Archive for January, 2011

The Message (1976) Moustapha Akkad

Posted in M on January 31, 2011 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $10 million

Gross: unknown

I can certainly see the interest in making a movie about the prophet Mohammed. Religious movies, especially Christian movies, are big bank. There were (at the time the movie was made) over 700 million Muslims and no movies had been made on the subject. Now I’m not saying that was the only reason the movie was greenlit. Moustapha Akkad (who is probably best known for producing the Halloween movies) is also a Muslim and wanted to spread the word about his religion. However there are a few reasons why a movie about Mohammed did not work with even someone devoted to accommodating the target audience like Akkad.

Hollywood did not want to invest in the film because Akkad wanted to move the production to Morocco (Wikipedia). Akkad found some financing however the cast was nearly stuck when at one point the foreign investors pulled out. The film was completed due to backing by Libyan leader Muammar al Gaddafi (wiki). Akkad did not want to offend his target audience so he worked with the University of Al-Azhar and the High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon in order to make it as accurate as possible. Akkad made his own replica of Mecca, produced the film with an English and Arab cast, and dubbed the film in 12 languages. Production had to be moved to Libya when the Saudi Government convinced the Moroccans to stop production.

Even though Akkad worked as hard as possible to not offend his Muslim audience, there were many protests against the movie. Muslim beliefs states that Mohammed could not be depicted in any way, nor his wives or sons. In The Message, we do not see Mohammed or hear him speak. However, the movie was banned in many middle eastern countries simply because the idea of a movie is sacrilege (imdb). One of the worst protests happened when Hinafi Muslims took hostages in Washington DC in a 39 hour standoff (imdb).

Now after all that, let me get to my review. It is no secret I am an atheist (and probably not the target audience) but that doesn’t mean I am automatically disposed to hate this movie. I was actually interested coming to see how Akkad handled the subject matter. The thing I want to discuss first and which is probably most relevant to my feelings on the film is the matter of Mohammed. As I mentioned before, the character Mohammed is not in this movie. Well, he is but he is not. When he does appear (for lack of a better term since he cannot be shown) he is portrayed by a point of view camera shot accompanied by eerie music. He also does not speak a single word. It was actually a tad unintentionally funny because I got more of a Halloween/first person point of view kill vibe than a prophet of god vibe. I just kept expecting a butcher knife to come out when he is with Anthony Quinn is all I’m saying. But to get back on track that is obviously the biggest flaw of the movie. For a movie about the ‘prophet of God’ Mohammed, it isn’t really about Mohammed. I mean, try imagining seeing Passion of the Christ or Last Temptation of Christ but not seeing Jesus in it. Instead you have the apostles sitting around saying things like “Did you hear what Jesus did then?” or “And then Jesus told those moneychangers in the temple this…” Now I’m not telling Akkad to break with his own dogma and piss off the Muslim community just to make a buck, but you are obviously giving yourself a heck of an obstruction when you set out to make a movie essentially without a protagonist. I actually think Akkad would have been better served with making a documentary. That way he could talk all he wanted about Islam and Mohammed and spread the word without that problem. True it is not the Cecil B. DeMille epic you are planning for, but lets face it, The Message was never going to be that movie.

Okay, so instead of being a movie about Mohammed, the Message is more about the spread of Islam. Anthony Quinn plays Hamza (who is basically the stand in protagonist for Mohammed) who leads a group of Muslims just starting out in Mecca. The story is about how they are first persecuted by other religions including Christians and their eventual rise to controlling Mecca. First off, I have to admit I don’t know how historically accurate any of the movie is. I know I just mentioned how Akkad worked on the accuracy but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. You can be accurate to the Koran, but that doesn’t mean historical facts back it up. I’m not saying one way or the other.

The movie isn’t bad. It is well made and you can tell the passion Akkad has for this subject. He wanted to show Islam as a progressive religion (for example saying Islam had equal rights for women) and giving more a message of religious tolerance. The movie has good locations and with the exception of a few scenes (where you could tell they ran out of money) good production. A problem I have is there really isn’t any memorable characters. Anthony Quinn is the main actor in this movie, but even he is more a supporting character than a protagonist.

