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* (April / May 2012) 20/20 FUTURE VISION: THE 20 BEST SCI FI FILMS OF THE PAST 20 YRS.
* (Dec. 2011 / rev. Nov. 2016)  THE 12 (24 ALTERNATE) DAYS OF CHRISTMAS - PT. 1



 by CEJ

     Regardless of one's faith (or lack thereof), you won't find too many "history of filmdom"  fans (be they Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists or whatever) who disagree that the genre of the Biblical Epic is one of the most enjoyably grand scale and operatic in all of cinema. Which isn't to say they're all great, mind you. Good Lord (pun entirely intended), hardly! Just as with any other genre (science fiction, western, noir, crime drama, comedy, ... take your pick) your Biblical Epics have just as many agenda-laden, cheesily executed, top-heavy-with-wayyy-too-much-subtext-and-message, ... as well as just flat out plain bad ! entries as it does memorable classics. That said and understood, personally for us, just as we drag off the shelves certain films every Christmas / New Year's Season (DIE HARD, THE REF, LOVE ACTUALLY, et al) and the 4TH OF JULY weekend (ID4, BLOWN AWAY, DROP ZONE, 1776, etc.) so do we every Easter / Passover week do our (we just made this word up) "BiblioMoviePalooza" of favorite (call 'em) "scripture-to-script" based films we've grown to dig over the years. Now ... 


     For those on one side - critical of the "over Holllywood-i-zation" of the sacred Bible story, and dead-set in the belief that the secular film maker's take (some say "bastardization") of revered biblical narratives is tantamount to blasphemy, and indicative of why society is "going to hell in the (proverbial) hand basket", ... as well as to those on the other side who feel believers of such "quaint, superstitious and fanciful" yarns are the root cause of society's long history of war and prejudice, we ask that you both (at least for a few minutes) just please shut the righteous  f**k up and take a couple'a steps back. Right now we don't give a rat's patootie about any of that.

     We're just talking about a great genre of film making here, which (hey, admit it or don't admit it) still at times has the ability to bring a lump to the throat, and maybe even a little watery-ness to the corner of the tear duct of even the most jaded film-going sonofabitch who ever slugged a beer or scratched his hairy chest.

     Most filmic biblical stories (as well as those based on sacred Muslim, Buddhist, Native American and other global aboriginal text) are, as much as some would have us believe otherwise, actually less about guilt, condemnation and eternal damnation, and more about renewal, redemption, self-sacrifice, the death of an old life - leading to the beginning of a new one, and liberty from bondage - physical, psychological and (yes, we'll use the word) spiritual.

      And this is the reason we see so many contemporary films with tried, true and "old as humanity itself" plot narratives and characters torn from the papyrus of those classic biblical, Buddhist, Muslim and other ancient stories. Peter O'Toole as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA sitting and staring into the desert until he comes up with the "miracle" needed to attack the port city of Aqaba. CONAN THE BARBARIAN on the "Tree of Woe". Annakin Skywalker selling his soul then falling, Lucifer-like, and having his body consumed by the Dante-esque flames of the volcanic planet Mustafar. Tim Robbins' Noah / Christ-like descension into the bowls of the earth / "belly of the beast", and his re-emergence into the baptismal rain in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, ... as if that film's title hadn't already clued you in on what was going on. And hey, there are sooo many biblical and philosophical layers running beneath the substrata of THE MATRIX trilogy that space doesn't allow a listing here, ... although some of the more obvious references are Neo's death, resurrection and climactic literal ascension, Smith emerging as an "Anti-Neo", and names of characters and locales in that series running the gamut from "Trinity" to "Zion" and everywhere across, through and in-between the narrative maps of both the Old and New Testaments.  Anyway, all of this to say ...


