The Last Temptation of Christ

March 20, 2013

lasttemptationFinally. After weeks of controversy, most of it generated by people who hadn’t seen the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ has opened. People who like to think for themselves can now make up their own minds.

The controversy surrounding this tale of Christ has sparked picket lines and shouting matches. Church leader Donald Wildmon and Last Temptation director Martin Scorsese debated on “Nightline.” A band of fundamentalists offered Universal Pictures $10 million to buy the movie and destroy it. And protests at the house of Universal president Lew Wasserman took on an ugly anti-Semitic tone.

All of which brings to mind the line from Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came to Earth today and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up.” So much fuss and nonsense over such an entirely well-intentioned enterprise.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a long-cherished project for Scorsese who, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader, has adapted the speculative novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is a thoughtful, serious film about the struggle between flesh and spirit, and emphasizes the human anguish and dimensions of Jesus (it does not, contrary to rumor, deny the notion of Jesus’ divinity).

The opening and closing sections of the film are the most intriguing. In the first reel, we find Jesus as a carpenter who hears voices and is disturbed by his Chosen status. The middle, more familiar section of the film shows the Jesus of the Gospels, accepting his role as Messiah, enduring the temptations in the desert, gathering his disciples, and performing miracles.

The final portion of the film is a fantasia during the crucifixion, as Satan leads Jesus on a tour of what his life might be if he chooses to live only as a man—complete with marriage, children, and a sexual life. There is no explicit precedent for this in the Gospels, but it’s a legitimate extension of the idea of temptation, and it actually heightens the concept of the sacrifice of Jesus; if there weren’t any temptation, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.

The Last Temptation runs on for two hours and 40 minutes. It’s a stark-looking movie (Scorsese made the film on the amazingly small budget of $6.5 million, in Morocco) and Scorsese aims for none of the grandiose effects that we know and love from Cecil B. DeMille biblical pictures. The actors speak in everyday American accents, the dialogue itself is without the usual King James poetry.

Much of it is engrossing. The theological debate within the film becomes a bit murky and inarticulate at times; the film never seems to find the specific argument it wants to put forward, but perhaps that was the intention.

A lot of the debate is between Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe (the Christlike sergeant in Platoon) and Judas (played by Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel). In this version, Jesus virtually orders Judas to betray him, and noting Judas’s anguish, says that “God gave me the easier job.”

Mary Magdalene is played with considerable sensuality by a tattooed Barbara Hershey; Andre Gregory is arresting as John the Baptist; Harry Dean Stanton does a touching cameo as Saul, later Paul; and David Bowie is a patrician Pontius Pilate.

Scorsese says he has been wanting to film this story for the better part of two decades, but it seems to me in many ways he’s been making it all along. There is tortured Christian allegory in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, and those films actually deal with faith and redemption in more alive, forceful terms than this new film. It isn’t Scorsese’s best movie, but The Last Temptation isn’t glib blasphemy, either.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

We certainly haven’t gotten any more enlightened since then; you can imagine what would happen to this movie is someone tried to make it now. I think I’d like it more today myself, but I haven’t watched it stem-to-stern in a while (saw the parts with Harry Dean Stanton a couple of years ago and was really stirred). The casting of Keitel is one of those strokes that at first seems puzzling, and eventually feels inspired.


Shy People

December 7, 2012

shypeopleWhen I was driving around in the bayou country of southern Louisiana last year, I happened to tune into a radio talk show discussing the subject of movies filmed in the state.

The commentators spoke with some weariness and bemusement about the way that movies set in rural Louisiana always portray the locals as a bunch of inbred crazies, performing weird rituals in the swamps and attacking stray outsiders (as in Southern Comfort, for instance).

I don’t imagine these commentators will be too thrilled with Shy People, which is another film about some outsiders finding a strange new universe in the bayou.

But, to be fair to filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train), Shy People goes to some lengths to establish a sympathy for the backwoods people, even if they ultimately come off as flaky.

It’s a culture-clash movie, about a New York writer, Diana (Jill Clayburgh), who takes her teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton) to Louisiana in search of a story. She’s got relatives there, but she’s never met them.

The bayou family is now ruled by her distant cousin, Ruth (Barbara Hershey, winner of the best actress prize at the ’97 Cannes Film Festival for this performance), who is raising three sons in a dilapidated house, far away from the reach of civilization.

One son is a trapper (Don Swayze), one is retarded, and the other is locked in the tool shed for an unnamed offense. Her older boy (Merritt Butrick) has moved into town, where he runs the Pussycat Lounge; he’s not mentioned in the family anymore.

Konchalovsky is interested in contrasting these two different mothers, and in showing the changes they bring on each other.

Diana is all big-city pose, her gold bracelets clanking as she confronts a crisis with, “I’m from Cosmopolitan magazine! Don’t you know what that means?”

