Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sweeney Todd


Could someone pretty please explain the end of this film to me, because I've watched it several times (the end), and I still can't follow what happens. It looks like to me like...

Anthony brings Joanna to Barber Shop (in disguise as boy) and tells her to wait. She hides in box. Alan Rickman comes to shop looking for Joanna and Todd kills him and dumps him in the chute. Box opens and Todd doesn't recognize Joanna and offers to shave him/her, but hears scream. He tells "Joanna" to wait there and goes down to basement where Mrs. Lovett is finishing off Rickman, but there sees (what looks to me like) dead Joanna and so throws Mrs. Lovett into the fire. Or is the other dead figure in the basement Anthony? And who killed him? (Mrs. Lovett?)

Little help?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Evolutionary Ponderings of Characters in Literature

With the recent release of a major film challenging Darwinian evolutionary though (no, I haven't seen it), there's been a lot of buzz on all sides about the question of how (or whether) one's belief's about how life began effect how we act.

I think we tend to see in people's behavior's confirmation of our assumptions about possible connections between belief systems and living. That's why this quote about Clare, from George MacDonald's A Rough Shaking caught my attention:

If we have come up from the animals to be what we are, Clare must have been a dog of a good, faithful breed, for he did right now as if by some ancient instinct.(158)

One could argue that the use of the conditional here does not indicate that MacDonald did, in fact, believe in trans-species evolution. What strikes me as interesting, though, is his narrative lack of concern about the question. The nature of animals is a reoccuring theme in this particular novel, and it shows how MacDonald was capable of very flexible theological thought because, I think he only really held fast to two axioms as far as I can tell: God exists and He is good.

Perhaps this passage struck me more in tone than content, since I just finished talking about Gosse's excerpt on evolution in the Victorian literature section of the Norton. Gosse says of his father's confrontation with evolutionary thought that there was a kind of "agony" in being confront with two, incompatible truths. MacDonald never seems to have this sort of existential agony (what if I'm wrong? what if there is no God and I cease to exist at death?) and yet he doesn't seem to avoid it through a philosophical retreat to dogmatism. He seems to avoid it through, well not belief,exactly, through knowledge.

Here's a rough transcription of an exchange between Violet and Dr. Cukrowicz in Suddenly Last Summer:

Sebastian saw the face of God.

I’d like to hear about that.

One long ago summer, sitting right here in this garden, Sebastian said to me, “Mother, listen to this.” He read to me Herman Melville’s description of the Encantadas, the Gallapagos Islands. He read me that inscription and said we had to go there. And so we did go there, that summer, on a chartered boat a [----] schooner looking as close as possible to the sort of boat Melville would have sailed on. We saw the encantadas. But on the Encantadas, we saw something that Melville hadn’t written about. We saw the great sea turtles crawl up out of the sea for their annual egg laying. Once a year, the female of the sea turtles crawls up out of the equiatorial sea onto the blazing sand beach of a volcanic island to dig a pit in the sand and deposit her eggs there. It’s a [--] and dreadful thing the depositing of the eggs in the sand pits, and when it’s finished, the exhausted female turtle crawls back to the sea half dead. She never sees her offspring. But we did. Sebastian knew exactly when the sea turtle eggs would be hatched, and we returned in time for it.

You went back?

In time to witness the hatching of the sea turtles and their desperate flight to the sea. A narrow beach. The color of caviar was all in motion. The sky was in motion, too, full of flesh-eating birds, and the noise of the birds, their horrible, savage cries, as they circled over the narrow, black beach of the Encantadas, while the new-hatched sea turtles scrambled out of their sand pits and started their race to the sea.

Race to the sea?

To escape the flesh-eating birds that made the sky almost as black as the beach. And I said, “Sebastian…no…no…it’s not like that” but he made me look. He made me see that terrible sight.

What was not like that?

Life. I say no! No! That’s not true! But he said it, yes. He said, “Look Violet. Look. There on the shore.” And I looked and saw the sand and all alive, all alive, as the new-hatched sea turtles made their dash to the sea while the birds hovered and swooped to attack, and hovered and swooped to attack. They were diving down on the sea turtles, turning them over to expose their soft, undersides. Tearing their undersides open, and rending and eating their flesh. Sebastian guessed that possibly only a hundredth of one percent of their number would escape to the sea.

Nature is not created in the image of man’s compassion.

