ever gone together?  Tossing aside thought, the filmmakers have a bigger problem: there just isn’t anything all that interesting in the world today to connect up to ancient prophecy.  Minor terrorist activity looks pretty feeble next to immanent nuclear annihilation.  So, we’re given a really boring vision of the final days.  They should have gone with the literal dragon.

It’s not all a loss.  This is the only film I know that has fire breathing old dudes.  You see, God (remember, the dick), sends two guys out of a Cecil B. DeMille picture to Earth to mumble the truth to the two or three people that can chat to them.  God could have just used the radio, TV, or maybe a podcast (Godpod.com?  What do you think?), but he finds it funnier to not let people know what’s going on, so he sends these guys with long beards and flame throwers in their tonsils.  Does it make sense?  Of course not.  But damn, it’s cool.

Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force was supposed to get a theatrical release, but didn’t because, well, why would it?  It was also promoted as a great tool for converting the heathens (like me).  Wow, it astonishes me what thin grasps people have on reality.  No one who isn’t already Jamming with Jesus is going to be able to sit through this talentless catechism and come out with a positive view of Christianity.

The Last Temptation of Christ

A whiner, hanging out in the desert with some Brooklynites and Harvey Keitel (yeah, Harvey is playing Harvey) turns into a smartass after chatting to some snakes.  After that, and even before it, he talks a lot.  So does everyone else.  They don’t do much, but they do talk.  They also pause a lot while they talk.  If you like talking and pausing, you’re going to be thrilled.  An eternity later, when even blind and deaf school girls will have picked up Scorsese’s none-to-subtle message, we finally get to the crucifixion and the point of the whole story: the last temptation of Christ.  But by then you’ve gone out for popcorn.

So Jesus is God and human.  That’s one of those little Bible riddles that is left meaningless, but it had been bothering Martin Scorsese for years (as it really ought to bother most Christians), so he decided to make a film that examined that dichotomy, with an emphasis on the human, and Christians around the world went even more nuts than usual.  That’s rather odd since the Scriptures are cool with the God/man bit, but zealots everywhere had convulsions and started screaming about dogs and cats living together in sin.  Maybe it’s because there’s a shot of Jesus’ naked butt.  While the Bible stays silent on the issue of whether or not Jesus had an ass, I don’t think it’s blasphemous to suggest that he did.  Ah, but I’ve never gotten into a deep theological argument with learned religious folks on the nature of Christ’s bum.  Perhaps he had some kind of magic sphincter.  Who’s to say?

Whatever the cause, fundies and their ilk shouted and turned themselves about, and that was even before the Son of God’s derriere hit the screen.  (And this is a spiritual, Christian film.  How would they have behaved if it had actually been anti-Christian?  You know, like I’m being.)  The fuming caused the studio to pull out of Scorsese’s first attempt to make the movie, and left his second severely under-funded.  And it shows.  For the first hour, cheapness dominates.  It looks like a student project.  Apparently The Holy Land had about ten Jews and four Romans.   It’s also low on buildings.  And furniture.  And…well, anything.  There’s plenty of sand, since Morocco (where The Last Temptation of Christ was shot) has that in abundance, so the film is filled with people walking in empty deserts.   To fill in what should have been explained by clever, and more expensive scenes, we’re given a Jesus voice-over (if you can’t tell the story of Jesus without pulling a noir narration, give it up), excessive speeches, and Willem Dafoe writhing about on the floor (you see, that’s how you show inner torment…).  Perhaps a few million more might have made this into a good picture, but probably not since the characters and editing are bigger problems.

Scorsese really wanted a divine Jesus who was also human, but he overshot his mark.  This Jesus is unpleasant, petulant, wimpy, and a traitor to his people.  I’ve got no spiritual problem with that (it’s quite refreshing), but it makes it hard to cuddle up with the guy, and at 164 minutes, there’s a lot of time to cuddle.  He’s also an overacting Jesus.  No gesture is too broad.  All of this improves late in the film, but too late to inspire sympathy for the dude.

Jesus’ best bud is Harvey Keitel, or at least Harvey Keitel if he was a gangland hit man.  He goes by the name Judas, but don’t let that make you think he’s playing anyone that couldn’t have fit into Reservoir Dogs.  I’m reasonably sure you’re not supposed to giggle whenever he comes on screen, but it’s really hard not to.