I actually didn’t mind seeing this movie. It is not all that good. As I mentioned, I think it suffers from some crippling storytelling problems. I don’t think I would recommend this movie to anyone that isn’t already interested in the subject. You don’t learn all that much about the religion and not too much historical reference.  I especially don’t know a thing more about Mohammed than I did starting out.   But this movie is a rarity and does have some redeeming points to it by the good direction of Akkad.  I didn’t really hate it but I won’t ever watch it again.


Scarlett Johansson “Anywhere I Lay My Head”

Posted in Scarlett Johansson on January 13, 2011 by moviemoses

This album caught my attention more than other entries and for one reason. Tom Waits. I am a huge fan of Tom Waits and to hear an actress try to do good covers of his songs was intriguing. After all, while Tom Waits is (I consider) a hall of fame musician, he isn’t exactly a household name. If someone was out for a quick money grab, I could think of other musicians with more recognition to model my album after. Also, to anyone that has heard Waits knows he has a, shall we say, distinctive voice. To those that don’t it was once described “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” So maybe this album will be something special I should pay attention to.

The first thing you notice is this doesn’t sound like a Tom Waits album at all. These aren’t the grunty rambling ballads you are used to and this seems to be a main point of criticisms among customers on Amazon. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. Scarlet could very well take the lyrics of Waits and translate them to another genre of music. That doesn’t make it bad; just different. So how do I describe the music here? To me it sounds like the music you would expect to hear in the background of the movie Lost in Translation. It is kind of indie pop music. I heard some compare it to Nico, but I prefer to compare Johansson to late Debbie Harry from Blondie. She has that same low sultry voice and all during it I expected her to sing “The Tide is High”.

Sadly, Johansson shows none of the same charisma in Harry as she sings. She always sings in a low register and never strains herself vocally. Scarlett is not that emotive and sounds like she drank NyQuil prior to stepping up to the mike. Now, that may be a bit harsh but I think of this as a missed opportunity for Scarlett to show her talents. She isn’t bad, and I give her credit I guess for knowing her limitations as a singer. But at the same time, no matter how good the rest of the album is, I won’t be stepping away thinking she is a great singer and that I need to rush to get her next album.

The album actually started out pretty good. The songs ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ are early in the album and are the most memorable. This is where everything comes together with great composition and moody melodies. But then, the flaws start coming out in full force. The best way to describe this album is “drowsy”. Everything on this is so slooooooooooow and sleeeeeeeepy and low key. I swear I had this in my car radio while driving (and I started fully awake) but felt I was going to pass out behind the wheel. By the time you hit Track 8 all the songs start to drone together as one never ending mumble fest. It’s like wandering into open mike night at a bar and you can’t drag this one bitch off stage who wants to sing The Rose for the eighteenth-billionth time. Tracks 5-8 are one big blur and I had to slam my head against the steering wheel to stay awake. Track 9 is when she decides “Hey, maybe I should do something upbeat for a change.” Too bad it’s not any good. This is where the lack of charisma thing kind of kicks in. You see, the music may be upbeat and all that but Scarlett remains in her drug induced coma lower register and it is devoid of all life and joy. I would like to tell you about the final two tracks, but I can’t remember. And this isn’t like I am writing from memory two months later and just forgot. No, I just heard this album prior to writing this review.

In short, I would say this is an interesting failure. I give Scarlett high marks for effort. I mean, she tries to make her own mark covering a lesser known musical legend. She also knows her singing talents are more suited to a supporting role. She is an instrument in a band instead of a one woman show. But that being said, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” just doesn’t work. It is so caught up in being moody and low key it falls asleep in mid album. I plan on taking a few tracks from this album, plugging them into my iPod, and tossing the rest into my CD rack to collect dust. It is not enough to recommend that any of you buy this album though.

Fallin’ Down

The Conqueror (1956) Dick Powell

Posted in C on January 3, 2011 by moviemoses

Production Budget: $6 million

Gross: $4.5 million

John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

That’s it! Really, do I need to say anymore? If I wrote a fifty page paper on this movie, would it make any more of a difference than just reading that one line? That one line will either have you running for the hills or drawn to it out of some sick masochistic fetish to see one of the worst casting decisions in film history. Your reaction to that line is a kind of cinematic Rorschach test. I’m really wasting space on the Interwebs by going further but screw it. I wasted time seeing this so I might as well make the most of it.

