Tag Archives: Religion

Life of Brian: In Christ’s Shadow

A MOTION PICTURE DESTINED TO OFFEND NEARLY TWO THIRDS OF THE CIVILIZED WORLD. AND SEVERELY ANNOY THE OTHER THIRD.

Modern audiences are not likely to find Monty Python’s most controversial film terribly daring or blasphemous. But back in 1979 it was a big deal. Several British town councils banned it, and so did a few countries, including Ireland and Norway (which inspired Swedish distributors to market the film as ”so funny that it was banned in Norway”). At its New York premiere, priests and nuns picketed screenings. In some cases, it took decades for the controversy to die down completely. The Pythons must have found all this amusing, since their intention was indeed to make fun of organized religion. They participated in debates, making the point that they weren’t in fact lampooning Christ or God, only the church and its traditions. As a satire, Life of Brian may not be hard-hitting, but it is still ingenious and hilarious.

Next door to the stable where Jesus Christ is born, Brian Cohen also sees the light of day. Three wise men bring gifts for the holy child, but are almost chased away by Brian’s mother (Terry Jones) until she learns that the gifts are valuable. As a young adult, Brian is attracted to a rebel, Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), and becomes involved with a Jewish resistance group, one of many that can’t seem to make up its mind whether to fight the Romans or each other. After repeating what he heard Jesus say, Brian gains a following as the new Messiah, which causes chaos and complicates his romance with Judith…

Saved by George Harrison
The original financing of the movie fell through at the last minute because of concerns over the subject matter. But George Harrison definitely wanted to see the Pythons take on Christianity, so he set up a company (HandMade Films) and helped pay for the movie. The ex-Beatle reportedly has a cameo as ”Mr. Papadopoulos”. We should be all be very grateful to Harrison, because this was a step up for Monty Python’s cinematic endeavors. Their last film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), was a successful spoof of the King Arthur legend, directed by both Terrys, Gilliam and Jones. Apparently, the group decided that Jones’s approach to directing suited them all better than Gilliam’s, but the latter still contributed in every way, including a few absurd, animated touches. Life of Brian has a story that holds up better than Monty Python’s other projects, following Brian from birth to crucifixion. Along the way, their themes and targets are clear – the brutal power of the Romans, the inability of a fledgling resistance to focus on one goal without falling into rivaling groups (which has always been true everywhere), crowd mentality and the odd traditions that are made sacred in every religion. All of it is ridiculed in marvelously silly ways with a few skits standing out in particular, such as the stoning and Pontius Pilate (brilliantly played by Michael Palin as a fop who can’t say ”r” properly) daring his troops to laugh at his best friend’s name, ”Biggus Dickus”.

The crucifixion in the end comes to the tune of the Pythons’ most memorable song, ”Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. Initially underwhelmed by Eric Idle’s idea, the Pythons still went ahead with the song and the sequence is a funny and bittersweet way to end the movie. When Graham Chapman died in 1989, the other Pythons gathered at the memorial service and sang ”Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” together. No wonder that the song has become a beloved British classic, a symbol of a stiff upper lip. The film may be needlessly slapsticky at times, but there’s always a fresh stroke of brilliance waiting throughout. 

Life of Brian 1979-Britain. 93 min. Color. Produced by John Goldstone. Directed by Terry Jones. Screenplay, Cast: Terry Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin. Song: ”Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (Eric Idle).

Trivia: Alternative title: Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Quote: “All right. But apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health. What have the Romans ever done for us?” (Cleese as a freedom fighter)

Last word: “I never thought it would be as controversial as it turned out, although I remember saying when we were writing it that some religious nut case may take pot shots at us, and everyone replied: ‘No’. I took the view it wasn’t blasphemous. It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It has come back with a vengeance and we’d think twice about making it now.” (Jones, The Guardian)

 

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A.D. The Bible Continues

The follow-up to the 2013 miniseries The Bible is an improvement, a TV series with a much more focused concept – portraying the confusing period right after the crucifixion of Christ when the apostles, led by Peter, fought for their lives organizing the fledgling cult. The series also followed the intrigues between the Romans (led by Pontius Pilate) and the Jewish leaders (where the high priest Caiaphas is the dominant voice). The series was canceled after its first season, ending with an unresolved cliffhanger. Never must-see television, A.D. had unimpressive production values and too many uncharismatic actors (including Juan Pablo Di Pace as Jesus who made occasional appearances), but it did have potential as a biblical soap opera.

