The Golden Compass

In a world ruled by a dictatorial Magisterium, that’s non-too-lenient with heretics, and each person is accompanied by their soul in the form of an animal spirit, Lord Asriel has decided it’s time to shake things up and prove that “dust” allows contact with other universes.  He might be a getup-and-go kind of guy, but he’s not much of a guardian, and he’s left his niece, Lyra, as a ward of the university.  She spends her time skipping courses and hanging out with lower class kids who’ve been disappearing of late.  She also finds common ground with the lovely and powerful Marisa Coulter, who’s also just a little bit evil.  Lyra, being of the good persuasion, escapes her clutches and sets out to find the missing children.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s got a magical golden compass that can answer any question and a prophecy that says she’s the messiah.  (No, scratch that last bit.  This is supposed to be an atheistic movie.  The prophecy only says she’s important…  Where are these prophecies coming from?  Hmmmm.)  She quickly acquires a cowboy, a talking polar bear, and a band of protectors that are a cross between gypsies and pirates.  She also makes friends with a really sexy witch.  Can a young girl defeat a cruel theocracy and bring down God himself?  Who knows because this picture doesn’t say.  However, we do learn if she can save some kids.

With The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, promoting, if somewhat elusively, Christianity, and Harry Potter ignoring religious views one way or the other (though very peculiar people claim otherwise), I’d love to be able to say that The Golden Compass is a strong, atheistic fantasy, for balance if for no other reason.  But it’s not.  The book’s atheistic flavor has been stripped from the screenplay in order to sell tickets.  Well, it is called “show business” and the public’s not fond of ideas contrary to what they’ve been taught by their mums.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) keeps its anti-religious sentiments vague when compared to C. S. Lewis’s blunt pro-Christian diatribe, but it’s hard to miss for anyone over the age of twelve (make that impossible to miss).  Lyra and company are fighting The Church (with a capital T) and Asriel is seeking to bring down God himself.  That’s as good as it gets, atheism-wise, in young-adult literature.  However, it’s far from a manifesto for young atheists.  Some of the free-thinkers are nearly as unpleasant as those they are fighting, plus there are destinies and prophecies, things that usually come with religious trappings.  Still, the book has a refreshing point of view.

For the film, the Magisterium represents dictatorial institutions in general.  The authority is spelled with a small “a” and their isn’t a religious reference in sight.  Even so softened and diluted, the movie isn’t entirely toothless.  Lyra is a bright girl who takes nothing on faith and thinks through problems.  She rejects the narrow view of life that she’s being pressured to accept, and it’s made clear that forcing upon anyone what is “in their best interest” is a crime of tremendous proportion.  That’s a strong condemnation of religion, for anyone who already realizes that church fathers have, through the years, stifled thought, jammed blind faith upon the populous making them weak and unable to act, squeezed the same people into predetermined social niches, and controlled them…for their own good and the good of their soul.  Of course if you  already realize that, then it is disappointing that it is not clearly espoused  on the screen, and if you don’t realize that, then nothing in the The Golden Compass is going to help you make the connection.

What you really have here is another standard fantasy movie, something of a cross between The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter.  Like the latter, it’s about a sharp, independent young person growing up and facing the joy and cruelty of the adult world.  Like the former, it takes place in a parallel universe with talking animals, and the main character keeps getting saved when she should be saving herself.  The Golden Compass is a skillfully crafted film, with spectacular effects, and vast and beautiful vistas.  CGI characters have come a long way in a short time and I can’t see there’s much farther they can go.  The armored bears are magnificent.  The acting is also a plus for the production, matching the best of the Potter films.  Kidman is a slinky ocean of evil, though other advertised actors (Daniel Craig, Eva Green) are hardly in the film.  Not that anyone matters besides young Dakota Richards.  She dominates the movie, and is one of those child actresses that casting agents dream of.  She’ll wrap you into her story.

