• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.


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    Matt Page

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    Wednesday, December 31, 2008

    Bible Films Blog Review of 2008

    On a personal note, 2008 has perhaps been the best of all years and the worst of all years. The birth of my son, Digory, getting to know my daughter Nina on a whole new level, and moving in to what we hope will be our long term family home will mean that, in all probability we will look back on this year with extreme fondness. Yet at the same time it's been unremittingly tough - out house still unsold after more than 12 months on the market, and worth far less than it was when I wrote last year's review. I've also been trying to hold down three jobs, two of which have largely been a source of misery. On top of this my mother-in-law will be spending the New Year undergoing her second batch of chemotherapy, whilst my dad seeks to recover from the stroke that he suffered just a couple of weeks before his 60th birthday.

    But one of the highlights of the year for me was Bible Film related. Easter saw the BBC broadcast The Passion - a dramatisation of the week leading up to Jesus' death. I'd been following the story for almost two years, and had, sadly, had to turn down an opportunity to visit the set, and so it was tremendously exciting to see it finally appear on the small screen. And I was invited to the premiere (where I got to spend some time with Mark Goodacre), and got some work out of it as well. The updating of the ReJesus website means that my work for them on this film is temporairily unavailable, but hopefully it will see the light of day again soon. The programme itself lived up to its promise. A strong leading performance by Joseph Mawle, a script that combined sound history with good drama, and a treatment of the resurrection that was so close to the biblical accounts that it left many from all over the theological spectrum a little uncomfortable. Two separate DVD releases followed, but no news yet on when this will air on the other side of the Atlantic.

    Aside from The Passion, it was a relatively quiet year for dramatised Bible stories. Albert Serra’s retelling of the wise men saga, Birdsong (El Cant Dels Ocells) played at a number of Film Festivals (including London's), but Christmas came and went without any news of a wider release. Other than that, only the spoof short Prop8: The Musical gained any kind of release, although Hamlet 2 did feature Steve Coogan playing a music teacher, playing Jesus. There were also Jesus allegories with Prince Caspian (see my intereview with Douglas Gresham), The Dark Knight and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Next year looks like it will have a much stronger contingent, including two films based on Genesis (Year One and The God Complex) and two TV series in Kings and Ben Hur. At least one of the Noah films in production and one or two of the smaller productions may also make it, but it's difficult to tell.

    Also thin on the ground were books about Bible Films. There may have been others besides Thomas R. Lindlof's "Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars", but if so, I missed them.

    A number of films did get DVD releases this year for the first time. The Ten, The Final Inquiry, Son of Man, Color of the Cross 2 and
    Dante's Inferno all got released, as well as the two disc version of Quo Vadis?.

    Despite the paucity of new dramatic treatments there were a suprisingly large number of documentaries on the Bible. Easter saw Robert Beckford in action with Secrets of the 12 Disciples, which dared to go head to head with the final episode of The Passion. But it was Channel 5 who provided most of the interest in this areas. Their September series Secrets of the Cross featured 4 documnetaries: Secrets of the Jesus Tomb, Who Really Killed Jesus?, Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner? and Trial of the Knights Templar. In America The Bible's Buried Secrets aired on PBS continuing the use of the word "secret" in the year's documentary titles. The Channel 5 shows were all repeated at Christmas along with another repeated documentary on King Herod (which I still need to watch). All 5 showed early in the morning, leaving the later evening schedule for the BBC's Star of Bethlehem, and Beckford again in The Nativity Decoded.

    Finally, 2008 also saw us saying a sad farewell to two of the great actors of all time. Paul Newman may only have starred in The Silver Chalice, but his body of work desrves celebration, but in the death of Charlton Heston we lost a man whose name was synonymous with the kind of biblical epic we are never likely to see again.

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    Friday, December 26, 2008

    Review:Star of Bethlehem

    Kicking off the Christmas programming was the BBC's documentary Star of Bethlehem looking at the theories behind what the "star" really was. Whilst this ias a different film than the one which soul - ache suggests "appears to have been started by an evangelical attorney ", it's introductory section sounds no less loony - "was it (the star) caused by a nuclear explosion in outer space"? There's a quick quotation from Matthew 2 and we're off.

