Monday, September 08, 2008

Enjoying the Last Temptation-20 Years Late

Recently, I found myself flipping through the television channels around 10:30 one night. I happened upon the Indie Channel, which was broadcasting the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Since I had never seen it during the 20 years since it was been released, I figured I would watch it for a few minutes to see what the fuss was all about way back when it hit the theaters and caused such uproar.

Wow. The little I saw can only be described as powerful.

My memories of this release are vague, but I recollect letters to editors of papers and protestors, and I believe there even threats as well. I also remember Jewish viewers claiming it was excellent, while Christians were outraged, which, even at the time, I thought pretty odd. Now that I have seen at least part of it, I still shake my head in wonder. I honestly do not know how anyone can watch it and think there is anything inherently blasphemous about it. If anything, it makes the dry words taught at Sunday schools across the world convey a much deeper meaning than any teacher any could.

I was prepared for the blatant torture scenes, but the whole concept of the Angel of Mercy/Satan taking Jesus down from the cross and giving him the chance of a normal life was all new to me. I am not sure I understood the whole thing about his bedding Mary Magdalene and those 2 other women, but I get that he achieved what he wanted, and that was to lead a normal life, until his deathbed, when Judas pointed out that Jesus was a traitor for not fulfilling his fate. I thought it very interesting that the scene with Paul preaching about the death of Jesus and his resurrection was added; confusion and anger at hearing that brought the story more depth and reality, at least for me. The realization that Judas was right was oddly satisfying, as well, and the way the movie ended was appropriate. (However, I would not have used those colors and music in the fade-out. White or black, to me, would have been more appropriate.)

Regardless of your religious affiliation, you probably will have some reaction to this movie in terms of the sets, which are beautifully authentic. You can almost feel the heat of the desert and costumes. Some of the areas I did find jarring would be in the dialog and casting. Obviously, the movie would not have be made in Hebrew for a largely English-speaking version, but some of the phrases seemed just a bit too modern for that time. I am not entirely sure I would have cast Judas as this production did, and even the makeup and tattoo markings applied to Mary Magdalene did not appear right for the times. Plus, this is purely a personal view, but since it occurred in the area of the world where it did, I would think everyone would be much darker skinned and black haired than who constituted the main cast. Yet, that is all superficial, especially if one has taken the time to read the book. This story is more about human situations than if the proper costuming has been considered. Most will never notice that sort of thing anyway.

It often takes me awhile to catch up on movies that everyone is talking about, and this is no exception. The way I see it, we all get exposed to things when we are supposed to, when the time is right for us. Now, I do not know why my seeing it now is better than seeing it 20 years ago, but it does add a layer of sensitivity to my already layered knowledge of Judeo and Christian tenets. Yet, I keep in mind that it is still an entertainment value, and as such, is vulnerable to interpretation and focus. I may not like a lot of movies, and may question many director standards, but I think that Martin Scorsese did an excellent job of conveying humanity, ridicule and triumph. One purpose of aret is to be provocative and cause us to think and question, but all too often we forget that and just wish to have it tickle our problems away. The Last Temptation of Christ does that, and even better-it is mesmerizing.

Bridge to Where?

One day, my daughter decided that she wanted to see Bridge to Terabithia although, alhough, in her mind, it was for little kids. So we settled down to what I expected would be another predictable Disney fantasy. It turned out to be not so predictable.

First, I must confess that I had read nothing at all about this movie, and, as a rule, am not that excited by Disney productions overall. I will admit that I do believe they are usually wholesome, safe and mildly amusing, but with limited viewing time, I am apt to choose something a bit meatier. Bridge to Terabithia fit that description. It completely held my attention for the entire time, which the majority of movies and most television shows cannot claim. (Actually, if a show holds my interest until it is over, even if I have been working out the entire time, I consider it a better than average production.)

