Sunday, August 31, 2008

NOW PLAYING: Small Screens

This past week a couple of my recent favourites were released on DVD (REDBELT, SON OF RAMBOW), and two days hence the season's Certified Soul Food Masterpiece, SILENT LIGHT, hits the Videomatica shelves. (You might want to rent ORDET while you're at it.)

Also released this summer was DARATT ("DRY SEASON"), which Doug Cummings has raved as something of an African companion piece to THE SON, which Doug and I both count among our absolute favourite films. I'll see if Videomatica might bring in a copy, but it can be ordered direct from Facets (just type the title in the search engine near the top of their home page).

Sep 9 will see the arrival of COOL HAND LUKE, followed on Sep 23 by Coppola's restoration of the GODFATHER trilogy. And my movie-buddy Paul emailed to recommend CHOP SHOP, which also got great coverage in one of the film magazines this spring - I'll see if I can dig that out - as well as EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, a recommendation I'm very happy to pass along. Paul: "A serious movie with achingly funny scenes in the first half." Exactly.

And don't forget the other new-ish video releases we touted mid-August:
AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS (1988, France, Louis Malle)
BELLA (2006, Mexico, Alejandro Monteverde)
IN BRUGES (2008, UK, Martin McDonagh)
THE LAST SUPPER ("La Ultima Cena" 1976, Cuba, Tomas Gutierrez Alea)
THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES (1987, Canada, Frederic Back)
THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (1982, Italy, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
ONE PUNK UNDER GOD (2006, USA, Jeremy Simmons)
THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (1978, Italy, Olmi)
WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY? (2007, USA, Rob VanAlkemade)
MONSIEUR VINCENT (1947, France, Maurice Cloche)

L.A. Times, "Faith-Offending Films"

Nifty piece at the L.A. Times site, in conjunction with their profile of ex-Mormon-film-maker (you can rearrange those hyphens however you like) Richard Dutcher. It's more fun to look at it there, so you can play "name that movie" as the various slides come up. But, because links expire (while Soul Food Movies just goes on and on), here's a cut-and-paste version...

By Patrick Kevin Day and Jevon Phillips,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Hollywood and organized religion seem to be in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. Just when the ire generated by one film has died down, anger from a different denomination flames up for a different studio.

In December, Catholic groups were up in arms over New Line Cinema's "The Golden Compass." By late spring, it was a Hindu group battling Paramount pictures over the perceived slighting of the Hindu faith in the Mike Myers comedy "The Love Guru."

Meanwhile, "Falling" (pictured), the first post-Mormon film from writer-director Richard Dutcher, faces an uncertain reception from the community that once embraced his films.

"Falling," "The Golden Compass" and "The Love Guru" are far from the first films to be greeted with stern disapproval from the faithful. In fact, just about every world religion has been up in arms over a movie. Here are some of them.

The Love Guru (2008)

Who was offended? Hindus

What was their beef? A Nevada-based Hindu leader kicked off the protests against this film when the first trailers began playing in the spring. But in a twist on the normal offend-and-boycott cycle, another Hindu group, Navya Shastra, launched an opposition to the protests against the movie. Their argument was that years of hypersensitivity had resulted in a public turned off to the religion and that educated people could draw their own distinction between comedy and the actual religion. What they didn't expect was that educated people could also tell the difference between a good movie and a bad one. "Love Guru" bombed with critics and audiences.

The Golden Compass (2007)

Who was offended? Catholics

What was their beef? Catholic League President Bill Donohue called for a boycott of the fantasy film, based on the books by Philip Pullman, months before the film's premiere. Donohue was offended by the books' harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and their supposed pro-atheism message. Though director Chris Weitz tried to de-emphasize the source material's more controversial aspects, the outrage continued right up until the film's release. Audiences stayed away in droves, though whether it was because of the religious controversy or the fact that the movie received horrible reviews is a matter of debate.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Who was offended? Catholics

What was their beef? The Vatican, along with several Catholic groups around the world, objected strongly to the assertions made in the book and movie about the motivations of the Catholic Church in allegedly covering up a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Additionally, the Catholic order of Opus Dei denounced the movie's depiction of it in the character of a murderous albino monk (Paul Bettany, pictured). All the ruffled feathers didn't stop the film from raking in $758 million worldwide.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Who was offended? Jews

What was their beef? Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was one of the biggest hits of 2004. Its stark images of Jesus' crucifixion and the violence toward him, as well as villainous portrayals of many Jewish people, created a religious furor. Rabbis around the world said the film had the potential to transmit potent negative images, attitudes, stereotypes and caricatures about Jews and Judaism.

