Franklin Graham on Billy: The Early Years.

Last Monday, I linked to a news story which indicated that Billy Graham’s son Franklin had not yet revealed what he thought of Billy: The Early Years, the upcoming movie about the beginnings of his father’s ministry. It turns out that Franklin actually posted a statement on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s website sometime that day, distancing the organization from the film and complaining about unspecified inaccuracies within the film. CT Movies editor Mark Moring has written an excellent article on the subject, getting some extra detail from Franklin’s spokesman as well as some rebuttals from Franklin’s sister Gigi, who says Franklin is basically just nitpicking. Personally, as one who wrote a substantial article a few years ago on the many movies that were produced by the BGEA itself, I would like to know how Billy: The Early Years compares to similar “true story” movies like, say, Wiretapper (1955) or The Hiding Place (1975) or Joni (1979). Does it really take more liberties with the facts than those films do? Or are they all more or less in the same ballpark?

Religulous reviews begin to trickle in.

Religulous doesn’t come out until October 3, but it recently played in a couple of theatres near New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for the Academy’s award for Best Documentary Feature, and a few reviews and comments have begun to surface.

Robert Koehler, Variety:

Skeptics unite: You only have to lose your inhibitions. That, in sum, is the underlying message of Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ brilliant, incendiary “Religulous,” in which comedian/talkshow host Maher inquires of the religious faithful and finds them severely wanting. By providing an example to other non-believers, Maher is, um, hell-bent on launching an even more aggressive conversation on the legitimacy of religion than he has on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Sure to be a major talking point in Toronto and destined for tons of free media, docu looks primed for serious numbers in theatrical and vid heaven. . . .

To the film’s credit, Maher never engages in Michael Moore-style gotcha tactics, but rather asks questions that raise more questions, in the form of a Socratic dialogue. To believers expecting a blind hatchet job, this will prove both thought-provoking and a bit disarming; skeptics may be surprised (as Maher is) by the occasionally smart replies to his queries. . . .

Ending minutes, though, will catch auds up short: Suddenly, the laughs die down, and as in his closing monologues on “Real Time,” Maher turns deadly serious with a final statement that will stir raging arguments in theater lobbies. . . .

Lou Lumenick, New York Post:

I feel obliged to report that it rivals “The Aristocrats” as the funniest, and most offensive, documentary ever made. Maher, a former Roman Catholic whose interviewees include his Jewish mother, is in top caustic form as he sets out to expose all forms of faith as scams.

Devin Faraci,

Though funny, smart and often profane, Religulous doesn’t want to send you out of the theater with a smile on your lips. The final moments of the film aren’t laugh out loud funny, but a parade of images of death and destruction. This, Bill Maher says, is what humanity is in for if it doesn’t get rid of the nuerological disorder that is religion. . . .

The basic concept of the film has Maher traveling around the world talking to believers about what they believe, and most importantly why (or how they can believe it, for that matter). From the Holy Land to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida, Maher goes where the believers are and engages them on their home turf. That makes a huge difference in how the film feels, as does the fact that he actually confronts them. Religulous is directed by comic genius and Borat helmer Larry Charles, and it would have been easy to do this movie in a similar vein to that one – letting these people dig themselves a ridiculous hole with their own words – but Maher isn’t interested in that. He wants to interact with these people, to confront them with the logic-hating aspects of their faiths and see what they come back with.

That’s where I think the movie succeeds the most, but also one of the main places where detractors will come after it. They’ll say that Maher is looking just to clown these people, but that isn’t the case. He’s more than slightly exasperated with the cop out answers that people give him (to the point where he actually gets kind of excited when a Jesus impersonater explains the parodoxical Holy Trinity by comparing it to the three states of water. It’s bullshit, Maher says, but it’s interesting and new bullshit to him), and this film is supposed to be funny so he’s being funny, but he’s also being fair. He’s asking these people straight, direct questions. In return he’s getting garbage like ‘What if you die and find out you’re wrong?’ . . .

Tom O’Neil, The Envelope:

When I attended a press screening for Bill Maher’s “Religulous” in New York on Tuesday, it struck me like a lightning bolt on the road to the Kodak Theatre via Damascus: yeah, “Religulous” will probably be nominated for best docu at the Oscars — and God help us all after that. . . .

In order to catch on widely like religion itself, what atheism has needed for a long time is a popular preacher to rally ’round. Maher just volunteered for the job that’s been vacant since Madalyn Murray O’Hair vanished in the 1990s (eventually found murdered in 2001). Richard Dawkins has been a fine temporary stand-in, but not flashy like O’Hair. Bill Maher kicks things up a notch. He’s a pop culture hipster who already has a large, anti-establishment flock, and he has a bully pulpit that O’Hair didn’t: his own HBO show plus vast presence across all media. . . .

John Nolte, This Is Dirty Harry’s Place:

Religulous is hosted by Bill Maher who, like Spurlock, travels the world in search of unsuspecting everyday folks who can be selectively and mercilessly edited into boobs, rubes, crazies, and the corrupt. More than three-quarters of the run-time is spent on the fringes of Christianity in places like truck stop chapels, Jews for Jesus gift shops, and Holy Land amusement parks — pretty much anyplace Maher would have the least chance of bumping into someone who could handle the game he’s running, the laziest game played by militant atheists: Biblical gotcha! . . .

