Saturday, June 30, 2007

NOW PLAYING: Small Screens

Soul Foodish pix recently added or still surviving on video store shelves

Updated June 30 2007: new additions in bold

A recent visit to my plain old ordinary neighbourhood video store turned up the following titles, all of which have (or would like to have, or seem like they would have) some sort of Soul Food angle;
Apocalypto (ultra-violent Mayans cursed by God in ultra-violent Mel Gibson film)
Celestine Prophesy (nope)
Children of Men (trace elements of original novel's Christianity)
Click (BruceAlmighty-ish comedy?)
Conversations With God (nope)
Copying Beethoven (so many delays, Beethoven biopic probably a bomb)
The Da Vinci Code (nope)
Dear Wendy (von Trier provocation)
Don’t Come Knocking (Wenders/Shepard)
Deliver Us From Evil (doc on pedophile priest)
Devil & Daniel Johnston (doc on mentally ill musician with Christian background)
The Devil Wears Prada (hi-fashion Faust?)
L’Enfant (Dardenne Bros fourth masterpiece in a row)
The Fountain (eternal youth strangeness from Aronofsky)
The Girl From Monday (Hal Hartley "sequel" to Henry Fool)
A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints
Hawaii, Oslo (Norwegian soul food)
Hell (based on incomplete Kieslowski script)
The History Boys (smart, a couple more-or-less Christian characters)
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (good Inuit, bad missionaries)
The King (bad pastor)
The Lady In The Water (bad movie. Or not?...)
Little Children (grace to some who need it?)
Land Of Plenty (Wenders film about missionary)
The Man Who Sued God (apparently dumb comedy)
The Nativity Story (apparently bland Christmas story)
The New World (Pocahontas gets religion)
The Notorious Bettie Page (pin-up queen gets religion)
One Night With The King (church-audienced Esther story)
Pan’s Labyrinth (my pick for most spiritually significant film of 2006)
Pursuit of Happyness (gospel of Horatio Alger)
The Painted Veil (spiritual awakening, Somerset Maugham-style)
The Proposition (a Downunder Melquiades Estrada?)
Shooting Dogs / Beyond The Gates (Hotel Rwanda with priests)
Saint Of 911 (Doc on gay chaplain)
Saraband (Bergman)
Sherrybaby (saved in prison, now back on the streets)
Stranger Than Fiction (characters in Somebody else's story?)
Superman Returns (aims for Jesus parallels)
The Ten Commandments: The Complete Miniseries
The Ten Commandments: The Musical
Wicker Man (original was better, or at least less laughable)
World Trade Centre (Christian man helps victims - Oliver Stone)

I'll fill on some of those below...

Corrupt Southern politics (Huey Long inspiration), from acclaimed novel by acclaimed Catholic (am I right?) novelist Robert Penn Warren. Get a load of this cast, every name here a monster actor; Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Boris Karloff. (Okay, I'm kidding about Boris K.) Oft-delayed opening did not bode well, and while it got the red carpet at TIFF, ATKM opened and closed in no time here in Vancouver and hasn't left a mark elsewhere.



Lots of violence, but also lots of religion, in the ultra-pulpy (just check out the poster) BLACK SNAKE MOAN – Sam Jackson plays Lazarus, a God-fearing bluesman who takes extreme measures to save a wild young nymphomaniac (Christina Ricci) from herself. Hollywood reporter calls it a “ludicrous Southern melodrama” – but its fans figure that’s kind of the whole point. Kind of like criticizing THE TEN COMMANDMENTS for being religious. Roger Ebert called it – What, he’s writing reviews again? Yeehaw! Nice to have you back, Rodge – he called it “the oddest, most peculiar movie he’d seen about sex and race and redemption in the Deep South.” God at the Grindhouse?
This one obviously won’t be for everybody: Kristen Toby isn’t sure it ought to be for anybody - not necessarily for the obvious reasons; “We're not supposed to gawk at religion, or at a naked woman beaten and in chains. But Brewer gives us license to gawk at them in tandem by making us think that we're gawking at the other one, each in turn. And in the battle for thematic supremacy, we end up taking neither wild sexuality nor wild religiosity seriously. The film sets itself up to present sex and religion as pervasive and powerful forces, responsible for who people are and who they become — but ultimately Black Snake Moan deals with an ambiguous, tenuous kind of redemption that has little to do with either.”

BREACH – Robert Hanssen sold secrets to the Commies and was a devout Catholic – go figger. Probably not a poster child for the church, but I do want to check it out – I like those kinds of paradox, and heck, I’d watch Chris Cooper and Laura Linney if they were guest stars on Barney...

