The Last Temptation of Christ,
and a few more films

#213  [archive]
NOV. 12, 2023

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) 

When this came out, I'd already put away childish things, and Jesus was at best my ex-Lord and Savior. I would've had zero interest in The Last Temptation of Christ, certainly never would've seen it, if not for all the crazed Christians so loudly furious about it. There were pickets and condemnations and it was in the headlines for weeks. Blasphemy! An insult to the faith!

Well, I'm all for insulting the faith, so I had to see it for myself. In 1988, I thought The Last Temptation was too serious, too long, and too devout, but also recognized that it was damned good. Now I've seen the movie a second time, and my opinion is unchanged.

The difference is that now it's half my life later, and I've grown more impatient with treating a fairy tale so very reverently. I fast-forwarded a few times. 

Just like Sunday School, the principal characters look suspiciously white for the Middle East. Harvey Kietel plays a curly red-headed Judas, which is comical at first glance, though he's fine. Willem Dafoe is so terrific as Christ, I drank half a 40-ouncer in remembrance of him. 

Is the movie blasphemous? No, it's the Jesus most of us grew up with, only smarter. It's based on a novel, not the New Testament, and somberly tells us this, before beginning.

For me, though, it has become impossible to sit still and seriously ponder the duality of Christ as simultaneously both Man and God, or to care about the well-crafted drama of Satan plying his Satanic wiles trying to lure Jesus away from following God's orders to die on a cross and all that jazz.

That said, there's no denying that this film, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorcese, is better than excellent. If you give a hoot about Jesus or still retain the touch of open-mindedness I've given up for Lent, you certainly should see The Last Temptation of Christ.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

This is F.W. Murnau's first film after coming to America, and it overflows with some of the most beautiful black-and-white photography I've ever seen. Every damned shot is gorgeous, including a brief scene in an urban cafe so appealing I froze the screen and daydreamed of coffee and crumpets there.

Beyond all the perfect photography, there are superimpositions and astoundingly-composed effects that I might've been skeptical could be done in 1927 — but they're done splendidly. There are also almost Steadicam-quality tracking shots, often on enormous, exaggerated sets reminiscent of Metropolis. Even the intertitles have a charm to them, with occasional special effects involving the lettering. 

There's a very effective story, too. Seems a farmer the movie calls only "The Man" has fallen out of love with his wife, "The Wife," after the lovely "Woman from the City" caught his eye. Which seems simplistic as I type it, but it's affecting and even eye-watering as it unfolds.

Janet Gaynor won the first-ever Oscar for Best Actress playing The Wife, and deserved it. She's terrific. Even better, I think, is George O'Brien as The Man — he's big, and looms menacing when the story needs it, or googly-eyed romantic, or even comically clumsy. 

Mostly, though, it's the imagery that makes Sunrise spectacular. In addition to Gaynor's Oscar, it won for its cinematography and art direction.

Everyone knows Wings won the first Oscar for Best Picture, but it was actually sort of a split decision. The so-called Academy (do they have classes?) had two categories for the award in its first year — commercial films, and art-house films. Wings won as Best Picture, while Sunrise won as "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production," an award quickly discontinued.

I'll cast the tie-breaking vote: I've never seen Wings, but it can't be as good as this.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

It Lives by Night
a/k/a The Bat People (1974) 

In the American southwest, a honeymooning but oddly un-horny couple goes tourist-trap spelunking, and in the caves, the groom gets bitten by a bat. This turns him into sort of a bat-man, going about his sexless honeymoon by day, but becoming a crazed killer after dusk. 

The bat-man's murders are mental — he's in bed, asleep, while his murderous self gets projected out of him and kills people. This is slightly unusual for a horror flick, and gives the bat-man a good alibi when the town's one cop gets suspicious. 

The cave scenes are convincing, and there's a brief but funny make-out scene in a pick-up truck. For a horror movie, though, there's not much horror, not much anything. Nothing about the film is good enough to care about, but it's never bad enough to laugh. It's just a B-grade horror movie that sits there and kills time.

Verdict: NO.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)
Dark Star (1974)
Get Shorty (1995)
The Internet's Own Boy (2014)
Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)
The Man Who Thought Life (1969)
Not Wanted (1949)
Nothing But a Man (1964)
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
Romper Stomper (1992)
Room Service (1938)
Who Farted? (2019)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • But wait, there's more  • • •

Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Brainwaves (1983)
Cellular (2004) 
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009)
The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)
Downsizing (2017)
Frankenhooker (1990)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Love Happy (1950)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Man with Nine Lives (1940)
Phone Booth (2002)
PickAxe (1999)
Poison (1990)
Revelations (1993)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
Saved! (2004)
Scared to Death (1947)
Secret Weapons (1985)
The Shooting (1966)
The Soloist (2009)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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