Friday, February 27, 2004

Gibson's 'Passion' transcends violence

—Originally published 2.27.04

Never before have I so openly wept while watching a movie.

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" absolutely accomplishes the filmmaker's goal -- in search of transcendence, it accurately portrays the brutal details of Jesus' death. The film is not moving for its violence, but rather its characters' responses to such horror.

Toward the end of the movie, the camera looks over Jesus' thorn-crowned head as gleeful Roman soldiers drive a spike through the Messiah's feet. Now in the final stages of his ordeal, Jesus begs God not for personal mercy, but forgiveness for his persecutors.

Thus is the life and mission of the Savior demonstrated in a few frames of film.

This is just one of countless moving scenes in "The Passion," certainly Gibson's best work since his Oscar-winning 1995 epic "Braveheart," and probably the crowning achievement of his career. He delves deep into the biblical characters and handles the story in almost a documentary style of non-embellishment. (Yes, characters such as Simon, who carries Jesus' cross, are fleshed out from the texts, but not in such a way they feel awkward or outside the overall context of the film's subject matter.)

Gibson receives fantastic performances from every major actor, including James Caviezel, who brings a humble nobility to the lead role, and Maia Morgenstern's wonderfully muted turn as Christ's grieving mother, Mary.

Gibson knows most people who will see his film are at least generally familiar with its story, so he wastes no time with introduction or much rising action. (For a refresher, read Matthew Chapter 26 through the end of the book, and John 18-20.) "The Passion" opens in Gethsemane as Jesus, praying to God, asks for the removal of his burden. Ravaged with despair, Jesus is confronted by a satanic figure; right away we get a look at Christ's iron will as he steels himself for the grueling task ahead.

He is then arrested by Jewish soldiers only a few minutes into the movie, and the pain begins as the prisoner is beaten on his way to face the high priests. He is charged with blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God and assaulted by an angry mob.

The violence continues to escalate for the remainder of the film. By the time Jesus is brought before Roman governor Pontius Pilate (whose conflictions are depicted perfectly by Hristo Naumov Shopov), the Messiah's right eye is swollen shut and his face is bruised. From there, he is flogged by Roman soldiers, a horrifying torture sequence that, although it lasts only 10 minutes, seems to take hours. It is here Jesus is beaten nearly to death with the "cat-o'-nine-tails," a vicious hooked whip that tears his flesh on every stroke -- many of which appear on screen.

Finally, Jesus drags his cross to Golgotha where he is crucified with two other criminals. The entire procedure is displayed in zoomed-in detail, including spikes hammered through both of Christ's hands and feet, the dislocation of his right arm, and the final piercing of his side.

I include these graphic details because many of the film's critics believe the violence is too heavy, outweighing the message. Those with such a complaint miss the filmmaker's point entirely. Gibson wanted to turn the matter-of-fact language found in the Scriptures -- so easy to idealize or ignore in the mind's eye -- into an unabashed look at Jesus' death. By leaving out portions of the torture sequences, or toning the attacks down to historically inaccurate levels, Gibson would have robbed the film of its authority and power. Jesus' beatings left him nearly unrecognizable to friends and family. This is how Rome treated its prisoners 2,000 years ago -- deal with it.

At first, however, I was put off by Gibson's choice to open almost immediately with bloodshed. For the first half of the film, I found myself not caring much more for Jesus than I would any other person tortured in such a way.

That all changed in the final hour, as Gibson effectively uses flashbacks to depict earlier events in Jesus' life, including two touching exchanges with his mother, his meeting at the well with prostitute Mary Magdalen, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Last Supper with his disciples.

Except for one short scene, Gibson avoids the miraculous side of Christ's story; you don't see Jesus walking on water or calming storms. Instead, the director remains entirely focused on the Messiah's humanity -- a quality easy to gloss over after reading the Gospels for the hundredth time.

People keep asking me, "Did you like it?" or "How was it?" I really don't know how to answer that question, because I've never seen anything like this. The best I can come up with is "powerful" and tell them to read this review. That Jesus could endure such torment from his fellow man and still maintain his desire to save humanity from eternal damnation is the heart of the movie's message. As Gibson said during a recent interview, "The Passion of the Christ" is a film that should not be remembered solely for its graphic violence, but for "faith, hope, love and forgiveness."

I could not agree more.

Grade: A+

'Return of the King' searching for Oscar gold

—Originally published 2.27.04

Peter Jackson deserves to hoist the Best Picture Oscar statue Sunday night for his "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," a thrilling finale to the greatest movie trilogy ever made.

