Tag Archives: Religion

RELIGULOUS (2008)

The following is not standard for 366 material, but given the controversial nature of the film, we feel it has an off the beaten path place here.

When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.

Critic Brian Orndorf wrote:

Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?

Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith.

ReligulousMaher’s perspective on Catholicism suggests he believes it resembles a Protestant evangelical faith. Most post-Vatican II Catholics today would not identify with such views. One could even question the extent of Maher’s exposure to Catholic education, even in a pre-Vatican II environment. His portrayal of Revelations as a literal doomsday book is undeniably filtered through an evangelical lens. Yet, from its earliest history, Catholic readings have predominantly interpreted it as a metaphorical work, written in a popular period genre. It is not viewed as prophecy but, rather, as a book of the past, which sounded a warning regarding the first great persecutor of Christians: Nero.

Neeley Tucker of the Washington Post addressed Maher’s rudimentary knowledge of religion:

One of the rules of satire is that you can’t mock things you don’t understand, and Religulous starts developing fault lines when it becomes clear that Maher’s view of religious faith is based on a sophomoric reading of the Scriptures and that he doesn’t understand that some thoughtful people actually do believe in some sort of spiritual life.

While Maher was not writing an academic paper, his film could have Continue reading RELIGULOUS (2008)

CAPSULE: MADEINUSA (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Claudia Llosa

FEATURING: Magaly Solie, Carlos J. de la Torre,  Juan Ubaldo Huamán, Yiliana Chong

PLOT: A stranger from Lima is stranded in a remote hamlet in the Andes where the villagers practice unusual Easter rituals that are definitely not sanctioned by the Pope.

Still from Madeinusa (2006)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd little South American fable about an isolated town, not realist, but not quite magical realist, either. It’s an interesting eccentricity, but not quite weird enough for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: Madeinusa is a drama that’s slow to start, but which gradually drags you in with its rich, imaginary synthesis of pagan and Christian traditions, and with the fate of its quietly sad and oddly named adolescent protagonist. A lower-keyed, Latin-tinged Wicker Man sensibility at work here in the story of an outsider who visits an isolated society where religious traditions have been allowed to breed incestuously without oversight from the civilized world. Painting a portrait of this invented culture and its self-serving indigenous practices is where Madeinusa shines. The movie is set during “Holy Times,” which in the movie’s mythology is the period beginning from Good Friday and ending with the dawn of Easter. The ceremonies indulged in by the villages show the colorful mixture of Latin and Roman Catholic elements that fascinate many first-worlders: maize-colored crucifix mosaics, fireworks during holy processions, a mock funeral procession where pallbearers carry a blindfolded Christ in a glass coffin. The celebration begins with a Virgin beauty pageant, with the town’s adolescent girls dressed like Incan princesses wearing gold crowns, all vying to play Mary in the Easter procession, and gets stranger from there.

Of course, this would not be much of a movie if it were simply an imaginary travelogue documenting an exotic Easter celebration, so there is a darker side to the festivities. When the town’s mayor, who also happens to be 14-year old Madeinusa’s father, catches a stranger in town at the start of Holy Time, he locks him up—perhaps to protect the villagers from the judgmental eyes of outsiders, or perhaps for the stranger’s own good. Young Madeinusa is fascinated by the handsome hazel-eyed wanderer from Lima with the European features, but her father has other plans for the girl. Add in a jealous older sister who has been displaced in Dad’s affections by her younger sibling, and a dangerous sexually-charged dynamic emerges that will only be inflamed by the bacchanalian bonfires of Holy Times. The core cast does well in telling this relatively simple but emotionally weighty story, while the Andean cinematography is sublime.

The origin of main character’s name, “Madeinusa,” is left as a mystery.  It not symbolic of any sort of anti-Americanism (American culture is nowhere to be found in this movie, outside of the title), but instead reflects the villagers’ unsophisticated tendency to misappropriate influences from outside their insular world. “That’s not a name,” explains a distressed Salvador. “You should be Rosa or Maria, not Madeinusa.” One thing is certain, the downbeat, fatalistic ending is not madeinhollywood.

