I’ve started a yearly tradition today. Every Easter weekend from now until the day I die, I will watch three films that were condemned by the church as blasphemous, heretical, etc. While many congregations will offer screenings of Mel Gibson’s non-spiritual snuff film The Passion of the Christ, I will be worshipping at the alter of good films. My only criteria was that the religious powers-that-be openly hated the film, which unfortunately means that Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew is ineligible.

Good Friday: The Devils (1971, dir. Ken Russell): Kicking off the festivities is The Devils, Ken Russell’s reviled masterpiece about the insane levels of corruption present in the Catholic church then, now, and forever. It is an extreme work of art in every sense, from the explosive score by Peter Maxwell Davies to the breathtaking sets by Derek Jarman. It’s a film that creates a fully fleshed world, sucks you in and spits you right out at the end.

In Britain, the film was savaged by the press and censored by the government thanks to a deeply disturbing but totally necessary scene in which a cathedral of delirious nuns masturbate and sexually assault a gigantic statue of Jesus…all part of an exorcism by the psychotic powers-that-be, and most significant of all, intercut with the shockingly serene sequence of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in his finest performance) atoning for his sins with the utmost humility amidst the backdrop of London’s peaceful landscape.

Outrageous, yes. Gratuitous, absolutely not, especially if you keep a copy of the Old Testament in your house. To this day, The Devils manages to shake the core of the soul, and the fact that there isn’t a proper DVD available is shameful and disgraceful. Therefore, in addition to praising the film, I am posting the link to an online petition to Warner Bros. to get the picture released once and for all. This is a milestone in the art of cinema and it needs to be celebrated, not hidden away. Click here to sign.

Holy Saturday: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979, dir. Terry Jones): I’ve only been to one Holy Saturday service in my life. The first half was unmistakably somber; in fact, it may have been almost entirely silent. Then halfway through the congregation started rejoicing when Jesus suddenly came back from the dead! It’s this sudden gear change into optimism that made me select Monty Python’s magnum opus as the second film of the unholy trinity.

It’s the one Python film in which the structure holds together, the main character is genuinely sympathetic, and the themes go beyond genre deconstruction. Fans of the comedy troupe will revel in some of the finest sketches and characters they ever produced, especially Reg, the often misguided revolutionary played by John Cleese in the kind of screaming performance he does better than anyone.

Upon its 1979 release, religious leaders foamed at the mouth over the alleged parody of Jesus himself as filtered through Brian (Graham Chapman), the ordinary bloke just trying to get by in Jerusalem in 33 AD. Of course, the fact that Brian attends Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount never occurred to them during their hysterical whining. Ultimately, Life of Brian holds up 30 years later because its targets are far more interesting. It isn’t even just the religious who are targeted, but anyone who lets others do their thinking for them. “You’re all individuals; you’re all different” says Brian in the single greatest sermon ever written in the English language. “Yes, we are all different,” replies the crowd. “I’m not,” mutters a lone voice.

Intelligent, hysterical, and all-around brilliant, Life of Brian is the greatest satire in film history rivaled only by Dr. Strangelove, and whether you’re religious or not, it’s impossible not to be won over by the film’s glorious final message: “Always look on the bright side of life.”

How do you top that?

Easter Sunday: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese): The problem with depicting Jesus in film is that he’s so bloody pious by virtue of the fact that he’s, well, Jesus, it’s difficult to relate to him as a main character. He’s either portrayed as a boring Superman or the most unfortunate torture victim who ever lived. But in adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’ book, Scorsese and Paul Schrader got around this problem by making him human. This Christ, wonderfully played by Willem Dafoe, goes through the struggle that anyone who has ever believed in a higher power can related to: The struggle of belief.

The chief offense was making him too human. Some Christians didn’t like the idea of a Christ who had even the smallest grain of doubt coarsing through his veins, and the last temptation itself — the desire to live a normal life — was the last straw. Ironically, it is the last temptation that allows for the greatest endorsement of Jesus I’ve ever encountered, for even with the opportunity to live and die like all the rest of us, he still goes back to die for our sins.

