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DVD review: ‘The Lion of Judah’

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DVD review: ‘The Lion of Judah.’ AMG Films. 87 minutes.

Beyond “children’s animation,” The Lion of Judah is hard to categorize. I wanted to like it for the eloquence it eventually shows, and the rather clever allegorization of the gospel. I wanted to diss it for taking so long to get there, beyond the dumb action and trite dialogue.

The story starts in a first-century stable in Bethlehem, home of a wise old hen, a crude pig, a matronly cow, a smart-talking rat, a rooster with ADD, and a horse who’s cowardly enough to embarrass the lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Into this motley lot scampers a spunky lamb named Judah: “I’m a lion — Rarrrrr!” Judah says he’s destined to “set everyone free,” but he is shortly boxed up and taken to Jerusalem.

Stableful of animals forms the cast for 'The Lion of Judah.'

The other animals figure out why: With Passover approaching, Judah is likely the next sacrifice at the great Temple. And they know who can decree the lamb’s pardon. See, this is the same stable where the baby Jesus was born, more than 30 years before. (Yeah, I know, but if you can suspend disbelief about talking animals, you can forgo asking how barnyard animals can live three decades.) They set out for Jerusalem to find the king.

Along the way, they meet other creatures. There’s a couple of pompous, pharisaical pigeons who can’t stand the rat. There’s a flock of ravens who call themselves the “Unclean” gang, as a side lesson on egalitarianism. And there’s a cynical, streetwise donkey colt who laments the power that humans hold over his life. It’s not hard to guess who gets to meet Jesus first.

Artistically, The Lion of Judah is a very mixed bag. The wood and stone textures are nicely rendered. The animal expressions are evocative and their actions are smooth, but their feet don’t leave tracks. And speaking of tracks, the background music often lapses into bland Christian pop. The best sequence is when the camera follows the blackbirds through the streets of Jerusalem, searching for Judah.

Voice-wise, the best is Georgina Cordova as the lamb. A veteran of other animated features, including The Tale of Despereaux and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, she adds just the right bite and perkiness. Michael Madsen, from Kill Bill and Donnie Brasco, is also good as the gruff Mafioso-like raven boss. Sandi Patty as the cow is gentle but a bit snooty. Ernest Borgnine is largely wasted as the rat.

Some of the story is interesting, for someone who can tell the efforts at recasting Bible stories allegorically. The pacing, though, is rather uneven. Much of it is unfunny and uninvolving. And whenever it slows, one of the animals jumps or trips or runs into a wall or somehow gets thrown through the air.

Eventually they find the lamb, but too late: He’s in the Temple yard, being prepped for sacrifice. Meanwhile, Jesus is being led to Calvary to be crucified. The King can’t save himself, let alone a lamb. Or can he?

The comparison of the animal sacrifice with the death of what the Bible calls the “Lamb of God” is an easy and obvious one. But for viewers who weren’t brought up in church, or may not have attended lately, will it be as evident?

Like most Christian forays into various genres, The Lion of Judah is a good first effort. But Christian producers often don’t have the time and talent and effort to compete with their secular counterparts, in this case Pixar and Dreamworks. Thus far, the main Christian group to pull off CGI is the one that made VeggieTales. And they sold out to a network, which could foot the bills, but watered down the Christian message.

After its national theater run, the film is to be released on DVD this fall by the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group. If you want to check it out further, visit http://www.lionofjudahthemovie.com/.

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Written by Jim Davis

July 17, 2011 at 4:08 am

How the King James Bible was made

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DVD review: KJB: The Book that Changed the World. Lionsgate Entertainment, 94 minutes, $21.99.

On this 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible comes a rare documentary, imparting knowledge and beauty alike — and a peek into the personalities behind the events. KJB is well worth your time.

Why should you care? John Rhys-Davies, the narrator, spells it out at the beginning. He says the King James Version, “even if you haven’t read it, has had an influence on your life. In fact, its imagery, its language and its influence have been felt around the world for the past 400 years. It also claims to be the living word of God.”

John Rhys-Davies reads the King James Bible from an English pulpit to show its powerful effect.

The video takes an unusual route to the story of the King James Version. Instead of a direct approach, it looks through the eyes and mind and life of what Rhys-Davies calls “this strange little king.” And through the political maneuvers he negotiated, both in his home realm of Scotland and the English palaces he inherited.

