Cine Bon!

Remembering the films that heated up cinemas this year.

 The Gospel According to Mel

Who needs studio publicists when every fundamentalist pastor in the country is herding his flock to the multiplex? Why waste good money on TV spots when the Vatican is handing out rave reviews? No doubt about it, Thomas, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was a phenomenon unlike any in Hollywood's long and florid history -- a product fanatically pre-sold by people who rarely go to movies, a $25 million gamble that won a major ideological victory for Right over Left, an act of faith drenched in blood. What else was it? Depends who you talked to. Believers said this 126-minute depiction of Jesus Christ's final hours as a mortal earthling was a cinematic "miracle," and many of them returned to watch it four or five times -- with their wide-eyed kindergartners in tow. Appalled skeptics called it medieval anti-Semitism boiling with hatred and the ancient blood libel.

However various beholders took it, Gibson has clearly come a ways since Mad Max. Claiming that "the Holy Ghost was working through me," the action star who's morphed into an extremist Catholic zealot depicted Jesus's agony as a lurid horror movie complete with rods and studded whips, a vengeance-crazed mob screaming for crucifixion and the kind of trip up Calvary that the perpetrators of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street could scarcely have imagined. Having splashed actor Jim Caviezel's torment-wracked body with quarts of sticky blood, director Mel nailed him brutally to the cross and nailed his vast audiences with the inescapable notion that since his version of the Passion may not be the Greatest Story Ever Told, it may as well be the Goriest.

Whaddya got? Marlon Brando left a reel legacy.
Whaddya got? Marlon Brando left a reel legacy.
The Polar Express moved kids' movies full 
speed ahead.
The Polar Express moved kids' movies full speed ahead.

Alas, poor Michael Moore was left with no more fluent reply in the U.S. culture war than to bop George W. Bush a few times on the nose in Fahrenheit 9/11. As for Caviezel, he recovered quite nicely from his wounds, thank you. He was spotted just a few months later at the Westchester Country Club, swinging a niblick in something called Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius, a movie about the resurrection of a golfer. -- Bill Gallo

Closing Credits: "Bud"
If Marlon Brando -- "Bud" to his family and intimates -- was not the finest movie actor who ever lived, he certainly had the greatest gift for reinvention. Between the opening night in 1947 when the lean, cruelly handsome young Nebraskan shouted "Stel-lahhhh!," in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the moment, three decades and 200 pounds later, when he filled a dark jungle hut with a murmur of "The horror...the horror," he took on many forms. He was, in turn, the charismatic í50s rebel, the weird Hollywood iconoclast, a menacing Godfather and a real-life father agonized by his son's conviction for manslaughter. By the end, which came July 2, at age eighty, he had so many encrustations of myth that the real Brando, if there ever was one, had almost ceased to exist. But his legacy is unquestionably profound. Having absorbed The Method at the Actors Studio, he dispensed it far and wide through the performances of every awestruck actor who followed him. Troubled and tragic, Marlon Brando had become nothing less than a condition of life.

He may be remembered most vividly for his jowly, grave Don Corleone ("Tattaglia is a pimp..."), but who among us wasn't captivated by the depressed U.S. expatriate he played in Last Tango in Paris, his tormented pug in On the Waterfront ("I coulda been a contendah"), the vengeful outlaw of One-Eyed Jacks, or the enigmatic, half-crazed Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, who embodied the American misadventure in Vietnam? Was the giant without humor or irony? Hardly. In The Freshman (1990), he happily parodied his Godfather role and, for reasons known only to himself, reportedly required all visitors to his Tahitian island hideaway to produce, wellŠstool samples.

"What are you rebelling against?" a sweet-faced teenager asks Brando's sneering, leather-clad motorcyclist in 1954's The Wild One. "Whaddya got?" he replies. That might be epitaph enough for one of moviedom's few authentic geniuses. -- Gallo

Closing Credits: "Dutch"
When Ronald Reagan died on June 5 at the age of 93, his political adherents hailed him as the president who "made America feel better about itself" in the 1980s. Nobody claimed he made America feel better about movie acting. A genial featherweight who went in for neither introspection nor artifice, "Dutch" Reagan the actor played upright, well-scrubbed romantic leads in more than sixty mostly B-movies, many of them for Warner Brothers. Antagonists scoffed that he once shared top billing with a chimpanzee (in 1951's Bedtime for Bonzo), and everyone who ever bought popcorn was relieved to learn, as the details of his Hollywood career became clearer amid his political success, that Warner executives had replaced him at the last minute before shooting one of the studio's best-loved films. It's hard to imagine Reagan, instead of Bogart, delivering the deathless lament "Of all the gin joints in all the world...," in the wartime classic Casablanca.

That's not to say that the former contract player and General Electric Theatre host was bereft of acting skill. In his most demanding role, an eight-year run as the last Cold War president, he often spoke forcefully and dramatically. Neither Americans nor Germans will ever forget The Great Communicator's stirring challenge in the waning days of the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Little matter, when it was all over, that even Reagan's most loyal friends acknowledged he often could not distinguish between a dashing part he'd essayed half a century earlier in, say, Code of the Secret Service, and his most recent exchange with Margaret Thatcher. He was what he was: a player untroubled by self-doubt when the klieg lights came on. -- Gallo

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