Nature is cruel. Sebastian knew it all along, he was born knowing it. But not I. I said, no, ‘those are only birds, turtles, not us.’ I didn’t know then it was us, that we are all of us cracked by this devouring creation. I couldn’t, wouldn’t face the horror of the truth. Even that last day in the Encantadas, when Sebastian left me, and spent the whole blazing equatorial day in the crow’s nest of the schooner watching that thing on the beach until it was too dark to see. And when he came down the rigging, he said, “Well now I’ve seen Him” and he meant God.

Do you believe he saw God?

He saw the whole thing there, that day on the beach. But I was like you. I said, “no.” I refused to believe. Until suddenly, last summer, I learned that my son was right. That what he had shown me in the Encantadas was the horrible, the inescapable truth.

The character(s) in Williams's play do not seem to be arguing that evolution leads to man acting brutally or nihilistically. It does seem to suggest that cruelty--the strong preying on the weak--is the operating principle witnesses in the evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest.

Is this offensive? Ideological? A slight on atheists who don't believe in God? It's funny (strange) to me that MacDonald, a Christian, basically says that MacDonald, in holding on to a conviction of God's operation and intention in the development of man and the universe is more charitable towards the (possible) effects of evolution than is Williams (or his character anyway). There is a hopelessness in Violet's speech that is 20th century, to be sure, and one that is consistent with a mother grieving for her son. But I'm not sure it's all just surface grief speaking and that there is not some intentional comment about the pointlessness of human existence in a (solely) Darwinian universe.

Funny, Violet opines early in the film. A child who loses a parent is an orphan. A woman who loses a husband is a widow. And a parent who loses a child is..."nothing." The surface meaning is, of course, that we have no word in our language for that. I wonder, though, with the evolutionary motif running throughout the film, if there isn't a claim there that we only exist through our offspring (the whole film is about Violet trying to preserve the existence of Sebastian as she wants him by trying to get Elizabeth Taylor's character lobotomized) that one might wonder if what she is saying is that the end of the (family) line is the end of the (existence) line.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Which Jane Austen Character am I?

Well, duh....no surprise here...just ask my delicate and perplexing matter....

Survey saaaaaaays:

Mr. Knightley.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema

I'm happy to report that I've received an offer to place this anthology under contract with an academic publisher.

I will post more details as I get them and once the contract is signed.

Here is a link to the table of contents.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

So I guess I can not shop at Circuit City now...

Long time readers of this blog know that I like to pick on Blockbuster from time to time.

Well, actually, not "like to" but I do it.

So when I heard the yellow and blue was buying Circuit City I thought maybe they were doing a turnaround from getting kicked in the face by Netflix.

Alas, no such luck. Every time I give Blockbuster another chance, it finds new and creative ways to screw up.

Case in point, I had one or two items available on Blockbuster that were not available on Netflix, so I re-signed up for their smallest mail plan: $3.99 for two movies a month. Fair enough. Blockbuster then sends me an offer. If I will "upgrade" to the next highest plan--$8.99 for one out at a time, unlimited, and two free rentals in store--they will give me one month free. Quick math check says that's an additional 99 cents over two months for which I get 4 free rentals (2 a month) in the store.

Only problem is when I turned in my first envelope for a free rental they said I had already used up my allotment. How could this be, since I just re-upped and this was the first trade in? No matter, the computer is always right. So I left the store without There Will Be Blood (which I still haven't seen but I suppose I'll get at Redbox next Monday).

Okay, so I'm out $5 or two rentals...not a huge hit, but enough to remind me why I stopped dealing with Blockbuster in the first place. Fool me once, shame on them. Fool me for the umpteenth time and I learn my lesson.

Oh, and as a side note, some of you may know that Blockbuster makes a big deal out of refusing to stock NC-17 films but will stock unrated foreign films or made for cable soft porn like Red Shoes Diaries. I was surprised then to see Ang Lee's Lust, Caution on the shelves. I was more surprised to see the studio had apparently caved to pressure and released an expurgated version of the film to that it could get into Blockbuster stores. Funnier still was the advertising banner on the DVD: "The 'R' rated version NOT seen in theaters!" Ah, yes, normally we get the promise in a Director's Cut of all the stuff you couldn't see in the theater (in an "UNRATED" director's cut). Here we get the "selling point" that the film is new because they took out all the stuff you COULD see in the theater. Bizarre.

Post-script. When canceling my service, I was required to fill out a check list explaining my reason(s) for canceling. It ended with a "pretty please won't you tell us your main reason for canceling" so I wrote an explanation of the problems I had with customer service, opportunities I had given them to resolve the issue, and what it would take for me to remain a customer (simple, honor your agreement and provide the services you said you would). Laughably, the website did not accept my cancellation. Instead I got an error message that I had exceed the '255 character" maximum field allotment for my reason for canceling.

