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Tom O'Neil has the inside track on Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and all the award shows.

Category: JesusChrist

Can 'Religulous' win an Oscar for Emmy's biggest loser Bill Maher?

October 7, 2008 |  5:20 pm

"Religulous," the incendiary documentary by Bill Maher and Larry Charles that dares to question organized religion, earned $3.4 million in its opening weekend, thus edging out the anti-Darwin doc "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" for top nonfiction debut of the year.

Although the film will no doubt continue to make lots of green, the question now is whether "Religulous" can earn Oscar gold. As Bill Maher told us up in Toronto, that would sure make up for those record 21 losses at the Emmy Awards.

The documentary divided critical opinion and managed to score only 55 at Metacritic. It earned raves from the likes of Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) and Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), but there were also pans from noted reviewers Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) and Neely Tucker (Washington Post).


To earn an Oscar nod, "Religulous" must now pass muster with the documentary branch of the academy.

One wonders how accepting these serious-minded film folk will be of an effort by two TV vets. While Maher has earned his stripes with his often inflammatory rhetoric on "Politically Incorrect" and "Real Time With Bill Maher," Charles (a two-time Emmy winner for "Seinfeld") is best known as the man behind the mockumentary "Borat."

Select branch members will screen all eligible films: those that played at least one week in L.A. and Gotham before the end of August, are at least 41 minutes long and are not shown on TV or the Internet for at least 60 days after finishing qualifying runs on both coasts. (Two top-grossing documentaries -- "Young @ Heart" and "Up the Yangtze" -- are disqualified because of airings on British and Canadian TV, respectively.)

An average scoring system will be used to produce a short list of 12 to 15 films. Only then will the academy's standard system of preferential voting be used to determine the final five nominees. [Rule 12(C)2 dictates that this second round of voting require the viewing of all short-listed documentaries in a theater unless the member watched all of the eligible documentaries in the first round.] This two-step process was instituted last year to address concerns about the caliber of films that were making the cut. This year's crop of possibilities offers a wide range of choices.

The top earner to date -- with nearly $10 million in sales -- is "U2 3D." Just as the name suggests, this is a 3D concert film featuring the Irish rock band U2. Although the film wowed the critics, scoring 83 at Metacritic, this type of documentary rarely makes it into the race.

However, with Oscar winner Martin Scorsese ("The Departed") helming "Shine a Light," this IMAX edition of a concert by the Rolling Stones could break that barrier. That film pleased enough ardent fans among the critics to score 76 at Metacritic and has earned just over $5 million.

While respectable, that box office take puts it well behind "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," which has made nearly $8 million. However, Ben Stein's advocacy of intelligent design over Darwinism met with critical derision, scoring a mere 20 at Metacritic.

Much better received was "Man on Wire," which revisits Philippe Petit's daring walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Nearly universal rave reviews yielded a score of 89 at Metacritic, and the film has made almost $2.5 million. "Gonzo" looks at the life of another man who lived life on the high wire -- the late Hunter S. Thompson -- and had enough supporters among the critics to come in at 73 at Metacritic but has made only $1.2 million.

So far the best-reviewed docu of the year is "Trouble the Water," the Katrina-themed winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance, which has a perfect 100% score from top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. The L.A. Times calls it "more than a keenly dramatic look at how this country treats the poor and dispossessed." However, since late August, it's only earned $330,000 while showing at 14 theaters.

"Encounters at the End of the World," which recounts German filmmaker Werner Herzog's journey to Antarctica, may have warmed up enough critics to rate an 80 at Metacritic but met with cool indifference from the public, grossing just under $1 million. Three years ago, Herzog helmed the critically acclaimed "Grizzly Man," which did not rate with the documentary branch. "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" examines the legal troubles of the Oscar winning director ("The Pianist") and earned a respectable 78 at Metacritic. However, this HBO-financed film barely played in theaters, earning all of $58,000.

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Bill Maher vs. Jesus Christ in 'Religulous' -- who wins?

October 4, 2008 | 10:57 am

"Religion is the easiest thing to sell because it's an invisible product," "Religuous" star Bill Maher tells Gold Derby in this video chat. "Which, by the way, you can't test it out until after you die. So no one's there to complain after you drive this thing off the lot and it breaks down — because you're dead. So what salesman doesn't want a piece of that territory?"

Maher and director Larry Charles take on quite a few of those dubious salesmen of religious beliefs in their sacrilegious documentary now in theaters. Because it's made by such notable showbiz folks, I ask Bill Maher, "Doesn't this documentary epitomize godless Hollywood in a way?"

"I hope!" he roars. "If I have anything to do with it it will."


