“Risen” movie review

RisenThe Gospel–detective movie style! For more than 100 years, stories of Jesus have been the topic of movies. Many early works of cinema featured not only Jesus, but Moses, Sampson, David, etc, but this film is quite different in that it carries a much lighter tone than most faith-based productions. Sticking to the basics of what is known from the Bible and other Jewish and Roman historical accounts of the event, Risen lacks the pious and pretentious nature many of the films in this same sub-genre contain. Not quite cinematic per se or traditionally action-packed, the film has relatively slow pacing but keeps it interesting by supplying well-developed characters and simply the thrill of the original man-hunt. Although the message of the Gospel is clearly stated and shown in the movie, it does not come off as proselytizing. In many ways, the central character is an everyman because it is fairly easy to place yourself in his shoes–or sandals in this case–and imagine what it must have been like to have been in charge of guarding Christ’s tomb and then having to answer for the disappearance. One thing puzzles me; and that is Columbia Pictures’ timing of this release. Honestly, it makes more sense to have released it the weekend prior to Easter. Anyway, I digress.

Risen is about the most famous and controversial man-hunt in the history of the world–and no, I’m talking Jimmy Hoffa–but for the Jesus of Nazareth. You may have heard the Gospel before, but not like this. Follow Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he is personally commissioned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to supervise the burial and subsequent Roman guard of the famed tomb. Assisted by Lucius (Tom Felton), Clavius closely manages the burial of Jesus’ body and instructs the guards to keep watch to make sure the body is not stolen so Jesus’ disciples can claim resurrection. As we know from history, the tomb is discovered to have been blown open and thus begins Rome’s search for the body of Jesus in order to snuff out any uprising or violent radical upheaval. Clovis’ search for the body of the proclaimed messiah will force him to question his own beliefs as he encounters appearances and fervent faith that we cannot reconcile against the world he knows.

A history and mystery in one! From either objective or subjective points of view, this is my pick for the best “Jesus” film ever. And yes, I am including the box office smash Passion of the Christ in that assessment. But what makes this particular movie more receptive and less controversial and other faith-based films in the past? Answer: lack of pretense. Whether talking God’s Not Dead or Passion of the Christ, both films do not attempt to appeal to a broad audience. They play on the court with the rest of the faith-based movies both good and bad. Risen plays to the audience differently because it concentrates on developing the realistic historic characters by pairing what is known by way of Biblical or Jewish/Roman historic texts with logical conclusions or using context clues to fill in the gaps. The writers did an excellent job in developing the character of Clavius as someone with whom many in the audience could identify because whether believers int he resurrection or not, we have all questioned our various and respective beliefs at one point or another and often look for answers very much in the same way a detective solves a mystery.

Unlike other films where the focus is either directly or indirectly on Jesus, the focus of this film is primarily on the delicate political landscape between the Jews and Romans and of course our protagonist Clavius. However, this film uses the indirect approach to discover why Jesus’ was so special to his followers (and it still to this day). This indirect approach is far more effective for speeding the Gospel message than typical “Christian” films. Although this film is clearly about the mystery surrounding the resurrection of Jesus in the background, the foreground is a personal journey thus making it more of a historic film than a “Christian” one, so to speak. Therefore, most anyone who enjoys Roman or Jewish history will find something of interest in this film. The relationship between the Romans and Jewish leadership is handled very well. It shows the game the Romans had to play with the Jews in order to keep peace in Jerusalem–especially because Caesar is arriving soon and Pilate needs to show him that he has the Jews under control.

The person of Jesus is also handled better than any other film I have seen. He comes off as an average Joe–that is, an average Joe who can heal lepers. But, he connects well with the audience and is very much down to earth in his appearance and mannerisms. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why his disciples then and followers to this day would choose to follow such a man, but this film makes it clear why. He embodies love. On a lighter note, I’ve always found it funny that in most historic/Biblical films, such as this one, most of the characters speak with a British or transatlantic accent. Pretty sure that was not the case back then. But, at the same time, it does not hinder the story in any way. Although the film is a little slow and the pacing isn’t always executed well, over all, it keeps in line with the traditional three-act plot structure and sufficiently supplies the audience with the proper turning points. Risen also handles character development very well. I really appreciate the development of not only Clavius but also Pilate and Lucius as well. To an extent, we also see some development in some of Jesus’ disciples as well. At the end of the movie, the characters in the story felt like real people, and that is a remarkable achievement in this movie.

Ordinarily, we don’t see movies like this until Easter time. Even though we are a month out from it, I feel that if you enjoy Biblical or simply historic movies that are down-to-earth, written, acted, and developed well that you will enjoy this movie. Traditionally, I am not a fan of most faith-base movies because they are cheesy, pious, over the top, or just executed poorly; however, I very much enjoyed this film and hope you do too.

