THE 88TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS: Analysis & Full List of Winners


Surprises were expected at this year’s Oscars. The Academy did not disappoint.

Billed as the most unpredictable race in memory, there were upsets aplenty at the 88th Annual Academy Awards – which honored the best of film from 2015 – capped off by the gasp-inducing blindside of Spotlight winning Best Picture.

How did that even happen? Here’s the most logical theory. Spotlight was considered the least-likely of the top three contenders, with bets being placed primarily on nomination-leader The Revenant and, right behind it, intelligentsia favorite The Big Short. Here’s where the Academy’s “preferential ballot” comes into play. Because of passionate followings, The Revenant and The Big Short likely had the most #1 votes throughout the Academy. But since these two front-runners were also a bit polarizing, haters of each film likely had them at the bottom of their lists.

Then you have Spotlighta movie that few voters passionately loved or hated but that everyone respected and admired. Or, in numerical terms, it probably had the lion’s share of #2 and #3 votes across Oscar ballots. When you add that to whatever #1’s it received, Spotlight ended up with the best overall average even if it received less #1 votes than the two top favorites (and possibly more). That kind of win generally goes to a mediocre softball of a movie, but thankfully Spotlight is anything but. Far from being Oscar bait pablum, Spotlight is a worthy and uncompromising successor to timeless issue-based journalisitc classics like All The President’s Men and Network.

At the end of it all, Spotlight finished with just 2 Oscars (a minuscule total for a Best Picture winner), The Revenant collected 3, while the night’s biggest haul went to Mad Max: Fury Road; the post-apocalyptic epic captured 6 in a near-sweep of the tech and design categories. On that count, Mad Max: Fury Road will be the Oscar winner from 2015 to ride eternal, shiny and with Oscar gold.

In pulling off the biggest shocker since Crash‘s upset over Brokeback Mountain ten years ago, Spotlight became the Best Picture winner with the fewest Oscars in the modern age. Its grand total of 2 also included a statuette for co-writer/director Tom McCarthy‘s original screenplay. The last time a Best Picture winner finished with just one trophy other than the big one was 63 years ago in 1952 when The Greatest Show On  Earth garnered the Best Story Oscar to go with its top prize.

The fact that we haven’t seen such a paltry total since then just goes to show how improbable – and incredible – Spotlight‘s ultimate victory really was. Not only did it lack tech category wins to fuel a full academy embrace; it didn’t even have those category nominations. Plus, when you compare the box office take of The Revenant ($170 million and counting) with Spotlight ($39 million), it’s clear that more people (and likely more voters) actually saw the epic DiCaprio endurance test (although the Spotlight victory should be a clear indicator that voters are actually watching their screeners, especially of serious contenders). Bottom line: Spotlight defied all metrics and precedents that had been followed for six-plus decades.

We’ll get into the rest of 2015’s upsets in a bit, but first – Chris Rock and #OscarsSoWhite.

Based on the temperature of the watch party I was with, as well as comments from texts and my Facebook feed, I’m going to express what may be a minority opinion, but here it is:

I thought Chris Rock did a fantastic job.

He had the thankless no-win burden of having to be the black man to represent frustrated African-Americans while also representing the Academy who hired him, while also needing to make people laugh with edgy, confrontational humor that still didn’t alienate them. And you know what? He pulled it off. I didn’t think it was possible to thread that needle, but Chris Rock did it.

His material was solid. He was funny, even hilarious. Pointed. An equal opportunity offender and defender. He called out Academy members in some jokes while mocking African-American Oscar boycotters in others, then offering sympathetic jabs for each side of the debate too. Better still, the jokes were actually sharp and witty, even insightful. They always resonated, and were never cheap.

Most important of all: Rock’s whole demeanor and delivery was light-hearted, not mean-spirited.

Think of it this way: imagine the same exact material (re-watch the monologue here) delivered by Ricky Gervais. Now that would’ve been a disaster. He’d have smothered each comment in a sarcastic, condescending, and truly unbearable snarkiness. But Rock had an affable, not belittling, way of communicating the truth. He made deep cuts but never openly loathed his Hollywood targets, which is what Gervais is infamous for. Rock’s bold yet perfectly tempered approach required the Academy to face its #OscarsSoWhite issue without shoving it in their faces or rubbing their noses in it.

