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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Goodfellas Meets Wall Street: Explicit Sex, Mind-Numbing Drugs, Gobs of Money, and Endless Expletives
When I saw "Good Fellas" during its initial release in 1990, I thought I had seen the goriest violence (outside of a horror film) and linguistically filthiest language I had ever witnessed in a film. While "The Wolf of Wall Street" was not as graphic in the violence department, it makes "Good Fellas" seem tame in the language department. Also, the sex scenes are so over-the-top and explicit, this film probably would have garnered an X-rating a few decades ago. It was almost too much, but luckily the story was compelling enough and the excellent performances by Leonard DiCaprio and Jonah Hill convincing enough that it still works fairly well as satisfying cinema.
The film centers around true-to-life penny-stocks trader Jordan Belfort played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his associate Donnie Azoff (Johan Hill) and how they built a multi-million dollar penny-stocks mini-empire which not only violated SEC rules of trading but engaged in securities fraud and money laundering. In typical Scorsese style, the story begins with the voice-over of Belfort, telling his story about eight years of his life in penny stocks trading and eventual securities fraud through his firm Stratton Oakmont from circa 1988 to 1995. Four things seem to drive Belfort: endless sex, gobs of money, constant drug-induced highs, and the endless spewing of expletives.
Belfort begins his story by telling us about the wealth he has achieved engaging in penny-stocks trading. He has a beautiful wife, a beautiful home, a beautiful car (not red but white) and endless amounts of cash in the bank. He can also have his way with just about any woman he desires, and he does, despite the fact he's married to a beautiful model who has family connections to English/British royalty. He seems to have it all, but it wasn't always this way. Time rewinds to the late 1980's when he was married to a different woman while renting an apartment in New York and gets his first position at a stock broker firm. There he meets Mark Hanna (Michael McConaughey) who explains the rules of the game: solitary vices, sex, and getting as much money as possible from clients. This firm sells respectful grade-A stocks to wealthy shareholders. Shortly thereafter, the firm busts as a result of the infamous "Black Monday" crash of 1987.
Belfort then becomes part of a firm trading in penny stocks, worthless low-trading stocks which may or may not have tremendous investment potential. He trades in a so-called "boiler room", a place usually in a low-rent district which sells penny and risky investments to lower-end investors. The one upside is brokers of penny stocks earn a 50% commission than the usual 1% offered at respected brokerage firms. Then an idea occurs to him: what if they can trick higher-end traders to buy the many penny stocks? They'll trade the high-end stocks to higher-income investors, gain their trust, and then manipulate them into buying thousands of shares of penny stocks, i.e. worthless investments.
Donnie Azoff (i.e. Danny Porush) played by Jonah Hill, a neighbor in Belfort's apartment complex asks to be in the business and eventually becomes an important partner in the firm. They rename it Stratton Oakmont Inc. to sound more official and legitimate. The firm grows as a result which leads to an exposé in Forbes Magazine where the article labels him "The Wolf of Wall Street". As the money grows, so does Belfort's desires for more money, more sex, and more Methaqualone, or Quaaludes. And so does his need to use more expletives in practically every other word he utters. The story forms an arc about how he keeps gaining more and more, climbing higher and higher, but simultaneously digging himself a deeper in which to take a huge fall.
So many of the Scorsese devices are present in this film: the voice-over (as mentioned), introductions and short biographies of the major characters, in this case those working at the firm, the height of the characters' successes, all leading towards the climax in which authorities eventually enter the picture. The entire form and arc of the story closely resembles "Good Fellas" and "Casino". I would almost rate the film a "5", but it gets a "4", not because of what it leaves out but for having too much other things. I thought the many sex scenes and endless expletives became overwhelming. They started to detract from the main thrust of the story. There were parts where I wanted to understand better their financial schemes and see less of the sex. Also, Belfort engages in many speeches to his traders, some of which were too long-winded. Whenever the characters enjoy a major success, there would be along speech followed by a huge party and orgy-fest with lots of explicit sex bordering on pornography. I think once or twice would have been plenty, but the parties and orgies are so numerous I lost count. Still a compelling film with an outstanding performance by DiCaprio and honorable mention to Jonah Hill.
Der Untergang (2004)
The Crumbling of the Reich During Its Last Days from Hitler's Bunker: The Ideology Was More Difficult to Topple than Germany's Armies
According to the events of the film, which I assume are mostly accurate with some liberal aspects for cinematic effect, the ideology of the Nazi regime took much longer and was far more difficult to crumble than the buildings, infrastructure and military operations of the Third Reich. This film not only takes the viewer inside the bunker where Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in late April, 1945, it takes us inside the heads of the most loyal Nazis. And what we learn about these people is as terrifying in many ways as what the Nazis did to millions of people across Europe outside the confines of Hitler's final residence.
