Review: Jumper (dir. Doug Liman, 2008)

When you think about it, teleportation is a natural subject for the movies. You could even say that filmmakers do it all the time, already: in a typical film, when, say, a character walks out the door, it is often the case that the shot inside the house, of the person walking to his or her exit, was filmed on a soundstage, while the shot outside the house, of that same person stepping onto the sidewalk, might very well have been filmed in another city, or even another country. But these images are generally edited together so seamlessly that you don’t have time to notice.

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Yet another controversial church-history movie?

Looks like we will all be debating yet another aspect of church history in a year or two. The Hollywood Reporter says Alejandro Amenábar — the Spanish director of The Sea Inside (2004), The Others (2001) and Open Your Eyes (1997), the last of which was remade as Vanilla Sky (2001) — is about to direct a movie about a clash between atheism and fanaticism in the patristic age:

Rachel Weisz, Ashraf Barhom and Oscar Isaac will star in Alejandro Amenabar’s untitled English-language movie being prepped for a major shoot in Malta.

Much of the project, which Amenabar wrote and is directing, has been shrouded under a veil of secrecy. A historical drama set in early Egypt, it concerns a slave who turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hopes of pursuing freedom while also falling in love with his master, a female philosophy professor and atheist.

Weisz will play Hypatia, the Alexandrian professor.

Barhom — one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film “Paradise Now” who also stole scenes from the American stars in Universal’s “The Kingdom” — is playing a zealous Christian monk named Ammonius. Isaac, who played Joseph in New Line’s “The Nativity Story” and appears in Steven Soderbergh’s “Guerilla,” is set as Orestes, who has an unrequited love for Hypatia.

Sunmin Park and Fernando Bovira are producing the film, which sometimes operates under the title “Mists of Time.” . . .

The mere fact that Oscar Isaac is involved in this film is reason enough to be curious about it, I think. He was easily the best thing about The Nativity Story (2006), and when I met him at the junket for that film, he seemed very thoughtful and articulate. I have been looking forward to the chance to see him in other movies, and I am glad the opportunity to do so is almost here.

But hoo boy, then there’s the subject matter. I knew nothing about this story before I heard about the film, so of course I turned to Wikipedia to see what I could learn about these characters. And, well, here is part of what Wikipedia has to say about Hypatia of Alexandria, the character Rachel Weisz will be playing:

Hypatia of Alexandria . . . was a Greek or Egyptian scholar, considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy. She lived in Roman Egypt, and was killed by a Coptic Christian mob who blamed her for religious turmoil. Hailed as a “valiant defender of science against religion”, some suggest that her murder marked the end of the Hellenistic Age. . . .

Hypatia travelled to both Athens and Italy to study, before becoming head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in approximately 400 AD, and would teach Plato and Aristotle to anybody willing to listen, including a number of Christians and foreigners who came to her classes.

Although Hypatia was herself a pagan, she was respected by a number of Christians, and later held up by Christian authors as a symbol of virtue. The Byzantine Suda controversially declared her “the wife of Isidore the Philosopher” but agreed she had remained a virgin.

Hypatia rebuffed a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags, claiming they demonstrated that there was “nothing beautiful” about carnal desires.

Hypatia maintained correspondence with her former pupil Bishop of Ptolomais Synesius of Cyrene. Together with the references by Damascius, these are the only writings with descriptions or information from her pupils that survive. . . .

Believed to have been the reason for the strained relationship between the Imperial Prefect Orestes and the Bishop Cyril, Hypatia attracted the ire of a Christian population eager to see the two reconciled.

One day in March 415CE, during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob, possibly Nitrian monks led by a man identified only as “Peter”.

She was stripped naked and dragged through the streets to the newly christianised Caesareum church and killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostrakois (literally, “oyster shells”, though also used to refer to roof tiles or broken pottery) and set ablaze while still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death. . . .

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s entry on Orestes states:

Orestes was appointed Imperial Prefect of Alexandria shortly after a young Cyril succeeded to the Patriarchate of Alexandria after the death of Theophilus, Cyril’s own uncle. . . .

