Unrelenting but also inspiring

Filmmakers have endeavored to capture this man on celluloid since the silent era of film, but Jesus might be one of the hardest historical figures to film.

The Passion of the Christ (2004) co-writer and director Mel Gibson portrays Jesus, played by Jim Caviezel, in his anguish and torment, in an unrelenting portrayal of Jesus’ Roman crucifixion which doesn’t hold back any punches.

From the beginning of the film, as Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is agonizing over God’s will, but Jesus’ obedience to the will of God will lead him to the cross of crucifixion in its unrelenting ‘passion’, a grueling two hours for the viewer.

Jesus’ agonized facial expressions, as portrayed by Jim Caviezel, elevates the intensity of the moment in Gethsemane. Then, Judas betrays him and gives him over to his enemies to be crucified.

Dialogue in Latin, albeit unhistorical, and Aramaic, adds flavor (and subtitled in English) and space has been made to digress from a verbatim retelling of the gospel in the aid of drama.

But the effect is, at times, overdone, with showy slow-motion camera movements, intended to revere Jesus while it’s also violent.

The relationship between Mary and Jesus is sincere. The flashbacks to Jesus’ life in ministering to the needs of others makes a striking contradiction from many scenes of his torture–why such horror for such a good character? Jesus’ taking on the burden of humanity sins is the supernatural and theological substance Gibson doesn’t elaborate on too much.

The brutish Roman guards make the scourging look realistic. The scene eventually climaxes in an emotional crescendo—when the violence becomes too much for this viewer, an eventual bogging down in excessive violence, a violence that is hinted at right at the start with the quotation from Isaiah the prophet, that hints at yet another blood fest from the director of Braveheart.

Yet, The Passion of the Christ is an emotional roller-coaster. It can reach a haunting tone and moments that tear at the heart, but there’s also a hint of inspiration. There are moments that make us sympathize with Jesus and we see his selflessness. While one shouldn’t sacrifice one’s life as Jesus literally did, The Passion of the Christ challenges us in our own contexts to endure the pain of putting to death selfish actions and inactions.

The Passion of the Christ (2004) ***½ Revised version of review, original published Entertainmentnutz.com, 2004. Starring: James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Francesco Cabras, Rosalinda Celentano, Claudia Gerini, Ivano Marescotti, Matt Patresi, Sergio Rubini. Screenwriter: Ben Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson. Director: Mel Gibson.


A rich, but also bleak, drama

The Color Purple (1985) is based on Alice Walker’s diary-formatted novel, about life for African Americans during the early 1900s in the American South. It is well translated to the screen.

It begins with teenager Celie giving birth to twins, their father is Celie’s father.

When she is older, Celie becomes the housewife of Albert (Danny Glover), who needs her to look after his household chores. Though Albert would sooner have married Celie’s sister Nettie because she is more attractive.

Celie, they say, is ugly, but knows how to work hard, and Nettie isn’t for “sale”.
A hard thing for Celie to take is when Nettie is visiting Celie and she’s thrown out of Albert’s house. The separation of the close bound sisters is raw.

The hard life abounds in The Color Purple. When I looked closely at the first half, it is bleak. Manhood and masculinity are equated with aggression and abuse to show who’s boss, but it leaves the women in their lives hurting and fighting for survival. Inter-generational sins of the fathers come down to visit the sons.

It’s not an easy watch in the first half, but shows people doing the best they can in a difficult world. This is someone’s story. This is real. But what’s inflicted on others is still unacceptable.

The meaning of ‘purple’, an intermediately colour between the colds of blue and the hots of red, sums up the first half. Life can be ‘blue’ or ‘red’, but in between is how one copes, it’s not flash, but somehow one gets through. It’s the ‘colour purple’.

But the second half is transcendent. Here’s the theme of having enough and confronting the abuse. Here’s taking a stand, here’s finding redemption. It’s also about coming to terms with God in their almost hopeless world.

