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.


Omen IV: The Awakening

A ridiculously pure soon-to-be-politician and his ex-lawyer wife adopt an eeeeevil baby.  Though as evil babies go, this one isn’t that bad, and even if she does cause a death or seven, she’s still better than her new mom.  Here’s a woman who would distrust her own kid even if it was God himself with angelic trumpets blaring.  After a series of ho-hum deaths, Sucko-Mom hires a private detective who discovers that they are all stuck in a bad repeat of the original The Omen, with touches of Rosemary’s Baby and Carrie.

So, The Omen III ends (yes, I’m about to give away that film’s climax), with the Antichrist defeated by the second coming of Christ.  That’s right, Jesus is back.  So naturally, the story continues with a new demonic child and…wait a minute.  I may be an atheist, but I’m pretty sure that the second coming of Christ means game over.  That’s it.  End of all things.  And no more Devil on Earth.  Well, not this time.  Apparently, Jesus came and went, and no one noticed.  Doesn’t surprise me.  James Dobson and Jerry Falwell wouldn’t recognize the Prince of Peace if he came down and bit them on the ass.

Even though Omen IV ignores the return of the big J, it is obviously a very religious film, right?  It has the Antichrist, and mentions the Book of Revelations, and there are some nuns…  I suppose there is a Devil somewhere, turning crosses over and giving people heart attacks.  I suppose.  And if there is a Devil, there must be a God.  Except, there isn’t.  God has zero to do with this film.  Nothing.  And the Devil isn’t much more available.  The Catholic church is of no help at all, crosses do nothing, and faith is pointless.   And to confuse matters, new age mysticism works, to the extent that it can detect evil.  Then it becomes worthless.  This is a movie that accepts the existence of evil children and black magic, but that’s about as spiritual as it gets.

But don’t think that a preaching-free environment is going to make this fun-filled entertainment.  This is a flick where the first hack director quit to be replaced by an even worse hack, a character’s name is misspelled in the credits, and it went direct to FOX TV.  Sounding bad yet?  How about the biggest part going to Faye Grant, whose greatest performance was in V, a mini-series that has sullied the sci-fi genre for years.  Not bad enough?  Well, there’s dialog like, “Why did you do that?  What evil made you do that?”  And since it just repeats the plot of The Omen, there are no surprises.

It does have a creepy little girl.  Sure, there have been better creepy little girls (try watching The Ring), but I’m a sucker for creepy little girls, and this one will do nicely.  However, I’m guessing I wasn’t supposed to be rooting for her.  And perhaps that’s where things really went wrong.  The original film worked because it was all shown through the eyes of a sympathetic character, and with him, we saw the horror grow.  But here the perspective jumps all around.  There’s no one for the viewer to latch on to.  The most time is spent with the mother, but not enough to allow us to find positive traits that could mitigate her many negative ones.  I just wanted some upside down cross to get wedged in her mouth and shut her up for awhile.  We’re also shown things from the view of the Creepy Little Girl, but too sporadically to make her our hero.  Too bad.  That was the way to go.  Just let the audience wallow in the killing.  But it didn’t happen.  Instead, I spent the whole film on the outside looking in.

The Omen didn’t need a sequel, much less three of them.  That first film will be remembered as an enjoyable bit of overwrought Christian mythology. Omen IV won’t be remembered at all.


The Omega Code

Author, speaker, lunatic, and part time atheist, Gillen Lane, leaves his one dimensional wife to join Stone Alexander, who might as well have “Antichrist” tattooed on his forehead.  Stone, and his psychotic sidekick, Father Dominic, have stolen The Omega Code, which lets them read the secret prophesies hidden in the Torah as a computer 3-D graphic.  Naturally, Stone builds temples and brokers peace in the Middle East; it’s what the son of Satan would do.  Nothing’s more evil than temples and peace.  Oh, if only, if only!, Gillen would give himself to Jesus, then he could stop all these evil plans, although I thought The Bible said The Devil won till the Second Coming.  Eh.  What does The Bible have to do with a Christian missionary flick anyway?

You have to love a film produced by a Christian network for the purpose of preaching the Gospels of the Lord, that is filled with heresy.  That’s just…cool.  Now, I don’t claim to be a Biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure that Christians aren’t suppose to take the The Good Book as a puzzle, in which all those stories of who begat who, and who got smited when, are nothing more than window dressing to hide the secret message of when Lady Diana was going to snuff it.  Now I like that concept, but then I don’t worry about the eternal truth of God’s word.  I’m also pretty sure that the ending of the movie is heretical as well, but who hasn’t wanted to make the end of days into a happy time?

