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.


The Halfway House

It’s a beautiful day to go jogging, unless (cue sinister music), you happen to be a cute girl passing a halfway house that’s got a monster in the basement.  Then, it’s not so nice, since you’re going to get abducted, stripped to your panties, chained down, and devoured.  Enter Larissa Morgan, a tough chick who’s not going to sit still as the police do nothing about her lost sis.  She goes undercover as a troubled girl.  Well, she shouldn’t have too many problems, only the sadistic nun, the spank-happy priest, the peeping handyman, the vicious lesbian gang, and the adoring lesbian “virgin.”  Oh, yes, let’s not forget the monster, the Necronomicon, and the possible end of the world.

It’s late night in the ’80s again, with this joyful homage to every type of exploitation cinema you can shake a tentacle at.  We’ve got nunspoitation, women in prison, splatter, rubber suit/puppet monsters, soft core (with a hefty dose of lesbian petting), S&M, school girls, and Lovecraftian Horror.  Any fan of non-mainstream film will find something to love.  Any fan of well made movies will find something to tolerate.  Yes, tolerate.

The Halfway House‘s low budget is evident, in the smack you on the head with a brick wrapped in green paper that reads “low budget” kind of evident.  Another $10,000 could have paid for a script doctor to give the first and second acts a once-over (and I’d have done it for less).  A few more dollars might have added another day or two to the shooting schedule, so the setups could have been more professional and the camera movements better planned.  Oh, and while I’m spending, lets pay a second script doctor to work on the first act dialog.  It’s pretty painful early on.  However, the lines improve toward the end when jokes are more prevalent, and poorly conceived mean-cop talk takes a backseat to, “You can’t destroy the world for your own selfish reasons.”  Now that’s horror-comedy dialog!

So, it’s not as good as it could have been, but there’s too much high quality schlock (dwell on that phrase for a while) to worry about what might have been.  One excellent use of the too limited cash was procuring the services of Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul).  A funny, sexy, and indescribably quirky cult marvel in the ’70s, she’s changed little with the years.  Woronov is an old hand at psychotically stern characters (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), and Sister Cecelia is one of her best.  Here’s cruelty that will make you smile.

The monster is all plastic and waving rubber on strings, but it has a certain charm to it.  And he’s a critter derived from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which means he’s beyond the understanding of mere mortals, so who am I to say he looks silly?  The whole Lovecraftian plot is tacked on (our heroes accept that there are ancient gods ready to smoosh mankind quicker than the last teen style changed, which would have been fine if the humor had been played up), but who doesn’t love an emerging Old One.  It might be an awkward fit, but it works.

Since there are ancient dread gods running around, the Christian god is absent, which is amusing for a film set in a Catholic halfway house for troubled girls.  Of course there’s no philosophical statement in that.  You just don’t find too many people willing to argue that Great Cthulhu really does wait, dreaming, on the ocean floor.  Too bad.  I’ve had enough debates with Christians.  I’m sure a Cthulhu cultist would bring a new angle to the discussion.  Oh well.

But The Halfway House does take a few potshots at modern religion.  The Church can be let off the hook for Sister Cecelia’s odd behavior (she’s had a … bad time), but not so for Father Fogerty, the priest who keeps a sex doll in his wardrobe and enjoys spanking the young girls on their bare behinds as he cries out “The power of Christ compels you!”  If only that had been the way the line was used in The Exorcist.  He’s foolish and obsessed, and fits beautifully as a representative of Christianity.  He doesn’t care about what is important, doesn’t protect those under his care, doesn’t understand the world around him, and abuses his power.  But that doesn’t make the Church evil so much as stupid; it isn’t to be feared, but laughed at.  When Fogerty finds a topless girl chained on the floor for sacrifice, his first concern is that the girl has been allowed out after bed time.  There are no serious attacks on religion, but plenty of comical ones.