     As such we're not here to get into the whole "Why didn't this or that biblical film on your list not accurately cast more people of color in primary roles, huh?" argument, or the "Why didn't you mention more iconoclastic films like Scorcese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Monty Python's comedic yet trenchant LIFE OF BRIAN, or 'outside the lines of the coloring book' musical  adaptations like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR or GODSPELL?" debate.  Because, quite simply, as valid as those discussions are, a) That's not what this posting's about. Those are entirely other topics deserving their own particular articles, blogs or podcasts. And we do have one along those lines in the works, by the way, so stay tuned! But not this time around. And b), perhaps more importantly, ... well, because we didn't feel like it.

     Not everything, even bible based films, needs to be taken too uber seriously. Like any other film genre they really can just be a damned good, engaging, inspirational, and (yeah!) even fun and exciting time at the movies too. We kinda just wanted to stick with that aspect in this one, and stick with more "mainstream"-esque films of which most would be familiar, ... even though, yeah, of course, every now and then one can't avoid such obvious "elephant in the room" topics as the anti-McCarthyism of BEN-HUR, or the charges of antisemitism levelled against Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.  But if you do at this time want to delve more into the multi-layered aspects of "Religion in Film" in general there are a plethora of other sites, and some pretty damned good and easily accessible documentaries and social media hubs, more than willing to go down that route to your heart's content.  In fact this time of year you'll find some great ones on The History Channel, Discovery and other popular networks.

     Here though, we wanted to keep things a little simpler and maybe a bit more, as we said, fun. Oh, and also keep in mind that, just as with our "50 Halloween Faves" and "ROGUE ONE's Cinematic Ancestors" listings, we're not necessarily saying these are the "Best" adaptations by any means, ... just our personal faves this time of year.

     Anyway, that said, submitted for your approval (in no particular order), here are those faves we’ve taken to pulling off the shelves and rewatching every Easter / Passover / Spring Break week.  "Happy Easter", "Chag Kasher V'Sameach", or just "Have a Great Time, And Be Careful Out There When Driving To And From Mom's For Easter Dinner", ... whatever applies to 'ya.


      Have a great Holiday, and be safe, all!


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EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014) score - "Goodbyes" / "Moses' Camp" (A. Iglesias)

(1956 / dir. - Cecil B. DeMille) 


     In some respects a widescreen VistaVision / Technicolor remake of DeMille's own 1923 silent film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS arguably remains the granddaddy of all biblical epics. Yeah, since it's original release it's taken a few (perhaps well-deserved) brickbats because of liberties taken with the original story material (as told in the Old Testament books of Exodus and Leviticus), as well as for it's (not only "whitewashing", but) outright "Americanization" of certain characters. Hey, in that regard Edward G. Robinson's very New York-ish "Dathan" has rightfully since become the butt of numerous comedy sketches, even more so than Harvey Keitel's Brooklyn-esque Judas Iscariot in Martin Scorcese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.  But for sheer epic scope and operatic brio - captured in the framing of it's images by SHANE's legendary cinematographer Loyal Griggs, unsurpassed in it's epic score by Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE, GHOSTBUSTERS), the trend-setting visual FX of John P. Fulton (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS. THE BRIDGES OF TOKO-RI), and the full blooded performances of Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, John Derek, Nina Foch, Vincent Price and more, few biblical epics (hell, few films in general) have yet to match DeMille's legendary epic for sheer staying power with generations of audiences. 


     TRIVIA: With the exception of 1999, to date THE TEN COMMANDMENTS has aired on ABC TV every year during the Easter / Passover holiday since it's first network broadcast in 1973. With the exception of 1997, every ABC showing of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS has also been in a single near 5hr. (including commercials) broadcast block. In '97 the network for the first and only time chose to split the film into two parts. That year Part 1 aired on Easter Sunday (March 30th), and Part 2 aired two days later (April 1st) as counter-programming to CBS' NCAA Men's College Basketball National Championship broadcast. The film first aired in HDTV (recreating it's original widescreen VistaVision format) in 2010.  

