The Bible (1966)

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In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The first 22 books of the Old Testament are dramatised in 5 main sequences:  Creation, narrated by God (John Huston);  Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd) meet and procreate;  Cain (Richard Harris) slays his brother Abel (Franco Nero);  Noah (Huston again) creates his ark for the animals and there’s a spectacular flood;  and Abraham’s (George C. Scott) story is recounted – his long life with the beautiful but barren Sarah (Ava Gardner), the conceiving of his only son Isaac, with Sarah’s maid, and his calling by God to make a sacrifice. There are two shorter sections, one recounting the building of the Tower of Babel;  and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah… Am I my brother’s keeper?  An awesome epic of tension-free tedium that is quite literally beyond belief with some (few) honourable exceptions:  director Huston himself, who also narrates this Italian-American co-production and makes for an amiable animal lover;  the lustrous Gardner;  O’Toole in his brief appearance as the Three Angels; and the final sequence in which Abraham comes closerthanthis to putting his only son Isaac on the BBQ instead of the more conventional sacrificial ram. Nero was the film’s still photographer until Huston spotted him and started his screen career. Adam and Eve’s nude frolics were choreographed by Katharine Dunham. Huston’s girlfriend Zoe Sallis features as Hagar. Notable for a score by Toshiro Mayuzumi with uncredited work by Ennio Morricone, this will have you reaching for your own traveller’s friend – it’s light work after this. The screenplay, on the other hand, is credited to Christopher Fry although Orson Welles and Mario Soldati also contributed something or other. There is nothing that He may not ask of thee?

Mary Magdalene (2018)

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Are they willing to give up everything to follow God? A young girl (Rooney Mara) from the village of Magdala in Judaea resists the traditional roles of women in society, and takes the opportunity to rebel by following the newly famous Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and his disciples which causes division among the men. Meanwhile, Jesus is arousing the ire of the Roman Empire in the form of Herod … It’s easy to be cynical about a film which takes a realistic approach to a two thousand-year old story about an unkempt guy with issues running around all over the shop saving people who didn’t ask for it and performing unbelievable miracles. But at a time of year when the message of peace and goodwill is what it’s all about and when Christians and Jews are being driven from their homelands by the steady vise-like grip of Islamic terror which is simultaneously spreading through white countries beset by irresponsible secularisation and uncontrolled immigration, this is a characterful and necessary representation of the old story. Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett’s feminist interpretation of a much-maligned woman might be too paradoxically reverent for some, but it’s a compelling study and director Garth Davis paces it so that the crescendo of intimidation until the Resurrection feels natural. Jesus is troubled, Mary is serene. She’s kind of a miracle all on her own, as the opening scene demonstrates, in a tale of a woman trying to break free from those men who would exorcise her demonic wish to be an individual and an apostle.  Johann Johannsson’s final score (with Hildur Guonadottir) is marvellous. You have not weakened us but you weakened Him

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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The key is playing to win instead of trying not to lose. NYC:  Chinese-American economics lecturer Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is happy to accompany her longtime boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding in Singapore. She’s surprised to learn that Nick’s family is extremely wealthy and that he’s considered one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. She meets up with college friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) who lets her in on the open secret. Thrust into the spotlight, she has to deal with jealous socialites, including his ex Amanda (Jing Lusi); quirky relatives (the aunties); and something far, far worse – Nick’s disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh)… It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. So wrote Jane Austen a couple of hundred years ago and the plot of Pride and Prejudice is writ large here in an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. It’s a rock solid romantic comedy which morphs into a maternal melodrama before allowing the com to rear its head again in a pleasing conclusion in which the young economics lecturer uses game theory to best her dragon lady (potential) future mother-in-law in a face-off involving mahjong. (She might be clever and an economist but she doesn’t know she’s dating one of the wealthiest men in Asia. Hmmm…) Also in common with the works of Austen, the fathers are mainly absent – dead (maybe) or in Shanghai on business unless you count Peik Lin’s dad, played by Ken Jeong in the one really funny family here:  this is a matriarchy and what a vicious society it makes. At Minty’s (Sonoya Mizuno) bachelorette celebration Rachel has a bloody gutted fish left on her bed with nasty serial killer graffiti painted above because she’s not exactly a hit with the superficial Mean Girls;  Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) has married someone without money and he’s cheating on her – and it’s her friendship with Rachel that clarifies this family’s values and mirrors the ups and downs of her own bruising encounters. Rachel’s foreignness as a naturalised American is a problem, her perceived quest for happiness an issue, her ambition unacceptable. But it’s whatever Grandma (Lisa Lu) says that goes in a world of ritual, legacy and habit. The shape of your nose is auspicious Eleanor tells Rachel of her origins which are not as obscure as her single mother led her to believe. Her outsider status is confirmed and then some. The Asian lifestyle is fetishised through food and flowers and shopping and overpowering and gaudy production design – the fetid chaos of the region is well captured, the fabulous wealth jaw-dropping, the Chinese covers of Western pop songs jar at first and then please:  though it’s anyone’s guess as to why Coldplay’s Yellow features. The performances are spot-on but it’s Awkwafina who proves her comedy chops. It’s all a bit much until Yeoh’s story of jealousy and viciousness is integrated into an overstuffed menu, creating a sorbet effect:  otherwise it’s sickly sweet and a bit sticky, a fluffy fairytale with sparkles and gloss and jewels galore, a millennial soap opera with massive dollops of money. The final party scene is simply spectacular. Directed by Jon M. Chu. JFK just smells of salmonella and despair

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

The Robe (1953)

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You crucified him. You, my master. Yet you freed me. I’ll never serve you again, you Roman pig. Masters of the world, you call yourselves. Thieves! Murderers! Jungle animals! A curse on you! A curse on your empire!  Drunk and disillusioned Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), wins Jesus’ robe in a dice game after the crucifixion. Marcellus has never been a man of faith like his slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), but when Demetrius escapes with the robe, Marcellus experiences disturbing visions and feels guilty for his actions. Convinced that destroying the robe will cure him, Marcellus sets out to find Demetrius and discovers his Christian faith along the way… This widescreen epic was adapted from Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1942 novel by Gina Kaus, Albert Maltz and Philip Dunne and it has a sense of enormity and place as it is set over 6 years in Rome, Judea – inaccurately called Palestine here – Capri and Galilee, with the might of the Empire amplified by Alfred Newman’s classical score. At its best this is a film of conscience and faith and the origins of Christianity;  at its most entertaining it’s a marvellous sword and sandals outing, among the very best of its era. Directed by Henry Koster, this was the first film made in CinemaScope.