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Archive for the 'Film' Category

Ten Things I Hate About Commandments (Very Funny)

1st June 2006

This video is a very funny mock movie preview. Definitely worth viewing! I especially like the Samuel L. Jackson line from Pulp Fiction.

(Comes via Targuman)


Posted in Film, Humour, OT Film Epics | 2 Comments »

The Da Vinci Dud?

18th May 2006

I guess “the critics” (who exactly are “the critics”?) didn’t care for Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code. It premiered at the 59th Cannes Film Festival yesterday (17 May 2006) and was panned by most critics according to Reuters. That makes Ron sad — again according to Reuters.
I enjoyed the book, though I would never say it is a literary masterpiece. I would have figured it would make an entertaining movie. Of course, historically and theologically it is a bunch of bunk… but it’s entertaining bunk nonetheless.

Of course, it will still make tonnes of money considering that most movie-goers don’t really pay much attention to what those “critics” say. And I think many people will see it just so they can see what all the controversy is about.

I will likely see it with my sister who will be in town for the weekend.


Posted in Da Vinci Code, Film, News, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Original Star Wars DVD Sets to be Released (Finally)

10th May 2006

Good news for those of us who were weaned on the original Star Wars motion pictures — LucasFilm is releasing DVDs containing the original Star Wars films this fall! No more having to watch Han acting in self defence when Greedo shoots at him; no more CGI Jabba the Hut. Of course, you will have to buy the digitally enhanced versions along with the originals, but such is life.

Read more about the announcement in Wired News (a very funny article).

May the force be with you (now where did I put that wooden dowel I used as a Light Sabre as a kid?)


Posted in Film, News | 2 Comments »

50th Anniversary Collection of De Mille’s The Ten Commandments

19th March 2006

DeMille_10Commandments.jpgParamount Home Video is releasing a special 50th anniversary collection that includes both of Cecil B. DeMille‘s films about Moses and the exodus from Egypt (Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com). The main attraction is a new transfer of the 1956 classic biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. This special release also includes, for the first time on DVD, DeMille’s 1923 black and white film The Ten Commandments. The special edition will be released on 21 March 2006.

This special release of the classic biblical epic includes a bunch of extras, including a six-part, 37-minute “making of” documentary, hand-tinted footage of the Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea Sequence from the 1923 version, and commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments (Vestal Press, 1999; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com) on both the 1956 and 1923 versions.

All in all this looks like a great edition. For a detailed review of the release, check out DVD Times here.

For a complete listing of films based on the Hebrew Bible, please see my Old Testament on Film pages.


Posted in Bible & Film, Exodus, Film, OT Film Epics | Comments Off

King Saul on the Silver Screen: An Early Film about Saul and David

16th March 2006

I recently bought on eBay a DVD with a silent film from the early 1900s about Saul and David. The amateur DVD is entitled, “Early Religious Films” and besides the film on Saul and David, it includes two other early Jesus films. Matt Page over at Bible Film Blog purchased the same DVD and has blogged on the two Jesus films here and here, and the Saul and David film here. As Matt noted in his blog entries, identifying these films is a bit challenging. The distributor who made the DVD from old reels doesn’t have any further information on the films included. In particular, a major problem with the Saul and David film is trying to determine whether or not it is one film or two. Matt thinks what is on the DVD is actually two films, a film called “David and Saul” and another film called “The Death of Saul.” Matt’s summary of this film is excellent and I encourage you to read it. I thought I would offer my own slightly different take on this early film about Saul and David.

