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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Five Best Plus: God and the Devil in the Movies

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I couldn't decide what to write my 100th "Five Best (Plus)" article about. I discussed it with my brother - at first I wanted to do a list about movies that are about lists. That proved to be too difficult. Then, he suggested I do a callback to my favorites of the previous offerings. I wasn't too keen on the idea. Then, low and behold, I turn to Facebook and get a pretty good suggestion from a friend: the best portrayals of God and Satan in films. I'm surprised at how few movies actually have God or the devil literally in them, as opposed to an ethereal presence of them or a representation. But, these are all actual characters in the films. They may be major or minor, but they're in there. So, here we go.


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Graham Chapman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The troupe from Monty Python has created a bevy of memorable sketches, characters, and films, but their cardboard cutout style animation of the Lord and Creator is one of the best, thanks to the sarcastic, easily annoyed voice of Graham Chapman. When King Arthur and his knights go searching for the holy grail, they run into arrogant French guardsman, a murderous rabbit, and a black knight who won't give up. They turn to God, only to find that he is frustrated with always being prayed to and asked for forgiveness. And don't even get him started on those psalms...they're "so depressing." A fun look at God that only adds to this hilarious comedy classic.

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George Burns in Oh God! (1977)

The great Carl Reiner directed this little comic gem about God (George Burns) appearing to a grocery store clerk (John Denver...yes, that John Denver) and makes him his messenger to the world. Oscar Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, this strange little story about appreciating the gifts we have on this planet features some solid performances from Denver, Teri Garr, and, of course, Burns, whose God is a fatherlyold man who feels like everybody's grandpa. But, maybe that's the way Reiner, author Avery Coleman, and screenwriter Larry Gelbart wanted him to be. Either way, it works and brought about two sequels.

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Ralph Richardson in Time Bandits (1981)

It just occurred to me that Terry Gilliam directed three of the films on this post ( I wrote this post backwards.) Weird. Anyway, Time Bandits centers around a young boy who hops a boat of dwarfs as they sail through time and steal various artifacts. He technically is never called "God," but Ralph Richardson represents him as the "Supreme Being," chasing these dwarfs as they defy his commands. He is opposed by the "Evil Genius" (David Warner), who represents the devil. In this strange film that features a number of the Monty Python troupe, God appears as an elderly gentleman (or a floating, brightly lit head similar to The Wizard of Oz) trying to gather order in the world he created. A weird movie that I remember liking quite a bit as a child, Time Bandits is off the beaten path just enough to make sense in the Terry Gilliam-Monty Python universe, where God where's a three piece suit.

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Alanis Morissette/Alan Rickman in Dogma (1999)

I had to include both of them - after all, Metatron (Rickman) is the voice of God. Kevin Smith's raucous tale of two renegade angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) who, after being sentenced to an eternity in Wisconsin, decide to get back into heaven by invading a New Jersey church on a day of "unquestionable forgiveness of sins," is part theology study, part buddy comedy. Since God is incapacitated for the duration of the film, they make the trip, only to be met by an abortion clinic employee (Linda Florentino), a fallen apostle (Chris Rock), a muse (Salma Hayek), and two stoners (Smith and Jason Mewes). God takes on the form of Alanis Morissette, whose voice would destroy any human; therefore, Rickman has to be her voice (and a wonderful voice he is). A fun film with Catholic mythology gushing everywhere, it's quite the borderline sacrilegious ride.

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Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty (2003)

I didn't have a choice, as much as it pained me to include this film. Whether or not you think God looks like Morgan Freeman, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he sounds a lot like him. Well, in Bruce Almighty, Freeman is him, responding to an angry rant from a TV reporter from Buffalo (Jim Carrey). He bestows his powers upon Carrey, granting him the chance to prove that he can use them much more successfully. Other than Freeman's presence, I was never a huge fan of the film (mostly because Carrey grates on my nerves after a while). But, there are few actors who could play God with such grace, wit, and presence.


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Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate (1997)

I tried to find every possible avenue I could to not include this performance because I just don't like this film. But, in all my research, I had to finally give in to the fact that Al Pacino as the devil has always kind of made sense, at least from the superficial standpoint. The film stars Keanu Reeves as a successful lawyer who finds out that his boss is - you guessed it - Lucifer, played relentlessly by Al Pacino. It's an insanely wild version of the devil - buggy eyes and all. Based on the book by Andrew Neidermann and directed by Taylor Hackford, The Devil's Advocate isn't a bad movie, exactly - I just lose patience with high octane Pacino and this one turns it up to the hottest it can get.

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Trey Parker in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut  (1999)

And for a very different version of the devil, we turn to the kids from Colorado. Matt Stone and Trey Parker's iconic television show South Park took on movie theaters in 1999 and, with it, unleashed an overly effeminate, homosexual version of the devil that has succumb to temptation in an on again, off again relationship with recently deceased Saddam Hussein. Voiced by Parker, Satan's underworld is a little different than the Hell we've all heard about, though there are still a number of demons and quite a bit of pain. But, in Stone and Parker's Hell, Satan is just another emotionally abused member of a toxic relationship, trying to get by one day at a time with the added weight of ruling over the eternally damned.

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Rosalinda Celetano in Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson's epic about the final hours of Jesus was one of the most controversial films of the past 50 years and, among all the accusations of antisemitism and the brutally unflinching violence, stood one of the creepiest  portrayals of Satan ever conceived. Essentially wordless and standing from a distance, Rosalinda Celetano's androgynous take on the Prince of Darkness as he watches over the horrifying proceedings holds a control over the film that not even the director could. Celetano's piercing gaze fills the screen in all her appearances, creating a sinister undertone that adds more gruesome weight to the story than even the source material could provide.

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Peter Stormare in Constantine (2005)

Keanu Reeves in another film that includes the devil. I'm seeing a pattern. Reeves stars as John Constantine, a supernatural detective who spends his days on Earth sending demons to Hell. As a child, he committed suicide, only to find his way back into the world of the living, now hoping his acts of goodness can earn him a spot in Heaven. When he is a approached by a detective (Rachel Weisz) to help her solve the case about her twin sister's supposed suicide, he finds himself battling more than mythical demons, eventually coming face to face with Lucifer himself, in the form of Peter Stormare. Stormare plays Satan as a confident creep; he comes off as how you would assume a manipulative pedophile would, justifying his actions through passion and charm. You don't usually see the devil in white, but this is no typical devil.

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Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Terry Gilliam's wildly imaginative and wholly confusing film wasn't just the final screen appearance of Heath Ledger. It also served as what may be the most enjoyable depiction of the devil on screen, thanks to Tom Waits. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) tells the story of his life, spent living for over 1,000 years. But, when he falls in love with a mortal woman, he trades his immortality in for youth, promising the devil his offspring when she reaches her 16th birthday. With the time approaching, Parnassus must navigate his "imaginarium" as he tries to save his daughter from ending up in the clutches of the devil (or, as the film depicts him, "Mr. Nick"). While the film is better known for Ledger's untimely death and the three actors selflessly stepping in to fill the void (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), Waits' performance makes for one of the most likable Satans ever on screen - a fun, scheming gambler who oozes a carefree attitude.

Well, now that we've been to Heaven to Hell and back, let's relax and enjoy the rest of eternity.

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