2015-U.S. Made for TV. 12 episodes. Color. Developed by Roma Downey, Mark Burnett. Cast: Adam Levy (Peter), Richard Coyle (Caiaphas), Vincent Regan (Pontius Pilate), Juan Pablo Di Pace (Jesus), Emmett J. Scanlan, Jodhi May, Joanne Whalley, James Callis, Babou Ceesay, Will Thorp, Ken Bones, Fraser Ayers.

Trivia: Alternative title: A.D. Kingdom and Empire.

AVERAGE

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Killing Jesus

National Geographic’s third TV movie to be based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s lightweight historical books takes on Christ with unimpressive results. The story of the carpenter’s life and death has been chronicled so many times that this adaptation, which is sorely lacking in ambition, is imminently forgettable. The focus lies on the Jewish and Roman intrigues leading up to the crucifixion, but there is little tension and Haaz Sleiman is far too bland in the lead. Trevor Morris’s music theme is better than anything else here.

2015-U.S. Made for TV. 132 min. Color. Directed by Christopher Menaul. Teleplay: Walon Green. Book: Bill O’Reilly, Martin Dugard. Music: Trevor Morris. Cast: Haaz Sleiman (Jesus), Alexis Rodney (Peter), Joe Doyle (Judas Iscariot), Aneurin Barnard, Abhin Galeya, Rufus Sewell… John Rhys-Davies, Kelsey Grammer.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by O’Reilly and Ridley Scott. Also released as a three-part miniseries. Grammer, who plays King Herod, also serves as narrator.

BELOW AVERAGE

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Intolerance: D.W. Griffith’s Epic Revenge

THE CRUEL HAND OF INTOLERANCE. 

intoleranceThe premiere of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915 must have been a hurtful experience for the director. The film’s portrayal of African Americans resulted in charges of racism and incited riots in several cities. The director felt that he was being treated unfairly, and one can’t emphasize enough how much it must have mattered to him. After all, who in their right mind would decide to immediately make another incredibly expensive epic just to point out in a rather confused way that people were being intolerant of his views? In Griffith’s world, he was the victim.

The film presents four different historical tales, told in parallel fashion. To a lesser degree, we follow events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Howard Gaye), and how religious intolerance between Catholics and Protestants resulted in the ghastly St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. To a greater degree we are presented with the background behind the fall of Babylon, where a conflict arises between those who believe in rival gods. There’s also a modern story. Set in America, it shows how greed and moralism combine to cause misery for two lovers; a campaign started by ”moral uplifters” leads to a workers’ strike that has devastating consequences.

Same approach as in morality plays
The two lovers are simply called The Boy (Robert Harron) and The Dear One (Mae Marsh). This approach, reminiscent of classical literary works such as morality plays, is used throughout the film to signify the key traits of each character. For instance, the most interesting person in the film is The Mountain Girl in the Babylonian tale, played with gusto by Constance Talmadge (who also plays Princess Marguerite in the St. Bartholomew’s Day tale); she’s an unruly character who can’t be controlled by any man and her name certainly transcends those vibes. On the whole, the women are more interesting here than the men, with Marsh more effective than Harron as the unfortunate Boy. Lilian Gish gets top billing even though she only has one scene, playing a mother rocking a cradle in a highly symbolic image used in cuts between the four tales. The movie wasn’t a great commercial hit at the time, but its reputation grew as it inspired later filmmakers. The way Griffith cross-cut between his tales was groundbreaking and the Babylonian sequences, with their immense sets and crowds, are astonishing, the highlight being a huge assault on the city featuring elephants, towers, warriors and very graphic violence, including decapitations! As a whole, the film is very uneven. The story of the crucifixion and the religious massacre are pretty obvious, thus lacking in tension. The Babylonian tale has unrivaled splendor and many amusing moments, but also a few slow stretches. The modern story is fascinating because it attempts to capture sentiments in America at that time, giving it historic value… but it’s also unashamedly sentimental. The constant cross-cutting, throwing us from one story to another, makes it hard at times to invest fully in the project.