There are a few interesting pre-crucifixion moments, such as Jesus waiting in the long line of Johns for a chance to talk to the very busy Mary Magdalene (Jerusalem has a serious drought of prostitutes) and the ’60s-era cultish revival meeting of The Baptist, but mostly there is just tedium broken by embarrassment.  The latter is most fully on display with the Sermon on the Mount.  Here, Jesus, with less charisma than Woody Allen and less clarity of vision than a youth minister on crack, mumbles some poorly modernized lines about love to the ten or twelve extras that happened to show up that day.   It would have worked nicely in a parody, but unfortunately, no one is supposed to laugh.

It doesn’t help that almost nothing in the first ninety minutes should  have been in the film, even if they had been artfully constructed.  The film is The Last Temptation of Christ, not The Last Temptation of Christ After a Whole Lot of Hammering Home, Over and Over and Over, That This Guy is Human.  The “Oh, he has fears and desires” routine isn’t all that difficult to fathom.  It doesn’t need an hour and a half.

Finally, the movie rattles to where it should have started, with Jesus on the cross, and being tempted a final time with a vision of living out a life as a normal man: marrying, having children, and growing old.  This is where the picture takes off and offers something interesting.  The acting even improves, with Juliette Caton as the film’s standout, playing a child archangel (of a kind).  This is also where fundies really lose it, because the vision includes Jesus getting hitched to Mary and having sex with her.  However, don’t get too excited.  Besides it being a dream sequence, it is about the most reserved coupling you’ll find in a film not made by Disney.  Ignoring the fanatics, the temptation is the high point of the film, but fails in the end.  Scorsese cheats, putting people and event into the scenario that shouldn’t be there, and making Jesus’ decision far too easy.

Scorsese’s passion for the project as well as his own religious struggles are up on the screen, but that doesn’t make for a good film.  More thought would have helped.  It is a requirement for Christian fundamentalists to hate this film, normally without having seen it.  And it is in vogue for more liberal minded Christians and film critics to heap praise upon it.  Both reactions are inappropriate.  It just isn’t that blasphemous or that good.

The music is something special.  It is the best of Peter Gabriel’s world phase.  Skip the film and pick up the CD.

Kingdom of Heaven

Balian, stoically mourning the suicide of his wife and, learning that he is the bastard son of a Baron, stoically takes his father’s place as a defender of the king of Jerusalem while searching for meaning and forgiveness.  But the king is dying, and his successor is a fanatic templar who will start a war with the Muslims, and isn’t the slightest bit stoic.  Balian also has an affair with the wife of the templar leader in an amazingly stoic manner.  As the Christian forces splinter, Balian must find a stoic way to save the people of Jerusalem from the two hundred thousand troops of Saladin.  Now it could be me, but I think Balian might be just a little too stoic.

Ridley Scott closes off this cycle of sword epics with the politically infused Kingdom of Heaven, a morality play on religion and the modern Middle East.  Since Scott revitalized the sub-genre in 2000 with Gladiator, it’s only proper that he lays it to rest, and does it with the best of the bunch.  After having to suffer through the unending Troy (2004) and the excruciating Alexander (2004), I wasn’t expecting much from a bulked-up pretty boy (that would be Bloom) keeping the riff-raff out of the Holy Land, particularly at 145 minutes.

But this is a thrilling, thoughtful, and beautifully filmed work.  With a minimum of speeches, Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Bloom is adequate in the lead, and benefits from a superior supporting cast that supplies the energy for each scene without stealing the movie from Bloom.  As this is a Ridley Scott film, it was going to look good, but he exceeds his own normal level of excellence with breathtaking shots of desert vistas and ancient cities.

The pre-battle scenes—with huge armies positioning themselves, horses charging across the desert, siege towers rolling, and archers notching their arrows—take you into the glories and horrors of combat, and the ballista warfare is magnificent, but, much like Gladiator before it, the melee skirmishes lack excitement.  They are filled with cheap cinematic tricks I would only expect from film school students.  The camera zooms in and out, rocks back and forth, and lingers overlong on legs.  Slow motion is used to indicate that what is happening is important, as if Scott doesn’t trust the situation or his actors to make that clear.  Worse, after the slow motion, there’s often a fast motion catch-up that makes the whole thing look fake.  What works in The Matrix does not work in ancient sand.

