Newsbites: Living! Robot! Treader! Dollar!

It’s been a long, long time since the last batch of news quickies.

1. Julian Farino is attached to direct The Year of Living Biblically from a script by Jay Reiss, based on the A.J. Jacobs book.

2. Battlestar Galactica producer Ronald D. Moore is working on a sequel to I, Robot (2004; my review; another version).

3. Disney has set a release date — namely May 1, 2009 — for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. That will be less than 50 weeks after the May 19, 2008 premiere of its predecessor Prince Caspian.

4. Variety picks up the story about the falling American dollar and the harm it’s doing to the Canadian film business.

5. Mongrel Media and Capri Releasing say Away from Her has become the first English-language Canadian film to gross over $1 million in Canada this year. That isn’t what the site I usually check for this sort of info tells me, though. Unless maybe the site is reporting only one distributor’s earnings, and not the other’s?

6. Uh, does the long-shelved and much-reviled Pathfinder remake really merit two-disc extended-edition treatment?

Surf’s Up — the review’s up!

My review of Surf’s Up is now up at CT Movies.

Not the Messiah — the premiere reviewed

Looking for reviews of Not the Messiah, the oratorio based on Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) which premiered in Toronto last Friday? Here are a few for your reading pleasure.

First, John Terauds of the Toronto Star:

Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) felt like a time capsule of the best of 1970s British humour, with the old double-entendres and verbal shtick neatly laid out in sealed glass cases. . . .

On stage with the TSO were conductor Peter Oundjian, his first cousin Idle and four excellent soloists – soprano Shannon Mercer, mezzo Jean Stilwell, Broadway tenor (and Tony-winning Spamalot alumnus) Christopher Sieber and bass-baritone Theodore Baerg – and a core group from the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

They told us about poor Mandy Cohen, the “rather less than immaculate conception” of her bastard son Brian and how Judea mistook him for the Messiah.

Longtime Idle collaborator John Du Prez has fashioned a patchwork quilt of music to fit the 22 numbers divided into five parts – from imitation do-wop and gospel to Gilbert and Sullivan, via Mozart and Handel.

It’s all silly fun, with the five singers (including the tonally challenged Idle) standing in front of the orchestra, each taking turns with solos backed up by the eager choir.

A half-dozen of the numbers brought down the house – the best being Idle’s spot-on parody of Bob Dylan, with acoustic guitar, harmonica and mumbled lyrics.

Besides being able to leave the hall whistling “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” we were treated to equally quaint instrumental program fillers, such as Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations and John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March.”

It was all well done but missed capturing the spirit of today, which is what Luminato is really about.

Second, Colin Eatock of the Globe and Mail:

It’s lively stuff, to be sure. In true Monty Python fashion, it’s a crazy soup-to-nuts, heavy on the nuts, hodge-podge. There’s bawdy music-hall humour, a touch of Noel Coward cleverness in the lyrics – “freer” is rhymed with “Judea,” and a range of musical styles from gospel to mariachi.

But Mr. Idle was right about the “ripped off” part. Not The Messiah is a retread, a pastiche, and a send-up of a send-up, right up to the final Always Look On the Bright Side of Life, a song directly imported from the movie. A few of the musical novelties suggest Python’s wacky heyday, such as the highland pipers who appear, in full regalia but for no apparent reason, in the number You’re the One.

But some numbers are reminiscent of the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar: rather bland and a little too earnest to be funny.

And now, Robert Cushman of the National Post:

As well as being a filleted adaptation of the movie, the new piece functions as an homage to, or more frankly, an exploitation of, all things Python. For example: As is well known, Brian was born in a stable to the Non-Virgin Mary while a more momentous birth was taking place just next door. (“Is it A.D. yet?” “It’s about a quarter to.”) And There Were Shepherds — that’s the title of one of the numbers, if an oratorio has numbers. In it, the shepherds sing about how happy they are in their jobs because, simply, “we like sheep.” They don’t, they make it clear, have much time for any other variety of livestock. They are as enhusiastica bout sheep as others have been known to be about Spam. There’s also a strong hint that they enjoy shepherding as much as others might enjoy, say, lumberjacking. This theme becomes more explicit at the other end of the legend when Brian is about to be crucified. One of his fellow prisoners sings A Fair Day’s Work, which is really the imperishable Python anthem about cross-dressing timber cutters as it might have been structured by Gilbert and Sullivan.

I don’t remember exactly how Brian, in The Life of, came to the cross, but I’m sure there was a reason. In Not the Messiah, which is less a narrative than a series of jump-cuts, it just sort of happens. It can’t be traced to his involvement with the People’s Front of Judea; though that, which provided the best scene in the film, also provides the best song here. Entitled What Have the Romans (as in “what have the Romans ever done for us?”), it covers exactly the same satiric ground but does so within the satisfying disciplines of rhyme and meter. Honour the lyricist who can make creative use of the word “aqueduct.” John Du Prez, Idle’s composing collaborator, has written an amusing and eclectic score, and in something called The Final Song reaffirms the talent he showed in Spamalot for writing Andrew Lloyd Webber pastiches that are better than Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, it isn’t the final song. It has to give way to a full-scale rendition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. . . .

But much of the evening’s appeal undoubtedly depends on its sense of lesemajeste. I don’t mean by that irreverence towards the Bible. The show begins with a rather heavy-handed anti-hymn, O God You Are So Big (“and we are garbage in your sight”) and it retains the exhortations of Brian, the reluctant messiah, that his flock should learn to think for themselves. But this element is muted, and the music actually dilutes it.