September Dawn (2006)

Who was offended? Mormons

What was their beef? "September Dawn" is described as a love story set against the backdrop of a 19th century massacre of a wagon train of Utah settlers. Though the massacre is documented, Mormons decry the portrayal of church members as killers. Star Jon Voight denied the film was an attack on the church or on Republican Mitt Romney, a Mormon who ended his presidential bid in February.

Water (2005)

Who was offended? Hindus

What was their beef? Part of an elemental trilogy that included "Fire" and "Earth," Deepa Mehta's "Water, " starring Lisa Ray and John Abraham (pictured), may have been the most incendiary of the three. Shooting on the film, which depicts the plight of Hindu widows, was disrupted when fundamentalists and supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party staged raucous protests.

Submission (2004)

Who was offended? Muslims

What was their beef? When Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a descendent of Vincent van Gogh, released the 10-minute film "Submission," with its criticism of violence against women in Islamic society and its images of seminude actresses with passages from the Koran displayed on their bodies, he became the target of death threats. He shrugged them off, but on the morning of Nov. 2, 2004, he was killed in the streets of Amsterdam by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch citizen who was later sentenced to life in prison.

Hollywood Buddha (2003)

Who was offended? Buddhists

What was their beef? Director Philippe Caland's comedy about a struggling movie producer who buys a Buddha head and finds it changes his luck so enraged Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Thailand that they marched on government buildings, threatening to fast -- even to the point of death -- if the movie wasn't pulled from distribution. They were especially offended by the film's poster, which depicts Caland sitting on top of Buddha's head.

Bowfinger (1999)

Who was offended? Scientologists

What was their beef? The Church of Scientology has gained a reputation for being litigious in protecting its reputation. In fact, Premiere magazine reported in 1993 that the makers of the 1991 John Candy comedy "Delirious" felt heavy pressure from the church to remove a single line ribbing Scientology. "Bowfinger" screenwriter Steve Martin's riff on the religion, called MindHead in the movie, drew a more muted response. Makers of the movie (starring Martin and Eddie Murphy, pictured) downplayed the connection to Scientology, and Scientologists kept their protests to the pages of local newspapers, criticizing reviewers who drew any comparison to Scientology.

Mormon-Movie Auteur Sheds Moniker

Coming to faith as a teen in Calgary meant I wrestled with the claims of the Mormons. My city, I was told, had more Mormons (as well as cars) per capita than any place outside Utah. (Well, I don't know how many cars they have per capita in Utah. It was more cars per capita than any place in the entire world. But I digress.)

I didn't end up becoming a Saint, but I've continued to have a sideline fascination with the gang ever since.

One example; the first film I reviewed for Christianity Today was a Mormon film, THE BEST TWO YEARS.

Another example. Picnicking at Spanish Banks, I watched a large group of gorgeous twenty-somethings gather for a barbecue. Frisbees, food, flirting, general good humour and high spirits - but no beer, no fights, no swearing. I was thinking, only First Baptist seemed large enough for a College & Career group of that size. But I didn't recognize a single face. Maybe some kind of youth conference? And then the guitars came out, and it began to dawn on me; I didn't recognize a single song. These weren't Christians, or at least not exactly; these were Mormons.

From a bit of a distance, Mormons look pretty much like your standard evangelical Christians. Which has had me wondering from time to time if there really is much of a difference.

Sometimes the effect doesn't go away even up close. I spent a week at a playwrighting workshop with a writer from the Brigham Young theatre department, and his play was full of grace. In fact, it was about grace. He really got it right. When we eventually talked about my fascination with but theological problems with the LDS church, he agreed that the church under-emphasizes grace, he seemed a bit baffled that I thought grace was so utterly central, but when it came right down to it, he - like his play - was all about grace.

I came away from that thinking what I guess I've always thought. That here and there among the Latter Day Saints are people who really do get it, but that by and large, as an institution, they just don't; the prevailing philosophy is one of Being Good. Earning one's way to heaven, or salvation, or divine approval. The Boy Scout motto turned into religion. A religion about achieving and succeeding - the ultimate American religion - which is inevitably going to end up a religion of failing, and therefore either of guilt and discouragement or of hypocrisy. Whereas the gospel that Jesus brought is about how we just plain can't earn our way - and, therefore, that it's got to be all forgiveness, first to last. I understand the misperception that Christianity is all about sin and guilt; it starts there so it can move beyond. "Yup, you've sinned. Forgiven. Let's move on."

So maybe the rest of the Christian world isn't so much different from our LDS cousins as I would like to think. There's plenty of folks in plenty of churches who really don't grab hold of grace at all. Churches attract every kind of hurting, broken and screwed up human being, including the constitutionally religious, and so - sadly, ironically, in the presence of Jesus and his words, week after week - the place ends up full of guilt-trips and self-righteousness in equal measure. It's hard for us humans to grab hold of, and hold on to, the slippery, scandalous idea of grace. So maybe it's as much a surprise in any church to find a real Christ-ian as it is in the Mormon church. To find somebody who really gets it, understands it, lives it, somebody who neither resorts to their own goodness nor returns to their own badness, but lives in that eye-of-the-storm centre place where God lives.