Still, it’s hard not to be in awe of a filmmaker so stubborn in his views that he managed to insult the entire African-American community and still saw himself as Christ on the cross. Hollywood’s Donald Trump?

Intolerance 1916-U.S. Silent. 178 min. B/W. Produced and directed by D.W. Griffith. Screenplay: D.W. Griffith, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, Anita Loos, Mary H. O’Connor, Frank E. Woods. Cast: Lilian Gish (The Eternal Motherhood), Robert Harron (The Boy), Mae Marsh (The Dear One), Constance Talmadge, Bessie Love, Seena Owen… Eugene Pallette.

Trivia: Alternative title: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. Many different prints of the film exist, one of them running 208 min. Several future stars and filmmakers are said to have small roles, including Browning, Frank Borzage, Donald Crisp, Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Reid, W.S. Van Dyke, Erich von Stroheim and King Vidor.

Last word: “A few years ago – which is a long while in the motion-picture business – I produced a picture for Biograph called ‘The Reformers’. In that two-reel subject I gave vent to some of my feelings on the matter of bigotry and carelessness of the true wellbeing of one’s fellow-creatures. The picture did not in any way resemble ‘Intolerance’ except in basic principles, but if you want the history of my new production you must go right back there, for ever since then I have been consciously and unconsciously collecting material for a portrayal, on as comprehensive a scale as possible, of the evil of intolerance.” (Griffith in 1916, “D.W. Griffith: Interviews”)

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The Three Challenges of the Orlando Attack

Last night, Trevor Noah returned to The Daily Show to say something that is sadly familiar. The ritual of being shocked by another mass murder, mourning, changing our profile pics on Facebook and then moving on is what we do now. After all, mass murders happen more or less every day in America now, and elsewhere. But particularly in America. That’s the new normal, but it shouldn’t be. Last night, Conan O’Brien, who never really talks about his political opinions on his TBS talk show, spent a few minutes (the clip above) expressing a common sense view – you should not be allowed to own a military weapon that can kill so many people unless you’re basically the Army.

The latest reason for this debate is the worst terror attack to hit the U.S. since 9/11 – one man’s decision to shoot up a gay club in Orlando, Florida, resulting in 50 casualties. The shameful buffoon the GOP now call their presidential nominee immediately did what he always does – blame Muslims and spread lies. Even if people like Speaker Paul Ryan and other cowards accept Donald Trump’s racism and “eccentric” behavior, shouldn’t the fact that his “policy proposals” have no effect on anything bother them? After all, this latest terrorist was not a refugee; he was home-grown. No wall or entry ban would’ve stopped Omar Mateen. The GOP’s inability to handle an attack like this in a mature way evidently infuriates President Barack Obama who indirectly hit Trump hard today in the clip above.

An event like this inspires a lot of anger – and it should. The battles aren’t new and they need to be fought again and again. This latest attack has been confusing in the way it touches on many related issues. An event like this requires of every citizen, not only in America, that they understand how complex it is. You can’t handle it Trump-style. Here’s what we’re talking about in three steps:

Gun control: This is a uniquely American problem. Fixing the country’s hopeless gun laws won’t prevent many massacres (maybe some), but it will limit the damage. Military weapons should be banned for the average Joe; Seinfeld actor Patrick Warburton tweeted a very relevant question for the gun nuts two days ago. Others have tweeted lots of examples of how Republican senators are bankrolled by the extremist National Rifle Association. Keep up the pressure, is all I have to say. At least House Democrats are making an effort after Speaker Ryan’s minute of silence today, chanting “Where’s the bill?” A Jimmy Stewart moment – shame on Ryan for consistently putting party above country these days.