(1998 / dirs. - Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells) 


     Perhaps one of the most daring films of the 1990s, DreamWorks' first traditional animated feature film (essentially a redo of DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, by way of BEN-HUR's "brothers become enemies" angle) became a worldwide smash, ... even though it was banned in some countries. Featuring the voice talents of Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes (as Moses and Ramses respectively), along with Danny Glover, Michelle Pfeiffer Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Helen Mirren and others (Wow, what a cast!), THE PRINCE OF EGYPT recruited artists from the former studio of animator Don Bluth (THE SECRET OF N.I.M.H., AN AMERICAN TALE, THE LAND BEFORE TIME) and T.V.'s "Amblimation" to blend hand drawn and CGI animation in the telling of the Moses story - this time with the addition of musical songs, and particular attention paid to the accurate ethnic depictions of various characters.


     Perhaps not since Ralph Bakshi's animated features of the 1970s  / early 1980s (FRITZ THE CAT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, AMERICAN POP) had an animated feature up to that time been so deliberately geared towards an adult audience, ... and successfully so. While critically lauded, THE PRINCE OF EGYPT would be banned in the predominately Muslim nations of the Maldives and Malaysia, where Islam forbids the physical depiction of any of the prophets, of which Moses is considered one of the most revered. 

(2014 / dir. - Ridley Scott)


     After the historical grandeur of Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, the director formerly best known for sci fi & fantasy (ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, LEGEND), then the contemporary character-based crime genre (SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, BLACK RAIN, THELMA & LOUISE) seemed a natural fit for a cinematic re-imagining of the classic tale of Moses and the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt. Things would not proceed easily however as, early on, backlash erupted from some corners regarding the film's casting of decidedly European and American Caucasians (among them Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and John Turturro) in primary roles.

      While it is indeed at times difficult to look beyond the film's obvious (and maybe even bone-headed) commercial casting, which is occasionally as "take you out of the moment" jarring as Robinson and Keitel in those earlier mentioned films (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE LAST TEMPTATION), we have to admit Christian Bale's Moses, Ben Kingsley's Nun (the father of Joshua), and especially Edgerton's Rameses (he deserved an Oscar nomination here) are some of the best performances ever in this film genre. And it's mainly because the characters are played as "down to earth" real as possible.

     Moses begins, not only as an Egyptian army General, and faux son of the Pharaoh, unaware of his own Hebraic lineage, but also as an atheistic cynic critical, if respectful, of his own nation and Pharaoh's polytheistic religion. Rameses labors under a HAMLET-esque Oedipus Complex. The plagues are (attempted to be) explained away by the scientists of the day as naturalisitc (if atypical) phenomena. And Moses ascension as a leader, and his demand for the release of his people from the tyranny of his former brother, Rameses, is realized in the cinematic paradigm of a classic "Revolution" film - wherein the systematic raids on Eygpt's food storage facilities by Moses' and his men are viewed by the Eyptians as "terrorist" activity. Even during the penultimate scene at the Burning Bush, when God calls Moses to become a savior of his people, and Moses responds with "But I'm just a shepherd", God counter-responds with, "I don't need a shepherd, ... I need a General". From that point on you realize Ridley Scott's exodus from Egypt is going to be a more militant one, where God expects his people to stand up and fight even before the introduction of the divine plagues. 


     Some found this "grounded in reality" slant blasphemous. But we always found it as such which ironically increases the more internal spiritual and emotional aspects of the main characters. Y'know, rather than having a series of "no shadow of a doubt" miracles happening one after another - which cannot be denied by anyone with eyes, ears, and an at least partially functioning brain, we've always felt that, when translating a legendary story with iconic individuals to the screen, when those individuals display even a modicum of internal doubt (about themselves and / or about their God) this "short coming" (if you will) heightens the need for faith and belief. And, by film's end, the emotional rewards of that faith and belief to the characters proves cathartic and inspirational to the audience as well. 


     While not perfect, Scott's EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is one of the most intriguing "straight ahead" adaptations of a biblical story - eschewing the more iconoclastically revisionist (if fascinating) angle of say Scorcese's LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or Darren Aronofsky's 2014 film NOAH. 