Still, I've ended up believing there's a difference between The Latter Day Saints and the rest of us sinnner-saints. There's a mix in every church of both sorts: believers and unbelievers, doers and pretenders, whores and hypocrites. But what gets preached from the pulpit week after week is essentially different, and different in a way that matters. However much it does or doesn't get through, Christian churches preach grace, non-Christian churches don't. If the party line is do-gooder-ism, it ain't from Jesus. And surely what's being preached week after week gets through to at least some of the people, some of the time.

Anyhow. That's all a lead-in to a fascinating L.A. Times article about Richard Dutcher, "the father of Mormon film," who went to Hollywood and lost his Faith. Which doesn't necessarily mean he's lost God. Not at all. (Which is why I needed to write all that other stuff. Far be it from me to theologize without good reason.)

I can't help thinking of Paul Schrader, who fled what he perceived as the moralism of Dutch Calvinism (he was a Calvin College grad or drop-out, depending who's telling the story) and has ended up making a ton of movies, some of them masterpieces, as preoccupied with God as the films of Bresson or Tarkovsky. Doesn't FALLING sound like Dutcher's own TAXI DRIVER?

I'll be watching this film maker.
Once known as the king of Mormon film, a crisis of faith has him heading in a new direction.
By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 19, 2008

RICHARD DUTCHER didn't set out to become a filmmaking messiah. Before he became known as "the father of modern Latter-day Saint cinema," Dutcher was simply a writer-director-actor hustling for movie work in late '90s Los Angeles. That is, until the devout Mormon took stock of an underserved filmgoing community -- his own.

"There was Indian cinema for the Indian community. Gay and lesbian cinema was starting to mature. There was black cinema," Dutcher recalled. "I realized there's 12 million Mormons in this country and we don't have a cinema of our own. I thought, 'Holy cow! If I could make a movie for this demographic that's successful and other people could start making Mormon films, it could be a vibrant thing.' "

"God's Army," the low-budget drama about missionaries proselytizing in Hollywood that Dutcher wrote, directed and starred in, garnered nearly $3 million at the box office, a smash by indie-movie standards. The 2000 film had higher production values and asked bigger theological questions than was typical of the straight-to-DVD Mormon movie fare before it. But, more important, it ushered in a new era for Mormon film. He became the first Latter-day Saint filmmaker to land a movie about Mormons, intended primarily (but not exclusively) for Mormon viewership in theaters across the country.

But after filming several other of the genre's touchstone works, Dutcher renounced Mormonism last year, citing a theological evolution he calls "a very frustrating enlightenment." And he tendered his kiss-off to LDS cinema, "leaving Mormon moviemaking to the Mormons," as he put it in a controversial opinion piece that ran in the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah.

Now, after incurring scorn in the Mormon movie world, the faith-based auteur is back with his most personal film to date, "Falling." Glibly marketed as "the first R-rated Mormon movie" in Utah, it opened in Los Angeles on Friday for a one-week engagement at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Focused on an ambulance-chasing videographer (played by Dutcher) who haunts Hollywood's mean streets, crime scenes and bloody accidents for footage to sell to unscrupulous media bottom feeders, "Falling" is, at its core, the story of a man's anguished search for salvation after repudiating his faith. (The L.A. Times review called it "one of the best small pictures of its kind in recent memory.")

Viewed against the writer-director's real-life religious odyssey, however, the film can be seen as the culmination of Dutcher's spiritual existence -- the product of a moment of self-realization followed by an existential crisis, a sudden plunge into what he terms "an earth-shaking moment of spiritual terror" that caused Dutcher to literally lose his religion.

"In one moment, I went from being a true believer to knowing that everything I had thought about God, everything I thought about the universe, the way I looked at the world might be off," Dutcher said. "Ironically, it's the films that allowed me to progress spiritually to the point I left Mormonism. If I hadn't been making films, I doubt I would have reached that point."

When "God's Army" began to connect with audiences in 2000, a handful of movie reviewers in and around Salt Lake City seized on it as a cultural tipping point, anointing Dutcher "the father of Mormon cinema." "At that point, the representation of Mormons on TV and in movies had been pretty negative -- it was all polygamy and crazy people, really extreme and marginal," Dutcher said. "One of my main impulses was to portray Mormons as real people."

Rather than repeat the formula of his breakout feature, Dutcher followed "God's Army" with 2001's "Brigham City," a faith-based work about a serial killer set loose in an idyllic Mormon town. The film's unusual subject matter prevented it from connecting with audiences as did "God's Army." And less than half a decade after having launched a new wave of Mormon film -- a batch of nearly 40 movies made by and for Mormons -- Dutcher began to fear that LDS cinema was "dying." A casualty of what he would later describe as "too many badly made films in the marketplace, too few good ones" in that widely publicized 2007 piece for the Daily Herald.

