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by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008


There are certain unwinnable arguments in life, debates where no one side can claim clear victory. Argue over abortion, and see how staunch either position becomes. Discuss race and prejudice and the majority and minority never see eye to eye. While it’s always been a bit of a hot button, religion has become an even bigger sticking point over the last few decades. Call it the Moral Majority effect, the Neo-Con crusade, or the Islamic fundamentalist backlash, but Christians are chastising the non-believer and taking names - at least politically. Even in the face of clear First Amendment protections, the new faithful want Jesus and those who chronicled his life and time making policy.

There are a few people who find this as morally reprehensible as those on their principled high horses. Journalist Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not great takes a frank and honest look at how, in his words, “religion poisons everything”. And now noted political humorist and TV host Bill Maher is out to back the side of the blasphemer. With Religulous, his new documentary, he teams up with Borat director Larry Charles to travel around the world, interviewing various religious individuals. That’s it - no skits, no spoofing, no fake characterizations or commentary on American values. Just a razor sharp wit sitting around with devout believers, our host letting his subject’s own words systematically undermine their professed positions.

At times, Religulous celebrates the rather obvious. Most Christians don’t understand their Bible, nor have they read it enough to ably defend the reality of what it does and does not contain. Maher proves that most believers function within a kind of pocket of propaganda. A preacher explains the Gospels, loosely interpreting passages or parables, and his listeners legitimize it as truth. When pushed to prove their points, they can’t find the Lord’s supposed words to support them. Naturally, this leads to a few angry attitudes. At a trucker’s chapel somewhere along the highway, a stout driver storms out of the converted trailer. He wants no part of Maher’s “mockery”. Those who stay put and argue, however, are treated to the opportunity to make their case - with just a minor amount of derision from our guide.

Some sequences don’t need commentary. When Maher visits a Creationist Museum in Kentucky, the owner’s illogical statements make the point all too well. Even better, a trip to a religious theme park in Orlando Florida (known as “The Holy Land Experience”) turns the Passion into a daily ritual, including the parading of a blood soaked Jesus before an audience of teary eyed patrons. In each instance, Maher approaches the material with the same mad twinkle he brings to his other projects. By picking on the extremes, however, he underlines the obviousness of the project. Religion will always have a hard time defending itself. By bringing it out into the open, this documentary may only be preaching to the non-converted.

Still, Religulous deserves mention for what it means outside the tenets of certain dogma. Maher’s bigger message is clearly one of critical thinking. He illustrates how most organized belief systems remove curiosity to claim divine intervention into any unexplainable situation. A pair of ex-Mormons sit down with our host as he discusses the just plain bizarre ideals propagated by the followers of Joseph Smith. When asked why more people don’t question the church and their claims of magic underwear and a Missouri based Garden of Eden, the men are quick to answer. “Family and friends” they say, indicating their status as pariahs for leaving their faith. You lose everything when you leave, they continue, because of the cult like ways of the community.

Since Maher was born to a Jewish mother and a staunch Catholic father (his sister and mom are on hand to discuss the past), the Judeo-Christian ethic gets the most ribbing here. Islam is left for a last minute discussion, while other worldwide beliefs such as Buddhism and Hinduism are rendered relatively unscathed. Even the jokefest that is Scientology (at least from an aliens/thetans/e-meter conceit) is relegated to a brief comic rant in London’s Hyde Park Sunday Soap Box. In some ways, Religulous is meant as a reactionary responsorial to the West’s demonization of the Middle East. That Christians tend to be as extreme as the radicals they rail against really comes as no surprise.

Most of Religulous is oblivious in its outrage. That Maher fails to find a single level headed individual might be a product of the production scheme (even a Vatican condemning Catholic priest winds up on the weird side). Indeed, Charles is more singular in his focus. He intercuts scenes from faith based propaganda films and other cinematic efforts to accentuate points, and while they earn their laughs, they also cut the scholarship attempted. Maher, who clearly finds religion one of the reasons for the world’s muddled state, seems eager to peel back the layers of hypocrisy and argue that all belief is just a way of avoid responsibility and advance magic problem solving. Miracles are nothing more than coincidences, the answering of prayers an indirect self-fulfilling prophecy.

