Category Archives: Movie Reviews

REVIEW: LAST JEDI

REVIEW LAST JEDI (generic spoilers only):
Best Star Wars film since the original trilogy, but marred by PoMo cynicism. In the original trilogy, you could celebrate the defeat of the Dark Side unironically, shout “Harelukiah!” with the Ewoks with unmixed joy after the destruction of the Death Star. Now we have to question whether there is any real difference between Jedi and Sith, whether it really matters who wins. In one way, this is an improvement, because the original’s unironic battle between Good and Evil (as if they were ultimately really different) was inconsistent with the metaphysics of the Star Wars Universe, where Light and Dark are merely two sides of the same “Force.” The latest installment is more consistent with its own premises than the original–but less consistent with the moral order of the real universe. There are positive aspects to the new perspective: It is good for a Jedi to question his own hubris–but not to the point where he questions whether there is a real difference between Good and Evil.
 
Contrast Tolkien, who is no Pollyanna. He has good people being corrupted (Theoden almost, Saruman and Denethor finally). But he does not have Gandalf ever wonder if the battle against Sauron is worth fighting or leave the readers wondering if there is really any difference between Gandalf and Sauron. That kind of moral clarity is only possible in a universe with the biblical foundations of Middle Earth. Star Wars can only get there by cheating with its own metaphysical foundations. In the 21st Century, it remains to be seen in episode 9 whether it can get there at all.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised and expanded, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality, or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

 Also, check out Dr. Williams’s latest book:  Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016)!

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Review: Jackson’s “Battle of the Five Armies”

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After finally watching Peter Jackson’s THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, I was pretty much unmoved, either to admiration or to anger. I was surprised by that, because there was plenty of both to report about all the earlier films. The truth is that there is really nothing left to learn from one more Jackson film about either Middle Earth or Jackson’s version of it. The parts that were good and the parts that were unnecessarily stupid and lame were pretty predictable from the first two Hobbit films. Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.

Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.

OK, what are some of the things I had said before?  Now that Jackson’s entire interpretation of the legendarium is complete it might be worthwhile to revisit some of them.  If you want them in full versions, they can be found here:  https://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/04/review-the-hobbit-part-1-directed-by-peter-jackson/;   https://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/11/9196/;   https://lanternhollowpress.com/2014/02/03/review-the-desolation-of-smaug/.  For now, I will sum up:

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Skipping the obvious (the visuals are mostly authentic and usually breathtaking), I understand that the change to a new medium requires changes to the story.  So I’m not a purist.  I didn’t mind, for example, Bombadil being dropped or having the characters of Arwen and Glorfindel conflated.  So saying that “It’s different from how Tolkien did it” is not, by itself, a valid criticism.  There are even a couple of changes to the legendarium that are actual improvements.  [I pause for all the Tolkien fans who know me to gasp in horror.]  First, it actually makes more sense for Narsil to be in a shrine in Rivendell than it does for Aragorn to be carrying a useless sword around with him in the wild.  Anybody who has done any serious backpacking knows that dead weight is the last thing you want with you.  Aragorn is the most experienced outdoorsman in Middle Earth.  I rest my case.  Second, it makes sense for Aragorn to have kept the Army of the Dead with him through the end of the Battle of Pellenor Field.  His little band of thirty Dunedain plus an elf and a dwarf, however good they might be, would not have been enough to turn the tide.

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I object to two things:  Changes that are just dumb and changes that alter the basic meaning and philosophy behind the work.  First, the dumb.  OK, it’s a movie, and we have CGI now.  There is still a difference between an epic and a video game.  This became most pointedly evident in the first two Hobbit installments, where people fall down five-hundred-foot cliffs and get up and walk away as if nothing had happened, dwarves randomly fall out of a tree onto Eagles’ backs who just happen to be passing below at the right time instead of being plucked from them (Nobody is that lucky, even if you add the phrase “if luck you call it”), and two ninja elves double-handedly kill more orcs than Saruman and Sauron put together ever bred.  Tolkien added the laws of magic to Middle Earth, but he did not allow himself to break the laws of physics.  All the physical feats performed are physically possible.  Not in Jackson’s Middle Earth.  Even in a movie, it makes the art less serious.