The one miscalculation? After tackling the issue head-on throughout the monologue (as he should’ve done), Rock kept going back to the well of #OscarsSoWhite for the entire show. Mind you, his material actually remained pretty smart and hysterical (Tracy Morgan as The Danish Girl!) but it became too much. I mean, even the In Memoriam song was “Blackbird”. I KID!

But seriously, Rock and the telecast went from addressing the elephant in the room to beating a dead horse, which led to some jokes landing like duds (the brief Stacey Dash bit especially). Yet despite that overkill, Rock not only stepped up and delivered in this particularly challenging stint; he was actually one of the better hosts of recent memory – something to be applauded under any circumstance, and especially in this year’s politically charged atmosphere.

If people want to complain about something with this year’s Oscar show, it has to be the music selections: the interstitial transition underscores throughout the show, not the nominees. An odd thing to nitpick, perhaps, but in both song choices and timing, the music ranged from odd to rude. Largely driven by hits from the 80s (why?!), these cuts didn’t merely serve as transitional bumpers but actually underscored many winners’ walks to the stage. In moments that should’ve been meaningful, the music was kitschy when it needed to be classy. Worst of all, the go-to cue to rush winners off the stage when their speeches ran too long was the bombastic classical piece “Ride Of The Valkyries”. It was as if the show’s producers were openly mocking winners during one of the most important moments of their lives.

The choice was particularly disrespectful to Best Director winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu as “Valkyries” bold brass began to drown out his most deeply-felt sentiments. The music was so offensively tactless (ushering off Best Foreign Film Winner Son Of Saul – about the horrors of the Holocaust – to “Valkyries” composer Wagner, a German!) , the only logic to the show’s bizarre set list was that the producers had lost some kind of bet. The one winner they didn’t dare interrupt? Leonardo DiCaprio. Under no circumstances were the producers going to offend Leo, the one powerful untouchable, during his long-time-coming victory speech. He deserved the respect, mind you, but so did everyone else. The lone Leo exception aside, the producers weren’t just mindbogglingly tone deaf; they should actually be ashamed of themselves.

Okay, end of rant. Back to the upsets.

The evening started out predictably enough as the screenplays went to pre-show locks Spotlight for Original and The Big Short for Adapted. Tremors began to shake, however, as the tech awards quickly became a landslide for Mad Max: Fury Road. When none of them were split between nomination leader The Revenant, numbers-minded prognosticators (like myself) began to question if that odds-on favorite had enough momentum left in the tank – particularly when indie sci-fier Ex Machina stole the Best Visual Effects prize from The Revenant Mad Max: Fury Road, *and* Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A win for cinematography finally breathed some life into The Revenant‘s hopes, but it was still on shaky ground as the night’s biggest categories approached – and more upsets with them.

While not a major category, the Original Song competition ended up providing one of the bigger upsets as Sam Smith‘s “Writing’s On The Wall” – possibly the most bland Bond song ever – stole the prize from the impassioned (and personal) power ballad “Til It Happens To You” by Lady Gaga and songwriting legend Diane Warren, about college campus sexual assaults. To top off the embarrassment, Smith boasted in his acceptance speech that he was the first openly gay man to ever win an Academy award. Except that he wasn’t. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was very-out, and vocal, during his 2009 acceptance speech for his winning screenplay to Milk. Elton John and screenwriter Bill Condon would also likely jump to challenge Smith’s short-sighted claim. And like salt in the wound, the Smith win came soon after Gaga performed her song (backed by rape survivors, holding hands in solidarity) and sparked a standing ovation, with tears streaming. It proved to be the night’s emotional peak, only to see its songwriters denied.

The Original Score category provided the other big emotional moment, as 87-year-old legendary composer Ennio Morricone (known primarily for the Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone revolutionary “spaghetti” westerns of the 1960s) won his first Oscar for the score to Quentin Tarantino‘s western throwback The Hateful Eight. Despite needing to communicate through a translator, the overwhelming emotion from Italian native Morricone was not lost. Visibly choking up and struggling to speak, the win was clearly a deeply meaningful recognition for the revered industry icon.