Identification

According to my research, in the early 1900s there were four films made that focused particularly on the reign of Saul, the first king of Israel, and his stormy relationship with David. My primary sources for this information are:

  • Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (University of California Press, 1994; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com)
  • Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts, The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897-1980 (Scarecrow Press, 1981; out of print)
  • Jon Solomon, The Ancient World in the Cinema (Revised & Expand edition; Yale University Press, 2001; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com)

As I piece the various lists together, there are four early films on Saul and David. In chronological order they are:

  • Saul and David. This early American film was directed by J. Stuart Blackton with the scenario written by Madison C. Peters. Produced and distributed by Vitagraph in 1909. [Noted in Campbell and Pitts, 3; Solomon, 5, 166; IMDb]
  • Saul and David [Saül et David]. A French film produced and directed by Léon Gaumont in 1911. [Noted as "lost to the ages" in Campbell and Pitts, 5; Solomon, 7]
  • David and Saul [David et Saül]. Produced by the French studio Pathé-Frères and distributed by their export office C.G.P.C. in 1912. Campbell and Pitts has this film listed as “Saul and David” while IMDb has it as “David and Saul.” In addition IMDb notes this film was directed by André (Henri) Andréani and dates it to 1911. This identification is plausible since Andréani directed many of Pathé-Frères biblical films in this period; the earlier date likely represents its actual production date, while the later date is its American distribution. [Noted in Campbell and Pitts, 5; Solomon, 7; IMDb]
  • The Death of Saul [La Mort de Saül]. This French film was directed by André (Henri) Andréani with the scenario written by Eugène Creissel with Louis Ravet playing Saul. It was produced by Pathé-Frères in June 1912, while its American distribution date is typically listed as 1913. 12 minutes long. [Noted in Abel, 319; Solomon, 7, 141; and IMDb]

The challenge with identifying the film on the DVD is that, based on the intertitles, it appears to be two films spliced together. The first three intertitles include the title “David and Saul” in small print at the top of the frame; then there is a full-frame intertitle introducing “The Death of Saul” while the rest of the intertitles in film have “The Death of Saul” in small print at the top. In addition, while there is remarkable consistency between the two sections in regards to costuming and it appears Louis Ravet plays Saul in both parts, the actor playing Saul’s son Jonathan is different between the two sections.

Matt Page identifies the first part with the 1911/12 film “David and Saul” and the second part with the 1912/13 film “The Death of Saul.” This identification is more than likely correct, since both films are by the same studio. From the discussion in Abel (which is based on the version of the film in the Library of Congress archives), however, it is clear that the “Death of Saul” on the DVD does not include its original beginning. Perhaps that is why excerpts from “Saul and David” were included at the beginning.

What should be clear from this discussion is that figuring out the early history of Bible related films is challenging to say the least!

Analysis

The origin of the film aside, the version that I have consists of two main sections, Saul and David and the Death of Saul. Here is my breakdown and discussion of the two parts (my divisions are based primarily on the intertitles):

David and Saul

This part of the film may be divided into three sections based on the intertitles. It’s camera work is pretty basic, consisting of almost exclusively of stationary longshots.

David-and-Saul_Michal_Given.jpgDavid, conqueror of the Philistines, asks Saul to Keep his Promise [to give his daughter Michal in marriage]
This section is based on 1Sam 18:27 and has David returning from battle, being greeted by a portly Jonathan, and being given Michal in marriage by Saul.

David-and-Saul-Sauls-Jealo.jpgJealous of David’s Popularity, Anger Invades Saul’s Heart.
This section consists of five scenes. The first has Saul in his palace looking out at the crowds who are evidently praising David’s military prowess (inspired by 1Sam 18:7). The second scene, based on 1Samuel 19 (cf. 19:1, 17), shows a confrontation between Saul and a group consisting of Michal, Jonathan, and some others. Saul is evidently asking for the whereabouts of David, but he leaves none the smarter. The third scene shows a dejected looking David and his motley crew of followers at the cave of Adullam (1Sam 22:1-2). Note that Matt Page identifies this scene as “David feigns madness whilst in hiding” based on 1 Sam 21:10-15. The problem with this identification is that the setting is does not appear to be Achish and David doesn’t look too insane (at least he’s not scratching marks on gates or drooling). The fourth scene is very roughly based on 1Sam 22:6-18. It has Saul going to the sanctuary at Nob and confronting Ahimelech the priest about David’s whereabouts (I say only roughly, since in the biblical account the priests are brought to Saul). Ahimelech refuses and is then killed by a nasty looking Doeg the Edomite. The fifth and final scene of this section has Saul and his guard leaving in search of David.