Portrait-Tolkien-line-Murray

The Professor

 

Much more problematic are changes that alter the moral meaning of Tolkien’s tale.  Here the prime example (there are many others) is Faramir.  How do you get from “I wouldn’t pick this thing up if I found it lying in the road” to “Tell my father I send him a powerful weapon?”  There is no logical path from the one place to the other.  The reason so many of Tolkien’s characters have to be “complicated,” some, like Faramir, to the point that they are unrecognizable, is that Peter Jackson lacks the moral imagination to believe that virtue is believable to a modern audience.  Tolkien has evil characters (Sauron, Saruman by the time of LOTR), he has morally compromised characters (Gollum, Theoden, Denethor, Thorin) in whom either good (Theoden, Thorin) or evil (Denethor, Gollum) finally triumphs, and he has good characters with integrity (Aragorn, Faramir, and many others).  We meet more people in the middle category in real life, true.  But Tolkien believed that we need positive portraits of integrity to feed our moral imaginations on.  Jackson either does not understand or rejects as impossible that belief.  It is that difference in philosophy that makes his movies, for all their brilliance, ultimately unsatisfactory to people who truly love and understand Tolkien’s work.  For more on this point, see my article “The World of the Rings: Why Peter Jackson Was Unable to Film Tolkien’s Moral Tale,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 26:6 (Nov.-Dec. 2013): 14-16).  To see it online, go here:  http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=26-06-014-v.

The Professor

The Professor

The last installment of Jackson’s Hobbit adds nothing new to this account.  Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.

Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.  I hope some of the things I have said above help to explain why.

To see more of Dr. Williams’ writing, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., or Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy:  Poems and prose in pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty!

 

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

 

 

Thoughts on “Dead Poets Society”

The way Keating gets the boys to love poetry is brilliant. The Carpe Diem scene is profound. The ending is tragic. The whole is poignant.

Portrait-Keating2

Is Keating in hindsight responsible for the tragedy? Some have argued so and rejected the movie for that reason. I would not reject the film for that reason, even if I agreed with its premise.  It’s got too much good stuff and one hard lesson it might not know it’s teaching. It’s a lesson we need to get.

The lesson is the implications of the incompleteness of Keating’s worldview.  He comes across as a kind of proto-Sixties bohemian libertarian.  He is all about resisting bad assumptions and oppressive authority, and that is good.  But he offers no balance about how to identify rightful authority and why we should respect and obey it.  As a consequence, there is nothing about what to do when that respect and obedience come into conflict with other values we rightly hold.  I would have to say that while Keating was not directly responsible for the suicide (he gave the boy many good gifts and is not to blame for what he did with them), this imbalance was a contributing factor.  A more complete (that is, more fully biblical) world view in his mentor’s teaching and example might have given the student a stronger ability to handle the conflicted situation he found himself in. It’s a lesson I draw from the film, probably not one it set out to teach.

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Keating telling the truth.

One thing is certain: From now on, the ending will be even harder to watch.

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For more commentary by Dr. Williams, check out his books with Lantern Hollow Press!  Inklings of Reality, Stars Through the Clouds, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave.  To order, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

Review: Shadowlands

I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the upcoming movie about the friendship between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Universally my correspondents are hoping that it will “do justice” to the real men and their story.  Every indication is that it will be as loosely “based” on the real people as the earlier movie Shadowlands, about the romance between Lewis and Joy Davidman, was–which is to say, very, very loosely.  For example, Tolkien will apparently have trouble finishing LOTR not because of his perfectionism but because of PTSD unresolved from WWI with accompanying “psychotic dreams.”  (The film will be set in 1941.)  Nonsense, balderdash, fishfuzz, and horsefeathers!  To help with realistic expectations, I resurrect my old review of Shadowlands.