Where the night took its biggest shift – and showed that it may not go entirely to script – was the announcement for Best Supporting Actor. The Academy loves a great narrative to go with their Oscar wins, ones that can culminate in memorable – even timeless – speeches, which is why Sylvester Stallone was considered a virtual lock for his moving reprisal as Rocky Balboa in Creed, 40 years after the original Rocky took Best Picture. But it was not meant to be. Instead, the upset went to the category’s most understated performance: Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies. A very worthy win, to be sure, from one of the premiere (if not famous) actors on the planet. But it undoubtedly took the wind out of the sails for most viewers at home (myself included) who were rooting for Rocky in the hearts. Unbeknownst to most film fans, Stallone is actually not a particularly beloved star in the industry. That sentiment (or lack thereof) apparently caught up with him on what was probably the last biggest night of his storied career.

After people recovered from that upset, things settled back in as nominees completed their clean sweeps of major categories. Brie Larson Best Actress for Room? Check. DiCaprio Best Actor for The Revenant? Check again. Alejandro G. Iñárritu as Best Director for The Revenant? Check yet again. With the Iñárritu/DiCaprio 1-2 punch, any thought of an upset in Best Picture seemed all but shut down. The Revenant appeared destined to make Alejandro G. Iñárritu the first filmmaker ever to win both Best Director and Best Picture two years in a row (he won those categories last year for Birdman).

And then he didn’t.

As presenter Morgan Freeman held the winning card in his hand, he looked at the result, took a particularly long pause, smiled, and said in his definitive baritone, “Spotlight”. Viewers inside the Dolby Theatre, along with millions across the country, gasped in surprise. Spotlight hadn’t been called since the evening’s first category, Original Screenplay. And yet here it was not just bookending the night, but also the most unpredictable Oscar race of the modern era.

So how did I fare with my predictions? Horribly, finishing just a notch above 50% in a measly 13-for-24 showing. But I’ll gladly take it when the result is an Oscar ceremony that has actual drama and suspense. This is how it should be.

Nevertheless, I failed where most ballots are won and lost: the shorts categories (Documentary, Live Action, and Animated). I predicted the ones that were among the best made; the Academy instead followed its recent trend of choosing the most sentimental (although doc short winner A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – about a young Pakistani muslim woman who survived an attempted “honor killing” by her father – had the virtue of being both sentimental and well made). Note to self: go with the most tear-jerking shorts for the foreseeable future. The more shamelessly manipulative, the better.


 – Spotlight

 – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant

BEST ACTOR – Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

 – Brie Larson, Room

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – Spotlight (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer)

 – The Big Short (Charles Randolph and Adam McKay)


 – Son Of Saul (Hungary)

 – Amy

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone)

 – “Writing’s On The Wall”, Spectre

 – Mad Max: Fury Road

 – The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki)




 – Stutterer


 – A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

BEST SOUND MIXING – Mad Max: Fury Road



My Predictions for THE 88th ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS


Below are my predictions for the 2015 Academy Awards, in all 24 categories. The list is virtually free of commentary except for some thoughts in the Best Picture and Director categories, but does include “Will Win” and “Should Win” options throughout.

According to how I see it, the night’s big winner will be The Revenant with 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. That will be followed by Mad Max: Fury Road, also with 5.

My own personal standard for prognostication success is going 20-for-24 or higher. That’s a fairly high bar but, for me, anything below 20 is at best just really good guessing based on being well-informed. To get 20 or more requires a level of prognosticative intuition that goes beyond creating a metric based on outcomes throughout the Oscar race, to a level of insight that’s really worth something. And if memory serves, I think I’ve only broached 20+ a handful of times in my life (yes, this is an annual hobby, occasionally with money on the line). So we’ll see…



– The Big Short
– Bridge of Spies
– Brooklyn
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– The Martian
– The Revenant 
– Room
– Spotlight 

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: The Revenant 

This year’s race is so wide open that the three leading contenders – The Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight – could easily split votes and allow an underdog to come through with a surprise win (much like Chariots Of Fire is believed to have done in 1981 when Reds and On Golden Pond were the favorites battling it out). If that happens, you could then also see respected blockbusters Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian split votes among similar voting blocs.

All that to say: that’s my argument for a surprise Best Picture win from Room. But I’m still predicting The Revenant.


– Adam McKay, The Big Short
– George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
– Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
– Lenny Abrahamson, Room
– Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Will Win: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

(If Iñárritu had not won Director last year for Birdman, I’d have him down for both “will” and “should”.)

