Tag Archives: C



There have been plenty of mediocre historical films made about Catholic history, so it’s appropriate that occasionally one should appear on some Protestant subject, and this biographical film on the initiator of Reformation thought certainly fills the bill. The locations, sets and costumes are authentic in “Luther,” but little else in the picture rings true. Perhaps that’s the result of the fact that it was made with denominational support–which might explain why it simplifies Luther’s intellectual development, air-brushes away some of his less savory positions, and invents characters and events that take things in a strongly melodramatic direction and portray them as sympathetically as possible. “Luther” is a sincere, well-meaning movie, but it’s stilted and ponderous, all too representative of the worst failings of simplistic docudrama. The picture also has a serious problem at its center, in the performance of Joseph Fiennes in the title role. Fiennes is a talented fellow, but his stiff, undemonstrative manner seems wrong for Luther, who was a passionate, virile man, not the brooding mope he often seems here. Paul Scofield’s Thomas More, as reserved as he was in “A Man for All Seasons,” had an inner power that this Luther lacks. And his paleness infects the entire movie.

The film begins with Luther’s famous thunderstorm vow to enter a monastery, and quickly cuts to his wavering celebration of a first mass. His monkish scrupulousness is then briefly sketched, ending with his assignment to a theological chair at the University of Wittenberg. So far, so good: the treatment up to this point is sketchy, but fairly accurate and unvarnished. Unfortunately, things change for the worse just as the conflict between Luther and the church authorities comes to center stage. No real development is portrayed in Luther’s thought; instead he’s presented as an immediate firebrand who, revolted by the indulgence preaching of the Dominican Tetzel (who, as played by Alfred Molina, is no more than a caricature), posts his famous 95 Theses. There’s no indication here of the real purpose of the theses–to engender debate–or of their respectful attitude toward the papacy, nor is the gradual radicalization of Luther’s thought in the Leipzig Debate of 1518 ever mentioned (it might have been depicted quite dramatically). Instead we are hurried through a series of machinations at Rome (with Uwe Ochsenknecht as a Machiavellian Leo X, Mathieu Carriere as a dignified but overmatched Cardinal Cajetan, and Jonathan Firth as the ambitious, rigid papal legate Aleander) and an awkward setting of Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech at Worms in 1521 (featuring a totally unconvincing Torben Liebrecht as Emperor Charles V); the sole saving grace in all this is the canny comic turn by Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince Frederick of Saxony, Luther’s protector. Ustinov does what amounts more to a vaudeville sketch than a performance, puttering about with feigned absent-mindedness, but he retains all his old timing and easily upstages even the sets. (Of course, the actual Frederick was only in his late fifties when the events transpired, not Ustinov’s 82 years, but who’s counting?) But meanwhile the narrative gets mangled almost beyond recognition. The Peasants’ Revolt breaks out, but as depicted here it seems a minor, localized event inspired by one of Luther’s old academic colleagues, Karlstadt (Jochen Horst), who’s suddenly transformed (contrary to the evidence) into an activist for radical social change; and Luther’s own vitriolic rhetoric against the peasants is suppressed in favor of an attitude that’s at best ambiguous and at worst falsely supportive. It’s here, too, that one of the script’s most shameless inventions reaches its conclusion–the character of a mute crippled girl, who appears periodically to demonstrate Luther’s sensitivity to the plight of the poor. Finally the tale ends with Luther’s marriage to Katerina von Bora (Claire Cox)–a relationship that’s portrayed without the slightest touch of real feeling–and his presentation of the German translation of the Bible to Prince Frederick–the occasion for some quite shameless dithering by Ustinov, who milks the scene for all it’s worth while poor Fiennes is forced to look on in a mixture of admiration and embarrassment. The latter years of Luther’s life are handled in a brief summing-up.

Throughout there’s more than a hint of oversimplification–as well as an obvious desire to portray the subject as sympathetically as possible–in this “Luther.” None of the other characters are written in anything but the sketchiest way, and among the supporting cast only Ustinov has the presence to make much of his. This puts the entire burden of carrying the picture on Fiennes’s slender shoulders, and though he works very hard, ultimately he seems miscast and overparted. Among the lesser figures Bruno Ganz probably does best as Luther’s supportive monastic superior, von Spaupitz, but he disappears fairly early on. Of course one can let one’s eye wander from the actors to the landscapes, castles and splendidly-appointed interiors for respite; but with all due respect to production designer Rolf Zehetbauer and his able team of art directors, set decorators and costumers, and to cinematographer Robert Fraisse, that will work only for a while.