The Chronicler of Middle Earth

The Chronicler of Middle Earth

LIGHT ON SHADOWLANDS

 

This review was originally published in The Lamp-Post 29:2 (Sum. 2005, pub. June, 2007): 18-20.

One of the most significant movies of 1993 was “Shadowlands,” the story of the marriage of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. It is a wholesome family movie and a rich experience, with excellent performances by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as “Jack” Lewis and Joy. Any new interest it stirs in Lewis and his writings will be all to the good; but viewers should remember that they are watching, not history, but historical drama. They are not the same thing, and in this movie especially it is important to be aware of the difference.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Historical drama always distorts history in the interest of simplicity and theme. Characters are conflated and time is compressed (“Turning the accomplishment of years / Into an hourglass,” as Shakespeare put it) to make the presentation accessible to the audience. This is unavoidable and is to be expected as part of the genre. In “Shadowlands,” for example, Douglas Gresham’s brother David disappears altogether, and events that took place over eight years are compressed into what appears to be only one or two, as the ten-year-old Douglas who meets Lewis at the beginning appears to be the same age at the time of his mother’s death instead of being a young man in his teens. None of this should bother us. The real problem comes in the simplifications of the story for the sake of the movie’s theme, for they conspire to create a serious distortion of the man that C. S. Lewis actually was.

“Shadowlands” is the story of a stuffy, self-assured, emotionally sheltered ivory-tower British intellectual who is “humanized” by his relationship with the brash young American divorcee who storms into his life. It begins with Lewis lecturing church ladies groups on the meaning of pain, “God’s megaphone” to reach a deaf world, and ends with a chastened man who “no longer has any answers” after experiencing the pain of loss himself. Some reviewers I have read show no knowledge that the movie depicts people who actually lived. So far as that portrait of Lewis goes, they are ironically right.

Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.

Lewis lecturing to the RAF in WWII.

This false impression of Lewis is created, not merely by simplifications, but by blatant historical inaccuracies as well. The ivory tower in which the early Lewis is sheltered is created partly by omission. We never see the avid hiker who enjoyed nature with gusto (a figure prominent in Lewis’s diary) until after the marriage. Joy accuses Lewis of being surrounded by intellectual inferiors so that he “never loses” the debates he relishes. Yet the friends who were his intellectual peers—people like J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers—are conspicuous by their absence in the film. Lewis did not always see eye to eye with these friends (who were much more important parts of his life than the colleagues portrayed). His long friendship with the anthroposophist Barfield was jokingly referred to by them as “the great war.” But there are plain falsehoods as well as omissions. When the movie-Lewis takes Joy to see the Mayday celebration at the Magdalen Tower, he admits to her that he had never been before; he just never saw the point. But the real Lewis had been—on May 1, 1926, according to his diary—and apparently enjoyed it.

The most serious distortion of history comes at the end of the film, when a chastened Lewis seems to repudiate faith in general and the now seemingly glib pronouncements of The Problem of Pain in particular, saying that he no longer has answers—only life. It is as if the scriptwriters had read only the first half of A Grief Observed, which records Lewis’s real struggles in accepting Joy’s death from cancer, and not finished the book. Some distortion of history is inevitable in the transition from the real world to the stage or screen, but this distortion is inexcusable, for it reverses the real meaning of everything that happened.

Lewis in happy times.

Lewis in happy times.

A Grief Observed ends not with the repudiation of The Problem of Pain but with a reaffirmation of its content that adds to it the depth of a faith that has now been severely tested. Here’s how the book ends: “She said, not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornio all’ eternal fonatana (‘So she turned to the eternal fountain’).” The last words are a quotation from Dante’s Paradiso, the moment when Beatrice turns from the task of helping Dante to the vision of God back to re-absorption in the contemplation of that vision herself. Such was Lewis’s final conclusion about the meaning of his wife’s death. Joy’s last words were, “I am at peace with God.” The real Lewis died that way too, on the day President Kennedy was shot.

