The Culture Beat

November 21, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1

Filed under: Books,Movies — Alex @ 11:43 pm

When it was announced that volume 7 of the mega-selling magical epic by J. K. Rowling would be produced in two parts, there were accusations that Warner Bros. was merely milking the top film franchise for yet more millions. I was relieved that the studio that had adapted the previous, often very large books, leaving piles of characters and subplots on the screenwriting floor had finally given the writing its due by allowing the last book, with 759 pages, to unfold more faithfully with plenty of time to tell a rather complex story. Indeed, this is the first film since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to pretty much move at the pace of the book.

And as the last volume, the filmmakers no longer feel the need to do much exposition for latecomers. You’ve got to come to the film having seen or read the story up to now to understand what the significance of the horcruxes are that Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione are seeking. As he did in the previous film, Half-Blood Prince, director David Yates has employed a very muted color pallet to create a sober and fearful tone as the evil Lord Voldemort’s army triumphs over the Ministry of Magic, making Harry and friend fugitives while they search for the horcruxes containing parts of Voldemort’s soul. The near monochromatic design began to wear on me after a while; what is described in a book is easier to tolerate than over two hours of dim lighting that may actually be bleaker than The Dark Knight. Part 1 ends with Harry more isolated than ever and Voldemort gaining one of the powerful objects that give the story its title. There’s no good place to leave off in the middle of the story, but fans will be satisfied by the end, knowing what powerful conclusion lies in Part 2.

More than in the past films, most of the story is carried by the three young actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Besides carrying the normal weight of their characters, they must also undergo the stresses of suspicion and self-doubt brought on by their arduous exile from friends and family, trying their years of companionship. All three actors show how far they’ve grown in their art, especially Radcliffe.

Despite the greater room for narrative, I still noticed that the script left out a crucial moment from the book where Harry and Hermione see an important scripture engraved on a tombstone, a glimpse at author Rowling’s Christian underpinnings in her storytelling–alas no surprise these days. Another reminder that the best place to enjoy this epic story is in the many pages of the original books.

August 23, 2009

Book Review: Angry Conversations with God

Filed under: Books — Alex @ 2:17 am

Angry Conversations
Susan Issacs is funny. That’s the first thing you need to know about the author of a recent memoir built around the actress/comedian’s “taking God to couples’ counseling” sessions. After a painful breakup with her boyfriend and seeing her acting career crash and burn, Issacs, raised Lutheran and recommitted as a young adult to relationship with Jesus, finally has had enough of crushing disappointments. There, under the guidance of a Christian counselor, she works out her case against God in a series of chapters that chart her upbringing, discovery of her acting and comedy skills and how that conflicted with her evangelical faith. Along the way, she pinballs from one strange church to the next and from one relationship to another experiencing frustration in both areas

As the chapters proceed the voice in her head that she imagines is God, or Jesus is included, in script form, in her counseling sessions and we learn that Susan’s early experiences with an angry and aloof father and a pious mother who urged her not to get angry lest people not like her contributed, along with her own choices, to make her a walking train wreck struggling with anorexia, smoking, drinking and other issues. This could be quite dark except–Susan Issacs is funny. We’ve heard that comedians transmute their pain into humor; Issacs has that ability and maintains that “sarcasm is a viable form of communication.” As her account proceeds we see the bind that Christian actors often find themselves in–they won’t take certain roles that would violate their witness and often other Christians don’t understand their struggles to succeed in a “worldly” profession–as if medicine and law, for example, didn’t have ethical pitfalls.

The “angry conversations” Susan has in counseling are quite refreshing as she spills her guts, protesting her misfortunes as the hands of church members and, as she perceived it, God Himself. It reminds me of some of David’s often despairing psalms, not all of which ended with a “praise the Lord!” Issacs is unsparing about her own behavior and I admire her transparency. There is a real resolution that allows God to show up and speak for Himself, outside of Susan’s imagination. For a taste of the book and Issacs’ performances and writing, check out her sizable site and watch her media interviews on the book and other samples of her work.