After winning yet another best-picture award last weekend, this time from the Screen Actors Guild, the Oscar conquest seems a mortal lock. But if there's one film that could pull off the big -- and I mean BIG -- upset at this year's Academy Awards ceremony, it's "Mystic River."

No disrespect to "Lost in Translation," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and "Seabiscuit" -- all fine movies also up for the evening's top award -- but "River" has all the Academy pedigrees:

-- It's tragic on a Shakespearean level, like any number of past winners (think "Terms of Endearment" or "Ordinary People").

-- It has multiple top-notch performances and leads the night in acting nominations (think "Shakespeare in Love").

-- And it boasts a cast and crew who have been nominated before (think Sean Penn and Clint Eastwood).

The latter may be its undoing, however, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a recent trend of making "right" with history.

For example, there's no way Russell Crowe should have won in 2001 for his "Gladiator" role -- he should have taken home the Golden Guy the year before for "The Insider." In the same way, Denzel Washington should not have won in 2002 for his against-type performance in "Training Day." Washington is a fabulous actor and deserved a win SOMETIME in his career, so the Academy decided to correct its mistake.

(Yes, this isn't always the case: Martin Scorsese didn't win his first directing Oscar last year for "Gangs of New York," but that's the exception to prove the rule.)

Eastwood already won for a similar -- and better -- film 11 years ago with "Unforgiven." Sure, the introverted tough guys in "River" wear leather jackets or neckties instead of wide-brimmed hats and bolos, but the two movies cover similar territory.

In this case, Jackson and his mates should be honored for past achievements and a work genuinely deserving of the award, a rare feat these days, it seems. "The Lord of the Rings" is one of Hollywood's greatest all-time feats and if "King" wins, it will mean more than your typical best-picture champ.

You see, "King" is a fantasy flick, and fantasy flicks simply do not win Best Picture; they're supposed to be content with the nomination. If "King" comes up gold Sunday night, it will do what "Star Wars," "E.T." and "The Wizard of Oz" could not -- prove it belongs with the big (usually dramatic) boys.

There are plenty of those to go around this year.

"Master and Commander" is a triumph in technical filmmaking by director Peter Weir. For me, the attention to detail was so enthralling it totally washed out a somewhat slow plot. Crowe gives yet another fine turn, this time as Captain Jack Aubrey, and there are other notable performances, including Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin.

The major problem? This seafaring epic never seems to hit the top gear "King" sustains for about two straight hours. There are great scenes of drama and battle in "The Far Side of the World," but they pale in comparison to the Pelennor Fields of Middle-earth.

(Some would argue the action sequences in "Master and Commander" are superior because real people are on-screen, as opposed to the thousands of digital "extras" in "Return of the King." There is a major anti-tech movement right now amongst movie critics -- and with good reason, considering the wretched "Star Wars" prequels and "Matrix" sequels. The difference with "King" is Jackson made scenes impossible to film under traditional circumstances still look real.)

"Seabiscuit," like its equine namesake, is the underdog who refuses to lose. Six months ago, no one expected this movie would be contending in the final lap while "Cold Mountain" sits in the barn. "Seabiscuit" exceeded all my albeit limited expectations. On the whole, the filmmakers shied away from pandering for sappy emotional payoffs, instead letting solid performances from Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper shine through.

But as good as "Seabiscuit" is, it would have to be really good in my book to beat "Return of the King," because the latter, for all its slicing and dicing, packs an emotional wallop, too. Red Pollard's love for his maltreated horse strikes a chord, but is that any stronger than the feeling you get when Sam picks up Frodo and hauls the beleaguered hobbit to the top of Mount Doom?

Um, no.

And then there's the wild card of the bunch, "Lost in Translation." Comedies don't typically fare much better than fantasies, but then there was that little flick "Chicago" that made some noise last year. While "Translation" could be more accurately described as a "dramedy," it remains one of the most overrated films of 2003. As most critics raved, Bill Murray does in fact deliver a career performance, but the rest of the film is just sort of ... dull. If you think "Master and Commander" didn't have much plot, don't bother getting "Lost."

Bottom line, "Return of the King" -- and the "Rings" trilogy as a whole -- has it all:

-- Eye-popping, unprecedented visual effects -- including Gollum, the first realistic computer-generated character in movie history, and the best battle scenes ever filmed.

-- Quality actors with the dramatic chops to ground a fantasy film in realistic emotion.

-- And the crowning achievement of accomplishing what seemed impossible seven years ago -- adapting 1,500 pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's timeless classic into 10 hours of film.

Many Academy members probably had trouble checking the box next to "Return of the King" on their ballots, but, fantasy flick or not, the movie's unparalleled and undeniable excellence should be enough to win over this typically stodgy group of voters.

Hail to the hobbits.