The Gospel of John (2003), Planet of the Apes (1968) and A Night at the Opera (1935)

Video/DVD Picks
by Steven Greydanus | Source:
The Gospel of John (2003)
Back in theaters in many areas, The Gospel of John is also available on DVD and VHS from the official website, www.gospelofjohnthefilm.com. It may also be purchased used on Amazon.com and eBay.

The Gospel of John defies ordinary film criticism, and indeed ordinary movie viewing. Dialogue and narration have been taken verbatim from the Good News translation of the Fourth Gospel. Dramatically, this approach comes with certain tradeoffs, but as an artistic meditation on scripture it represents a unique opportunity to experience God’s word in a new way.

Strengths include production values, acting, and Christopher Plummer’s engaging narration. With an advisory committee of scholars representing Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths and bringing expertise in scripture studies, theology, and archaeology, the filmmakers strove for accuracy in every detail.

Ian Cusick’s Jesus is both warmly human and also authoritative, surprising, even polemical. Cusick has the presence and confidence of a popular teacher, easily transitioning from addressing a large crowd to focusing on a single individual.

The film’s most pervasive weakness is the translation that provides the basis for the screenplay, the Good News Bible, which is neither precise nor graceful. Still, the gist of John’s narrative and presentation of Jesus’ teaching remains intact. Well mounted and honorably executed, The Gospel of John is one of the most religiously significant films in years.

Content advisory: Passion narrative violence.


Planet of the Apes (1968)
Recently released on DVD, the original Planet of the Apes is an indelible icon of American pop culture that launched a series of increasingly inept sequels, a lame TV series, and a failed big-budget remake by Tim Burton. The film is so entrenched in popular consciousness that even people who haven’t seen it have a pretty good sense what it’s about and even what the surprise ending is. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Planet of the Apes remains a near must-see, despite its flaws.

Adapted by Rod Serling from Pierre Boulle’s Swiftian social satire, Planet of the Apes is basically a feature-length Twilight Zone episode, with all that that implies for good and ill. There’s an ironic sci-fi reversal of real-world conditions, a rather thin plot padded to fill out the running time, heavy-handed but sincere allegorical moralizing, thought-provoking social satire, and a stunningly imagined climactic twist.

Charlton Heston leads an interstellar expedition to an unnamed planet revealed to be inhabited by intelligent apes and brute-like humans. The resulting cautionary tale of dogma versus science casts the ape religion in an unflattering light, but ultimately turns out to be more about humanity’s self-destructive tendencies. Flawed but worthwhile.

Content advisory: Some violent and disturbing imagery; brief mild profanity; fairly discreet and clinical references to reproduction; somewhat problematic treatment of religious themes.


A Night at the Opera (1935)
If Verdi collaborated with Mel Brooks on a comic opera, or operatic comedy, for Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, and Roberto Benigni, chances are, the result would bear no resemblance to the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, but why take chances?

The fact is, A Night at the Opera is one of a kind, for which we can all be grateful. But it’s also something more: Along with Duck Soup, it’s a leading contender for the best and funniest Marx Brothers feature ever. (Opera was also reportedly Groucho’s favorite.)

Compared to the brothers’ earlier work, Opera has a tighter, better developed script and storyline, and less wildly freewheeling behavior. But the Marx magic is still very much in evidence, with such comic gems as Groucho and Chico’s surreal contract negotiations and the classic overcrowded state room sequence.

Groucho is in top form with his comic mugging—a term that usually means something different from what muggers do, although in Groucho’s case we might make an exception. When Margaret Dumont, playing yet another widowed dowager, huffily protests Groucho’s calling her “my good woman” (“I’m not your good woman!”) he replies disarmingly, “Don’t say that, Mrs. Claypool. I don’t care what your past has been. To me you’ll always be my good woman. Because I love you.” Classic stuff.

Content advisory: Mild innuendo; slapstick violence.

Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register.



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