He ends the film at the same place he starts it - on Tel Megiddo, the hill where the Second Coming of Christ is predicted to occur. With Jesus’ return will come the Rapture, followed by several Revelation realities. As he explains the path to Armageddon, Maher makes Religulous’ most cogent point: The Bible was written by men who at the time had no knowledge of how to destroy each other completely. The notion of wiping mankind off the face of the planet was reserved for a higher power. Now, third world countries have the ability to predicate the Apocalypse. How much of what was written was foresight, and how much was simply a keen insight into the destructive nature of humanity stands as Religulous’ biggest unwinnable disagreement. Neither side - sacred or profane - can argue their way out of that reality.

by Bill Gibron

1 Oct 2008


In Hollywood, they say a good movie is only a solid script away. Put a decent director and a somewhat salable cast in an excellent screenplay and the resulting quasi-classic will reap plenty of motion picture dividends…at least, that must have been the bag of magic beans Ed Harris bought when he brought the human bubble head Renee Zellweger on to co-star in his formal horse opera Appaloosa. The actor turned filmmaker did have some mighty good source material (a novel by Spencer scribe Robert B. Parker) and he oversaw the story-lining with another performer turned penman, Robert Knott. And with a company of costars including Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henricksen, Jeremy Irons, and Timonty Spall, what could possible go wrong.

The answer is the unworthy Oscar winner (for Cold Mountain) herself. As she did with Leatherheads six months before, Ms. Zellweger has the uncanny ability to instantly suck all the life out of any project she appears in. With Jerry Maguire the sole exception, she is a perfect example of what Tinsel Town would call a “substitute star”. She’s the actress you place in a role when someone better fails to audition, or can’t clear their already project-heavy calendar. Having done little to suggest her A-list consideration (was Bridget Jones’ Diary really that popular? Or good?), she acts as a kind of excellence demolisher. Things can be going along swimmingly, and suddenly her plastic surgery disaster face makes a puffy appearance, and everything goes to Hell.

Thankfully, Appaloosa has so much more going for it that the infamous ruddy Z can’t completely undermine its charms. Leatherheads wasn’t so lucky - then again, it also offered up The Office‘s king of anti-charisma, John Krasinski, as a lead. Indeed, there have been many movies, going back to the days of jaw-dropping contract player contemplation, where bad personnel choices on the part of the production have undermined otherwise decent efforts. Just in the last forty years alone, several worthwhile movies have found themselves floundering under the weight of incompatible casting and the soiled suspension of disbelief that’s comes from same.

During the ‘70s, The Wiz was considered one of Broadway’s true cross culture successes. The African American take on The Wizard of Oz was a toe-tapping, hand clapping delight, and studio suits were anxious to see it translated to the big screen. Higher drama ace Sidney Lumet may have been the first hiring mistake, but moving the famed magical land to a fantasy fueled Manhattan was actually a stroke of genius. And when it was announced that a pre-Thriller Michael Jackson was playing the Scarecrow and Ted Ross was playing the Lion (a role which won him a Tony on the Great White Way), things seemed solid.

Then the role of Dorothy was awarded, and with it, much of the movie’s hoped for success was dashed. Diana Ross had received some decent notices for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and Motown sugar daddy Berry Gordy had managed to finagle an Oscar nomination for the former Supreme. But by 1978, the dime store diva was 34, far too old to play the adventurous Kansas teen. A few rewrites later, and the new Dorothy was a dowdy teacher, in her late 20s and still as naïve as a young gal from the Midwest (by way of the Five Boroughs) was supposed to be. While diehards complained, at least she could sing. When the Tinman and Wizard were cast, Lumet turned to comedy for his caterwauling. Nipsey Russell, of game show fame, became the metal head without a heart, and Richard Pryor was implausibly placed as the ruler of the fictional land. As a result, both roles had their songs significantly cut.