Ruth remains bound to the swamp, insisting with mysterious belief that her late, larger-than-life husband is still alive out there, somewhere.

The climax of this clash of lifestyles comes when the two women leave the house to go into town, and the daughter teases the boys into a lather. She also gives them a sniff of cocaine, and soon they’re setting free the goats and turning loose the chickens, and generally behaving like characters in some cautionary reefer madness movie.

As Konchalovsky tells the story, he ladles on a heavy dose of social criticism. For all their oddities, he sides with the natural life of the country people, as opposed to the neuroses of the city folk.

He’ll stop the show to focus on a can of Bud plunking into the bayou from the highway above, in slow motion yet, and he’s eager to show the decadence of civilization.

A great deal of this becomes simple-minded to the point of dopiness. But if Konchalovsky is bald about his ideas, you can’t deny this director’s powerful visual sense.

Konchalovsky finds some definitively spooky sights in that swampy backwater; the gray-green mists seem to hide a bounty of secrets. This is the forest primeval, indeed.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Before we go elevating Andrei Konchalovsky (the brother of Nikita Mikhalkov) to the Powerful Visual Sense club, let us note that Shy People was photographed by Chris Menges, who knew something about all that. Konchalovsky went to school with Tarkovsky. The slo-mo on the beer can sort of sums up the director’s approach. 


The Natural

September 9, 2011

The table is so full of starpower it fairly trembles. There sits America’s tar, Robert Redford, looking superb in a film that shrouds his character within the cloak of the Great American Myth; a cloak that inevitably surrounds the actor himself. Across from Redford is Robert Duvall, the actor’s actor who is riding a crest of respect (including the Oscar, of course) and a surge of activity. It is well within Duvall’s powers to command any scene in which he appears, especially with a juicy role like sportswriter Max Mercy, but his performance in The Natural is typically considerate of his fellow actors. Between the two heavyweights sits Kim Basinger, a hot starlet who shot from being a James Bond girl (Never Say Never Again) to being the funniest thing in a Blake Edwards movie (The Man Who Loved Women) to this key role in the company of legends and near-legends.

They’re sitting at this table in a posh nightclub, where Duvall has brought Redford to meet the local gambling kingpin. This is the fourth person at the table. It’s Darren McGavin.

Now, here’s a guy, a journeyman actor, been in movies off and on for years—actually, done mostly TV for the last decade or more. And it’s an interesting thing, because he’s got to sit amidst the cream of the Hollywood crop, and he’s got to run the scene. Actually, the Redford character controls the scene, in a subtle way, but McGavin’s character has to orchestrate it. Not only that, but McGavin is playing a bigshot, an important man surrounded by underlings—in the exact opposite of his real-life position vis-à-vis the other actors at the table.

I’m thinking about this scene, and about McGavin’s good performance in general, because it’s one of the few things in The Natural that strikes me as being truly intriguing, or weird, or out-of-place. The film is a series of perfect dream images, the effect of which becomes sort of numbing after a while. At first, the interlocking elements of the plot promise something majestic: a boy’s father succumbs under a tree in the backyard; lighting hits the tree; the boy carves a baseball bat out of the cleaved wood, a bat with a lightning bolt carved on it.

The stuff of myths and legends (as Barbara Hershey points out to us, in case we hadn’t noticed); and the sunset scene in which the boy, now grown and on his way to a big-league tryout, whiffs a baseball legend named the Whammer (played with Ruthian magnitude by Joe Don Baker), is a wonderful slice of history-in-the-making. (Is there any doubt the little boy to whom Redford’s Roy Hobbs gives the strikeout ball is the same Nebraska farmboy who steps up to face Hobbs for the last out of the last game of the pennant race sixteen years later?) And I, for one, will always cherish Hobbs’ first at-bat, when he takes his manager’s idle bit of baseball chatter—”Awright Hobbs, tear the cover off the ball”—quite literally.

But the movie starts to have a clockwork feel to it. And there’s very little genuine baseball funkiness here; the closest it gets to that kind of thing is the scene in which the manager (Wilford Brimley) and the coach (Richard Farnsworth) play a laid-back game of “Name That Tune” in the dugout. You would guess that Barry (Diner) Levinson would be a perfect choice to make a baseball movie, but The Natural exists in a carefully-composed ozone layer where the sweat and dirt and grease of Diner are not allowed. Clearly, this is what the filmmakers wanted, and there are many beautifully-realized bits of action (like the business with Brimley and the dugout water fountain). But you wonder if the film might have been more satisfying if it wasn’t trying so hard to be a Great Film.