Orestes steadfastly resisted Cyril’s agenda of ecclesiastical encroachment onto secular prerogatives. Rebuffed by the Prefect, Patriarch Cyril felt threatened, and people from various groups connected with the Church decided to aid him.

In fact, at around 414 – 415 AD, monks assaulted and badly injured Orestes. The Prefect had the leader of this mob tortured to death. Cyril tried to make the executed man into a martyr, but local leaders and ultimately the Emperor did not condone the monks’ attack on the imperial representative, and Cyril had to back off.

Prefect Orestes enjoyed the political backing of Hypatia, a female philosopher who had considerable moral authority in the city of Alexandria, and who had extensive influence. Indeed many students from wealthy and influential families came to Alexandria purposefully to study privately with Hypatia, and many of these later attained high posts in government and the Church.

In 415 AD Churchmen leading a superstitious mob grabbed Hypatia out of her chariot and brutally murdered her, hacking her body apart and burning the pieces outside the city walls. This political assassination eliminated an important and powerful supporter of the Imperial Prefect, and led Orestes to give up his struggle against Patriarch Cyril and to leave Alexandria.

There is yet another version of what transpired between these people at Wikipedia’s entry for Cyril of Alexandria, which includes at least one detail that would seem to contradict some of the details quoted above. (Did Orestes give up and leave Alexandria, as stated above? Or was he killed while protecting Jewish synagogues from Christian mobs, as stated at the other page?)

Obviously, I will have to do more research in the next little while.

I can’t say I care to see the early church’s dirty laundry aired as I imagine it will be in this film, but it also does no good to pretend that the events described here didn’t actually happen. And it is too early to say just how this movie will approach the material.

It will be particularly interesting to see who gets cast as St. Cyril — it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers would be able to tell the story without him — and how involved he is made out to be with the “zealous Christian monk named Ammonius.” Stay tuned.

How time flies.

Five years ago today, a woman I had known for only a few weeks went with me to see a movie called Punch. It was our second date. And because it took place the day before Valentine’s Day, and because we were technically just friends and not officially “dating” yet, I gave her a home-made card with a picture of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and wished her a happy “un-Valentine’s Day”.

Three years ago today, that woman married me.

Two years ago today, we celebrated our first wedding anniversary with friends, after visiting our nine-day-old twins in the hospital.

Today, we … stayed home with the kids, all three of them. (The third one will be one month old tomorrow, though it feels like his one-month birthday should be today, because he was born less than an hour after midnight.) And we hung out with our friend Magnus, who dropped by after work for a few hours.

Nothing spectacular. These days it’s a relief just to get a nap sometimes. But it’s cozy. Life is good.

What horrors hath Cecil B. DeMille wrought?

Nine years ago, I wrote a short article for Bible Review on Peter Brosnan, a filmmaker who, together with archaeologist John Parker, has spent the past quarter-century looking for Egyptian ruins in the sand dunes of California. Of course, they’re not looking for real Egyptian ruins; instead, they’re looking for the fake Egyptian sets and props that were built by Cecil B. DeMille for the original silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923).

So I could not help but be amused when I got a press release today for a DVD that has nothing to do with Brosnan or Parker, but has everything to do with the subject they’ve been working on:

Based on true events…
The Ultimate Evil Will Rise March 11th

TORONTO, ON — In 1923, legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille constructed a replica of ancient Egypt in the California desert for his epic movie The Ten Commandments. After filming was completed, he ordered the entire set buried. For the last 85 years, the unanswered question remains: Why? Solve the mystery of what lurks beneath the scorching wasteland when Anchor Bay Entertainment releases Sands of Oblivion on DVD March 11, 2008.