The structure begins and ends with an interview as cinematic bookends. A real-life survivor of the Reich who had been one of Hitler's private secretaries during the final years of the Third Reich, Traudl Junge, appears on screen. Now an old woman, she describes how she was enthralled to receive the opportunity to become a member of Hitler's inner circle. At the end, she alludes to the fact she didn't think for herself.
The narrative scenes begin in 1942 with Traudl Junge among a group of aspiring young women wishing to work for Adolph Hitler (Bruno Ganz), dictator and self-proclaimed savior of Germany. Not surprising, Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is chosen for the job by the Führer himself. Then the film cuts to April 20, 1945, Hitler's 56th birthday. It's inevitable to everyone involved that not only is Germany going to lose the war against the allies, but Berlin is only days away from being taken by the Russian Army. Hitler's inner circle, including Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, insist that it's time for him, Eva Braun, and the rest of his inner circle to evacuate Berlin. Hitler refuses, claiming it would be a sign of cowardice and surrender. Before going underground, he awards Iron Crosses to members of "Hitler's Youth". Then he moves his operation into an underground bunker where he and his closest associates will try to keep the Reich together during its final days.
The events which transpire in this film are some of the most disturbing and devastating as any film about World War II and the Reich I've ever seen. While all the residents of the bunker, save the children of Goebbels, know the war and the Reich are coming to an anti-climactic but tragic end, they cling to their ideology like moths in front of a lighted bug zapper. They must have known in their heart-of-hearts that this was not going to end in their favor. However, they can't imagine life without the Reich and their Führer. He had become the acknowledged decision-maker, philosopher, and thinker for the entire country. In several scenes, the people around him acknowledge over and over again that only Hitler can make the decisions, no one else. And if they question him, or, God forbid, refuse his orders, they are labeled traitors, even in the face of impending destruction.
Barely a week and a half before Hitler and Eva Braun will commit suicide, Hitler is still barking orders, arresting wayward soldiers, and sentencing perceived traitorous officers and AWOL soldiers to death, as if he is still in charge of his country, even though the allies have by now taken most of Germany, and the Russians are on the outskirts of Berlin, a few kilometers away. He rants and raves to the highest officers in his command, chastising them for not winning the war. He instructs his officers to mobilize army units in other parts of the country, even though they have all been defeated by the allies. He continues with his maps and strategies, like a chess player contemplating his next move, even though his king has been surrounded and near checkmate. However, surrender is beyond him, even at the price of more killing and destruction. The real eye-opener is not that Hitler wouldn't let go of his ideology, but those around him couldn't bring themselves to stop following his orders.
In his final days and hours, according the film, Hitler never wavered from his ultimate ideology, even though the ideology itself is what led to the final demise of the Reich. His ideology for Germany was relatively simple: a national socialist government in which Hitler himself is absolute ruler without question or pause, and ethnic minorities, particularly Jews, Poles, and Gypsies have no place and must be swept aside. These ideas proved immoral and ruinous.
It's not surprising that Hitler failed to see his ideology not only meant the destruction of Europe and the deaths and suffering of millions, but it also meant the near destruction of Germany itself. What is surprising is that those around him couldn't see passed Hitler's madness. During many scenes, high-ranking members of his inner circle could have refused his orders to save the German people, but they did not. They were so hypnotized by his rhetoric and ideology they had no concept to believe they could make decisions to save Germany and deny the Führer his power. Most follow him to the very end, and the price some of them pay for this loyalty is almost unimaginable. Goebbels's wife in a moving scene breaks down because she can't bear the thought of the country being without its socialist ideology and dictator.
The tragedy of Germany and those most loyal to him and the Nazi cause was a blind refusal to see how their ideology was self-destructive rather than life-affirming. They believed in one leader who would do all the thinking for them and therefore they couldn't and shouldn't think for themselves. Such a tragedy that that leader happened to be Adolph Hitler. At one point, Goebbels says he has no sympathy for the country, since it was the country itself which allowed these madmen into power in the first place.
Possibly the Best First-Time Superhero Film Since Reeve's Superman of the 70's
The first time an iconic superhero flies across the big screen in his (or her) tights, cape and/or mask, the end product often has mixed results. The bar was set pretty high with the first "Superman" film starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, and Gene Hackman, still probably the finest superhero film ever produced. The first "Batman" film, directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker had problems, some wonderful moments in between lagging scenes. (Some people have called "Batman" the best mediocre film ever produced! Or is it the most mediocre film among good ones?) Either way, the end result may or may not hit the mark. Luckily, especially for fans of the original comic book, the first Spider-man film, based on the character created by Stan Lee, works on a level towards the original Superman film.
When you boil down the raw elements needed to create a good film, you need three things: a good premise, good actors, and a good screenplay. And let's not under-appreciate the last one. While a good screenplay still may save mediocre acting, often the opposite isn't true. In Spider-man, all three are present in spades. Let's look at them in terms of how they are portrayed in the current film.