Historically speaking, this is my riskiest (and dumbest) prediction. Iñárritu won the Directors Guild, which makes winning the directing Oscar a near-lock. But I’m going with this hunch that the Academy will not give Iñárritu back-to-back directing Oscars, something they’ve only done twice before in their history. Plus, they’ll have the added advantage of handing Iñárritu an Oscar for Best Picture as a producer. So this seems like the perfect slot for voters to spread the wealth, and give 10-time nominee Mad Max: Fury Road– via director George Miller – its biggest win of the night.

(The following 4 Acting categories and 2 Screenplay categories are all locks. If there are any upsets here, they’ll be major ones.)

– Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
– Matt Damon, The Martian
– Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
– Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
– Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant


– Cate Blanchett, Carol
– Brie Larson, Room
– Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
– Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
– Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Will Win: Brie Larson, Room
Should Win: Brie Larson, Room or Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

– Christian Bale, The Big Short
– Tom Hardy, The Revenant
– Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
– Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
– Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Should Win: Sylvester Stallone, Creed

– Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
– Rooney Mara, Carol
– Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
– Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
– Kate Winselt, Steve Jobs

Will Win: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Should Win: Rooney Mara, Carol


– Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
– Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley)
– Spotlight (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer)
– Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff)

Will Win: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Should Win: Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley)


– The Big Short (Charles Randolph and Adam McKay)
– Brooklyn (Nick Hornby)
Carol (Phyllis Nagy)
– The Martian (Drew Goddard)
– Room (Emma Donoghue)

Will Win: The Big Short (Charles Randolph and Adam McKay)
Should Win: The Martian (Drew Goddard)

– Anomalisa
– Boy and the World
 Inside Out
– Shaun the Sheep
When Marnie Was There

Will Win: Inside Out
Should Win: Inside Out


– Embrace Of The Serpent (Colombia)
– Mustang (France)
– Son Of Saul (Hungary)
– Theeb (Jordan)
– A War (Denmark)

Will Win: Son Of Saul (Hungary)
Should Win: Son Of Saul (Hungary)


– Amy
– Cartel Land
– The Look of Silence
– What Happened, Miss Simone?
– Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom

Will Win: Amy
Should Win: Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom

Bridge of Spies (Thomas Newman)
– Carol (Carter Burwell)
– The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone)
– Sicario (Jóhann Jóhannsson)
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens (John Williams)

Will Win: The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone)
Should Win: The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone) or Carol (Carter Burwell)


– “Earned It”, 50 Shades of Grey
 “Mama Ray”, Racing Extinction
– “Simple Song #3”, Youth
– “Til It Happens To You”, The Hunting Ground
“Writing’s On The Wall”, Spectre

Will Win: “Til It Happens To You”, The Hunting Ground
Should Win: “Til It Happens To You”, The Hunting Ground


– The Big Short
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– The Revenant
– Spotlight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: The Big Short
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road


– Carol (Ed Lachman)
– The Hateful Eight (Robert Richardson)
– Mad Max: Fury Road (John Seale)
– The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki)
– Sicario (Roger Deakins)

Will Win: The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Should Win: Carol (Ed Lachman)

– Bridge of Spies
– The Danish Girl
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– The Martian
 The Revenant

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

– Carol
– Cinderella
– The Danish Girl
– Mad Max: Fury Road
 The Revenant

Will Win: The Danish Girl
Should Win: Carol

– Mad Max: Fury Road
 The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared
 The Revenant

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: The Revenant


– Ave Maria
– Day One
– Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)
– Shok
– Stutterer

Will Win: Shok
Should Win: Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

– Bear Story
– Prologue
– Sanjay’s Super Team
– We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
– World of Tomorrow

Will Win: World of Tomorrow
Should Win: World of Tomorrow


– Body Team 12
– Chau, Beyond The Lines
– Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
– A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
– Last Day of Freedom

Will Win: Body Team 12
Should Win: Chau, Beyond The Lines

– Bridge of Spies
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– The Martian
 The Revenant
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

– Mad Max: Fury Road
– The Martian
 The Revenant
– Sicario
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

– Ex Machina
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– The Martian
 The Revenant
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Should Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

GODS OF EGYPT (Movie Review)

*1/2 out of ****

My review of Gods Of Egypt, at, the bloated, tacky-looking action spectacle that bastardizes ancient Egyptian mythologies.