More confounding for the Illinois-born 44-year-old Brigham Young University grad (who converted to Mormonism at 8 when his mother remarried): He underwent a consciousness-rattling realization that he says shook him to his spiritual core. It was a life-changing event that left him feeling "enlightened" but that ultimately compelled Dutcher to leave Mormonism.

"One day in prayer, all by myself, I asked myself the question: What if it's all not true?" Dutcher recalled. "It was an earth-shaking moment of spiritual terror, such a profound experience. It was such a sense of loss. I felt my faith leaving me and never coming back."

The retiring Dutcher, who in conversation at a Culver City postproduction editing facility seemed more apt to make his point with a shrug than by banging his fist on the table, takes pains not to disparage Mormons or Mormonism. And although spirituality remains one of Dutcher's abiding concerns, he officially left the church last year. Nonetheless, in a frenzy of productivity right around the time of Dutcher's religious disconnect in 2004, he churned out screenplays for two more Mormon-themed movies: "States of Grace" (a harder-edged "semi-sequel" to "God's Army" that also follows LDS missionaries in L.A.) and the spiritually disquieting "Falling."

Released in 2005, "States of Grace" was greeted by mixed reviews and some outrage in the LDS community for what some felt was not an altogether positive depiction of Mormons -- buffeting Dutcher's reputation as the father of its cinematic vanguard.

"Richard became a local lightning rod because he accepted what might be called an ill-informed and premature title like the 'father of Mormon cinema,' " said filmmaker and Brigham Young University professor of media arts Thomas Russell. "He didn't make it up, nor did he ask for it, but I think he's also done little to distance himself from it."

That is, unless you take into account some of the more outré moments in his new movie. In addition to nudity, violence and coarse dialogue, you're unlikely to encounter in any other "Mormon film" -- R-rated or otherwise -- the amoral paparazzo protagonist Dutcher portrays in "Falling" hurls an F-bomb at God in a moment of despair and openly regrets having wasted 12 years of his life in the church.

To hear it from Dutcher's wife, Gwen, her husband's crisis of conscience added a layer of meta-narrative pathos to what is certainly one of the year's most self-excoriating performances. Then on top of his crisis of faith there were the vagaries of shooting a movie on a shoestring $500,000 budget.

"What you're seeing on his face is exhaustion and despair," she said. "It was excruciating. An unbelievably difficult time." Dutcher, who splits time between Los Angeles and Utah, parlayed his indie renown into writing and directing his most mainstream (and biggest budgeted) movie to date: the supernatural horror thriller "Evil Angel," which stars Ving Rhames and will hit theaters in 2009.

Despite its provocative handling of LDS faith, Dutcher insists "Falling" is, in effect, a Mormon movie insofar as its themes and imagery will be most meaningful to Latter-day Saints (never mind that, by default, they are embargoed from seeing an R-rated film). But then, doesn't that still make him a Mormon filmmaker?

"At the beginning, I was proud to say, 'Yeah, I'm a Mormon filmmaker' because then, I was defining what a Mormon filmmaker was," Dutcher said. "It quickly got completely out of my control. Now, no one wants to call themselves a Mormon filmmaker because you're associating yourself with a genre that's fallen into disrepute. It's like having porn on your résumé."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

VIFF: Sneak previews

Exciting! The latest of the VIFF press releases came out today, and they've started listing films. And there's a tantalizing little slideshow of some of the films they'll be screening at the films page.

Some disagreement on the VIFF website about when the free Sneak Preview Guide will become available at Rogers Video stores and online. The "Dates" page says Sep 3, the home page says Aug 30. In either case, the complete program, including the festival schedule, film descriptions and photos, goes online at Sep 6, with the comprehensive 200-page Program Catalogue available around town September 13. The festival itself is Sep 25 - Oct 10.

A few early whiffs of Soul Food wafting from the kitchen...

BIRDSONG – Albert Serra (Spain)
Albert Serra ( Honor de cavalleria VIFF 06) returns with this gorgeously shot re-telling of the Three Kings biblical odyssey. Serra's penchant for stunning vistas and his profound love of, and respect for, the awesome aspects of the natural world are paramount as he follows his three wise men over mountains and through deserts on their journey to Jesus. Note: we will also be presenting Waiting for Sancho — Mark Peranson's documentary about the making of Birdsong — at this year's VIFF.

THE ETERNITY MAN – Julien Temple (Australia)
When the word 'eternity' (written in white chalk and in beautifully flowing copperplate script) began showing up on buildings, sidewalks and bridges in Sydney, Australia, the mystery of its origins enthralled the entire city. Sisyphusean obsession, divine mystery, and the power of a single word combine to mesmeric effect in director Julian Temple (Absolute Beginners ) stunning film.

