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HTF DVD Review: RELIGULOUS



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#1 of 6 Michael Reuben

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Posted March 02 2009 - 09:51 AM

Note: This review has been written to conform with HTF Rule 4. All posts in this thread
should similarly conform to the Rule. Technical questions or questions about features are
welcome from anyone. Discussion of the film's content requires that you have seen it (see
Rule 4).


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Religulous



Studio: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Film Length: 101 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 5.1; English DD 2.0
Subtitles: English; Spanish
MSRP: $29.95
Package: Keepcase (w/slipcover)
Insert: None
Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 1, 2008
DVD Release Date: Feb. 17, 2009


Introduction:


Comedian Bill Maher has made a career out of tackling sensitive subjects, and occasionally he
gets burned. A famous example is ABC's cancellation of his show Politically Incorrect after
Maher made comments about 9/11 that some viewers found offensive. (Over seven years later,
the issue still rankles, as I learned during a family dinner when I happened to mention that I was
reviewing this disc.) Since early 2003, Maher's show Real Time has been a fixture on HBO,
where controversy is not only tolerated but used as a selling point.

Religion has always been a favorite Maher target, as it was for his idol, the late George Carlin.
With the documentary Religulous, directed by Larry Charles (who did Borat), Maher set out to
explore a theme that has recurred throughout his comic monologues: namely, that religion is a
man-made delusion. The result was relatively good box office for a documentary ($13 million
domestic box office on a budget of $2.5 million), a lot of laughs, and even more angry people. In
short, a success all around.



The Feature:

The film opens with Maher standing in Megiddo, Israel, the place where, according to the Book
of Revelations, the Rapture will begin. In one of the film's few bits of straight standup, Maher
notes that, when Revelations was written, only God had the power to end the world. Now man
does too. Says Maher: "If it's one thing I hate more than prophecy, it's self-fulfilling prophecy."

Maher grounds the rest of the film in his own autobiography. The son of a Jewish mother and a
Catholic father, he was raised as a Catholic until age 13, when the family stopped going to
church. In an amusing and poignant family reunion, Maher sits with his mother and sister at the
Catholic church he attended and talks about the family history. (The film returns to this scene
periodically.) Though elderly, Mrs. Maher has obviously lost none of the intelligence or the
frankness she passed on to her son. Asked why the family stopped attending church, she responds
without hesitation that it was because she and her husband started using birth control. And asked
why, as a Jew, she didn't mind that her son was being raised as a Catholic, she gives a practical
answer: "Even they only told you good things, I thought."

For the rest of the film, Maher travels across America, Europe and the Middle East interviewing
whoever will talk to him about religion. Not everyone will. At a truck stop chapel, one menacing-
looking trucker storms out as soon as he realizes there's a skeptic among them; the rest, to their
credit, stay to engage in a dialogue. The ensuing scene is fascinating to watch, as the smart-ass
entertainer and the group of working stiffs try, with no apparent common ground, each to
convince the other. Neither side budges, but they still manage to part without any hint of rancor.
As Maher says in one of his on-the-road exchanges with an off-camera Larry Charles that
separate the various interviews, "You see so many nice people trying to make it about something
good."

Dialogue is Maher's goal, although no one would claim that the dialogue in Religulous is "fair
and balanced". How could it be when Maher and Charles have final cut? In search of a laugh or a
point (preferably both), they overlay an interview with subtitled commentary, intercut it with
clips from other sources, or add ironic underscoring. Still, Maher has been doing panel
discussions long enough to know that the best moments require the least adornment. What could
one possibly add to the statement by Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas (a Democrat, by the way),
who, when pressed by Maher on why he refuses to accept the theory of evolution declares: "You
don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate"! The stricken look on Pryor's face as he realizes
what he's just said on camera is more eloquent than anything a film editor could devise.