An excerpt from my review:

“The digital effects overkill is bad enough, as are the gaudy costume and set designs (1990s TBN sets would be jealous), but what ultimately makes this all so tedious – even more than the mish-mash narrative – is the bland all-British/non-Arab supporting cast of supermodels trying to prop up good lead talent that are slumming for a paycheck.”

To read the full review, click here.

Rated PG-13
for fantasy violence and action, and some sexuality
Released: February 26, 2016
Runtime: 127 minutes
Directed by: Alex Proyas
Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Gerard Butler, Brenton Thwaites, Elodie Yung, Courtney Eaton, Chadwick Boseman, Rufus Sewell, and Geoffrey Rush

Films of 2015 (Part 2): Nick Flora and I Conclude Our Top 10s On His Podcast (LINKS)


Part 1 was posted last week. And now for the conclusion.

As the Oscar ceremony nears, Nashville-based musician and podcaster Nick Flora invited me to continue our annual tradition of talking about our favorite films of the year on his podcast Who Writes This Stuff.

Here’s Part 2 of our “Films of 2015” discussion, in which we countdown in ascending order the Top 5 picks from each of our Top 10 Lists for the Best Films of 2015.  This 1 hour and 45 minute finale concludes the 90+ minute episode in which we discussed Picks 10 through 6. Part 2 – and Picks 5 through 1 – is here.

You can listen by either clicking on this link to Nick’s podcast page:
101: Films of 2015 (Part Two) with Jeff Huston

On the iTunes link to download the episode:
iTunes download

Or stream Part 2 right here by clicking on this embed link.

Also, check out Nick Flora’s albums (yes, being a musician is his full time gig) on Spotify and iTunes. A very gifted – and fun – singer/songwriter in the Ben Folds mold.

Nick Flora’s Official Web Site

Awards Chatter: The Best Interviews Of The Oscar Season (PODCAST)

awards chatter small.png

If you’re tired of all the horse race prognosticating, exhausted by the controversies (#OscarSoWhite, et al), couldn’t care less about who’s wearing what on the red carpet – and all you really want is to just hear the actors and filmmakers talk about their movies, their craft, and their careers – then Awards Chatter by The Hollywood Reporter should be in your podcast rotation, especially in this final stretch of the Oscar season.

Hosted by THR film writer Scott Feinberg, each hour-long episode (on average) is a one-on-one in-depth discussion with the most talked about filmmakers of the awards season. With an archive dating back to last September, the conversations (which occasionally include multiple guests, like the debut episode with three of the Steve Jobs collaborators) provide exactly the kind of insight true cinephiles are looking for.

So whether it’s artists that actually became 2015 Oscar nominees (like Steven Spielberg, Best Actress front-runner Brie Larson of Room, and Spotlight‘s writer/director Tom McCarthy) or others whose performances and films were a part of the conversation (The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, Creed star Michael B. Jordan, and many more), Awards Chatter is an intellectually satisfying podcast series for real movie lovers.

Here are three different options for listening:

Awards Chatter: Official Web Site

Awards Chatter: iTunes podcast download

Awards Chatter: Stream or MP3 download archive

Films of 2015 (Part 1): Nick Flora and I Discuss Our Top 10s On His Podcast (LINKS)

As the Oscar ceremony nears, Nashville-based musician and podcaster Nick Flora invited me to continue our annual tradition of talking about our favorite films of the year on his podcast Who Writes This Stuff. And even though Nick’s now mostly-retired from the podcasting gig, our film conversation continues.

So here’s Part 1 of our “Films of 2015” discussion, in which we countdown in ascending order each of our Top 10 choices for the Best Films of 2015 – starting in this 90+ minute episode with Picks 10 through 6. Part 2 – and Picks 5 through 1 – is now also up.

You can listen by either clicking on this link to Nick’s podcast page:
101: Films of 2015 (Part One) with Jeff Huston

On the iTunes link to download the episode:
iTunes download

Or stream it right here by clicking on this embed link.

Also, check out Nick Flora’s albums (yes, being a musician is his full time gig) on Spotify and iTunes. A very gifted – and fun – singer/songwriter in the Ben Folds mold.