The Premise. Well, the premise must be a good one because, since its inception in the 1960's, Spider-man has become one of the most important comic heroes alongside Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. However, Lee brought a bit of a twist to the character. Like other superhero characters who have some magic-like abilities, in this case the abilities of a spider inside a human body, Spider-man's alter-ego, Peter Parker is a troubled adolescent suffering from the typical angst of all young people around that age. Unlike Superman, Parker is still finding out where he fits in. In terms of the present film, the original premise, although updated slightly for the 21st century, is still adhered to. Parker/Spider-man is an angst-ridden kid, loving a faraway female, trying to navigate school, and dealing with bullies.
The Acting. The acting takes us right into the heads of the three most important characters: Spider-man/Peter Parker (Toby Maguire), the Green Goblin/Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), and Mary Jane Watson, a.k.a. MJ, (Kirsten Dunst). Maguire offers both the angst-riddled teen and the resolved superhero. I particularly appreciated the way he was portrayed in the film. Not a bad-looking kid but not a GQ cover model either. He's rather nerdy, a science wiz, like Lee had envisioned him, but not the best at getting dates. The absolute stand-out is Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin/Mr Osborne. Character actors like Dafoe, similar to Gene Hackman as Lex Luther, are the best suited to play villains. Dafoe is terrific as a kind of Marvel equivalent of Two-Face, having two sides to him. On one had he's the upper-crust businessman who's tough but confident. However, the other side, the Green Goblin side, emerges and confronts the "waking" self. He becomes a kind of split personality that few actors can pull off, and the scenes in which the two sides speak to one another are entirely believable. Also honorable mention to Dunst who is a very attractive high school girl but certainly not someone who will be entering teen beauty pageants. She attracts the likes of Peter Parker at a very human level.
The screenplay, probably the most important ingredient, works well, and much better than the Keaton/Burton "Batman". Parker is a typical high school kid just trying to navigate through school, being cared for by his adoptive uncle and aunt since the death of his parents. Then a strange circumstance changes his life: he's bitten by a radioactive spider which gives him spider-like abilities. A nice series of sequences shows him testing his new-found talents. At first Parker uses them to earn money in trashy athletic events, but then he switches gears and decides to use them to combat evil. Certainly we know this will be Spider-man's calling but a conversation with his uncle puts him on track, reminiscent of Brando as Superman's father.
On another front, the father of a friend of Parker's, Norman Osborne, is head of a tech company testing a machine which would improve human metabolism in soldiers, probably for the military, a bit like Captain America. Osborne built the company, but now the board of directors are selling the company out from under him. He retaliates by testing the metabolic-altering machine on himself and hence a different side emerges after the experiment. Simultaneously, there's Mary Jane, the distant love of Parker, who knows he exists but is dating a much more athletic and popular guy at school. Eventually, these three stories clash in a wonderful and believable climax. Parker becoming a crime-fighting disguised hero, Osborne becoming an adversary of Spider-man, and Dunst caught in the middle.
The story is about transformations. All three characters undergo transformation during the course of the story. Not all seem to relish this transformation and none of them understand fully what it means. Some of them embrace the transformation more than others, but in the end it's unclear whether or not the characters are better for what has happened to them. Two survive the transformation while another doesn't. And that's the mark of a great story: when what seems the inevitable outcome isn't quite what the characters and the audience foresaw. Ultimately, it comes down to caring about the characters and what transpires which evolves them into something else, be they heroic or villainous. Maybe that's the problem with many superhero films, the filmmakers forget that we need to be reminded to care about them, not just be awe-struck when they fly around.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Strangely Maybe the Best Fictional Sports Film of All-Time
While "Rocky" was about an athlete overcoming obstacles to pursue a dream, "The Natural" centered on an older man's comeback in professional sports, and "Jerry McGuire" told a story of transcendence between a sports agent and his fiery unpredictable client, "The Bad News Bears" focused much more on organic down-to-earth issues. Aside from films derived from real-life true stories, such as "42", "Hoosiers", and "Rudy", "The Bad News Bears" may be the most poignant fictional sports film ever produced. "The Bears" deals with prejudice, inequality, injustice, racism, and obsession, on one hand, while simultaneously searching and finding acceptance, bridge-building, and determination. Yet, the characters and setting are so real, the dialog so true-to-life, you don't realize you're being offered these larger ideas. They just emerge from the plight of the characters. Who knows whether or not the filmmakers were setting out to make a social statement, but they did which is the mark of a truly great story.