First it sets James’ life against the violence of Elizabethan England: political factions, religious sects, assassinations and reprisals constantly tearing at the nation’s fabric. Even the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament — “their very own 9-11,” Rhys-Davies says — is woven into the story.

It traces James upbringing as a boy king of Scotland, whose rebel queen mother was executed when he was a toddler. Thereafter, James was constantly ruled by cold regents and brutal teachers until he was old enough to take the throne on his own. He learned tough thinking from his brutal but brilliant mentor, George Buchanan, and tough dealing from the feuding clans of Scotland.

This cauldron of influences produced a tough, intelligent, often testy young man, yet one who often sought to bridge gaps and unify opponents. It all made him a new kind of ruler as the hand-picked successor of Elizabeth I — a surprising one, given his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed for conspiring against the English throne.

Seeing familiar feuding again — this time between Anglican bishops and Calvinist clergy — James hit on the idea of a new Bible translation to bring the sides together. And not coincidentally, the project would reinforce his authority as head of the church.

What happens, of course, is what often happens when rivals are forced to collaborate. The 50-plus scholars first grumble and circle each other; then they grudgingly work together; then they slowly develop a camaraderie and mutual respect. Over seven years, their checks and balances refine one anothers’ scholarship.

Mounted as a docudrama, KJB is miles ahead of its typically dull counterparts on The History Channel. Cinematography is sharp and vivid, the acting is decent, lighting is by turns misty and luminous, and the story is told through playlets strung into a narrative.

Rhys-Davies, as host and narrator, lends his blend of lordly diction and forceful delivery. Many of the events are shot at the very sites — including Haddon Hall, Hampton Court Palace, Stirling Castle, the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey — where they happened.

In some extraordinary sequences, the video tries to capture some of the intense reverie that produced the KJV. Rhys-Davies opens a precious manuscript of I Corinthians 13, penned four centuries ago by Bishop Richard Bancroft of London himself. He marvels over a copy of a Bible with notes in the margins — a tiny window into the thought processes of the translators

The period costumes are gorgeous, as is the green, stony-fenced English countryside. You can almost smell the old stones and feel the weight of centuries. We also get nice touches like dueling stags and bobbing tulips

But just because this video is about the Bible doesn’t mean it’s G-rated. Not with James’ vigorous, occasionally salty remarks. In one anecdote, he rants that a list of Presbyterian complaints is “a litany of dullness and stupidity blown out of your buttocks. Perhaps we should stick the list back where it came from!”

The film has frequent talking-head professors who lend their insights in a conversational manner. Unfortunately, they’re not identified beyond their names. Where are they from? How are they qualified to comment?

Oddly, it’s only toward the end of the 94-minute program that we get a sampling of phrases that have cemented the King James Version as a towering achievement of poetry and rhetoric. Ascending into a lofty pulpit, Rhys-Davies savors the phrases like verbal delicacies.

Phrases like “Let there be light,” “You are the salt of the Earth,” “Honor thy father and thy mother,” “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

At the companion website, kjv400celebration.com, Thomas Nelson Publishers says that English speakers use 1,000 such phrases in everyday speech. The publisher also notes also that the KJV has more than a billion — yes, with a “b” — copies in print.

Only in its last moments does KJB mention some of the scandals that plagued James’ last years. Perhaps it’s just as well. Those storms have faded, but the Bible he commissioned still stands.

Yes, much of the language is outdated. It’s long been the fashion to make fun of the “thees” and “thous,” to nod off at the lists of “begats.” But for its majestic prose, its compelling poetry, and accuracy that was unsurpassed for centuries, the King James Version stands out as a true treasure of western Christian heritage.

Written by Jim Davis

July 2, 2011 at 3:30 am

DVD review: ‘Jerusalem: Center of the World’

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More blood and tears must have been shed over Jerusalem than any other city in history. Rather ironic for a city whose name means “City of Peace.” But perhaps not for the literal touchstone of three enormously influential religions.

Its history is beautifully retold in Jerusalem: Center of the World, which premiered on PBS on April 1 and was released as a DVD shortly thereafter. Handsomely shot and diplomatically written, it is a rarity among documentaries — a film on the Holy Land that’s well done, but doesn’t graft someone’s pet theory onto the topic.

The two-hour show traces the historical reasons — still visible today in the holy sites — why those few acres have grabbed and held our attention for four millennia.