And another whose description doesn't suggest any particular spiritual emphasis, but comes from the director of DIVIDED WE FALL, ("In a war-torn village, one couple makes the ultimate sacrifice to save another"), in which a childless Christian couple hide a Jewish neighbour during WWII.
I AM GOOD – Jan Hrebejk (Czech Republic) International Premiere
Director Jan Hrebejk's new film is something of a departure from his previous work. In the early 90s, a motley collection of friends take on an organized crime ring when one of their pals is suckered in a card game. A light-hearted comedy that combines action, intrigue and a loving tip of the hat to the Newman/Redford classic The Sting.

And finally, with no write-up, just a photograph...

ADORATION (2008, Canada, Atom Egoyan)
Winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes (for movies that celebrate spiritual values). The story of a high school boy whose composition assignment about terrorism stirs family trauma when taken for fact on the internet.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Art Within: "Best representations of faith"

I'm happily (blissfully) working away on the proposal packet for my Soul Food Movies project, which my agent will shop around to publishers this fall. When I come up for air I'll post the new entries here, but for now, here's a fun list from the Art Within website.

At the fourth of their annual Symposium/Showcase events, participants were asked to share a clip that they felt was the best representation of faith in a film or television script. Quite the Soul Food buffet!

thirtysomething, "The Mike Van Dyke Show"
BOOMTOWN, episode 14
WEST WING, "The Two Cathedrals"

(Participants included Chris Hansen, Jack Gilbert, Gillette Elvgren, Buzz McLaughlin, Craig Detweiller, Claire Sera, Sean Gaffney, Kevin Miller, Jim Krueger, Aaron Wiederspahn and many others.)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

NOW PLAYING: Big & Small Screens

Ah, the dog days of summer, so called because it's the time when Hollywood unleashes nothing but dogs. But there are a few scraps in the big screen doggy dish, and plenty in the small screen pantry...

New on Vancouver screens is the latest revisitation of Evelyn Waugh's BRIDESHEAD REVISITED.  I've been wary of this one since reading a Daily Telegraph piece a good five years back, suggesting that Waugh's explicitly Christian intentions would likely be stripped by screenwriter Andrew Davies: "If God can be said to exist in my version, he would be the villain." Alas. Perhaps the Granada miniseries would have fewer of the Soul Food nutrients processed out? Videomatica's got it (of course).

SON OF RAMBOW revisits us at the Hollywood this week. Swell picture, though it's nearly as hard on the Plymouth Brethren as Davies' BRIDESHEAD is on the Catholics. Nevertheless it's a glorious portrait of boyhood friendship and the love of the movies, especially in the early going before it gets too plotty and a bit gimmicky. (It's also due on DVD Aug 26, but everything's always best on the big screen - especially at that time-capsule of an old movie house, The Hollywood).

Some other things worth seeing, but nothing I'm all that excited about, and nothing else with a particular Soul Food angle. So let's take a stroll over to the new release section at good old  Videomatica...

AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS (1988, France, Louis Malle)
"The Holocaust is a huge event that can only really be related one small story at a time, whether that story is of tragedy or miraculous survival. "Au Revoir Les Enfants" takes place in a Catholic boys school in occupied France, where young student Julien befriends a Jewish boy being hidden at the school by the instructors. This was Louis Malle's first film made in France after a long sojourn in Hollywood and it's a very personal story based on his own wartime reminiscences." Videomatica

BELLA (2006, Mexico, Alejandro Monteverde)
"Jose works as a chef at his uptight brother's New York restaurant, but it wasn't always so: once, he was a soccer star until a piece of ill fortune changed his fate. When his brother fires a waitress, Jose follows her to see if she's all right. The two of them embark on a journey around the city, revealing their past to one another and altering the way they see their futures. People's Choice Award, Toronto International Film Festival." Videomatica

IN BRUGES (2008, UK, Martin McDonagh)
"After botching a job in London, up-and-coming hitman Colin Farrell and old pro Brendan Gleeson are sent to the Belgian town of Bruges to await further instructions. Brendan loves the town - its canals, its medieval architecture, its Flemish art - but Colin can't wait to get back to London. "If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't." Colin's budding romance with a local Belgian girl isn't helped by his habit of punching people at classy restaurants, so he opts for a little relaxation with a coke-snorting dwarf. It's not long before the boss (Ralph Fiennes in full dirtbag gangster mode) pays them a visit... the kind of visit where you bring a gun. "In Bruges" is the feature directing debut of playwright Martin McDonagh." Videomatica

