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It is done: Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.

Blood Feast
By Shawn Stone

The Passion of the Christ
Directed 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 Denby.

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.

All This and Revolution Too

Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow


Three stooges: (top-bottom) Garrel, Green and Pitt in The Dreamers.

The Young and the Vapid

The Dreamers
Directed 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.

—Shawn Stone

Not-So-Scary Movie

Broken Lizard’s Club Dread
Directed 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 Movie.

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.

—Ann Morrow

Fluffy Friday

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen
Directed 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 department.

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 it.

—Laura Leon


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