The story is the same nutso gibberish that extreme rightwing Christians have been babbling for years, filled to overflowing with paranoia.  Armageddon is coming, and coming fast.  (Does it scare anyone else that a large group of people think the world is about to end, and vote and support policies based on that?)  The Antichrist is a European liberal who will use the U.N. or the European Union to take control of the world.  (You can tell he’s evil because of all the liberal causes he supports and the way that he helps the world.  Obviously anyone who wants peace and supports diplomatic solutions to the world’s problems is evil.)  Jews, Catholics, and everyone of any religion besides some brand of narrowly defined Christianity, are either evil or stupid and will be duped by the Antichrist.  As for atheists, they will be chanting along with The Devil.  (Apparently, there are a lot of us too.  Do fundamentalists really believe that the world is dominated by atheists?  It’s always bizarre to see a majority cling to the notion that they are an oppressed minority.)

This rendition of the fight between the few true believers and the Antichrist starts with surprising signs of competency.  For a few moments, the thriller plot has the merest suggestion of being thrilling.  There’s more money on the screen than in similar confused fantasies like 1990’s Apocalypse and 2000’s Left Behind. (8 million, not bad for the Christian specialty market).  The cast is recognizable, and many even have SAG cards.  Michael York and Michael Ironside are bigger names and have more talent than those who normally take these kinds of parts, and Casper Van Dien, well, he’s a bigger name.

But things go horribly, dare I say, apocalyptically wrong quickly, when we get the full brunt of Van Dien’s ACTING!, and recovers only slightly when York appears.  Not that he, or even Van Dien, are given any help from the script.  Poor York does his best to insert humor into his delivery, but he has nothing to work with.  Ironside is there just for the paycheck, which still makes him the second best thing about the film.  The dialog is unintentionally funny, and the story gives out early and is replaced with poorly shot chases that have the drama of an Alka-Seltzer commercial, and lots of chatting.  Since the funds were used for a few run-of-the-mill explosions and a couple of crowd scenes, most of the film looks cheap and surprisingly deserted.  Apparently, the Antichrist will rule the world with one gun-toting sidekick, a PR man, one computer expert, and a sleazy girl.  That’s it.

It doesn’t help that the main character is irrelevant.  Yes, he finds Jesus (who shows up when called to sweep away bad memories and smoke), and yes, he spends time hanging around pertinent people, but he’s neither the protagonist nor the antagonist; he’s just that guy who talks too much.

Bottom-line: this mess is only for the faithful, and they should be embarrassed.  It doesn’t even have a message for them, besides, perhaps, Christian filmmakers have no imagination.  Those whose religious fervor is on a lower boil will be insulted.  As for atheists, there isn’t enough here to make fun of at a drunken party.


The Ninth Gate

Mercenary book expert Dean Corso is hired by  rich, powerful, and psychopathic Boris Balkan to find the two other surviving copies of a Satanic book said to be able to summon the Devil, and compare them to see which one is genuine.  Unfortunately, others are looking for the books, and will kill to get them.  Corso is unequipped to deal with murderers, but he is aided by a strange, green-eyed girl, who may be on Balkan’s payroll.

I’m not going to argue for the high quality of The Ninth Gate.  I’ll state it.  This is an extremely well made work.  Roman Polanski knows his craft, and he has never plied it better.  Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, and Lena Olin are all accomplished actors that bring substantial weight to their roles.  And Emmanuelle Seigner (Mrs. Roman Polanski) is beautiful and enigmatic, which is what her part requires.  The music, art direction, sets and locations, and cinematography are all superb.  To repeat, this is skilled filmmaking in action.

But skilled filmmaking of what?  You’ll rarely find a more ambiguous film.  Most critics have no idea what to make of it, assuming it is a standard horror film with a nonsensical ending.  Many complain that it isn’t scary enough, which shows an amazing lack of understanding, even for a film that’s hard to figure out.  It’s not scary because it isn’t supposed to be.  This isn’t a horror movie.  To say any more requires giving away the ending.  After checking out both reviews and viewers’ comments, it seems clarity is needed more than another review, so that’s what I’m going to do.  The review is finished; it is analysis time.  If you haven’t seen the film, stick with what I said in the first paragraph.

For the rest of you, The Ninth Gate is not a tense, Satanic thriller nor a fright fest.  It is a light, occasionally humorous, noir mystery with a message.  It is the tale of a book buyer, not James Bond (I’ve read complaints that it doesn’t have a car chase; why should it?), that often parodies horror tropes.  It’s not surprising that lazy critics  compare it to Polanski’s Satan-themed Rosemary’s Baby, but the two have little in common.  The earlier film took its Devil seriously, which is something Polanski couldn’t do.  Not a believer (in the Devil, nor in God), he left an out in that film that perhaps all the supernatural elements where in Rosemary’s head.  But in The Ninth Gate, it’s all real, so his “out” is that The Devil isn’t what you thought he was.

