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The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

At home, as part of the weekly movie watching club with Jason and Krystle.

Beyond the obvious amalgamated appeal in being a Christian who appreciates movies as an artform I cover my reasons pretty well in...

Beyond the immediate religious and moral introspection that inevitably accompanies the viewing of a film like The Last Temptation of Christ, came to me the realization of how artistically underused the sub-genre of the epic is. This is not to say that films which merely borrow epic stories but are really no more than visual spectacles are bad (who doesn't love a good show?), only that these deeply saturated stories are maybe not being as psychologically wrung out as they could be.

Perhaps the problem is an inherent one. Epic stories after all are defined by their highly significant events and achievements that take place on such a grand scale that intricate details such as emotion and psychology can't help but be overwhelmed. This is true of even our everyday lives: will my penalty shot go in? Will the girl I'm asking out say yes? These are questions that concern themselves with only the pragmatic outcome of a situation, and yet more fascinating than the often uncontrollable consequences of these actions is the mental, emotional and in many cases spiritual struggles we experience leading up to these decisive moments. The addition of an epic background to a character or story serves to elevate not only the stakes and physical scale of a story but also the resulting psychological burden weighing on its characters.

This might suggest why the war sub-genre - which naturally shares many qualities with the epic - has remained such a fascinating topic for serious filmmakers. Directors such as Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), and Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) have all used war as a backdrop to examine the inscrutable psychosomatic pressures it places on human beings. Everyone is faced with pressures and temptations everyday, but in war, the consequences of our reactions are amplified exponentially. How does a human being psychologically deal with being suddenly placed in a position where his actions could directly influence whether or not a person, a squad, or even an entire platoon lives or dies? How much more unfathomable and interesting then is the life of Jesus Christ, being subjected to the pressure of knowing that he held upon his both Godly and human shoulders the salvation of not only one or two people, but of all mankind, and not merely their lives, but their eternal souls? Do we now see why the truly epic story of Jesus can be considered a valuable work of art and perhaps "the greatest story ever told" even by some non-Christians?

Like so many other epic stories, the actions and consequences of Christ's story most often take precedence over psychology. Most filmic depictions of Jesus treat him as if he were solely a Godly creature, incapable of sin. Even in films that graphically depict Jesus’ all-too-human physical suffering such as The Passion of the Christ, one still comes away with the impression that he was psychologically impervious to not only sin but the very notion of temptation itself.

This is where The Last Temptation of Christ steps in and obtains its raison d'être, speculating on this seldom addressed aspect of Christianity: the struggles, trials and tribulations Jesus must have faced as a man with the same desires and temptations as everyone else without the luxury of slipping up, even once. A psychological epic which, by exposing Jesus’ doubts and fears to us, allows us to empathize and thus admire his eventual sacrifice even more than if he were simply God and was not subject to any of these human follies.

It’s ironic then that given the film and novel’s purported purpose, its greatest fault is that the character of Jesus is completely un-relatable, and palpably manipulated from high above, not by God but by Scorsese and the screenplay. Right from its outset, the film is about as subtle as a sledgehammer in presenting Jesus as a pathetic young man, making crosses for the Romans to crucify his own people in the hopes that by doing so God will hate him and leave him alone. There is no mistaking that this ain’t your momma’s Jesus.

This criticism has less to do with the authenticity of Jesus’ portrayal than with the simple filmic plausibility of the character and his motivations. When reviewers criticize Hollywood endings for being overly “sentimental”, they are not arguing that happy endings are inherently bad, but that these films have not earned their desired sentiment and have only achieved it through callous emotional manipulation. Even if one of these Hollywood endings were actually based on a true story, it would not make the film anymore artistically defensible as it is not so much a matter of absolute but emotional truth.