Religious extremism: A more international problem. In the clip from President Obama’s press conference above, he asks the question what point is there in labeling the Orlando incident “Islamic terrorism”. He’s absolutely right about that – but the problem is that every time liberal politicians feel awkward about discussing this issue, the more voters Putinistas like Donald Trump gain. There is Christian extremism as well; last year we had a man murdering people in a South Carolina church. Homophobia exists in most religions and too little is done about it; in the clip above, we have the vile preacher Pat Robertson saying that we should let gays and Islamists kill each other. The difference between Christian churches and Islamic mosques is that the latter have a wider influence on states and people in Muslim countries. Political scientist and TIME contributor Ian Bremmer recently tweeted the figures above and a map of which countries allow gays to be executed for loving someone of the same gender. There’s no doubt that those countries have one thing in common. The world consists of an overwhelming majority of Muslims who are decent human beings – and a few who allow themselves to be influenced by the darkest strands of this particular religion, which is actively supported not only by terrorist organizations but hard-line dictatorships like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The nature of the victims: Another difficult debate arose after Orlando, one started by the gay community. Members of it were outraged that some politicians and media outlets treated the attack as just another act of terrorism and avoided to mention that the target was a gay club. This is undoubtedly true in many cases. In the clip above, CNN’s Anderson Cooper puts pressure on Pam Bondi, Republican Attorney General of Florida and, incredibly, a Trump supporter who’s been actively fighting gay rights. She’s not the only one who should be ashamed of herself; there are many right-wingers who have avoided talking about the actual reason why this particular club was targeted.

This clip is awkward to watch for several reasons. The debate spread across the ocean to Europe as well, a continent that has suffered several similar atrocities, notably in Paris earlier this year. A few nights ago, Guardian journalist Owen Jones clashed angrily with Sky News panelists Mark Longhurst and Julia Hartley-Brewer, which resulted in Jones walking off the set. I don’t think his behavior won any new admirers, only cheers from the expected crowd. Still, it gets people talking. I understand what Longhurst was aiming for: the fact that the Orlando attack shared many similarities with the one in Paris and many other places. It’s important that we recognize, understand and talk about what these attacks have in common. But what Longhurst, Republicans and many others don’t understand is that when terrorists attack specific places like a gay bar or a synagogue we also need to highlight the fact that the victims were murdered for a specific reason. And that’s what Jones was talking about. Those reasons must never be downplayed. You have to be able to keep more than one thought in your head.

In other words, a lot to juggle. But every citizen must understand the complexity of these attacks, or they will fall victim to ISIS propaganda, who wants us all to be afraid. The next level of propaganda, men and women we should all be wary of, contains creatures like America’s Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Nigel Farage, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other racists, gay-bashers and fear-mongers of this world. They all hope to gain politically from attacks like the one in Orlando.

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The Mission

themissionIn the 1750s, a South American Jesuit community led by Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) resist a Madrid decision to transfer the area to Portugal, which allows slavery. Two years after The Killing Fields (1984), director Roland Joffé received a lot of attention for another emotional, reality-based drama depicting colonialism and a conflict played out in the name of power and the church. The local population is portrayed in a lyrical light, exquisitely photographed, with a powerful, moving score by Ennio Morricone. The story is simple, but the filmmakers engage us with their compassionate, very cinematic approach. Among the characters, Robert De Niro’s repentant slave trader is a stand-out.

1986-Britain. 125 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by David Puttnam, Fernando Ghia. Directed by Roland Joffé. Screenplay: Robert Bolt. Cinematography: Chris Menges. Music: Ennio Morricone. Editing: Jim Clark. Cast: Robert De Niro (Rodrigo Mendoza), Jeremy Irons (Father Gabriel), Ray McAnally (Cardinal Altamirano), Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup… Liam Neeson.