Don’t believe the lies. This is by far the most spiritually moving portrait of Jesus ever committed to film with Scorsese and Schrader in top form, an outstanding score by Peter Gabriel which at once makes you want to rock out and get down on your knees and praise the Lord, and as if all that weren’t great enough, look who’s playing Pontius Pilate:

The only thing that would make this better is if they somehow crowbarred Tom Waits into the cast. Which is ironic because it’s impossible to crowbar Tom Waits into anything, he’s that cool. Even his performance in the horrendous Domino is worth watching. But I digress. Last Temptation of Christ is Scorsese’s finest work next to his masterpiece, Raging Bull, and anyone of genuine faith needs to experience it. After all, it’s only a film.

Another film I was considering was The Baby of Mâcon, the last good film Greenaway ever made. If you have any suggestions for blasphemous and heretical films, let me know, I’d love to seek them out.

notv_peter_greenaway_05

(Although this kick-ass picture making him look like a Doctor Who contender makes up for the struggle.)

News has come out that Greenaway is making another film despite his constant insistence that cinema is dead and more to the point an inferior art form. The key passage of this story is the following:

Dutch actresses are auditioning for [Greenaway] and being asked two questions: 1) “Would you be willing to have unsimulated intercourse on screen?” 2) “Would you be willing to appear in a shot in which semen leaks out of your vagina?”

Upon reading this, a number of thoughts began floating through my head. Firstly, the only surprise is that Greenaway hasn’t made a film featuring explicit sex already. Those who have seen The Pillow Book, for instance, should understand why. He is one of the only directors who has no reservations about sex or nudity no matter how cold and distant his sex scenes tend to be, which is one of many reasons why I respect him so much.

But the rest of my thoughts expressed nothing but reservations about the project. On the one hand, every time Greenaway makes another film, I cross my fingers in the hopes that he’ll return to the halcyon days of A Zed & Two Noughts and The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover. On the other hand, it’s probably never going to happen, especially if the hugely disappointing Nightwatching is anything to go by, and this is where the sex comes in. Making a film with explicit sex scenes is meaningless unless the film is any good. Otherwise, who gives a damn? And just as Nightwatching was clearly meant to attract mainstream audiences to his more complex work after the disastrous Tulse Luper Suitcases project, this new movie sounds like nothing more than a last-ditch effort to get the arthouse community to care about the idea of a Peter Greenaway film.

Finally, it’s not as though making an artsy film with real sex is a bold idea anymore. We’ve already had 9 Songs and Shortbus in the last five years as every article breaking this story has leapt at the opportunity to mention. So unless Greenaway can get his act together and try to tell us something interesting like he used to, why should anybody care if his latest opus will feature “hardcore super-sex” as Alan Partridge would say?

And this is why it’s a pain in the ass to be a Peter Greenaway fan. For somebody whose output used to be consistently brilliant, he has let himself deteriorate into an annoying art historian who thinks all contemporary works are rubbish unless they follow his insane rules, which would be absolutely fine if his recent output wasn’t all full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Oh well. At least the alleged Criterion release of The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover will hopefully remind people why anyone bothered with Greenaway in the first place.

I was hoping Charlie Brooker would tackle the Jade Goody fiasco upon returning to television and he didn’t disappoint. I happen to believe that if somebody acts like a jerk in life, that fact shouldn’t be glossed over in death. Therefore, while I don’t condone some of the nastier comments on the “Have Your Say” section, I don’t think that dying makes one immune from criticism. Everybody dies.

Other than that, fantastic segment. And if anyone can tell me the string quartet piece used towards the end, I will be most grateful.

Since I’ve recently started writing film reviews for Hofstra’s The Chronicle, the editors ever so often e-mail me about possible advanced screenings for the press which I usually can’t attend. For example, I missed the boat on I Love You, Man earlier in March. But when I requested a press pass to attend TriBeca’s screening of In The Loop, it was wishful thinking. Somehow they’ve found a pre-TriBeca screening tomorrow afternoon and I have dropped everything so I can see it before the rest of my fellow Americans in July.

If this film is as good as the hype from Sundance suggests, America is finally ready for The Thick of It and the genius that is Armando Iannucci. Stand by for my review.

Well, I suppose he’s always been off the rails, but ever since Obama took office it’s like watching somebody pilot a jet straight into the sun. I came across this clip from The Colbert Report — not my favorite show of all-time but it has its moments — which beautifully takes the reactionary maniac to task.