But then this isn’t a combat movie.  For all the sword swinging, this is really about a man trying to find an ethical basis for life.  He can’t accept that his wife is doomed to hell for her suicide, and believes that both God and the Church have turned against him.  But, with a Christian background, he has nothing else to cling to.  So his physical journey to The Holy Land is a mental one as well.  He is given what he needs early on from his father and an oddly agnostic priest.  He’s told that all of the spiritual rambling means nothing.  It is good deeds that count.  Here and now is what matters.  But Balian isn’t ready to accept that, not entirely.  First, he must see fanatics slaughter each other and the innocent for their God.  He must see the corruption of the Church, and the even worse behavior of those who truly believe.  He must meet people of different faiths and see that all religions have good and bad adherents, but the best people are those who put little stock into the views of Heaven.  Then he can see that morality does not have to be based on a mythical guy in the sky.  Perhaps the film’s finest moment is when an enlightened Balian rides past a stone cross.  He gazes at it, and then rides on.  He has not decided that there is no God, but only that it doesn’t matter.

The Christians and Muslims are painted darkly, as they actually were (notice my clever use of the past tense).  The Knight Templars, with their bright red crosses, are the real villains.  They believe that killing anyone not of their faith is their greatest duty, and they will destroy civilization to do it.  The Muslims get off slightly better, but not much.  One fanatic points out to Saladin that men must prepare for battle instead of rushing in and leaving it in Allah’s hands, could get him removed from his position.  Even great success is no defense against religious extremists.

While the philosophy is spot on, and the politics relevant (hmmmmm; what could be going on in the Middle East involving Western armies and Muslims now?), the plot could have used some adjustments.  Balian, a blacksmith with no stated military experience (perhaps he’d been a knight and Scott didn’t find it worth mentioning) learns his skills far too quickly.  Suddenly, not only is he a great swordsman, but the best strategist in the land.  Worse, the film wants us to empathize with him, but any connection vanishes during the middle of the picture.  Balian could have stopped a war, saved the lives of thousands on both sides, created a peace that would have meant a better life for all, saved his friends, all while getting the girl he loves (I guess he loves her; there’s not much chemistry).  All he needs to do is agree to the execution of an evil traitor.  I put the word “evil” in there not to be repetitive or juvenile, but to point out that this guy is slime both legally and ethically.  But Balian won’t do it.  I suppose Scott meant this to show Balian’s developing sense of morality, but it doesn’t.  It makes Balian selfish, stupid, and out-of-touch with the situation.  No one would act as he does.

Kingdom of Heaven is a marred masterwork.  The blemishes are large and unsightly, but if you go in for the philosophy and the spectacle,  you’ll find plenty worthwhile to see.

Killer Nun

Sister Gertrude hasn’t been feeling well lately.  An operation to remove a brain tumor has left her with horrible headaches.  With the doctor saying it’s all in her head (perhaps literally) and the Mother Superior telling her that nuns are supposed to suffer, can you blame a girl for sneaking some doses of morphine?  Can you blame her for being a bit cranky and doing a poor job of helping the patients?  Can you blame her for stealing a dead woman’s ring, running off to town to have sex with a stranger, and picking up some street drugs (hmmmm)?  Can you blame her for humiliating her lesbian roommate and making her put on stockings (umm, that’s just odd)?  Can you blame her for beating a man to death and shoving pins through an old woman’s eye?  Wait.  Yes.  I think that one might be going a bit too far.

Hey, she said she was sick.  They should have listened.

Adequately filmed for an Italian B-movie, Killer Nun (sometimes called The Killer Nun) was banned by the Catholic Church and multiple countries (including Britain) for its sacrilegious themes, which shows hype means more than reality.  It was newspaper ads claiming the story was from secret Vatican files that got everyone hot and bothered.  The idea did come from a true story—of a nun who killed patients in order to steal their gold, and was arrested when the items were found in her room—but there was no Church cover-up, nor greater meaning beyond one disturbed woman.  The film itself has nothing nice to say about religion, but is hardly world shaking, and even keeps its blasphemy to a minimum.

And that’s the problem with Killer Nun; it is far too restrained.  Ekberg, the one-time-sex-symbol best known for wading into a fountain in La Dolce Vita, is treated as if her age precludes sensuality or violence.  Her flesh is kept demurely (sometimes bizarrely) covered while the younger Morra prances around next to her, naked as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.  Half of the film is constructed as a mainstream examination of drug abuse in a middle-aged woman.  Do you know what isn’t interesting?  A mainstream examination of a drug abuse in a middle-aged woman.  It is slow and unenlightening, telling us what we already know (Mr. Mackey: “Drug’s are b-bad.”).  The crawling pace becomes literal when Sister Gertrude takes a patient’s crutches away, and we watch him drag himself up a flight of stair, and we see every inch.