The religious ridicule is just part of the fun, and less important to the film than the graphic and hilarious lesbian lube scene, or the girls’ group shower (watched by the perverted handyman), or the sudden decapitation during sex.  Yup, good old sex and violence take precedence over meaning, though not over comedy.  However, at times, The Halfway House is strangely prudish.  Each girl has her top and skirt removed before being left for the monster.  Why?  Does the monster dislike the taste of cloth?  I can buy that, but then why are their panties left on?  Different flavoring?  The girls should either be left dressed or completely naked.  I kept wondering if someone connected to this film was actually concerned with the rating.  It is simple.  Semi-naked girl left as a sacrifice: exploitive and gratuitous.  Naked girl left as a sacrifice: exploitive but non-gratuitous.  I like my exploitative elements to slide nicely into the narrative.

The Halfway House could have been a classic camp romp with a bit more care and money.  But I guess you take your spankings where you can get them.


V for Vendetta

Great Britain has gone all fascist, again, but don’t worry there is a creepy guy running around in a Guy Fawkes mask lecturing us on the importance of standing up for freedom.  Oh, he also is one heck of a knife fighter and knows how to blow stuff up real good.  Will he and his sidekick, a bald Queen Amidala, be able to defeat the evil Christian fascists or are the conservatives going to get all medieval on their arses?

This is an evil bad film!  Bad, bad, evil, dirty film.  No cookie for this film, no cookie in the least.  Shame, shame!  America and God: rah, rah, hooray!

Um, are the government guys looking anymore?  No?  Good.  Time to get on with the real review then.

So, how do you go about making a film that will tick off the Christian fundies?  If it were Islamic fundies you wanted to tick off, it would be easy: just make a hard-core gay bondage porn flick about the Prophet.  Blamo, you’ve got an instant fatwa on your head.  However, if you do that with Jesus, you get The Passion of the Christ, which apparently the fire and brimstone types love.  Weird.  I guess a different tact is needed.

To tick off the family values crowd, you could start by putting a conservative, openly Christian politician in a black Nazi uniform, replace the swastikas with crosses, and show him speaking to a crowd in a Hitlerian manner.  Then, in defiance of the fact that 1984 was, ostensibly, a warning against socialism and the left wing, make that politician a Big Brother style dictator.  You could make his thugs also be rapists and throw in a bit of priestly pedophilia.  You could sneak in some suggestions that the naked human form is a subject worthy of art and, even better, that homosexuals are people too.  If you can find a way to slip in a lesbian kiss here, you’re golden.  But, just in case that’s not enough, call the Koran “beautiful,” drop some unsubtle hints about how the Bush administration ignored warning signs before 9/11, and—as long as you don’t mind people thinking you’re part of the tinfoil-hat brigade—suggest that maybe the administration had something to do with 9/11.  If your born-again focus group isn’t foaming at the mouth by this point, have the Christian fascists refer repeatedly to the hero as a terrorist.  That should be worth an extra five feet or so of spittle distance.

Of course, were you to do all that and include a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask, you’d get sued by the makers of V for Vendetta for copyright infringement.

While this film gets all kinds of bonus points for engendering arch-con apoplexy, is it a good film? To be sure, it’s as spectacular a nugget of eye candy as you’d expect from producer Joel Silver and writers the Wachowski brothers (who also brought you The Matrix).  There is a good deal of stylish violence and spectacular landmark demolition.  There is a lot of good political and general philosophy here as well—governments derive their power by the consent of the governed, we are all a minority in some way, stare not too long into the abyss, etc.—but the film has an unfortunate tendency to lecture it rather than show it. As entertaining as a lecture by Hugo Weaving is, the man with the most interesting delivery this side of Christopher Walken, and how accurate the lecture is, it’s still going to be eye-roll inducing.