While it wasn’t a disaster the size of Paint Your Wagon (in which noted non-crooners Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood warbled off key), it proved that proper casting was necessary to make something as already uneasy as a big screen musical circa the Me Decade work. Twenty years later, something similar would happen to noted speculative fiction author Richard Matheson and the long dormant adaptation of his novel What Dreams May Come. One of those classic “unproducible” screenplays that Hollywood likes to rumor about, several famed filmmakers had tried to conquer the complex visual and metaphoric meanings in the story of a man who travels into the afterlife to save his suicidal wife. With the advent of CGI, and the big screen buzz earned by Map of the Human Heart director Vincent Ward, it seemed like Dreams was finally a go.

All that was needed was a cast. Fresh from his Academy Award for Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding Jr. signed on. Soon afterward, noted Swedish star Max Von Sydow agreed to appear. But when it came time to create the perfect married couple, the duo that would literally die to save each others souls, Ward picked the improbable pair of Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra. The “He” had just walked away with his own gold statue for Good Will Hunting. The “She” showed promise alongside Wesley Snipes in Spike Lee’s interracial romance Jungle Fever. Together, however, they were like oil and asphalt, absorbing each other’s potential talents and rendering them flat and lifeless. Dour and depressed is not Williams’ strong suit. His lost looks often seem like the suppression of a laugh, and when forced to emote beyond basic disbelief, he’s inert. Sciorra complements him note for absent note.

And the sad thing is, What Dreams May Come is a beautifully written and rendered experience.  Ward went out of his way to render his versions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in unforgettable imagery, and with the help of some major memory boarding, earned some warranted Oscar love. The rest of the movie should have been equally celebrated - except Williams and Sciorra destroyed that possibility. It was something the stream of consciousness comic would do to other projects with potential like Bicentennial Man and Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia. Oddly enough, it was Ward who paid the price. It would be seven years before his unsung gem River Queen saw a small, limited theatrical release.

Recently, Bryan Singer tried to revive the Superman franchise with his cracked continuation of Richard Donner’s spurned sequel from 1980. Locking in Kevin Spacey as a pitch perfect Lex Luthor, and discovering the unsung talents of Brandon Routh as his above-expectations Man of Steel, all the Usual Suspects director needed was a proper Lois Lane to fill out the fabled trio. His choice challenged all expectations - 23 year old Kate Bosworth. With a decent resume that included turns in The Rules of Attraction, Wonderland, and the Spacey led Bobby Darrin biopic Beyond the Sea, she seemed capable of carrying the part - that is, until the overwrought script saddled her with a young kid, a bad case of self importance, and a Pulitzer Prize.

It was clearly too much for Kate, who decided the best way to respond to said character dimension was to act as if everything she saw was boring as Hell. Her non-reactions reduced much of the heroics to moments of arch anticlimax. While Singer was struggling to bring something epic to the material, his Lois was losing the likability battle with the audience. While not as big a snafu as turning Darth Vader into a broken boy band member with a lox’s acting chops, it argued for a creative cluelessness that seems to permeate many Hollywood hires. Ability means nothing when a name - preferably from a known TV series - can be utilized instead. And if you can catch pop culture currency at the same time, all the better.

Clearly, Ms. Zellweger is considered something of a sure thing - bad Botox or not. Otherwise, why would both Clooney and Harris cast her? Her obvious shortcomings are evident in every scene she sullies (she’s a bit better defined in Leatherheads, if that’s any solace), and yet IMDb has her featured in four future releases. Call it the byproduct of an excellent agent or the blinding glimmer from her (minor) array of awards, but she clearly gets the jobs.  Trophies should never gauge talent - or even better, suggest chemistry. Still, twice this year, a perfectly good film was flummoxed by the appearance of someone who should never have been considered for the part in the first place. Substitute or not, casting can definitely kill a worthwhile effort. One imagines Mr. Harris and Clooney agreeing on that. Audiences certainly will. 

by Bill Gibron

29 Sep 2008


He was classic Hollywood for the counterculture generation, a throwback to the days of good looks and gifted talent transformed into idealism, allure, and myth, He legitimized the word ‘legend’ proving that a mere mortal could carry the tag with dignity and distinction. He had the face of an angel, the ethic of a saint, and the passions of a sinner. Together with his deliberate career choices and professional admonitions, he forged a cinematic canon unmatched by his fellow fame seekers. Even outside the industry for many years, the rumors of Paul Newman’s life threatening cancer gave everybody in his business and his formidable fanbase pause. The 83 year old seemed so ageless, so timeless, that to think that something simple as disease could destroy him appeared impossible. Sadly, he succumbed to mere mortality on 26 September. It was more than just the end of an era. It was the end of an entire motion picture principle.

