is done: Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.
Passion of the Christ
by Mel Gibson
If ever a film said as much about its audience as its creator,
it’s Mel Gibson’s rendering of the torture and execution of
Jesus Christ. Many believers are horrified by the emphasis
on the crucifixion, rather than the life, teachings or resurrection
of Jesus. Many Jews are offended, even frightened, by the
film’s crypto- anti-Semitism. Taking a nod from Pope John
Paul II’s alleged pronouncement “It is as it was”—retracted
as fast as Woodrow Wilson’s plug for The Birth of a Nation—millions
of other Christians seem to be absorbing The Passion of
the Christ as if it’s real.
No wonder. The film’s R-rated violence is state-of-the-art.
Employing assorted special-effects pros who have worked on
such flicks as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hannibal,
Gibson has made a biblical splatter film. It’s easy to see
the film’s Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as a cousin to Pinhead
of the Hellraiser series. The extreme punishment visited
on Jesus (James Caviezel) is explicit and harrowing. Even
before the Romans can get their hands on him, the Jewish cops
beat him so badly that one eye is swollen shut. And when the
Romans do begin the “scourging,” it’s 40-plus minutes of watching
a man have the skin flayed from his body.
Is it horrible to watch? Yes. Is it gratuitous? In the context
of the film’s essentially Roman Catholic vision, no. (To quote
John Waters, “Consider the stations of the cross”: It’s a
central tenet of Catholicism to meditate on the passion.)
Gibson is overwhelmed by the idea that the son of God died
for man’s sins—having made four Lethal Weapon films,
he’s intimately familiar with sinning—and conceptualizes this
by showing violence equal to the enormity of man’s sin.
I found The Passion of the Christ powerful and affecting,
and the violence justified to the subject. If Scorsese, DeMille
and Pasolini can have their Jesus, then Gibson can have his—even
if he borrows as much from an 18th-century German nun as he
does from the gospels. Then again, I loved Kill Bill Vol.
1, a film similarly pilloried for its extreme violence
by finger-wagging critics like The New Yorker’s David
Of course there’s a catch to Gibson’s vision—you could easily
walk out of The Passion thinking, “The Jews did it.”
Much of the anti-Semitic flavor comes from the machinations
of the Jewish Pharisees, or high priests, as related in the
books of Matthew and John, and faithfully rendered by Gibson.
Led by Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia), these beautifully blue-garbed
elders engineer the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion of Christ
with cruel relish. The Roman soldiers may be unspeakably vicious,
but they’re just following orders, albeit with a recognizable
executioner’s glee. Not so the Jews. With obvious threats
of insurrection, the Pharisees force the Romans to crucify
Christ. The Roman elites, in contrast, are noble. Pilate (Hristo
Naumov Shopov) is philosophical and just, while his wife,
Claudia (Claudia Procles), tormented by dreams, warns him
not to condemn Christ. Claudia is so noble, in fact, that
she—in an extrabiblical bit of business—supplies Mary (Maia
Morgenstern) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) with linens
with which to wipe up the blood of Christ.
Earlier filmmakers from glorious vulgarian Cecil B. DeMille
(in King of Kings, 1927) to pious bore George Stevens
(in The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965), have made
conscious efforts to downplay the culpability of the Jews.
Whatever his intention, Gibson does not—and this weakens his
message and work.
This and Revolution Too
Dancing: Havana Nights
by Guy Ferland
Patrick Swayze makes an appearance in Dirty Dancing: Havana
Nights, but fans of the first Dirty Dancing shouldn’t
get their hopes up: this “Johnny,” an instructor at a posh
hotel for gringos, is just a gimmicky cameo. Havana Nights,
set in 1958 Cuba during the revolution, is worse than a pale
remake of the original; it’s more of an imitation that couldn’t
be bothered to be a prequel. Which might’ve been fun: Johnny
as a sojourning hoofer who is ousted from Cuba after the fall
of Batista. Relocating to the Big Apple, he is blacklisted
from Broadway by his presumed commie sympathies, subsequently
making his way to the Catskills. OK, so Swayze is noticeably
too old for such a role, but even so, his two minutes of twirling
in the irredeemably awful Havana Nights have more panache
than anything else in the movie.
The dancing fools-in-love here are Katie (statuesque Romolo
Garai from I Capture the Castle), the daughter of a
Ford executive, and Javier (adorable Diego Luna from Open
Range), a Cuban pool boy. While the snooty American expatriates
lounging poolside treat the Cuban help like dirt, they also
refer to brainiac Katie as “June Cleaver.” But James (Jonathan
Jackson), the son of Katie’s father’s boss, likes smart girls
who wear sweater sets in 90-degree heat. After a single gander
at Javier getting down in a hedonistic street party, however,
Katie is smitten with him, and bitten by the Latin rhythms.