David-and-Saul_David-Hiding.jpgFatigued, Saul Seeks Repose in the Cave where David was Hidden.
This third and final section appears to be cut off prematurely. It is made up of two brief scenes based on 1Sam 24:1-3 (not 1 Sam 23:24-28 as Matt Page suggests). The first has Saul and his guard coming to a cave in the wilderness of En-gedi and Saul going into the cave to relieve himself (for more on the euphemisms used in this passage see my post here). The second scene shows David and his followers within the cave hiding themselves from the approaching Saul.

The Death of Saul

The second part of the film is, as Matt noted, of a higher quality and shows more innovation in camera work. It includes a pan shot as well as some ambitious outside action shots. It consists of seven parts of various lengths.

Saul Decides that the Priests and Other Inhabitants of the City shall be Slain.
This scene somewhat accurately represents the story in 1Sam 22:11-19 where Saul (in his palace) decides to kill Ahimelech and put the entire city to the sword. Interestingly, Abel, in his discussion of the film, mistakenly identifies the besieged city as Keilah (1Samuel 23). This is quite unlikely, especially considering Saul gave up his expedition against Keilah once he heard that David had fled the city.

Jonathan Endeavors to Avert the Massacre.
This section is quite long and involved, consisting of at least seven different scenes. The first two scenes of Jonathan fleeing the palace and warning Ahimelech of the coming massacre does not appear to be inspired by any biblical passage. The next scene has the priest going out and praying for the inhabitants of the city. Then the fourth scene shifts to Saul and his guard leaving the palace. The next three scenes has Saul and his army entering the city of Nob and burning it and putting it to the sword. These scenes employ some of Pathé’s patented special effects of red smoke and small explosions. The final scene of this section shows Saul receiving a written message just leaving the city. The message, which is signed by David, is presented on an intertitle. It says, “O King, know thou that the Philistines have gathered together to do battle with us. May the God of Israel protect us.” This may be based on 1Sam 23:27, though one cannot be sure.

Death-of-Saul_Saul_rallies_.jpgSaul Seeks the Witch of Endor.
This section consists of two scenes based on 1Sam 28:3-8. The first has Saul encamped at Gilboa in fear of the Philistines who are assembled against Israel at Shunem. While the second has Saul leaving camp with two men to inquire of the medium at Endor since the Lord did not answer him. This second scene includes a primitive pan shot as the three men are walking towards Endor.

Death-of-Saul-Samuel-Appear.jpgThe Witch Evokes the Spirit of Samuel.
This section, taken from 1Sam 28:8-25, begins with a scene with Saul and the two men coming to the cave where the witch lives and then there is an interesting close-up bridge shot of Saul going down the narrow tunnel to the cave entrance alone. The scene where the disguised Saul asks the witch to consult Samuel has some interesting camera shots. Samuel appears on the cave wall with a flaming special effect and fade in shot and then later disappears with a straight cut. Samuel’s message to Saul, paraphrased from 1Sam 28:18-19, is included on an intertitle. Interestingly, the next three sections of the film are introduced by intertitles including excerpts of this message.

Seath-of-Saul-Philistines.jpgThy Armies Shall be Delivered unto the Hands of the Philistines.
This section starts with Saul returning to the Israelite encampment, cuts to an amazing scene of the Philistine army rushing the Israelites, and ends with Saul and his army rushing out to meet them.

Thy Sons shall Perish. This brief scene includes a son of Saul coming back from battle and dying in Saul’s arms (if this is Jonathan, then it is a different actor from the first film as noted above), Saul lamenting and then falling on his sword.

Death-of-Saul.jpgThey Sword shall Avenge the God of Israel.
This final scene shows Saul dying — with, of course, the sword handle appropriately protruding from his belly!