The essential plot is pretty basic. A group of junior high school age baseball players are thrown together to play on a team called "The Bears". They only have one thing in common: they are, for the most part, terrible. They can't pitch, they can't bat, and they can't field. Walter Matthau, in one of his best performances since "The Odd Couple", plays Morris Buttermaker, a swimming pool cleaner who is asked by a City Councilman to coach this team of athletically challenged misfits. The Councilman had filed a lawsuit against the city because the Little League was excluding players with less ability, and the Bears team was the city's "restitution", allowing less-skilled kids a chance to play the game.
What makes the film as good as it is has to do with the characters of the players as much as Matthau as Buttermaker. These kids were literally ripped right out of reality, and seem so similar to the kids I played with when I was of junior high age that it's almost scary. I can't name them all, but I offer a few of the ones which stick in my mind. In no particular oder: Toby, son of the councilman, who's probably the most vocal of the kids, Ogilvie, the most intellectual of the boys but not the best player, Amanda, their best pitcher and the only female in the league, Kelly, the trouble-maker who smokes and rides a Harley but is an amazing outfielder and hitter, Tanner, my favorite character, the shortest but craziest of the team who would give Napoleon Bonaparte a run for his money when he takes on the entire 7th grade. He defends Lupus against some bullies at one point in the film. Lupus is perhaps the worst player on the team and shows little knowledge of social decorum. At first Tanner and the others are put-off by Lupus, but at one point the team appreciates him.
At first, there seems little hope for this group of unskilled oddballs when they're slaughtered during their first game. However, as the film progresses we learn more about the characters and how they start to pull for one another. Several of the Bears are either dismissed or harassed at various moments in the story, and the teammates begin to learn to stick up for one another, both on and off the field. As a result they slowly begin to play better. Even Buttermaker changes during the story. At first he's not the best coach, but he starts to see things in his players the other teams around the league don't see. We also witness the obsession and over-zealousness of the parents, whose attitude becomes more about the kids winning than simply experiencing the game. In the climactic final game, Buttermaker makes a realization which is as profound as any in sports films of this type.
This is just an incredible story which says much more about modern culture, particularly about young people, then it may have set out to do. The dialog seems like it was derived right out of a junior high school baseball diamond. While most child characters speak dialog which is unrelated to their age and experience, the script of the Bad News Bears must have come from the mouths of babes, literally. I imagine the screenwriters must have spent time at actual Little League games and written down the dialog. The ending is one of the best in all of sports films, and it is not only completely believable but it fits with the rhetoric of the entire film. An absolute breath of fresh air, especially if you're tired of those fictional sports films where you can guess the outcome.
Slightly Better than the Shroud of Turrin Episode But There are Still Historical Problems
During the 16th-century Reformation, Protestants, who were against relics and icons, often said there were enough pieces of the "true cross" to build Rome, or as Erasmus famously remarked "...if all the fragments (of the true cross) were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship!" No question, many churches around Europe and the Near-East from the Middle Ages onwards have claimed to have pieces of the "true cross", meaning the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. (Why this is regarded as the "true cross" as opposed to the many other crosses used by the Romans to execute criminals is a question which is not addressed, but we'll leave that for a later discussion.)
This installment of CNN's "Finding Jesus" tells the legend of how Christian traditions developed in which it was believed fragments of the true cross came to reside in churches in Europe, often places of pilgrimage for the faithful. Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and went on a pilgrimage to Palestine to find relics connected to early Christianity. By this time, Christianity was about 300 years old. In Jerusalem, the city of Jesus' final ministry and death (and by tradition, the place of his resurrection), Helena was told by a local that Jesus' cross was there and he knew where it was located. After she had him tortured to reveal his knowledge, he brought her to the location. Apparently, Helena then dug up three crosses and supposedly identified them as the ones used during the execution of Jesus and two other criminals. She supposedly identified the one belonging to Jesus. She broke the cross into pieces and gave the fragments to different people to be taken to different parts of the Near-East. These fragments then became holy relics in different churches in which they were incorporated into artistic treasures to be venerated.
Now while the story itself is fine as relating Christian tradition, there are many problems with the story at face value. Firstly, the traditional tale and the CNN documentary fail to note an important aspect of crucifixion, which may have not been known to Helena during her time since crucifixion had been outlawed by Constantine. Many aspects of how the Romans carried out crucifixion is not reflected accurately in most depictions of Jesus' Passion in art, medieval and/or otherwise.
Despite Christian visual tradition, such as the images found in the "Stations of the Cross", convicts to be crucified did not actually carry entire crosses, complete with upright and crossbeam. These would have been far too heavy for any individual to bear, despite the phrase "cross to bear". The uprights were already in place at the location of execution, usually near the entrance to the city as a warning. Convicts carried the crossbeams only. When they came to the place of execution, they were affixed to the crossbeam and hoisted onto the uprights as a kind of horrific advertisement to deter any future criminals and/or rabble-rousers. Films showing the entire cross being hoisted up with Jesus upon it is now known not to be accurate. And, there were certainly more than three uprights present when Jesus was executed. In point of fact, many uprights would have been at Golgotha, not just three, even though only three many have been used when Jesus was crucified along with two other convicts. Probably the most accurate depiction of Jesus' execution is in the television miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" which shows Jesus carrying the crossbeam through Jerusalem before being hoisted upon the uprights. Still a ghastly and horrific way to die.