In Temptation, Jesus is not only completely indifferent to God but also to his fellow man. He acts only out of fear and has no compassion for humanity, only “pity”. Again, this is not so much morally reprehensible as it is empathetically unidentifiable. There is no artistic value in portraying a man who willingly sacrifices himself for the sake of parties he is scornful towards. And again, I am not speaking of pragmatic but emotional logic. We can all admire and understand a soldier who is afraid to be on the frontline and yet remains there because he believes in the cause. We can even empathize and learn from the soldier who believes in the cause and yet runs away out of fear. The artistry lies in the conflict and its reconciliation. But what are we to make of a soldier who is afraid to fight, is indifferent to the cause, but martyrs himself on its behalf regardless? Even with fear as a motivating factor, the Jesus of this film still resembles a sympathetic automaton at best. An ox may plough a field by instilling in it a fear of being whipped and we may feel sympathy for it, but if that is all there is to the story than it remains shallow at best, irresponsible and merely masochistic at worst (accusations that The Passion of the Christ has been charged with).

In a narrative film, character and plot should be inextricably linked and yet in Temptation they are hopelessly compartmentalized. That the plot still adheres to the established overarching progression of Jesus’ life only serves to further compound this problem of identification. The depiction of his miracles come across as more of an pre-requisite for "a Jesus film" and to history than it does as proof of his filmic growth as a character, much less his character’s spiritual growth. Jesus’ miracles such as the driving out of demons, the curing of the blind man, the raising of Lazarus etc. are haphazardly thrown in with no psychological or emotional connection to the character we are faced with in the scenes preceding and/or succeeding them. And while in and of itself, the penultimate scene where Jesus begs God the Father to place him back on the cross is quite moving, it is also manipulative and inconsistent with the – already unbelievable – character we have been subjected to throughout the film. Appropriately, the worst offence comes in the final scene where the film invokes what must be the most outrageous case of deus ex machina ever to successfully dupe the critics when Jesus begs God for forgiveness, instantly finds himself back on the cross, dies, and the film ends, all within the span of about one minute. Is there any question as to the extent to which such an ending would have been savaged by these same critics had it occurred in a commercial Hollywood film of less lofty ambitions?

The Last Temptation of Christ stands not as a more complete or superior telling of Jesus’ life as compared to the “kiddy” versions, but as an inferior counterpoint that is even less complex spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. The film may provide a balance of sorts to the entire oeuvre of Jesus films, but in itself its nihilism places it further from the center - and in the opposite direction - than the most conservative of these other works. While it is unquestionably an “original” and “daring” work, these catchwords should not be confused or made synonymous with the attributes of quality or worth – despite society’s tendency to do so.

It's ironic that spectacular failures such as Temptation are most often the films that expose the seemingly contradictory nature of any system critics utilize in attempting to rate art empirically: Temptation is certainly not a great movie – nor a good movie for that matter – and yet I would not trade the experience of having watched it for a number of other “better made” films such as The Passion of the Christ. It is a thought-provoking film in that it provides a new perspective on the life of Jesus, but only in an inevitable tangential manner due solely to the plot – and I am not in the business of reviewing treatments or scripts nor of awarding bonus points for ambition, but of analyzing films as a whole. Let us not mistake thought-provoking ideas with thought-provoking movies. Temptation's worth is completely reliant upon its uniqueness. First place means very little when there is no one to compete with.

Perhaps the only saving grace that is solely inherent to the film - as opposed to being indebted to the novel and its ideas - is Peter Gabriel’s powerfully moving ethnic-themed score which repeatedly gives the film its best chance to transcend its otherwise cynical and pedestrian scale and achieve a befitting near-epic atmosphere, most notably during Christ’s crucifixion where Scorsese wisely allows it to dominate the scene.

Apart from the score, the few positive scenes or qualities of the film worth mentioning are all - unsurprisingly - of a more subtle and plain nature. The most significant event of the wedding scene as it pertains to the theme of the film is not the miracle of Jesus turning the water into wine, but rather the brief scene following it where he is seen dancing among the crowd. Scorsese is sure to focus his camera in on Jesus' joyous face, lost in the moment and momentarily free of all worries. It is a brief and subtle shot, but it does more to humanize him than any of the melodramatic doubting scenes that precede it. More significantly, it allows the film to display not only the follies of humanity Jesus was subject to, but its many innocent pleasures as well, dispelling any intellectual notions one might have had of him as being a monk-like figure who simply ate, slept, prayed and preached all day. Even otherwise normally subconscious touches such as having Jesus being disgusted by the smell emanating from Lazarus' tomb take on significance when viewed against the prevailing unshakably serene depictions of him. Is this not a more realistic portrayal of how Jesus might have reacted versus one in which he is completely unfazed by the stench of a rotting corpse? Is having a sense of smell not also a characteristic of the flesh?