Some Peruvians believe Madeinusa is racist/classist because it depicts poor mountain people of mostly Indian blood as unsophisticated. The idea that weird and dangerous ancient practices persist in remote corners of the world is a common literary tradition, however, and anytime it’s used it’s bound to offend some group that believes they are being singled out for ridicule, rather than appropriated for use in a time-honored plot device.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classically made yet personally accented fable about the clash between old and new in a strange Andean village in Peru.”–Robert Koehler, Variety (contemporaneous)

173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

“Dream, little one, dream,

Dream, my little one, dream.

Oh, the hunter in the night

Fills your childish heart with fright.

Fear is only a dream.

So dream, little one, dream.”

Lullaby from Night of the Hunter (lyrics by Walter Schumann)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Billy Chapin, ,

PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.

Still from Night of the Hunter (1955)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but has long been out-of-print; Centipede Press is releasing a limited-edition hardcover edition of the novel in July of 2104.
  • Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
  • was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
  • Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
  • This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
  • Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
  • In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
  • Ranked #71 in Empire Magazine’s 2008 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time. Ranked #2 on “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s list of the “100 Most Beautiful Movies.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.


Original trailer for Night of the Hunter

 COMMENTS: An utterly original blend, Night of the Hunter is simultaneously a melodrama, a fairy tale, a film noir, a Southern Gothic, a Biblical Continue reading 173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

NOAH (2014)

When it was first announced that Paramount had given  (Black Swan) the green light to tell his version of the Noah story, many familiar with the director’s work wondered how he and frequent collaborator and scriptwriter Ari Handel were going to interpret it.

Still from Noah (2014)The mainstream audience began popping up their heads a few months ago, when all they had heard was that Hollywood had made a soon-to-be-released BIG movie about Noah in the Bible. Naturally, the Bible geeks were shivering with anticipation. The only surprise from the near hysteria which followed was that the pious made so much noise primarily after the premiere, rather than before. Naturally, true to form, there has been condemnation from some without even having seen the film, but not quite to the extent we have seen from evangelical audiences previously. Some have accused Paramount of duping Christians into seeing it with a misleading campaign. Perhaps, or perhaps the studio merely overestimated that faction of the American public.

The cries from a plethora of American Evangelical Christians that Noah is “blasphemous” are, in fact, offensive in themselves, but not entirely unexpected. The Noah story does not exclusively belong to evangelical Christians, as it is not of Christian origin. Rather, that version of the universal flood is derived from ancient Jewish and rabbinic writings. Even the writers of Genesis took the Noah account from preexisting narratives, such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

The art of Biblical storytelling is an oral tradition, which predates written scripture. Aronofsky continues in that spirit. Indeed, it is a theme which gives the film its strength and edge. Aronofsky, long obsessed with making Noah (2014), proves erudite, giving his film flourishes of a primordial world not far removed, time-wise, from Eden. It is a world with memories of its Paradise Lost hauntingly intact (i.e. a visual reference to the Edenic river). In the middle of all this is the startling protagonist Noah (Russell Crowe), whom Aronofsky gives flesh, flaws and drama, removing him from the plaster pedestal. That seems to be Aronofsky’s chief offense for the unimaginative, pious masses who wanted a film about a cardboard cutout, rosy-cheeked, bearded old white guy smiling sweetly as he loads happy sheep onto his velcro boat. The rainbow ending is, of course, up for grabs. Aronofsky’s approach is far too serious for that and he creatively reworks scripture and rabbinic writings into a challenging work of art that approaches world literature.

As with all great literature, it has elements of the reflective and the unexpected. The non-canonical “Book of Enoch” is another source he draws on. Aronofsky and Handel write in the spirit of ancient biblical writers, who had no issues mixing myth, parable, folklore, and poetry together with a sliver of historicity into one narrative. They were not bound by our ideas of hyper-realism or linear storytelling. The earliest Church fathers understood this, and did not take scripture as either exclusively literal or historical. They saw it as a collection of diverse literary forms, written by divergent, God-obsessed peoples trying to grasp divine concepts. The resulting efforts were often akin to infinite ideas described in inadequately finite language, which is why we sometimes have conflicting biblical views of God within the same paragraph. Advocates of biblical inerrancy argue that the ancient writings are Spirit-inspired. Perhaps, but even then they had to be filtered through human hands and, therefore, the Bible is “fallible” in our contemporary understanding of the term.