I might as well start with the production which is almost just as infamous as the film itself. You may think that Wayne was shoe-horned into this project by some ironclad contract. That he is not at fault because he had a legal gun to his head. Oh no. Wayne used his considerable influence to get the movie made. Director Powell stated he was perfectly willing to throw the script in the trash but gave in due to Wayne’s urgings (IMDb). That’s not why this film is infamous though. The reason this film is such a debacle is the decision to film this movie downwind of the Yucca Flats nuclear testing site. To make matters worse, Howard Hughes transported tons of the nuclear dust to Hollywood for interior set design. A few years after filming several of the crew of this movie, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Moorhead, John Hoyt, and Dick Powell, got cancer. Now, it has been argued that maybe all the cancer cases can’t be attributed to the filming (Wayne and Hayward were heavy smokers after all). But when about 40% of your crew gets cancer years after filming this movie, you can see a certain correlation. Howard Hughes paid $12 million for all the prints and did not allow it to be seen on television for 17 years (IMDb). That’s right. The man who stored urine in jars and walked around with Kleenex boxes on his feet felt guilty about this.

So now we come to actually discussing the movie and frankly I don’t know what to say. Well I guess I will put it off a bit longer so I can address the elephant in the room. John Wayne is freaking Genghis Khan! I mean, okay, I’ve never been someone that is super hung up on casting. I can understand there are limitations on who you can pick with a given production and Hollywood does have a hang up with name recognition. Plus occasionally you do get performances like Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (yes, I know Kingsley is half Indian but that doesn’t change the fact there still had to be a lot of work to make him look like Gandhi). But this performance really takes the cake. This is Wayne channeling every Wayne character stereo type into his role of a MONGOL warlord. Hell, even the poster writes out Wayne’s broken speech pattern “I am Temujin…Barbarian…I fight! I love! I conquer…like a Barbarian!” You expect “…Pilgrim” slapped on the end of that quote. In fact, I expect “pilgrim” at the end of all his line reads. Read some of this script in your best/worst John Wayne impression and that is how bad this is.

Ugh, now onto the rest of the movie. There’s a reason why I haven’t really mentioned anything else. It’s because there isn’t a whole lot else to mention. For being a DeMille type epic, there isn’t a whole lot of plot. So the story is about Temujin (Wayne) who is trying to unite the clans and get revenge against the Tartars (who killed his father). Meanwhile, he falls for a Tartar woman (Hayward) who despises him and there is a subplot about his brother who may or may not be betraying him. That sounds like there should be a lot going on, but there really isn’t. The “love story” is the main plot of this movie and it is pretty laughable. Temujin is an asshole who spends many scenes trying to rape Hayward’s character (yes I know, he loves…LIKE A BARBARIAN!). Hayward’s character is a bitch, but wouldn’t you be if John Wayne in a cheesy Fu Manchu-ish mustache tried to rape you constantly? Then for some reason in the second act, Hayword falls madly in love with Temujin. This is one of the most unbelievable romances in movie history. Why do these people love each other? Why do they even stand one another? When the main narrative of your movie is hopelessly crippled, what hope does the rest of your movie have? Temujin really isn’t a fully developed character either. I don’t understand why he is considered such a military genius or how he united the tribes or why people really follow him. To me he seems like a hot headed, reckless oaf. He seems barely qualified to finish a plate of nachos let alone finish off the Tartars. I really don’t remember what else happens in this movie and I just saw it. Temujin gets betrayed but he escapes and stuff happens and he builds an army (somehow) and lots of boring fighting and blah blah blah good guys win.

I’m kind of torn on this movie. I did love watching John Wayne as he struggled in this highly embarrassing role. And like I said, if you are a film masochist, then you have already made up your mind. But the rest of this movie really didn’t do anything for me. The movie is bad, but outside of Wayne, it is just bland. Much of the time it felt like the narrative was spinning its wheels and it was rather boring. This is a funny bad movie, but not bad enough to make it a true classic.