As well, the second half broadens the scope of the film, to how black and white interact. Sofia, played with spunk and fire by Oprah Winfrey, comes out worse for ware, in her interactions with whites, but Sofia is not one that is easily walked over.

The Color Purple is rich in characters, performances, and delivers a redemptive story, but it also has bleak parts.

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie is outstanding in her subtle and nuanced delivery, Danny Glover is, as always, convincing, playing Albert, Celie’s husband by arrangement.

Great support comes in all directions, especially Margaret Avery as a singer who shows Celie affection for the first time and Oprah Winfrey storms her way through her role like a powerhouse.

The Color Purple (1985) **** Starring: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey. Director: Steven Spielberg. Warnings: a profanity, domestic violence, and sexual situations.

Great start to new Star Wars trilogy

Luke Skywalker has vanished, the Empire has crumbled, and from its ashes cometh the First Order. The Resistance is fighting back.

The previous trilogy with the centrality of the Skywalker hero and the shadow of the insidious Empire has come and gone.

Enter the new in Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens (2015), the next episode in the continuation of the Star Wars series, just over thirty years since Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi.

However, there are remnants of the former trilogy that appear on screen. Luke Skywalker isn’t fully absent and Han Solo and Leia return. Chewbacca, C3-PO and R2-D2 are still here.

Even Darth Vader gets a vague reference although he died in the earlier film.

The freshness of the new film is referenced when the evil Imperial leader Snoke tells his right-hand man Kylo Ren he senses an awakening in the Force, the New Age-like mystical energy that surrounds and binds everything. Something is anticipated or brooding on the horizon which isn’t made fully clear, yet.

It makes one hanker for what’s going to happen more than the old although one can’t resist seeing the old come and do their stuff.

The new characters hit the spot. Daisy Ridley plays a tough scavenger whose instincts are to survive and gets involved in the fight against the First Order; John Boyega as a defective Imperial trooper has over-the-top charm; Oscar Issac plays a Resistance fighter obviously on the side of integrity. A new droid has spunk.

Having a villain as menacing as Darth Vader would be a feat, but Kylo Ren just about comes close. Adam Driver is mostly masked throughout the film, but as Ren his voice conveys fear that will send shivers through your spine and with the first sequence of mindless violence the First Order is palpably scary.

The bare bones of the story is finding Luke Skywalker who has vanished. The First Order want this “last Jedi” eliminated, but the Resistance need him back on their team.

It’s a fresh Star Wars film, with a few new story revelations, but like other Star Wars films that have a clear good versus evil thread. In this one, the meat in-between is engrossing and the production values top notch.

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens (2015) ****½ Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. Director: J.J. Abrams.

Out of Africa sweeps one up

Thematically, Out of Africa (1985) has got some interesting points, of one’s place and connection in the world in spite of the transient nature of life, seeing the life God intended although the world is imperfect, and the small details of life carrying some significance for good or ill. A bit of a smorgasbord of ideas, a bit of a mix and pick, but the ideas connect to the central story.

Out of Africa is based on real people and fictionalized for dramatic effect, Danish baroness Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) moves to colonial Kenya and marries her best friend there, Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer). There is a strain in her marriage as Bror has infidelities coming left, right and centre despite them trying to make a go of a coffee plantation in the African country.

Enter big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). Ever so gently a romance develops after Blixen’s divorce from Bror.

The spectrum of events like these can make one question one’s place in the world, question if the events are ominous or good, and somehow get back to the life God intended. Ambiguous and lucid but getting through the fog to find a meaningful life.

Meryl Streep had two acting Oscars already on her mantelpiece before she filmed Out of Africa. When the Oscar nominations came out in 1986, she was nominated for her role as Karen Blixen. She didn’t win and didn’t win again for another 26 years when she got another one for The Iron Lady in 2012. But some may say that the field was so good in 1986 that they all deserved the Oscar.