(1977 TV miniseries / dir. - Franco Zefferelli) 


     The second of a trio of British / Italian biblical TV mini-series primarily scripted by A CLOCKWORK ORANGE'S Anthony Burgess, JESUS OF NAZARETH - from legendary director Franco Zefferelli (THE TAMING OF A SHREW, ROMEO AND JULIET, THE CHAMP), is surely the most known and acclaimed of the three. Following 1977's MOSES: THE LAWGIVER (starring Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quayle and Irene Papas), and preceding 1985's A.D. (with James Mason, Ian McShane, Richard Roundtree and Susan Sarandon, and adapted from the "Acts of the Apostles"), this sprawling 6 1/2 hr. (without commercials) telling of the life of Christ from birth to crucifxion was the brainchild of British film and TV mogul Lew Grade (THE MUPPET SHOW, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, SOPHIE'S CHOICE), and starred the estimable Robert Powell as a Jesus who is enigmatic and commanding, ... if perhaps a bit too ethereal for our own personal tastes.

     But, filmed on location in Morocco, Tunisia and Mexico - giving it a grittily realistic tone and look, powered by a grand score by Maurice Jarre (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, SHOGUN), and featuring what is arguably the greatest international cast ever assembled for a single filmic venture (among that cast Anne Bancroft, James Earl Jones, Claudia Cardinale, Ernest Borgnine, Lawrence Olivier, James Mason, Fernando Rey, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Ian McShane, Ian Bannen, Christopher Plummer, Michael York, Donald Pleasence and more!), JESUS OF NAZARETH emerged as the globally popular, character-centric, drama heavy biblical adaption which managed to grab the imagination and heartstrings of those not usually enamored of the average, run-of-the-mill, preachy Sunday School-like entry in this genre. 

     A bit of controversy emerged when, in originally choosing not to depict the resurrection, JESUS OF NAZARETH, before it was even released and seen, drew the ire of some Protestant fundamentalists who feared the mini-series would eschew references to the divinity of Christ.

     As such, before JESUS even aired, nearly 20,000 protest letters were received by General Motors - which had put up $3 million of the film's $12 million budget in exchange for ownership of the U.S. broadcast rights. The automotive giant eventually pulled out of the film, charting up a $2 million write-off, as Procter & Gamble stepped in to take up the slack - securing those domestic rights for the bargain price of $1 million. Also, an interesting bit of trivia ... 

     Two years later Monty Python's satire LIFE OF BRIAN, also filmed on location in Tunisia, would re-use many of the remaining standing sets from JESUS OF NAZARETH. 

(2004 / dir. - Mel Gibson) 


     Any film (yes, even those by DeMille) based on incidents or characters from the Old or New Testament will engender a degree of controversy as those original biblical stories and characters upon which they are based are themselves interpreted differently by various groups and individuals (religious and secular) depending upon everything from socio-political / philosophical background and / or preference, to geographic locale, and the era into which (as well as how) the film or original story is reintroduced into the vein of that era's popular or unpopular zeitgeist. The debate concerning any previous scripture-to-script adaptation however paled by light-years in comparison to the tsunami of controversy which embroiled Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST at the time of it's Ash Wednesday 2004 theatrical debut. 


     Facing criticisms from some corners for excessive (some said "narratively distractive") violence, to a highly publicized email and news media debate over whether or not the film had been endorsed by the Pope, to charges of antisemitism, the controversies surrounding Gibson's filmic depiction of the final hours of the life of Christ were arguably only surpassed by the film's stunning (a surprise to most industry pundits!) worldwide box office success. Personally financed by Gibson himself for $30 million, THE PASSION took in well over $600 million theatrically, which today places it as the all time "R" rated box office champ, even when adjusted for inflation. Sorry DEADPOOL! 