    From the off there's no talk of "wise men", "the three kings" or, as my daughter has been putting it, the "three wise king men". Instead the more accurate "magi" is used. There's a quotation from Philo, and some discussion about Zoroastrian astrologers. We go into the mistakes made by Dionysius in making the Gregorian calendar, and its implications - Jesus was born sometime before 4BC, and so we need to look for an astronomical event that occurred around then.

    The first theory given is that the "star" was actually a comet. It fits the date but the portents would have been taken as a bad sign, it's popularity is simply put down to an early-ish Christian painting.

    The next theory is that the "star" was a planet, but before fully explaining it there's a pause to look at who the magi were. Clarifying that they were not kings, but astrologers/astronomers, and suggesting that they came from Persia. There's an initially nifty effect here, highlighting a wall painting in the Roman catacombs, and converting the shadowy figures into Persian CGI characters. But the CGI characters are only marginally better fashioned than the catacomb sketches, and their overuse quickly begins to grate.

    The theory itself is that the astronomical event in question was Jupiter and Saturn converging. This combined with their entry into the Pisces region in the sky, and their temporary reverse motion in the sky would have marked out a significant event. It not only fits the timescale, but also suggests the two phase movement from Persia to Jerusalem and then Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Astronomer Prof. David Hughes is to the fore here and even calls it his theory at one point.

    The third theory is that a lunar occultation occurred and is championed by Michael Molnar. It's quickly passed over, without even taking time to explore some of its weaknesses. Instead we're introduced to Rick Larson who suggests that a copyist error has misdirected those looking for astronomical oddities in the pre-4 BC period. According to Larson, Herod actually died in 1 A.D. and just before this there is a convergence of Jupiter and Venus, and to top it all, the star stops on December 25. Again there's no counter evidence, but it all seems a little too like Larson had been trying to find the answers he'd already decided upon.

    It's the proponent of the final theory, the European Space Agency's Mark Kidger, who does most to deconstruct all the theories above. Yes, Kidger argues, seeing these occurrences in the sky would be interesting and possibly even significant. But would they really be important enough to justify a 600 mile trip? Kidger argues not. Instead these events were just the warm up acts to the real "star" of Bethlehem, and it turns out that it's this fifth theory that is the attention-grabbing one mentioned at the start. But, disappointingly, it turns out that it's simply a dramatically bloated description of a supernova. The effects are similarly over the top as we see a CGI created exploding star again and again. And Kidger's theory comes across as no more plausible than any of the others.

    Where Kidger is correct is that there were numerous such events in such a small timeframe which, in turn suggests that perhaps none of them were actually that significant. And the problem with this and a number of similar documentaries looking at the Star of Bethlehem is that they tend to completely overlook the possibility that the star was simply a literary device. It is, of course, entirely possible that the arrival of the magi made such an impact on Mary that this story was known in the early church. But it's also possible that Matthew was simply trying to make a statement about Jesus's significance - for example that he was lord over the rich and powerful, or ruler of the whole world. And regardless of the questions surrounding this event's historicity it's its symbolic significance that causes Matthew to include it in his gospel. After all, none of the other gospel writers see fit to include it (although it may not have been known to all of them). Furthermore this is the only group of Jesus's visitors that Matthew seeks to talk about, which raisies the question as to why he thinks this event is so significant.

    Sadly the documentary is so caught up in its scientific speculation it fails to really tell us why Matthew thought it was important. And given just how... many... times it emphasises that astrology and astronomy were, at that time, essentially the same thing, it's certainly a most serious oversight.

    Theological comments were provided by Joanna Jepson, Claire Foster, Phil Greetham and, to an extent I suppose, Rick Larson. Larson, David Hughes, Michael Molnar, Brian Cox, Richard Stevenson, Christopher Walker and Mark Kidger gave the astronomical information. Star of Bethlehem will be available for a few more days on BBC iPlayer for those in the UK.