Aronofsky is not a believer per se, but despite claims of those who are trying to demonize him, he does not take the “religion as the root of all evil” route. Indeed, Aronofsky, of Jewish heritage and education, clearly seeks to express an idea in an admirably classic way that is also overwhelming, confounding and vital for the viewer: God as both maternal and paternal Creator. That is an idea too sacred for the secular and too secular for the pious.

In one sense, it is refreshing that Noah is a challenging enough film to provoke and inspire debate. This makes Noah more than just a chalky Sunday School lesson. We do not have to worry about Aronofsky and Handel succumbing to the status quo (who seem forever intent on proving how little we have evolved in the past few millennium anyway).

Of course, the arrogant assumption that all Christians are evangelicals subscribing to sola scriptura is the foremost offensive reaction to the film by disgruntled audiences. This is actually more of the “either/or” mentality that far too many fundamentalists succumb to: one either approaches biblical stories as history, verbatim accounts that happened exactly as written, or one does not believe. Aronofsky’s Noah is further evidence of the evangelical reaction to anything which veers away from their expectations; reactions which are frighteningly similar to those we have seen from radical Muslims regarding certain films, art, etc. If Aronofsky  proves anything, he proves that one can respond to or be inspired by scripture without subscribing to it as monotone historicity. Aronofsky’s God reaches out to the patriarchal line—from as Methuselah to Crowe’s Noah—via visions. The “God” terminology is provocatively ambiguous, and lest we forget, we do not find God being referred to, in name, until much later in the Bible. The concept of God as YHWH (et. al.) was not yet developed at this time, and the context here would have us see this God simply as the Creator. Projecting any other names onto God would have been sloppy interpretive work on the part of Aronofsky.

Another theme is the fall of humanity and humanity’s subsequent relationship to the environment. Oddly, Aronofsky’s depiction of the Nephilim is one of those “blink and you will miss it” references found in the Hebrew Bible that the literalists actually prefer to be ignored. Perhaps its one of those references that reiterates a little too strongly fantasy elements inherent in the Bible.

Aronofsky’s film indeed is in line with much of Hebrew literature (at least where it matters) and contextually it may be one of the most bravely “accurate” film productions of the Bible to date. If unimaginative fundamentalists have hangups about it, it is, in the end, their hangup. Still, hearing some of the hackneyed protests against this film makes me wonder, what the hell is wrong with religion? Why is it so afraid of challenge and artistic interpretation?

THE RULING CLASS (1972)

When I was halfway through writing this article, actor Peter O’Toole passed away. He serves as yet another example of  how pointless, asinine, vapid, and meaningless the Academy Awards are. Rightfully nominated a zillion times, O’Toole is in the fine company of such Academy Award losers as , , Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Alfred Hitchcock, and . The Academy did eventually give O’Toole its condescending honorary Oscar, as it did to Chaplin, but that’s a mere smokescreen to mask their own artlessness.

O’Toole’s performances ranged from great to quirky and interesting in films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Beckett (1964), Lord Jim (1965), Night of the Generals (1967), The Lion in Winter (1967), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969), Murphy’s War (1971), The Ruling Class (1972), Man Friday (1975), Zulu Dawn (1979), The Stunt Man (1980), Masada (1981), My Favorite Year (1982), The Last Emperor (1987), and Venus (2006) Naturally, as prolific as he was, he had his share of embarrassing bombs: Caligula (1979), Supergirl (1984), and, most of all, Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage (2008). His last film is the soon to be released Katherine of Alexandria (2014).

The Ruling Class was, almost immediately, a cult hit. It earned O’Toole yet another Oscar nomination, but he lost out to Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972). Although The Godfather is a better film and Brando’s performance was superb, I would stand with a tiny minority in arguing that O’Toole should have won.