The Golden Compass is a fun fantasy flick.  It’s better than The Chronicles of Narnia and three of five Harry Potter movies, though it is like them all in kind.  It isn’t terribly deep and it won’t change anyone’s mind about anything.  Watch it for a fine lead, some cool blimps, and ferocious bears, not for a message.

The US Catholic League has called for a boycott of The Golden Compass. It’s spokesman admits that the religious themes have been watered down for the movie but fears that watching the picture will cause children to read the books.

Yup, you don’t want children reading. And you particularly don’t want them reading anything but stories that strictly adhere to dogma. Hey, isn’t that what the evil organization in the books and the movie says?

Day of Wrath

Anne lives a drab life with her gentle but overly serious, much older pastor husband, and her husbands stern, cruel mother.  On the day when Absalom’s son from a previous marriage, Martin, is to arrive, a witch hunt causes kindly Herlofs Marte to ask Anne for sanctuary.  Anne hides the old woman in the rectory, though Herlofs is subsequently caught and tortured. She attempts to win her freedom by threatening to reveal how Absalom let Anne’s mother free though she too was accused of witchcraft and had confessed.  It does her little good, and she is burnt, though it does have an effect: Absalom spends much of his time dwelling on his past action. Anne finds comfort in Martin, and the two quickly are drawn into a noticeably un-graphic affair.  Everyone is pretty much doomed from the opening credits.

Day of Wrath is a slow and solemn look at repression in society and the failings of humans.  It isn’t shocking, nor is it likely to get anyone angry or energized to fight for change.  It displays the worst acts of our species not as things of true horror, but simply as depressing.  To summarize the theme cavalierly: People suck and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Yeah, don’t look here for hope.

God is front and center in 1620s Denmark and is at the heart of most everyone’s crimes. The elders torture and murder the innocent without the slightest feeling of shame.  Hey, since God is on their side, why shouldn’t they be proud of their barbaric behavior?

But director Carl Theodor Dreyer isn’t condemning religion.  It’s hard to say he’s condemning anything. He’s shining a light on the sad reality of that time, and of all times. People cause pain and oppress each other because they do. They use religion as an excuse, but without it there would be something else.  I find this overly simplistic and it lets Christianity off the hook for the witch trials, but Dryer was no atheist.  A fatalist, yes, so we never see a shining loving God running about.  There’s no sign of any happiness brought by either the deity or by faith.

While the movie is all doom and gloom, it isn’t a painful-but-important viewing experience like The Magdalene Sisters.  It is too emotionally distancing for that.  Nor does it say anything that dozens of inquisition-themed films haven’t covered with more immediacy.  None of the characters are believable as complete human beings.  That is not necessarily a problem by itself as Dreyer creates a high contrast, beautifully stylized look for the film that takes us far away from reality, but then something else must pull us in.  Nothing does.  Day of Wrath may engage your intellect (in which case it would be handy if it had more to say), but never your emotions.  It is a formal film based on a formal play.  The only affecting moment comes when the children sing their hymn to God’s majesty as Herlofs is burned alive.

The film’s greatest success is in presenting the different ways that humans fail to be worthwhile.  The elders are self-righteous.  Absalom is a distracted hypocrite, which makes him more likable than most.  The villagers are thoughtless, willing to follow whatever they are told.  Absalom’s mother is jealous and domineering without an ounce of humor or empathy.  Martin is weak.  Anne is foolish, lacking any form of judgment.  Even Herlofs Marte, the only individual who actually helps people (as opposed to Absalom and the elders, who claim to help) is dim and short sighted, unable to see what should have been obvious.  This, says Dreyer, is a portrait of mankind; Is it any wonder that torture and the destruction of whatever spirit may exist is the norm?