Of course, such greatness had to start from humble beginnings. As a youth, Paul Leonard Newman, showed a keen interest in acting. His father ran a small sporting goods store. His mother, a Christian Scientist, fostered his love of theater. By the time he graduated from Shaker Heights High School in his hometown, he was set to pursue a degree at Ohio University at Athens. He was later kicked out for bad behavior. With little options available, Newman entered the military and spent three years as a naval radioman during the Pacific campaigns in World War II. After the service, he completed his studies at Kenyon College, went on to Yale to work on his dramatic skills, and was accepted to Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actor’s Studio.

Getting his start onstage, where he cut his teeth on such Great White Way smashes as Picnic, The Desperate Hours, and later Sweet Bird of Youth, Newman would also find roles in the fledgling format of live TV drama. It was a wonderful proving ground for the still green thespian. After seeing his theatrical turns, Warners offered him a contract, and a part in the Roman costume epic The Silver Chalice introduced the actor to movie audiences. Sadly, the film was so awful that it nearly ended Newman’s fledgling career. But with Somebody Up There Likes Me, he found a perfect fit. As real life boxer Rocky Graziano, Newman established an onscreen persona that would carry him through the next several decades - the well intentioned outsider who battles the system to salvage his own humanity.

After starring in a pair of Tennessee Williams potboilers - The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Newman ushered in the ‘60s with a film that would end up looming large in his legend. As “Fast” Eddie Felson, he costarred alongside Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott in the definitive pool hall parable The Hustler. The film showed that, even with his natural good looks, Newman could portray a morally complex (and occasionally, bankrupt) character. It was something he would carry on through signature turns in such now classics as Hud, Harper, and the messianic message picture Cool Hand Luke. By the end of the era, Newman was the biggest box office draw in Tinsel Town. In 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid continued his counterculture significance and mainstream value.

It also established one of his great lifetime friend and partnerships. At the time he was hired to play the brooding gunslinger with a luminous name, Robert Redford was an up and coming star. Newman championed the younger man, and together they formed a creative combination that would carry over for the next few years. By celebrating the anti-hero and deflating the influence and power of the “Establishment” Butch Cassidy clicked with late ‘60s audiences, and it wasn’t long before the duo were the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Their fantastic follow-up together, The Sting, would become an instant classic and winner of Best Picture at the 1973 Academy Awards. Newman took his new clout to the bank, making disaster films for Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, When Time Ran Out) and branching out into all manner of movies, from sports comedies (Slap Shot) to experimental fare with famed director Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Quintet).

By the ‘80s, a middle aged Newman was ready to play elder superstar statesmen. The parts he chose continued to challenge his abilities (a down and drunken lawyer in The Verdict) and expand his range (the cartoonish Louisiana Governor Earl Long in Blaze). But one thing continued to elude the actor. Even after being nominated seven previous times, Newman had yet to win the Oscar. It would take Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, and some character karma in the form of a return to “Fast” Eddie to gain his little gold man. Color of Money showed that, while his façade may have aged, there was nothing ‘old’ about this longtime leading man. Today, his intense and insular performance makes the work of his younger costar seem overly simplistic by comparison.

With said persistent professional obstacle removed, Newman entered into a phase of semi-retirement. He only made five movies in the ‘90s, and of those, only Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (from Merchant/Ivory) and the Coen Brothers corporate screwball classic The Hudsucker Proxy stood out. He became even more reclusive in the new millennium, working with Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition, and voicing the amiable Doc Hudson for Pixar’s animated effort Cars. During his now abundant downtime, he continued several important passions from his far more famous days. Newman loved racing, and he indulged in the sport from the moment he completed work on 1969’s Winning. Charity was also important to the man. Having lost his only son to drug addiction in 1978, he was a supporter for rehabilitation. He also sponsored camps for children with cancer, and used his love of food to begin Newman’s Own, a culinary label that, to date, has contributed hundreds of millions to various non-profit causes.