Directed by David Flores and written & produced by Kevin VanHook (Voodoo Moon, Death Row), Sands of Oblivion stars Adam Baldwin (“Chuck,” Serenity, Independence Day), Morena Baccarin(“Stargate SG-1,” Serenity), Academy Award(R) winner George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, the Naked Gun films) and Dan Castellaneta (“The Simpsons”) as Cecil B. DeMille. First broadcast on the SCI-FI Channel, Sands of Oblivion will be presented in a special “Director’s Cut” edition, featuring additional footage not seen in the original airing.

A modern day excavation crew lead by soon-to-be divorced archaeologist couple Jesse and Alice Carter (Baldwin and Baccarin) have uncovered the secret that DeMille tried in vain to bury: the set holds the spirit of a vengeful Egyptian god, trapped in a smuggled artifact amongst the movie props. Unleashing an ancient centuries-old horror, it will be up to Jesse and Alice, along with an Iraq War combat veteran (Victor Webster, “Charmed”) to recapture the vile fury of ages past. DreadCentral praised Sands of Oblivion with “one of the most unique story ideas for any movie the SCI-FI Channel has ever produced!”

Sounds like this film will sort of do for The Ten Commandments what Shadow of the Vampire (2000) did for Nosferatu (1922), by supposing that real-life supernatural shenanigans were taking place amidst a movie set’s simulation of the supernatural.

And hey, what’s this, Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta is playing Cecil B. DeMille? Okay, now I really have to see this film.

The Ten Commandments — the interview’s up!

My interview with Cindy Bond, president and COO of Promenade Pictures and one of the producers of the animated version of The Ten Commandments, went up at CT Movies yesterday.

My editor, who interviewed her last year before the movie came out, added a couple notes in square brackets; and for space reasons, the piece as a whole skews more towards the business side of things than to the creative side of things.

However, as a Bible-movie buff, I had to ask a few more questions about the other films in Promenade’s Epic Stories of the Bible series, starting with Noah’s Ark: The New Beginning (alternate title: The Flood), and this is what she had to say:

- – -

Is Ben Kingsley back as the Narrator, and Elliott Gould as God?

Bond: Yeah, that’s right.

Is that going to be consistent across all twelve films?

Bond: I certainly would love it to be. It depends on their availability. But I think I’ve got a real good shot, with that being the case. Sir Ben is just phenomenal to work with, he’s such a pro. He just brings so much to the process, to the movie; his voice just takes you to another place, his voice just has so much depth and he’s so profound. And Elliott, the reason we went with Elliott was because, as opposed to the stereotypical wrathful angry God that everybody wants to portray as the Old Testament God, we wanted to portray a loving God that is infinitely patient with us, but that, when we continually mess up, there are consequences when we cross boundary lines.

It does seem that would be a challenge with the Flood story, because you have a story in which God essentially sends the Flood to kill everyone on the planet.

Bond: He does, and in our movie, we did direct Elliott in a stronger way. He’s definitely more definite, he’s stronger in terms of his resolution and performance in The Flood, versus The Ten Commandments.

But you still found a way to keep an element of patience and so forth, as well.

Bond: Sure, because when you think about it, God had been watching all the corruption and sin unravelling for a very very long time, and then chose Noah and his family to redeem the world, to give us a second chance or a new beginning. So, I mean, y’know, listen, he could’ve just had everybody go down with the boat — or not had a boat, how’s that? It’s one cruise you wouldn’t want to miss. But no, I mean, listen, it’s good versus evil.

And how is it juggling that aspect of the story with the humour you’ve mentioned? The serious moral thrust of the story with the more entertainment aspect of it?

Bond: It kind of worked out in a very organic way, in that we set up the first act to establish what we call the evil city, and then Noah, we made Noah a farmer with his sons and his sons’ wives and his wife. . . . And we set it up to where we really lay the foundation for the story, clearly delineating the good versus the evil and how God speaks to Noah and lets him know he’s been chosen and he and his family will be saved, and this is the plan he has in front of him, to build this Ark. He tells him how and things like that. So it does follow along that storyline, but where we take this on another, y’know, into a commercial vein is that we then get into the second act, is when we introduce the talking animals. And these same animals, you’ll see them interspersed inside the first act, but it’s about establishing the setup for the story, and then we take it into a different direction with the talking animals, and the brothers go out and start to round up the animals, and there’s room for a lot of humour there. We have Howie Mandel, who did a great job playing one of the camels; and Miguel Ferrer plays the mayor of the city, a character by the name of Kabos, and he does a phenomenal job, Miguel Ferrer. And so Michael Keaton and he– That’s Kabos, is the one who– We actually have the Nephilim in there, the giants.

