February 29, 2004

Awards Night

I usually skip the Oscars (insert registered trademark symbol here) and read the summary in the morning. Tonight, I'm in Film Critic mode! I'm going to watch the entire thing! I'm even taping it for later analysis, taping it right over the final episode of Quantum Leap I recorded earlier today but didn't have a chance to watch, and over last week's Scrubs with that dishy Brendan Fraser! How's that for dedication?

My predictions? I'm not very good at this. Master and Commander, Monster, and Lost in Translation will take a few awards from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and the Pirates movie. Master and Commander might take Best Costumes. If not for Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, I'd allow myself a little giddy hope Johnny Depp could actually win Best Actor—but I'm glad enough that he was nominated. It seems some of the Academy actually remembered what "the movies" are all about in their quintessential form. I'm way too biased about ROTK to think clearly about its odds of winning the big awards tonight.

Blow-by-blow coverage follows. I can't guarantee the commentary will be insightful, but it will spare you having to watch the actual awards broadcast.

Oscar Night: Clean Sweep (the list of the winners)

I've had no prophetic dreams about the awards. Unless you count dreaming about fighting rapier all night, but that might have had something to do with all the SCA fencing I watched yesterday, and is probably not about Pirates and ROTK sweeping up all the gold at all.

But, you never know....

After the song-and-dance and hoary joke sequence, we leap right into Best Supporting Actor: nominees: Alec Baldwin in The Cooler; Benicio DelToro in 21 Grams; Djimon Hounsou in In America; Tim Robbins, the one bright light in Mystic River; Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai; and not Sean Astin in ROTK (grrf). And the winner is: Tim Robbins. The Outside Food critic is pleased.

Billy Crystal announces, with requisite Hobbit jokes, Sir Ian McKellan presenting clips from Best Picture nominee ROTK. Angelina Jolie slicks out in white silk to present the award for Achievement in Art Direction (set design and decoration): Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Last Samurai, ROTK, Master and Commander, Seabiscuit. And the winner is: Grant Major, Alan Lee, et al for ROTK. Huzzah. The Outside Food critic is fairly happy, even if Alan Lee is not her favourite of the artists who have tackled LOTR's world.

Billy Crystal vamps with Robin Williams, they make little timely jokes about San Francisco and Mel Gibson, and Williams presents Best Animated Feature Film: Brother Bear, Finding Nemo, Triplets of Belleville (how can it not win? well.. maybe to Nemo. maybe.). The winner being: Nemo. Hmm. Okay.

Renee Zellwegger—I'll toss her in as my prediction for Best Supporting Actress—announces achievement in Costume Design: Pearl Earring, Last Samurai (Ngila Dickson, our own heroine of Xena), ROTK (Ngila again, and Richard Taylor), Master and Commander, Seabiscuit: ROTK wins! (Maybe I should put my genuine Ngila-created Xena costume on eBay again now....)

Nick Cage is on next ("another member of the Coppola family," Billy Crystal reminds us), to announce a clip from Master and Commander (which Billy Boyd is in, in case I haven't crowed about that previously). Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit) will be presenting Best Supporting Actress: Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog), Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April), Marcia Gay Hardin (Mystic River), Holly Hunter (Thirteen), Renee Zellwegger (Cold Mountain). Winner: Renee Zellwegger. The Outside Food Critic gets one right!

I always listen to these acceptance speeches cringing and waiting for the "shut up now" music to start playing. It's a high-anxiety moment.

Now, Tom Hanks, looking very Tom-Hanks-like, to discuss the 80-year show business career of Bob Hope, who hosted the Oscars 18 times. Montage follows. We are reminded this is the 76th annual awards show. I become determined to sweep the Oscars at the 100th annual awards. Writer, director, music, art direction, and, I should think, best digitised performance.

Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, in Starksy & Hutch drag—actually, only Ben is (I suppose it's all right to plug a movie that is completely unlikely to win any Academy noms). They do a little routine, and almost have chemistry. Nominees for Best Live Action Short: The Red Jacket, Most (the Bridge), Squash, A Torsion, Two Soldiers (several of these are foreign films and I would surely mangle the spelling of the titles in the original language); winner: Two Soldiers. Based on a 1942 Faulkner story. Outside Food critic will, of course, have to track it down. The music swells to chase the winners offstage.

The pair continue their shtick for Best Animated Short Film: Bounded(?), Destino, Gone Nutty, Harvie Krumpet, Nibbles (looks kinda fun, in a dangerously mind-twisting surreal way, that one). Harvey Krumpet (by Adam Elliot of Australia) wins. It has a Wallace and Gromit look to it. His uncle Geoffrey Rush apparently did voice work.