Many critics claim Day of Wrath is about Nazi Germany.  After all, Dreyer made the film in 1943 in occupied Denmark, so it is hard to imagine that he could look at repression and ignore what was going on around him.  But Dreyer claims that’s exactly what he did, and it is difficult to find anything in the movie that can be mapped directly to then current politics.  The desolation felt by a conquered people might be in the movie, but little else.  Stranger, some reviewers want to add a layer of evil by asserting that Herlofs Marte, Anne’s mother, and Anne herself were real witches with powers from the Devil.  There’s absolutely nothing on screen to back that up, nor does it make much sense when looking at the theme of the picture, but I guess it is a way to fill out a brief review.

Day of Wrath is a good looking, highly artificial film that shows Christians in all their glory.  Dreyer may have wanted the blame for history’s evils to rest on man’s corrupt soul, but his finished product leaves plenty of it with religion.


A village priest, worshiped by his flock, is worried about the effects of witches upon the simple people.  These witches aren’t in league with the devil, but are simply unbelievers.  Since Christianity apparently can’t stand up to any dissent, he prays to have the people of Brigadoon cut off forever from the world.  God answers, and the town vanishes, appearing for one day every hundred years, with the inhabitants spending the intervening time asleep. And for that one day, no one can leave, or they all die.  No longer will they learn from the outside world, go to school, or trade, and they are doomed to become inbred or die off due to their small gene pool.  Love, or just social pairing, will be difficult too since there aren’t enough eligible singles to go around.  The strange thing about this curse: The villagers think it’s swell.  On the second day of the “miracle,” two Americans, stressed-out Tommy Albright and alcoholic cynic Jeff Douglas, stumble across Brigadoon, and Tommy instantly falls in love with Fiona Campbell.  As he decides if he wants to give up everything to join her in her pastoral prison, the folks have to deal with Harry, a rotten, horrible, slimy man who actually—now get this because it will be hard for you to believe—is not grateful for being condemned to stay in Brigadoon.

Let’s get the standard film criticism part out of the way: This is a crappy movie.  The whole thing is filmed as if on a stage, which makes some sense since they are on a stage, an incredibly fake looking stage.   (Gene Kelly wanted to shoot on location, but the budget was lacking.)  I’m perfectly happy with that look when I go to a live performance, but this is a movie, and movies should have cameras that move (and swiveling from side to side doesn’t count).  There should be two-shots and close-ups.  But here everything is shot from a distance.

The music is non-objectionable faux Scottish—probably Lerner and Loewe’s worst, though a few songs rise above the level of background for Mel Gibson’s next violent epic. The acting is passable, though the dancing is nothing special, surprising for a Gene Kelly flick.  Singing in the Rain this ain’t.  The dialog is best forgotten and the humor is anything but.  Jeff is a drunkard that dislikes Scotland; oh the hilarity.

Of course, I’m not reviewing Brigadoon to point out that it sucks.  Plenty of others can do that. Nope, I’m looking at it’s repulsive message (and I don’t mean the “Love conquers all” one).  If you think about it, and I don’t suggest it if you want to enjoy the movie, the whole idea behind it is creepy. The village has been pulled out of time because a priest was afraid of witches.  Witches!  That would be bad enough, but the school teacher explains that these weren’t real witches, who could cast spells and do evil.  Nope, they were nothing more than wondering non-Christian women who might take people away from the church. Who the hell were these women?  In the mid-seventeen hundreds, were their mobs of women, creeping in packs over the country side and gossiping that Christ wasn’t the Lord?  Sounds like a paranoid fantasy.  Assuming that the priest wasn’t insane or eating too many mushrooms, and there were such women, what was the danger?  If a Christian hears the words of an atheist (or pagan—the views of the women are never specified), will he instantly lose his faith and start dancing nude under the moon?  It sure hasn’t worked that way for me, but perhaps it’s only women who can entice believers away.

So this priest decides that his people are too weak willed to deal with anything but a single viewpoint, so he arranges with God to lock the citizens of Brigadoon off from the world.  It isn’t clear if he discussed this with anyone, but it is certain that he didn’t with everyone.  At least one, Henry, was stuck against his will.