Oscar: Best Cinematography. Golden Globes: Best Screenplay, Original Score. BAFTA: Best Supporting Actor (McAnally), Editing, Score. Cannes: Palme d’Or.

Last word: “I started working with Robert (Bolt). Robert had just had a stroke and he was such a brave man. I mean, he struggled with his language and everything and he sort of fought his way back in front of my eyes. So he knew everything about the story and I’d sort of look into his face … and his eyes … and they’d be full of understanding. Although the words couldn’t quite come out, he’d write them down with sort of a shaky hand. I just got more and more involved and I fell in love with the project. I simply felt that it was a great story with some sort of eternal value.” (Joffé, DVD Movie Guide)

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Spotlight: Breaking a Catholic Curse

BREAK THE STORY. BREAK THE SILENCE. 

spotlight.jphgThere’s a scene near the end of the film that will get the adrenaline pumping in any journalist. That’s when the Boston Globe printing presses start rolling and the scoop everybody’s been working on is finally published. The film takes place in 2001-2002, before the Internet started killing printed newspapers, and it is indeed a special feeling watching those mighty presses get to work. Printed media isn’t dead yet, but a sad aspect of this revolution is that part of what’s always been romantic about newspapers is gone forever. It’s been a staple in movies since forever. Will future stories about the media feature exciting moments where someone… just… clicks “enter”?

We’re in Boston in the summer of 2001. The Globe has just hired a new editor, the timid Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). At his first meeting with the newsroom reporters, he brings up a recent column where the writer discusses a possible cover-up of a sexual-abuse case involving a Catholic priest, John Geoghan. Marty wants Spotlight, a group of investigative reporters led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), to look into the case. This is not the first time that the paper has written about Geoghan, but not much has come of it since the records have been sealed. For the Globe to request those records essentially means suing the Boston Archdiocese, which is not taken lightly in a city where the church and its charities are powerful and a vast number of the readers are Catholics. As the Spotlight reporters begin to investigate, it’s clear that many, many more priests may have abused children…

Painting an ugly portrait of Boston
Based on the actual story of how Cardinal Bernard Law spent decades helping pedophile priests escape justice by moving them to a new parish, or sending them on “sick leave”, this film and Black Mass of the same year do not paint a pretty portrait of Boston. Corruption seems to have been rampant and director Tom McCarthy, together with co-writer Josh Singer, depicts the city and its people living in the shadow of a church that refused to address the problem of so many priests preying on children. Shame and the general belief that the church did so much to help the poor were reasons for the victims to keep quiet, while men like Law used attorneys and money to make sure the crisis remained hidden. McCarthy also shows how the Boston Globe can’t go without blame; there were moments when the scandal could have been exposed earlier. We get the full story, with only a brief prologue that takes place a few decades before and shows how pedophile priests were not this new thing that just popped up in 2001. As Stanley Tucci’s character, a lawyer, says at a pivotal moment: “It may take a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to abuse a child”. McCarthy keeps our attention throughout, with credibility as a leading mark. Some may compare this film with All the President’s Men (1976), but you won’t see any shadowy figures in garages; tension is achieved in other ways. It’s the interviews with victims and perpetrators, staff meetings and investigations that bring forth all the emotions of what becomes a massive scandal. A great cast includes Keaton as the level-headed Spotlight editor, and Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as two of his most devoted reporters.

Much of the film may look ordinary. McCarthy’s approach is very straightforward; there’s nothing fancy about it. He seems to believe in the strength of his cast and the script and feels no need to spice things up. McCarthy likes comedy, but Spotlight is just as compelling a drama as the director’s The Visitor (2008).

Spotlight 2015-U.S. 128 min. Color. Produced by Blye Pagon Faust, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, Michael Sugar. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer. Cast: Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes), Michael Keaton (Walter “Robby” Robinson), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James… Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou. Voice of Richard Jenkins.