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    Wednesday, December 24, 2008

    Christmas UK TV Preview 2008

    It's become almost a tradition here at the Bible Films Blog that I post a guide to the festive period's UK TV Bible film offerings (see Christmas '07 and '06, and Easter '08 and '07. Sadly, I'm a little later in posting this than I'd originally hoped. My Christmas holiday has started in fine form with three days spent sorting out my blocked drains (£1000+ in the end!) and then a day and a half in bed ill. Sadly two of the things I would have blogged have already been and gone (Monday's Who Really Killed Jesus? and Tuesday's Mary Magdalene Saint or Sinner?). Nevertheless there is some, including one film that I'm genuinely excited about seeing for the first time. As ever, I'm only covering the UK's five main channels, with perhaps the odd foray into some of the documentaries available on cable.Star of Bethlehem - 24th Dec. 17:30, BBC2
    Having temporarily ousted Channel 4 from the best religious TV programming slot this Easter (with The Passion), the BBC takes the battle onto 4's home turf - the demythologising Bible documentary. Offering "new evidence challenging the biblical story" this documentary will look at the astrological phenomena that may have lay behind the star of Bethlehem. Occasionally, the Beeb's website is frustratingly unjoined up about these things. The programme's blurb is totally unconnected to the front page linked detailed BBC magazine article and then there's precious little available on the BBC religion site. The Nativity Decoded - 25th Dec. 19:30, Channel 4
    Also known as Decoding the Nativity. No doubt some of the "new evidence" offered by the BBC documentary will also feature in this - a more extensive, two-hour look at the Nativity story. Given Rowan Williams's highly publicised comments last year on all this, it will be interesting to see what it actually has to say. Beckford is always interesting, and this is produced by Carbon who did a good enough job with Easter's Secrets of the 12 Disiciples. Channel 4 has also put together a decent microsite for this one, even if they don't appear to have decided what to call it yet.

    Also of interest is The Bible Unearthed - 8am on the History Channel. Even if this isn't an edited version of last month's The Bible's Buried Secrets the content is highly likely to be similar.The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - 26th Dec. 17:50, BBC1
    Anyone hoping for a Jesus film on anywhere over Christmas will have to make do with the story's best known allegory. I'm sure I don't really need to say too much more on this. Christian viewers at the time were either a - just glad to see it on the big screen, b - mortified by the alterations that were made, or c - unaware of said alterations and so enjoyed it along with everyone else. The Jesus allegory is weakened, but certainly very much present, but having seen it twice when it came out, and at least once more since, I can't imagine I'll be making this a priority. For an alternate Jesus allegory see Brandon Routh in Superman Returns - 29th December 20:30 BBC1.

    Elsewhere TCM offers up Ben Hur (3pm) and the History Channel puts on what seems to be a thirteen hour documentary on Rome: the Rise and Fall of an Empire. Programme starts at 10am. Constantine's on at 7pm, but no mention of Jesus.Secrets of the Jesus Tomb - 27th Dec. 11:00am - Channel 5
    Repeat of the Channel 5's above average documentary from their Secrets of the Cross series. I reviewed this and offered a few additional comments at the time. I believe the rest of the series aired earlier in the week.

    TCM will also be wheeling out Ben Hur at 09:15.The True Story: Herod the Great - 28th Dec. 11:00am, Channel 5
    Not much on Five's website other than a brief summary "...this film attempts to get to the bottom of the myth and separate fact from legend, combining expert analysis, computer graphics and dramatisations". I think this is the Atlantic productions film, But I've not seen it.

    Also on: National Geographic (8:00pm)Trial of the Knights Templar, Discovery Channel (4pm) Biblical Mysteries Explained.Androcles & the Lion - 29th Dec. 13:05, Channel 5
    Not only is there no direct Jesus film this Christmas, but he doesn't even get a cameo. Nevertheless I am greatly looking forward to seeing Androcles and the Lion. It's a film I've obviously heard of but never had the chance to see. Prior to Life of Brian, this was the leading satire of the sword and sandal epics movies, based on a George Bernard Shaw play and starring the King and Queen of Biblical epics Victor Mature and Jean Simmons. It was originally going to star Harpo Marx too, but sadly he dropped out. I'll probably post a few thoughts on this in the next month or so.