“Hail, Caesar” movie review

HailCaesarA brilliant post-war self-reflexive commentary on the Hollywood studio system. Go inside classic showbiz! Before the decentralization of “Hollywood” filmmaking, the big studio was king. And Hail, Caesar captures the socio-economic mountains and pitfalls of the decline of the Golden Age of Hollywood perfectly, complete with a pure message about love, dedication, and highbrow humor along the way. You couldn’t have asked for a better cast. From the excellent writing to the impeccable acting, this film is sure to provide you with old-school style entertainment paired with plenty of topics of discussion–especially for cinema scholars and historians like myself. Return to the Hollywood that still inspires dreamers today and experience life in the studio system. This is one of the best self-reflexive films about Hollywood itself since Singin’ in the Rain. Although, the social-commentary is more or less a plot device that plays in the background while the main plot is the true focus of this exceptional narrative. Truly a remarkable film that will likely find its way into sociology and film studies classes alike.

Hail, Caesar takes place during the final days of filming of an adaptation of the story of the Christ. During a set break, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is drugged and kidnapped by a couple of extras and taken to a secluded beachside mansion in Malibu. Meanwhile, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of physical production for Capital Pictures, is busy running the show–from personnel management to the shuffling around of actors. Early on, you learn that Mannix is being aggressively pursued by the Lockheed corporation and he must decide either to pursue a career that will allow him to be with his family more and retire early or remain in Tinseltown to head up production and develop motion pictures.

Where to begin?!? As a peer-reviewed published cinema [and themed entertainment] scholar and historian, there are are so many different ways of applying a critical analysis to this film. Leaving the cinema last night, I was perplexed as to how to write about it. Ordinarily, I have a general idea of the direction I will head in my review by the time the credits roll–not this time. There is definitely a subplot in the movie that would be great material to dissect and analyze but I don’t want to spoil that for you; although, I can say that is is very apropos for that period in 1940s/50s Hollywood.

In order to analyze the material that I found most interesting, I want to first spend a moment on the film itself. Even before watching it, you already know that it boasts a brilliant cast and thankfully everyone lives up to the expectation that comes with their respective talent. From the leading players down to the A list cameo appearances, all the actors bring a unique flavor to the overall recipe of the movie. One of the elements that stands out the most is the attention to detail in the classic Hollywood production design. Essentially, we are watching a movie containing the making of another movie. The matte backdrops and traditional rear projection doesn’t stop in the story of the film being made in Hail, Caesar, but the classic production styles and designs cross over into the production of the Hail, Caesar itself. From the color schemes to the wardrobe and makeup, the attention to detail is flawless. Although much more humorous and satirical than the epitome of self-reflexive post-war Hollywood films, Billy Wilder’s Sunset BoulevardHail, Caesar does a superb job of going inside the word of showbiz and highlighting positive and negative consequences of the former studio system.

The film opens up with Mannix pulling Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) from an unauthorized photoshoot because the image the studio has of her could be tainted. That is really the first glimpse into what life was like for stars who worked in the Hollywood Studio System. Not limited to the talent, Mannix even told directors who would star in the pictures that they were hired to direct. Capital Pictures pulled a cowboy off his motion picture to then star in a drawing room comedy. When you worked for the studio, you worked FOR the studio. From your image to the projects you worked on (whether talent or technical crew), your every move was managed by the studio heads. Sounds like the perfect setup for exploitation, doesn’t it? In many ways, yes. However, the studio system also provided a central hub for working in motion pictures. One of the scenes shows Mannix walking down a corridor of editing offices, and that is something that isn’t quite the same today. Studios had exponentially more full-time staff until the final collapse of the studio system in the late 1950s/early 1960s. You had a regular job Monday-Friday and were typically on a salary. You were provided meals and other amenities during the work day. Yes, many aspects of your career were managed–even down to who accompanied you to the premiere of the film you either worked or starred in. But, many more people were employed by the studio directly than today. Just something to think about.

The studio is aptly named Capital Pictures. And rightly so, because at the heart of the movie, the two-fold plot of the film contains socio-economic commentary. The counterpart to the socio-economic side is about being dedicated to one’s true passions. Mannix can easily represent anyone who has a job that they work hard at and are dedicated to but often drawn to opportunities that would be easier and make more money. Do you choose to follow your passion? Or, do you choose the easy way out that would be more profitable? You will have to see the movie in order to discover how Mannix dealt with that real-world conundrum. Although the story of the passion of Christ is a backdrop in the film, it actually plays quite an important role near the end of the third act. The message of love transcends the screenplay (being shot in the movie) and impacts the actors and studio leadership. There are so many wonderful elements to discuss in Hail, Caesar and I have just touched on a few of them. I encourage you to make your way to the cinema this weekend in order to experience it for yourself.