May 29, 2009

Book Review: Dark City

Filed under: Books — Alex @ 3:41 pm

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Film Noir, a term coined by French critics (“black film”) was a cinematic phenomenon that arose in the mid-1940s and survived through most of the 1950s. A new hybrid species of Hollywood film, it could encompass elements of the gangster, police procedural or even melodrama genres, but was distinguished by its mood and style. The “noir” of this sprawling mode was in it’s use of low-key lighting to set a tone of moral darkness or ambiguity-a nocturnal world of ambitious chumps, deadly dames, and an underworld population that was the mirror opposite of the bright, comforting and romantic stories that had characterized the Hollywood studio system.

Drawing often from the pulp fiction of Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler and crime novels of James M. Cain, and set in the post-war era of returning vets, a country victorious but disillusioned about its own domestic righteousness, the films told tales of crime, betrayal and frankly, lust that were made palatable and even artistically compelling by the restraint imposed by the Hollywood Production Code. Thus the noir world is one of shadows symbolizing the dark corners men and women find themselves in when drawn by their own desires, ambitions and flaws.

Film theorists love to analyze film noir and fight battles over what it all says about America, capitalism, Cold War paranoia and just what films fit in the canon, but the best book I’ve read on the subject is Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, by Eddie Muller. Muller, a journalist, noted mystery writer and grand master of all things noir, writes comprehensively on a vast number of titles organized topically in geographic analogies to his titular Dark City (Vixenville, Shamus Flats, Thieves Highway, etc.) giving plot descriptions (which I had to skip through at times to avoid spoilers) and often providing profiles of the great actors who contributed to the genre and whose lives sometimes strangely paralleled those of the Dark City’s denizens.

I plan to look for titles I discovered in the book to add to my Netflix list–there’s something alluring about film noir–it doesn’t plunge you into the dirt and grime of contemporary wannabe crime film junkies such as Tarantino–you can enjoy these little urban tragedies for their beauty, style and cautionary strains that remind us of the wages of sin without feeling the need for a bath afterwards.

September 24, 2008

New Book: Understanding Evangelical Media

Filed under: Books — Alex @ 9:07 pm

In July a new book, Understanding Evangelical Media: The Changing Face of Christian Communication, was released by InterVarsity Press. The collective work of “over forty scholars and communication professionals,” according to its website description, it includes three short breakout essays my yours truly. Edited by Quentin Schultze and Robert H. Woods, the book tries to get a handle on the way the diverse evangelical community uses various mass media as well as other communication forms like worship music and public relations. The book is intended for use in classrooms studying this ever changing phenomenon as well as just anyone interested in how the faithful have adapted what many in that community once considered worldly tools to communicate with both churched and secular audiences. The site linked to above has much added material that enhances the book itself and introduces you to the book much better than I could.

One of my local newspapers, the south Florida Sun-Sentinel ran an article last Sunday about the book with interviews with Schultze, a Palm Beach Atlantic Colleague and myself. Hope you enjoy it.

September 6, 2008

Thank God for evolution. Huh?

Filed under: Books,Faith Issues,Science — Culture Beat @ 4:12 pm

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“Nothing matters more at this time in history than what people think about evolution.”

We might expect that kind of universal claim to come from a passionate evangelist, and in a way that’s correct. Except that this preacher, Michael Dowd, says evolution is the good news.

Dowd, ordained in the United Church of Christ, and his wife of seven years, science writer Connie Barlow, travel the country full-time, preaching and teaching a surprising message: Rather than threaten or undermine faith, evolution can sustain, inform and even motivate religious belief.

“Both of us have this passion of telling the story of evolution in an inspiring way,” Dowd explained in a phone conversation this week. “We share the same purpose of communicating a science-based vision of the universe in a religious way.” (Dowd is pictured below. That guy caricatured above is a cartoon version of Charles Darwin — just in case you were sleeping through high school and college biology and the last 155 years.)

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They bring their message to Northeast Tennessee on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, speaking at Holston Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church and First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. (For details, contact the Rev. Jacqueline Luck at (423) 477-7661 or the Rev. John Shuck at (423) 543-7737.) Dowd published a 430-page book last fall with an eye-catching title: “Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World” (Viking). He also runs a Web site.

His missionary zeal for “evolutionary theology” comes from a conviction that evolution itself provides meaning to existence by creating – yes, creating – a “holy trajectory” from simplicity to ever-greater complexity.

“Humans are part of that process,” Dowd said. “The universe became complex enough so that it could be aware of itself. We’re not separate from nature. It’s nature becoming aware of itself.”

He believes that as religious traditions accept this understanding, “they’ll see their truths are more real, more visceral.” This view of the cosmos stands in contrast with evolutionary thinking that leaves little room for purpose or meaning.

“When I talk to conservative audiences,” Dowd said, “I tell them they’re right to reject evolution mostly as a chance, purposeless process. I present evolution in a God-glorifying, Christ-edifying, Scripture-honoring way.”

In his view, humans represent a high-water mark in evolutionary development: we are conscious of ourselves and seek relationships not only with other humans but with the “ultimate reality” itself. In Dowd’s vocabulary, the proper name we give that ultimate reality is God.

Language is another bridge linking science and religion, according to Dowd. When we understand how language developed, he said, “All concepts of God and religion make complete sense.”

All societies grow up with what he calls “night language … the language of dreams and metaphors that humans have used through their history to explain the world.

“These stories speak deep subjective truth,” he said. “The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden – that’s profoundly true in night language. Then science comes along … and puts down night language, speaks only in ‘day language,’ which is literal and fact-based. Myths are pushed aside. Of course the religionists react against that.”

But the two “languages” not only exist together. They help interpret each other.

“Science and religion cannot be only reconciled – that’s lame,” Dowd said. “There’s mutual enhancing. The scientific enterprise can’t avoid the question of meaning, or it goes off into destruction. The Nazis showed us that. Religion is enriched by being grounded in the world of day language and concepts.”

At first glance, this sounds like the old argument that science and religion operate in different spheres and answer different questions. But not really: Dowd wants to “marry” science and religion, not divorce them. To him, scientific study is a spiritual discipline and religious belief must be informed by science. (“Facts are God’s native tongue,” he likes to say.)

Thinking of evolution as the great purpose of existence, directing us to a God as “the ultimate reality,” doesn’t fit easily with long-held beliefs. Dowd’s most persistent criticism comes from “those who take their metaphors literally.” (His book includes about 120 endorsements from religious leaders, philosophers and scientists, including five Nobel laureates. Theologically conservative Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars are notable by their absence.)

But look at the world through this lens, says Dowd, and we can see a 21st-century road to salvation.

“Evolution understood in a sacred, meaningful way is really good news,” Dowd said. “It bridges all those old divides between head and heart, between science and religion.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 6 Sept. 2008.

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August 30, 2008

Book Review: Wisdom from the Batcave

Filed under: Books,Uncategorized — Alex @ 12:28 pm

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The book market has for several years seen a proliferation of books that purport to draw religious and philosophical insights from pop culture. I’ve written about books that draw that adduce spiritual principles from superheroes. And this Amazon search page shows what kind of titles you get when you try searching for a non-canonical source using “The Gospel According to . . . ”

I was watching a fascinating History Channel documentary, Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight that aired right before the record-breaking Bat-film premiered in July (I hope this becomes an extra on the Dark Knight‘s DVD release) and one of the expert commentators was Cary A. Friedman, a rabbi who has taught “spiritual survival” to FBI classes at Quantico. I had never grasped how Batman had displayed a moral philosophy that is useful for everyday people rather than just vigilantes. I ordered his book, Wisdom from the Batcave (it was sold out at Amazon and I had to wait a week for it to ship, but it’s in stock this writing.) What sold me were the effusive endorsements from comic-book professionals who appreciated that someone had detected and expounded upon the morally exemplary life led by the complex character. Longtime Bat-scribe and professing Christian Chuck Dixon’s blurb reads:

It was a rough neighborhood I grew up in back in Philadelphia. And a kid needed some guidelines to make sure he didn’t follow the wrong path. The nuns at St Andrews would have been horrified to learn that sometimes What Would Batman Do was of more practical use than anything contained in my Catechism. Bruce Wayne, and the man he would become, spoke to me more than the other costumed do-gooders I read about because he wasn’t transformed by a lightning bolt, magic ring or the benefit of extraterrestrial origin. He became the Dark Knight Detective through dedication and courage and hard work. That meant that if I stayed in school, obeyed my parents and ate my vegetables then I could be a hero. That’s the message that seeped into my brain from the thousands of pages of comic books that I read and re-read throughout my childhood.

Rabbi Friedman beautifully articulates the lessons and meaning and source of inspiration that Batman provided for me and millions of other kids; what we assimilated as kids through countless hours of following the struggles and solving the mysteries and going into combat beside Batman and Robin. The Rabbi distills that experience elegantly and provides a lesson even for the already-initiated. This book makes the case better than anything that I have ever read for why Bob Kane’s creation continues to fascinate (and instruct) decades after his first appearance.

More such reviews can be read at the book’s website linked from the title above. Reading the book was no disappointment–rising above the Reader’s Digest level of sentimental bromides, Friedman draws upon his rabbinic training in wisdom and virtue to offer any reader simple but deep insights into such values as perseverance, hard work and preparedness, old fashioned axioms that have never been disproven and which form the foundation of Batman’s appeal. The chapters are quite short, sometime one or two pages but illustrated with appropriate panels from Batman comics that show indeed how the Batman’s character is his greatest weapon, and potentially, one, each of us ordinary folks can appropriate in our daily battles against discouragement, cynicism and yes, the evils we encounter.

July 6, 2008

Taming Aslan

Filed under: Books,Movies — Alex @ 9:43 pm

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Last month I wrote an article for Breakpoint analyzing why the recent Disney/Walden adaptation of the second book of The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian, misses the mark in capturing the themes that C. S. Lewis wove into it. If you love the books and felt like something wasn’t quite right about the movie, maybe it will shed some light on the subject.

May 19, 2008

Cultural Covergence: Another Narnia Connection in Lost

Filed under: Books,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 11:00 pm

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A few posts ago I wrote about how one of Lost‘s current season episodes introduced a new character, Charlotte Staples Lewis, a scientist from the mysterious freighter who literally drops into the island. My post referenced the brilliant analysis by Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen, who expertly recaps each episode and finds a wealth of allusions, literary, cinematic and others, many of which might acutally be intentional and could tell us something about the significance of a name or character. Charlotte’s initials, being clear signposts to C. S. (Clives Staples) Lewis, came along about the same time her fellow freighter colleague, physicist Daniel Faraday begins experiments that indicate the island is moving through time at a slower rate than the surrounding world. Indeed, in recent weeks the island survivors found the freighter’s murdered doctor washed ashore and when they radio the news to the ship, the doctor himself is still alive there. In fact, the island time seems in flux, sometimes faster, sometimes slower than that of the outside world.

Last week’s episode, “There’s No Place Like Home, part. 1,” itself a reference to The Wizard of Oz, ended with some of our survivors trekking through the forest to rescue friends when they again encounter “the Others,” the strange group of humans who have apparently been on the island far longer than they have. For a long time they were seen as the enemy, but with a group of mercenaries on a mission to “torch the island,” perhaps these forest dwellers might not be the real villains. And that’s where the Narnia connection seems to arise.

With the Disney/Walden adaptation of the second Chronicles of Narnia book, Prince Caspian premiering last weekend, I started persusing the book to reacquaint myself with movie’s source. Set many hundreds of years after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children find that the land they once ruled was long before invaded by the Telmarines. They discover that time moves much more quickly in Narnia than in their own world. They rescue a dwarf from the Telmarines who tells them of the dire state of the enchanted land now ruled by those who have suppressed the truth about Narnia’s glorious past and it’s wonderful creatures.
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When, in the fifth chapter, Prince Caspian learns that his Uncle Miraz seeks his death in order to allow his own newborn son to become the next heir to the throne of Narnia, he flees into the woods and is warily taken in by a talking badger and two dwarves, Trumpkin and Nikabrik. Caspian learns that they are part of “Old Narnia,” the talking animals and mythical creatures who were driven away by the invading Telmarines who conquered Narnia ages earlier. Now considered merely the stuff of legend, Caspian discovers the tales are true. The chapter ends with this paragraph:

There was a great deal more talk, but it all ended with the agreement that Caspian should stay and even the promise that, as soon as he was able to go out, he should be taken to see what Trumpin called “the Others”; for apparently in these wild parts all sorts of creatures the the Old Days of Narnia still lived on in hiding.

Coincidence? With the earlier allusions, it’s now hard to deny that Lost‘s masterminds are either doing some bigtime cultural poaching in the woods of Narnia or trying to weave a brilliant web that captures our imaginations in new and intriguing ways.

