Sunday, April 27, 2014

Film Reviews: April 27, 2014

Here is a summary of the films reviewed on today's show:

When The Raid 2 is in action mode it really works and this film has some extraordinary set pieces. But the movie is also unnecessarily baggy and the plotting is messy. The sequel isn’t the instant classic that the original Raid was but it is sufficiently entertaining despite its flaws.

The Grand Budapest Hotel comes off a bit self-indulgent on Wes Anderson’s part but the movie is a lot of fun and it is a bit more sophisticated than some of the director’s other work. Those who did not like his other films are certainly not going to like this one and viewers who were iffy about his work may be put off by the style, but those who appreciate Wes Anderson’s films will find a lot of delight in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Draft Day is a competent film and it succeeds as a story of crafty deal making amid the glamor of professional sports. It is not a classic like some of Kevin Costner’s baseball films but it is satisfying enough to entertain sports fans and pedestrian viewers alike.

Heaven is for Real is mostly well made, certainly more so than a lot of recent religious pictures.The filmmakers compromise the conclusion of their story in order to make it palatable to the widest possible audience but it will be a hit with faith based viewers and it will probably connect with a broader audience as well because of its softer sales pitch.

The filmmakers of Transcendence try for something big but they fall short and the film is a spectacular failure. This is an example of a high concept movie that fails because not enough effort was invested in the basic mechanics of the storytelling.

The Lawnmower Man is not a great movie but it is entertaining and it is a very interesting curio of early 1990s digital filmmaking. The filmmakers achieved several technical breakthroughs that make this show historically important and its influence can be seen in later movies like The Matrix and Transcendence. But the digital scenes of The Lawnmower Man also demonstrate the as-yet unrealized possibilities of digital cinema to create impressionistic images that truly create a new reality.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

KMSU Spring Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its spring pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

This pledge drive has a high fundraising goal--$40,000--because the station is in need of a new transmitter. This is an expensive piece of equipment and it is critical to keeping KMSU on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact that KMSU's program has on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, April 27th, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Interview with Thomas Lindlof

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured an interview with Thomas Lindlof, the author of the book Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars. The book takes a close look at the making of the 1988 motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ and the protests against it. The full interview (including portions not included on the broadcast) is embedded below.

Religious Films

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined religious films. Here is a look at some of the pictures mentioned on the show as well as a few others.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

Produced during the silent era, The Passion of Joan of Arc had a torturous history. After being censored upon its release, the original negative was destroyed in a fire. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer created a new negative out of alternate footage but this too was thought to be lost until a complete print was found years later in a mental asylum. The movie was restored and a new musical score was featured on the Criterion Collection release.

The Robe (1953)
Dir. Henry Koster

The Robe was an early entry in Hollywood’s trend of religious and historical epics in the 1950s and 60s. This film is unique in its approach. Rather than telling the story of Jesus, the story focuses on a Roman tribune, played by Richard Burton, who oversees the crucifixion of Jesus. Burton’s character is wracked with guilt and eventually joins the Christian cause, culminating in a confrontation with Emperor Caligula.

The Ten Commandments (1956)
Dir. Cecil B. DeMille

Perhaps the de facto entry in the genre of religious films is Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. This film tells the Exodus story with Charlton Heston as Moses. Along with his titular part in Ben-Hur, Heston would be forever linked with the Moses role. This film is one of the most successful motion pictures ever made and when its box office gross is adjusted for inflation it still ranks among the top ten domestic releases of all time. The enduring popularity of The Ten Commandments is partly due to its annual television broadcast. The picture has been shown on the ABC network on or around Easter nearly every year since 1973. In 1999, ABC did not televise it (ironically, the same year that the film was added to the National Film Registry) and the network received numerous complaints, so they’ve kept it on the broadcast schedule ever since.

King of Kings (1961)
Dir. Nicholas Ray

In a period of epic productions, one of the most ambitious was 1961’s King of Kings. The film dramatizes virtually all of the familiar events in the Gospels and provides subplots for some of the supporting characters. As an amusing bit of trivia, the crucifixion scene had to be re-shot because preview audience disapproved of actor Jeffrey Hunter’s hairy chest.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Dir. Pier Paolo Passolini

In the heyday of Hollywood’s religious and historical epics it was considered a given that movies about Biblical stories were to be made on an epic scale with huge casts, elaborate sets, and a grand musical score. They were also very safe and nonpolitical with any challenging elements filed off. As this trend began to wane, Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Passolini directed The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Passolini was a writer and filmmaker whose work was politically charged and frequently controversial. Shot in black and white and filmed in a gritty cinema verite style, Passolini’s Jesus film stripped away the gloss of Hollywood films and presented Jesus as a Marxist prototype who spoke against the powerful and the wealthy. This film was influential on Martin Scorsese and its impact can be seen in The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Exorcist (1973)
Dir. William Friedkin

Moviegoers don’t usually associate the term “religious film” with the horror genre because the term is usually taken to imply safe, family friendly pictures or stories that reaffirm traditional values. But The Exorcist is very much a religious picture. At the center of the story is a priest struggling with his vocation and he achieves a reaffirmation of faith through a direct confrontation with evil. The Exorcist was made with the cooperation of Catholic clergy and in fact some of the priests of the supporting cast are played by actual men of the cloth. The release of The Exorcist spurred an increase in church attendance and spiked the demand for exorcisms.