Ultimately “Luther” is undone by its textbookish approach and its unsatisfactory lead performance. A more interesting take on the subject remains John Osborne’s play of the same title, which was filmed in 1973 as part of the American Film Theatre project. It’s a highly individual psychological interpretation of the reformer’s character and motives, but at least it attempts to delve beneath the surface, which is about all this film has to offer.


Grade: C

All that it takes for a slender one-woman stage show to morph into an alternately raucous and sappy ethnic sitcom, it appears, is a little help from the writer-star’s friends. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” began as a loosely autobiographical stand-up routine given by Second City performer Nia Vardalos, and she’s now expanded it into a cinematic vehicle for herself, with no fewer than ten producers of various degrees (including Tom Hanks) listed in the credits. As directed by TV veteran Joel Zwick, the result is a sometimes brash, often saccharine and entirely predictable bit of hokum, but the mixture of slapstick and sentiment will appeal to those who find series like “Everybody Loves Raymond” a laugh riot–though they might regret paying theatre prices for the sort of thing they regularly get for free at home.

Toula (Vardalos) is a young Chicago woman who feels stifled by her big, brawling, impossibly colorful family, headed by cantankerous dad Gus (Michael Constantine) and sympathetic mom Maria (Lainie Kazan). Toula is a plain jane employed at her parents’ restaurant, where she toils in Cinderella-like obscurity until Ian (John Campbell), a handsome customer and prospective Prince Charming, gets her attention. (Her immediate infatuation with the guy, unfortunately, is so overdrawn that it makes her look rather like a sap.) Determined to snag him, she transforms herself in terms of both appearance and personality, and after a clumsily cute meeting they’re soon engaged. The fact that Ian isn’t of Greek heritage, however, upsets the family; and even after they grudgingly accept him, their insistence on throwing a traditional wedding ceremony for the couple leads to all sorts of supposedly hysterical results.

This story will undoubtedly strike a chord with members of many families who have gone through the vicissitudes of courtships and nuptial planning, and that’s a very large audience. Greek-American viewers, in particular, might find it a hoot (though some will probably object to the stereotypes that abound–the aunt played by Andrea Martin is probably the worst offender, though in this company it’s hard to say). What’s clear is that Vardalos and her cohorts will brook no hint of subtlety in telling their tale. Her script leaves nothing to the imagination: every gag is not only spelled out but italicized and underlined to boot, and the obviousness is further accentuated by the director’s heavy-handed approach. From the over-the-top performances he secures (the dyspeptic Constantine comes across like an aged Zorba the Father–his restaurant is even called Zorba’s–and the bulldozing Kazan is like a female force of nature), Zwick seems not to know the meaning of restraint; it’s difficult to believe that he ever advised any of his cast to tone things down even a trifle. Vardalos herself, while not quite so overdrawn as Martin, Constantine or Kazan, plays to the balcony, too; and as a result she’s far less likable than the narrative clearly wants her to be, and hard to take to one’s heart. Corbett, on the other hand, provides a welcome dose of nonchalance to the proceedings; he makes Ian a pleasantly bemused presence among the vociferously gregarious members of the Portakalos clan (even if Ian’s utter willingness to submit to every demand Toula’s relatives make upon him is inexplicable even in a this context). Bruce Gray and Fiona Reid get in a few good moments as the young fellow’s properly bewildered, uptight parents. From a technical point of view the picture is rudimentary as can be, and despite some sloppily inserted footage of elevated trains whizzing around the Loop, the Toronto locations bear very little resemblance to the Windy City, where the action’s supposed to be set. (Couldn’t at least the skyline shots be of Chicago?)

One’s reaction to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is likely to depend on whether you’re willing to adopt Ian’s extraordinarily tolerant attitude, because this “Wedding” is as hard to endure as most real nuptial ceremonies are (especially when one takes the inevitably noisy, headache-inducing reception into account). If the actual thing is your cup of tea, Vardalos’ movie will probably be so, too. Otherwise, you’d be wise to send your regrets.