     Choosing here not to delve into the film's much debated controversies (though, for the record, we don't believe Gibson's depiction to be antisemitic - even though we realize that throughout history many "Passion Play" performances were intended as such, and lead to societal pogroms against many Jews), we, from a purely filmic and historical standpoint, remain as positively flabbergasted today as we were on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST's opening night.       

     For most of this film's 126 minute running time it does that which far too often proves itself impossible with bible-based stories: it makes all of the principle characters, even Christ himself, as identifiable and relate-able as they man or woman sitting next to you on the subway. As remarkably portrayed by Jim Caviezel (THE THIN RED LINE, FREQUENCY, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO) this Jesus doesn't ethereally wander the streets of Jerusalem, near levitating and never blinking his eyes - like Robert Powell in JESUS OF NAZARETH or Max Von Sydow in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. Uh, uh! This Jesus doubts, experiences emotional loss, and feels fear and pain at a primal level. Yet he still goes on to sacrifice himself for the sake of others in spite of all of this. 

     It is the / these extremely human attributes which in turn make the more divine ones that much more approachable to both the characters on screen and the audience in the seats.  And on top of it all, a huge attribute to the film's grasp of the characters' and audience's humanity is that all of it's emotion and narrative is conveyed via subtitled Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew as opposed to English. 

     A remarkable display of stunning cinematic craft (Caleb Deschanel's cinematography and John Debney's music score both received well deserved Oscar nominations), and a well wrought execution of intimate personal drama, Gibson's (admittedly brutal and violent) epic is one of those rare cinematic experiences which genuinely yanks emotion and pathos (it's own passion) from the audience both collectively and individually. 


     Say what you will about Gibson and his personal life but, both revisionist and traditional at once, we've always found THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to be one of the most emotionally powerful scripture-to-script adaptations ever made. 

  (2016 / dir. - Kevin Reynolds) 


     At first superficial glance Kevin Reynolds might not seem the obvious choice to co-write and direct a bible-themed film. But if you take a closer look at both that which he's written in the past (including the original RED DAWN) and written and / or directed (among that cinematic list ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, WATERWORLD, 187, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO - starring THE PASSION's Jim Caviezel, and History Channel's HATFIELDS & McCOYS), you find at least one archetypal character paradigm running throughout them all - that of the jaded, socially cynical outsider who, against all common sense and reason, finds their lifelong belief system upended. Such is the main character (and plot) scenario for what Reynolds described as his “Christ story meets CSI” take on the proverbial “Greatest Story Ever Told”, … only not told from the POV of Christ or any of his disciples. 


     SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and ELIZABETH’s Joseph Fiennes portrays fictional Roman Tribune Clavius, who, after crushing a zealot revolt lead by Barabbas (yes, that Barabbas!) against the empire, is assigned the task of locating the missing body of the prophet Jesus, presumably stolen from his grave by followers two days after his crucifixion in order to lend credence to fanciful stories of his resurrection as Messiah. Many fear (while others hope) such stories will embolden a new religious and political movement which could come to defy Rome’s authority in Judea. Informed by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) that the Emperor Tiberius himself is en route to Jerusalem to take inventory of recent revolutionary activity – inventory which can cause Pilate and those directly under him (including Clavius) their careers or very lives, Clavius, accompanied by his adjutant officer (HARRY POTTER's Tom Felton) sets out on an investigation to find and recover the missing corpse of Jesus before the Emperor arrives.


     His first step is to reconstruct the hours before the presumed theft of the corpse by dragging in “the usual suspects” (those known to have been associates of Jesus) for interrogation that he may cross reference each of their personal RASHOMON-like recollections of events. Among those suspects are Mary Magdalene, Peter, Bartholomew, Simon, James and the others who claimed to be “disciples” of the crucified prophet. 