The tedium is interrupted by exploitation elements, including multiple murders, sex scenes, and copious nudity from the delectable Ms Morra.  Most of this is entertaining, but occasionally it continues the misuse of Ekberg.  Demonstrating her split personality, Sister Gertrude heads to town for some drugs, and while there, drops the habit and picks up a stranger for anonymous sex.  Great, except that this is sex without an inch of displayed skin, and we’ve seen nothing to indicate Gertrude has lost the conviction of her vows, nor that she’s been in need of a good screw.  The murders work better, and a grim pin and scalpel torture scene may make you feel queasy, but it won’t bore you.  The best moments belong to Morra, who’s like a mad, sex-starved pixie.  Her Sister Mathieu is a lesbian temptress and the only sympathetic character in the film.  Gertrude is a nasty addict, the old doctor is gruff and arrogant, the new doc is drab, self-righteous, and a hypocrite, Mother Superior is cruel and another hypocrite, and the hospital director cares only about his family’s past indiscretions and the hospital’s “good” name, not the patients.  These are not nice people.  But Mathieu, seems loving, and Morra makes her vulnerable and sensual.

A killer nun, lesbianism, and Gertrude’s inability to separate drugs from God won’t be making the Catholic church’s recruiting brochures (although they should think about the lesbian thing), but they aren’t powerful indictments of the system either.  A more significant condemnation is the character of the Mother Superior and her implied support from the religious hierarchy.  When it looks like the Church could be in for some bad press, she has the suspect nun confined within a convent where the law will never find her, and has the multiple murders classified as accidents.  Hmmmm.  The Catholic church covering up the misdeeds of its representatives and moving them about to escape prosecution—now where have I heard that before?

Much of Killer Nun was film in a convent.  Director Giulio Berruti gave priests and nuns a fake script to get their permission.  Whenever a member of the clergy showed up to watch filming, the production would mysteriously have a great deal of extra light adjustments to make, which would take as long as it took for them to became bored and wandered off.

King of Kings

This guy gets born in Bethlehem to an Irish girl,  grows up in Nazareth, and becomes a non-charismatic, blue-eyed surf dude who manages to get a following by tossing off platitudes while walking in the street.  Meanwhile, Barabbas, possibly the worst rebel leader in the history of mankind, stages a few battles that only a blind shut-in wouldn’t know would fail, so that the Nazarene will look good by comparison.  Also, since the main story apparently isn’t interesting enough, a few Romans, an Arab king, and some hot chicks chat until the hottest chick does a modern dance to get ahead.  Eventually everybody goes after the pretty boy purely because the story requires it.

Now, let’s suppose that some guy is your lord.  You worship him, believe that his word is holy, and you may even love him (in some lesser definition of the word “love”).  Wouldn’t you want him to be…impressive?  In Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, God is glorious.  That’s a diety!  But here, we’re given a bland, distracted, hollow kind of “messiah.”  Sure, he’s got the looks of a model and eyes that will make schoolgirls blush (and gay men sweat), but there’s nothing about this guy that will make you believe he could come up with two followers, much less legions.  Assuming some bloke named Jesus actually lived two thousand years ago and started the religion, I can safely say he was nothing like this film’s version as he couldn’t rally a few couples for a bridge game.

Overall, this is a strangely uninvolving retelling of what is supposed to be “the greatest story ever told” (oh, that’s a different movie).  Not only does Jesus traipse around in a drug-like trance, but his mother hardly notices what’s going on.  Her son is dying on a cross and she couldn’t care less.  Is that what it means to be holy?  The crucifixion is designed to lull the audience, not excite them (think of this as the opposite of The Passion of the Christ).  It is low on blood and seems painless.  At best, being nailed to a piece of wood and left out in the sun to die looks slightly uncomfortable, along the same lines as being forced to sit on hard bleachers at a football game because you’ve got bad tickets.  Apparently, all that pain and suffering (not to mention the grandeur and magnificence) were considered too much for fragile Christians, so everything is toned down.  This Biblical saga is even missing miracles.  Except for being spotted after he died, the only thing Jesus does onscreen is cure a guy’s cramps.  His shadow does fall over a blind man, which may have cured him, or he may have found his rags itchy at that moment; the film doesn’t specify.  Everything else which might have been gripping is merely read from a Roman report.  Yeah, because nothing is more rousing than a good report.