The beauty of Meryl Streep’s performance as Karen Blixen is that she consumes her role as if disappearing in it, which many say is what Meryl Streep tends to do. Streep may be the best thing in Out of Africa but there are other reasons to admire it as a movie.

Streep consumes her role as Blixen, but when she’s with Redford and he’s putting on the charisma, you start to think, oh, he’s a star and so is she. Redford has that effect on occasion, but mostly you wouldn’t notice.

There’s a slow burning romance between the main characters. Finch Hatton takes Karen Blixen on his plane–some magnificent aerial photography showcases the romance of the African landscape. By then it’s more than a date, not that dates figure in this film’s world.

I’m not commending the moral flaws in this film, such as the infidelities, the divorce, and the romance with another man, but Streep’s wonderful performance, and Brandauer’s too, the production’s handsomeness, the literate sweep from a screenplay by Kurt Luedtke (based on the writings of Karen Blixen), the detail and well-developed characters, are all on the flip side. There are few lulls. I was taken into this movie’s cocoon. A tremendous effort, a film that’s focused and follows through on what’s been established, and a film of poetry, nuance and detail, delivered with a return on the viewer.

Out of Africa (1985) ****½ Starring: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer. Director: Sydney Pollock.

Ambitious film does get a sense of tragedy over

In sum, Bitter Harvest (2017) is a dullish movie, but memorable for its theme, which by the end has an effect. As they say, only a stony heart would not be moved.

There are apparently other voices which question the validity of the history propounded in this film. But I don’t doubt the potential of human beings to do evil things, which is treated as a tragedy in Bitter Harvest.

The film is a depiction of the Ukraine facing the imposition of what became known as Stalin’s death-by-starvation campaign in the 1930’s. The country is forced to submit to Stalin’s territorial plans which inadvertently caused poverty and starvation.

Resist Yuri (Max Irons) does, even as he and his girlfriend Natalka (Samantha Barks) are apart. Central to proceedings is this love story – which is the anthesis of the Soviet plans in the Ukraine –and is a welcome change of pace to the official line that caused suffering in the region.

As things unfold, as Yuri and his friends attempt escape and save their families, it is a plod, though. Terrence Stamp and Barry Pepper add a dash of distinction to the cast. The rest of the cast doesn’t provide the powerful performances demanded by the material.

The impish production scale does not fit the film’s thematic and story ambitions, but on one level the tragedy that unfolds may have an effect, though epic or something of scale the film isn’t.

It doesn’t go into much graphic detail over what happened, but that wouldn’t have improved the film anyway. Even if action added vigour to proceedings that may not have fitted in with the intentions – that of highlighting injustice.

Certainly, some filmmakers can create empathy out of action or violence done in such and such a manner, where there’s a sense of tragedy about the violence. But Bitter Harvest is no Schindler’s List and going by what’s here, perhaps the material outshines the abilities of the filmmakers and the size of the budget.

Bitter Harvest is certainly no epic, but it is well-meaning and worthwhile as it takes a pointed stand against genocide. If you take the film seriously, considering it’s about genocide, it should have the effect of sad resignation over what’s happened and the frustrating inability to have changed it.

Bitter Harvest (2017) *** Starring: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Terrence Stamp, Barry Pepper. Director: George Mendeluk. From a story by Richard Bachynsky Hoover. Screenplay by George Mendeluk and Richard Bachynsky Hoover. Warnings—Rated R for violence and disturbing images.

Not Mozart the musical, but it does contain Mozart’s music

This is not a musical about the legendary Mozart, the man who brought the world the ‘divine’ operas The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni, among others, but which are recreated in part in Amadeus (1984).

I know that some people liked the musical episodes in this film more than the story, but I am not in that camp. I appreciated the music, but enjoyed the story, the production and performances more.