     With the exception of a “miraculous” ending, RISEN plays it’s hand straight as a period set “police procedural” of sorts, but with the added wrinkle of a hardened cynic central character who (not unlike Gregory Peck in THE OMEN) continues to find his more naturalist philosophy slowly eaten away with growing evidence of a supernatural world parallel to his own. Only in this case it’s the supernatural world of the Christ rather than the "Anti"-Christ. And as such RISEN seems more cleverly directed at the non “Faith Based” audience perhaps more so than at the traditional evangelical one so many scripture-based films of recent years have targeted. 



(1959 / dir. – William Wyler)


     Certainly on our list (just like almost everyone else’s) as one of the "Greatest Films Ever Made" period!, there’s one glaring misnomer which has always troubled us about William Wyler’s legendary epic: the fact that in its title it is referred to as "BEN-HUR: A STORY OF THE CHRIST", …
which it actually isn’t! Yes, Jesus Christ shows up at extremely important intervals in the story. And those “showings up” have a major “altered course trajectory” impact on the life of the film’s actual main character – Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). But, regardless of the title of the film, or the famous novel on which it is based (from the pen of equally legendary Civil War General turned Arizona Territorial Governor Lew Wallace), this is a “Story of Ben-Hur!, who is ultimately greatly influenced by the life and death of the Christ”. Anyway, now that’s out of the way, the plot … . 


     A wealthy Hebrew prince and merchant living in (what would later come to be known as AD 26) in Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur resides in a sprawling estate with his mother Miriam (Martha Scott), sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), life-long servant Simonides (character actor legend Sam Jaffe), and Simonides’ daughter Esther (Haya Harareet) – who is secretly in love with Judah (and vice versa) though she is betrothed by her father to another. His entire life Judah has cared little for the politics of the era which has driven an often violent wedge between occupying Romans and native Judeans. And as a child his closest friend and blood brother was the young Roman born boy Messala.

     Returning years later as an adult, Messala (FANTASTIC VOYAGE’s Stephen Boyd), now the Commander of the Roman Garrison, asks Judah to abandon his apolitical stance, and “name names” of any Jewish zealot radicals he may have crossed paths with while conducting business. And when Judah refuses, a sequence of events (combined with Messala’s overarching political ambitions) sets the two men on a collision course which destroys Judah’s family, sends him off as a slave on a warship, and propels Massala upwards through the ranks of the Roman military. 

      Filled with a thirst for vengeance, Judah spends years (COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO-like) plotting his return to Jerusalem in order to even the score with Massala. And a no-holds-barred chariot race (often fatal to many of the participants) may present the greatest opportunity to satiate his bloodlust. At almost every important juncture, however, during the unfurling of his plan of vengeance, Judah crosses paths with an enigmatic prophet of peace and love who continually gives him pause. The prophet's name is Jesus. 

     In some respects the aforementioned film RISEN takes its primary narrative conceit from classics the likes of BEN-HUR and Henry Koster’s 1953 THE ROBE (with Richard Burton) in that, while Christ isn’t the central character, he crossing paths with the main characters of said films becomes central to the lives and ultimate outcome of those characters. And with that in mind, it’s genuinely surprising that BEN-HUR has never really come under fire by fundamentalist religious proponents for its rather fast and loose blending of fiction-based, old-school Hollywood high adventure with the (presumably sacred) biblical plot thread of the Christ story running through central through its core. It is perhaps in retrospect
even more amazing that, released during the tail end of the McCarthy era, BEN-HUR, with its none-too-subtle narrative analogy about “refusing to name names” was released intact without studio fear or interference. 


     With to date some of the most lavishly impressive sets built for film, one of the largest costume and FX departments every assembled, a crackerjack stunt team lead by Andrew Marton (later of KELLY’S HEROES and THE DAY OF THE JACKAL) and Yakima Canutt (of GONE WITH THE WIND and WHERE EAGLES DARE), and perhaps one of
the signature film scores of all time from maestro Miklos Rozsa, BEN-HUR remains one of the best made, not to mention perennial favorite, films pulled time and again from many shelves every Easter / Passover season. 

     And quite deservedly so! 



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