Since the story of Jesus is played without joy or complexity, a third of the film follows Barabbas, mysteriously moved from his traditional role as murderous thug (as in Barabbas) into the part of misguided patriot.  This might have been clever if the combat scenes were filmed with any flair or if there was depth to Barabbas.  But, like the Jesus part of the story, anything that could be energetic is avoided.  In a decision that boggles the mind, the crowds choosing of Barabbas to be saved in place of Jesus is not shown.  Instead, it is commented upon after the fact.

So, this is a soullessly written Biblical rehash.  It is self-consciously directed, using strange camera angles and lenses that draw attention to themselves, not the story.  The narration kicks in whenever the filmmakers found themselves incapable of telling the story directly, and Orson Wells, who did the voice-over, petitioned to have his name removed from the credits due to his embarrassment with the project.  The film was dubbed I Was a Teenage Jesus (a takeoff on 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which is actually a better movie) because of the inappropriate appearance of the star.  It was poorly dubbed in post production, often with incongruously accented voices.  So, is there any reason for an atheist (or even a Christian) to watch King of Kings?  Yes, but only if you are gay, or are looking for a new drinking game.  This is the most homoerotic Jesus flick in wide distribution (and considering the homosexual theme in Ben-Hur, that’s saying a lot).

I’d hate to ruin the event for any of you who want to take a drink whenever something with gay overtones happens, so I’ll just start you out: when a bear (i.e.: a hairy, large man) runs into Jesus’ arms, and the two gaze into each other’s eyes while the well-scrubbed Messiah dips the man, it’s time to down a shot.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter, who has been living with his abusive aunt and uncle since his parents died, discovers he’s actually a wizard who is responsible for the defeat of the greatest evil sorcerer of all time.  He is introduced to the secret society of witches and wizards, and enrolls in Hogwarts School of Magic.  There he makes good friends but also finds danger.  Since he is very busy, he rarely has the time to lead the children of fundamentalist Christians into hell, nor is he able to make speaking tours on behalf of Wiccan religious groups.

There are no witches.  Let’s say that all together now.  THERE ARE NO WITCHES!  Magic, spelled with a “c” or a “k” doesn’t exist except as an act.  And the Harry Potter books are works of fiction.  Of course, that means the film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is also fiction.  It is a story in a world invented by J.K. Rowling.

Normally, I wouldn’t feel the need to point those sorts of things out, but in this case, apparently I do.  A motivating factor behind the creation of The Film Atheist was the insanity of Christian groups in dealing with the Harry Potter books and movies.  It seems that in the novels, the word “witchcraft” is used, and not with a negative connotation.  This is too much for those who fear old women with cauldrons, and they shrieked that Harry is guiding children into the black arts.   Bizarre Christian fear-monger and author, Richard Abanes spelled out how he could tell Potter was a dangerous influence, as opposed to other fantasies:

“Can my child find information in a library or bookstore that will enable them (sic) to replicate what they are seeing in the film or the book?”

In the series, Harry and company fly, become invisible, and shape change, along with many other things.  So Abanes believes that kids can go to the library (or bookstore—I don’t want to misrepresent his bold position) and find instructions on how to make a broom take off.  Wow.  Really…just…wow.  I want to know what library he goes to.

Apparently Abanes and his colleagues have no concept of the difference between reality and fantasy.  It’s bad enough to believe that witchcraft is real, but to believe that a film based on a children’s book is in any way connected to actual practice makes one question the sanity of the author and his ilk.  And well we should, because the next attack on Harry Potter is pure paranoia.

Abanes not only doesn’t trust anyone who isn’t a Christian, but he’s opposed to anyone who doesn’t make public announcements of faith, no matter how irrelevant to the topic.  He states that it is OK to read and watch the works of Tolkein and Lewis because they proclaimed their Christianity, but for Rowling:

“In fact, we have no statements from her at all that would indicate that she has made a profession for Christ, that she defines God the same way that Christians define God, or that she views Jesus Christ in the same way. There is nothing.”

Media lunatic and author Ted Baehr increases the paranoid rhetoric by questioning the publishers intent to make money.  It seems that these “publishers” are really just fronts for Satan, and that:

“… the publishers behind the Harry Potter series use the series to lure young readers to Internet Web sites that encourage children to explore occult topics like witchcraft, divination, and idol worship.”