Maher comes prepared. He's particularly good when rattling off various historical and/or
legendary figures from other cultures whose biographical details show a remarkable degree of
overlap with those of Jesus. The inference, of course, is that the Gospels are just another iteration
of a popular mythology, a point that Maher reinforces by noting the many discrepancies among
the four separate accounts (something he is not the first to notice). As prepared and articulate as
he is, though, Maher can still be brought up short by an equally articulate adversary. One such
debater is the actor playing Jesus in a daily live reenactment of the Passion at The Holy Land
Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida. Pressed by Maher on how God can exist as father,
son and holy ghost, the actor draws an analogy to water existing as ice, liquid and steam - and
Maher is momentarily stopped dead in his tracks. He's honest enough to leave the moment in the
film.

Maher isn't above the occasional stunt, such as disguising himself as a homeless lunatic so that
he can go to Speakers' Corner at London's Hyde Park and proclaim the tenets of Scientology. (I
swear, for a moment I thought I'd clicked into Monty Python's Life of Brian!) But the interviews
dominate the film, and it's the cumulative effect of so many sincere people, each one intensely
convinced of whatever particular strain of faith they happen to hold - all of which cannot be true
- on which Maher is relying to make his ultimate point about the value of being a skeptic.

According to figures cited in the film, 16% of the American public identifies itself as "non-religious".
That's compared to 1.3% as NRA members; 3% as gay; 1.4% as Jewish; and 12.2%
as African-American. Relying on these figures, Maher believes himself to be speaking for a large
but significantly underrepresented minority of Americans. Of course, a majority are more likely
to identify with the trucker who stormed out near the beginning of the film.

That's unfortunate, because there's another layer to Maher and to Religulous that's easy to miss
under the verbal wit and snarky persona. Maher can't help but respect people who live by their
principles, even if the source of those principles is something that Maher distrusts. You can hear
it, for example, when he says goodbye to the truckers at their chapel and thanks them "for being
Christ-like and not just Christian". It comes out in the commentary track when he relates how the
local archdiocese complained, when the film was released, that the film crew shouldn't have
been allowed to shoot the scenes with Maher's family in one of their churches; with obvious
admiration Maher reports how the local priest stood up to his superiors, saying that this was the
family's church where Maher was confirmed, and where else should they meet to discuss these
important family matters?

And finally, it is there in Maher's dedication of the film to his mother, who cared less about
which religion he learned than that he be taught "good things". Most viewers in the theater
missed that dedication, because it does not appear until after the credits, during a brief final scene
with the family. If you watch the film on DVD, be sure to fast forward to it. It's poignant, and it
may change your sense of the film.


Video:

Lionsgate has provided a solid transfer with good detail, minimal video noise and solid colors.
Religulous is not a visually exceptional or demanding film. It was shot guerilla-style with HD
cameras, with minimal time for setup and lighting. In at least one instance, a scene in the film (a
conversation with a group of tourists) happened spontaneously while Maher and the crew were
waiting to interview someone else, and director Charles just had them turn on the cameras. In
numerous other scenes, the crew were grabbing shots before being chased away (one such scene,
in Salt Lake City, is included in the finished film). Given the circumstances, the quality of the
image is remarkably good, and the DVD reproduces it well.


Audio:

I listened to the DD 5.1 track. It's a dialogue-heavy film with most of the activity in the center
channel, where fidelity and clarity are excellent. The film does include a wonderful selection of
songs, often used to ironic effect, and these are routed to the front main speakers with some
support from the surrounds. It's a pleasing track that does what it needs to do.


Special Features:

All video material in the special features is enhanced for 16:9.

Commentary by Bill Maher and Larry Charles. Maher and director Charles contribute a
chatty commentary that is only occasionally informative. They are obviously friends, which
creates a good atmosphere, but it also leads to too much personal banter. A patient listener can
glean various tidbits about the production, but I would have liked to have more about the editing
process, as this film was clearly built in the editing room. Some of the best stories relate to the
music rights: who wouldn't give them (Stevie Wonder refused to license "Superstition") and who
would (Pete Townsend initially said no on "The Seeker" and then almost instantly changed his
mind).