"Bruce Greenwood and Rebecca DeMornay star in this HBO series as Mitch and Cissy Yost, owners of a SoCal surf shop whose dysfunctional extended family is turned upside down by the arrival of John, a young man who appears to be mentally disabled... and who also manifests unusual paranormal abilities. Levitations and visions make the Yosts wonder if they've been smoking too much Californian weed; meanwhile, seemingly unrelated people and events seem to draw together into a web of interconnectedness." Videomatica

THE LAST SUPPER ("La Ultima Cena" 1976, Cuba, Tomas Gutierrez Alea)
"A slave owner named Don Manuel (Nelson Villagra) selects twelve of his lucky slaves to serve as apostles in his re-enactment of the Last Supper in which he, quite naturally, plays the role of Christ. Don Manuel is a clueless blowhard who envisions himself as a liberal thinker and is jealous of his slaves supposed "freedom to serve". At first, the awkward situation plays as pure absurdism. The drunker the master gets, the more outlandish his religious rantings become, but once Don Manuel becomes wasted, serious tension rears its ugly head. An audacious undertaking by one of Cuba´s greatest directors (best known for the 1968 film "Memories of Underdevelopment"), and based loosely on a real event from the 18th-century which existed only as a single paragraph in single history book." Videomatica

THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES (1987, Canada, Frederic Back)
"A lonely shepherd resolves to transform his arid, barren surroundings and works tirelessly to that end for years in this thirty-minute animated film from Frederic Back. The shepherd works for decades, through two world wars, sowing seeds and tending his field, until his patch of land becomes a beautiful verdant oasis with thousands of trees. This tale of renewal is adapted from the short story by Jean Giono and narrated by Christopher Plummer." Videomatica

THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (1982, Italy, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani)
Special Edition disk recently released "In Tuscany, August 10th is known as 'The Night of the Shooting Stars', a night when wishes come true. Watching the shooting stars with her young son, a woman recalls another August night in 1944 when she was only six years old. With her town occupied by Nazi and Fascist forces, the young girl took a chance and joined a brave group of villagers who dared to venture away from the "safe haven" of San Martino's Cathedral and try to make a difference. On this night when anything can happen, a young Italian girl learned that following her heart could save her life. VIFF selection." Videomatica

ONE PUNK UNDER GOD (2006, USA, Jeremy Simmons)
"Jay Bakker, the son of the infamous televangelists Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye, is a punk. He grew up in his parent's huge church, only to abandon it after his faith was shaken by his father's scandal. Now in his late twenties, he's started his own church, an "alternative" youth ministry that meets in bars and night-clubs, and a six part Sundance Channel reality TV series documents it. It's disarming to watch a religious leader wrestle so nakedly with his ambivalence over what path to follow, as Jay is simultaneously a shepherd to his oddball flock, and a lost little boy seeking his conservative father's love and approval." Videomatica

"Dramatizing a year in the life of northern Italian peasants at the turn of the century, Ermanno Olmi's THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS pays loving tribute to both the neo-realist style of filmmaking and a rural way of life that no longer exists. Hoping to create a better life for themselves, a poor family decide to send their young son to school despite the crushing sacrifice involved. When the boy's wooden clogs break on the long journey home, the seemingly minor incident sets into motion a series of tragedies that reverberate throughout the peasants' lives. Olmi's slice-of-life film--which he wrote, directed, shot, and edited--uses this central story as a launchpad to document, in moving detail, rural life under oppressive poverty. As the camera lingers patiently over women handwashing laundry on the banks of a river or farmers preparing a pig for slaughter, the quasi-documentary images transform these mundane tasks of peasant life into an almost sacramental epic of grace and beauty." Criterion
"As a movement, Italian neorealism was pretty much over by the mid-1950s, but as a style and an attitude toward reality, its influence spread to many other countries. A number of present-day Italian filmmakers have continued in the tradition of neorealism. For example, Olmi's movies are steeped in the values of Christian humanism. In this film, which was shot on authentic locations with nonprofessional players, he celebrates the everyday lives of several peasant families around 1900. For them, God is a living presence - a source of guidance, hope, and solace. Their faith is childlike, trusting, like that of St. Francis of Assisi. In a series of documentarylike vignettes, Olmi unfolds their gentle drama, extolling their patience, their tough stoicism, their dignity. Above all, he exalts the sacredness of the human spirit. For Olmi, they are the salt of the earth." Louis Giannetti / Jim Leach, "Understanding Movies"

WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY? (2007, USA, Rob VanAlkemade)
"Produced by Morgan "Super Size Me" Spurlock, "What Would Jesus Buy?" grew out of a 2006 Sundance Film Festival Jury Award short. Rob VanAlkemade’s documentary follows a pretend-reverend who rails against the rampant hyper-consumerism in rousing performances that often end with him being escorted away in handcuffs. Here he and his 40-strong "Stop Shopping Gospel Choir" let loose on a cross-country, Christmastime tour of performance venues, big-box stores, and malls.  Disrupting people simply trying to shop or have a cup of coffee is juvenile, but if the public is going to act like a baby, then it's gonna get treated like one. The calls here for reining back debt and demanding responsibility - from not only powerful corporations, but consumers as well - make a lot of sense." Videomatica

And one other recent Soul Food movie release that Videomatica hasn't picked up on yet...