Don’t you hate to learn that Scholastic is actually a cult?

But the Christian Right’s attacks on Harry Potter aren’t limited to witchcraft and cultish publishers.  Their perspective has always been one of control and mindless obedience.  That the main characters in the story are not subservient to their parents annoys them.  Children shouldn’t think for themselves or be reasoned with, but should be told what to do, and then do it.  That makes for a pretty poor story, and it is common in literature and film for people to make decisions, but Potter has been singled out because Christian groups were already after it, deeming it evil.

Then there are the complaints that switch from the frightening to the humorously stupid.  On a Christian blog, one mother complained that after seeing the film, her child leapt off the roof, holding a broom, in an attempt to fly.  Now, if your young child is breaking limbs by purposely plummeting off buildings, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with a movie; it means you suck as a parent.  Yes, you lack fundamental skills, and therefore, should be kept far away from anyone below the age of twelve.  So, if this sort of thing has happened in your family, give your children away to a trusty cousin (or to an indigent stranger; he can’t be worse than you), and take off for foreign ports until you learn the skills of a mother tree sloth.

So, with the Christian right (and a few Muslim groups as well) making Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the most sinful and dangerous film of all time, and since it doesn’t directly support Satan, then it must be a big time atheistic film, right?  Not really.  It is a fantasy and has very little to say about religion one way or the other.  It no more promotes a disbelief in God than it does advocate worship of a divine being.

Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron deal with many difficulties, but they never sit down to discuss their church affiliations.  Shouldn’t they, and doesn’t the lack of such dialog have meaning?  No.  It is a children’s story.  Winnie the Pooh spoke often about honey, but never about the resurrection of Jesus.

However, I’m not giving it an entirely neutral rating, because it does present us with intelligent characters who think for themselves,  and rely on themselves and each other.  They do not sit idly by, accepting their place in society.  They are, within the confines of a story intended for youths, free thinkers.  So, while Harry is not a spokesmen for atheism, he does have some valuable lessons to teach.

Outside of religious concerns, how is the film?  Quite enjoyable, but not overwhelming.  It has a solid cast, both in its leads and supporting roles, and the art direction is a thing of wonder.  The plot should keep anyone following along, although there are a few too many coincidences.  The special effects are a mixed bag, which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t the subject of so much attention.  The centaur is particularly painful, looking like something out of a 1995 video game.  The film drags at times, trying too hard to include everything that was in the novel.  A little cutting and tightening would have improved it immensely.  While it’s not all it could be, there is plenty here to like.

Chris Carpenter of the Christian Broadcasting Network said, “The simple truth is Jesus saves and Harry doesn’t.”  But then Harry was never meant to.  He was meant to entertain, and that he does quite well.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter (who doesn’t carry out human sacrifices) enters his fourth year at Hogwarts School of Magic (which does not have an agenda of corrupting the children of fundamentalist Christians)  under the cloud of the reemergence of the Death Eaters, Lord Voldemort’s followers.  Additionally, the school will be the site of the famous Tri-Wizard Tournament (which again, doesn’t affect fundie kids in any special way), and somehow, Harry was entered.  Now he must complete three dangerous tasks against three more experienced competitors (none of whom have given themselves to Satan), all the while watching for what is really going on behind the scenes.  Ron and Hermione (not cultists!) are there to help him, but less then usual as puberty has not been kind, particularly to Ron who has grown moody and irrational.  Luckily, there is a new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, Alastor Moody (yes, the school teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts, not embracing them while drinking the blood of virgins).  He’s erratic, violent, and disagreeable, but he’s the only one helping Harry.

Here we are again.  Another Harry Potter movie, and another batch of insane Christian rantings.  If you haven’t kept up with the misplaced mental workings of our fundamentalist friends, take a look at my review for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It will give you the basics.  Not surprisingly, little has changed in close to five years.  The books still sell millions, and the kids who read them don’t worshiping the Devil.  The movies entertain without breaking the minds of children everywhere, and Christian groups still scream that anything connected to Harry Potter is, “Eeeeeviillll!!!  EEEVVVILLL!”