What throws everyone is the ending.  What happens?  Corso, who has been unintentionally passing through the gates that are described by the woodcuts, finds the missing picture and enters the ninth gate in a flash of glory.  If he is entering Hell, where’s all the fire and pain?  Why does it look inviting?  I’ve repeatedly heard people claim that since it looks nice, he must be entering Heaven, and that the whole story has really been his path to redemption.  Not a chance.

The simple stuff first: The girl is a devil.  She’s not an angel.  I thought her glowing eyes and demonic visage during sex made that clear, but for any doubters, Polanski, who has avoided explaining the film, confirmed her infernal nature.  Also, Corso does not become a better person, although we sympathize with him more late in the film.  He cheats people at the beginning and beats a man to death at the end.  Not exactly signs of enlightenment.  But he also hasn’t been walking some dark trail of damnation.  His violence is not without provocation.

He isn’t a notably better or worse human being when he enters the ninth gate, but his desires have changed.  He isn’t looking for cash, but knowledge.  And there, finally, the film starts to fall into place.  Many people are caught up with the terms “The Devil” and “Hell”, assuming the first must be evil and the second must be unpleasant.  But that presupposes a Christian point of view that Polanski lacks.  The ending mocks such positions.  The Devil of The Ninth Gate is amoral, not immoral.  (And there is no God.  This isn’t Christianity; the existence of the Devil is no proof of the existence of God because he isn’t “that” devil.)  He is the goal of life, in the abstract.  The members of the Satanic cult couldn’t enter the ninth gate because they were either looking with faith, which gets you nothing, or just going through the motions to be hip, which gets you less.  Balkan failed because he wanted power for himself.  He let emotion win out over thought, and fried for it.  But Corso never lets belief dictate his behavior.  He never has a religious epiphany.  He’s always calm and logical.  And that’s why he wins.  The prize isn’t ultimate power or eternal torment.  It’s just the next puzzle.

Does of The Ninth Gate have a positive view of The Devil?  As much as it has any view at all, yes.  But there’s no horned monster waiting to be released upon the Earth.  This is a fairy tale, and Satan is a symbol.  There are no frights in the movie because this devil is nothing to fear.


The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine

To keep her from marrying the generically handsome Esteban, Lucita is forced to join a convent where hot nuns play hide the rosary and the Abbess fills her holiness with uncredited males who end up buried in the garden.  When one of the lesbian nuns ends up pierced, and not in a good way, Lucita is taken by the inquisition, which finds that nuns answer questions best when topless.  Can Esteban save Lucita?  Will the mad Abbess have her wicked way with the young hero?  Will a bunch of nuns become hysterical and rip off their habits?  Guess.

Shot like a spaghetti western and making forays into romance and swashbuckling adventure, The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine suffers from a lack of wild, gleeful sinning.  For sinful nuns, these girls are far to tasteful.  With so little to titillate, and a diluted message, it is up to the story and characters to carry the show, and for a time, it looks as if they might.  But the pace is too slow, the editing too rough, and the characters too simple for a successful drama.

Considered part of the nunsploitation genre of the 1970s, this is exploitation light.  Probably the most plot-heavy film in the movement, there is a lot going on, and with a more skilled director and a lot more cash, I could imagine this being adapted as a PG sword epic.  Esteban is a mainstream hero and except for one mild sexual encounter, thinks he’s in The Return of the Son of the Second Cousin of Monte Cristo.  After an extensive period of hanging out in a huge “secret” room, he tries to rescue the girl, with sword swinging.  It isn’t horrible, but swashbucklers are hard to make.  This comes out as a C-level adventure film when it should have been an A-level exploitation pic.

The only time it comes into its own is in the brief torture sequence and at the climax, when a group of wall-up nuns go insane and tear off their clothing.  It isn’t erotic, but it does keep your eyes on the screen.

The anti-religious message is stated strongly, and then withdrawn.  For most of the film, anyone connected to religion is shown to be, at best, a useless hypocrite, and at worst, a psychopathic murderer.  The two powerful figures, The abbess and the priest, both kill and torture gleefully, but the abbess doesn’t even have the excuse that she believes she’s doing the right thing.  She just murders people as it suits her fancy.  At least the priest believes he is acting for some higher power (actually, I’m not sure why that is an improvement).  But after showing the Church to be devoid a value and making it clear that God is nowhere to be found, religion is suddenly let off the hook.  All of the suffering is blamed on just two people, both of whom are shown to be insane, and the inquisitor gives a speech on kindness.  It’s as if they made the film, and then realized they’d have to get it past Catholic censors.

You are likely to enjoy the The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine if you are in the mood for some background nudity and swordplay.  However, it doesn’t deserve it’s relatively good reputation within the nunsploitation genre, and is not the key film that its few supporters have made it out to be.