I hear ROTK music... yes, it's Liv Tyler, her drastic but trendy black-framed glasses slashing her face in half, to announce Sting performing the theme from Cold Mountain. Robin has IM'd me to tell me she loves this song ("My Ain True Love"). But it didn't make me bawl hysterically the way the ROTK end-title song does, now that I've listened to the words. "Scarlet Tide," the next song, also from Cold Mountain, is performed by Elvis Costello and others. Next up, music from ROTK: the end-title song, "Into the West" by Fran Walsh, Annie Lennox, and Howard Shore, and performed by Annie Lennox. (Does she count as a diva yet?) I had to stop playing my ROTK CD because all of it reminds me of this song, and it makes me weep. It's also right in my vocal range, so I tend to try to sing it at the top of my lungs while it's playing. This is rough on those around me.

(This is not yet the announcement of a winner, though. Commercial break ensues, with a promise of Will Smith afterward.)

Will Smith and Mrs Will (who is not me but perky tiny Jada Pinkett) present the award for Achievement in Visual Effects: ROTK, Master and Commander, Pirates. I wouldn't mind Pirates, although Gollum will be hard to beat. And the winner is: ROTK. Precioussss!

The scientific and technical awards were given out two weeks ago. We get a recap, with really tiny subtitles to indicate who the winners are. Of course, I have a really tiny television screen (I know—scandalous! And me a film critic!).

Jim Carrey, who is now officially weirder than Robin Williams, gives a special tribute and award to Blake Edwards, with clips from The Pink Panther, 10 and so forth. The award is given with much Pink Panther-esque shtick, and Blake Edwards chews up scenery (almost literally).

(This is right about the point—1-1/2 hours in—that I start thinking "Is it over yet?" I don't really have much tolerance for this sort of thing. You should have seen me by the end of the long SCA dinner and awards ceremony I attended yesterday, but that's a different story, and I was probably just sore I didn't get to hit anyone with a rapier, but back to tonight....)

Bill Murray, no longer a SNL cut-up but a respected elder thespian, is the next presenter, and his low-key humour is much funnier than frenetic antics. He announces a clip from Lost in Translation, soon to be reviewed by an Outside Food critic near you. Scarlet Johanssen presents Achievement in Makeup: Richard Taylor and Peter King for ROTK (who is surprised? not me), Master and Commander, Pirates. Pirates this time? Nope—ROTK sweeps up another one. I'd have thought Pirates, what with all the rotting skeletal creatures, and Johnny Depp's eyeliner.

Sandra Bullock and John Travolta, an unconvincing little skit requiring Sandra Bullock not know the The Jazz Singer was the first sound movie: Achievement in Sound Mixing. Last Samurai, ROTK (which I honestly think should win), Master and Commander, Pirates, Seabiscuit. (Really? Seabiscuit?) And the winner is... ROTK. Whooo.

The same pair present Sound Editing: Master, Nemo, Pirates. And the winner is Master and Commander. Well, those cannon were loud, and the Vaughan-Williams/Thomas Tallis surged impressively over the waves.

"It's now official, there is nobody left in New Zealand to thank," says Billy Crystal. Julia Roberts steps out for a special award presentation to the late great Kate: Katharine Hepburn.

(Only an hour left to go, now, if it stays on schedule.)

Oprah Winfrey is next in the cavalcade of stars stars stars, and I'm getting too weary to think of something snide to say about her haircut or about her effusive commentary on Mystic Blather. I'm sorry, Mystic River. Whatever.

Diane Lane and John Cusack (swoon) present Best Documentary Short Subject: Asylum, Chernobyl Heart, Fairy Tales, none of which I have been cultured enough to see. Winner: Chernobyl Heart, directed by MaryAnn DeLeo. Hurry, Ms DeLeo, you'll get musicked off the stage! (Whew, she made it.)

Naomi Watts and Alec Baldwin (eh... no swoon for me) present Best Documentary Feature: Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War, My Architect, The Weather Underground, and one film title I missed. The Fog of War wins. As I recall, it had a rather high profile in terms of media attention. The director makes political commentary (on going down the rabbit-hole of war), but keeps it short and sweet and related to his film and the role of a documentary filmmaker to make people examine their world.

Frank Pierson, president of the Academy, discusses the career of Gregory Peck, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Then follows the part where I cried like a baby during the SAG Awards—clips of all those actors and filmmakers and technicians who passed away during the last year.

A little over a half hour left to go.

Sting and Phil Collins thank the musicians and music director, present nominees for Best Original Score: Big Fish, Cold Mountain, Finding Nemo, House of Sand and Fog, ROTK. Pirate had in my opinion brilliantly conceived movie music, hearkening back to the Technicolor Cinemascape epics, but with ROTK Howard Shore finally developed his themes and produced something splendid. And the Academy agrees.

Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan present Achievement in Film Editing: City of God, Cold Mountain, ROTK, Master and Commander, Seabiscuit. The winner: James Selkirk, ROTK. Oh my oh my. I'm worried now—ROTK can't win everything, and the Academy might give it everything but... and deny it Best Picture and, what it truly deserves, Best Director.

Jamie Lee Curtis is the next presenter, walking onstage to Halloween music, to present the nominated song from A Mighty Wind—which was a mighty (though small) movie, directed by her husband Christopher Guest. "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" is performed by the folk duo "Mitch and Mickey" of the movie (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara)—a beautiful little love ballad from a sad, funny, surreal film. Outside Food critic loves pseudo-documentaries. "Belleville Rendezvous" from Triplettes of Belleville is performed by the composer. The singer has astounding hips in red sequins—a woman's hips, goddess hips, not "I lost 40 pounds to be stick thin in spangles in Chicago" hips.

Will Farrell and Jack Black will (finally!) be presenting best song. They reveal the lyrics to the "get the heck off the stage" music. Okay—that's funny. Nominees for Best Original Song: "Belleville Rendez-Vous" (Triplets of Belleville), "Into the West" (ROTK), "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" (A Mighty Wind), "Scarlet Tide" (Cold Mountain), "You Will be My Ain True Love" (Cold Mountain). And the Oscar goes to: ROTK: "Into the West." yegads! Annie Lennox accepts breathlessly, and dedicates her performance to her late mother and a friend who also passed away. Fran Walsh, whose hair appears to have been done by the same clever birds who did Elrond's, squeezes in a brief thank you, too.

I fear Best Picture and Best Director are lost.

Best Actress nominee Charlize Theron presents Best Foreign Language Film. I'd better pay attention to get the titles right. Les Invasions Barbariens (Canada), Evil (Sweden), The Twilight Samurai (Japan), De Tweeling ("Twin Sisters"; the Netherlands), Zelary (Czech Republic). Winner: The Barbarian Invasions. The trailer underwhelmed me, but I'm a bit of a barbarian. "We are so thankful that Lord of the Rings did not qualify in this category," begins the director in her acceptance speech. Merci beaucoup à tous le monde!

Uma Thurman and Jude Law present Achievement in Cinematography. My fave! City of God, Cold Mountain, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Master and Commander, Seabiscuit. I think Robin mentioned rooting for City of God, but Master and Commander wins. Hmm. Well. There was a lot of sea. Russell Boyd, the cinematographer, points out that his accent is actually Australian.

Only a few minutes left to the broadcast (although I doubt it is running on schedule); Best Director should be up next. And I am pleased to inform you that the lost dog in the Master Card commercials is finally home. Priceless.

Sofia and Frances Ford Coppola are the next presenters. Pardon me while I am hideously jealous I couldn't follow my famous filmmaker father into directing. (Okay, so she apparently has talent, too.) Best Adapted Screenplay: American Splendor, City of God, ROTK, Mystic River, Seabiscuit. My money is on American Splendor. I would be wrong. ROTK wins again: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson. Philippa Boyens is absolutely glowing, and gorgeous. Fran's hair is still peculiar.

Tobey Maguire presents clips from Seabiscuit. He looks either tired, or caffeinated. It's hard to tell; the wild-eyed stare can be similar. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon present Best Original Screenplay. [Robin notes: when Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins came on, the music was "Blowin' in the Wind." I know Peter, Paul and Mary recorded that, but Pete Seeger may be the writer.] The nominees are: The Barbarian Invasions, Dirty Pretty Things, Finding Nemo, In America, Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola for Lost, I think. Dang, I'm good at the one-minute-beforehand prediction!

I predict this is what she gets instead of Best Director.

The announcer promises us Best Actress in a Leading Role next. Commercials ensue. The presentation is now ten minutes into overtime.

Tom Cruise will present Best Director. I'm all a-flutter. This is the big one. City of God's Fernando Meirelles, Peter Jackson (ROTK), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Peter Weir (Master and Commander), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River).

Peter Jackson. He dedicates his win to his late parents, Bill and Joan.

To deny his achievement, no matter what one thinks of genre or epic films, would have been... unthinkable.

Adrien Brody presents Best Actress in a Leading Role: the young and astonishing Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), Diane Keaton (Something's Gotta Give), Samantha Morton (In America), Charlize Theron (Monster), Naomi Watts (21 Grams). Monster is the Outside Food bet. Adrien Brody takes a swig of breath freshener and announces: The winner is Charlize Theron for Monster. Since everyone in NZ has been thanked, she says, she'll thank everyone in South Africa, where she is from (I didn't know that).

Best Actor in a Leading Role is up after the break, and Best Picture to be presented by Steven Spielberg.

Moving toward a half hour overtime. Now I remember why I don't watch the Academy Awards live.