I am not saying that this movie totally wowed me, but it definitely moved me. From what I hear, it moved many people. Perhaps the main reason (and stop reading here if you have not seen it but are planning to do so) is that the main character dies with 45 minutes left to go. How Disney handled the death and the resulting situations was done very well, but that is not saying tears did not follow. It is impossible to not be saddened at the loss of life of a cute young girl whose innate intelligence and eccentricities separated her from all other kids except for her young male co-star-who, until that point, was also friendless. We can all relate to such feelings, but most of us did not have to deal of our best friend in fifth grade.

After viewing this movie, I read about an audience viewer who became highly upset that the movie disturbed her grandchildren. First, it is rated PG and not G, so that should have told them something. Second, if I was going to take a 5 year old, I would have checked it out first. This is a story about fantasy, and sense of magic, but both originate from the imaginations of the main character. What gives this movie an edge is that the surviving one matures enough to realize that he can use the gift of imagination to bring joy to someone else. It is very heartwarming and poignant, and thus very Disney.

Yet, the usual Disney stereotypes are present, such as the mean kids, the tough kid who finds a heart, the lovely teacher, and ridiculing siblings. Everything we have come to expect to clearly show children the distinct difference between black and white and good and bad. However, those predictable characters are not so superficial because the principle actors are mesmerizing and the supporting cast is larger than life. The main female character has a wardrobe that is quite different from the norm, but it suits her spunk. The little sister of the leading male tugs at every heartstring. You have to say this for Disney, they do recognize talented children actors when they find them. The setting is also exceptional, not quite your average woods but not totally photo-shopped, either. It is what you would expect of an average forest that has been enhanced by the imagination of an older child.

Bridge to Terabithia was filmed in 2006 in Auckland, New Zealand over a 10 week period, and included the rural forest areas of Riverhead and Puhoi. It was by based on the novel by Katherine Paterson, and was number two at the box office in the U.S. and Canada on its opening weekend. The son of the author, David L. Paterson, was also one of the producers and screenwriters. (He is noted on the dedication page, for his real life friend who was struck by lightning and killed when they were aged eight.) The film was a recipient of the F.I.L.M. award (Finding Inspiration in Literature and Movies) and the final film of Cinematographer Michael Chapman before his retirement.

I was surprised and glad to have seen it. I may even watch it again. If you want to take a walk into a world that you may not frequent, give Bridge to Terabithia a chance. But be warned that it is a tear-jerker for both happy and sad reasons.

Eastern Promises-Delivering what it promises

Some movies are considered chick flicks while others are more guy dramas. This movie definitely falls into the latter category. As a chick however, I must say that I liked it, which is more than I can say about many movies. But this is a very somber and violent movie, and if a gal is queasy, like me, there will be scenes that are quite difficult to watch. But what do you expect when a movie concerns criminal activities, revenge, and family honor?

This was filmed is some of the depressing places in London in 2007. From dreary, graffiti lined streets, to the constant rain, to scary and abandoned public areas, it is not a world in which most people would voluntarily enter. The lives of the main characters are not much better.

The head of a Russian organized crime family, Semyon (Academy Award nominee Armin Mueller-Stahl) is having problems with his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). It seems that Kirill is not satisfied with getting drunk daily and being disgustingly obnoxious; he has recently ordered hit men on former friends without consulting dad. Russian Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is hired to be the driver of the son, does a lot of dirty work for Kirill, like chopping fingers off dead bodies and dropping them into the river.

Meanwhile, Anna Khitrova (Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts), is a midwife who witnesses a young teenager dying while giving birth and leaving an orphaned daughter. Anna finds a Russian diary on the girl, and gives it to her uncle for translation. It turns out that the girl was impregnated from a rape involving Semyon while his son entrapped her. The two then kept her hostage for months. However, as fate would have it (of course, if it were not for this there would be no movie plot) Anna had already given a copy of the diary to Semyon, since he was mentioned by name, unknowing his profession. Once Semyon discovers there is proof of his fathering a child through statutory rape, and the holding of that minor against her will, he moves to eradicate the diary and uncle. Meanwhile, Kirill kidnaps the baby to kill her so there can be no proof of the crime for which his father was resonsible.