It is fitting that the only scene which effectively captures the metaphysical struggles of Christ is his final one on the cross as he is tempted by the devil to escape his own martyrdom. It is only here at the film's climax that we come to finally and fully realize both the appropriateness and irony of the concept of temptation as it pertained to Christ's life. The devil does not attempt to deceive Jesus by tempting him with sex, drugs and rock & roll, but the simple promise of a normal life: to marry, settle down, have children, and grow old - the sort of "boring" life which the average person takes for granted and becomes accustomed to. The epiphany that comes with the realization that Jesus not only faced the same temptations as any other human, but was required to abstain absolutely from all of them, even those as innocent as a longing for a sedentary life, is deeply moving emotionally and spiritually. Appropriately, the eponymous last temptation of Christ serves not only as the film's most powerful and effective moment but also as an indication of the point at which the film begins to finally payoff on its potential. Unfortunately, by this point there are only a few minutes left in the film and unlike Jesus in the film, no manner of divine begging is capable of making us forget that the two hours preceding these scenes were not a dream, but a spectacularly disappointing reality of failed promise.

  1. Review - Decent Films (Steven Greydanus): While I disagree with Greydanus' opinion of the film being a complete washout, his is the best of the few pieces I was able to find that actually address its content rather than its controversy.

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Rules of the Game!! Rules of the Game!! 35mm Restoration!!!

At long last, I'll get to see one of the greatest films ever made in history on the big screen and in the best theater in all of Ottawa! A newly restored 35mm print of Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece is coming to the Bytowne in February. Religiously found on every respectable best-of-all-time film list. It's the only film to have made it on every single edition of Sight & Sound's critics poll taken once a decade, coming in 10th, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd. Wow! Can you say timeless indeed?

Just seeing the few snippets of the film shown during the trailer (before Volver) had me jumping up and down in my chair, giddy with anticipation. Perhaps the most efficient way to describe my excitement would be to say that I gave Volver a full four stars, and yet the highlight of my night was still simply being able to watch that trailer in a darkened theater, and having its memorable images overwhelm me all over again. If that's an indication of anything, I can't imagine how excited I'll be come opening night, watching this masterpiece along with all the other hardcore Rules/Renoir fans. (Official re-release site with higher quality trailer)


Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

At the Bytowne to a surprisingly packed house (the first I'd experienced in awhile) with Krystle as part of our weekly movie-watching.

I had never seen an Almodóvar film and Krystle was a huge fan. Volver had seemingly gotten unanimously great reviews. And to be honest, I'm sure the biggest reason why I agreed to see this film was because of how gorgeous Penélope Cruz looked in the trailer.

"Dames. Sometimes all they gotta do is let it out and a few buckets later there's no way you'd know." -Marv, Sin City

History has not treated the melodrama well. These days the very word evokes negative connotations of bad soap operas (a redundant term?). While the definition of the melodrama - "a virtuous character who finds himself or herself in distress due to circumstances not his or her fault. It is not the events in themselves that are emphasized, but the feelings that characters undergo. Their analysis of intricate and perplexing situations and resulting moral discriminations is highlighted, rather than the doing of good deeds" (1) - does not imply anything intrinsically maudlin, it offers a hint as to how it came to be looked as such. Melodramas essentially share the same inherent audience problems as most "art films" in that they eschew narrative and plot, the one element people have come to expect of a film. Is it any surprise that somewhere along the line directors, perhaps due to their own insecurities or lack of faith in the audience, began "punching-up" their films with the various cinematic devices that we've perversely become conditioned to derisively recognize as staples of the genre: over-the-top performances, histrionic fits of crying and self-pity, swelling music, Gone with the Wind-like "I'll never go hungry again!" speeches, kitschy affairs and murders up the wazoo.