Last year's Best Actress, Nicole Kidman, presents Best Actor in a Leading Role, with the usual sort of preamble: Johnny Depp (swoon! swoon!) for Pirates of the Caribbean, Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog, Jude Law in Cold Mountain (I should be swooning, but the face fur in that movie puts me off), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Sean Penn in Mystic River (I'm afraid histrionics are too easy to act to merit a Best Actor award). And yet, Sean Penn wins. Outside Food critic is disappointed that such an easy and obvious performance should win. But, when a man cries and shouts and emotes over his daughter, I guess it's easy to see the Acting going on. Outside Food critic disapproves, but will get over it.

Sofia Coppola and Sean Penn having their awards bodes very well indeed.

Steven Spielberg takes the stage, so this is it. They even play the Indiana Jones music. ROTK, Master and Commander, Seabiscuit, Mystic River, Lost in Translation.

And the winner is...

It has been a long time since I've been this excited by the Oscars.

The Oscar goes to: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Tying the record for the most wins with Titanic and Ben Hur.

I'll live vicariously through this for a while.

Thank yous to Robin for the blow-by-blow proofreading of the blow-by-blow reportage (until she wore out and had to go to sleep!).

Posted by OutsideFood at 08:56 PM | Comments (43)

February 25, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

I don't like this film. You were warned.

There were funds enough left from a kind donation from a friend to cover part of the latest viewing: The midnight opening-day screening of...

The Most Gratuitous Story Ever Told

The Passion of the Christ
starring: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Naumov Shopov, Claudia Gerini, Francesco De Vito's profile as Peter, Hristo Jivkov lurking behind Mary, and Legolas as Satan.
directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, with some contribution from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John, but mostly Matthew.
running time: 126 minutes
MPAA says: R for sequences of graphic violence, and they aren't kidding
Release date: February 25, 2004
Seen at: to come

This movie made me feel yucky. And not in an introspective "He died for your sins" way.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ begins inauspiciously, on the soundstage of Gethsemane, in what looks like a Halloween episode of Xena. It might be a real garden, but, filmed in Murk-o-vision like the rest of the movie, it has all the character of styrofoam. Visually, the entire movie has the air of a cheaply, quickly produced Bible-Study video, but without the bright-eyed creative imagination some small-budget productions occasionally break out with. Mostly the film looks like a lowbrow remake of every other movie from Greatest Story to Superstar. It's all very flat and perfunctory, and director Gibson does love that slow-motion, which doesn't help. The movie only comes into its own (and a very scary own that is) when blood is pouring. But I get ahead of myself.

It's a good thing most of the audience will already know the story. The overly earnest actors pontificate, posture, and ponderously thud through the motions, but there is very little actual storytelling, and even less of human emotion. Certainly no exploration of Why—that's all presumed to be a given. Jesus' teachings are shown in flashcard snippets (ten seconds of the Last Supper here, six seconds of palm fronds there) before Gibson returns to what his movie is all about: torture, pain, gore, and directorial self-flagellation so prolonged it's silly.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it's silly in a Monty Python way. Sometimes, even more unfortunately, it's silly in a disturbingly sado-masochistic way.

Jesus is played in a creaking performance from Jim Caviezel... hmm... JC... you'd think I'd have noticed that before. At any rate, within five minutes I was entirely bored, no matter how much JC twisted and groaned in the garden. The subtitled dialogue is mostly not-awful ("This is not a party, you toothless vermin!" was an interesting subtitle, though), and the actors deliver it as best they can, some succeeding better than others. The Jewish soldiers who arrest Jesus in the garden take on their roles with the skill and subtlety of a collection of Xena Xtras playing warlord minions. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.

In fact, everyone's acting style and reactions (with exceptions noted later) are scarily uniform—the same Sunday-School-play posing from Mary Magdalene to Judas. The Murk-o-vision does not help, nor does the amateurish, facile direction that makes it clear the main concern is not the actors' performances but presenting huge dollops of bloody beatings so we can all cathart all over the place.

I wonder whether this movie will be accessible, will even be comprehensible to a non-believer, or whether it will merely confirm that some Christians behave in completely inexplicable ways based on a truly peculiar world view.

I'll just assume you won't mind if the review contains a few spoilers about the plot.

"He's Not the Messiah, He's a Very Naughty Boy"

There is a brief flashback to JC's carefree days as a carpenter, as his mother Mary looks on, fondly but somewhat puzzled by the odd ideas he brings even to building a table. JC is charming with his mom, playful, and briefly charismatic. (Are those his own light brown eyes gazing merrily on her, or lenses?) For about two minutes, the movie has an original spark, an artful turn. The moment does not last.