    And that's about all. Surprisingly it's Channel Five that offers the greatest selection, in what is generally a good year - although more for the documentary films than the dramas. Note for next year - the Diocese of London runs a similar service which might save me waiting to buy a TV mag next year.

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    Friday, December 19, 2008

    DVD Review: Quo Vadis?

    Warner Home Video
    Run time: 174 mins
    Rating: Not Rated
    Aspect Ratio: 4:3
    Region: Region 1
    Audio: English-DD Mono
    French-DD Mono
    Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Japanese
    Number of discs: 2
    Extras: Commentary, Trailers, Featurette,
    ASIN: B00005JN8Z
    When the post-war film studios realised that their future lay in giving their audiences the kind of visual stunning experience that they couldn't get from their televisions, Warner Brothers' first major effort was Quo Vadis?. Henryk Sienkiewicz's Roman-Christian novel had already spawned two large scale silent epics - the first of which was said to inspire D.W. Griffith's ground-breaking Intolerance. The "new" version would be even more impressive. On-location filming and 30,000 extras offering up the kind of spectacle that would pull people away from their TVs and into the cinema.

    So it's kind of ironic to be reviewing a DVD release that seeks to bring that original spectacle and theatrical experience of watching Quo Vadis? into our living rooms. Warner Home Video's new 2-disc release promises a "new ultra-resolution digital transfer" and a restored soundtrack. And for anyone who is happy with their existing DVD or VHS release, there's a selection of extra features to make the new package a little more enticing. I'll start by reviewing the extras, before offering a few comments on the quality of the transfer at the end.
    Commentary by F.X. Feeney
    Film commentaries are something of a mixed bag. Whilst the best produce a far greater appreciation of a particular film's depth, the worst veer into extreme tedium, or worse still, ego-centric back slapping. Thankfully this is a very much an example of the former. I'm unfamiliar with Feeney's previous work, but his efforts here are far more interesting than his billing as a "film historian" suggests. Feeney has clearly done his homework and manages to pepper his commentary with an intriguing mix of tidbits regarding the movie's creation, through to fascinating interpretations of the film's use of cinematic language. It's this diversity that makes the commentary such a success. Often a lone commentator comes across as somewhat one-dimensional, but Feeney successfully changes gears from talking about the novel, to the issues surrounding the film's long pre-production to analysing the final product. At 174 minutes it hardly surprising that Feeney dries up a little in the second half, which may also be due to his love for the film's climax getting the better of him. I don't think I've ever listened to a DVD commentary twice, but, in this case I think it may well be a possibility.

    Trailers
    Both the theatrical trailer and the original teaser trailer are included. It's perhaps a testimony of the extent to which Ben Hur subsequently overshadowed Quo Vadis? that there are no later TV trailers as there are with other epic films from this era. The teaser trailer only shows one shot from the film - one of Marcus's army marching into the centre of Rome. As you'd expect there's a bit more in the longer theatrical trailer which shows a couple of long shots but mainly occupies its time by introducing all the main characters and boasting about the movie's "colossal" size. And, as if to force the point home, this version of the trailer runs for over five minutes.Featurette - In the Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic
    A lot of DVDs these days tend to break up their documentary content into a number of shorter featurettes, each covering a specific area. It makes it seems like potential purchasers are getting more for their money. So it's nice to see a longer documentary here which eschews such an approach. That said it does appear that this may have been on the cards at one point as in places the documentary feels a little segmented. It start with a look at the background to Sienkiewicz's novel and quickly moves on to look at the two silent film versions of the story from 1913 and 1925. There's some brief footage from both films which is nice to see, but also leaves you wanting more. Given the recent releases of Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments - both of which included their 1920s predecessors as extra features - it would have been nice to see these included as well.

    The documentary then looks at the pre-WWII plans for making the film. Whilst Robert Taylor was originally lined up to play Marcus Vinicius, it soon began to look like Gregory Peck would play the Roman commander. Peck was the preferred choice of the director who was originally meant to be making the film - John Huston. But when Peck was forced to drop out, Huston left the picture too. But despite all these setbacks, the project carried on. Mervyn Le Roy was drafted in to direct and Taylor was returned to the role 15 years after it had originally been discussed.