MONSIEUR VINCENT (1947, France, Maurice Cloche)
"At last! Maurice Cloche's beautiful award-winning 1947 film Monsieur Vincent, starring Pierre Fresnay as St. Vincent de Paul, is coming to DVD on 7/15 from Lionsgate/StudioCanal. Monsieur Vincent won an honorary foreign-film Oscar in 1948 (it was a 1947 film but came to the US in 1948). Fresnay won best actor in Venice in 1947. The film was also nominated in the 1949 BAFTAs (best film from any source) and the 1950 Golden Globes ("best film promoting international understanding"). It's also one of the 1995 Vatican film list's 15 films in the Religion category -- and one of the last Vatican list films to become available on DVD. (Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp came to DVD in 2007, and Mallet's Au Revoir Les Enfants in 2006. With Monsieur Vincent now on DVD, I think the only remaining unavailable titles may be Buñuel's Nazarín and Gance's 1927 silent Napoléon, the Brownslow restoration of the latter being tragically withheld from U.S. audiences by rights issues.)" Steven D. Greydanus, Decent Films


THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES ("L'homme qui plantait des arbes," 1987, Canada, Frederic Back, story by Jean Giono)
When I think that one man, one body, and one spirit was enough to turn a desert into the land of Canaan, I find after all that a man's destiny can be truly wonderful. But when I consider the passionate determintation, the unfailing generosity of spirit it took to achieve this end, I'm filled with admiration for this old, unlearned peasant, who was able to complete a task worthy of God.

The simple story of Eleazard Bouffier, a shepherd who passes his days unnoticed, planting acorns in an arid, desolate highland in Provence, rendered by Canadian animator Frederic Back in what look like pencil crayon sketches come to life, an airy cinematic impressionism. There comes a moment when the curve of a treeless hilltop proves to be the brim of a man's hat. Another when unrelieved sparsities of brown and grey give way, at last, to richly exuberant colours: we hear of the death of the man's wife and son, played out before us in extreme simplicity, a still and sorrowful moment in a modern dance piece; then for a very long time we watch from a respectful distance as this solitary man painstakingly plants his seeds; only then, once it has been earned, does the screen finally blossom with colour. Back thinks like a cinematographer: one joyous sequence puts us in mind of a cheerful Tarkovsky, beginning with a close-up of the narrator's face, pulling back to reveal a man nodding to sleep on the bus seat in front of him, then tracking out the window to follow dogs running alongside as the bus makes its way down a dusty village road. When we hear of a grove of birches planted during the battle of Verdun, brilliant foliage bursts forth like artillery shells exploding on the barren earth.

This man's solitary task of planting acorns and envisioning oaks spans decades, and I was struck by the similarities between the labour we see so carefully depicted and the labour of the animator who depicts it: both are long, quiet obediences in the same direction. A perfect match of medium and story, all particularity and persistence.

"Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let not your hands be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well."

This quiet tree shepherd finds a particular quality of happiness in his single-minded, unhurried task, spanning decades, and there is something in his story that appeals especially to artists. As I work away in my little 120 seat basement theatre doing plays I care about – no empires to be built, no big splashes to be made, no worlds to take by storm – Eleazard Bouffier inspires me: he embodies an approach to the work that sustains me not only day to day, but over years. The only rewards that matter are intrinsic. You do it because it's there to do, because it seems like someone ought to do it, because you can. Because it's needed. Because you want to.

There is something deeply Christian in this man's humble persistence, in a life of quiet generosity that brings resurrection to "a dry and weary land where there is no water" – the narrator describes him as "one of God's athletes." But we can't ignore the narrator's other quiet insistence that this is the work, first and foremost, of a man: that Providence is not always provident, and that human creators may do more than mimic the Creator, they may outdo Him. Is there a soft-spoken hubris to this film? Is it up to man to restore what God neglects, to build a thing so well that Providence cannot destroy it?

This gentle film is never strident in putting forward its divine paradoxes, but such understated contrasts and contradictions give the film tremendous subtlety and complexity. Mostly is content to tell its simple story, leaving us to make what we will of this Mystery at the centre of all creative work, where God and Nature and Man weave their way together through an ancient, elegant, intricate dance that brings worlds into being.


Brideshead Revisited (2008)

Daily Telegraph, May 29 2003

Admirers of Evelyn Waugh will have doubts about Hollywood's intention of producing a major film adaptation of his novel Brideshead Revisited.