“All things Python” indeed — that bit about the shepherds and “Is it A.D. yet?” and so on is actually from a deleted scene, which as far as I know is only available on the Criterion DVD version of Life of Brian. (It’s hilarious, BTW.) And if I’m not mistaken, ‘O God You Are So Big’ can be traced to The Meaning of Life (1983).

FWIW, I note that, according to this article in the Toronto Sun, the oratorio will next be performed at the Caramoor festival in New York state July 1. Presumably it will travel elsewhere, too.

If I find any more reviews, I’ll post them here, too.

BC Christian News — June 2007

The newest issue of BC Christian News is now online, and with it, my film column, which looks mainly at Spider-Man 3, but also touches on Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The paper also includes an edited version of my summer-movie preview article for Faith & Friends.

Indiana Jones IV casting announcements

The official website for Indiana Jones IV has confirmed that Cate Blanchett and Ray Winstone are in the new movie, as is John Hurt, whose name I have not seen on these lists before — but not Sean Connery, who has issued a statement making his non-involvement official (“retirement is just too damned much fun”, etc.).

Connery does wish cast and crew all the best, though, and he gives “Junior” some advice, including: “Demand that the critters be digital”. Reading this, I am once again reminded that it has been 18 years since the previous Indiana Jones film, and I don’t think any creatures were digital back in 1989, let alone before that.

There is no official word yet on who any of the actors are playing.

Pregnancy and “the a-word” at the multiplex

Chris Knight of the National Post notes that three of the top six movies at the North American box office last weekend happened to revolve around pregnant women (and a pregnant ogre).

In Shrek the Third, the pregnancy represents a reasonably happy addition (or set of additions) to a reasonably happy marriage.

But in Waitress, the marriage is a distinctly unhappy one, and in Knocked Up, there is no marriage at all — in fact, beyond the original one-night stand, there isn’t even a relationship of any sort until after the conception takes place. (It’s kind of like a shotgun wedding, but without the shotgun and without the wedding.)

So why, Knight wonders, don’t the characters in those latter two films give any serious consideration to abortion:

Consider Jenna, the waitress in Waitress who fumes that she should never drink because it makes her do stupid things “like sleep with my husband.” When she visits the town’s new doctor (played by a nervous Nathan Fillion), he starts to tell her that his practice doesn’t perform — but that’s as far as he gets, as she tells him she’s keeping the baby. Even though she doesn’t want it and feels no love for it, even though she bakes pastries with names like I-Don’t-Want-Earl’s- Baby Pie, she’s determined to eat healthily, take care of herself and give the rug rat the best start in life she can.

Then there’s Alison in Knocked Up, who also decides as a matter of course that the baby will be kept. The father, played by Seth Rogen, actually has more of a conversation about the alternative with his pack of stoner friends, but even they can’t bring themselves to say the word, preferring the rhyming term “sh-shmortion.” (And note how dismissive that sounds: “What do you think of abortion?” “Abortion, sh-shmortion!”)

It’s instructive that Waitress (PG-13 rating in the U.S.) and Knocked Up (a well-deserved R) can’t ignore the topic completely, but clearly don’t want to say any more than they have to. Human relationships feature few taboos that movies aren’t willing to explore, but abortion is beyond the pale for most.

Knight goes on to bemoan an “absence of discussion” about this issue — not only in “mainstream” American films like these, but also in the recent Romanian Palme D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where a woman apparently seeks an abortion without ever considering that perhaps she ought to keep the child.

FWIW, I haven’t seen the Romanian film yet, but I think there may be a little more “discussion” in the American films than Knight allows for — and what’s more, I think the films derive some of their power from the fact that they raise the issue and then point beyond it, claiming the thematic high ground as it were. Let’s start with Waitress — and warning, there be spoilers here.

Given that director Adrienne Shelley was, until now, best known for starring in a couple of extremely independent films directed by Hal Hartley nearly two decades ago, it is somewhat funny to hear her movie described as “mainstream”. Suffice to say her film retains some of the semi-absurdist quirkiness that one associates with Hartley’s films, and there are a number of decisions her characters make that aren’t examined in very close detail — and the fact that Jenna keeps her baby may be one of them.

But consider Jenna’s declaration that “I respect this little baby’s right to thrive.” If one believes that preborn children have a “right to thrive”, then what is there to discuss? And consider the powerful, transformative effect that the birth of this child has on Jenna — giving her the courage to ditch her abusive husband and the strength to put certain other aspects of her life in order.

I do not necessarily assume that Shelley set out to make a “pro-life movie” — but I do think the film suggests, in its own way, that affirming life in the most basic sense is the key to truly living. (I am vaguely reminded of how, in the 1980s, Woody Allen called himself “pro-choice” yet consistently depicted pregnancy as a hopeful thing and abortion as the death of hope.)

And now, Knocked Up.

Yes, the father’s boorish buddies come closer than anyone else to using “the a-word”. But what about the scene between Alison and her mother? The elder woman tells the younger one to “take care of it”, and tells her to wait until she’s ready to have “a real baby”. What a callous line! The reason Alison is so torn up over what to do is precisely because the creature growing inside of her is real. I don’t think it’s all that big a stretch to say that Alison chooses to keep the baby because she recoils at her mother’s attitude.

I’m not necessarily saying that writer-director Judd Apatow and his team of improvising actors were trying to go all “pro-life” on us. But I do think they were at least finding comedic value in subverting conventional wisdom, here and elsewhere in the film, and if the conventional wisdom happens to be pro-choice…

There may be movies that merely dodge the issue, but I think these two films do something a little different. Instead of dodging it, they take aim at it — however briefly — and then they move beyond it. They may or may not be anti-abortion, but they are arguably pro-life — and that’s not a bad thing to focus on.