    We then move on to hear about various aspects of the production itself: the performance of the leads, the design of sets and costumes, Miklós Rózsa score and so on. This is perhaps the most interesting part if the featurette, and the interview with the son of matte artist Peter Ellenshaw was particularly fascinating.

    The final segment of the documentary looks at its marketing, audience reception, and its influence on later biblical epics, the claims here are perhaps a little too grand. Whilst Quo Vadis? was indeed a landmark epic, and certainly influential on the Jesus Cameo films that followed in its footsteps, it was DeMille who really kickstarted the epic craze of the fifties with his 1949 Samson and Delilah, and his second stab at The Ten Commandments. But that said, the tendency for the 50s epics to comment on (the then) modern day America does owe something of a debt to Quo Vadis?, which, the documentary points out, is made fairly explicit throughout the film, most notably at the end.Transfer Quality
    Having only previously seen Quo Vadis? on VHS, I personally was impressed by the picture quality, but then, I'm not an expert on such matters and was only watching it on a standard television set. But it appears not everyone shares my opinion and several of the experts (DVD Times, DVD Talk and DVD Review) are fairly critical. However, even having read their criticisms I'm not sure I can see what they see. Perhaps it's one of those half empty/half full things. The aspect ratio is 4:3 as the original film was (it would not be until The Robe two years later that widescreen was introduced) and there are no criticisms about the overly zealous cropping and so on.

    Overall
    Whilst some have a few quibbles with the quality of the transfer, overall this seems to me to be a strong release. Feeney's commentary is excellent and the featurette is well paced and interesting. Whilst I've not been able to compare this release with the earlier one-disc version, I've been led to believe that the picture quality is a significant improvement, and it's certainly a major improvement to the VHS version. Having said all that, the Blu-Ray edition of this disc is due to come out next year, and, according to DVD Beaver it offers a significant improvement again in picture quality, and manages to fit the film and all of the same extras onto a single disc.

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    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    Two of My Favourite Sites Get a Facelift

    I've been meaning to post this for a while, but there's been a surprisingly large amount of other news which seemed a bit more pressing, and time has been somewhat limited.

    The rejesus.co.uk website got a new look recently, replacing the original design that dated back to 2002. Most of the content looks the same, but there's an increased number of authors for the blog, and the site's main content will continue to expand. There are also new ways to navigate including categories and tags. I still need to copy across most of the blog posts I wrote for the old site, so apologies if you've been trying to find those articles without success.

    Jeffrey Overstreet's Looking Closer
    has also been redesigned, to reflect the growing number of books he has published. It also means that his journal has a new home as part of the main site. But fear not. The posts from his previous blog are still available.

    Monday, December 15, 2008

    Rome Coming to the Cinema?

    Bruno Heller, the writer and co-creator of the BBC/HBO series Rome has discussed his hopes for a film version with the Hollywood Reporter.
    "There is talk of doing a movie version," he said. "It's moving along. It's not there until it is there. I would love to round that show off."

    [snip]

    Heller would not discuss plot ideas, but the original series outline for "Rome" next called for the hedonistic Roman leaders to deal with the rise of a certain problematic rabbi -- a story line that would have put a whole new spin on the Greatest Story Ever Told and potentially bring "Rome" a larger audience.

    "I discovered halfway through writing the second season the show was going to end," Heller said. "The second was going to end with death of Brutus. Third and fourth season would be set in Egypt. Fifth was going to be the rise of the messiah in Palestine. But because we got the heads-up that the second season would be it, I telescoped the third and fourth season into the second one, which accounts for the blazing speed we go through history near the end. There's certainly more than enough history to go around."
    Like Peter Chattaway I've never seen the original series, but I'd certainly be interested to see this. That said I'm not sure what the Jesus story would look like from the Roman angle. This Easter's BBC/HBO series The Passion was the latest in a line of film's that have sought to understand Pilate's motives, but I'm not sure that at the time the crucifixion would have registered either with anyone further up the Roman hierarchy, or with the ordinary citizens of the city itself.