Granada's earlier film version was pretty faithful to the novel and a hit. The author of the new script warns us that he has a "darker, more heterosexual" approach to the story. Instead of Charles Ryder's relationship with Sebastian Flyte, he proposes to concentrate on the doomed love affair between Charles and Julia Flyte.

As someone who does not believe in religious themes as Waugh did, Andrew Davies explores how Roman Catholicism destroys their relationship and families. "If God can be said to exist in my version, he would be the villain."

When Hollywood takes a hand in a predominantly English story, we have learnt to be on our guard. We should be even more on our guard when a celebrated scriptwriter promises to give to a familiar story an interpretation fundamentally different from that of the original author.

In writing Brideshead, Waugh made his intention plain. His theme, he explained in a preface to later editions of the novel, was the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.

From the time of his conversion to Catholicism, and always aware of how his religion helped to counter his imperfections, Waugh was close to his Church and understood its nature. Julia's parting words with Charles are explicit: "But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean, starting a life with you, without him."

To interpret that as "destructive" is to stand Waugh's theme on its head. Brideshead Revisited without a virtuous God would be like Hamlet without the Prince.

Constantine's Sword

The references to JESUS CAMP and THE DAVINCI CODE are off-putting, but the pacifist in me is intrigued, and I'd never be one to let marketers and reviewers stand in the way of what might be an interesting film. 

New on DVD

James Carroll’s
An Astonishing Exploration of the Dark Side of Christianity

Available on DVD beginning September 16, 2008

CONSTANTINE'S SWORD is the latest film by Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby (Sister Rose's Passion) and is based on the best-selling book by James Carroll, a National Book Award winner and columnist for the Boston Globe. Carroll is a practicing Catholic whose search for the truth leads him to confront persecution and violence in the name of God – today and in the Church’s past. He discovers a terrible legacy that reverberates across the centuries: from the Emperor Constantine’s vision of the cross as a sword and symbol of power, to the rise of genocidal anti-Semitism, to modern day wars sparked by religious extremism.

At its heart, CONSTANTINE’S SWORD is a detective story, as Carroll journeys into his own past (his father was a U.S. Air Force General who helped prepare for nuclear war) and into the wider world, where he uncovers evidence of church-sanctioned violence against non-Christians. At the Air Force Academy, he and Jacoby expose how some evangelicals are proselytizing inside our country's armed forces and reveal the dangerous consequences of religious influence on American foreign policy.

Warning of what happens when military power and religious fervor are joined, this timely film asks the question: is the fanaticism that threatens the world today fueled by our own deeply held beliefs?

Director Oren Jacoby is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who has written, directed, and produced award-winning films for more than two decades. He has made documentaries for the BBC, ABC, HBO, PBS, National Geographic, VH-1, and NHK. His last film, “Sister Rose’s Passion”, was winner of Best Documentary Short at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival and was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award. He has also won CINE Golden Eagles, the Royal Television Society’s journalism award, and a MacArthur Golden Owl award.

CONSTANTINE’S SWORD features an extraordinary array of voicing talents, from Liev Schreiber and Natasha Richardson to Phillip Bosco and Eli Wallach. The music score is by the mulit-talented and award-winning composer Joel Goodman.

DVD Bonus Features: Introduction by Gabriel Byrne • Extended Scene & Outtake
• Director's Notes • Filmmaker Bios

“Enthralling! [Carroll] is an eloquent screen presence. The movie dives into the distant past for Mr. Carroll's alternative, shadow history of the Catholic Church.”
- Stephen Holden, THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Like The Da Vinci Code, it grasps at the enigmatic flux of Christian history.
Whatever your persuasion, you'll walk out enriched.”

“Engrossing and evocative!" - Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

“Astonishing!” - Jeffrey Lyons, NBC'S REEL TALK

“Provocative, searching, and intellectually lively!" - Jim Ridley, VILLAGE VOICE

“Magnificent, thought-provoking!” - Ronnie Scheib, VARIETY

“Fiercely eloquent." -Ty Burr, BOSTON GLOBE

"A blistering indictment of papal practices from Hitler's era through the present day. It is a film worth watching." -Erica Orden, NEW YORK SUN

“Exhilarating! Scarier than Jesus Camp (and infinitely smarter)."

“Eye-opening…moments that are simply amazing. James Carroll is a treasure and a marvelous teller of truths." - Eric Goldman, NJ JEWISH STANDARD

“A fascinating journey...that couldn't have come at a better time."

95 minutes, color & b/w, 2008
UPC #: 7-20229-91335-5 • Catalog #: FRF 913355D
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95 (U.S. & Canada)
Pre-book Date: August 12 • Street Date: September 16

For downloadable images and press notes go to: