The Culture Beat

July 27, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alex @ 11:46 pm

As my earlier post on my most anticipated summer movie attested, the goal of the Marvel Studios latest cinematic rendering of one of the comics company’s all-stars was to firmly established the star spangled WWII hero in the 21st century. Becoming three dimensional in more than one way, the film had to take comicdom’s corniest hero and make him work on the big screen. Just as the studio succeeded in a perhaps more challenging task of making thunder god Thor soar in the May blockbuster, so Captain America: The First Avenger neatly makes us accept that Cap can wield the shield on film just as well if not better as he does in the comics.

The most interesting element is how the film cleverly acknowledges how ridiculous a red, white and blue costumed adventurer would appear on movie screens. In the 1940s comics, as soon as Steve Rogers is transformed from a skinny 4F Army reject to an American ubermensch through the mixture of the right scientific formula and “vita-rays,” he puts on the costume and starts hammering the Nazi menace both on the homefront and overseas (Cap was introduced before Pearl Harbor by shrewd comics masters Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, anticipating the approaching necessity of the United State’s entry into the war.) His secret identity as a PFC Steve Rogers was a cover for his heroic career and it allowed the average serviceman to see Cap as his own alter ego, similar to the Clark Kent/Superman dialectic. Because his mission, accompanied by the teen sidekick Bucky Barnes, kept him from showing up for his regular camp duties, Steve and Bucky spent time peeling potatoes in KP.

This immediate launch into a colorful career would plainly not work in a feature film so the script has Rogers drafted into a war bonds drive appearing in the original costume which of course looks ludicrous but satisfies the show’s kitschy entertainment values and succeeds with the audiences. Eager to use his enhanced abilities to really make a difference on the battlefield, Steve, still partially in costume, and with the help of Howard Stark (future father to Tony, aka Iron Man), and secret agent Peggy Carter, he parachutes into enemy territory to boldly break into the secret operations plant of the vile Red Skull aka Johann Schmidt, head of the super science cult Hydra. After freeing 400 Allied prisoners, Captain America’s career is finally born and the film successfully brings to life his exploits that will appeal to the inner comic book fan in everyone.

Rather than a campy goody-goody, a la the 1960’s Adam West Batman, Chris Evan’s portrayal of Rogers is so sincere and his demeanor so humble that the audience identifies with this American Everyman because he is so plainly decent and unselfish. The script also continues to build the cinematic version of the Marvel Universe by tying in elements from Thor’s cosmic super science by making the Cosmic Cube part of Asgardian technology, something that I believe is distinct from the comic version. This neatly sets up plot elements certain to appear in next summer’s The Avengers where (teased in the not-to-be-missed final minute after the credits). Marvel Studios is brilliantly setting up their films as interconnected narratives unlike anything else in film; it’s a shame that so far, DC’s attempts to launch a similar cinematic universe, with Green Lantern is failing. When it comes to big screen adventures, Marvel is still the house of ideas.


July 17, 2011

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alex @ 9:36 pm

I have enjoyed the Harry Potter films mostly as interesting, and sometimes frustrating, experiments in adaptation, rather than as exciting visualizations of a popular books series. Before I’d read any of the books, I’d seen the first film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters and liked it okay but didn’t think it was anything special, especially since The Fellowship of the Ring came out within a week or two of the film and it soared by comparison (and it helped that I was a fan of the book). But then discovering the Harry Potter books and understanding its fascinating use of Christian symbolism and themes helped me appreciate the films–to a point. Readers of the Potter series know that the books grow in plot, character complexity, and thematic richness until, one is caught up in a hugely dense narrative with dozens of vivid and consequential characters and plot threads that author J. K. Rowling weaves into one of the richest literary tapestries of our. age. Seeing that complexity mostly left in the books because of the difficulty of fitting it into feature length films undercut my enjoyment despite my appreciation for the quality of the film series.

Of course this goes to the difference between the media of print and film narratives. Print is far better at getting into the mind of a character and the way books can convey pages of expository dialogue without stopping the story. Those qualities are difficult in film, which favors appeals to the eye and
the emotions. Thus, after the first two books, Sorcerers Stone and Chamber of Secrets, being relatively short in length and pretty literally adapted to film, the subsequent films, through Half Blood Prince, were more freely adapted with characters and plot threads removed from the necessarily more streamlined narratives-until the production of Deathly Hallows.

Announced as two films, some fans thought it was a cynical last shake of the magical money tree by Warner Brothers, but I was with those relieved that Rowling’s last, very long and exciting book, full of revelations and closure, would get the ending it deserved. Deathly Hallows, Part.1 had a much more deliberate pace, made more so by the book’s tale of Harry and friend’s bleak fugitive existence in the wilds. Nevertheless, it still omitted crucial character elements that made the books so rich and detailed. There is also the fact that the script practically omitted the use of two New Testament scriptures found on crucial places in Harry’s hometown of Godric Hollow. This and other Christian themes in Rowling’s book are discussed in an insightful review of Deathly Hallows, Part 2, by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

So I was looking forward to Part 2, looking for a satisfactory wrap-up but I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed the movie. I reacted, for the first time since the second film, with excitement, laughter and some tears. Despite knowing what to expect, the moviemaker’s magic worked its spell and I found this the most entertaining of all the films.

In fact, this is the film that actually requires that you have read the book to grasp and appreciate some of the revealed history of certain characters as we see a montage that completely changes what we thought we knew. I have to wonder about audience members that have stuck with the series this long and still not read the books–as one critic has said, that really should be the price of admission by now. I will carp about the incredibly dark picture and at times nearly colorless photography. I know it’s a dark time in the wizarding world but for Dumbledore’s sake, that’s a metaphor, not a stylistic command to use 40 watt bulbs to light the set. The greatest danger to our characters at times is that they will run into each other in nearly pitch black stairwells and corridors. It’s not as thrilling when you can’t see what’s happening. Even if this is partly due to cheapskate exhibitors’ refusal to properly project the image, there still needed to be more lighting in the cinematography.

And yes, the film still leaves out significant character and plot points that reveal important facts about major characters but this train gets you to its destination, King’s Cross station and the return, as I’d devoutly hoped, of John Williams’ original themes to bring big smiles and a true conclusion to this remarkable and historic film franchise. All is well.

July 12, 2011

Movie Preview: The Captain is Coming

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:05 am

The summer season film I’ve been looking forward to more than any other is Captain America: The First Avenger, the third 2011 blockbuster based on the red, white and blue Marvel superhero and the second this summer produced by Marvel Studios’ brilliant team working since the first Iron Man film to create a cinematic Marvel universe of interrelated movies, mirroring the comic books’ continuity.

I read Captain America’s adventure as a boy when in the 1960s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby resurrected the World War II star spangled avenger that had been created by comics’ art king Kirby and Joe Simon during World War II. Then, in comics’ Golden Age, Kirby’s graceful, dynamic style (pictured at the top) had Cap’s lean figure literally bursting out of the panels as he took on Nazi scum including his chief nemesis, the terrifying Red Skull. One of the top titles of the era, Captain America and his young sidekick, Bucky Barnes, gave the Nazi’s heck, but after the war ended, so did Cap’s essential reason for being and a long twilight decline would finally end his run in the early 1950s.

The genius of Lee and Kirby’s revival of the Sentinel of Liberty, was that, in 1964, during creation of the Marvel Universe, having the newly formed Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Ant Man and the Wasp, and the Hulk briefly), discover Cap’s frozen body and his quick defrosting meant that Marvel suddenly had given itself a new anchor in history and the previously uncomplicated Cap was now newly able to fit into the comics company’s new world of complicated heroes. A man out of time, Cap’s need to find a purpose became his complicating factor. Even as a kid, reading about a supremely athletic hero who didn’t fit in made Cap more interesting. He wasn’t the strongest, fastest or strangest of Marvel’s growing staple, but he was the noblest and most experienced warrior who had the gravity of having served his country and lost his young partner, Bucky, on their last mission. Guilt, combined with a drive for justice made Captain America both a metaphor for American virtue and a very human, relatable character.

Putting Captain America into live action has proved daunting. During the 1940s, Cap’s popularity had earned him his own movie serial, but the more one watches those cliffhanging chapters, the more you see how little the producers kept of the character. For one thing, he’s not even Steve Rogers, the result of a secret Super Soldier experiment, working with our armed forces–he’s a stateside adventurer, District Attorney Grant Gardner, and there are many other departures. The costume is also changed in several ways as this trailer indicates. There were a couple of cheap TV movies in the 1980s that tried to do live action versions of the hero but are best left forgotten. A 1990 theatrical film, made for about $49 further disgraced the Living Legend of WWII and showed what a direct translation of Cap’s colorful costume would look like in live action cinematography–embarrassing. Something like the Universal Islands of Adventures cast member I took a picture of.

So the new movie, debuting the 22nd of this month, looks like Hollywood, with Marvel’s enabling, has licked the adaptation challenge with heaps of production values fueled by what once source said was around $140 million to recreate the halcyon days of the 1940s and to design a believable costume that honors the original but is realistic about how a functional costume would work. The flag’s colors are muted yet quite recognizable with a paratrooper built-in harness to motivate the red vertical stripes. This appears to be the final stage of the progressive development, throughout the film, of the WWII era costume. Cap’s uniform always had what looked like a chain nail shirt and the pads strapped around the shoulders functions similarly. Overall, it looks like this will be a successful adaptation that meets the challenge of translating what could have been a hopelessly cornball character into a believable live action superhero.

June 28, 2011

Movie Review: Cars 2

Filed under: Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 1:50 am

After an unprecedented string of 11 hit films, produced by a company celebrating its 25th birthday, Pixar’s Cars 2 will be sure to be enjoyed by the many small children who love Lightening McQueen and his friend Mater the tow truck so winningly introduced in Cars. That paean to the virtues of communitarian life in the slow lane in the small towns far off from the interstate is one of my favorite Pixar films. The sequel plunges the main characters into an automotive version of a James Bond film, which turns out to be as much of a gimmick as the many built-in gadgets employed by one of the new characters, Finn McMissile, an Aston Martin DB-style British spy voiced by Michael Caine. In fact, for the first time in its history, to my chagrin, we see a serious narrative misfire from Pixar as it opts for blockbuster bloat instead of heart, smart, and charm.

After four racing victories, Lightening is back at Radiator Springs taking it easy and, though he enjoys hanging out with Mater, the hick truck buddy sometimes monopolizes his time when he’d like to be with Sally, the pretty blue Porsche. When McQueen accepts a challenge to compete in an international three-race tournament he reluctantly allows Mater to come with his crew. But soon Mater is unknowingly caught up in an international plot involving spies and the undermining of a renewable automotive fuel source. It’s here that Mater become the actual lead, an innocent doofus abroad who winds up recruited by McMissile who thinks his hayseed behavior is his misleadingly effective front. As the plot rolls from Japan to Italy to London, the more-dense-than-ever production design finds many funny ways to show what a planet of vehicles would look like.

As ever, Pixar’s wizards create gorgeous set designs and clever characterizations but this may be the most characters ever in the studios film and with the heavy plotting for the intrigue and action, it may also be the hardest for small kids to follow. In past films like Monsters Inc. and Wall-E, environmental/energy themes stayed in the background of the narrative, here they jump to the front, trotting out [SPOILER ALERT] the worn out and simplistic device of evil oilmen intent on preventing alternative fuels in order to ensure their control of energy reserves.

By the climax of the film, symptoms of sequelitis have set in, the chief of which is the layering on of far more action sequences than necessary, apparently motivated by the supersizing mentality that has sunk so many sequels, like Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean. Pixar’s unique scripting process involves the freedom of anyone on the production team to put on the brakes and criticize the narrative construction, which is why every film has been a gem–until now. And that this was directed by Pixar’s creative maestro John Lasseter is even more discomfiting. I trust the many negative or critical reviews of the film will be a wake-up call for the team to ignore whatever pressures from Disney to churn out blockbusters to enrich their coffers and draw kids to the Pixar attractions at theme parks. Last year’s beautifully realized Toy Story 3 showed what a sequel should be, story in the service of character and theme, not sensation and spectacle.

June 26, 2011

Movie Review: Green Lantern

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 9:00 pm

This won’t take too long–most critics found Warner Brothers’ latest attempt to exploit another character from their DC Comics’ stable into a franchise that would earn them lots of, er, green, to be too conventional and comic book fans found it bad storytelling with messed up motivations and arbitrary plot moves. I wasn’t expecting much since the trailers didn’t successfully intrigue and Ryan Reynolds in the lead seemed like bad casting. More about that later, but the real reason I was cool to the idea was that Green Lantern doesn’t translate well to blockbuster mode.

Let me explain: I’ve read the Green Lantern title and others over the last two or three years in order to follow two epic narratives by Geoff Johns: “The Sinestro Corps. War” and later, “Blackest Night.” The first story was pretty great comic book storytelling with beautiful art telling of an intergalactic war started by classic bad guy Sinestro using fear as his driving force behind his army’s yellow power rings. The Blackest Night storyline was basically a DC Zombies epic as members of newly discovered multi-colored ring corp representing other emotions strove mightily to get through what was to me a very convoluted story. A few months after the event, I gave up on the Green Lantern titles; I discovered that all that time spent with this large cast didn’t make me care about them any more.

The biggest problem I think is that, when it comes down to it, the idea of an army with power rings who can fight evil by forming giant fly swatters or cannons belongs more to a young boy’s imagination than to a popular blockbuster film designed for a broad audience. When my wife and I finished watching the movie, she said, “This idea of green power rings is great if you’re an eight-year old boy.” Uh-huh. I’m afraid the biggest problem though, is the main character, Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern from Earth and the main character. Since his beginning in the DC Universe’s early Silver Age of the late 1950s, Hal greatest strength was his character design. Drawn by comic book artist legend Gil Kane, who had used the young Paul Newman as the basis for Hal Jordan, his simple, elegantly designed green corps uniform (with white gloves, by the way) and super science origins, always looked cool as he flew in a way no other superhero did. But Hal, essentially, a space cop, never had much of a personality and thus, after Marvel’s revolutionary injection of conflict into their stable of characters, Hal Jordan looked sort of bland. In fact, DC realized this in the 90s and had Hal, driven over the edge by the destruction of his home town, become a power mad supervillain which eventually resulted in his destruction. And as we know from experience, no hero in comics stays dead for long. A few years ago, Johns came up with a resurrection scheme to bring back Jordan, much to fans’ happiness. But though Johns added a more complex backstory to Jordan’s life, he’s still the stoic, and sometimes brusque cop on the beat–but as drawn, he looks cool, if dull.

And that’s not enough to carry a movie, even with Reynold’s charm and the artificial imparting of a reluctant hero arc in the movie, he’s not the compelling character you need to carry a franchise that DC, despite the film’s disappointing debut, still plans to continue with a planned sequel–which sounds like backwards logic. So, maybe it will take place on Bizarro World.

June 13, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

Filed under: Movies — Alex @ 1:46 pm

J. J. Abrams newest film has been widely publicized as an homage to Steven Spielberg’s early science fiction films that made the director’s reputation for startlingly original evocations of benevolent visitors from the stars with humans, children and adult, gazing in awe and amazement at the cosmic wonders shining before them. Super 8 in many ways attains to these signature ingredients, yet lacks the magic that distinguished Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

Co-produced by Spielberg himself, the story marries the film geekdom that formed the teen years of both filmmakers to the plot involving a small group of teens shooting a zombie movie with the director’s Super 8 millimeter camera. One night, having sneaked out to shoot at the old train station, they witness the horrendous crash of a freight train followed by the loud pounding sounds of something breaking out of one of the cars. This much you may know from the circumspect trailers, and I will try to refer only generally to the plot but it won’t be entirely spoiler-free. Joe Lamb, who’s part of the film crew has lost his mother in a terrible factory accident four months earlier and his silently grieving deputy sheriff father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) can barely handle being the sole parent and Joe receives the brunt of his emotional preoccupation. Joe is sweet on Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), who’s agreed to play a role in their movie and their scene when Joe’s applying Alice’s make-up is one of the best falling-in-love teen scenes in recent memory. Like Joe, Alice has father issues as well, a recurrent theme in Abrams’ work (Star Trek, Lost). The young actors, diverse in characterizations (like The Goonies, another Spielberg production), are the heart of the film and the closest approximation to the Spielbergian formula. My son said afterward that the film was like Stand By Me meets Cloverfield and that captures the youthful dynamic Abrams achieves.

It may surprise no one that there is indeed a scary creature on board and that a government entity, the Air Force in this case, is trying to contain discovery of said creature, led by a domineering officer played by Noah Emmerich, going to nasty lengths to cover up any evidence. This is when the film starting feeling more derivative than inspired-how many times have we seen this? As the plot crescendos to a climax, at a certain point (okay, seeing the creature upclose) I finally found myself less inside the movie and instead comparing it to Abrams’ last creature feature, Cloverfield, whose monster appears to be a distant relative. At the end as both the action plot and characters arcs converge on and above the streets of the town and the shocked citizens gaze upward, though the plot wrapped itself up neatly, I felt none of the astonishment or heartbreak the master himself brought to his films of his youth, just a sincere checking off of all the components needed to make a heartfelt, entertaining but less than equal accomplishment honoring the films that inspired Super 8. It’s hard but to say what was missing but John Williams music comes to mind–think what a difference it made in Encounters and E.T., but I don’t blame the composer, Michael Giacchino, one of Williams’ true successors; the screenplay didn’t have the passionate themes of those films to play to musically. If I was giving it stars, it would be 3 out of 4. Added value for the closing credits sequence so don’t rush off afterwards.

June 5, 2011

Mad (X-)Men

Filed under: Comics,Movies — Alex @ 10:08 pm

(After a hectic several months of Spring semester, I’m a little freer to post again-it’s good to be back. Is anybody there????)

This has been a very good start of the blockbuster season. Thor, Marvel Studio’s opening volley in a double feature along (with this July’s Captain America: The First Avenger), has made over $400 million. Last week’s Kung Fu Panda 2, though not spectacular at around 85 million thus far, was still a worthy and great looking sequel to the Dreamworks animated film. And the hits continue with the revival of the Marvel mutant franchise, X-Men: First Class, which takes a risk by resetting its continuity by doing a team origin story beginning in 1962, or actually earlier if you include the 1940s, when we see the future supervillain Magneto, a teenage Eric Lehnsherr, in a replay of the 2000 X-Men scene when the victim of the Nazi regime is separated from his parents and his mutant magnetism manifests itself. And in a safer locale, young Charles Xavier makes friends with another young mutant who thinks herself alone. Both Eric and Charles are beginning paths that will define two approaches to dealing with mutant persecution, Charles by seeking peaceful co-existence and Eric by learning to hate and attack his persecutors. The film is a splendid origin story and remixes the themes of the earlier X-Men films into an epic and stylish period piece set in the Cold War, coinciding with the era when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created Marvel’s Merry Mutants.

This is the best X-Men film yet as it balances three major characters, Charles, Eric and Sebastian Shaw, energy wielding leader of the horrific Hellfire Club, who plots humanity’s destruction to make way for the mutant homo superior species. Lehnsherr watched Shaw kill his mother, an act intended to release Eric’s rage and thus his powers and has sought revenge ever since. Charles seeks a more peaceful way and functions as Eric’s conscience as the two work together to discover more mutants and recruit them for the CIA. Here the title of the film comes into effect, as one-by-one, teenagers, secretly aware of their powers but terrified of being different find a (temporarily) refuge with the US government.

The film’s period setting is even more amusing with Shaw’s associate, Emma Frost, a telepath like Charles, played by Mad Men‘s January Jones, who didn’t have to change her hairstyle for the part, but seems to have stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue,if they had existed then with her skimpy white costumes. The well-structured script allows various characters to smoothly soar through their dramatic arcs as each must wrestle with which path they will take toward humanity. There are several effective moments of warmth and poignancy that ground the story in what made Marvel stand out from traditional superhero comics in the 1960s “Silver Age,”characters readers could relate too because these superpowered beings had essentially the same problems they did. Yes, for years, “mutant” has functioned in X-Men as a floating metaphor for all kinds of prejudice and alienation and the dialog’s repeated chorus of “Mutant and Proud” underlines these themes.

By the end of the film, the stage has been artfully set for further X-ventures, new recruits on both sides and a powerful jolt to several acting careers, particularly Michael Fassbender, who marvelously evokes one of the comics best supervillains, Magneto, who almost makes being a mutant terrorist justified.

April 3, 2011

Oh, Comic Book Death, Where is Thy Sting?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alex @ 8:51 pm

Marvel Comics seems to be changing its name to Murder Inc., since it announced in February that it planned to kill a major character every quarter. That would mean that following the death of the Human Torch in a recent issue of Fantastic Four, we would see another demise in three months or so, just in time to get gullible comic book readers to buy “collector’s items” and drive up the quarterly earnings. Marvel, in their comics’ house ads have been touting the death of Spider-Man, that is the Spider-Man from Marvel’s Ultimate universe (rather than the original Spidey in the Marvel Universe–got it?). So, who will be next? And who cares?

Apparently, Marvel believes these regularly scheduled character assassinations will keep comic book fans jerking like dead laboratory frogs touched with electrical prods–reflexively jumping at the chance to see a character die and how that will affect survivors. This surprises me because I thought there was widespread cynicism about such stunts based on years of offing popular characters only to see them return in a year or three–since the X-Men’s classic Dark Phoenix saga of the 70s’ featuring Jean Grey’s truly shocking and moving death and eventual resurrection (like a phoenix, right?), no corpse is safely interred in the Marvel Universe. Of course competitor DC Comics has done plenty of its own recyling with Superman dying in the early 90s and Batman’s apparent death and return over the last two years. But to make a death a policy like Marvel’s seems to take all the shock out of what should be a dramatic moment. A few years ago, Captain America made real news when he was shot down on the courthouse steps (he came back last year) but it was completely unexpected and thus dramatically powerful. But Johnny Storm’s, er, fiery death was anticipated for months when Marvel began flogging the coming demise of one of the Fantastic Four.

And just imagine the legal and financial complications in the Marvel universe after life insurance payments have been disbursed to beneficiaries and heirs have received their inheritance of a downed superhero’s legacy and said hero or heroine returns from the grave requiring the services of ace lawyer Matt Murdock, (aka Daredevil, who to my knowledge hasn’t died yet) to straighten out the mess.

But really, does Marvel really think that death is a winning strategy if fans can now expect that with each changing season will come yet another dirt nap for a downed do-gooder? The original impact of death in superhero comic used to be its rarity and seeming finality–it was one situation out of which the hero couldn’t triumph. When Spider-Man lost his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, while battling the Green Goblin in the 70s, the tragedy was real and permanent. Of course, when Superman died battling Doomsday, no one really believed Big Blue was gone, but just seeing him die and the effect on the world without a Superman, was, because of its rarity, a plot device one should not overuse. Regularly planned death, with expected eventual resurrections now feel phony and contrived. We don’t suffer with the survivors because they feel like puppets manipulated by calculating marketing executives rather than well-told tales of passion and poignancy. The Human Torch’s death scene felt flat–death by numbers. If Marvel’s strategy proves lucrative over 2011 it will tell us a lot about the fans–they’ll buy just about anything.

March 9, 2011

The Continuing, and sometimes alarmng, C. S. Lewis Phenomenon

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,The Church,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:43 am

American Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, love C. S. Lewis. Last Friday, the New York Times published an article by Mark Oppenheimer recounting the ever growing impact of British writer and scholar C. S. Lewis, including a recent edition of the Bible with annotations of quotes by Lewis addressing topics and themes of biblical passages, and plans for a new institution of higher learning, C. S. Lewis College. Oh my.

I hold Lewis in the highest regard, having read many of his books over the years. As a young Christian, his writings kept me from becoming too immersed in an emotion-based, subjective form of Christianity. His uniquely lucid writing made the greatest idea and doctrines of the Christian faith accessible to my untrained mind. It grounded me in logical thinking and made my imagination soar in ways no other writing did. Lewis’ immersion in the great thinking of medieval Christianity and his ability to explain “mere Christianity,” the faith common to the church universal created a bridge for me and millions of others to the great treasures of Christian thought.

Because of the impoverished nature of 20th century evangelicalism regarding the life of the mind, Lewis’ books were doorways of discovery to our faith’s heritage and because of his singular gifts, and prolific work, it’s understandable that there would be such a continuing fascination with this giant of the faith. Lewis is that rare figure who transcends denominational categories–reading Lewis’ books engenders the sense that one has not only gained knowledge or insight about the book’s subject, but that one has also gotten to know its author in a way that inspires gratitude, and a sense of acquaintance, that few authors achieve.

Still I feel awkward reading of a Lewis annotated Bible, or a college founded on his work–surely Lewis himself would recoil from such hero worship. At what point does one’s appreciation for a great man slip into something like idolatry?

But the reason I felt most compelled to write this post was a passage in the article that clearly marked it as a New York Times piece:

In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis writes of Jesus: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”

This famous passage does not, on a second read, make much sense. After all, could not a great moral teacher have messianic delusions? But on a first read, it is quite persuasive, and classic Lewis. It is clear, confident and a bit humorous, and it offers a stark choice as it firmly suggests the right answer.

Mr. Oppenheimer, in ostensibly reporting on the Lewis phenomenon, cannot resist this slide into patronizing commentary. It implies that anyone who found this, one of the most quoted of all Lewis’ writings, to be a convincing argument for the deity of Christ, obviously never read the passage again or they would have easily perceived how bogus it was, poor benighted minds, unlike Mr. Oppenheimer’s. No, most people who’ve thought it through this most offensive of the claims of Jesus, would find it hard to to accept that a great moral teacher who repeatedly claimed to be the Son of God, and whose followers, often accepted death rather than disbelieve this crucial point, was simply having delusions of grandeur.

What the article doesn’t include of that famous passage says it better than I could:

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.

February 27, 2011

If The King’s Speech Wins . . . Here’s Why

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alex @ 8:31 pm

The buzz leading up to the Oscars indicated that a small British film, made for fifteen million dollars, about a British monarch most Americans probably never heard of, will take the top awards. By the time you see this, we’ll know if The King’s Speech won—if it does, here are some reasons why.

Number one—Colin Firth’s portrayal of the King George VI, a most unlikely choice for being the symbolic head of his country. Being second in line to the throne, Albert, his given name, has a crippling stammer, which makes public speaking a terror to him and painful for his audience. He enlists the help of an unconventional Australian speech coach, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, who insists that the prince follow his rules, meet at his office and apply the unusual techniques to control his stammer. This makes for great dramatic interplay between a royal personage and a commoner and both actors make the most of it. But Firth’s unique ability to capture the dread and discomfort of a character is what hooks audiences and earned him the nomination for Best Actor.

Albert is an understandably private man, content to be with his wife, Elisabeth and his two daughters, including the future Queen Elisabeth II. The speech lessons allow him to manage his public speaking duties and his terror subsides some.

But when irresponsible older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates the throne to marry a thrice divorced woman, Albert must face his deepest fears of living a much more public life leading the British people as the representative of it centuries long monarchy. And with the storm clouds of war gathering on the horizon as Nazi Germany begins its attacks on European countries, the newly crowned George VI needs his speech coach more than ever to rally the nation for the coming battle.

By mid-February, this little historical character study has earned almost one hundred million dollars and was still in theaters after its Thanksgiving week release. Why has it proven such a popular film?

Firth’s riveting performance is the core of the film’s appeal of course. But Oscar voters, like the audience that has made the movie so successful, love a well-done period piece with proper British characters in dramatized historical settings. The King’s Speech is a reminder that films don’t have to cost one hundred million dollars to have high production values, absorbing drama, great performances and transporting narratives.

There have been several criticisms of the film that don’t surprise me. One is that it’s a rather conventional biographical story—historical figure must face challenges both within and without and an unlikely person allows him to overcome his handicap to triumph in the end. In that sense, the film itself isn’t too novel, it simply executes its version of this familiar story arc in a very accomplished manner. As I watched the film’s plot proceed and various dramatic scenes play out, I wondered just how much of this was concocted for dramatic purposes—I think the film has maybe two scenes too many of tense interplay between Bertie and George.

And indeed, there has been criticism about the historical details of the film, such as how the royal family were reluctant opponents to the German threat. Logue’s grandson has written an account of the relationship between Lionel and the prince that was far more amicable than the dramatized one onscreen. This is yet another reminder to not take movie history as a credible source of what actually happened—movies aim first to entertain, and accuracy is usually in spite of the changes screenwriters make to tell an absorbing story in two hours.

That keep me from giving it four out of four stars. And for the record, I won’t mind or be surprised if The King’s Speech wins best picture and Firth wins a deserved Best Actor Oscar. I personally think Toy Story 3 was a far greater cinematic achievement but the Academy is biased against even the most artistic animated films. I stopped caring much who wins at the Oscars years ago— some awards are bound to disappoint and hardly anyone will remember who won this time next year. The Oscars are mainly about Hollywood self-congratulation and publicity and The King’s Speech is a perfectly deserving if predictable choice.

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