As for the rating, V for Vendetta scores a 4. The importance the film places in individual action, rather than waiting around for a god to do everything for you, is commendable.  The stance the film takes against conservative Christianity is excellent.  So, why not give the film a 5?  Well, for as against conservative Christianity as it is, it doesn’t come flat out and say there is no god.  It doesn’t claim that there is a god either, but it’s much more of an anti-intolerance work than an anti-theist one.  A film needs to be both to get that much coveted 5.


Village of the Damned

During a mysterious blackout in the city of Midwich, every woman of socially acceptable film age does the Mary, immaculate conception thing, and nine months later gives birth to a blond(e), bouncing, baby, alien/demon/communist.  Professor Zellaby, whose young hot wife popped out one of the eye-glowing Svengalis, is excited about the prospect of training these superior beings, when any normal man would have forgotten the kids in favor of the thirty-year-younger woman that sleeps next to him.  The government is keen to blow the children out of existence.  I suppose I should mention how somebody is proclaiming a love of Jesus or ranting against the existence of any number of gods, but no one in the village gives a…damn.  Puns.  Gotta love’em.

Village of the Damned never met a metaphor it didn’t like.  The messages: anti-communism, anti-conformity, the sexual revolution is changing society, the unreliability of men and the socio-economic stresses this places on single mothers, the growing rift between the generations, the blindness of science to political problems, the 50s view of the role of government, etc.  If there’s something you want to discuss, Village of the Damned covers it, and does it all with a slick, intimate, creepy, horror story.  Plus, it has George Sanders.  I can never get enough of George Sanders.

But you didn’t come to me to hear about how the children can be taken as representative of the cracks seen in nuclear families after World War II.  So, let’s talk blasphemy.

Village of the Damned is pretty mild stuff on the sacrilegious scale and, if released now, would be unlikely to distract the religious right from their unending struggle to save our children from witchcraft.  But in the late ’50s, U.S. film was in the grasp of God’s censors.  Each movie had to adhere to an idealized image of a Christian world, at least to the degree that the  Catholic Legion of Decently could figure out what the movie was about.  Without their diligence, children might see something other than Jesus, or hear a line that someone, somewhere, might interpret as varying from the Scriptures, and the wee ones’ fragile minds couldn’t take such conflict.

What in Village of the Damned upset the Catholic Legion of Decently and frightened MGM executives enough to have them sit on the script for three years, and then move the production to Britain, where people were slightly (just slightly) less insane?  The immaculate conceptions.  Not only did the film have all the women of “childbearing years” becoming mystically pregnant (not that we ever see them showing; apparently the sight of a pregnant woman was considered too shocking, again, for the children), but one of them was a virgin.  It seems that the only time anyone can mention impregnation without sex is in reference to the Virgin Mary, although I’m betting that anyone that holds this view isn’t having a whole lot of discussions about sex in any form.

Now I haven’t been taking that wild blasphemy very seriously, not when I’ve got School of the Holy Beast around (now there’s blasphemy you can sink your teeth into), but it isn’t entirely to be laughed off.  Consider, if one virgin birth can be given a sinister, and perhaps rational explanation, than maybe so can an earlier one.  That’s the sort of notion the Catholic Legion of Decency wanted to avoid, and I suppose, for people who had never thought about it (or much of anything else), that could be a kind of revelation.

Village of the Damned is a lot of fun, and a pivotal movie in the development of the horror genre, and you should see it for all the qualities I didn’t discuss here.  But isn’t it just a little more fun knowing that once upon a time, it pissed off the Catholic Legion of Decency.  I know it makes me feel warm inside.


The Wicker Man (2006)

Psychologically damaged policeman Edward Malus travels to the mysterious Summersisle in response to a note from his ex-fiancée.  It seems her daughter is missing, and she fears the feminist, pagan cult, to which she belongs, has kidnapped her.  Edward takes the obvious tact of falling through rotting barn floors, locking himself in a submerged crypt, and getting stung by bees in order to solve the crime.  Ah, it might not be clever detecting, but it does allow for something to happen in the otherwise dead second act of the film.  He also takes time out to have irrelevant dreams so that supernatural-looking events could get stuck in the trailer.  And then he beats up Leelee Sobieski, which sounds more interesting than it is.