"How many people at award shows do you see thanking God?" pipes in Larry Charles. "Hollywood is also using God for its own purposes as well."

"Religious people look at me as you might look upon a retarded child," Bill Maher adds, quoting them, "'He's unenlightened. He needs to be saved. He needs to be cured.' I respect all human beings and I would like them to see my version of enlightenment. And mostly I want them to laugh."

Reviews have been quite good from top media. Variety hails "Religulous" as "brilliant, incendiary," while Entertainment Weekly adds, "It's a film that's destined to make a lot of people mad, but Maher, for all his showy atheistic 'doubt,' isn't just trying to crucify religion — he truly wants to know what makes it tick. He leaves no stone tablet unturned." Other raves come from the New York Times, USA Today, Hollywood Reporter and from Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times. Among the pans is the Washington Post.

If you'd like to pursue the questions raised by "Religulous" further, I recommend reading this interesting article at, which builds the case for the assertion that there's no credible evidence that Jesus Christ existed. Uncontested is the fact that no one alive during the time Jesus is said to have lived wrote about him, which is strange considering that there are plenty of historic accounts of other messiah figures of the era. The first two mentions of him don't come till more than a half century after the date given for Jesus' execution, and the authenticity of those texts by Josephus in AD 93 and Tacitus in 120 are questioned by many secular scholars. Read more.

To read Gold Derby's take on Religulous' run for the Oscar, click here.

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Expect 'Religulous' and Bill Maher to raise Oscars hell

August 20, 2008 | 10:28 am

When I attended a press screening for Bill Maher's "Religulous" in New York on Tuesday, it struck me like a lightning bolt on the road to the Kodak Theatre via Damascus: yeah, "Religulous" will probably be nominated for best docu at the Oscars — and God help us all after that.

We know that "Religulous" is seriously in the derby for several reasons. First, Lionsgate hired veteran Oscars PR reps to handle its ballyhoo (Michele Robertson in L.A., Jeff Hill in New York). Secondly, the studio is giving the documentary its theatrical runs in L.A. and New York to qualify it for academy consideration, as Jeff Sneider notes at Anne Thompson's blog at Thirdly, the hallelujahs that film critics gave it today at the screening. More disciples are sure to follow.


In order to catch on widely like religion itself, what atheism has needed for a long time is a popular preacher to rally 'round. Maher just volunteered for the job that's been vacant since Madalyn Murray O'Hair vanished in the 1990s (eventually found murdered in 2001). Richard Dawkins has been a fine temporary stand-in, but not flashy like O'Hair. Bill Maher kicks things up a notch. He's a pop culture hipster who already has a large, anti-establishment flock, and he has a bully pulpit that O'Hair didn't: his own HBO show plus vast presence across all media.

Up until recently, I didn't realize how few Americans knew about the historical argument against Jesus. As the product of 16 years of Catholic education — from St. Mary's Elementary School in Mentor, Ohio, to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. — I've had more than a casual interest in the pro and con issues. Two years ago, when "The Da Vinci Code" was the big buzz, I was amazed at how many people were shocked when I'd say something like, "Well, there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever existed."

What?! I could expect outrage over the comment but not surprise from sophisticated, educated people, religious or not. Doesn't everybody know that Roman and Jewish writers who were alive during the time that Jesus is said to have lived do not mention him?  Contemporary historical accounts record lots of other messiah figures but somehow manage to miss the one who Christian texts claim posed such a huge threat to the powers that be that the Roman leaders had to crucify him. The first historic record of Jesus doesn't come till AD 93 — more than a half century after the date given for Jesus' crucifixion — and that account, allegedly by Josephus, is widely disputed, as is another oft-cited mention of Jesus in 120 by Tacitus. READ MORE

In "Religulous," you can see lots of shocked faces when Bill Maher mentions casually that none of the people who wrote the Bible — including Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, even St. Paul — ever met Jesus. They're flabbergasted. They can't believe what they're hearing.

Many devout Christians who are aware of these facts accept them and continue to practice their religion anyway because their beliefs are based on faith, and that's fine. There is no historical evidence that says Jesus didn't exist, so God bless them, I say.

But I don't think that most Christians know about the lack of historical evidence or some other hot topics that Maher dares to bring up in "Religulous" — like how many of America's Founding Fathers blasted religion. Maher quotes Benjamin Franklin's line "Lighthouses are more useful than churches," and really nasty stuff from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Most Americans, I've come to learn, really believe that our Founding Fathers were devout Christians. The history books used in our schools somehow fail to quote what Jefferson thought on the subject: "Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man."

"Religulous" not only whips up these subjects but does so in a well-made film that is — God help us all —entertaining. Maher, after all, is a master comedian and satirist.

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