The Ruling Class is certainly one of O’Toole’s weirdest films, thus earning its cult reputation. He plays Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney. Jack goes by “J.C.” because he believes himself to be none other than Jesus Christ. Jack’s daddy, the 13th Earl (Harry Andrews), pulls an Albert Dekker and hangs himself in a tutu. Paranoid schizo Jack shows up to run the estate in daddy’s place. Jack has had a life-size cross conveniently built in the castle where he can love everyone from the” bottom of my soul to the tip of my penis.”

Still from The Ruling Class (1972)Peter Medak directed from Peter Barnes’ play and, with Peter O’ Toole starring, there is a lot of phallic symbolism afoot. Naturally, being a British movie of the 70s, there is plenty of other symbolism being bandied about as well, including a battle of misfit deities, an assault by an ape in a top hat, Ebenezer Scrooge as a phlegmatic bishop (Alastair Sim), a drunkard leftist butler (Arthur Lowe), a usurping by the Electric Messiah (Nigel Green), and Jack’s miraculous born again transformative “cure” from Jesus Christ (the God Of Love) to Jack the Ripper (the God of Wrath and Vengeance). Society’s acceptance of Jack as the serial-killing deity, as opposed to its rejection of Jack as pacifist god, is about as subtle as it sounds.

Like many British films of the period, The Ruling Class is imbued with psychedelic surrealism. What sets it apart from films like The Magic Christian (1969) is its theatrical ensemble, topped by a bouncing-off-the-walls performance by  O’Toole. Even with the superb cast of Sims and Lowe, O’ Toole walks easily away with the film. Other than T.E Lawrence, J.C. may be his best performance.

The movie is inevitably (and deliriously) dated, with its psychedelic first half giving way to Clockwork Orange territory in the second half. The Ruling Class’ stage origins are keenly felt, and the vaudevillian musical numbers add to the lunacy of this genre-proof film. Medak’s direction is acidic and idiosyncratic. He handles blasphemy in the best “theater of the absurd” type of way. How does flower child J.C. know he is God? “When I pray, I find I am talking to myself.”

The Criterion Collection debatably erred in restoring 20 excised minutes to the film, making The Ruling Class excessive, but perhaps even more bizarre, in its 154 minute version. Apart from that, there is the usual exemplary Criterion extras, including home movies supplied by Medak, excellent commentary tracks, photo galleries, and a beautifully remastered, digital print.

THE BOOK OF DALLAS (2012)

The Book of Dallas, Season One is a 10 episode web series from KoldCast TV. The series comes from the production team of Joe Atkinson, , and Marx H. Pyle. Atkinson wrote the series in response to a crisis in faith. The directing is divided between the three producers.

Dallas McKay (Benjamin Crockett) is a young Catholic atheist (is there any other kind?). Dallas gets into a theological debate at a bar (something akin to theology on tap). His lack of belief offends the self-proclaimed Christians (surprise), then fate takes the upper hand when speeding vehicle meets Dallas on the street.

Still from The Book of Dallas Season1 (2012)Heaven is a coffee shop where Dallas meets a highly emotive St. Peter (David Ross) and a quirky God (Kristine Renee Farley). Yes, God is a girl who likes to eat lots of waffles. I knew it all along. With a mouthful of syrup, God asks Dallas to write a new bible, one which will not inspire people to judge and kill one another. After writing it, Dallas is to go on a book tour and sell it. Real simple.

Now back on Earth, Dallas needs some cash to get started. God gives him the winning lottery numbers. Dallas and his roommate Hank (Clay Evans) are on a mission from God. After finally finding a publisher, Dallas’ book, “The Word,” creates publicity and controversy. The evangelicals predictably hate Dallas, but he does attract a follower named Benjamin (Kevin Roach), who fills in for Dallas after a fundamentalist nut job sends Dallas back to heaven for a spell. Benjamin creates The Church of Unitism. Yes, a new religion.