Back to the present. He is brought before the temple priests, most of whom seem to be in a Monty Python sketch. Even the sympathetic priests are caricatures, and the priests who want JC condemned are all huff and puff and bounce and glare. I could not keep visions of Eric Idle out of my mind. JC has been so thoroughly beaten even before he reaches the priests, he has been reduced to a puffy-faced stumble, and the beatings continue there, in numbing repetition. Not a Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List "My mind is so battered it is numb with shock" reaction. More: "Are you still at this, Gibson? Where did I put my drink?" The music swells to let us know we find it moving.

And the movie is only beginning.

"They're the ones what killed our Lord"

That one is a quote from an old television series called Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, in case you're not steeped in television trivia. A sweet-faced, perky-voiced character announces this, I believe on a show within the show, causing the pretend-show to be pulled immediately from the air. Mary Hartman aired about twenty-five, thirty years ago, if I recall correctly. The blithely ignorant character is of course referring to (whisper, now) Those Jews.

In The Passion, Jewish soldiers pay a lynch mob, a posse, a few dozen people to be the angry crowd. Thus the director exonerates the common folk from responsibility. He exonerates them further, later, by sliding Satan into the mix. No, it's not that the entire Jewish people are to blame. Just that crazy Caiaphas and his goons and their hired mob calling down a curse on their heads (so I am told; the words are unsubtitled in the film). Much time is given over to explaining the pressure Pilate is under, but Caiaphas is just a leering baddie surrounded by Evil Minions. His own political, moral, and religious outrage is unexamined. JC is later hauled before Herod (Luca de Dominicis, attempting to channel Peter Ustinov). Herod capers more than Caiaphas, and his goons appear to be all the actors too stoned to have made it into a Fellini film. In the background, slaves (presumably non-Jewish) look up significantly before they have anything significant to react to. Like the birds and the little animals, the slaves just know JC is special.

On to the Romans.

"Romans they go the house"

It was hard not to start snickering at the Latin at first (and not just because of my bad experience with the movie Sebastiane), but then Pontius Pilate takes to the screen (played by Hristo Naumov Shopov—although I thought it was Giovanni Capalbo in the credits; I must have misread; he might be the Roman sergeant with the expressively craggy face). Ironically, with Pilate the film briefly explodes into humanity and passion. Pilate's Latin rolls naturally and easily. Although his wife, Claudia (Claudia Gerini), sounds like she's practising for a Junior Classical League competition, she is also fairly effective. This two-hour act of celluloid self-Indulgence becomes a movie whenever one or the other is on screen. Claudia's small kindness to Mary and Mary Magdalene evokes some emotion, because it shows a human connection, far too rare in the film. Having dispensed with this, Gibson can turn back to the beatings, with as much slow motion as he can muster, including what Tempest, my companion for the evening, termed "the worst scene in film history." Tempest doesn't go to as many movies as I do.

Now that JC is in the hands of the Romans, the movie really gets into its sado-masochistic roll. The Roman soldiers use whips and flesh-gouging scourges. I presume we're to derive some sense of how humans are infected with evil from the sight of Satan slinking, elf-like, through the crowd, but the effect of the long (long (long)) torture scene is ultimately pornographic and—although I hate to use the word in the context of what Gibson must think he has created—masturbatory.

"Ecce Homo"

Pilate seems to have evolved in movie folklore from a callous Roman villain, who executed thousands in order to preserve his governorship then denied responsibility, into a trapped and helpless bureaucrat. With much furrowing of brow, the actor excellently portrays the frustration of this whitewashed Pilate and his attempt to work with the people he governs, to understand them and understand his prisoner. He does a good job looking trapped, even when the script isn't giving him much to be overwhelmed by other than Caiaphas' leering smirks and capering.

But wait, there's more

The movie plods along, not drawing us into the event but repeating itself again and again; revelling in the sort of agony Gibson seems to like wallowing through (to judge by some of his previous work—Braveheart, The Patriot). JC begins his long walk to execution on Calvary. The audience knows the emotional level of the movie has heightened because the music swells and picks up a quick beat.

I think we may see the seeds of a sort of mother-goddess Marianism in the eyes of a Roman soldier. Gibson almost manages to make the point of showing Romans, who are spreading throughout that circle of land, picking up the religious movement. These touches are subtle, not through their own quality but in contrast to the bedlam around them. For every touch that Almost Works, are a dozen scenes of daft and dense-headed filmmaking. A flashcard of JC falling as a child and Mary rushing to his aid is set in contrast to Mary trying to reach him as he walks toward the cross, spoiled by a maudlin slow-motion that recalls some violin-laced scene of lovers running toward each other across a beach at sunset.

Pop quiz: Do we all know where the word "maudlin" comes from, class? How about "bedlam"? Okay, quiz over.

But wait, there's more... and more... and...

