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.


Off Limits

January 17, 2013

offlimitsNow that we’ve gotten the definitive films about Vietnam out of the way—movies that deal with the Vietnam War itself as a phenomenon, such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—it’s time for the genre film to move in. Thus in Good Morning, Vietnam, we see the sketch comedy set in Saigon; in Off Limits, it’s the formula cop movie.

The cops are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines); according to the formula, one is white, one is black. They’re patrolling the seediest streets of Saigon in 1968, as part of a special Army investigation unit, when they detect a pattern in a series of prostitute killings.

As it turns out, the suspect list includes some high-ranking officers in the American services, which means that McGriff and Perkins had best chill the investigation or risk losing their jobs, or worse. Naturally, they continue, trying to find both the killer and “some (bleeping) meaning” to concentrate on in the madness around them.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe creates a hellish environment for his violent heroes, all dirty rooms and bloody corpses. The Americans have contempt for their South Vietnamese allies, and the contempt is reciprocal. The only oasis is a church where the cops meet a nun (Amanda Pays) who helps them on the trail of the killer.

In whodunit terms, Off Limits is a bit clumsy. You can see the real culprit coming from way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the explanation does arrive, it renders the movie’s most memorable scene inexplicable.

That scene has the cops confronting their prime suspect, a crazed officer (Scott Glenn) who nearly tops Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now for scary insanity. Glenn takes them up in a helicopter and begins to heave Viet Cong out the door, as a prelude to his own reckless action. It’s a startling scene.

The movie has a few of them. Even when it seems to be falling apart, Off Limits does have some brutal power, and it’s gritty enough to make you want to take a shower after watching it.

What it lacks is chemistry. Dafoe, who was so memorable as the Christ-like sergeant in Platoon, has a withdrawn, pinched quality, and it doesn’t mesh with Hines’ more open style. Fred Ward is just right as their superior, who can’t believe these guys are expending this much energy on a case involving murdered prostitutes, a case that nobody cares about anyway. He can’t see that’s exactly why they’re doing it.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The generic title didn’t help, either. And by the way: Amanda Pays—least likely movie nun ever? Still, the whole thing sounds just intriguing enough to take another look sometime.


Mississippi Burning

August 21, 2012

Mississippi Burning is a big, ungainly picture that crashes into a mess of important and powerful issues. Waving his broad brush again is film director Alan Parker, the maker of Angel Heart and Midnight Express, who brings a heavy hand to all his movies.

This time Parker is telling a story based loosely on fact, of an FBI investigation of the disappearance of two white civil-rights workers in a small town in Mississippi in 1964. (They were murdered by the townspeople, as a prologue shows.) The story unfolds from the point of view of two mismatched FBI men on the case.

Thus it is yet another treatment of racial injustice in which the main characters are white, not black. However, this doesn’t mean the movie’s an automatic sell-out. More troubling is that Chris Gerolmo’s screenplay uses the FBI agents as representatives of opposing viewpoints, and makes a buddy story out of it.

Gene Hackman plays a Southern-born agent who believes in sliding gently into the investigation, not rocking the boat, and using underhanded tactics if it means getting to the truth. Willem Dafoe, last seen essaying the title role in The Last Temptation of Christ, plays Hackman’s opposite number. He’s a Kennedy liberal, straining to change the world, and doing it all according to bureau policy. Like the army of FBI men who swarm over the small town, he’s always seen in his narrow black tie and suit.

These two carry on a somewhat predictably testy relationship. The movie never quite seems to know how to view them; at first the gung-ho Dafoe is as much a subject of derision as the local bigots. And the movie encourages us to root for Hackman’s outside-the-law methods, because the end apparently justifies the means.

Mississippi Burning is important, and potentially potent, material. But Parker reduces much of the conflict to cartoon proportions; all of the townspeople, including the sheriff (Gailard Sartain, a tobacco-chewing veteran of the Ernest movies) and deputy (Brad Dourif), look like the moronic results of heavy inbreeding. The one multi-dimensional character is the mayor, played by Lee Ermey, Kubrick’s hysterical drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

Parker’s cartoon approach trivializes the significant issues here; although, in spite of this, Mississippi Burning does splatter some of its dramatic targets. It’s an obvious film, but the sheer weight of Hackman’s humanity keeps it in touch with some kind of reality, and his relationship with the deputy’s wife (good performance by Frances McDormand) creates the film’s most complex element.

The movie already won over the National Board of Review, which named it the best picture of 1988, and it’s expected to be nominated for some Oscars. All of which goes to proves that if you bang people over the head with something, you will get their attention.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

A lot of people seemed to fall for the movie, which is still puzzling (it has a high rating on IMDb even today). It got seven Oscar nominations, winning for Peter Biziou’s cinematography.


Platoon

September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.