On the surface, Pedro Almodóvar's Volver appears to be just another one of these bad melodramas. One of the first things that struck me about the film was the sheer number of scenes in which a character could be found crying. I can't recall another film with even half as many comparable occasions. But the very next thing I noticed was the manner in which Almodóvar was constructing these scenes. They lacked any of the aforementioned emotional punch-up or cinematic devices. He plays every single one as innocently as you could possibly imagine, foregoing not only an attempt to elicit tears from the audience but any sympathy at all! For these two event to coincide in any movie would be a significant occurrence, for it to occur within a melodrama is unheard of, and for it to occur repeatedly within a single melodrama is well, miraculous, and Volver is truly a miraculous touching and poignant work of as assured a director as I've ever seen.

The brilliance of Volver begins and ends with its beautifully etched all-female cast of characters. Take the character of Raimunda played by the radiant Penélope Cruz - who seems much more at home speaking her native tongue - in a film already full of weepers, she weeps the most, and yet comes off as one of the strongest most complex female characters I can recall in recent times. If this statement seems at all contradictory then that right there is a testament to how closed our cinematic minds have become, where women must be soft-hearted sentimentalists or cold-hearted bitches. The exclusive depiction of Malibu Stacy-like characters may be an inaccurate portrayal of women, but equally so are the un-sexed figures of a G.I. Jane. Almodóvar depicts Raimunda's tears not as a sign of weakness but as tribute to her encompassing empathy and feminine bond that she shares with her family and close friends. When she first finds Paco dead in the kitchen, she weeps and takes a moment to comfort Paula but "a few buckets later" she "goes to work" cleaning up the pools of blood around his body in the same determined manner she does at her job which is brilliantly illustrated in the two montages which compliment each other wonderfully. Raimunda's figurative wearing of different hats as a woman are further entrenched by the recurring symbol of the knife which we first see her clean as a dutiful wife washing the dishes, then again as she cleans the blood from it as a protective mother, and lastly as she chops vegetables with it as a restaurateur and provider. Just as the courageous man in battle is not simply the "hero" who lacks fear but performs his duty in spite of it, Almodóvar has no qualms with showing Raimunda or any of his lovingly-developed characters crying one moment and going to work in the next, which is to say that, he has no problem making them utterly and empathetically human.

Almodóvar's adherence to this emotional realism not only aids the believability of the characters themselves but also offers a convincing counterbalance to the sentimentality that inevitably arises from most melodramas. Any danger of overt and excessive sympathy being generated is held in check both by his aforementioned confidence in playing the scenes straight, but also in his sensitively written script. Unlike the usual upper-class settings of a typical melodrama, which as such lends itself more naturally to pretentious introspection and self-pity ("rich people with nothing to do"), Almodóvar's script about these lower class rural women has them so beset with pragmatic troubles alone that they possess neither the time nor the pseudo-intellectual/philosophical disposition to perform any self-psychoanalysis (the "crass" Sin City quote no longer appears to seem be so out of place does it?). It's significant that the only instance in the film where Raimunda is given a moment's rest is at the wrap party where she sings the song which gives the film its very title, and even then she is only coerced into doing it for the sake of her daughter who has never heard her sing before. Magnificent.

Even Cruz's natural beauty is treated as realistically as possible. Aside from an artificially enhanced butt, Almodóvar wisely and bravely foregos the - nowadays - common route of "uglifying" his actress ala Charlize Theron and Monster to amplify the supposed realism of the film. The only time Raimunda is seen dolling herself up is for the wrap party (i.e. her job) to make ends meet for the sake of her and her daughter. Her "business before pleasure" attitude is asserted when she tenderly admits to Paula that she herself is in no mood to party despite the airs she puts on.

One of the most beautiful and subtle of threads which I was surprised to have not seen mentioned in any reviews is that of the film crew member whom Raimunda briefly encounters in a few short scenes. There is that wonderful moment during one of the luncheons where the guy informs Raimunda that the crew will be taking the next day off, it appears he's going to ask her for a date, but before he's able to say anything else, an exhausted Raimunda sincerely replies that she's glad because she could sure use the day off. It's never clear whether or not Raimunda is even aware of the pass he is making. Even their later encounter at the wrap party where she she remarks that his looking at her makes her nervous is left nervously open and ambiguous. This, along with the murder plot reminded me so much of Max Ophüls' masterpiece, The Reckless Moment.

Even minor characters such as Raimunda's sister Solédad are so well acted and written that despite their limited screen-time in comparison to Cruz's Raimunda, they manage to appear just as three-dimensional. The one scene where Solé first takes in her mother and talks for the first and only time about her separation from her husband and then later on, crawls into bed watching her mother sleep imbues her character with a sense of emotional depth that transcends those of many main characters of other lesser films.

The women and story of Volver seem to truly evolve and flow naturally, void of any signs of manipulation. Almodóvar has managed to create a prototypical melodrama which returns the genre to its roots. The emotional responses on the part of the viewer are provoked not by typical self-manufactured sympathetic mechanisms of the film but by the realistic depictions of its characters. Their actions and story engender a sense of empathy which allows a much clearer and purifying sense of sympathy to organically blossom right through to the end of the film. Seeing a film like Volver reminds me of what a difficult feat that is and how lucky we the viewer should feel when it happens.

  1. Melodrama definition from: Tan, Ed S.-H., Nico H. Frijda (1999). "Sentiment in Film Viewing." In: Passionate Views. Film, Cognition, and Emotion, Plantinga, Carl, and Greg M. Smith, eds. Baltimore: John Hopkins
  1. A.O. Scott's NY Times Review
  2. North American Trailer - Not a single decent trailer exists for this film among the ones I watched (North American, UK, Spanish, German). Apart from keeping the language itself, there is nothing nice to say about any of them. They should have just copied the trailer for The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. It would have at least captured the film's captivating spirit of sorority better.

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The Year in Review (2006)

Well, now that I've made this effort to try and write more regarding my film-viewing experiences, it seemed to make sense that I join the masses and make some sort of year-end review. Of course it won't be any sort of conventional press top 10 seeing as how: a) I don't want to just restrict myself to just 2006 films, b) I didn't even see that many 2006 films, and c) there definitely aren't ten 2006-release films that I saw that deserve to be on any sort of best-list. All the following lists are in no particular order. And on a sidenote, while two of my three 2006 films were officially released in 2005, they were for all intents and purposes 2006 films, and since they both showed up in many other critics' 2006 lists, I figured I was justified in leaving them there.


I watched 64 films this year, my most since 2003 when I was still at Carleton taking film studies classes. This certainly came as a pleasant surprise. About 1/3 of these were 2006 films, which I'm pretty happy about, seems like a good number for balancing staying in touch with the present state of cinema while still focusing on catching up with 100 years of past cinema!


My highlight of the year has to be my voracious watching of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. So many of these films would have been on my year end list that I figured I really should just make a separate section for them. In January, I had the opportunity to see the theatrical re-release of The Passenger. What an indescribable experience it was to be able to take in that last breathtaking shot in a darkened theater! This would inspire me to immediately watch La Notte (which had been sitting at home unwatched for weeks). The framing in this film is just about the best I've ever seen. I was on a roll now, and was definitely getting that same giddy sense of anticipation that I had experienced while blitzing through and discovering the works of Stanley Kubrick and Jean Renoir. Next up was Blow-Up, yet another bona-fide masterpiece. And perhaps most surprising of all though was Le Amiche which may not bear his characteristic auteur-ish qualities but which doesn't change the fact that it's a beautifully complex melodrama, one of the best films I saw all year long and one that I would proudly put up alongside the rest of his best. Without a doubt, right up alongside Kubrick as one of my favourite filmmakers of all-time.