There's much perfunctory rushing about as people sprint in when spelled out in gospels and when it's time to make a holy relic or two. There are more beatings and lashings and kickings and lacerations. Without the languorous slow-motion caress across every spray of blood, I think this movie would last about a half hour. Finally we get the flashcard version of the Sermon on the Mount and the Powerpoint version of the Last Supper. Close-ups on JC, the sun behind him, wind riffling his hair, haloed with cliched cinematography. One might think these pivotal events, and the ministry giving hope and power to the poor and disenfranchised, would be a message worth telling. But this is not a movie about that—those can be dispensed with in less than a minute all combined, split into catchphrases suitable for bumper stickers, rather than as emotional build-up to the ending of the film or as counterpoint to the drama of the execution.

And what an execution it is. Gibson gets the Crucifixion set up so it can look exactly like those old paintings. He gives JC a cross-shaped cross to lug, although the thieves just get their crossbeams. Drops of viscous blood gush into the air around an upward pointing spike of a nail. (I leave that to you to interpret.) Red drips and pours everywhere. Gibson misses an opportunity to compare the execution with the bread and wine of the Last Supper, because he's just too darned anxious to get back to the gore. On and on the torture goes until it has no meaning whatsoever.

The post-Crucifixion earthquake is fairly effective. Pools of blood puddle around the future relics like a bad case of Venus Envy. Then everybody poses for a Pieta. The screen falls to black for a while, during which the audience is presumably expected to gather their dark thoughts and wipe their eyes dry. Then, in Murk-o-vision augmented by a yellow light-bulb, the movie continues. The Resurrection scene has nothing of wonder, nor of hope, nor of a new era. It is claustrophobic, dull, uninspired, and uninspiring. There is nothing artful or original or insightful here.

This is not movie-making on an epic scale. There are very few extras, relatively speaking, no sweep and grandeur. The movie makes its very large subjects—a prophet who claims to have come directly from the deity, his doubt and determination, the salvation of the human race—seem very small and inconsequential.

You'll have to go into the theatre already prepped for a religious high to find one here. Although, some non-religious people might enjoy it simply for the gore. This movie made Tempest badmouth Christianity. Which, admittedly, many of my Pagan friends spend a lot of time doing anyway, but it is certainly not a movie to open the minds of people to new possibilities. There is no emotional engagement, and certainly no logical engagement.

It is a slasher flick.

I tried to be engaged by the movie, to feel the suffering, to join in the grieving, but the unoriginal gross-out gore-fest pushed me away. One wonders what a Wes Craven would have done with it. Or that other director sometimes known for gorey movies, Peter Jackson. Oh, wait—Peter Jackson already made a successful movie about sacrifice, love, struggle, and redemption.

To See or Not to See: Don't.

Outside Food: This evening the role of Wine is being played by "Deus" twice-fermented Belgian Ale, and the role of Bread is being played by a lemon scone. Also: gummi worms, for the thing in Satan's nose (never mind, don't think about it). Tempest got the eight extra ounces of watered-down fruit punch for an extra 25 cents.
Posted by OutsideFood at 06:00 PM | Comments (43)

February 24, 2004

Anticipating: The Passion

Dum Dallae sum, apud amicos manebo. Non scio quando The Passion of the Christ videbo. Nonne hoc intellegis? Quis est quin linguam Latinam amet? Eheu! Oculi mei fiunt languidi.

Oh, sorry, aren't you fluent in ancient languages? I'm pretty rusty myself. Allow me to provide subtitles.

The last movie I saw performed entirely in an ancient vernacular (not counting the occasional production of Aeschylus) was Sebastiane, a film about the early Christian martyr Sebastian. It managed to make naked Roman soldiers engaging in a variety of explicit acts incredibly tedious. The gimmick of performing the movie in Latin (pronounced with a wild array of accents and in randomly grouped syllables by the mostly buff and mainly naked actors) quickly became distracting, except for one amusing scene among buff, naked Romans about the latest arena spectacular by "Fellinus." All told, the movie was a conceitful vehicle for the director to explore a rather obscene obsession and it quickly became No Fun At All, even with all the buff, naked, sex-crazed ancient Romans, which I otherwise wish we would see more of in the movies. Sebastiane is pornography pretending to be Art—or, rather, the distributors thought they could pass a porno film off as Fellini. The language gimmick just distracted the audience from the nookie, which, as I recall, was rather shoddy itself. Purely prurient. But then, I'm a chick, and we generally like a little coherent story mixed in with the nudity.

Now, why do I worry an extremely religious man such as Mel Gibson would produce a movie comparable to a silly skin flick that just happened to be performed in Latin?

Extremism can be obscene even if it arrives under a veil of pious expression, just as much as any movie out of Hollywood, most of them extreme in their own ways.

What are we afraid of?