Trivia: Matt Damon was allegedly considered as Rezendes.

Oscars: Best Picture, Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Original Screenplay.

Last word: “[Ruffalo’s] an actor first and I think he just responded to the script. I know he wanted to work with me and I think he responded to the character. I think as an actor, that’s what you’re looking at. As a human being, it’s no secret that Mark’s quite an activist, and specifically for social causes, social justice. I think he saw in this movie a great injustice and ultimately a great justice, and he saw the opportunity to tell a story where justice was served in some regard, although there’s still work to be done, I think everyone agrees.” (McCarthy, Deadline)

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The Devil’s Advocate

THE NEWEST ATTORNEY AT THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL LAW FIRM HAS NEVER LOST A CASE. BUT HE’S ABOUT TO LOSE HIS SOUL.

devilsadvocateFlorida attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is recruited by John Milton (Al Pacino), a senior partner at a powerful New York law firm, but Lomax and his wife (Charlize Theron) soon discover that their new acquaintances can be disturbing… Much of this film is set in courtrooms and swank NYC locations, but Satan’s presence and elements of horror is deftly weaved into it as Taylor Hackford slowly builds an atmosphere of dread – especially for Theron (who’s very good). Intriguing, with Pacino a perfect choice to play a charismatic prince of darkness, but the film suffers a bit from a talky climax and a twist that isn’t fully satisfying. 

1997-U.S. 144 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Taylor Hackford. Novel: Andrew Neiderman. Cast: Al Pacino (John Milton), Keanu Reeves (Kevin Lomax), Charlize Theron (Mary Ann Lomax), Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, Connie Nielsen… Craig T. Nelson, Heather Matarazzo. Cameos: Delroy Lindo, Don King.

Trivia: At one point, Joel Schumacher was allegedly considered for directing duties, with Brad Pitt as Lomax.

Quote: “Who, in their right mind Kevin, could possibly deny the twentieth century was entirely mine.” (Pacino to Reeves)

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Incendies: Shades of Lebanon

THE SEARCH BEGAN AT THE OPENING OF THEIR MOTHER’S WILL.

incendiesFilmmaker Denis Villeneuve happened to be in Montreal one day and took the chance to see a play, “Incendies” by Wajdi Mouawad. He wasn’t really scouting for a new project for himself, but the play caught his attention. The writer, who is Lebanese, found a way to fuse his experiences from the old country with Greek tragedy, and he was also clearly inspired by the story of Souha Bechara, a Lebanese woman who in 1988 tried to assassinate Antoine Lahad, leader of the South Lebanon Army. After ten years in the infamous Khiam prison, Bechara was released and wrote an autobiography about her life in Lebanon before and after the assassination attempt. That’s a powerful story in itself, but it’s just a part of this overwhelming film.

When Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), who fled to Canada many years ago, dies from a stroke, a family friend (who is also an attorney) summons her two children, the twins Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette), for a reading of the will. That’s when they learn that their absent father is still alive and that they have a brother; their mother’s last request was for them to find the men and give them separate letters from her. Since Jeanne and Simon had a troubled relationship with their mother, this is a lot to ask; he refuses to go back to their mother’s old country, but she does. At the same time, we learn Nawal’s story through flashbacks, starting with the day when her brothers find out that she has been with a man who’s not part of their culture, and kill him. What makes everything worse is that Nawal is pregnant…