It is no straightforward, sentimentalized bio-pic of the musical genius, who wrote his first symphony at age five (a fact which I forever remember in the extended remix of Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus.). Perhaps some inspiration could be leveraged from his life, but not in this film.

Amadeus is fiction, based on the play by Anthony Shaffer, that takes liberties about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and imagines his descent at the hands of another Austrian composer, who in history perhaps had a good relationship with Mozart.

This man, Salieri, is fictionalized as a rival in the film, who appears friendly and well-mannered but seethes with jealousy at Mozart’s better abilities and gifts in music.

Salieri was also disillusioned by Mozart because of his appetite for the seamier side of life, which according to this film was Mozart’s crude, rude and unconventional side, but Mozart’s music held a rare purity of sound, beauty, and skill, which came naturally to Mozart, a fact that confused and infuriated Salieri.

Salieri plotted Mozart’s downfall in a silently brooding and calculated effort to swipe the man of genius from his pedestal and put this “trained monkey” in his place.

Cold hearted snake Salieri was, his obsession to be the best consumed him though he would never reach Mozart’s heights. His confession to a priest comes after his suicide attempt, because of his guilt at doing the unthinkable, to rid the world of Mozart and another human being.

Yet his music is what Salieri connects with. It is flawless and remarkably skilled yet triggers Salieri’s base instincts, instincts which have nothing to do with Mozart’s music, but with Salieri’s nature.

In the end, from a bird’s eye view, God who bestows the gifts has no favorites.
This was my first serious film that I really appreciated—so have a special place in my heart for it.

Salieri’s (F. Murray Abraham) confession of jealousy and revenge to a Catholic priest frames the drama. It takes a while for Salieri to unleash his “demons”—in a sophisticated plot to kill Mozart (Tom Hulce) involving the ‘ghostly’ presence of Mozart’s overbearing father and the naïve complicity of Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Berridge) who is susceptible to Salieri’s good manners.

Salieri’s passions had been simmering underneath for a good hour-and-so into the film during which Amadeus may be faulted at being too literary minded. However, Amadeus works, and production values and musical episodes are done to the hilt.

Revised version, original published Entertainmentnutz.com, 2000. Amadeus (1984) ****½ Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge. Director: Milos Forman.


Myth is the attraction of this fantasy

I have a soft spot for Krull (1983). It was critically maligned, and didn’t do big business at the box office, but the attraction of Krull for me is its purity. It’s centre of gravity is in the good, a substance somehow invisible, but tangible, and which energizes.

Krull is not the most professional piece of filmmaking, but it does have at its core the power of a good myth.

Mythical tones

Krull is like a combination of Excalibur and Star Wars, where medieval meets science fiction fantasy.

The planet of Krull has the hallmarks of a medieval setting, with lush country side, mountains, and desolate areas such as caves and craggy rock faces.

There’s armoury on the Slayers, riders on horseback, castles, kings, queens, princes and opposing tribes.

In terms of the influences of a film like Star Wars on Krull, there are laser weapons, a wise old man, a hero and a princess, and the influence of evil.

Good attempts to save the day.

The prince searches for a mysterious, powerful weapon, like the lightsabre that Luke Skywalker used, to destroy the beast.

It is also a myth of peculiar charm. It has its own lines of wisdom, philosophy, and ways, that make it peculiarly Krull.

The story of Krull

The story goes that a wicked beast roams the galaxy, seeking whom it may devour, with domination on its mind. The beast can change at will, and even appear to look good.

“There is no love in it,” says the film’s princess. This beast is a cold-hearted snake.

The beast lands on the planet Krull in a fortress. The beast’s soldiers, the Slayers, ransack a castle, leaving a prince wounded and his princess captured. With the assistance of a wise old man, the prince goes in search of his princess—who has been taken to the beast’s fortress—to bring her back, as well as destroy the beast. With the prince come a crew of supporters, one played by a young Liam Neeson, and another played by a young Robbie Coltrane.