Misogyny? Anti-Semitism? The spectre of zealous piety in our dangerous era? Badly pronounced Aramaic? I won't know how the movie rates on those scales, and whether it simply presents a time-and-place truthfully, or whether it encourages a hateful message as rabidly and caricatured as D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation celebrated racism, until I see it for myself. Call me Thomas. My main fears about the movie are, truth be told, entirely on a different concern. I'm afraid it's simply going to be a bad movie, in the same way Bertolucci's recent The Dreamers has been criticised for narrow-minded self-indulgence. It's hard to imagine a film described as focussing on the suffering of a man (the root meaning of the word Passion, after all) can be anything else. I'll try to go in with an open mind. But I have my biases.

I don't yet rate invitations to special previews (some way, somehow, maybe after I have fifty reviews set in pixels, I'll be able to present myself as a Real Movie Critic and score!), so I sit in anticipation with everyone else, awaiting opening day on the first day of Lent. (You'd think it would be the sort of movie that would open on Good Friday or at a gala Maundy Thursday midnight premiere, but if you're being particularly overweeningly pious, you might not have much else to do between bouts of theological contemplation over the next forty days, except go see this movie.) I'm currently commuting 190 miles (each way) to a part-time contract job, adding a complication to seeing the movie at an early screening. Rumour has it the film is harrowing, gruelling, the equivalent of hitting the beaches in the early sequences of Saving Private Ryan (before that film became Just Another Cliched War Movie).

Heretically, in my theological contemplations, I focus on the acts, teaching, and philosophies, eschewing the (very human) need to zero in on the pain and agony of an are you listening now? event. The idea of ritual sacrifice and martyrs for the cause (for example, St. Sebastian) is so tied in with the human mindset it makes sense as a divine blockbuster production, but too singular a focus does seem to miss the point of the philosophy on how to live day to day. I won't go into an extended discussion, but my personal approach to religion does inform my general sense of distaste at displays of western pain-based sanctity, from ancient and mediaeval times through the present day. I also don't care for violent films about drag racing, war, or teenagers at summer camps stalked by psychopaths, when the films focus on the bloodshed rather than the people. I worry that this Passion will be not hyper-evangelism, not riddled with ugly and dangerous Anti-Semitism, not heavy-laden with reactionary Roman Catholicism, but an attempt to inflict emotional suffering on the audience just for the sake of manipulating frenzied emotion. I've heard Gibson filmed his own hands hammering the nails rather than an anonymous everyman/any-woman, and I worry it will be as self-worshipful as the prolonged slow-motion closeups of Braveheart. I worry where the focus will ultimately turn.

There's a part in the long Easter Even mass where the attendees assume the role of the rabid crowd in the reading. The worshippers are the ones to shout, Go ahead and execute this criminal. It forces the churchgoers to examine the callousness of ignoring the human being in front of them, and to examine the mentality of running with the crowd rather than paying attention to the message. It does not in itself assign blame to a particular group of ancient people of this or that cultural subset; it directs "blame" onto the behaviour of the blindly, willfully inattentive Human Mob. One of the best movies to demonstrate this very behaviour in the context of western/near-eastern religion is—brace yourself—Life of Brian. In unison the crowd flocking after Brian exclaims:

"We are all individuals!"

Which path does director Mel Gibson take? Sebastiane, Birth of a Nation, Saving Private Ryan, Life of Brian, or something entirely and creatively new?

Please stand by.

Posted by OutsideFood at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2004

Touching The Void

Very Cold Mountain

Touching The Void posterTouching The Void
starring: Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron; with narration by Joe Simpson, Simon Yates, and Richard Hawking. Directed by Kevin Macdonald; Produced by John Smithson. Director Of Photography: Mike Eley; Photography by Keith Partridge, Simon Wagen, Dan Shoring. Based on the book Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.
running time: 106 minutes
MPAA says: This film is not rated. There's a bit of profanity, which is only to be expected, given the circumstances.
Release date: February 20, 2004 (Austin, TX).
Seen at: Regal Arbor Cinema at Great Hills. Nice clean screens, if not large, and the theatre could almost pass for an "art house," with a good selection of non-blockbuster films. The restrooms have gigantic glass pumpkins full of liquid handsoap (apparently the staff doesn't want to have to change the soap... ever). The seats are plush red velvet, high backed, with armrests that can be raised and lowered and make very good foot rests, provided no one is sitting in front of you. Unfortunately, the pretty seats don't tilt, and after watching a movie from the third row, my neck was in knots.

I miss snow. But not this much.