From The Huffington Post.

My God, if you thought Keith Olbermann was a bad actor during his Special Comments, wait until you see Glenn Beck conjuring up tears on the level of a high schooler who thinks he’s the next Daniel Day-Lewis.

The general consensus on Watchmen is that those who read the graphic novel will love it and those who didn’t will hate it. This theory conveniently explains the mixed response it has received from critics and audiences alike. Well I will prove to be the exception to the rule. I read the book, I loved the book, and the film is dreadful.

There is a reason why the first director approached to make this film is Terry Gilliam. Others offered the job include the excellent Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass. These are three gentlemen who have a strong visual style but crucially understand the mechanics of themes and storytelling. Eventually the studio settled on Zack Snyder, laughably referred to in the trailer as “the visionary director of 300.” That’s not to say 300 isn’t a fun film but it’s altogether meaningless and it knows it. Could this man best known for a style-over-substance snuff picture possibly have the capacity to bring Alan Moore’s pessimistic vision of complex superheroes to the screen?

Let’s start with the acting. Besides the sole stand-out of Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl, the cast is made up of actors who are at best wooden and at worst a stockpile of logs. Jackie Earl Haley is watchable as Rorshach but the talk of an Oscar nomination is deeply perplexing since all he had to do was scowl. Plus I preferred the one scene where he wasn’t utilizing the Christian Bale Batman voice. I also have to excuse Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan since the character isn’t supposed to emote. Everyone else, however, would be better suited as firewood.

A friend of mine allegedly referred to this film as a perfect adaptation. Perfect. In other words, it looks like the illustrations by Dave Gibbons. By that logic, I could pick up a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, frame and film the text, add music to it, and presto: I’ve made a perfect adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s book simply because all the words are in it. Just because it gets the plot and the visuals mostly right, doesn’t mean it captures the essence of what Watchmen is really about. Ask yourself if you really cared about any of the characters as portrayed in the film. Of course you didn’t care, stop lying! The reason you don’t care and I don’t care is because Snyder doesn’t care. What does he care about instead?

He cares about how bad-ass Rorschach is. He cares about how awesome gratuitous violence is. He cares about how much we all want to bang Silk Spectre. The film ends with Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” on the soundtrack as interpreted by My Chemical Romance, which makes you think Dr. Manhattan has just teleported you into the heart of an emo mosh pit. Instead of the bittersweet taste you are supposed to have in your mouth due to the Machiavellian actions of the heroes, you feel like cheering. But what is there to cheer about?

Ultimately the film doesn’t know what it wants to be. On the one hand, the book suggests that it should mean something, but on the other hand, depth is not as fun as breaking fingers in slow-motion, and because slow-motion looks a bit artsy, the emptiness of Snyder’s vision is masked with the utmost portentousness. The soundtrack perfectly sums up this notion, making use of Simon & Garfunkel and the Mozart Requiem for no other reason except it sounds cool. It’s the Tarantino School of Soundtracks but at least Tarantino films never pretend to be important. All this would be forgivable were it not for one scene that plays Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over a sex scene that was lifted straight out of a late night softcore romp on Cinemax. That scene, with its excessive thrusting and its noir lighting, is the essence of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.

By the time Terry Gilliam’s chances to direct the film fell through in the late 1980s, he came to the conclusion that the only faithful way to adapt the book was to make a five-hour miniseries. I suspect he was onto something since the 2 ½ hour Watchmen is all sizzle and no steak, so maybe there was no way to make it work. Stanley Kubrick famously had no regard for the books he was adapting, especially Stephen King’s The Shining, but he was able to use them as a starting point for his own cinematic vision. He made The Shining work. Maybe because he didn’t have to worry about winging fanboys in 1980. Now I’m imagining what Stanley Kubrick’s Watchmen would look like. And now I’m happy.

As with every outburst from a public figure, it didn’t take long for a remix to hit cyberspace.