Not for her the wimpy beat of rock & roll; she wants to
throw her head back and grind her hips like there’s no tomorrow.
And there may not be, since the revolution is gaining momentum.
We know this because Javier’s father was murdered by the Batista
regime, and therefore his older brother is a revolutionary.
Let’s see, what other contrivances does TV director Guy Ferland
throw in? Oh yeah, Katie’s socially conscious mother (Selma
Ward, who is passable as a Jackie O. clone) is eager for her
to date James. And James is just waiting for an excuse to
“put his hands all over” Katie. He gets that excuse when she
takes him to a wild Cuban nightclub—her enthusiasm for Latin
culture having instantaneously transformed her from a bookish
priss into a snippy vamp in plunging necklines. Incidentally,
there’s a dance contest that Javier must win so he can move
his family to America.
The familiar plot elements are reheated with perfunctory speed,
and set against a postcard version of pre-Castro Cuba. The
dialogue consists of cardboard 1950s clichés, and the dance
sequences are ineptly choreographed, except for the care that’s
taken not to upstage the two stars, neither of whom can dance.
Luna is appealing, but the talentless Garai comes off as a
wan harridan. Katie’s conflict with her parents has more to
do with her lying to them than their mild snobbery. And the
big contest is thrown into chaos by the revolution, an event
that’s staged with all the realism of a grammar-school production
of Che! About the best that can be said of this strident
tripe is that the dancing is indeed racier—that is, if you
consider hip swivels to be risqué.
stooges: (top-bottom) Garrel, Green and Pitt in The
Young and the Vapid
by Bernardo Bertolucci
Goodness gracious, a major studio has released an NC-17-rated
film. I suppose kudos are due Fox for throwing moviegoers
a bone. We all know what the underused NC-17 “brand” has come
to mean: an uninhibited sex romp, à la Henry and June,
with much sweating and grunting by impossibly attractive people.
Alas, Bernardo Bertolucci’s nostalgic look back at the crazy-sexy-violent
Paris of 1968 is unfocused, unsexy and, ultimately, a bore.
Matthew (Michael Pitt) is a young American student in Paris
who spends most of his spare time watching old movies at the
Cinematheque Français. He’s picked up by twin cineastes Isabelle
(Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel), and the three university-age
film buffs hit it off immediately. They argue the relative
merits of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Sam Fuller and Nicholas
Ray, and walk around an old-but-spacious apartment half-dressed.
Très Parisian. The twins, it seems, are a little closer, even
cuddlier, than a typical brother and sister, playing silly
dare games—like, oh, shaving each other’s public hair—and
want to draw Matthew into their childish-yet-kinky world.
Before all you Larry Clark devotees start getting hot and
bothered, be warned that there is much more arguing about
film and politics than there is sex. For film buffs, there
are swell clips from Queen Christina, Freaks,
Band a part, The Girl Can’t Help It, City
Lights, Blonde Venus and Mouchette. In an
especially cute moment, they have the usual cross-cultural
argument about Jerry Lewis. If you’re not a film buff, too
bad for you.
There is a fair amount of blather about politics. Theo is
a fan of Chairman Mao; Matthew finds this silly, as any sensible
American from San Diego would. As this is Paris in 1968, there
are riots and strikes, none of which are explained enough
to be comprehensible. We know it’s 1968 principally from the
soundtrack, which is awash in the unholy trinity of Hendrix,
Joplin and Morrison.
Bertolucci seems to have been seduced by his own material.
In the short prologue before the trio seal themselves up in
their apartment and start the endless yakking and fooling
around, the film has a sense of danger and mystery. Once the
action shifts, however, the director is so enraptured by beauty
and conversation that there’s no tension or drama. (And a
surfeit of pointless kink: Why do we need to know that Matthew
prefers to piss in the sink?) More pretty pictures of tiresome
people we don’t need.
Lizard’s Club Dread
by Jay Chandrasekhar
From the collegiate comedy troupe who gave the world the unwanted
Super Troopers comes an equally needless lampoon on
horror flicks with a spring-break mentality. Set on the Pleasure
Island resort where swilling tequila and cruising the pool
are the featured activities, Club Dread opens with
a groaningly unfunny set piece amid the island’s burial
grounds that climaxes with a threesome being hacked to death
by a machete-wielding maniac. But as written and directed
by founding Lizard Jay Chandrasekhar, Broken Lizard’s
Club Dread becomes increasingly amusing as it bumbles
along. Following the formula of killing off characters one
by one, at no point is the film actually frightening, but
to its credit, it does keep the audience guessing as to who
the maniac might be. Each murder devolves into a comedy revue
that works up some enjoyable throw-away humor and clever verbal
banter while spoofing spoofs such as Scream and Scary
The low-rent resort is presided over by Coconut Pete (an unrecognizable
Bill Paxton), who’s been living off the fame of his one-hit
wonder, “Pinacoladaberg,” since the 1970s. All similarities
to Jimmy Buffet are heavily intentional; whether Pete’s freakouts
are meant to mimic Ozzy Osbourne is open to interpretation.