Final Thoughts

There are a number of noteworthy things about this early film. First, as perhaps is clear from the various departures from the biblical storyline, that even in the early days of cinema films were interpretations of the biblical story. The scenario writer and director crafted their story with liberty to modify the biblical version as they thought appropriate. Second, what the film chose to focus on is interesting. The attention given to the massacre of the city of Nob and the visit with the witch of Endor likely stem from a number of things, including the simple desire to show off some of the special effects. Finally, I have to concur with Matt Page when he notes, “the most successful biblical films have been those that use less familiar material to challenge our pre-conceptions, or are at least more concerned with trying to explore their protagonist’s motives.” In this regard, I found this film to be quite intriguing.

For a complete listing of films based on the Hebrew Bible, please see my Old Testament on Film pages.


Posted in 1Samuel, Bible & Film, Film, OT Film Epics, Silent Films | 1 Comment »

Films with Faith: A Recent Article

14th March 2006

The Philidelphia Inquirer has a brief article by Kristin E. Holmes entitled “Films with Faith: Several Groups Picked their Top Movies Based on Spiritual and Religious Content, [and] Values.” In the article, Holmes underscores the revival (!) of interest in religious or spiritual films by production companies. According to Holmes, a “spiritual film” has content that “may include the exploration of a person’s humanity, or the fight between good and evil, redemptive storytelling or overtly religious content.” She even quotes my good friend and film-viewing buddy, Tim Willson, as saying, “Fox, Warner Bros. and Sony are among the studios aggressively pursuing the faith-oriented market” (Nice quote Tim!). (Tim is the marketing director for Crown Video, a distributor of Christian-themed films and videos based here in Edmonton).

Some of the groups those who have recently picked their best movies of 2005 she mentions in her article include:

Of course, I am shocked and appalled that she did not mention my own list (see my post, “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians – Extended Edition” as well as “Movies Worth Watching“). Perhaps a bit more surprising is that she failed to mention the Faith and Film Critics Circle Best of 2005 Awards.

An issue that Holmes raises in her article is the desire of movie studios to cash in on the popularity of religous films — especially since Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ. Of course, the challenge is to make films that are both spiritually significant and good! She also noted the controversy in religious circles surrounding Brokeback Mountain and the tension between recognizing merit in a film in which you may disagree with its content or overall message.

It’ll be interesting to see what controversy The Da Vinci Code will generate when it is released on May 19 (as if the film could generate any more controversy than the book!)


Posted in Faith & Film, Film, News | 2 Comments »

Movies Worth Watching (Oscars, Razzies, and Essential Films Follow-Up)

5th March 2006

oscar_small.jpgTonight The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will put on their yearly spectacle called the Oscars. I may watch the 78th Annual Academy Awards tonight, though I find the actual award ceremony to be way too long and way too boring — and I just can’t stand all of the glitz and glamour that surrounds the telecast. I really don’t care what so-and-so wears on the red carpet or what expensive gifts the already grossly over-paid and self-important celebrities received for the hard work of reading a prompter when presenting an award!

That being said, I like films and I consider myself an armchair movie buff. So I am interested in who the winners are; if only to see how misguided the Academy is! At any rate, if you are interested, a list of the nominees is available here. The only films that I hope win an award include A History of Violence (2005; IMDb) and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005; IMDb); otherwise I don’t have any strong opinions.

razzieLogo.jpgMore significantly, the 26th Annual Golden Raspberry (Razzie) Awards were just announced. Legendary actors such as Rob Schneider, Jenny McCarthy, Hayden Christensen, and Paris Hilton all won well-deserved awards. The worst picture award (as well as three ohers) went to Dirty Love (2005; IMDb), which I didn’t manage to watch this last year — actually I hadn’t even heard of the film! (Don’t worry if you didn’t see it either; from the reviews it received it appears to have been very pathetic!). Perhaps the best category was the “Most Tiresome Tabloid Targets” in which Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Oprah Winfrey’s Couch, The Eiffel Tower, and “Tom’s Baby” were all honoured.