Oh really?

Bond: Yes we do. Yeah, we went really in there. Yeah, it’s going to be pretty exciting. The kids are going to love it, and the parents are going to love it too. . . .

You got my attention with the Nephilim, for sure.

Bond: We handled it very carefully. Let’s put it this way. the way our movies are structured is for– Again, we’re doing this in an entertaining way, but we try to stay as biblically accurate as is possible. Obviously, we take creative license because we’re doing a movie, but what we like to do is be the partner to a youth pastor or a children’s minister so that he can say, “Okay, here’s who these giants are and how they came about.” We can’t get into all the little details because that would just put the movie out for hours and hours and defeat the purpose, so we just basically take the high points of the story and let the details fall in– to build sermons upon, so that sermons can be built as a bridge between the movies and the ministries.

A number of other Noah’s Ark cartoons are in the works right now. There was an Argentinian film recently called El Arca, and Unified Pictures has a CGI cartoon called Noah’s Ark in development right now, and there’s a French studio called Gaumont making Rock the Boat.

Bond: Yeah, but they’re all after us. We’re before them. Our movie is at least two thirds of the way completed — our movie will actually be done this August — so we’re way out in front of them. And also, it’s an English language film, and a couple of those were foreign language.

Yeah, though who knows, they could be redubbed and issued over here.

Bond: They can, but still, the style is foreign. Because I was in Cannes and I saw some of them, and it’s very different animation than what we’re doing. Ours is CGI, their style is very different from ours, the running times were different, very different types of stories. We’re actally very unique with the concept that we’ve put together, with our talking animals, and it’s definitely fresh, and with all the characters we’ve created, of all these different animals that are a little cartoony — and that’s another thing, all the characters are a little more cartoon looking. We decided to go that route, as well. Not as realistic looking as Ten Commandments, which we just felt– Again, we’re doing Epic Stories of the Bible, twelve pictures, birthing this whole series which is multifaceted. . . . So it’s to be commercial and have these kids watch movies like this, and let’s lay the real foundation in their lives, rather than a foundation of Spider-Man and Batman and Superman being all they know.

- – -

During the interview, Bond also mentioned that the producers of this series had settled on the topics for all twelve films — and after the interview was over, she e-mailed me the list. They are:

  1. The Ten Commandments — October 19, 2007
  2. The Flood — Easter 2009
  3. David and Goliath — Fall 2009
  4. Daniel and the Lion’s Den — Easter 2010
  5. The Story of Esther — Easter 2011
  6. Creation — Easter 2012
  7. Jonah and the Whale — Easter 2013
  8. Samson and Delilah — Easter 2014
  9. Joshua and the Battle of Jericho — Easter 2015
  10. The Story of Peter — Easter 2016
  11. The Story of Paul — Easter 2017
  12. Bethlehem – birth of Christ — Easter 2018

Looks like a pretty standard list of favorite children’s Bible stories, and, as always, there is room to quibble over what got put in and what got left out. I might have argued for the inclusion of Elijah and/or Elisha, for example. And while it is striking to see no films devoted to Jesus beyond his birth, the ministry and death and resurrection of Christ will, of course, have to lurk somewhere in the background of the movies about Peter and Paul, both of whom tend to be under-represented in films. So that’s not such a bad trade. It would be especially cool — and rare — if the movie about Peter were to span both the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

Yet another image of the “crystal skull” …

I’ve been too busy to blog today, but for those who are interested, a third glimpse of the titular artifact from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull surfaced today. I have appended it to my earlier blog post, which featured the first two glimpses.