Now, the general populous are all thrilled with their little segregated paradise, in which every person must think and act the same, no one can ever go anywhere, and all of their children must be exactly like them.   The viewer is supposed to be thrilled too.  While no one can leave, people can enter (which might help a little with their inbreeding problem, though not much unless an army unit happens by and the lasses have become a lot more relaxed about sex).  So, Tommy can give up his modern ways and join Fiona is this lovely backwards place.  Now what?  The point was to save them from outside influence.  Will Tommy be muzzled so he can’t mention things like plumbing?

The villain of the piece is Henry, who isn’t dancing about happily with life in Stepford.  He lost his girl to another man, and knows he can never go away to school likes other have in the past.  Why exactly is he the villain?  He has been unlawfully imprisoned and everyone around him thinks that’s wonderful.  No one expresses any sympathy for him, instead calling him ungrateful.  They are a cold lot.

Paradise is a simple place, cut off from any ideas that might be new or different, so that its Christian teachings can be kept pure and unquestioned.  It is a place where no dissent can be allowed, and the fate of anyone who doesn’t agree is not only bleak, but quickly forgotten.  I suppose this might be heaven for particularly conservative, Christian fundamentalists, but not for anyone else.  Sounds like hell.

What makes Brigadoon so obnoxious isn’t the views of the villagers, but the idea that we’re all supposed to agree with them.  For the story to work, it is essential that the audience finds all this wonderful and to realize that God did perform a miracle—that it is a great idea to keep atheists, agnostics, and even other forms of deists out of your society.  You might have an interesting story here if it was shown that really, they’ve been doomed by some dark forces, and they’re too blind to see it.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Based on a true story (uh…yeah, right; read below).  Father Moore is arrested for negligent homicide in the death of Emily Rose after an exorcism.  Agnostic lawyer Erin Bruner takes his case.  With the medical evidence pointing toward Emily suffering from epileptic psychosis, she decides to base her defense around Emily actually being possessed, a position that is reinforced when she finds mildly odd things happening to her at night.  Father Moore only cares about telling Emily’s story: how she went away to school and was taken over by six evil spirits.  How she was returned to her fanatically religious parents (that’s considered a good thing), saw the Virgin Mary, yada, yada, yada.   It all means God is great, because he likes to torture young girls, and people who believe should be above the law.

It takes balls to lie so blatantly.  Avowed evangelical Christian director Scott Derrickson wanted to make a point (and Screen Gems wanted to sell their film to the Christian right that had just paid a lot of money to see The Passion of the Christ) and he wasn’t concerned with little things like truth.  The Exorcism of Emily Rose was sold as a true story, but it is true in the same way that The Wizard of Oz is true.  After all, a tornado did hit a farm in Kansas—sometime.

The true story the film is based on is that of Anneliese Michel.  Let’s count the ways it is similar to Emily Rose’s.  Well, both have a girl dying after an exorcism, and both have a priest arrested.  That’s about it.  Let’s count the ways they don’t match.  Anneliese’s case took place in Wurzburg, Germany in 1976, not the rural U.S. in 2005.  Anneliese went through exorcism rituals daily for a year instead of Emily’s once (Emily refused any more because of her chat with the Virgin Mary; Anneliese had no such chat).  In the real case, two exorcists and the girl’s parents were arrested (I have little legal knowledge, but even I know there’s something wrong with the movie having the priest brought in but not her guardians).  All four were convicted and went to jail.  I’ll just say it didn’t work out that way in the movie.  Anneliese’s medical condition (she had epilepsy) was never in doubt whereas Emily’s diagnosis is just an opinion that doctors are pulling out of the air.   The attorneys for the defense in Germany also did not report any nighttime supernatural occurrences, nor was a key witness shoved in front of a truck by a demon (not really surprising).  Finally, the Catholic church investigated Anneliese and concluded that hers was not a case of possession.  Of course, that doesn’t happen in the film.

