Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can’t even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille’s really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety.
Catherine Hardwicke got hired to direct this latest in a long line of Biblio-pics — probably juiced up to green-light status in the immediate aftermath of Mel Gibson’s lucrative Passion play — based, no doubt, upon her résumé. It stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that the director of Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown might be able to bring a new perspective to the story of Mary, mother of Jesus — the ultimate troubled teen. But, beyond one mild, short-lived objection to her arranged marriage to Joseph, there’s not much here that could be construed as revisionism.
Or, Buried Alive on the Fourth of July
If you’re buried alive under a pile of smoldering rubble in an Oliver Stone movie, it seems your salvation may come from one of two places. First, there’s Jesus. If he shows up, he may offer to deliver you from suffering, but it will likely mean punching your ticket. Hang on, buddy, because your second saviour is the U.S. Marines. And if the Marines show up, boy howdy are you in good hands. That’s the non-ironic gist of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, a conservative yarn of life in these times rife with sentiment and earnestness. I’ll go so far as to say the bit with the Marines is a well-timed moment of catharsis in a movie that needs it. It made me smile and laugh out loud in spite of myself. Sometimes, hokum works pretty beautifully. The film’s opening is just lovely — a sober collection of shots of New York City, skyline still intact, coming to life in the morning. It reminded me a little of the majestic opening montage of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, set to “Rhapsody in Blue,” but this version is laced unavoidably with overwhelming sadness.