It’s tempting to envision Levinson as a slave to the awesome talents of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose film this seems to be as much of Levinson’s. But remember that the movie was initiated by the producers, who also wrote the screenplay and cooked up the alterations of Bernard Malamud’s novel. And there is the possible influence of Redford, whose Ordinary People featured similarly fastidious production design. The submersion of directorial personality in The Natural, due (perhaps) to the collaboration of many very talented people, is reminiscent of a couple of other big films this year that hark back to the “Tradition of Quality” school of filmmaking. I like Greystoke and The Bounty as well as The Natural, and was variously enchanted and riveted by all of them, but had a similar feeling as the lights came up after each: Is that all? Somehow the emphasis on story and production value seemed to eclipse the men who made the movies. Official classics have a tendency to become—well, official, and the lifeblood can drain out of them quickly. A number of people who have seen The Natural have pointed out the irony of its title. For all of its loveliness, grace, and good intentions, it’s just not natural.

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

As the late great “Voice of the Mariners” Dave Niehaus used to say, it’s corn-growin’ weather, so the warmth of early September seemed like a good time to print a baseball review. I watched this movie two nights in a row, for a variety of quirky reasons that we need not go into now (but one of them involved the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year). As a person who loves baseball and the Malamud novel, I want it to be a great movie, but I can’t get past the over-dressed myth-making or the serious selling-out of Malamud’s final act. There’s still quite a bit to love, don’t get me wrong, including the locked, ominous close-up of Barbara Hershey as she shifts her gaze from west to east, her focus changing from established star to newcomer as Hobbs strikes out the Whammer by the railroad tracks on a late afternoon. The thing that amazes me is that I didn’t mention Randy Newman’s score in this review, a modern classic later re-purposed to exultant end in Chuck Workman’s montage Precious Images.


Hannah and Her Sisters

May 26, 2011

Woody Allen seems to love experiments, and he’s got the sort of working situation (nobody tells him what sort of movie he’s required to make) that allows him to indulge his tastes.

It’s a good setup, and Allen has pleased us in recent years with odd baubles such as the pseudo-documentary Zelig, the raucous showbiz Broadway Danny Rose, and last year’s small gem, The Purple Rose of Cairo, none of which reached a very large audience. As lovely as those movies are, a nagging thought stayed with me: When is Woody going to get back to doing the sort of rueful, wise, romantic comedy (Annie Hall and Manhattan) he does best?

Now, such a thought is completely unfair to the Woodman (as Bill Murray used to call him), and if on the arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters we shout “Woody’s back,” it does a disservice to his recent films. Still—Hannah does represent a return to the flavor and feel of Manhattan, and it is his best and most characteristic film since that 1979 masterpiece.

The film centers on three sisters (as did Allen’s Interiors): Hannah (Mia Farrow), the oldest, who seems to have her life in perfect order and control; Lee (Barbara Hershey), whose relationship with a domineering artist (Max Von Sydow) is skidding; and Holly (Dianne Wiest), a would-be actress, would-be singer—would-be almost anything, if she could find her niche and get over her resentment of Hannah’s perfection.

These three get into various romantic entanglements with the three men in the film. Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) launches an affair with Lee, Hannah’s ex-husband (Allen) has a date with Holly that he likens to the Nuremberg Trials. After Holly’s promising date with an architect (Sam Waterston), her partner in the catering business (Carrie Fisher) snatches him away.

Rounding out the cast are the parents of the sisters, played by Lloyd Noland and Maureen O’Sullivan (she’s Farrow’s mother in real life); and Daniel Stern, in a hilarious cameo as a vacuous rock star who wants to buy some of Von Sydow’s paintings, without vaguely understanding why.

It’s a terrific ensemble, and the action cuts back and forth evenly between the characters (some of whom narrate different sections of the film). Allen himself actually has one of the smaller roles, but he garners a lot of laughs as a man who, despite his lifelong hypochondria, is caught short when he suddenly realizes he may actually be seriously ill. At that point, he embarks on a metaphysical journey that leads him to try Catholicism (his survey of 3-D Jesus postcards is a comic high point) and Hare Krishna.

Allen strikes a lovely balance between hurtful romanticism and rueful humor; the characters are immediately recognizable, with all their human faults and durability. Holly is a particularly sharp figure, and Dianne Wiest—a Broadway actress heretofore relegated to peculiar roles in movies such as Independence Day and Footloose—captures all of Holly’s desperate search for a means of expression.

Gordon Willis has been photographing Allen’s films for years, but Carlo di Palma did the honors this time, and he allows a bit more light into the proceedings. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. Allen very likely has his biggest hit in a long time with Hannah, and it couldn’t come at a better time; for him, or us.

First published in the Herald, February 7, 1986

Kind of disappointed in reading this review again—not that I’m wrong about the movie, but this doesn’t convey the particular glow the film conjures up. A great success for Allen, and yet he went on to more unusual projects, which just kept getting unusualler as the years went on.


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