Relevant beyond specific countries
The two stories are told simultaneously, which greatly increases tension. We don’t really understand why the twins initially are so hostile to their mother, but when we learn just how much suffering she went through as a young woman before she could leave the old country we realize that it’s a wonder she was able to pick up the pieces at all. The identity of the old country remains hidden, and for a good reason. This is not a story about specific historic events; Villeneuve and his team wanted to craft a film that is relevant beyond that. As in so many places around the world, the story pits religious fighters against each other, Christian and Muslim, and refuses to sympathize with their bloody causes, only the poor civilians who are caught in their crosshairs. Still, it’s hard not to recognize the circumstances as relating primarily to the despicable honor-killing tradition, the Lebanese civil war, and in one unforgettably gruesome sequence, the Bus Massacre of 1975 in Beirut. And that’s not a bad thing either, because even if the themes are meant to be relevant to a wider audience it doesn’t hurt to point out that they were inspired by awful real-life events. This was the film that cemented Villeneueve’s worldwide reputation as a skilful director; individual work in terms of editing and cinematography is part of the film’s success, but he’s the one holding it all together. He also knows how to use his actors to achieve as strong an effect as possible, especially Désormaeux-Poulin as the daughter who step by step finds out the truth about her mother; the camera stays focused on her, with moving results.

Nawal remains a very complex person. In the end, we are left pondering whether it was right of her to lead her children to the truth. Perhaps it’s better to remain ignorant in this case? But that’s what a movie like Incendies is for – you’re meant to exit the theater full of questions and start discussing them with your company. 

Incendies 2010-Canada-France. 130 min. Color. Produced by Luc Déry, Kim McCraw. Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve. Play: Wajdi Mouawad. Cast: Lubna Azabal (Nawal Marwan), Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin (Jeanne Marwan), Maxim Gaudette (Simon Marwan), Rémy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allen Altman.

Last word: “I think a good director is a good listener. I don’t know anything about war [and] I didn’t know a lot about Arabic people. So in order for me to adapt the screenplay, I had to be a listener… You have to put ego aside, which is difficult for a filmmaker. Half the movie I re-wrote while talking to actors there. And the challenge for me was to be faithful to Arabic culture, but I think we succeeded.” (Villeneuve, Indiewire)

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Left Behind

SOME WERE SAVED, AND SOME WERE LEFT BEHIND.

leftbehind14When suddenly many of his passengers, and his co-pilot, vanish in thin air during a flight, pilot Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage) and those left behind face moral and physical challenges… A bigger-budgeted remake of the 2000 Christian thriller still doesn’t have enough money to pay for good special effects. The presence of a big star makes no difference, but the decision to focus more on the sheer thrills of the story is wise; too bad the director is largely inept. Oddly, most Christians in the movie are hard to like.

2014-U.S. 110 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Vic Armstrong. Novel: Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins. Cast: Nicolas Cage (Rayford Steele), Chad Michael Murray (Cameron “Buck” Williams), Cassi Thomson (Chloe Steele), Nicky Whelan, Jordin Sparks, Lea Thompson.

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Going Clear: A Church of Money and Fear

goingclearThe Church of Scientology is a powerful organization, hard to defeat once you’ve become their enemy. Just ask the U.S. government. In the 1950s, L. Ron Hubbard’s group labeled itself a church and thus became tax-exempt. A lucrative trick and a decade later, Hubbard moved all the organization’s assets to what was now called The Church of Scientology in order to make sure as much money as possible stayed in Hubbard’s hands. In 1967, the government stripped Scientology of its tax exemption for obvious reasons. It stayed this way until 26 years later, when the IRS after years of being hit by one lawsuit after another finally settled with the organization, accepting Scientology as a religion and making it tax-exempt once again. It’s like hearing the plot in a Marx Brothers movie, but it’s far from the only jaw-dropping scandal covered in one of director Alex Gibney’s most ambitious documentaries yet.

The weirdness begins with the story of how Scientology came about. In the 1940s, hack sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard came up with a self-help system called Dianetics; after releasing a book explaining how it worked, Hubbard turned his ideas (some of it Freud, some of it science fiction) into the foundation of what became Scientology. Hubbard knew that the way for him to make money off of his system is to get people hooked on a process where their ills can be cured over time, to “go clear”, if the patient surrenders herself to “auditing”, question-and-answer therapy. Hubbard ingeniously devised an environment where critical thinking is slowly defeated while the victim is made to believe that the Church is the only entity that can make you feel safe. If you truly believe in this, you will open your wallet.