Historically, it makes no sense that Helena would have found "three crosses" in Jerusalem in the 4th century which would have been crucifixion crosses. For one thing, crossbeams were reused for future crucifixions, and again, many uprights would have been present, even if none or few were actually being used at a particular time. The likelihood she found even the actual upright used for Jesus execution would be less than finding the dollar coin supposedly thrown by George Washington across the Potomac! While she may have found a long piece of wood, equivalent to a 4x4, attached to a crossbeam, it is highly unlikely if not impossible that this could be the "true cross" for the reasons just mentioned. Just like today, uprights and crossbeams were used for many structures in antiquity, not just crucifixion. My guess is she found some wooden crosses of some sort, and since they fit in with the gospel account that Jesus was executed along with two other criminals, she convinced herself this was the cross of Jesus. To commemorate the spot where she found the crosses, she commissioned a church to be built, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is probably true.
During the episode, interspersed between Helena's story is the recent carbon-dating of some wood attached to a relic believed by tradition to be a fragment of the true cross residing at a European Church. The Pope at the time donated the fragment to the church circa 1200, and a special ornate cross was forged with wood of the true cross visible. The understanding of all parties involved was that the wood had been part of the "true cross" of Jesus. Unfortunately, for traditionalists, carbon-dating revealed the date of the wood to be circa 1100-1250, not old enough to be from Antiquity. The Pope had simply donated a piece of wood which had begun its decay around the same time, claiming it was part of the true cross. So far, no artifact which has traditional claims to be directly linked to Jesus has ever been proved to be true. The Shroud has not, and more recently, the supposed ossuary of James, brother of Jesus, has not. Faith and religious imagination are one thing, but using religious mythology as a way to make historical claims usually doesn't work.
The Maze Runner (2014)
Hunger Games Meets Lord of the Flies: A Solid SF-Action Film with Interesting Characters
In most films of the SF-Action variety, there's typically good action sequences and effects at the expense of good character development and convincing acting. "The Matrix", "2012", and "Man of Steel" come to mind. Or, the reverse: the film has good characters via solid acting, but the pace can't keep up with a snail so the action sequences are comprised and the story doesn't move along at a brisk enough pace. "Interstellar", "Prometheus", and "Oblivion" are ones which come to mind in this category. Few films achieve both ends, such as "Star Wars IV and V", the original "Alien", "Blade Runner", and more recently "The Hunger Games". Amazingly (no pun intended), "Maze Runner" has a terrific balance of character and action. In fact, the whole film would have failed miserably if there weren't fine acting inside the skins of compelling and believable characters. And there has to be enough action for the audience to understand the dilemma of the characters. "Maze Runner" equalizes both quite nicely, seemingly effortlessly.
Thomas, who doesn't know who he is because his memory has been wiped clean, is transported via a lift into a self-contained village within a small glade surrounded by huge walls on all sides. On one side, the walls have large doors which periodically open and close into a maze. The village-society is comprised of a few dozen males from age 12 to 27 but there are no "adults" over 30 and no females. They have structured their society such that different people engage in different tasks by day and then have ceremonial feasts and games by night. Supplies are also periodically provided through the same lift in which newcomers to the village arrive. However most of them have a sense they need to escape the glade through the maze, but not all the members have signed on to this idea.
A selected group of athletic villagers are "maze runners" who explore the maze and report back to the village with their findings before the doors close towards the end of the day. However, there are two challenges to the maze. First, while its doors are closed, the maze shifts every night, and second, there are "grievers", horrid creatures which are a cross between ALIEN and former Vice President Dick Cheney, which stalk humans inside the maze. If the maze is the way out, they have to make their escape before being swallowed and/or stung by the grievers. The villagers also wonder who created the maze and why, and why are the grievers there? As the story progresses, some of the maze runner realize there are hidden clues about escaping the maze.
The political structure is led by Alby, an African-American who is the wise leader of the village, and the first to arrive in the glade three years before the events of the story. Gally is a kind of second-in-command determined to take the leadership after Alby is incapacitated in the wake of having been stung by a griever. Newt is the leader of the maze runners, and Minho is one of the best runners. When Thomas, a "greenie" (a.k.a. a newcomer), becomes enthralled with exploring the maze when he's not officially a runner, Gally becomes enraged and desires the society punish Thomas and prohibit him from further running in the maze. What works well is not only the dilemma posed by the maze itself but also the power struggle between Thomas, who represents new hope in conquering the maze, and Gally, who represents the status-quo which may or may not wish to leave the village-glade. Then an unexpected "greenie" arrives to further shake up the delicate structure of the village.