I’ve got no problem with honest, fantasy, monster movies inventing demons to attack little girls, but this isn’t one.  If you want to make a rip-off of The Exorcist, do it, and don’t pretend you’re making a documentary.  A warning here to horror fans: This isn’t a horror movie.  There’s no scares, although there’s a lot of sinister-sounding music.  This is a courtroom procedural.

Alright, so lets forget the advertising campaign that implied this was both a fright-fest and an account of real events, as well as the text splashed on screen before the end credits that pretended everyone was real and lets the viewer know what happened to the important players.  Let’s pretend this is an honest movie.  What have you got?  Not much.  Derrickson seems to be setting up an examination of the spiritual vs. the material, or those ways of thinking, and then stacks the deck.  I don’t know that a neutral movie would have been interesting (I tend to think one exposing the abuse of a girl—and therefore the abuse of many who are surrounded by superstition—would have been the way to go), but this isn’t a neutral movie.  God, The Devil, and demons are a given.  The real question that Derrickson asks is: Given that possession is real and demons are all around us, how can you tell in a specific case if someone is possessed or only sick.  And his answer is: You really can’t, so it’s best to side with the spiritual, and therefore, religious people should be able to perform any tortures they see fit, because their hearts are in the right place.

But Derrickson doesn’t leave any room for doubt with Emily.  Besides vivid flashbacks (which don’t tip the scales because they are interpretations of what happened), we are given ominous events in the present (not interesting or exciting, just ominous) that are not seen through anyone’s eyes.  These represent stark reality in the world.  There’s also good magic at work, which delivers to Erin a locket with her initials on it.  The forces of good and evil are really wimpy in this movie, but they exist, which is all that matters.  Naturally, characters who support the priest are nice while anyone opposing him is vicious and uncaring (wouldn’t the film be a bit more interesting if the prosecutor wasn’t an ass?).  And Erin, who is the viewers’ guide to the proceedings, becomes, as the priest comments, a mystic.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a dimwitted film anyway you look at it, but it has absolutely nothing to offer to anyone who doesn’t accept the supernatural.  For those who do, there’s not so much food for thought either, more like bubble-gum for thought.  It’s not nutritious, but if you aren’t fully awake, you might think it is.


An extraordinarily gay Jew rejects his equally flaming Roman ex-lover, and you know that’s trouble.  Hell hath no fury and all.  So Roman-boy makes his better half row galleys and gives his mum and sis leprosy.  I think we’ve all done that.   Meanwhile, Jesus, King of the Jews, doesn’t do anything worth spending screen time on, so, he doesn’t get any.  Benny (that’s the Jew), escapes slavery by becoming the boy toy of a general and heads back to open a can of whip-ass on his ex, and does it with horses.  After the story ends, there’s a lot of Jesus stuff tacked on that has nothing to do with the previous two and a half hours.

A huge epic, with a cast of thousands, spectacular sets, and beautiful horses, Ben-Hur was subtitled A Tale of the Christ, which is kind of funny, since Jesus hardly appears and has little to do with the first two and a half hours of this long, very, very long movie.  It is three stories: A character drama involving two gay ex-lovers, an action tale, and a Sunday school lesson.  These stories are not told simultaneously, but sequentially.  Yeah, every hour or so Ben-Hur changes into a new film.  The middle one is good old fashioned Saturday afternoon fare.  Tons of violence with Charlton Heston doing his “I’m going to rip off your momma’s arms and beat you to death with them” routine.  The other two sections—those aren’t so good.  The ending is dull while the beginning is absurd.