It’s funny how easily all of us tend to judge public figures based on moments like these. We may not know the full story but who cares? He overreacted so therefore he’s the Devil! The real reason I posted the original clip yesterday was because I found it funny. I wasn’t on the set that day so what right do I have to judge Bale or anyone else for that matter? As far as I can tell, DP Shane Hurlbut did something stupid that wasted time and money — twice — and Bale took his reaction a little too far. End of story.

At least when footage of David O. Russell’s outburst on the set of I Heart Huckabees was released, we already had the Three Kings fiasco to help formulate an educated opinion (Not to mention the similar stories on the set of his new film, Nailed, which prompted James Caan to quit the project outright.) But this is the only such incident involving Bale that I am aware of. Perhaps he has done this before, in which case I retract my statements, but until those are made public, isn’t he entitled to an isolated incident? Isn’t anyone?

Of course not. He’s a celebrity so judging him based on instincts and half-stories is perfectly acceptable. Never mind the possibility that — I don’t know — he apologized to Hurlbut and made peace? The fact is that as entertaining as an out-of-context clip can be, it doesn’t tell you very much at all, and considering everything else that we could be debating, I question the value in sitting around wondering whether Christian Bale is a prick or not.

I feel slightly guilty about posting anything by TMZ but this audio clip of Christian Bale pulling a David O. Russell-level trantrum on the set of Terminator: Salvation is just too good. Listen to it here.

I don’t know if these outbursts are typical of Bale but I do know this much: It’s another excuse for me not to see the new Terminator film. As if I needed one.

Best. Fail. Ever.

25 January, 2009

Fail videos are a mixed bag for me but this one literally had me crying with laughter.

Ten years ago, an Italian film called Life is Beautiful blew audiences and Academy voters away with its touching and life-affirming portrait of a man who wanted to soften the blow of his family’s impending doom by treating the Holocaust like fun and games. The problem is nobody had the guts to stand up and point out that this film by the Italian answer to Robin Williams (And just as annoying, too, Down by Law aside.) was essentially a glorified remake of the legendary never-seen Jerry Lewis fiasco, The Day the Clown Cried. I find myself in a similar situation with The Reader, the new prestige picture from Stephen Daldry, albeit this is a horse of a different color, and a much less interesting one than Begnini’s at that.

For the first half of the film, a German young adult (David Kross) has an affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet) which takes place over one summer. Years later, he is studying law and has the privilege to observe a war crimes trial with his class. On trial are six women who were employed as guards in the Auschwitz death camp. One of those women is — you guessed it — the same woman who made him a man those many years earlier. In other words: Mrs. Robinson has become a Nazi.

It’s difficult to think about The Reader without being reminded of Kate Winslet’s hilarious episode of Extras in which a twisted version of herself explains that the only reason she’s starring in a particular Holocaust film is to finally win an Oscar. Ricky Gervais even alluded to this episode at the Golden Globes a few weeks back. Now, I’m not suggesting Ms. Winslet is as cold in real life as she is on the show, but I can’t help but think this fact must’ve crossed her mind when she first read the script, and clearly the move has paid off. Is it any wonder that The Reader is up for the Best Picture Oscar? And here’s the bigger problem: The whole film is like that!

I realize The Reader isn’t a Holocaust film like Schindler’s List, and many have argued the film is really about sexual awakening. But the film barely dips its big toe into the water during that first interminable hour in which nothing happens apart from sex and reading. All the sex scenes are shot in the typically romanticized Hollywood fashion: Neck-up with off-screen but always gentle thrusting. And this is where the film actually made me angry. If you want to make a film about sexuality, do it. Don’t pussyfoot around the subject like an Oscar-begging wimp. All it took was one sex scene in Blue Velvet — David Lynch’s masterpiece about sexual awakening — to get the point across. The Reader takes about thirty, and never once did I feel the main character’s desires or fears. You’re screwing Kate Winslet, for God’s sake, the least you can do is keep me awake.

This is the definition of pretentious. It is a Nazi sexploitation film posing as Oscar-bait melodrama. Of all the Best Picture nominees, it is the only one whose potential win actually stirs up feelings of rage within my blood. For those of you still considering wasting time and money on this film, consider the following exhange from one of the more memorable episodes of Seinfeld:

Jerry: She’s a Nazi, George! A Nazi!
George: Yeah but she’s kind of a cute Nazi.

Really, Costanza? Really?