Yeah, guess they really do want to hear from their customers on how they can improve.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

My review of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is now available at Christian Spotlight on Entertainment.

The film opens this Friday, but I was able to get a ticket to an advance showing in Raleigh last week. Worth watching if you liked Knocked Up. (And no, the screenin wasn't specific to crtics nor obtained through the publication venue, so spare me the finger wagging about embargoes and blackout dates, please.)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Mismeasure of Mentors

The April edition of "The Matthew's House Project" is up, and it includes a short essay from me about Robert Fritz's eulogy of Karlheinz Stockhausen, using Francis Schaeffer to teach Western Civ, and the one area in which Christians and Darwinists are actually pretty similar.

It's all connected by...well, here, go read it yourself.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Another Film Board

Some people may know that awhile ago I was banned from a certain film discussion board (that focuses on the arts and faith).

There was always some part of me that thought, "I wonder what would happen if..." and when I realized that the board software (Invision) was actually free, I thought, well, I'll just make a discussion board and see what happens.

Some people like to discuss film but don't like leaving comments at other people's blogs.

So, if you feel like talking about film, here's a link to Another Film Board.

Worst case scenario, I look stupid and nobody ever posts there; best case scenario I get some cool conversations about film.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

At the Death House Door (2008)

Jeffrey Overstreet has graciously provided space at Looking Closer for my review of the new documentary by the makers of Hoop Dreams and Stevie. The film centers mostly around the story of Carroll Pickett, a chaplain who witnessed ninety-five executions during his tenure.

Link to the review.

Friday, April 04, 2008

August Rush

I won't say that August Rush is the worst movie I've seen in the last year (at least), not because it isn't but only because I'm too tired having torn apart Dan in Real Life to have the energy to expound on all the bad choices made by the film's makers. (Excepting, perhaps Robin Williams's sideburns; I'm hard pressed to decide if his costuming was meant to overtly reference Brokeback Mountain and Midnight Cowboy and thus make implicit the character's gay-menace subtext or whether, given the film is essentially a reinvention of Oliver Twist, it is only supposed to get us as far away as possible from Fagin's Jewish identity and the implicit Jew-menace subtext.)

I will say that I can't think of a film since A Thin Red Line that drags on longer after you know what is going to happen. (I actually caught myself straining for glimpses of George Clooney in the Central Park crowd until I realized I, not August, was having a flashback.) I'm not sure whether or not to blame that on the writing, directing, or editing. I want to say the latter, as the film is perpetually building to montage moments over song-track serenades only to abruptly come to a screeching halt in order to start another. I guess this is meant to build tension (as opposed to merely make the film longer), but instead it just builds sluggishness. We're told repeatedly that these characters are desperately searching for each other, but they sort of slog through the film with a slothful confidence that if they wait long enough the movie they know they are in will end and they have no responsibility (beyond turning to the next page of the script) for moving their story along.

Freddie Highmore has a quiet intelligence and (miraculously for this film) the sense to avoid mugging (mostly) for the camera that allows him to escape from a sentimental shlockfest with his dignity intact. (Stack him up against Haley Joel Osment in Pay It Forward, and you'll see the difference between being in a bad movie versus being of one.) Terence Howard glides around the periphery of the action, and I'm uncertain whether he is supposed to be invoking his cop character in The Brave One or one of the angels in Wings of Desire. Certainly the sadness that Howard conveys (primarily through his low voice) plays against our cultural stereotypes of the big, angry black male and hence makes his characters memorable and seem a lot more varied than they really are. That's not a knock on him as an actor, though. The truth is that his performance, like Highmore's (and, really, I would even argue Williams's, though I don't like it) evidence an actor who knows (either deep down or straight up) that there's just nothing to his character in the script and it's up to him to make him real through performance choice and character mannerisms. While I always appreciate a professional giving it a go rather than phoning it in, in this case (ironically, since the subject is music) the independent choices the actors make for the characters clash, and so each seems to be inhabiting a different movie. (I started to say a "different world," but, again, these characters don't live in a world, they are characters who know they are characters in a movie rather than characters who think they are people in a world.)

For reasons I cannot fathom (perhaps because the film made me think of a parent searching for a child) the last paragraph and the distinction between characters who are people versus who know they are in a film made me think of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's 1996 masterpiece La Promesse. In it, Jeremie Renier as Igor spends a considerable amount of time trying to find a child. The contrast between these two films is a master illustration in the difference between plot as a bunch of stuff that happens and plot as the framework through which character is revealed and developed.