Let’s dwell on the opening.  Judah Ben-Hur meets newly arrived boyhood chum Messala, which leads to Heston and Stephen Boyd acting at each other.  Not “with”—”at.”  This is acting as assault.  This is a match for the Master Thespian routines on Saturday Night Live, when Jon Lovitz would announce that he was ACTING!  There is no pig in the world big enough to supply the ham on display.  Heston and Boyd gesture wildly, enunciate like they are teaching English pronunciation to a class of immigrants sitting forty feet away, and smile as if they are posing for Jack-o-lanterns.  Subtlety, your name is not Heston.  Such over-the-top antics are fine in a movie that’s all about explosions and car chases (or chariot races), but not when we’re supposed to be taking the material as deeply meaningful and emotional.  As for the dialog, it is painful.  The political debate is as false as they come.  No one speaks like that.

The basic story, taken at face value, doesn’t work.  These two old friends fall out over politics and end up trying to kill each other.  Na.  When you hate so passionately, something personal has to be involved.  The filmmakers knew this.  Writer Gore Vidal approached director William Wyler, explaining that they were in big trouble.  The characters’ motivations were gibberish.  A Republican doesn’t make a friend a galley slave and send his mom and sis to prison because he’s a Democrat.  But a spurned lover—yeah, he’d do that.  Wyler agreed, but knew that Heston couldn’t handle playing a homosexual.  So Vidal added the subtext (it was 1959; you couldn’t be overt with any kind of sex), and Boyd was told why his character was so ticked off at Ben-Hur.  Boyd played it up big (note how he gazes at Chuck) and everyone just trusted Heston to act gay naturally.  And wow, when the two get together, it’s the gayest scene you’ll find short of Mechanics bi Day, Lube Job bi Night.  That Heston couldn’t figure it out is a testament to religious men’s ability to blind themselves to reality.  How else can anyone take their spear throwing competition?  They might as well be holding their dicks, masturbating together.  In an interview, Heston said that Vidal was the most influential of the multiple screenwriters.  Later, when the homosexual material was explained to him, he contradicted himself, saying Vidal did very little.  The gay-love-gone-bad theme should have made the first part of the film tolerable, but it required acting, spelled with small letters.  Ah well.

Once Judah Ben-Hur is bare-chested with a lot of other men tugging on oars (because that isn’t gay), the movie enters what we critics like to call its “good” phase.  Yes, that’s a technical term meaning it doesn’t suck.  Heston’s theatrics are now appropriate and the story is a semi-interesting revenge fantasy.  The sword fight on the ship is weak, looking unchoreographed, as if performed by men whose only training was when they used to whack each other with wooden sticks as children, but a sword fight is a sword fight and beats what came before.  There are threats and various sword-and-sandal silliness, all leading to the famous chariot race, which beats the hell out of NASCAR and George Lucas’s rip-off in The Phantom Menace.  It’s top notch violence and is almost enough to make the whole film worthwhile.  Almost.

Then things switch again and it’s time for God.  Ben-Hur tries to play it both ways.  It wants to extol the Christian virtues of forgiveness and faith, but those make for poor cinema.  So it ignores them (except for occasional lip service) till the last hour, instead focusing on the joys of revenge.  Once the story is essentially over, the religious stuff is tacked on.  Dramatically, it’s a poor fit.  It doesn’t help that the acting is once again a problem, the plot elements are funny (Ben-Hur’s family are lepers; now who do we just happen to run into that can heal lepers?), and the gosh-and-golly reconciliations and romance would give Frank Capra a tooth ache.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m no fan of Christianity, but I am fond of forgiveness, mercy, love, and a few of those other things that are claimed to be part of the religion, but rarely are.  I see the evangelicals and the fundies and I note they work primarily out of hate.  They try to destroy their enemies, which is everyone who doesn’t believe what they do.  How can someone be so cruel, and still claim to embrace these so-called Christian values?  Hey, maybe that’s why Ben-Hur is so popular with the Bible set.  It shows you can be a tough, vicious, revenge freak, and still get into heaven by doing a quick turnaround in the final reel of your life.