Overall a very satisfying and interesting film. The character conflicts and action sequences are juggled well. At every moment, the viewer is pulled into the story without a shred of insight into what will transpire next. A few unexpected twists and turns occur which in retrospect make the story work on all levels. This is the goal of most action-SF films: to keep the viewer wanting to know what will happen next without being certain what will transpire while simultaneously caring about what happens to the characters involved. Weakness on either end can result in a mediocre experience, but luckily "Maze Runner" delivers on both fronts. Well done.
Very Unique Demonstration of the Gospel Parables Through Off-Broadway Theater
If you turned to a channel broadcasting "Godspell", and you had never seen it before, it might take you a few minutes to understand what is going on. This is exactly how I was introduced to Godspell back in the 1980's. At first glance, "Godspell" might appear like some crazy sequel to "Hair", involving young actors in hippie-like garb dancing and singing around New York. The original was a university thesis project in which the Gospel parables and some of the narrative story of Jesus of Nazareth are presented in a style conducive to New York improv theater. The original was predominantly improv-like acting with a few songs. Eventually, Stephen Schwartz entered the picture and added songs creating a musical, and it became an off-Broadway hit musical 1971-72. This film adaption was produced shortly thereafter in 1973 with some song changes.
Unlike its counterpart "Jesus Christ Superstar" with which it has been endlessly compared, "Godspell" is less about the story and controversy of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and more a demonstration of select parables with a little bit of Jesus' narrative story at the beginning and the end. The original concept and subsequent plays and musicals were the brainchild of John-Michael Tebelak designed to speak to the crowd of college-age youth of the 1960's and early 70's about aspects of the gospels. "Godspell" is a "hip" alternative to the rather stuffy sermons orated by many-an Evangelical pastor since the 19th century, using vaudeville-like and silent-film pantomime and improvisation to demonstrate many of the parables.
The film begins with a voice singing "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord", and the characters who will become "the disciples" leave their respective places of work in New York (somewhat similar to the accounts in the Bible) and follow the voice. Interesting to note, in this interpretation there are males, females, African-Americans, even a Latino or two among the disciples, unlike other presentations in which these characters are often played by Whites of European descent. They come to a fountain in Central Park where the original singer, representing John the Baptist (David Haskell) in the River Jordan, is the "caller". They splash around in elation, now all singing "Prepare Ye...", which represents the baptisms. In the distance, a lone figure in curly hair appears in the distance. After the disciples run off, he comes over, receives John's baptism, and then dons suspenders and a shirt with a Superman-like "S" on the front. It becomes obvious this character represents Jesus (Victor Garber).
The characters then demonstrate the different parables. Only in a few scenes are parts of the life of Jesus acted out, such as Jesus' Baptism, the overturning of the moneychangers' tables, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Interestingly, the events depicted in "Godspell" as if happening in Central Park by hippies are corroborated by scholars as being most likely historically true. Most of the songs are quite memorable, with the stand-out being "By My Side" (the only one not by Schwartz) which leads into the final sequence of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The most memorable sequence is probably the Cruifixion in which Haskell who played the Baptist at the beginning now plays Judas Iscariot. Jesus and the disciples sing the Finale: "God I'm Bleeding". The film ends with "Long Live God" counterpointed with "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord".
A very remarkable film and experience. While the rhetoric is certainly derived as a faith-inspiring experience rather than historical controversy, such as in "Jesus Christ Superstar", I find the whole concept and execution of "Godspell" surprisingly moving. It never comes off preachy. It presents the story and parables as a series of vignettes which quickly make their points before moving onto the next one. Each character representing each of the disciples has their own eccentricity. One of which always makes me simultaneously happy and sad is a young woman with a little puppet. Jesus says good bye to both during the Last Supper sequence. If you're seeking a faithful rendition of one of the Gospel Accounts, this won't be for you, but if you're open to a different take on the New Testament, you'll feel inspired by the end.
The Ninth Gate (1999)
Underrated Horror Film Which Also Explores the World of Antiquarian Books
Supernatural horror and antiquarian books have interesting overlaps. There is something mystical about ancient and medieval books, especially those with covers which look like medieval doors, potentially unlocking mysteries within. For many centuries, books were regarded as far beyond mere utilitarian objects for the transmission of information. They were seen as carriers of secret wisdom of the ancients and even powerful transmitters of taboo knowledge. The Book of Kells, produced in the 8th century, was regarded as a holy item with divine power. "The Ninth Gate" fuses the world of antiquarian books within the genre of supernatural horror.