The fighting scenes are a bit tinny. Krull is not perfect. But it’s still has that invisible touch. A wise and disenchanted widow, surrounded by a giant spider’s web, whose name only one knows, may be familiar, but its wrapped up in Krull’s invisible touch. The power of its myth is optimistic, positive, and restorative. With the rousing James Horner score, it’s stirring.

Krull (1983) ***½ Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Alun Armstrong, David Battley, Bernard Bresslaw. Writer: Stanford Sherman. Director: Peter Yates

Judge not the theme of this murder mystery drama

The investigative murder mystery A Soldier’s Story (1984) comes around to a profound maxim that ricochets thematically through the entire story: who are you to judge your brother? Do not judge wouldn’t seem to be the point considering an investigator is sent to identify who killed a sergeant, but the theme of crime and punishment is juxtaposed with the human story and a sense of brotherly love that goes deep.

It is bonding between brothers in a close-knit military unit and baseball team, in Louisiana, 1944. But the unit’s sergeant causes them grief. He is murdered although there is no hint of foul play in the unit.

An investigator is put into the case. Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a black lawyer, is assigned from Washington D.C, to find out who killed the sergeant.

The unit co-operates, but the white folk of the town may not accept an African American man investigating the shooting of a black man. They think a white man may get unfairly pinned as the culprit.

The self-confident Davenport stands his ground to do the job he is assigned. Davenport says he is about the facts, but even he appears to hold a sense of suspicion about who did it. Essentially, he’s fair, even when the prevailing racist attitudes of the community may cause him to think a white man may have done it.

The events around the murder of Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar) unfolds in interviews and conversations with the unit’s men. They are dramatized in flashback.

As that unfolds, the murder victim is boozy, good-hearted, and a spit and polish kind of sergeant and becomes a clear-as-crystal character.

Waters demeaning attitude towards some of his men rubs them the wrong way setting up a potential showdown between brothers and a possible motive for murder.

It ends up a worthwhile story as it makes one think about the humanity of characters one may not side with.

A Soldier’s Story (1984) wasn’t the frontrunner to win Best Picture at the 1985 Oscars. With Places in the Heart it was an also-ran. A Soldier’s Story didn’t win the Best Picture category in the end. It shows on a purely superficial level. It’s no epic, it’s not highly visual, it’s not indulgent, and it’s not an obviously cinematic film. It was based on a play.

Nevertheless, this who-done-it murder mystery is good dramatic entertainment. It is buoyant but more than juxtaposed by a deep seriousness. There’s some dirty language and mild profanity, but director Norman Jewison’s efforts behind the camera shows skill has gone into making this film, it’s engaging, and all the performances, especially Howard Rollins as the airily confident investigator, are excellent.

A Soldier’s Story (1984) ****½ Starring: Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, Art Evans, Larry Riley, Denzel Washington, Scott Paulin. Director: Norman Jewison.

This much-anticipated Star Wars sequel was fun, but with serious moments

Han Solo’s buddies are there to rescue him.

Solo (Harrison Ford) is encased in carbonite as a prize for the slimy, slug-like gangster Jabba the Hutt. Solo’s been indebted to the Hutt. Now Jabba has him, yet not the money he’s owed. But as payback, the person himself.

It sounds like the plot out of a pulpy Star Wars expanded universe novel, but The Empire Strikes Back which preceded Return of the Jedi gave gravitas to the scenario.

In Empire, the situation Solo found himself in was touched by danger. He was unjustly treated and betrayed. In the end, he lost. It gives his rescue mission in Return of the Jedi (1983) a sense of weight to proceedings, for a man who was put into so much difficulty, should be saved by equal measure of salvation.

One by one, Luke’s friends make their entrance into Jabba’s Palace to save Solo. It is obvious they have a plan. A hologram of Luke Skywalker is projected by the droid R2-D2 to present a message to Jabba the Hutt, but the message is rejected by Jabba and the droid employed into the service of the palace. Back-ups follow, in disguise, until it comes down to the last man, in a crucial action scene at the Tatooine dunes.