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    Friday, December 12, 2008

    More on Aronofsky's Noah Film

    There's a little more news on Darren Aronofsky's plans for his Noah film. Aronofsky purportedly finished the script back in September, he's now revealed that he's planning to release it first as a graphic novel. Aronofsky is interviewed by Rope of Silicon, and talks about the film briefly:
    RoS: Looking forward to the projects you have coming up, what is the situation with the Noah project?

    DA: We have a script actually, it is a script but there is more work to do. We’re actually going to do a graphic novel of it right now, we’re just starting it, and we’re hiring a writer.

    RoS: And are you shopping the script around to studios and actors…?

    DA: There is an actor attached, but I’m not going to say who, but he’s a big movie star.

    RoS: Steve Carell… [joking]

    DA: [With a smile] Yeah, exactly… Eventually we’ll set it up, but we’re just figuring it out. It’s a very difficult film to get made and we’re slowly working on it to get it put together.
    I wonder if part of the thinking behind the graphic novel idea is its similarity to storyboarding? And, of course, it's also a cheap way to test out the market for such a film, whilst simultaneously building that market up.

    The September interview with /film is also contains slightly odd quotation:
    It's the end of the world and it's the second most famous ship after the Titanic... I think it's really timely because it's about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what's going on on this planet. So I think it's got these big, big themes that connect with us. Noah was the first environmentalist. He's a really interesting character.
    Second most famous?

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    Wednesday, December 10, 2008

    More Thoughts on Prop 8: The Musical

    I've been thinking a little more about Jack Black's turn as Jesus in Prop 8: The Musical. In particular I was thinking about the similarities between the film and the arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels. It's a parallel I'm, a little uncomfortable making. Rightly or wrongly, accusing anyone, particularly relatively devout Christians, of being Pharisees carries with it all kind of negative connotations. Many of these are not really fair, for reasons I won't go into here. So let me make clear that I'm not looking to take sides in the debate, but rather I'm simply trying to analyse the work before me. And in this particular case I do see a number of similarities with those debates. So the conflict takes place between a group of religious officials and the leader of a group seeking to reinterpret the traditional "law". Star power aside, the Christian Pharisees don't have a single leader or sole representative whereas once Jesus appears, he is the only spokesperson for the other side. Secondly, the substance of the argument revolves not around New Testament texts as one might expect, but around one of the Jewish books of the law. Jesus uses scripture to counteract his opponents arguments as he does in Mark 2:23-28, or cites their behaviour in other situations as with the "corban" argument of Mark 7:9-12. Lastly, on Monday I noted how Prop 8 was essentially propaganda which I would define as a work specifically produced to forward a particular cause. But of course, this definition also applies to the gospels (John 20:31). And, whilst I found the portrayal of the Christians in Prop 8 to be unhelpfully hyperbolic and negative it's more than possible that the gospels also portray the Pharisees in an over-the-top fashion.

    Reflecting on this aspect of the film made me think of the 1973 version of Jesus Christ, Superstar which is obviously such a cultural reference point that any subsequent comic Jesus musical is bound to reference it in some way or another. What's particularly interesting in this case is the costuming. As with that film you have a conflict between the "Pharisees" dressed in black uncomfortable looking costumes, and Jesus and his followers who are dressed in bright, light hearted and casual outfits which enable them to dance and move more freely. Of course Jesus Christ, Superstar's camp value has long been remarked upon so perhaps it's not too surprising to find this aspect coming to the fore.

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    Tuesday, December 09, 2008

    Herod in DeMille's Cleopatra

    Peter Chattaway recently watched Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra for the first time and has made some interesting comments about it, notably concerning the appearance of Herod the Great. It's one of DeMille's films that I've not seen yet. Perhaps I should add that DeMille boxset to my Christmas list.

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    Monday, December 08, 2008

    Prop 8: Jack Black as Jesus

    It seems like Jack Black is getting a taste for Bible Films. Having recently finished filming The Year One, he has just appeared as Jesus in a short film at FunnyOrDie.com.