Monologues from Around the World (18:51). These are standard-issue Maher riffs, much like
you'd hear on his HBO show or in his live act. They just happen to be shot on location in various
places where Religulous was filmed. Very little material of this nature appears in the final film.
Obviously, at some point someone intended to use these monologues to punctuate the film, and
at another point the idea was abandoned. I would have liked more explanation.

Deleted scenes (21:16). A series of additional interviews and encounters, some of which are
quite entertaining and could easily have appeared in the finished film. Again, no explanation is
included for their omission, which is unfortunate.

Trailers. The film is preceded by trailers for The U.S. vs. John Lennon, W., The Lucky Ones,
Mad Men Season One, My Best Friend's Girl
and Everyone Wants to Be Italian. The trailers can
be bypassed with the menu button.


Final Thoughts:

Like George Carlin, Maher treads the line between humor and offense, but he does it in a way
that's uniquely his own. And like Carlin, he gets some people laughing and some people furious,
and if that weren't the case, he'd be doing it wrong.



Equipment used for this review:

Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Lexicon MC-8
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub
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#2 of 6 Michael Elliott

Michael Elliott

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Posted March 02 2009 - 12:26 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Michael Reuben

The stricken look on Pryor's face as he realizes
what he's just said on camera is more eloquent than anything a film editor could devise.

This scene reminded me of the one in FROST/NIXON when Nixon gives that "if the President...." line.

Quote:
That's unfortunate, because there's another layer to Maher and to Religulous that's easy to miss
under the verbal wit and snarky persona. Maher can't help but respect people who live by their
principles, even if the source of those principles is something that Maher distrusts. You can hear
it, for example, when he says goodbye to the truckers at their chapel


Your review greatly hit on something that others haven't and that's the fact that Maher is respectful 99% of the time. I'd even say he's somewhat balanced because there's another sequence where he states that he understands why people need someone to "go to" whenever times are hard just so that they can have peace. Many have stated the film attacks religion but I think Maher is way too smart to just make this an attack film. Yes, he has fun with the interviews but it struck me that he actually is interested in why others believe what they do. In the end I really didn't think the film was any more offensive as even something like INHERIT THE WIND.

#3 of 6 Ronald Epstein

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Posted March 03 2009 - 01:53 AM

Michael Elliott,

Excellent post.

I thoroughly enjoyed Religilous mainly because I am a fan
of Bill Maher and familiar with his opinions on religion.

That being said, I think he did take a very balanced look at religion
from all sides.

There is nothing offensive about this documentary.

Ronald J Epstein
Home Theater Forum co-owner

 

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#4 of 6 Michael Reuben

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Posted March 03 2009 - 02:44 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ronald Epstein
There is nothing offensive about this documentary.
I could link you to some reviews that say otherwise, Ron. Posted Image

As with so many things, a lot depends on the viewer.
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#5 of 6 Oswald Pascual

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Posted March 03 2009 - 04:53 PM

I also enjoyed this documentary. Bill Maher did a stand up job on his end, but I thought it was a bit unblanced. Most of the religous fanatics he interviewed were not very smart people. It was almost like some of the shows on television when they ask people on the street questions and they look like total idiots. I wish he would of interviewed more knowledgable folks on these subjects, someone that could of gone more toe to toe with Maher.

It' might not have been as entertaining but maybe more worthy of the word documentary, on the other hand maybe none of those religous scholars would give Maher the time of day. Bill went in with his opinion made and kept the questions narrow to make his point. It was interesting to hear at how many different fairy tales are told around the world and each one of them thinks there fairy tale is the correct one.

I have read those links of the people that found this documentary offensive, but I was surprised more people seemed to be offended by James Cameron's Tomb Of Jesus then Religulous.

#6 of 6 Ed Moroughan

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Posted March 05 2009 - 08:08 AM

The "texting" the cleric did was hilarious, and then the angry Muslim guy saying Bill isn't funny...I'd like to know if that IS what he was saying. The Vatican priest Bill chatted with was one of the best talkers in the film. That is the kind of guy I'd like to have a discussion with about these topics.





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