If, like most movie goers, you have the irrepressible faith that all ends well, in this case you are right again. It turns out that Luzhin is not just your average chauffeur and mobster; he is an undercover agent with plans on infiltrating the family to extinguish them. To do so, he must prove his loyalty, whatever that entails. Yet, he has a heart underneath the amazingly tough exterior. Instead of killing the uncle, he sends him into hiding. Instead of retaining information about the family of the dead victim, he gives it to Anna. And, instead of allowing Kirill to drown the baby, he stops him with the news that Kirill can be in charge, if Dad goes to prison. (Kirill, it is safe to say, does not have a warm relationship with his father, so this option looks good to him.) In the end, father and son both get sent away, and Luzhin finds himself exactly where he planned to be. The future of the mob is left up in the air, although the baby is much happier. She has been adopted by Anna.

This is one more of those situations where people, through no fault of their own, find themselves trapped by bizarre circumstances. The teenager crossing paths that of mob members, Anna finding the diary, the father controlling his son, the uncle and his innocent attempt to discover answers all ends up causing danger, pain and loss. If this movie says anything, it is along the line about the tangled web others weave.

That said, even with some subtitles, this complications of this movie are fairly easy to follow. However, the sex scenes, gruesome murders, and fight in which naked Luzhin gets repeatedly stabbed are not for everyone, especially children. It could be coincidental, but from the start of the movie, every scene is dark and gloomy, even though it is the height of the Christmas season. Yet, by the end, when the uncle has returned and the baby is safe, it is a lovely summer day. What else can better reflect good conquering evil?

This movie is worth watching if you believe in such an unshakable power.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Dark Knight

Review By Jason Schwartzman

The Dark Knight, the sequel to 2005's Batman Begins, has set a new precedent for what the comic book movie can be. It is dark, intense and fast, demanding the viewer's attention for the entirety of the film's two and a half hours. The movie is wholly superior to Tim Burton's heralded Batman (1989) and of course the Batman films that followed it, most notably Joel Schumacher's failed Batman and Robin (1997).

The Dark Knight builds on the success of Batman Begins, but goes in a different direction stylistically. Whereas Batman Begins was tight, focused and built around Christian Bale's Batman, The Dark Knight follows the path of it's iconic villain, The Joker. The movie is wide-open and wildly chaotic, just like the Clown Prince of Crime. Heath Ledger's Joker is a vast improvement over Jack Nicholson's. Ledger's Joker is genuinely scary. His twisted stories and freakish mannerisms overshadow Batman. Ledger's performance, his last completed work before his death, lives up to the hype, and even has inspired talk of a Best Supporting Actor nod. His unique characterization develops into perhaps the best villain since The Silence Of The Lamb's Hannibal Lector.

The plot picks up as The Joker is hired by various villains to assassinate Batman in order to protect their suddenly vulnerable money. Batman, however, finds a new ally in the DA, Harvey Dent, a man not accidentally labeled The White Knight of Gotham City. Dent is played by Aaron Eckhart, who offers the arrogance and the towering, intimidating presence required for the role that means to project a real alternative to Batman and vigilantism.

The common thread though is Ledger's Joker, who has no logical motivation and whose origin is a mystery lest you believe the sickening but contradictory tales he offers about how he receives his grotesque facial scars.

Other players include Batman and Dent's love interest, Rachel Dawes, played by an underwhelming Maggie Gyllenhal (replacing Katie Holmes) and two veterans of the first movie, the always solid Michael Caine and Gary Oldman as Alfred Pennyworth (the butler) and Officer Jim Gordon respectively. Morgan Freeman has a small, but strong role reprising Bruce Wayne's right hand man, Lucious Fox.

The film is just as much a crime drama as a superhero movie. It carries the heavy themes of chance, fate and entropy just as Batman Begins revolved around fear.

The action is nearly non-stop, the chase scenes breathtaking and the dialogue razor-sharp. This isn't George Clooney's forgettable caped crusader; this is Christian Bale's Dark Knight, developed not for young kids, but instead an older, more intelligent audience.

In the wake of almost unimaginable hype, The Dark Knight does not disappoint.

Submitted Via Our Submit A Review Page.