For such a handsome, hunky lead, Newman was only married twice. His first marriage to Jackie Newman lasted a little over eight years. He met fellow performer Joanne Woodward while they were understudies on Picnic. After begging his first wife for a divorce, the icon and his new leading lady were married a week after the court’s decree was final. It was a relationship that lasted for the next 50 years. Newman often worked with his lady love, directing her in such films as Rachel, Rachel, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, and The Glass Menagerie. Theirs was a partnership that bucked the Tinsel Town trend. Normally, two incredibly successful and important stars would have a hard time sharing the spotlight professionally, let alone personally. But Newman argued that Woodward kept him grounded, and she the same.

Looking back at his illustrious career, it’s clear that this was a man who understood his influence within popular cultural and the social dynamic. His choices often reflected his politics, and during the ‘60s, he stayed close to his idealistic roots. By the ‘70s, it was time to expand the oeuvre, to experiment as part of the post-modern movement. The ‘80s was all about product, about sealing the legacy and retaining a bit of dignity. And up until his death a few days ago, the rest of his creative life was a balance between doing what he wanted and what he needed to in order to maintain his majesty. In between, he took on challenges that would undermine a mere mortal, his stature only growing as the years trailed by.

Sure, there was talk of a Newman/Redford reteam. There was even a 2004 interview where the two twinkled mischievously at the thought of making another movie together. There was also the change of heart, the actor announcing that Hudsucker would be his last film ever - before turning around and performing again. He was a foil to late night TV guru David Letterman, and was known - within limits - to poke fun at his own persona (as in Mel Brooks’ demented Silent Movie). But what’s certain about Paul Newman, and his lasting reputation, is the notion of true super stardom. He looked the part, played it perfectly, and never allowed fame to influence his abilities or beliefs. Newman never phoned it in, or traded his talent for a paycheck. Somehow, he knew his importance - beyond the good looks and classic features - to those in the audience. He never let them down, not in life, and not in death. Paul Newman was everyman’s idol. He was truly an icon for every generation, and deservedly so.

by Bill Gibron

29 Sep 2008


For now, a picture says it all:



Read our complete tribute to Paul Newman in tomorrow’s blog post.

by Bill Gibron

28 Sep 2008


Sometimes, we get so bogged down with titles here at SE&L that we can’t imagine ever getting through them all. Be it a summer weekend stuffed with possible blockbuster fare, or an awards season schedule that can frequently see as many as eight to ten screenings in a single work week, we do find ourselves overwhelmed and understaffed (isn’t that always the case). Still, in order to keep on top of the ever-changing media market, there will be times when we have to put in the extra effort, to go above and beyond a simple blurb banquet. Indeed, it appears it’s time for what will probably be a regular feature here at the PopMatters Film Blog - the Review-a-thon. 

Over the next few days, we’re going to suck it up, put on our critical thinking cap, and bang out a bunch of opinions. Between now and Sunday, we will tackle Michael Moore’s new documentary, visit a classic rock icon as he showcases a forgotten album, take on another Dragon Dynasty martial arts epic, and maybe even experience an unnecessary sequel or two - and this on top of the films in focus for this week (26 September). With no real schedule for when the latest installment of this endurance test will arrive, you’ll need to check back regularly to see if we indeed make it. The list is ambitious, and a tad unwieldy. Still, as a test of mental mantle, we believe we’re up to the task.

In no particular order, here are the cinematic obstacles that await us:

In Theaters - Nights in Rodanthe  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Eagle Eye (The IMAX Experience)  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Miracle at St. Anna  (Now Available)
In Theaters - Choke
Available Online - Slacker Uprising
On DVD - Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (1996)  (Now Available)
On DVD - War/Dance (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Pulse 2 (2008)  (Now Available)
On DVD - Plan 9 from Syracuse (2007)  (Now Available)
On DVD - The Rebel (2006)  (Now Available)

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