With the sure, steady hand of PBS newsman Ray Suarez, Jerusalem: Center of the World plays it straight with biblical history. It tells of Abraham’s call to move to the land, and how God tested his loyalty by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It tells of the magnificent Temple built on the spot centuries later by his descendant Solomon. And it tells the grief over losing the land when the Romans scattered the Jews.

The documentary continues with the story of Christianity, and Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. It shows the Via Dolorosa, the winding street said to mark the 14 events between his arrest and his burial. It also ventures into the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

But it moves on to tell of the importance of the city to Muslims as the “Farthest Mosque,” or al-Masjid al-Aqsa, mentioned in the Quran. There’s an awe-inspiring walk through the Dome of the Rock, the golden-domed shrine that dominates nearly every photo of Jerusalem.

Not that the special swallows all the legends whole. It acknowledges that non-biblical evidence is scant for people like David, and for events like Muhammad’s nighttime visit to Jerusalem. But it doesn’t air historical gossip or shifting archaeological fads.

Jerusalem: Center of the World tells how the Romans put down a Jewish revolt, then destroyed and rebuilt Jerusalem after 70 A.D. The film also covers — perhaps a bit too lightly — its rebuilding as a Roman city, then a Byzantine pilgrimage site, then the Ottoman period, heading into the 20th century.

The documentary producer, Two Cats Productions, clearly found a soulmate in the Muslim family entrusted with the key to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The head of the family is given considerable camera time explaining the complexities of caring for such a sensitive holy place.

Jerusalem: Center of the World also skirts controversy in saying that scholars agree the Temple once stood on Mount Moriah, but all evidence for the structure is gone. Left unmentioned are the arguments of Asher Kaufman and others that the Waqf, the Arab authority governing the mountain, has purposefully destroyed such evidence.

But it seems to lean toward the Muslim side in dealing with the Crusades. It relates the the brutality of the First Crusade, but stays silent on the destruction of all churches and synagogues in Jerusalem by the Muslim ruler Hakim a century earlier.

Still, Jerusalem: Center of the World is a welcome tone of moderation about a city so given to extremes. When PBS makes the DVD available, it will likely get bought up by a lot of libraries — and by families who want more light than heat.

Written by Jim Davis

April 1, 2009 at 4:07 am

Film review: ‘One Day You’ll Understand’

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What if you thought your father might be a Nazi? How deep into public records would you dig? How far would you push your mother to divulge the facts?

Those questions plague Victor, a usually calm businessman at the center of One Day You’ll Understand. In Paris in 1987, he listens with growing tension to media reports of the trial of Klaus Barbie, an accused Gestapo police chief in Nazi-era France.

Why is he anxious? Because his mother, Rivka, is a Jew, and his father may have been a collaborator with the Vichy government, a French version of the Third Reich. (Pictured: Hyppolyte Girardot as Victor and Jeanne Moreau as Rivka. Photo Courtesy of Kino International. )

How else to explain the father’s SS dagger? Why else did he sign a document certifying Victor’s sister as an “Aryan”? Why Rivka’s silence about her parents, who died at Auschwitz? Was the father another Klaus Barbie?

Victor learns of a small village hotel where his grandparents hid out, and he drives there for answers. There he finds the room where they lived — and he has a mysterious vision of that night when the Nazis finally found them.

The film is very un-American; it’s low-key and talky — in French, yet, with English subtitles. The film is short on the sex and blood and exploding helicopters that U.S. directors seem to consider vital ingredients. Yet One Day You’ll Understand has its own neck-snapping suspense. The more Rivka deflects, the more you want to scream: “DAMMIT, JUST TELL HIM! GET IT OUT IN THE OPEN!”

But of course, she can’t. Not after locking up secrets for four decades. And the film title comes true. When Victor finally grasps what she went through — and what knowledge she protected him from — he does understand.

The film troubles the conscience on several levels. One is the conflict of needs in a family: the need for truth versus the simple need to go on living, whatever the past may hold. Another is personal responsibility: How would we face a massive, genocidal force like Nazism? Would we flee? Join some guerrilla group? Lie to save our families? Or, as many did, collaborate?

Why do people act as they do? Or speak as they do? Or, sometimes, keep silent? We can only hope one day to understand.

Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2009 at 4:31 am

A Noble Sanctuary for Muslims

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Explore the 35-acre quad in Jerusalem known to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary via this attractive, fact-filled site. From the Dome of the Rock to Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Islamic Museum, you’ll gain a glimpse of why this is considered the third-holiest site in the Islamic world.

You’ll get a little history, starting with Muhammad’s legendary ascension to heaven from the mountain. You’ll see some closeups of the stunning Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome and its blue-and-white calligraphic tiles added by Suleiman the Magnificent. You’ll learn how informal centers of discussion at Al-Aqsa Mosque gradually grew into the four main schools of religious thought.

You’ll also see the vaulted underground prayer room sometimes called Solomon’s Stables. This is the structure that drew much controversy a decade ago, when it was being excavated by the Waqf, the Muslim trust that administers the area. Some Israeli observers said the Muslims were dumping truckloads of valuable archaeological materials. As this site says, Muslims counter that it was actually built during an eighth-century caliphate.

The writing is fairly lucid and direct, with only a few of those pious expressions like “peace be upon him.” Surprisingly, the site acknowledges that many people believe the mountain was the site of Solomon’s Temple. Some Muslim leaders deny that a temple ever stood there, loathe to concede any Jewish claim on the land.

One quibble: The siderail with the crosslinks is blue text on a field of green, making it hard to read. Green is supposed to have been Muhammad’s favorite color. But I suspect that unlike the designers of this site, he would have opted for function over form.

The Noble Sanctuary is a fairly complex Web site, and not all the sections are linked from the homepage. Fortunately, there’s a Contents page, which works as a site map for the 21 main sections.

Written by Jim Davis

March 12, 2009 at 4:10 am

Christian yoga: Too much of a stretch?

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Yoga: Hindu implant or useful import? Christians don’t agree on the answer. But there is a coterie of believers who try to merge the two, and their case in Christians Practicing Yoga is about as good as it gets.

“Christians connect instinctively with an embodied spiritual practice that inclines toward deeper prayer,” the homepage says. “It is embedded in our spiritual DNA to go to God the way God came to us — in and through the body.”

The site offers a variety of approaches. There’s the ancient devotional method called Lectio Divina. Contributor Lori Smith suggests chanting, a practice it shares with Christianity — and with Sufism and native American religions.

Writer Bernadette Latin goes into satisfying, lucid detail about yogic values, such as Brahmacharya (moderation) and Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion to God). She draws some parallels between eastern and western beliefs, likening, for instance, the Sanskrit prana (life energy) to the Hebrew ruach (spirit).

Many Bible verses are offered, including Acts 17:28: “In Him we live and move and have our being.” There’s even a mini-directory of schools for face time with practitioners.

Much of the site is rather defensive. Latin, who seems to be the main ideologue, argues that yoga is a mere discipline that has been used by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, and can be adapted to Christianity as well.

Father Tom Ryan, another site maven, supplies a helpful FAQ file for questions about mantras, Kundalini, and invoking Hindu deities. He even takes the offensive, saying that “incarnational faith” must include actions — not just yoga but benevolence, human rights and social justice.

Written by Jim Davis

March 8, 2009 at 5:39 am

And the bleat goes on

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Sheeple, Churchianity, herd mentality — churchgoing Christians often get accused of being meek, bland and mindless. But instead of rebuking or repeating the snark, Sheep Comics turns it into satire.

The strip starts with Lionel, a youngish sheep who feels disaffected when his church doesn’t match what he reads in the Bible. When the pastor rebukes Lionel for questioning him — and even threatens to excommunicate him — Lionel concludes the church is designed to control access to the Great Shepherd.

Sheep Comics has gone on for 87 episodes like that, ever since it premiered in 1999. Various episodes skewer tithing, guilt, coercion, prayer meetings, denominational rivalries, theological quarrels, trite praise and worship music, “responsive bleatings,” even Thomas Kinkade’s “inspirational” paintings.

It’s a clever, subversive idea to take a common criticism of Christians and make it the theme of a comic strip. But the site’s unnamed Web Shepherd often blunts the effect with long “editorials” after the cartoons — 4,788 words in the very first installment. How ironic that some of his strips rant against boring sermons.

Still, so little cartoon satire is even attempted in religious circles, it’s worth your time to look through Sheep Comics. After all, to err is human; to forgive is ovine. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Written by Jim Davis

March 6, 2009 at 3:44 am

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