Religulous isn’t smart, it’s smart ass. It’s also astonishingly dishonest. A game of Biblical gotcha! is one thing, but positioning the thoroughly debunked link between an ancient Egyptian god and Jesus as historical fact is what you might call the film’s Michael Moore moment — the moment so audaciously dishonest and unfair it undercuts any gains the film might have otherwise enjoyed. There’s Michael Moore catching Charlton Heston off guard, there’s Michael Moore showing the Iraqi people out flying kites, and there’s Bill Maher matter of factly presenting a wild conspiracy – that the Gospels are pretty much plagiarized — as fact. . . .

One comment, for the sake of fairness: Maher is certainly irreligious, but is he, technically speaking, an atheist? Would he, at any rate, define himself that way? I used to watch Politically Incorrect fairly regularly, and I seem to recall him saying, there, that he believed in “God”, or “a god”, though he was extremely vague as to what he might have meant by that. Wikipedia‘s entry on Maher also quotes an interview he did a few years ago, in which he said he was “not an atheist”. I am curious as to whether he repeats or clarifies that claim at any point in this film.

Yet another movie not screened for critics?

It’s a remake of an Asian film, and it stars Nicolas Cage, who has starred in such critics-shunning films as The Wicker Man (2006) and Ghost Rider (2007). So it is not all that surprising to see Cinema Blend and other sites reporting that there will be no press screenings for Bangkok Dangerous, which opens September 5.

AUG 27 UPDATE: The film opened in France today, so Variety has posted its review, and their critic, Jordan Mintzer, basically finds it underwhelming. The IMDb says the film opened in Spain five days ago, so in theory Variety could have run a review of it back then, but I guess they might not have any stringers there.

The Longshots — the review’s up!

My review of The Longshots is now up at CT Movies.

The murder of Abel and The Book of Lies.

What do the biblical murder of Abel and the modern murder of Mitchell Siegel (whose son Jerry would go on to co-create Superman) have in common? Yeah, I don’t know either, but apparently the connection between these two incidents is explained in Brad Meltzer’s upcoming novel The Book of Lies — and to promote the book, Meltzer’s people put together the following viral marketing video starring Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedon, God Is Not Great author Christopher Hitchens, The Year of Living Biblically author A.J. Jacobs, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof and others. It all sounds rather contrived to me, but make of it what you will:,t=1,mt=video
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Watchmen delayed: for better, for worse.

While reading David Bordwell‘s interesting piece on the various reasons for the recent wave of superhero movies, I came across a link to this article that Ken Tucker wrote for Entertainment Weekly in 2000, shortly before the first X-Men movie came out and proved that there was life in the genre beyond the obvious, iconic household names like Superman and Batman.

It is fun to read Tucker’s list of recommendations, as he begs the studios to ditch the campiness of earlier films, etc. But I am also struck by this bit near the end, which touches on the status at that time of the long-in-development Watchmen adaptation:

The other comics-fan dream is a movie of Watchmen, the landmark 1986 DC Comics 12-issue miniseries created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. An epic alternate universe teeming with non-established original heroes that worked as a rousing tale and, as Mike Richardson, publisher of Dark Horse Comics, puts it, a “deconstruction of the superhero genre,” Watchmen–first optioned by Joel Silver (The Matrix)–now lies dormant with producer Lawrence Gordon (Mystery Men).

More then 10 years ago, it was a different story. “Everyone was talking about Terry Gilliam! Terry Gilliam!” says Watchmen fan and Dogma director Kevin Smith. In the late ’80s, after Gilliam, the visionary director of Brazil, had been tapped by Silver to adapt the comic, the plug was pulled. Budget was one big factor. “The joke going around was that it was $1 million a page,” says Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm, who wrote the first Watchmen draft. “That was back when $120 million meant something.”

There was also the mission impossible of distilling Watchmen’s sprawling and intricate narrative into a two-hour flick. Says Hamm: “We felt constantly crestfallen about what we couldn’t get in.”

Both Gordon and Gilliam declined to comment on Watchmen’s past or future, but Gibbons thinks that its time may have passed: “It was most likely to happen when Batman was a big success, but then that window was lost. If this new X-Men movie is a big hit, maybe that will open up another window. But to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.”

So, did X-Men open up another window? Yes, and how!

If anything, I think the ground is a lot more fertile now for a Watchmen movie than it was back in the ’90s. And why? Because, like the man said, Watchmen is a “deconstruction of the superhero genre”, and bringing that deconstruction to the big screen would have been a whole lot dicier a few years ago, if there were only one or two big-screen superheroes to deconstruct.

I am reminded of a headline that appeared in the Associated Press back in July: “‘Watchmen’ aims to answer typical superhero films”. Exactly. Writing a comic book in response to an entire genre of comic books is fitting. Making a movie in response to a comic book begins to look like overkill. But making a movie in response to an entire genre of movies is fitting, once again.

So in a way, it is a good thing that the Watchmen movie has never been made before. No matter how good the scripts were, or how apt the directors and actors attached to the project may have been, the movie itself would arguably have been coming out at the wrong time. The movie would have lacked the context that the original comic book had. But now, that context is there.

Of course, the long development process has had its downside, too, the most recent manifestation of which is the lawsuit that Fox has brought against Warner Brothers in an effort to prevent the release of Watchmen, or at least squeeze some money out of them before the film comes out March 6. For details, see Nikki Finke, David Poland, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the New York Times and the lawsuit documents themselves.