I am glad that I have seen “Shadowlands,” and I recommend that you see it too. It contains some of the truth about the Lewises’ relationship; it wonderfully helps us to visualize the setting and the culture in context of which these things occurred; and the portrait of Lewis’s brother, Warren, is delightfully true to life, judging from Warren’s own published journals. But we must see it, not as reality, but as an often distorted interpretation of reality.

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For the reality, the following are indispensable. Primary sources: C. S. Kilby, ed., Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren H. Lewis (Ballantine, 1982); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan, 1940—source of the early lectures in the movie); C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Seabury, 1961); Warren H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1966); Douglas Gresham, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (MacMillan, 1988); and Walter Hooper, ed., All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-27 (Harcourt Brace, 1991). Secondary sources: Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (Harcourt Brace, 1974); George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994)—but not A. N. Wilson’s biography, exploded as tendentious fiction by eyewitness Douglas Gresham.
Let us hope that the movie-renting public will be intrigued enough to discover the real Lewis, who, in Aslan’s Country now as he did in life before, probably finds all this attention a source of great amusement.

LWWCover

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  For more of his work on Lewis and Tolkien, order his book Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) or check out his works at Lantern Hollow Press.
https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

Much Ado About – Conflict in Interpretation

Originally posted July 2013

I’m a Whedon fan.  I am not ashamed to say that I pretty much not only follow Whedon’s shows and movies but I follow any actor who has been on a Whedon show.  Examples:  I started watching Bones because of David Boreanaz – Buffy and Angel; Castle because of Nathan Fillion – Buffy, Firefly, Doctor Horrible ; Suits because of Gina Torres – Firefly. You get the picture.  So I have been following Much Ado by Whedon for some time before it was even released in the US. I’ve been stocking IMDB to find out when it was showing, checking the blog to see when there were theaters within driving distance for me to see it. And trying to wrangle my friends to get a time when we could go as a group (the last part sort of failed but I did have a companion for the 2.5 hour drive to the nearest theater showing the film). Needless to say I finally saw the film.

The film was delightful.Much Ado_Whedon

But as I have mentioned I have been doing some anxious waiting, which for me means that I am reading articles and bugging friends about them.  One article in particular struck my interest, Drunk One-Night Stands Don’t Fit in Shakespeare’s World, by Gina Dalfonzo.  It articulates some real concerns about Whedon’s choice of showing a drunken tryst between Beatrice and Benedict. Having not seen the film yet I was only left with my own feelings on the subject and this article, which I happened to agree with.  A one-night stand doesn’t fit with Much Ado! Isn’t the whole point of the ado about Hero’s supposed unfaithfulness?  One of the compelling points that Dalfonzo makes is the idea of maidenhood.  We don’t use that word now a days but the idea of purity and what it means to be pure cannot have changed that much?  Could it?A081_C005_1017RU

Now Dalfonzo’s article alludes to an interview with Whedon some weeks earlier.  As I read the interview I came to see Whedon’s point of view. (Here is a little glimpse to some of the questions asked of Whedon concerning the idea of a sexual relationship between Beatrice and Benedict)

Did you worry that there would be any tension between that sexual history and the central tragedy of the play, in which Hero’s virtue is sullied so badly that even her own father wants her dead?

No, these people sort of have license to do whatever they want, and then when they suddenly turn on Hero, it’s a very ugly moment. I believe that Claudio and Leonato’s pain is genuine. They feel betrayed by someone they trusted.

So the crime is less the sex per se–the virtue in the classical sense–than it is the perceived disloyalty and deceit.

Exactly. I remember the first time I saw a production of the play, I didn’t really understand the whole idea that she had to be a virgin; I understood that she had to not be sleeping with someone else the night before her wedding. Which, you know, I still believe in modern times.