Relevant to a wider audience
Making a movie about Scientology in Hollywood made Gibney fear repercussions, but he still thought it was a topic worth exploring, especially with co-producer Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the same title as inspiration. One of the most significant aspects of the book is the Hollywood connection and Gibney emphasizes it without making the film too much about it; after all, this is a movie that wants to be relevant to a wider audience because Scientology’s victims come from all stripes. The interviewees are well chosen and tell their experiences with great passion, including filmmaker Paul Haggis, and people who were once close to the leadership of the Church. One of the striking themes, apart from the threats and mistreatment they faced, is a sense of shame that the defectors are struggling with. How is it possible to be so deceived? We’ve heard much of all this before, but rarely has the story of Scientology, its methods and the ruthless leadership of David Miscavige been depicted in such a thrilling but also fully convincing and penetrating way. It’s a tremendous achievement by Gibney and Wright; very well directed and illustrated.

In the end, it is reasonable to direct some anger at Tom Cruise and John Travolta who are still Scientologists. The film discusses how the cult can be defeated if the tax-exempt status is revoked, which is up to the government. Another way is if one of those movie stars turned their back on the Church; it would have a devastating effect. Unfortunately, both men seem hopelessly ensnared. Money plays a part, but they also probably believe for real that their success is due to Hubbard’s sci-fi hokum. Gibney’s film brilliantly presents a problem that affects people all over the world, how it arose, and what can be done about it. But who’s strong enough to do what’s needed?

Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief 2015-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Alex Gibney, Kristen Vaurio, Lawrence Wright. Written and directed by Alex Gibney.

Last word: “Right now [drones are] the flavor of the month. I think people will get tired of them, but they do afford you a rather unique opportunity. It’s almost like God’s Louma crane. Suddenly, you come up over a tree as we have done to show the blue building of Scientology and it’s a pretty dramatic shot and then you can fly over it. You know, Spanky Taylor, who’s one of the women interviewed in the film, talks about how they used to have to sleep on these wet mattresses on the roof of the building and we can glide over the roof. So, it’s pretty dramatic and it can be very, very useful in a lot of instances.” (Gibney, Vulture)

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Left Behind: World at War

leftbehind3The Tribulation Force continues to fight Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), and the President of the United States (Louis Gossett, Jr.) is also realizing that working with Carpathia was a huge mistake… The third film in this series was also released straight-to-DVD, but the budget must be higher considering the elaborate special effects and dystopian look of the film. Focus lies on Gossett, Jr. now and the story offers more thrills than its predecessors. The religious ingredients are silly and superficial, though.

2005-U.S.-Canada. 95 min. Color. Directed by Craig R. Baxley. Novels: Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins. Cast: Louis Gossett, Jr. (Gerald Fitzhugh), Kirk Cameron (Cameron “Buck” Williams), Brad Johnson (Rayford Steele), Jessica Steen, Gordon Currie, Janaya Stephens… Charles Martin Smith.

Trivia: The film combines events from two of the “Left Behind” books, “Tribulation Force” and “Nicolae”.

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Left Behind II: Tribulation Force

leftbehind2As the world is thrown into chaos and violence, Christians organize to fight the Antichrist whose power is increasing from his position as U.N. Secretary-General. This sequel was released straight-to-DVD and continues in the same style, albeit with a new director. The acting is still unsatisfying and it’s remarkable how such a dramatic set-up can look so boring – all the way up to its silly third act in Israel. Oh, and two of the leading characters fall in love, but you won’t care.

2002-U.S.-Canada. 94 min. Color. Directed by Bill Corcoran. Novel: Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins. Cast: Kirk Cameron (Cameron “Buck” Williams), Brad Johnson (Rayford Steele), Janaya Stephens (Chloe Steele), Gordon Currie, Chelsea Noble, Clarence Gilyard.

Trivia: Followed by Left Behind: World at War (2005).

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