It would be natural to start this review with some expletive that could express my shock at what a confused, boring, and meaningless disaster Neil LaBute has made of the brilliant 1973 The Wicker Man, but I wasn’t shocked.  I had a few moments of weakness, when I thought it was possible that a new take on the material could result in something interesting.  But who was I, or LaBute, kidding.  This project had Battlefield Earth written all over it.

LaBute, best known for In the Company of Men, removes the religious commentary in favor of his favorite topic: the war between the sexes.  But it goes nowhere.  Yes, the island society is a matriarchy, but we learn little about it, and nothing in the film compares and contrasts the behavior differences of the genders (unless Edward’s wild thrashing about is supposed to be representative of male action, and nasty smirking defines female life, in which case the film should be titled The Straw Man, not The Wicker Man). Outside of knowing glances and comments made in hostile tones, the cult women do nothing, and Sister Summersisles gets little screen time.  Gone are the religious debates between Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and the sanctimonious policeman.  In their place are a few moments of snarking.

Gone as well are the songs and sexuality that marked the original.  It’s just as well that no attempt was made to update the musical numbers (the thought of Leelee Sobieski barking out a hip hop seduction number sends shivers up my spine), but the nudity and free, gleeful attitudes of the pagans are sorely missed.  Besides being exceptionally entertaining, Britt Ekland dancing in the buff made the pagans sympathetic, and thus made for a complicated movie.  No such complications here.  These femi-pagans are unlikable from the start.

OK, so all the original’s themes are gone, as is its artistry.  There’s none of the interesting Christian vs. pagan moments and none of the titillation.  But does this The Wicker Man stand up on its own, as a different type of movie—a pure, mindlessly, popcorn-chomping, horror flick?  Not for a minute.  It doesn’t need a masterpiece for comparison to prove that it sucks.  It proves it all by itself, with every ridiculous scene.  It’s never frightening nor tense, unless you count some gratuitous jump scares: Edward falls through a floor for no reason; Edward is attacked but it turns out to be a dream.  There’s even the doubly annoying ‘fake scare, wake up, second fake scare, really wake up” routine.

Character’s change their behavior arbitrarily.  If you can make sense of either Edward or Sister Honey, you’re a better person than I, or you’re just better at self delusion.  You’d get more consistent personalities with a random dialog generator.  As for the all important twist ending that made the ’73 version so memorable, it is dropped on the table at the midway point.  There’s no surprise, and no shock.

You could make a game out of spotting the many plot threads that are left dangling.  The men on the island are mute and stay there in servitude because…?  There’s a woman with bees on her face because…?  The pilot, who had to be in on the plan or we’ve got yet another plot hole, is murdered because…?  Honey asks to be taken away because…?  Honey attacks Edward because…?  There are twins everywhere because…?  (This is part of the bee hive metaphor that goes nowhere.)  Edward doesn’t ask Willow who it is that is watching her or why because…?  Perhaps the most bothersome unanswered question is: what happened to the mother and daughter hit by the semi?  Was that supposed to be staged?  It isn’t possible with the information we’re given, but then what is the point of it and how is it connected to the pagans?

But there may be a second life to The “New” Wicker Man, as a comedy.  It was impossible to watch this film in a theater without hearing laughter that increased as the film went on.  By the time Cage is doing martial arts wearing bear feet (yes, that’s bear feet, not bare feet), there’s no sign left of anything serious.  This could become a new audience participation flick, where everyone comes in furry slippers and yells, “You bitch,” at the screen every time it’s appropriate, which makes it a few hundred times.

Lacking in plot, dialog, setting, concept, theme, sense, emotional impact, acting, and entertainment, LaBute’s The Wicker Man has nothing but unintentional hilarity.