March 20, 2008

Great Adaptations, Part 2: The New Frontier

Filed under: Books,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 8:00 am

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Those of you who grew up reading DC comics and who still harbor a love for the superhero genre in your adult years may have heard of or read Darwyn Cooke’s neo-classic graphic novel, DC: The New Frontier, first published in 2004. Cooke’s genius concept was to re-imagine the transition from the era of the first superheroes, the 1940s’ “Golden Age” to the latter 1950s’ “Silver Age” of jet-era characters. The dark undertones of the story arise from a political angle as the first superheroes face governmental efforts to either shut down the masked vigilantes in favor of merely human law enforcement or, in Superman and Wonder Woman’s case, their co-optation as government-sanctioned agents. It’s the era of Cold War paranoia and anyone who won’t unmask or retire operate underground (like Batman).

This resonates historically with the congressional hearings in real life when, featuring psychiatrist Frederick Wertham author of the accusatory book, Seduction of the Innocent, which charged comic books with promoting unhealthy attitudes and behavior in impressionable youth. Comics publishers agreed to police the content of their magazines and give them the Comics Code stamp of approval. The Silver Age began in 1956, with the appearance of the Flash, a sleeker re-invention of the Golden Age character. Like his mythological inspiration Mercury, herald of the gods, he announced the return to exciting adventure tales for a new generation.

Cooke’s epic covers pretty near every DC character of the era, many of which I only vaguely knew of as a small boy glancing over comics in Barnes’ Drug store around 1960. His retro art style wonderfully captures the commercial art of the era and everything about the book is well-thought out. He captures a Cold War America entering the Space Age with its bright hope of reaching for the moon that will inspire in the country at large and in the minds of comics’ readers. The title itself refers to John F. Kennedy’s promise of a new generation facing the geopolitical and scientific challenges of tomorrow with courage and grace. Cooke even includes salutory elements of Philip Kaufman’s space epic The Right Stuff to fuse comic book sensibilities with the world of the brave and bold test pilots. The book’s central character is Hal Jordan, test pilot for Ferris Aircraft and soon to become the Silver Age Green Lantern. We learn why he is choosen as the most fearless candidate for the power ring that obeys his will.

The book starts slowly and those of a conservative bent might be, as I was, put off by the ideological elements of the first chapters. But as I followed the story’s many characters and plotlines I realized it was taking me to heights I’d never experienced in a comic narrative. I’d rarely if ever been deeply moved by superhero stories, I read them for the pure fun of fantastic adventures. DC: The New Frontier combines comic and real life history in an unforgettable saga that ends with a staggering action climax that resolves the many conflicts and creates the world many kids have always loved about DC’s universe of heroes.
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Three weeks ago, Warner Bros. releaseed a direct-to-video adaptation titled JLA: The New Frontier. The title change indicates the necessary reduction of scope to fit a 78 minute animated movie–there are fewer non-Justice League of America characters and plotlines but the shape of the original remains potently intact. Cooke, who had worked with Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series) on the JLA animated stories, knows how to make characters work onscreen and this is the best looking of anything produced by Timm and associates, and captures Cooke’s style perfectly. Some might complain that newbies coming to the story would be baffled by the wide array of characters, but that’s pretty much how I felt about the book–the more you know about the Silver Age DC universe, the more you will enjoy it but you don’t have to know a whole lot to get that the characters you grew up with, (especially if you were in the Boomer cohort), have grown profoundly richer in both versions of the story.

March 16, 2008

Great Adaptations, Part 1: Expecto Correctus!

Filed under: Books,Movies — Alex @ 6:23 pm

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Last summer, when I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book of the immensely popular series, especially after the halfway point, I thought, “They’ll have to make two films out of this–at 759 pages, it’s got too many characters, plot points, and action scenarios.” Of course, the fifth book, the 870-page Order of the Phoenix was a longer book and it became the shortest movie, so it didn’t follow that the movie adaptors would agree with me, but this report confirms my hopes. Yes, there’s cynical talk of the double finale films being a way to squeeze twice as much revenue out of the franchise, but in this case, there’s simply too much in the text, too many plotlines and character arcs to complete not to two film. I even know the best place for the first part’s cliffhanger ending. Any guesses?

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