After the three partiers lose their heads, the film flashes
back to “one hour earlier,” when arriving guests were greeted
by the staff (most of them played by Broken Lizards). Later,
this seemingly innocuous sequence pays off in the film’s best
bit. Among the employees who survive long enough to be distinguishable
are Jenny (Brittany Daniel), the promiscuous aerobics instructor;
Sam (Erik Stolhanske), the one-man “fun police”; Cliff (Richard
Perello), the delirious DJ; and Lars (co-writer Kevin Heffernan),
the new masseuse. Chandrasekhar’s character is Putnam, a British-Indian
tennis instructor with an absurdly out-of-place sense of propriety.
Disguised by a Mexican poncho, the maniac leisurely ambles
as he dispatches his witless victims: One of the better sight
gags centers on a poky golf cart. Another involves a reveler
who is stalked in a outdoor maze, for which the humor comes
solely from his costume—he’s a pear. And for some inexplicable
reason, an anxious pear is funnier than a scared banana or
even a clueless cheese-dipped pretzel. Along with this kind
of shameless visual shtick is some rather subtle satirizing:
The cynical, semi-intelligent Sam can be seen as a poke at
the irony-sodden preppies of Whit Stillman movies. And an
extended riff on Dead Calm is successfully milked to
its last ounce of Monty Python-style silliness.
Heffernan, the mellow straight man, is the most likable of
the unknown actors, and his new-agey masseuse, the prime suspect,
is also the least gamy of the characters. But then, compared
to rude, crude, and brainless blockbusters like 50 First
Dates, the occasionally hilarious Club Dread is
practically a class act.
of a Teenage Drama Queen
by Sara Sugarman
Fresh off her solid work in the sleeper hit Freaky Friday,
Lindsay Lohan pretty much needs only one more hit to completely
solidify her hold over the “tweener” audience, not to mention
their parents. Pretty, in an unthreatening, Marcia Brady kind
of way, and talented (as evidenced by her canny riff of Jamie
Lee Curtis’ character in FF), Lohan is a movie agent’s
dream ace-in-the-hole. Slight problem, though: Lohan is nearing
the very end of her ability to play pubescent teens, a thought
that seems to have been uppermost in Sara Sugarman’s mind
when directing Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,
a haphazard, frantically paced fairy tale.
Ostensibly the story of how a city gal, teenage Lola (her
real name is Mary), is transformed by, er, suburban values,
Confessions is merely a rickety rack on which to throw
scenes involving Lola’s penchant for funky costumes and her
flair for drama. For instance, she tells new best friend Ella
(Alison Pill) the sweeping saga of her parents’ romance and
her father’s subsequent, tragic death. Later, when Ella finds
out that Dad is very much alive and well, her anger at having
been duped translates into Lola learning that it isn’t nice
to lie to her friends. In the meantime, Lola bonds with uptight
Ella by teaching her how to bend the rules, especially when
it comes to getting into the final concert of their dream
band, Sidarthur, whose lead singer Stu Wolff (Adam Garcia)
is, according to Lola, second only to Shakespeare in the poetry
Compounding the problem of getting to the sold-out concert
is the fact that rich bitch Carla Santini (Megan Fox) is going.
As penned by screenwriter Gail Parent, Carla is coldhearted
and menacing in a way that only a real high school diva can
be, and it’s rather surprising that Sugarman allows Fox to
play the part without any thought to eventually endearing
herself to us, or to Lola. While it’s clear that we’re supposed
to be rooting for Lola, both she and her arch rival come across
as rather crass, celebrity-obsessed, and, when dressed to
party, leap years ahead of their peer group in terms of calculated
sexuality. Only Pill, as the dowdy but true-hearted sidekick,
comes across as real, and it is for her alone that we feel,
whether it be exhilaration or commiseration. The movie’s highlight
is actually another supporting player, Carol Kane as the daft
drama teacher, Miss Baggoli, whose sausage curls and frumpy
jumpers belie her hip factor. Ultimately, the sight of her
dancing a tango with the infamous Stu Wolff, as the credits
roll, is far more amusing than anything that has preceded