Godspell (1973)
Dir. David Greene

Godspell is perhaps the strangest telling of the Christ story ever filmed. Based on the off-Broadway production, the film reinterprets the Gospel of St. Matthew through the lens of the counter culture of the early 1970s. The film plays out very much like a stage production, although it is cinematic enough. Godspell is pretty lightweight and it does not reveal very much about the Gospel but its playfulness and weirdness make it worth a look.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Dir. Norman Jewison

Released the same year as Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar began as a very popular double LP concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The album was transformed into a successful stage production which was finally adapted into a motion picture released in 1973. The film was directed by Norman Jewison, who had previously directed the 1971 feature film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, but Jesus Christ Superstar was quite different in its style from other screen musicals before and since. The film is like a stage production, beginning with the cast and crew arriving in the desert by bus, unpacking their costumes and props, and then putting on the show, only to pack up and leave (minus the actor playing Jesus) after the crucifixion. The film is a bizarre artifact of the psychedelic era but it remains one of the most popular Jesus films ever made.

The Message (1977)
Dir. Moustapha Akkad

Although Christian stories dominate religious filmmaking in the west, filmmakers of other backgrounds have attempted to share their own stories. The Message (aka Mohammad: Messenger of God) tells the story of Mohammad and the rise of Islam, culminating in the Prophet and his followers securing Mecca as a Muslim holy site. Telling a cinematic story about Mohammad is uniquely difficult because Islam forbids depictions of the prophet and his immediate family. The filmmakers solved this by telling the story through Mohammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas). At other moments, Mohammad’s presence is insinuated off screen or represented in the first person as through Mohammad were the camera. Despite attempts to respect the beliefs and traditions of Islam, misinformed word spread that the film was going to slander the religion. As a consequence, The Message was banned from some Middle-Eastern countries and in March 1977 three buildings and over 100 people were held hostage in Washington, D.C. by a group of Muslim gunmen, who demanded, among other things, that The Message be banned from U.S. theaters for being sacrilegious. Although the film was not banned, theaters did pull the film and future screenings were limited due to fears of further violence.

Life of Brian (1979)
Dir. Terry Jones

Monty Python consistently made religion a target of their features and skits, but the film Life of Brian, which satires the Gospels through a man who is mistaken for the Messiah, faced protests both in Britain and in America. High profile religious organizations and religious figures complained that Life of Brian was offensive and ridiculed the story of Christ. In Britain, the film was banned by several town councils although that just resulted in moviegoers traveling to cinemas in neighboring communities to see it. Director Terry Jones has suggested that Life of Brian is not blasphemous, as it does not lampoon actual religious figures, but it is heretical because it does criticize the use and abuse of religious authority by various groups.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie with a reputation for being shocking but for some viewers the most shocking thing about it may be how earnest it is in its intentions. The filmmakers do take liberties with religious tradition and theology but those liberties are taken for the purpose of examining the relationship between earthly desires and higher callings. For many years the controversy has overwhelmed the content, but The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most interesting religious films ever made.

Dogma (1999)
Dir. Kevin Smith

Religious films are not renowned for their humor. In fact, they tend to be quite humorless and self-serious. But filmmaker Kevin Smith, who had directed Clerks and Mallrats, decided to apply his unique brand of comedy to religion with Dogma, a mash-up of fantasy adventure, theology, and scatological humor. In the premise of the film, a lapsed Catholic, who works in an abortion clinic, is given a holy mission by the Voice of God to stop a pair of renegade angels from inadvertently undermining the Almighty and negating all existence. Despite its silliness, the movie has a sharp sense of humor and a few terrific performances by Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon. The movie caused some controversy at the time of its release in 1999 with Smith receiving hate mail and death threats. Smith was flabbergasted by the controversy, pointing out that protesters were getting upset about a movie that featured a rubber poop monster.

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Dir. Mel Gibson

The Passion of the Christ caused the biggest domestic kerfuffle of any major theatrical release since the turn of the century. The controversy centered less on the actual content of the film than it did on the personal foibles of director Mel Gibson and a debate ensured over whether the film was anti-Semitic. A close viewing of the film reveals this accusation to be toothless but The Passion is inherently part of the complicated history between Catholicism and Judaism, one explored in the book (and subsequent documentary) Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll. Unfortunately, the controversy over The Passion has obfuscated the fact that it is an extraordinarily well crafted piece of cinema despite the way it fetishizes the violence.