Now to some movies truly worth watching…

Essential Films Follow-Up

I have enjoyed the response to my two lists of “Essential Films for Theologians” (see my “Essential Films for Theologians: The ‘Director’s Cut’” and my “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians – Extended Edition“). In the discussion of my lists (both on my blog and Ben Myer‘s Faith and Theology here and here), individuals have noted many excellent films that are definitely worth watching. In many cases these are films that I seriously considered adding to my own lists or are movies that I really should have considered but failed to remember them. In addition, David Williamson also came up with his own list of Top Ten Spiritual Films which is worthy of a gander.

In regards to my Essential Films for Theologians list, there were a number of other films highlighted in the comments that are definitely worthy of viewing. Most of them I had considered including on my list, while others I had not even heard of before and are now on my “films to view” list. Perhaps the only film which I feel I should have included for sentimental reasons is The Princess Bride (1987; IMDb).

Here are some other movies worth watching that were mentioned in the comments (in alphabetic order):

  • Andrey Rublyov (1969; IMDb)
  • The Best of Youth (La Meglio gioventù; 2003; IMDb)
  • The Butterfly (La Lengua de las Mariposas; 1999; IMDb)
  • Come and See (Idi i smotri; 1985; IMDb)
  • Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne; 1951; IMDb)
  • Fight Club (1999; IMDb)
  • The Game (1997; IMDb)
  • Itallian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere; 2000; IMDb)
  • Mean Streets (1973; IMDb)
  • Ordet (1955; IMDb)
  • Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc; 1928; IMDb)
  • The Pledge (2001; IMDb)
  • Pulp Fiction (1994; IMDb)
  • Pi (1998; IMDb)
  • Run Lola Run (Lola rennt; 1998; IMDb)

A couple films that I did not include in my “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians” list or in the extended discussion, included Millions (2004; IMDb) and Stage Beauty (2004; IMDb).

All in all, there are many excellent films — as well as many not-so-excellent films — produced every year. The challenge, of course, is being astute enough to figure out which ones are worthy of our time! I only hope that I may have highlighted a few films that are worthy of viewing!


Posted in Bible & Film, Faith & Film, Film, Popular Culture | Comments Off

The Last Temptation of Christ Reviewed at Bible Films Blog

23rd February 2006

last_temptation.jpgMatt Page at Bible Films Blog has an excellent discussion of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). While I appreciate this film, I have to admit that everytime I have watched it I find it quite slow moving. I also have a hard time with Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel playing Jesus and Judas — I have seen too many of their other films to appreciate their performances (especially Keitel).

While I am at it, I should highlight Matt’s Bible Films Blog. Matt and I share an interest in Bible films (and rugby), and this common interest led to some correspondence last year when I was working on my “Old Testament on Film” pages. Matt’s blog is in my blogroll under “Faith & Film” and I encourage you to check it out regularly.

Posted in Jesus Films | Comments Off

Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians – Extended Edition

22nd February 2006

born_brothels.jpgAs a companion piece to my previous post, “Essential Films for Theologians: The ‘Director’s Cut’,” I thought I would also provide a list of my “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians.” As with my first list, this was a guest post on Ben Meyers’s Faith and Theology blog, where I noted that I would be publishing a more extended discussion. After some delay, here is my discussion of my picks.

syriania.jpgNow, before you chide me for not including this or that film, I must confess a limitation with this list: it only contains films that I have viewed. My list of “Films I wished I viewed” before making my list include, Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Caché; Dear Frankie; Good Night, and Good Luck; Cinderella Man; Murderball; Paradise Now; Saraband; The Squid and the Whale; Transamerica; and Walk the Line. While I go to quite a few movies in any given year, I typically wait for the DVD release for films I do not deem necessary to view on the big screen, which explains why I have yet to see films like Walk the Line or Brokeback Mountain, among others.

Furthermore, before you add a comment indicating that I obviously have no sense of what makes a good film, please note that these are top films “for theologians,” i.e., they are films that raise theological questions or issues. They are not necessarily great films or the best films of the year, they have weaknesses and shortcomings. That being siad, I do think that many if not all of them are the best of the year and are certainly worthy of thoughtful viewing.

munich.jpgYou will notice that some of films have a 2004 release date; these are films that had an initial limited release in 2004 (usually at a film festival) but had a more extensive public release in 2005 (including DVD releases in a few cases).

  • Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Without question the best of the Batman franchise and an engaging exploration of the myth of redemptive violence.
  • Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). A delightful and disturbing glimpse into Calcutta’s brothels and one woman’s attempt to provide hope via art. A book featuring some of the pictures is also available: Born into Brothels: Photographs by the Children of Calcutta by Zana Briski (Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com).
  • Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005; IMDb). I thought this film adaptation was well done. I viewed it with my kids — including a very inquisitive four-year-old, however, so I can’t say I caught all of the nuances of the presentation!
  • The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). A disturbing portrayal of large scale corporate greed and systemic evil on the part of multinational pharmaceuticals, as well as a story of personal trust and suspicion.
  • Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). A bit over the top, but a damming look at the ubiquitous charater of racism that leaves everyone culpable.
  • Downfall (Der Untergang; Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Bruno Ganz delivers a spine chilling performance as Adolf Hitler in this dark portrayal of carefully differentiated evil and the destruction of the Third Reich.
  • A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Perhaps the most accessible film of this controversial Canadian director, this film brings together violence and small town America in a stunning confrontation with a hope of reconciliation.
  • Lord of War (Andrew Niccol, 2005; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). An entertaining and disturbing film about the underground world and warped ethics of gun running. Nicholas Cage does an excellent job playing Yuri Orlov, a character based on a composite of five real arms dealers. “The first and most important rule of gun-running is: never get shot with your own merchandise.”
  • Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005; IMDb). A captivating film about the Israeli revenge for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, loosely based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas (Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This film raised quite a bit of controversy about its accuracy and was even denounced by Jonas (see the MacLean’s article here). Despite the spin put on the events by Spielberg, I found it to be a compelling meditation on vengeance and retaliation. Kesher Talk has a series of blog posts on Munich that I highly recommend; they may be found here.
  • Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Few films have provoked as much thought and discussion around the issue of abortion for me as this one. See my previous blog posts here and here for why it ranks among my top films for 2005.
  • Syriania (Stephen Gaghan, 2005; IMDb). This left-leaning political thriller about the politics of the oil industry is disturbing even if only a fraction of it is true to life. Directed and written by Stephen Gaghan, the screenwriter behind Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), the multiple story lines (engaging in their own right) come together to form a compelling story no matter what your politics may be.

Worth Viewing: There were a number of other films from 2005 that are definitely worth viewing, but didn’t make my final cut. These include The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Almost made it just because of its subject matter); Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; King Kong (Sorry Peter, your ape was great, but you should stick to orcs and hobbits); Serenity (Never watched Firefly before viewing the film; have to say I quite liked it); Sin City (Like sin, compelling to view, but ultimately damaging); Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (Better than the other prequels, but that is not saying much! Who wants to try jumping over a guy holding a light sabre? Anyone?).

Please let me know if there were other “essential films for theologians” from 2005 by commenting on this post.

Posted in Faith & Film, Film | 11 Comments »

Essential Films for Theologians: The “Director’s Cut”

15th February 2006

Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology had asked me to contribute an entry on film to his “Essential… for Theologians” series. I was honoured to be asked and have spent some time formulating my list. My original list may be viewed on Ben’s blog here.

In the grand film tradition of producing a “Director’s cut”, I decided to expand my original list by both adding four additional films and including a number of “runners up.” I also explained a bit of my rationale for selecting the films I did.

I published my list with some trepidation knowing that I omitted a number of significant religious films — particularly a number of older classics that many such top ten lists include (see, for instance, Ken Ristau’s recent list of “Essential Movies for Theologians.” For an extensive list, see the Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films here.

In my list, I tried to be representative of different film genres and included some “art house” and foreign films, as well as more popular films. I wasn’t too concerned with a film’s box office success, though there are some successful films in my list. And, of course, I readily admit to including some of my personal favourites.

Update: You may also want to check out my “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians – Extended Editionhere.