Reading the reviews in Christian publications, I sway between hysterical laughter and hysterical depression.  At least hysteria is involved either way.  The disconnect with reality is fascinating.  Since their claim is that Harry will lead Children into “witchcraft,” “occultism,” and “Satanism,” I keep wondering where all these witches, occultist, and Satanists are?  Just about every kid in the Western world has read the books.  Shouldn’t we be seeing a huge up-surge in Devil covens by now?  But then, the type of groups these Christians fear have never existed except in their own black hearts and some old Hammer Horror films.  People who call themselves witches don’t make pacts with the Devil.  Members of the Church of Satan don’t even believe in the Devil as an entity (which pretty much just leaves him to the Christians).  No one, anywhere, is sacrificing babies to Lucifer, so fearing that some books and movies are going to swell the ranks of these nonexistent organizations might just be a little paranoid.

For Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one Christian critic stated how ill she felt knowing that parents who brought their children to the theater weren’t raising them properly, not only because of the lure of witchcraft, but because all of these children would be terrified by the film, would have nightmares, and wouldn’t be able to handle it.  However, by the end of her article she contradicts herself when she says she spoke to parents and found this wasn’t the case.  The kids can enjoy the movie just fine without trauma.  Instead of admitting that her position was wrong to begin with, she just rambles that this is a bad sign.  How, she doesn’t say.

But not all Christian groups oppose Harry and his pals, and these people are almost as funny.  Jeffrey Overstreet of Christianity Today defends The Goblet of Fire saying:

While real-world witchcraft is certainly a dangerous and deceptive practice, more and more Christians are coming to appreciate the way the Potter stories use make-believe magic to illustrate the spiritual conflict in the real world.

And Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films follows that up with:

…the only elements that in any way resemble real-world occult practices are unambiguously evil, from the Unforgivable Curses to the quasi-sacrificial ritual used to restore Voldemort.

So to them, the magic is OK because it isn’t like the magic in our world.  Guess what people—there is no magic in our world!  Zero.  And no one who calls himself a pagan or a witch or an occultist is sacrificing body parts in a big vat.  They might be gazing at some crystals and asking for wisdom from the mother godess (sort of like Christians gazing at a rosary or asking for wisdom from the Father, God).  Did these people learn comparative theology by watching 1950s horror flicks?

Like the three films before it, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire says nothing one way or the other about religion or deities.  And in this episode, where Harry doesn’t have a chance to do anything but react, he isn’t even self motivating.  This is a film that sits out any debates on free thinking, realism, spiritualism, atheism, agnosticism, and theism.

What it does is entertain in a series of wild, effects laden scenes.  There’s a team of pegasi pulling a flying coach.  There’s attacking, acrobatic merfolk.  There’s people transforming into other people, wand duels, and a dizzying, dynamic hedge maze.  And there’s the most realistic dragon made-to-date engaging Harry in an aeronautic duel.  It all looks great.

The story is slightly darker than its predecessors, with unrelenting dangers for our poor, often out of breath hero (well, except for the occasional study session or school dance).  But it doesn’t get any more frightening then a good Halloween party and young children will be awed, not terror-stricken.

New director Mike Newell goes for a more Spartan, old-world look for the school.  The cute pictures and happy ghosts are rarely seen.  To signal their advancement into middle teens, the students are sloppier, with untucked shirts and uncombed hair.  It implies a less Disney fairytale world, and one more fitting to the Brothers Grimm.

As for the plot, it’s best not to look too closely as it will collapse upon inspection.  Everything is based around the villains doing things in the most difficult way possible.  But when the dragon is flying and the magic bolts are whizzing by, you probably won’t care.  Pace is a larger problem.  This is a 2 hour and 37 minute film that should have been about 2 hours.  Yes, the books is much longer and a lot was cut out.  So?  Cut more.  Too many snippets from the book were tossed in just to be there.  Excising the reporter and several love interests would have helped immensely as these go nowhere.  A subplot with Ron turning on Harry should have been cut as well.  It is ludicrous and slow (I’m guessing J.K. Rowling had a really tough time in school if she thinks that this is normal teen behavior), and worst, not entertaining.

But some unnecessary extra material can’t cancel out all of the astonishing moments.  There is plenty of magic (figuratively speaking, for any fearful fundamentalists reading this) in this newest Harry Potter adventure.  Few series are even watchable by the time the fourth film rolls off the line, much less enjoyable for the whole family, even after multiple viewing.  It does lose some of the wonder on the small screen.  If you’re buying the DVD, it might be an excellent time to get that sixty inch TV to go with it.