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Thursday, 4 August 2016
"Last Days in the Desert" REVIEW
Topic: Movie Review



            This past weekend I saw a biblical pic.  Yeah it was one of those biblical movies.  Once in a while, a director will make one that just screams desperately for a critical review.  Such a movie is Last Days in the Desert, director Rodrigo Garcia’s highly stylized and reimagined take on the temptation of Jesus in the desert.  For reference, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness can be found in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4.

            Garcia takes us all into the world of first century AD Palestine….sort of.  At least, they did make southern California look like the Negev desert.  I have to say, I was really excited about this movie initially, just on the merits of the cinematography and the cast.  Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Big Fish) portrays Jesus of Nazareth, Claran Hinds (Rome, The Nativity Story) a stonemason and father, Ty Sheridan (X-Men Apocalypse) the son, and the lovely Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (Daredevil, Man of Steel) as the sickly wife and mother bring gravitas at all four corners of this ensemble.  It sounds positively epic, right?  Yeah, I thought so  too.

            This was the most asymmetrical treatment of the forty days in the wilderness you could imagine.  The trajectory of this movie made me question whether there was even a director on set.  It looked like an exercise in improvisational directing, in which the director was not even there.  Granted, the traditional story—or I should say, the legacy of the traditional story—carried this movie, while ironically not referencing much of that story, and dialogue didn’t need to be excessive. 

            Perhaps the most interesting contribution to the film is that Ewan McGregor also portrays the devil, who just so happens to look exactly like Jesus in this film.  I don’t even have a problem with this—in fact, this may be the most accurate element of the film.  Satan has traditionally mocked Christ and his vision is always a blasphemous reversal and bastardization of that of Jesus.  Had I been a fly on a rock in the desert, it would not have surprised me to see the devil mocking Jesus in such a manner.  McGregor’s taunting Satan in the guise of Jesus was the best part of the film….and here’s why:  OF ALL THE ELEMENTS OF THE MOVIE IT”S THE ONLY ONE THAT MAKES SENSE!!!

            That’s it—that’s the only good.  This story involving a harsh father, his dying wife, and their estranged young son, welcoming Jesus in for a brief stay, is not even apocryphal.  That, at least would make it interesting.  Garcia, apparently was not paying attention when Darren Aronofsy made his cinematic debacle Noah.  Aronofsy diverged from the story in Genesis, made a mishmash of apocrypha and his own vision, and produced a monstrosity of the traditional story that alienated the biggest part of his potential audience.  Last Days in the Desert follows the same formula.  Hey look, I love new takes on biblical stories, but there’s only so much you can tweak before you destroy the story.  What is it about Hollywood directors who feel their visions will be more popular than stories which have been popular in their traditional forms for thousands of years?  My advice to these artists is to take a page from the master of historical epics, Ridley Scott.  Consider his Exodus:  Gods and Kings, which was essentially true to the spirit of the Exodus story.

            In the case of the forty days in the wilderness, the story is already there.  Hey, do something with Jesus’ suffering from exposure as he fasts in the desert.  Use the imagery of all those grand temptations to weave a visual feast.  For crying out loud!  The story is there Garcia, all we require is for you to make the movie.  But you didn’t. 

            Terrible, awful movie.  Don’t waste your time.  Go see these actors in productions much superior in quality to the travesty that is Last Days in the Desert.   I’ll give it one star out of five, for McGregor’s mocking devil performance.

Posted by anthrojudd at 11:18 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Topic: Movie Review



  If you are looking for a different take on the Biblical epic, you must get thee to a theater and see Risen.  This movie is a wonderfully-paced Biblical thriller that presents the search for the Nazarene Jesus after his death and “disappearance.”  Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo) directs a stellar picture both faithful to the spirit of the story, and novel enough to interest even the most jaded audience.  It packs all the emotion of a Passion of the Christ with the Roman perspective of a Gladiator.


  The movie stars Joseph Fiennes (Luther, Enemy at the Gates, Hercules) as Roman tribune Clavius rising through the labrynthine infrastructure of Roman military authority, thanks in no small part to his usefulness against warrens of Jewish Zealots in first century Judea.  After the execution of a rabbi named Yeshua (Jesus), the entombed body turns up missing.  Pontius Pilate, portrayed by Peter Firth (Shadowlands, Amistad ), prefect of Judea, assigns Clavius with the daunting task of finding the body and the responsible party before the situation becomes an ill-timed fiasco, with none other than Emperor Tiberius arriving for an inspection of the province.


  The questions presented in the movie are ones I have often wondered about as a historian.  The Romans typically left no stone unturned (pun intended) in an investigation.  What this movie does that makes it so unique is that it presents a manhunt from the perspective of a Roman commander.  This man, Clavius, had life-and-death responsibilities and the weight of authority on his shoulders, and has to marshal resources to get the job done.  But Clavius—harsh but fair—is looking for a reasonable answer to a question that defies reason.  His incredulity is understandable, and we sympathize with him, until he is brought face to face with the impossible answer to his question:  the hiding place of the disciples and among them, the man Yeshua who disappears before his very eyes.  He is heretofore haunted by the face he saw at the crucifixion, there smiling and laughing in front of him.  It impels him to follow the disciples to Galilee.


  Clavius was an officer.  He prayed to the god Mars faithfully.  He dreamed of a life of accomplishment and peace beyond the savagery of war and blood.  When Mars fails to deliver, in desperation he secretly prays to Yahweh, promising (in Roman fashion) temples, sacrifices, and games in his honor, if he can help him find the body of the missing Yeshua.  It is in Galilee, not at the end of a long career, that Clavius’ questions are answered, and that ever-sought after peace is found.


  Risen is an amazingly, well-done picture.  It had me waiting for the next scene.  I might add that it has something for everyone.  If you are going for the message and Biblical epic, you won’t be disappointed.  If you want a big Roman picture—Clavius and his men have some moves—with swords and fighting, you too will not be disappointed.  If you want a murder-mystery, this is the ultimate in the genre.  Risen is cerebral and physical, and manages to be epic and faithful to the Gospels without being preachy…..and yet, it preaches.  I highly recommend it.

Posted by anthrojudd at 2:05 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 15 March 2016 2:08 AM EDT
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