The Book of Dallas starts off as an overly familiar revisionist look at the state of religion, the likes of which we have seen before (Dogma, Religioulous, et al). The best humor in the series is provided by actors David Ross and Kristine Renee Farley. Aside from these, the comedy is too subdued for this topic. More problematic are the plot solutions, which are too simplistic (a convenient lottery win, miraculous surviving of near-death experiences).

Something more complex would have been more rewarding. The fact that the protagonist survives his ordeals, virtually unscathed, nullifies any real questioning of his supernatural encounters (for Dallas and the audience—the only nonbelievers are the certifiable Christians of the film, which, come to think of it, is probably all too apt).

The biggest issue I take with the series is in “The Word” itself. What does “The Book of Dallas” actually say? We are never really privy to that information. Therefore, Dallas’ actual message is so vague that it fails to connect with us emotionally, intellectually, or theologically. Likewise, the fundamentalist outrage towards the book never quite registers beyond surface. The angry religious mob is merely taken for granted.

The Book of Dallas starts to live up to its complex potential by the 10th episode. Of course, every successful revolutionary movement faces the possibility of becoming  an institution. The Unitist movement veers dangerously close to that fatal error. Upon seeing this, the fire within Dallas is sparked. For the first time, close to the season finale, we sense the prophetic nature swelling within Dallas, along with narrative possibilities for richer, provocative exploration.

Atkinson’s sincerity and effort is to be applauded, despite the occasional “too safe” missteps. The series feels like an opening spark, which may reap rewarding challenges in the second season (and, hopefully, that second season will come to fruition).

Bilinski, a director previously covered here, directs the first, fifth and seventh episodes. The first episode has a texture and pacing similar to elements of his previous Shade of Grey (2009).


. “The Book of Dallas” trailer.

129. LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)

Ai no Mukidashi

“Nothing is more important than love.”–Shion Sono on the theme of Love Exposure

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Nishijima, , Sakura Andô, Atsurô Watabe, Makiko Watanabe

PLOT: Yu Honda, the son of a Catholic priest, falls in with a gang of upskirt photographers in an attempt to generate sins he can confess to his father. One day, while dressed in drag after losing a bet, he falls in love with Yoko, a man-hating schoolgirl who believes him to be a woman. He strives to woo her despite the mistaken identity, but a mysterious girl named Koike and a brainwashing cult seem intent on preventing Yu from ever winning Yoko’s heart.

Still from Love Exposure (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sono’s original cut of the film was six hours long. At the request of producers he cut it down to two hours but felt the result was incoherent; the current four-hour run time is a compromise.
  • Sono reportedly wrote the part of upskirt photography guru “Master Lloyd” with Lloyd Kaufman in mind.
  • “Miss Scorpion” was a recurring character from a 1970s Japanese women-in-prison film series.
  • Despite winning awards at multiple Asian film festivals as well as a FIRPESCI international film critics awards, Love Exposure‘s long running time made it anathema to theatrical distributors. The movie finally saw a very limited run in U.S. and Canadian theaters in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some will doubtlessly be impressed by the bloody castration scene, but a less shocking image marks the centerpiece of Love Exposure: “the miracle,” the moment when the wind blows up Yoko’s skirt and reveals her alabaster underthings, giving Yu the first erection of his life. White panties—a symbol of sex masked in the color of purity—are the most important recurring image in Love Exposure, even more so than crosses and hard-ons. As Master Lloyd explains while pointing to a bronze relief image of a spreadeagled woman with a swatch of white silk covering her nether portions, “Anything you seek can be found here, in the groin.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there is some crazy stylization—slo-mo bullets following a schoolgirl through Tokyo and a dysfunctional family posing with a giant cross in the desert—what makes Love Exposure‘s mad heart tick is the plot that piles crazy on top of crazy. Any story that incorporates Catholic guilt, ninja panty-peeking photographers, kung fu and samurai sequences, mistaken identity subplots, and teenage cult kingpins, plays it all as a romantic comedy, and has to run for twice the length of an average movie just to fit in everything the director wants to say, is bound to be a little weird.


Trailer for Love Exposure

COMMENTS:  For four hours Love Exposure bounces back and forth between poles of purity and perversion, suggesting both the fetishistic Continue reading 129. LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)