THE BEST OF THE PAST (watched in 2006)
(not including any of the aforementioned Antonioni films, all of which would have made this list)

George Méliès Shorts (Landmarks of Early Film #2)
I admittedly got this DVD more out of historical obligation. But I can honestly say that I treasure it now just as much for its entertainment value. Méliès stuff has withstood the test of time. You would think that short films shot 100 years ago from a single angle on a single set would be pretty boring, but ironically in Méliès' case it's just the opposite! His shorts are a feast for the eyes, and not just because of his famous camera tricks. His films are like meticulously choreographed dances with layers upon layers of action happening all at once in the same scene! I literally watched The Hilarious Posters 3 or 4 times consecutively in order to observe all the characters separately. Because the camera never cuts or moves, there is no principal action and you're eyes aren't forcibly locked onto any particular thing which allows them to be wonderfully overwhelmed when the mayhem ensues! There's no need for any patronizing contextual disclaimers ("it's great... for its time), Méliès stuff might be historically significant but it's also a real joy to watch!

The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Wily old Bunuel and his inimitable irreverent humour. Overall I didn't find the actual satire of this film as effective as That Obscure Object of Desire or Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, (except of course for the classic dinner scene on the toilets!) but it's still undeniably funny and unmistakably Bunuel!

Back to the Future Trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990)
OK I'm cheating. I'd seen these before this year but never appreciated them the way I do now. The trilogy as a whole works together so wonderfully with the recurring characters and situations. The first one though is definitely a head above the rest in terms of its entertainment value and the clever writing, not to mention the fun Oedipal bits. 1.21 Jigowatts!!!

Mission to Mars (2002) (original review)
Thank goodness for a select few dissident film critics otherwise I would never have even considered seeing this film. It has changed the way I view the separation between pop and art in cinema. I truly believe that 10-20 years from now, once people have been removed from the moment this film will be re-assessed as a masterpiece and hopefully De Palma gets his well-deserved due.


The New World (2005)
Exactly how Malick managed to squeeze this unapologetically arthouse film into so many mainstream theaters across North America continues to pleasantly baffle me. By the time I got around to watching it, there were probably only about 20 people in the theater, and by the end of it only about half remained. This film is more poetry than it is prose, both in terms of its dialogue and its visuals. There's really only 3 characters to speak of: Smith and Pocahontas, and the land itself. Just as important to Malick as the characters themselves is capturing a sense of the time and the place which they inhabited.

United 93 (2006)
Haven't had such a harrowing film experience since In the Bedroom. The suspense is there right from the beginning since we all know exactly how everything is going to end. To paraphrase Hitchcock, if you surprise the audience, you have them for 5 seconds, if you let them in on the secret and maintain suspense, you have them for an hour. Greengrass miraculously manages to make a very slick fast paced film without having to resort to anything fancy formalistic devices beyond a shaky camera. His confidence in the material selling itself (which it does in spades) is admirable. On the flipside, he also manages to straddle that line between empathy and sympathy for the passengers themselves just as well.

Three Times (2005)
Starting with that first beautifully choreographed billiard scene with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes playing I knew I was going to love this film. With the majority of films which employ this silent and languid-paced style that Hou Hsiao-Hsien's films do, there always seems to be an air of pretension and the characters slightly wooden, even in some of the great ones. What continues to impress me about Hou is how he's able to employ this style and yet his characters are able to come off as completely human. Hsu Chi is both fantastic and gorgeous to boot!


OK, so Bon Cop, Bad Cop wasn't absolutely one of the best films of 2006 but it deserves to get a very special mention because it's probably the most entertaining Canadian film I've ever seen. Anyone who knows anything about the state of Canadian cinema knows that it's a miracle that we even made a mainstream film that managed to claw its way into theaters, and even more of a miracle that it was actually entertaining! And while box office receipts usually mean nothing to me, having it finally kick out Porky's as the highest grossing Canadian film in Canada meant the world because it actually meant that Canadians were watching a Canadian film! Incroyable! Let's hope that we can keep the ball rolling and have this just be the beginning of a new era for our film industry! Won't say much more since I already put all my patriotic thoughts to a journal entry awhile back.

And here's the best of the rest: fantastic films I saw this year which didn't quite make any of the lists, but all deserve a special mention nonetheless

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Flowers of Shanghai (1998) (review)
Marie Antoinette (2006) (review)
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) (review)
Little Children (2006) (review)

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