CLERKS II (2006, USA, Kevin Smith)
So what's with this email Peter Chattaway cc's me on? With cryptic scraps about Kevin Smith's latest? One guy wrote, "I just noticed this weekend that, in the poster, Jay is depicted with one of those "Hello, I'm" labels on his toque, and in the blank space, he (or someone else) has written "Forgiven!" And then another guy replies, "actually, i was surprised at how much Jesus was actually in the film, though i probably shouldn't have been."
The reason he probably shouldn't have been is because foul-mouthed, nothing-is-sacred director Kevin Smith (as well as having attended Vancouver Film School) is actually a practising Catholic! DOGMA riled many Christians, but plenty of others love the irreverant (but maybe authentic) take on Christian faith. Check out this NY Times interview, where a wonderfully self-effacing Smith pays homage to his favourite film, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS! You heard it here first.
Anyhow, an online blurb: "The sequel to the 1994 independent hit picks up 10 years later. It's about what happens when that lazy, 20-something malaise lasts into your 30s. It's time for the Dante and Randal to actually grow up and do something more than just sit around and dissect pop culture and talk about sex." Hmmm...

An angry indictment of sexual abuse among the Roman Catholic clergy that's being praised by reviewers and approached warily by some Christians. Director Amy Berg focuses her documentary eye on Oliver O’Grady, a confessed pedophile whose predatory behavior in several California parishes over many years is described not only by his victims but also – remarkably – by the priest himself, now living “under church protection” in Ireland. With such an emotionally charged issue, it will be difficult to discern whether the film is anti-Catholic or anti-sin: while orthodox Christians may feel uneasy with details such as an opening title card that quotes from “The Gospel Of Thomas,” it’s worth remembering that the film does reach for balance by including the stories of abuse victims who still practice their Catholic faith. Played Vancouver: November 2006.

Though I found it bland and somewhat churchy, there are many fans of this mostly-marketed-to-Christians missionary pic. Says CT Movies; "One of the most compelling missionary stories of all time—the tale of the five Christian men martyred in 1956 by a savage tribe in Ecuador. END OF THE SPEAR tells the tale of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and the other murdered men—and how the good news of the gospel ultimately got through to the Waodani tribe anyway." Played churches: early 2006.

No way to tell if the whole saints thing is for real here or not, however unconventional, though Darrel Manson liked it – and I was talking to a movie buddy yesterday who raved it.
"A coming-of-age drama about a boy growing up in Astoria, N.Y., during the 1980s. As his friends end up dead, on drugs or in prison, he comes to believe he has been saved from their fate by various so-called saints." Robert Downey Jr, Dianne Wiest.
Available at Videomatica

Up for an Oscar. Though it only ever had limited big screen release, that didn't stopped JC from garnering lots of attention among Christians: links and details here. Basically, a documentary on a pentecostal summer camp that aims to be even-handed but can't help gawking, and finding the "bootcamp for Jesus" ambience and way-right-of-center politics just a little problematic. You could always rent HELL HOUSE and have a swell (condescending? tendentious?) double feature - "Wouldja Just Look At Them Crazy Fundies!"

M. Night Shyamalan's movies have charted a precipitous downward trajectory, from the flawless SIXTH SENSE through the interesting UNBREAKBLE to the scary-but-stupid SIGNS to the just-plain-stupid VILLAGE. So I couldn't bring myself to check out his latest when it hit the cineplex this summer. However, I had the pleasure this summer of hanging out in Cannon Beach Oregon with one of my best movie buddies, Rick Bonn (of Hollywood Jesus), and his impassioned advocacy for MNS's bedtime story has me guardedly eager for the DVD release.

Flat-out stunning, very similar in scope and tone (human scale, morally searching, contemporary literary source material) to the same director's justly acclaimed IN THE BEDROOM, just as truthful and unflinching but even more complex. Literate, intelligent, challenging, adult: the anatomy of an affair, an inquiry into sexual and other sin that holds an unflinching - but never cynical - mirror up to human behavior. Grace abounding to the chief of sinners.

I’ll be playing Thomas More onstage in this one next January, so it’s great to see the original Zinneman film of Robert Bolt’s classic play out in a new DVD release. “In his single-minded pursuit of a male heir, King Henry VIII defied the Catholic Church, severing England's ties to Rome, just so he could divorce his first wife and remarry with impunity. His plan worked reasonably well, except for a thorn in his side named Thomas More. More, who was Henry's Lord Chancellor, steadfastly refused to recognize the legitimacy of Henry's actions vis-a-vis the Church, and in so doing he sealed his fate.”



Hotel Rwanda with a priest? And without Don Cheadle. You can see why release was delayed south of the border. But they gave it a cheerier title (“Let’s call it BEYOND THE GATES – maybe some of those dumb Christians will think it’s a sequel to END OF THE SPEAR...”) and it’s done alright. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it yet – HOTEL RWANDA sent me into a spiritual tailspin for almost a year! – but I will soon, I think. There’s a Peter Chattaway review at CT Movies.

SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS (2005, Marc Rothemund, screenplay Fred Breinerdorfer)
The White Rose was a secret organization of Christian university students in Germany who opposed Hitler during World War Two. Based on previously unavailable interrogation and trial transcripts, as well as interviews with surviving participants and family members, this spare, unsensationalized film is a portrait of extraordinary courage and integrity.
Seeing this celebration of a Protestant saint in its screening at my city's Jewish International Film Festival, I was moved to tears and beyond: how I yearn to be like that young woman in all her courage, intelligence, decisiveness and matter-of-fact self-sacrifice. We see no glimpse of her spirituality for such a long time: I had resigned myself to yet another film where a hero of the faith is stripped of the faith that fuels their heroism, until - alone, in her cell - she began to pray. An extraordinary moment, all the more powerful because her faith had shown itself in actions before being expressed in words.
Some found the film cinematically bland: I found it artful, its atmospheric red and grey night-time palette evocative, its careful interior architectural compositions claustrophobic and stark. There was nothing showy in the quiet integrity of Sophie and her White Rose compatriots: the film's visual restraint is perfect.

"An epic motion picture set in an imaginative world of adventure, intrigue and romance, "One Night with the King" follows a young girl who rises from peasant to princess by going against the culture and seeking the King's heart rather than the riches of the kingdom." Yup, you guessed it - the story of Esther. Church-market, from the people who also brought us THE OMEGA CODE. CTMovies is underwhelmed by an over-plotted, over-explained screenplay, but remarks that it "may well be the best-looking movie from a Christian company to date, with sumptuous visuals that are both artistic and authentic."

This off-the-beaten-track release is part of the brand new boxed set “Cult Camp Classics 4: Historical Epics” which came out June 26 but may not hit most commercial video stores. Looks fun. Here are Hal Erickson’s jottings for the All Movie Guide: “One critic has noted that The Prodigal was aptly titled, inasmuch as it was all too prodigal with the funds of the then-flagging MGM studios. In its retelling of the 22-verse Biblical story of the Prodigal Son, the film helpfully fills in the story details inconsiderately left out of the Old Testament. Edmond Purdon plays Micah, the wastrel son of Eli (Walter Hampden) who takes his share of his father's fortune and blows it all in wicked old Damascus. Micah's one redeeming feature is his unserving faithful in the Lord God Jehovah. Pagan princess Samarra (Lana Turner at her most giddily exotic) intends to seduce Micah into renouncing his faith, only to get stoned to death for her troubles. Nearly two hours pass before Micah returns home and the fatted calf is killed in his honor. If for nothing else, The Prodigal would be memorable for Lana Turner's pagan-ritual costume, which is little more than a glorified bikini.”
Nice graph, Hal. Except, that’s the New Testament...

VIFF 2006. Oct 20 2006: Limited release
A restrained and understated treatment of the same events that inspired Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose
)(2005), one of the best films I saw in 2007, if one of the bleakest. Dramatizes the tragic exorcism in 1976 of a young German university student whose “demonic” manifestations may have been supernatural in origin, or may have been some form of epilepsy. REQUIEM sticks much closer to the historical events, offering a sympathetic (if harrowing) psychological study that refuses to come down on either side of the natural / supernatural debate, leaving the viewer with the same agonized perplexity one might experience in the face of such events in real life. REQUIEM is a rigorous, heart-breaking film: highly recommended. Further details here. Available at Videomatica.

Very limited big screen release in Fall 06.
With all the twelve step language in the blurb, I wonder how the good old Higher Power will come into this one? I hear it's pretty raw, and suspect Sherry's jail-cell religion is mostly something she drops like hot jewelry once she's out of The Big House. Still, as I'm wont to say, you never know. In any event, this business of living out your best intentions, following through on a change of heart, is always close to my heart - criminal that I am. (Me and T-Bone.)
"Three years after entering prison for robbery as a 19-year-old heroin addict, Sherry Swanson (Maggie Gyllenhaal) begins her first day of freedom, clean and sober. Concerns about Sherry's ability to care for her young daughter, and her inability to prove them wrong, threaten to destroy the already delicate relationship she has with her daughter, as well as her newfound sobriety." More here.

Oliver Stone dials down on the politics, even weaves in some religion! Who'da thunkit? CT Movies writes... "Stone, known for his political rants both stark and subtle, tones down the politics significantly in this film, opting instead for a truly human story of selflessness and heroism. And, somewhat surprisingly, Stone is faithful to faith, so to speak, as he liberally sprinkles the movie with Christian content—especially in one subplot involving a Marine who believes God has called him to help in the search for survivors. All in all, it makes for an inspiring and important film, even as it hearkens back to a day we sometimes might wish we could forget. But it's a powerful reminder of the big event that plunged our world into chaos, terror alerts, heightened security—and now, cancelled flights and long lines at the aiport."

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