Top Ten Fourteen Essential Films for Theologians

(Listed in alphabetical order)

The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Robert Duvall’s sympathetic portrayal of Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, a southern Pentecostal preacher, is masterful. While this movie may hit too close to home for some Christians, it reveals the conflict within the life of faith as Sonny, a deeply religious person, struggles with his rage and sensuality.

Balthazar (Au hasard Balthazar; Robert Bresson, 1966; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). The film follows the life of a humble donkey named Balthazar through a series of masters, paralleled by the life of a young woman, Marie. The cinematography and score are both magnificent. The film has a sparse and evocative feel to it. It’s the type of film that you could view repeatedly and ponder endlessly (as the critics appear to do). I’m not sure if Bresson meant it to be understood typologically or allegorically, but such a reading would certainly fit with Balthazar portrayed as an unassuming Christ figure. At the very least it narrates the life of a simple beast of burden who humbly accepts the cruelty of his masters. The simple grace in this movie reminds me of another classic, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud; 1987).

The Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This unassuming film about three lubricant salesmen, one of whom is an evangelical Christian, contains some of the most compelling dialogue around matters of faith, integrity, and manipulation I have seen.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This classic science fiction film explores what it means to be human as Deckard, a “blade runner” played by Harrison Ford, has to track down and terminate four replicants that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Based on the short book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip Dick, the dark look and feel of this film inspired innumerable science fiction films. While the DVD transfer of the Director’s cut is not that great (it was one of the first DVDs made), rumour has it that a multi-disc special edition is set to be released in time for its 25th anniversary in 2007. Other science fiction films that are worthy of mention include Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers (the first is by far the best), and Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998).

(Of course, I also have to give honourable mention to the original Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and the original trilogy (I have not been impressed with any of the prequels). I have to confess that I saw the original Star Wars around 17 times in the theatre when it first was released. I also had made myself a light sabre (a painted dowel; not like one of the fancy ones available now), dressed up as a Jedi knight, and had virtually every Star Wars model available. Truth be told, not much has changed. I have been able to watch Star Wars with my kids and my four-year-old son and I frequently have light sabre battles in the living room (a painted dowel no longer have I). In sum: I still like it after all of these years even if some parts are a bit cheesy (And I still think Princess Leah looks hot in her “Jabba the Hutt” golden bikini). I have included this film on my extended list not only because it has profoundly shaped popular culture, but because its a parable of the epic struggle between good and evil.)

The Decalogue (Dekalog; Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This ten-part series of films was originally aired on Polish TV in the 1980s. Each episode narrates a story, set in the same apartment block, that is loosely tied to one of the Ten Commandments (as enumerated in the Catholic tradition; see my blog entry here for other enumerations).

For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people now turn to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories. – Krzysztof Kieslowski on The Decalogue.

Each episode is well done and thought-provoking, though I found 2, 5, 6, and 7 particularly meaningful. Kieslowski’s more popular and widely distributed Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, and Red (Trois couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge; 1993-4) are also worthy of mention.

Jesus of Montreal (Jésus De Montréal; Denys Arcand, 1989; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This Canadian production tells the story of a troupe of actors who stage a passion play in Montreal — so controversial that the Catholic Church wants to shut it down. As the pressure to stop production mounts, the personal lives of the individual cast members begin to take on the persona of the characters in the play — especially for Daniel (played wonderfully by Lothaire Bluteau) who plays the role of Jesus. Other Jesus films that deserve mention here are The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo; Pier Pablo Passolini, 1964), The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), and The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004). I also am fascinated by Gareth Davies’s Son of Man (1969), though I have not been able to locate a full copy and consequently have not viewed the entire film.

Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is perhaps my favourite film. It is a thought-provoking exploration of “the sins of the fathers,” forgiveness, and redemption as the lives of nine individuals interconnect one day in San Fernando Valley, California (its title is from one of the San Fernando Valley’s principal thoroughfares, Magnolia Boulevard). The ensemble cast is marvellous, the direction and cinematography superb, and the soundtrack by Aimee Mann moving. And what can I say about the frogs?! If I was going to number this list, I would have to put this as film number 8.2!