    Prop 8 - The Musical was written by Marc Shaiman, (who wrote Hairspray and several of the songs from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) as a protest against the newly passed Californian law Proposition 8. Black features alongside other stars such as John C. Reilly, Allison Janney, Neil Patrick Harris and Maya Rudolph. Incredibly, in its first day of existence it got 1.2 million hits, and now, five days later, it's been viewed over 2.5 million times.

    There's an interview with Shaiman about the piece at the New York Times where, amongst other things, he expresses his dismay that he didn't do this before the day of the vote. Had he done so this might have been propaganda with a purpose, but as it is "six weeks too late" (as he puts it), it just feels a little bit like it's playing to the gallery. There's a couple of amusing lines in the film, but for a work that is accusing its enemies of being motivated by hate, it seems, to me at least, to be a little guilty of the same. I suppose the such vividly drawn caricatures are part of its Avenue-Q vibe, but I don't think it will encourage much dialogue, which I think is the only real way of moving forward on this issue.

    Friday, December 05, 2008

    Review: Dante's Inferno

    Like many of us, I enjoy watching films with friends, although I've never really understood why. Sitting next to someone in near silence, rarely, if ever, making eye contact is hardly a great way to enjoy their company. But it seemed vaguely appropriate for Dante's Inferno. After all, "Hell is other people".

    But some films are harder to sell to friends than others. When asked "what's it about?" I'm left splurting out something about cardboard cut outs and "The Divine Comedy", becoming rapidly less eloquent with every syllable. Thank goodness for blogging: a couple of hours to piece my thoughts together without having to think too much about the raised-eyebrow-o-meter.

    Dante's "Inferno" is the most well known part of his epic poem "The Divine Comedy". It's been hugely influential on our culture even though the majority of modern readers find his mediaeval worldview pretty horrific. So it's hard to know what motivated Sean Meredith and co. to adapt it into a movie. Do they find the idea of horrific, ironic punishment after death appealing, or even just likely. Or are they so appalled that elements of this worldview persist today that they want to expose it for what it is? Or do they just see it as a part of our cultural history which on grounds of longevity alone is worthy of celebration?There's very little in their modernised version of Inferno that really answers such questions. There's too much post-modern irony about for it to be the first, but even after watching the "making of" featurette, I'm none the wiser.

    Nevertheless I'm glad they did because Dante's Inferno is one of the most innovative and interesting films I've seen in a long time. The story is relocated in the twenty first century and acted out by two dimensional cardboard puppets. As you might expect, the puppets themselves are fairly simplistic - though certainly not lacking in artistry - but the creative and intricate way in which they operated is eye opening. Whilst the characters movements are fairly normal, the way in which the puppets' creators and operators use them to convey emotion is staggering. The otherness of the cardboard puppetry allows it a great deal of versatility, and once you've seen it, it's hard to imagine another medium which could capture the inherent bizarreness of all that the story entails.

    All of this required an enormous number of puppets and military precision in filming. The action really does all take place within the confines of the miniature theatre that we are taken into during the film's opening minutes. It's two or three foot off the floor to allow the puppeteers to move about underneath, but you'd never know from the expansive journey that Dante and Virgil undergo that this was indeed the case.The presence of Dante and Virgil underscores the manner in which the film has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Virgil remains firmly as the poet of the past, just as he was in Alighieri's day. But Dante is brought right up to date - a laconic noughties slacker whose cynical detachment from the horrors before him is almost as shocking as the torture that unfolds before him. The words are Dante's, but the delivery traces its ancestry back to Bogart's string of private detectives.

    Updating the work is a smart move. Contemporary resonances aside, it restores to the story the dynamic between past and present that Dante's original audience would have
    keenly understood. To moderns, both Dante and Virgil are just figures from the distance past. Bringing Dante and numerous points of reference up to date restores the essential tension at the heart of the original work. It also involves its audience more in the vision that unfolds.