Loosely based on Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel "The Club Dumas", the story concerns Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), an amoral book scout and dealer who trades in antiquarian books, predominantly those printed prior to 1800. These tomes are quite distinct from the modern hardcover editions published today in millions of copies. Each copy of an antiquarian book produced pre-1800 had to be hand-printed on presses and hand-bound. They are found in leather and vellum bindings, some of them commissioned by the nobility. The paper used in older books is of a superior quality than today, making them desirable to a number of eclectic collectors willing to pay large sums to acquire these treasures. Corso, often using deceitful tactics which would make used car salesmen seem like saints, attains these items and resells them for hefty sums to moneyed albeit eccentric collectors. In an early scene, Corso over-appraises a rare book collection (called high-balling) in order to attain a sought-after set for cheap. (For those of you who know about antiquarian books, the set is actually the so-called "Ibara Don Quixote", printed in 1780. Although not a first edition, the Ibara Don Quixote is regarded as the finest edition of Cervantes' novel ever published, with engravings by the best artist of Spain at the time.)
Corso is then hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), an eccentric scholar and high-end book collector obsessed with the supernatural, the occult, and the underworld. (It is not uncommon for wealthier book collectors to hire book scouts as agents to find particular editions.) Balkan reveals to Corso his rare book collection which has an interesting focus: antiquarian books whose subject is the Devil. However aside from the many hundreds of volumes of books in leather and vellum, there is one recent acquisition which is Balkan's prized possession: a particular 17th-century book called "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows". According to Balkan, "The Nine Gates" is a book of spells written by the Devil himself, and if used correctly can be used to summon the Devil in person. The book was printed in 1666 (of course) and features medieval-like woodcut engravings on nine of its pages preceding each of its chapters or "gates". Only three known copies are extent, according to Balkan, and he wants Corso to tract down the other copies in antiquarian libraries in Europe. (Unlike the Ibara Don Quixote, "The Nine Gates" is not a real 17th century book, as far as I know.)
So begins a suspense-thriller in which antiquarian libraries and supernatural horror become unlikely bedfellows. During Corso's travels, he meets eccentric characters whose only commonality is their love for ancient, medieval and renaissance books. Shortly after Corso accepts Balkan's assignment, the widow of the man who owned The Nine Gates makes an unexpected call, wanting the book back, claiming her husband would never have sold it to Balkan. There are Spanish twins who repair and sell such books, often allowing their cigarette ash to fall on the covers of books hundreds of years old. He encounters a collector who views his books like children. And there's a wheel-chair bound old woman who takes an immediate disliking towards Corso, questioning his intentions.
This film may be the only one of its kind in cinema to tour the world of antiquarian books and their corresponding collections. Differences between copies from the same edition, called states, are also explored, a detail of book collecting which may not have ever been demonstrated in another film in English. While art collectors, collections, and heists receive far more cinematic treatment, antiquarian books and collectors exist underneath the radar. Certainly not for all tastes, and only about 50% of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel, "The Ninth Gate" is still a fun fresh horror-suspense thriller and not to be missed if you're a bibliophile. If you also like horror books, this film is definitely a treat in its original first edition.
God's Not Dead (2014)
Interesting Premise Wasted on Stereotypes, Melodrama and Religious Propaganda
I'll preface this review by saying when I saw some of the trailers, I found the premise of the film somewhat interesting: a student challenging a professor about the existence of God. However, the problem with this film is less about its core premise and more about its nearly insufferable rhetoric which overtakes much of the story. The first sign of trouble occurs at the very beginning. In "God is not Dead", at fictional Hadleigh University, Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) insists in an introductory philosophy class his students sign a statement which unequivocally states God is dead, meaning that God never existed. The idea is that he can't get on with his lectures unless the idea of God's existence or non-existence doesn't need to be debated. If a professor at a public university, and probably many private accredited universities, forced his or her students to sign a statement that God did not exist, that professor's tenure position would be in jeopardy. From the start, the premise has already been tainted with a rather ludicrous plot device. (And let's not forget that at private Evangelical universities, like Bob Jones and the like, students are taught unequivocally that not only does God exist but use religious texts in many non-religious courses.) The main plot of the film is that Josh Wheaton refuses the professors' insistence of signing the statement. So Wheaton must try to prove that science can't disprove the existence of God, which at first seems an interesting challenge. However, as we'll see, the rhetoric of Wheaton's arguments shift during the course of the film.
The film actually has several story lines interacting at once. There's Wheaton versus Radisson, Wheaton and his girlfriend, Professor Radisson and his Christian girlfriend, a young woman dating a ferociously materialistic businessman, a local pastor and a Christian from an African country have bad luck getting a car to run to go to some kind of religious retreat, and a female college student who is Islamic and learning about Christianity in secret. And there's even a Chinese student in the class intrigued by the debates about God.