The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This film is an absolutely beautiful yet troubling exploration of the question of grace and redemption, love and hate, and what it means to lay down your life for your faith and friends. Its cinematography and musical score are moving and deservedly won awards. Set in 18th century South America, this film raises questions — and provides no easy answers — about the Christian mission, war, and slavery. Simply superb. Other films that have similar themes and garner special mention include Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991), Romero (John Duigan, 1989), and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Hector Babenco, 1991).

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then something is wrong. Eric Idle himself is reported as saying, “If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted” (hmmm… do you think this quote is relevant to a current international news story?). But this film is not all laughs — it actually presents aspects of the time of Jesus somewhat accurately, such as the ubiquitous messiahs and prophets during that period as well as the sheer diversity with Judaism at that time. In the humour/satire category I would also include Dogma (Kevin Smith, 1999), Saved! (Brian Dannelly, 2004), and Keeping the Faith (Edward Norton, 2000).

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin; Wim Wenders, 1987; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I was first introduced to the German director Wim Wenders through the music video for U2′s song “Stay (Far Away, So Close).” This films explores what it means to be human from the perspective of angels as it follows the lives of two angels as they comfort and help lost souls in Berlin, one of whom decides he wants to become human. While Hollywood has remade the story as City of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998), the original is superior on all accounts. I should also mention Wim Wender’s collaboration with U2′s frontman Bono on The Million Dollar Hotel (Wim Wenders, 2000). While this film has its flaws, Jeremy Davies’s portrayal of Tom Tom is one of the best Christ figures in recent film.

Late Additions

I figured my original list was lacking in four genres: war films, westerns, gangster films, and fantasy. Most films in these genres explore the myth of redemptive violence, and as such are worthy of theological reflection. Other excellent films that explore this theme include Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) and In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001).

The Godfather Saga (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974, and 1990; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Don Corleone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I had to add this trilogy to my list. The first two in the series are superior, and I think the first is the best. One of my favourite scenes is at the end of the first film when you have the juxtaposition of Michael Corleone renouncing “Satan and all his works” at the baptism of his nephew and the executions of the heads of the other mob families. On the soundtrack, Bach’s organ music is punctuated by gunfire. Other mobster films that deserve mention include Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) and The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987).

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2000, 2001, and 2002; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I am a huge Tolkien fan and I loved Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings. That isn’t to say that I agreed with all of Jackson’s modifications; in fact, I think Jackson and the screenwriter Fran Walsh are both Hollywood sell outs! Since when do Ents make rash decisions?! If there were any more unnecessary dramatic turns added, I would have sued for whip-lash! At any rate, these are ground breaking films that are surely worthy of mention!

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I have watched this film about the conflict at Guadalcanal during World War II many times and find its juxtaposition of war and (seeming) paradise haunting. It is visually beautiful and the writing is superb. The ensemble cast is excellent — especially the roles played by James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, and most notably Elias Koteas. Other great war films include Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), The Deerhunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), as well as the less know, though theologically relevant, films A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992) and To End All Wars (David L. Cunningham, 2001).

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). What’s a list without a western? While there are many “shoot ‘em up” westerns that are perhaps entertaining, Unforgiven is unique in that it deconstructs the typical western. The (anti)hero is unlovable, the gun fights are devoid of romanticism, and nothing is really settled at the end when the cowboy rides off into the sunset. “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he has, and all he’s ever gonna have,” says Will. The Kid stammers, “I guess he had it comin’.” Will almost whispers: “We’ve all got it comin’, Kid.”

Last Thoughts

OK, I need to wrap this up. There are many more films which are worthy to be mentioned, such as Breaking the Waves, Chinatown, Contact, Dead Man Walking, Lawrence of Arabia, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pulp Fiction, Shadowlands, Slingblade, The Shawshank Redemption, etc., etc., ad nauseum, but this list has to end!

What films do you feel are essential for theologians?


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