I agree that there was some relationship between Benedict and Beatrice.  No, one is questioning that, but the nature of the relationship is. Whedon even says, “There are some lines in the text that indicate it [sexual relationship], but there are some lines that contradict it.” As I watched Whedon’s Beatrice deliver her lines, I felt them as the stabbing pains of bitterness and regret.  It may have been a drunken affair but she felt something for him and she regretted not only the affair but that the thing between them was apparently over. She thought he didn’t love her. So she masks her shame and guilt with laughter and wit. And she does so quiet well.  Benedict masks his pain and regret in much the same way.  Thus, Whedon’s pair of lovers are able to be so easily persuaded by their informants because they actually want their love to be requited and their guilt alleviated through an honest relationship.

It is clear that Dalfonzo was looking for the “virtue in the classical sense” in the interpretation of Much Ado.  Yet,Whedon bypassed that concept entirely. Why? Well, oddly enough it is not Whedon who explains this or even Dalfonzo, it is the interviewer.  In response to Whedon’s, “which, you know, I still believe in modern times”, the interview state,”Yeah, I hope we can continue to keep the bar at thatlevel.”   When I read that I had to do a double take.  Where was the bar sat exactly? “I didn’t really understand the whole idea that she had to be a virgin; I understood that she had to not be sleeping with someone else the night before her wedding.”  The bar was set based on the inability to understand the virtue of virginity. If we miss the concept of that virtue than we have to find another virtue and Whedon did an admirable job of finding the next best virtue – loyalty and honesty.  Yet the virtues of loyalty and honesty would in fact lead to the virtue of virginity, because a woman/man would want to be loyal and honest with her/his spouse (future spouse, as well) therefore she/he would not want to sleep around and thus be discredited as being disloyal and unfaithful.  But in “modern times” the bar has been set as low as don’t sleep around on the night before you’re married and the virtue of virginity is lost.

I find the merits of Whedon’s interpretation within the disagreement of Dalfonzo’s critique and Whedon’s interview. Modern times.  Dalfonzo would say that even in a modern interpretation one cannot have an affair and fit it into Shakespeare, but Whedon did and I think it worked.  I don’t like it – not on artistic grounds or even interpretation.  I don’t like it because I am morally apposed to it.  I value the classical sense of virtue and purity – the virtue of virginity.  I also recognize that Whedon and most of the world is coming from a perspective of misunderstanding – post sexual revolution, where virginity has become something archaic and fuel for oppression.

Yet even with this view of sexuality in mind, Whedon still presents a strong case for purity until marriage, which is not based on a moral code.  Beatrice and Benedict’s tryst had consequences.  No, they weren’t publicly shamed as Hero was for her supposed unmaiden like behavior, but they were part of their own private shame that ate away at them. You could see it in their glances, tone of voice, attitude concerning Hero’s shame.  Beatrice’s wit becomes her weapon to bring shame on Benedict, while he acts like nothing happened.  But his behavior is just as much a mask as is seen when he declares “I cannot endure my Lady Tongue.” He too is hurt and shamed but does not know what to do. Seeing their misery, is proof that having an affair- drunken or not – is not worth the pain that it breeds.

Another coupling that also speaks volumes about purity being a good thing is Don John and Conrade (in Whedon’s film Conrade is a woman).  In the first major scene with Don John, he and Conrade are rather sensual and clearly about to enjoy one another, when Borachio steps in. At first I was not comfortable with the scene, but I got to thinking.  Isn’t that the point.  Here are two persons who have no regard for anyone but themselves.  Don John is the villain and Conrade is only as good as she can entertain him.  Don John in fact abandons her when it is convenient. Their behavior concerning sexuality and propriety are a reflection of their natures, which we see at once are evil and cruel.

Much Ado

On a side note, if I taught a Shakespeare class I’d probably show Whedon’s version over Branagh’s, because of the above argument.  The question of virtue  and what is virtuous is compelling and necessary for us in modern times to understand the disparity in concepts of virtues in culture.  And of course Whedon’s film is delightful.  It was great to see so many actors from Whedon’s other shows and movies.  It was like watching a reunion of sorts. There were some many things about the film that were beautiful and artistically pleasing – the black and white film, the landscape, the costumes.