Nick Flora’s Official Web Site

RISEN (Movie Review)

Joseph Fiennes
*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
for Biblical violence including some disturbing images
Released: February 19, 2016
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis

Memo to American Evangelical Christians: Risen is the movie you’ve been asking Hollywood to make.

After years of having to put up with subpar small-budget Christian indies, mixed with frustrating megabudget studio entries like Noah and Exodus: Gods And Kings that have dramatically re-imagined the Scriptural text (and its heroes), Risen comes along to finally provide the Christian Movie audience – and Evangelicals in particular – a drama that plays rather than panders to them, produced by a major studio (Columbia), with a production quality that reflects a serious investment of both money and effort.

I say this as someone with no particular vested interest (professionally or personally) in the success or failure of the Faith Based genre, and so I don’t write this as a rallying cry to church-going patrons. I say the following as a point of fact: for those who’ve long protested what Hollywood churns out, who’ve lamented that Christians are drastically underserved at the multiplex (and seemingly even antagonized at times), if Risen is a box office dud and therefore discourages studios from making more movies like it, then you’ll finally have no one but yourselves to blame.

Furthermore, Risen is exactly the kind of Biblical fiction that even Scriptural literalists can get behind. In the tradition of classic Bible epics like Ben-Hur, Risen could also be subtitled “A Tale Of The Christ” as it creates a similar construct: telling a fictional story – around a fictional hero – that weaves itself into the Gospel account.

Yes, the narrative conceit is wholly contrived, and sure, it requires factual liberties of Biblical characters (including Christ Himself) compared to what’s confirmed in Scripture. But the story of Risen is a plausible fiction and a reverent one. It stays true to the nature of Christ and His disciples, even as it posits them in an extra-Biblical narrative. What took place outside the margins of documented gospel almost certainly didn’t happen this way, but it could have.

The inspired basis for Risen actually isn’t an original one (a Max Lucado short story from over twenty years ago took the same approach) but it still remains a clever premise, as it tells the story of Christ’s death and resurrection through the eyes of a Roman soldier.

The film opens on the cusp of Christ’s crucifixion, and its central character is an up-and-coming military tribune named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare In Love). Because of his trustworthy allegiance to the empire, Clavius is tasked by Pontius Pilate to oversee this religiously contentious execution to make sure it goes off without a hitch. In particular, that the burial would be secured in such a way that Christ’s followers could not manipulate a tale that their Messiah’s prophesies of resurrection had actually come true.

Suffice it to say, things don’t go as planned (well, not for the Romans anyway).

The disappearance of Christ’s body propels the narrative into a mystery that needs to be solved. A CSI: Jerusalem of sorts, the fallout of the empty tomb unfolds like a Roman empire procedural, with Clavius and his right-hand soldier Lucius (Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy of the Harry Potter films) investigating what happened. The film’s first half is about Clavius seeking the truth, and the second is about what he does when confronted with it.

When the story first shifts into that manhunt (or corpse hunt, as it were), Risen loses some of its initial vitality. Scenes grow a bit talky, performed in intense but hushed whispers, and they also carry the weight of inevitability. Clavius, too, lacks an internal struggle as he bears no existential connection to the events; he’s only wrestling with facts, not conscience. That changes, though, when he learns that Christ is indeed alive. Clavius must not only face the implications of that truth but, by extension, put his entire life and status on the line to do so.

Though not on the scale of Biblical epics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Risen is a first-rate production. Director Kevin Reynolds, who made his career off of blockbuster collaborations with Kevin Costner like Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and Waterworld, is able to capture a grander scope than the modest $20 million budget should allow. And while Risen can’t broach the raw power – or artistic vision – of The Passion Of The Christ, it fulfills its own ambitions well.

Risen doesn’t wield the power to convert, but it does reverently affirm the faith of those who believe. As a result, Hollywood has finally given Evangelical audiences a movie they can believe in. Now it’s up to that audience to give Hollywood a box office return they can believe in too.

(BOX OFFICE UPDATE: After an opening weekend take of $11.8 million, Risen took in more than 50% of its production budget, and will probably earn between $30 to $50 million in its theatrical run, possibly earning a 100% profit margin or more. Risen is no blockbuster, but that level of profitability would more than likely lead to more Christian movies within that $20 million budget range.)