Forgiving the Franklins

Frank, Betty, Brian, and Caroline Franklin are upstanding and uptight fundamentalist Christians.  Frank is a stern father who is of no comfort to his colleagues, and Betty frets about baked goods for their church group, while Brian tries to repress his homosexuality.  Caroline is a nearly normal cheerleader except for her constant fear that she’s acting incorrectly in the eyes of God.  But an auto accident changes everything as the three older Franklins meet Jesus, who takes takes time out of his labors to pluck the notion of shame from their minds and send them back.  Caroline is shocked by her family’s new, open behavior as well as the unfairness that she’s the only one with a lasting injury.  Their friend Peggy can’t deal with their joy, and all of the rightwing Christians in town are upset.  Unable to understand the problem, Frank and Betty find joy with each other while Brian comes out big time.  This sort of behavior is not something society can allow.

Lets get this out of the way first: this is not an atheistic film.  It not only  acknowledges the existence of God (well, it isn’t a sure thing, but it certainly doesn’t eliminate the possibility), but has the main characters meet Jesus.  This is a spiritual movie that doesn’t directly discount faith, so how can I give it such a high rating?  Because if people took their lead from Forgiving the Franklins, this would be a pretty good world for atheists (and agnostics, as well as the faithful).  The spirituality advocated here is not only unrelated to life-crushing fundamentalism, but is more than the generic “big tent” religion popular on TV sitcoms.  It takes the added step of accusing a major aspect of almost all religions with destroying our lives.  I’d have liked to see the whole notion of religion trashed, but Jay Floyd (writer/director/producer) had his goals set higher: hypocrisy, intolerance, and above all, shame.

Things start off with a typical conservative Christian family in a typical conservative Christian town.  It might look like a parody to some, but I’ve seen these people and I’ve seen their town, and they’re scary.  The Franklin’s get little joy out of life, but achieve a level of smug satisfaction with their godliness and how it makes them superior to others.  I couldn’t have picked a better representation for everything that’s wrong in society.

And then it all changes, and the mild humor turns into roll-on-the-floor belly laughs.  The symbolism also comes hot and heavy.  The Franklins die (or almost die) and find themselves on mildly sloping hills with a poorly dressed man who is decidedly not Anglo-Saxon.  The man, Jesus, is busy chopping down crosses, because they represent a really bad day in his life (The implication: either Jesus didn’t die for our sins or it’s just a bad idea for everyone to keep dwelling on it).  The surrealism ends and the meaningful farce begins as the Franklins take up their normal lives.  And that is one of the more interesting things in the film—most of their behaviors don’t change.  They go to the office or school, do their work, and bake their cakes.  It is only little things that change, but those little things make all the difference.  Betty picks up the morning paper naked (it’s a small thing, but huge in our society;  someone, anyone, explain to me what could possibly be wrong with that), Frank enters into the sexual discussions at work (with more candor than anyone is ready for), and Brian makes his homosexuality clear. They also finally see what life can be.  Sure, it is still important to them that God loves them (approves of them was really the key in the past), but now it is more important that they love each other.

The focus on pleasure is wonderful to see.  So many films that indorse tolerance avoid any sign of physical pleasure, as if the human condition can be discussed without it.  Here, the Franklin’s openness, and the elimination of their fears and prejudices, allows them to have a good time with each other.  Frank and Betty’s sexual awakening couldn’t be more erotic, partially because it pushes social norms, but mainly because of its innocence.

In the end, Forgiving the Franklins turns serious.  It has suggested a meaningful and enjoyable way of life, and then shows how that isn’t permissible in our culture (nor in any other I can think of).  Sadly, it isn’t enough that we learn, but that everyone must learn.

Forgiving the Franklins is a thinking persons comedy.  It is a must see for free-thinkers and anyone who wants to know what life is all about.  Take a look.  It’s right there on the screen.  But as this is a small, independent film, it may be hard to find that screen.


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

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

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

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

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

Satánico Pandemonium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samson and Delilah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satan’s School for Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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