Siula GrandeTouching the Void begins with an extreme closeup of a pickaxe and climbing apparatus being driven into an ice wall, focussed on the compression and cracking of the hazy ice. It echoes the moment, later in the film, when Joe Simpson, one of the narrators, strikes his axe against a wall and determines that it somehow doesn't sound quite right, just before he loses his grip on the face of a mountain and tumbles to the end of the rope tied to his climbing partner, Simon Yates, and shatters his right leg. The rest of the film is the story of Simon's brute-force effort to lower Joe, 300 feet at a time (the length of their combined ropes) down a 21,000-foot peak; Simon's eventual excruciating decision to cut Joe loose to save his own life; and the bizarre circumstances of Joe surviving a plummet into a crevasse and a long, slow crawl through a glaciated maze, through the tumble of fragmented tumuli beyond it, and his attempt to reach base camp before his companions leave.

Joe and Simon, fairly novice climbers, set out to wrestle the previously unclimbed west face of Siula Grande in the Andes, 21,000-feet in height, where the snow behaves in grostesquely un-Alpine fashion. It clings to sheer rock faces, ice walls, and razor-edged precipes in "meringues, mushrooms, and cornices." The narrator might be saying "moraines." But the froths of snow in Carvel-softcone swirls look like meringues, immense but fragile, as the high winds whip billowing patterns of snow into the air like smoky clouds.

Joe SimpsonWe know Joe survives his ordeal because the real-life Joe is present to narrate the story of the expedition. This is a documentary intercut with dramatic reenactments. Eventually the story drags the audience into the events, each moment informed by the narrator—a man self-aware of his foolishness, but also proud of his strength and determination.

Joe Simpson's great sense of understanding and forgiveness regarding Simon—what drew me to this film when I heard him in an interview on National Public Radio—do not come across as clearly in the film. There is also less of the sense that (again, from the interview) much of what drove Joe to drag himself for days without food or water across a barren mountainside, eventually losing a third his body weight through exertion and dehydration, was that he wanted to die with someone. Not survive—just not be alone in his final moments. The documentary makes it more the story of an alpha male driving himself toward survival, and therefore is less poignant. But it is a harrowing and fascinating story nonetheless, punctuated by dry humour and unpolished human perspective, without the hyper-dramatisation and emotional manipulation of a big-budget drama. And the scenery, of course, is breathtaking. As impressive as Joe's survival, is that the documentary filmmakers and the climbers (including Joe Simpson and Simon Yates occasionally portraying themselves) scaled mountains and crevasses and glaciers to present a sense of Siula Grande to the audience.

crevasseThese Alpha Males and their anti-Darwinistic behaviour fare quite a bit better than most of the participants in another under-prepared expedition, the 1996 climb of Mount Everest documented in Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The accident of a horribly broken leg and knee joint were compounded by a lack of supplies. Joe and Simon might have been able to travel more slowly and cautiously and might have avoided the accident, or they might have been able to descend more slowly and not have ended up separated, had the climbers brought a sufficient supply of gas to melt snow into water to rehydrate themselves. Low on supplies, then eventually without supplies at all, they rushed through their climb and, when circumstances turned dire, were forced into dangerous decisions.

To See or Not to See: For all its huge subjects—life, death, the survival instinct, obligation, guilt, the mountain—it's a small film that moves quickly and lightly over the depths, letting them speak for themselves. And that's a good thing. I suspect that the book, with presumably more of Joe's insight into his friendship with Simon and continued loyalty to him, may be the more compelling version of this story, but then you'd miss the vision of those billowing clouds above the mountain.

Just as when I went to see Everest at an IMAX theatre, the power of suggestion nearly did me in; I shivered all the way through. Bring a woolly hat and mittens.

Outside Food: I ate it all before I left home, and was underprepared for my ordeal.

Previews: I was underwhelmed.

Kill Bill Part 2: Uma Thurman talks in black&white to the camera. No one in the audience seemed interested, and this was in Austin, which is usually Tarantino-Town.

The Barbarian Invasions: A heartwarming celebration of our lives. Maybe I was exhausted from lack of outside food. The trailer had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Jim Carrey meets enigmatic chick (Kate Winslet) who changes her hair colour more frequently than my friends from the Risley artsy-crazy dorm days. Elijah Wood pops in and out of a spectacularly confusing trailer that appears to be about having one's memory selectively erased. I kept having flashbacks to Paycheck, which is a bad, bad thing.

The Day After Tomorrow: Sweeping snow-covered mountainous vistas, crevasses with icebound ships instead of climbers. Science fiction on one of my favourite topics: a post-apocalyptic world, the devastation brought on this time by a climate wildly out of control, plunging Earth into a sudden ice age. Opens on Memorial Day. From the director of Independence Day, which I thought was quite entertainingly funny. Of course, I also liked Timeline.

The Stepford Wives: Have your very own Nicole Kidman built to match your Lexus. Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, and a bunch of other powerhouse actors.

This movie seen through the kind contribution of a friend. Thank you.

Touching the Void photos copyright Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert & Brian Hall/FilmFour Ltd.

Posted by OutsideFood at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)