The rescue mission is punctuated by a sense of fun instead of heaviness, which is not so much a bad thing as it turns out. Jabba’s Palace is filled with sketchy, caricatured low-lives, one’s you wouldn’t care to get to know. But they are so sketchy they seem less sinister than what they probably are and more adequately fun. Fans would be buying the Palace toy and every figure that inhabits it.

The story progresses from Jabba’s Palace. Hero Luke Skywalker is seeking to convert villain Darth Vader to the good side. He’s coming to terms with losing a Jedi master and the revelation he has a sister, but all this existential angst is in the shadows of other moments. Fun moments.

Moments like the Rebel Briefing where the Rebels gather to discuss the strike on the Empire’s half-completed Death Star. You can’t take the overt statesmanship of this scene with gravitas.

The Rebel strike showcases the best action scenes and visual effects in the movie. Heaps of fun.

And moments with Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor, the Empire’s head honcho. He buoys the scenes he is in, to make those scenes come alive. The Emperor’s theatrical plays of power is a lot of good innocent fun.

Vader and Luke’s story which is supposed to resonate doesn’t nail it at times. The human moment that Vader and Luke share strains for effect, the sentiment somehow misses the mark.

But other serious moments resonate. One watches Vader and Luke duelling to the sounds of quasi-religious music on the soundtrack, heightening the theme of good versus evil.

Later, the redemptive moment echoes off profoundly.

Return of the Jedi may be more about the fun moments, but the serious moments that work count for something. And one can see how the finale all pans out and is very moved at the end of it.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) **** Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Dave Prowse, voice of Frank Oz and James Earl Jones. Director: Richard Marquand.

What may be a problem with the sequel to Star Wars, though it’s not definitive

As a kid, you’re excited by the possibilities of a sequel to Star Wars. What will it look like? What it be like? What will it feel like? And what will happen? All salient questions after experiencing the first Star Wars which blew kid’s minds. But there may be a problem, that the kid may have sensed, but couldn’t articulate.

Though it does not define Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), what may be a problem with this sequel to Star Wars – much lauded as being the best Star Wars, however wrongly – is the baddies read the Imperials, standing in for dictatorship, dominance and control and oppression—look bigger, faster and stronger than the “goodies”, the Rebel Alliance, read: Luke, Han, Leia, droids, and goodwill.

The Rebels look so small against the Imperial forces, led by a resurgent Darth Vader after his and his empire’s defeat in Star Wars.

While the Rebels fumble in the dark. It’s an unequal match and the odds of winning against the Imperials.

In the first Star Wars, the drama of good versus evil was centred in the good side, so we knew where we stood.

When Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) places the readouts of the plans to the Imperial Death Star into a droid the audience are identifying with the good side right at the start. We know that those plans must be sent to a “good guy”, the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who will use them in the defeat of the Imperials.

Not so in The Empire Strikes Back. The hero is instantly knocked from his animal right from the start, and struggles throughout the film to be at ease, while the Imperial forces bare down on everyone we’re identified as good, especially the key character.

As I said, the odds are unequal in The Empire Strikes Back. But I’ve watched The Empire Strikes Back more than twenty times and since I’m reviewing it I should go back to the beginning when I first watched it.

It was great.

This sequel is efficiently made in the best way from script to direction to visual palette and boasts action packed scenes and moments—the asteroid field scene, the climatic duel between the hero and the villain, and new characters Yoda, a Jedi Master, and Han’s friend Lando Calrissian, who has an unexpected shadow side, though forced into a corner he was. In this one it’s about the struggle between good and evil which may slow things down at times, but the movie was still a rousing experience.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ****½ Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Dave Prowse, Peter Mayhew, voice of James Earl Jones (as Darth Vader) Director: Irvin Kershner