    What is particularly clever is the way that so much of Hell's scenery is so like 21st century America. Virgil guides Dante through a world of inner city ghettos, run down theatres, takeaways, churches and post-industrial waste land. A smattering of older references remain. The pair still cross the river Styx, encounter other figures of antiquity and pass numerous clever background references, but mostly things are right into contemporary times.In particular, there are numerous references to modern politics. Condeleeza Rice appears in one of the opening scenes, Ronald Reagan fines himself in level 8, not for being a corrupt politician (that is reserved for Spiro Agnew) but for consulting an astrologer. Finally Dick Cheney appears frozen in ice in the innermost ninth circle of hell.

    At times modern references are even dressed up as ancient ones. Ulysees tells the story of the rise of the Greek Empire through the use of silhouettes. But it's unmistakably an allegory of America's actions in the Middle East.

    The friend who I ultimately managed to persuade to watch this with me found the considerable number of political references a little off putting. But then Alighieri's original work is full of them. And whilst it is certainly harsh to say that Cheney has been condemned to hell even whilst he is still alive, perhaps the same could be said of Alighieri's treatment of Archbishop Ruggieri. Thankfully, though, the friend still appreciated this film, even if punishment for the sin of lust, amongst others, was a little more graphic than we were both anticipating. But then any depiction of Dante's Inferno should be disturbing. The question is how it motivates us to repond.

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    Thursday, December 04, 2008

    Podcast: The Nativity Story (2006)

    Regular listeners to my podcast will have realised that they are only being cast every two months at the moment, and that the end of November "entry" is late. As we're now into December, I thought it would be a good time to revisit 2006's The Nativity Story (see recent posts).

    Podcast: The Nativity Story (2006)

    Speaking of which, I note that director Catherine Hardwicke's latest film - an adaptation of vampire romance novel Twilight - opened last week (20th Nov) at the top of the charts, and, according to Box Office Mojo at least, has now become the highest grossing vampire movie of all time (when not adjusted for inflation). No wonder she's just been signed up to direct the sequel (MTV Movies).

    Edit: It now appears that Hardwicke will not be directing the Twilight sequels.

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    Tuesday, December 02, 2008

    Biblical Studies Carnival XXXVI

    Photo by Tim Parkinson, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    Jim West has posted a light hearted 36th Biblical Studies Carnival. Obviously last month's SBL conference in Boston gets the most attention, but there's plenty of interest all round.

    According to the Biblical Studies Carnival homepage no-one is lined up to take on the first carnival of the New Year. I'd be tempted to have a go myself if my spare time over Christmas wasn't already filled up with worrying about our non-selling house during trips between Derby Hospital and Leeds General Infirmary. Hopefully some willing volunteer will step into the breach.

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    Monday, December 01, 2008

    Kingdom Come
    A New Jesus Film Being Made in New Zealand

    Photo by kiwilad, used under a Creative Commons Licence

    Dean Wright, the Kiwi in charge of visual effects for the last two Lord of the Rings films and the first two Narnia films, is to direct a film about the life of Jesus. Kingdom Come is scheduled for filming at various locations across New Zealand in the spring (2009). The film, which at least one source says will be an "epic" with a "big budget", is being produced by South Vineyard, whose sparse website suggests that they are first timers. Having made their money in software company GrapeCity, South Vineyard's three, Japanese-based directors, will also act as executive producers.

    There's quite a bit of news on this one down under, particularly amongst the local media. Outlets have been reporting how Lake Benmore (pictured above) will stand in for the Sea of Galilee, one of the majors sets will be in Wellington suburb Maupuia and how a herd of pigs from Waitomo will presumably being driven off a cliff somewhere near Wellington. There's also some video news footage on the casting of extras, although they seem try to wring out more humour from the story than I think is actually there.

    The aim is for the film to be released in 2010, although production has been delayed by a couple of weeks. There's no news yet on who is to play Jesus.

    Incidentally, I think this is the first Jesus film to be made in Oceania even though the money is coming from American and Japanese business men. I guess this is the reverse of the situation with The Passion of the Christ where an Australian put up the money to make a film in the US (though it was filmed in Italy).

    Thanks to Paul McPherson for the tip off on this one.

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