Samsara (2012)
Dir. Ron Fricke

The title of Samsara refers to a term in Buddhism meaning “circle” or” wheel” and it describes the idea that people are stuck in an cyclical existence of ignorance. The same term is also used in Hinduism and other Eastern religions to describe similar concepts. This picture is a collage, not a story, and it is best understood as a cinematic poem. The filmmakers of Samsara illustrate the concept of their title on a truly epic scale by juxtaposing imagery of geography, architecture and industry to a slow, meditative score. Samsara’s unconventional style and panoramic view of space and time means that it may not be suited for mediocre mainstream interests but it is a stunning piece of work.

Noah (2014)
Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s contemporary retelling of the flood story familiar to Christian viewers from the Biblical book of Genesis is an ambitious production. The picture is unlike other Hollywood blockbusters and in many respects Noah is an independent feature made on the scale and scope of a Hollywood blockbuster. It suffers from some storytelling flaws but those defects are far outweighed by the filmmaker’s accomplishments. This movie does what retellings of myths should do – reimagine them in a new way and make the story relevant to contemporary viewers.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Religious Films on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, April 20th Sounds of Cinema will feature a look at religious films. The first half of the program will include a look at pictures such as The Ten Commandments, Dogma, and The Passion of the Christ. The second half of the show will focus on Martin Scorsese's 1988 motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ. The episode will also feature an interview with Thomas Lindlof, the author of the book Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars, which takes a close look at the making of The Last Temptation of Christ and the protests against it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Film Reviews: April 13, 2014

Here is a summary of the films reviewed on today's show:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier does everything that a good sequel should: it broadens the story palate, raises the stakes, complicates the themes, and develops the characters. Even though parts of it are a little unsteady, the movie as a whole is impressive and sends the Avengers in more mature direction.

Bad Words tries to replicate the success of Bad Santa but it is a shallow imitation that misses the nuances that made the earlier film work. This is an attempt to indulge the joy of being deliberately politically incorrect but Bad Words is not nearly as subversive as the filmmakers seem to think it is.

God’s Not Dead can be dismissed merely on the failures of its storytelling but the movie is more troubling because it is indicative of the trends in faith-based moviemaking and of the national discourse on religion. These filmmakers mistake criticism for persecution and plurality for suppression. God’s Not Dead is an anti-intellectual tract masquerading as philosophy and the way this film characterizes the religious debate and the people involved in that debate should be insulting not only to agnostic or atheistic viewers but to Christian audiences as well. This is a movie made by people less interested in a rigorous philosophical debate and much more interested in selling movie tickets by stoking the audience’s anger at straw-men.

Of Gods and Men is a challenging film, one that deals seriously with spiritual and religious themes. However viewers might believe or not believe, this is a film that raises questions about what it is to be spiritual and does so much more effectively than a lot of pictures that are marketed specifically to religious audiences. Of Gods and Men is more demanding of viewers than audiences are probably used to but it is worth the effort.

Full reviews can be found in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Call for Responses to 'The Last Temptation of Christ'

The film The Last Temptation of Christ will be shown on the Winona State University campus on April 10, 2014 at 7pm in the Stark Hall Auditorium.

When it premiered in 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ incited considerable debate. For that reason, the faculty and student leaders of Winona State as well as the leaders of religious organizations in the Winona area are offered a chance to respond to this film on Sounds of Cinema.

The responses will be prerecorded and broadcast on the show airing on Sunday, April 20th. In order to allow enough time to integrate them into the show, the responses will have to be completed by April 17th. Responses should adhere to the following guidelines:
  • Limited to five minutes in length.
  • Relate specifically to the content of the film.
  • Delivered in language that is broadcast appropriate.
If you are interested in participating or have questions, please contact me by email at  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Film Reviews: April 6, 2014

Here are the reviews from today's show:

Muppets Most Wanted isn’t bad but it isn’t very memorable either. The movie is sufficiently entertaining but it isn’t quite up the expectations viewers have for this franchise, especially in comparison to the Muppet movies of Frank Oz and Jim Henson.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been involved in films of varying quality but Sabotage is among his worst projects and it’s even more disappointing to see David Ayer’s name attached to this garbage. At the very least this movie should have been fun but it’s a joyless slog.

Noah is an independent feature made on the scale and scope of a Hollywood blockbuster. It suffers from some storytelling flaws but those defects are far outweighed by the filmmakers' accomplishments. Like many of director Darren Aronofsky’s films, it will probably benefit from multiple viewings in order to parse out the themes but that is a testament to the intelligence and skill—and yes, faith—with which the movie has been made.

The Agony and the Ecstasy is not really an epic movie but it was forced to fit into the epic format due to filmmaking conventions of that time. Despite being baggy in places, the movie is very entertaining, it has a pair of strong performances by its principle actors, and it manages to be a thoughtful consideration of the perils of adapting sacred texts into graphic form.

Full reviews are posted in the Sounds of Cinema archive.