As the story unfolds, many of the supporting characters become stereotypical and shallow as if they were lifted from the latest daytime soap opera. Each of them intentionally hurt the "good characters" who are all trying to either be good Christians or find God. Wheaton's girlfriend disowns him because he's decided to take the professor's challenge. The professor becomes more callous and confrontational towards Wheaton as the debate moves on. We learn at one point, the professor has personal reasons why he's an atheist. Then the father of the Islamic girl finds out about her interest in Christianity, and he reacts in a way you might expect of a film trying to propagate a particular religious point of view. And the woman dating the businessman finds out she has a major health problem, and he dumps her like spoiled food at a restaurant.
However, the most disturbing moment was not the first debate offered by Wheaton but the second and third debates. In the first debate, which I thought was the strongest scene of the film, Wheaton offers a very good case why science can't disprove the existence of God. Science may not prove the existence of God but it can't disprove it either. Fair enough. But in the second debate, I noticed a shift in Wheaton's rhetoric. Now, the debate was about proving the existence of God, which seemed at odds with the premise of the film and the point of the debate. And in the last debate, Wheaton offers the evangelical position on evil. His debate is no longer about debating the existence of God, it's about answering religious questions from a Christian perspective. And then the professor and the student are debating about why religion is a good thing. And then how the pastor who can't get his car started resolves is so ridiculously silly and contrived, I couldn't believe it. Oh brother, give me a break. The final scenes become overly preachy. Almost insufferably unbearable.
This film is not simply a story about a student debating about God in a philosophy class. The film is a sermon disguised as entertainment. I could buy some of the first act, although the abrupt break-up of the girlfriend seemed out of left field. However, by midway, I realized that this film is really Christian propaganda. In Acts 2 and 3, every scene was carefully written, scripted and acted in such a way to reinforce the Evangelical position of the filmmakers. This is a very lousy way to make a film. I was particularly disappointed in the portrayal of the Islamic father who goes crazy when he finds out his daughter is learning about Christianity. This is actually quite false as Islam has always embraced the learning about other religions, but the film propagates that traditional Islamists are against reading other religious texts. Telling me a story about Christians is one thing. Preaching to me about Christianity through a story is another, and that's not why I watch narrative films. Obviously this film was designed to convert people. Much better films with religious themes include "The Blind Side", which was a true story about real Christians, "The Nun's Story", starring Audrey Hepburn, based on the true story of a Belgian nun during the rise of Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II, and "Fiddler on the Roof", about Jews in Russia on eve of the Revolution. "God is not Dead" is not about real people or real situations, but just a forgettable contrivance that will only be applauded by those who already have a religious agenda. Huge disappointment.
Began as Interesting Comparison Between Paganism and Christianity, Then Became Ultimate Conspiracy-Theory Propaganda
At the beginning of the film, there is a comparison between Christianity, the life of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels of the New Testament, and myths associated with paganism. No question, pagan ideas infiltrate much of what becomes "Christian mythology". Fair enough. However, then the discourse moves to the other far extreme of the spectrum, trying to claim Jesus was not an historical figure. Their reasoning? It's one big fallacious hoax concocted by first century forgeries. This is absolutely ridiculous, and this is coming from someone who believes the Gospels are an interplay between historical facts and mythology. While we don't have a lot of sources independent of the New Testament to corroborate the historicity of Jesus, most biblical scholars are confident we have enough to prove he did exist. (Whether or not he claimed to be the Son of God is another matter entirely.)
The film falls into some of the rhetoric I've heard Evangelicals claim but in the other direction. They claim the writings of Josephus, a first-century historian who mentions Jesus, albeit only briefly, is a forgery. I have read many writings composed by the top biblical scholars over the years, including Bart Erhman, John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, and many others, and not a-one contests that Josephus is some kind of a hoax and/or forgery. While some of his details are certainly disputed by scholars on finer points, Josephus is generally regarded as a reliable primary source for events close to his own time, particularly those in the first century.
The film then goes onto claim that the 9/11 attacks, similar to the conspiracy of the historicity of Jesus, is also a giant conspiracy hoax. The filmmakers claim the attacks were engaged not by Al-Qaeda led by Bin Laden but by a secret world order/government in order to perpetuate the war on terror. While I do believe there are many unanswered questions in terms of how the Bush Administration handled the attacks, and even questions which might indicate some people in intelligence knew something was going to happen, there is not enough evidence to demonstrate that in fact the Bush Administration was acting as some pawn for a secret world government. I do believe the Bush Administration acted recklessly in its deployment of troops in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.
A film which takes conspiracy theories to the extreme. Because of the lopsided rhetoric, many will dismiss the film outright and may be reluctant to understand issues raised about 9/11 which should be explored. While I am not adverse to the idea of some conspiracies (I believe there was a Lincoln conspiracy but not a JFK one) I believe the film fails to adequately address the questions. It falls into the same trap as other documentaries which favor completely exonerating the Bush Administration of any wrong-doing. This is just far left-wing propaganda pure and simple.