Congratulations to Madeline DeFrees...

...who I had the pleasure of meeting unexpectedly on Sunday at Elliott Bay Bookstore, while standing in line to have a book signed by another author.

DeFrees is the first recipient of the Denise Levertov Award from Image.

If you want to know why...Read more


My Conversation With Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman

[Some of this material was previously published in March 2004 at Christianity Today.]

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My review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind led to an unexpected opportunity: a chance to interview the two creative masterminds of this remarkable film. It was a privilege to meet Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, and director Michel Gondry, and to ask them why they are so attracted to unconventional stories.

The following conversation does include a discussion of the ending of the film in somewhat vague terms. These comments could be considered “spoilers.” If you have not yet seen the film, you may wish to return and read this at a later date.

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Eternal Sunshine takes us into a bizarre dream-state. We enter the mind of an unconscious brain surgery patient (Jim Carrey) as he struggles to make sense of his scrambled memories. He has asked the doctor to “delete” all his memories of his girlfriend (Kate Winslet), but is now having second thoughts. So he frantically tries to salvage some of the most precious moments they spent together before the doctors erase them from his mind. The result is something like a love story thrown in the blender.

Kaufman clearly delights in confounding audience expectations. Viewers respond in two ways—some are delighted to experience something new, challenging, and enlightening, while others are disgusted that they did not get the formulaic, easy-to-swallow entertainment or the happy ending they thought they’d get.

However, this writer’s stories can be unsettling for other reasons as well. In Kaufman’s view of the world, people seem depraved, selfish and self-absorbed. Like Flannery O’Connor's stories, Kaufman's are like nightmares that compel us toward the truth by showing us the consequences of foolish behavior.

Is Kaufman’s spectacular avoidance of clichés a reaction against Hollywood? Or is it a reflection of obscure filmmaking influences?

“It might be a reaction,” he muses. “Conventional story elements and frothy romantic stories — I have a reaction against that. I don’t have that experience in my life. I’ve always felt left out because of that, so I don’t want to write that stuff. But in terms of figuring out different ways of telling a story, I don’t know whether it’s so much a reaction as just a creative impulse. If something is important to me in telling a story, then I get excited about the challenge of finding a way to do it that serves the story.”

Gondry has a different answer. “It’s not an influence, it’s not a reaction. It’s like you get to construct a toy that you will like to play with. If I get so extremely lucky as to direct a film, I don’t want to spoil it by doing something that I’ve already seen. I would never do a re-make, for instance. They asked me if I wanted to do a re-make of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I said, ‘Why would you want to do a remake? Just watch the movie.’”

The debates and differing interpretations amongst viewers after a Kaufman film seem to delight him. Sometimes you have to wonder if bewilderment might be one of his aims — to divide us in order to get us talking. (Sounds like another famous storyteller who always challenged his audience by refusing to explain his parables.) When I proposed a possible interpretation of this film’s conclusion, Kaufman gave me a perfect poker face and said, “Your interpretation is absolutely valid. But I think the ending is open to interpretation.”

It should come as no surprise that, when this director/writer team is asked about their inspirations and favorites, Kaufman mentions his deep respect for David Lynch (especially the labyrinthine and confounding mystery Mulholland Drive) and Michel Gondry quickly names Groundhog Day as one of his favorites. But you have to be careful with these guys. Gondry also insists that he loves “that Superman movie with Richard Pryor. It’s a masterpiece!”

Gondry also talked a bit about the challenges posed by a screenplay that jumps around in time even as it switches between a half-dream/half-memory state and reality as well.

“Charlie saw the possibilities of exploring a relationship in a deep way. You had this very big problem to solve early on – when Joel is in his memory. There is a part where he is in the memory and a part when he’s commenting on the memory and he’s removed himself. It was a big struggle to figure out how we would show that. We came up with the idea that, when we use the past tense, we would have you see something that would take you out of reality and tell you where you are.

“When you see the story backwards and you see the consequence before the cause… that is anti-dramatic. I remember the scene where he is crying and saying wonderful things bout her and you’re wondering why… it was so hard to organize that. It was hard to use the past tense without indicating that in a technical way.”

Wasn’t it a bit unnerving, casting such a famously hyperactive star as Jim Carrey in such an understated role?

Gondry turns to Kaufman: “When I came to you with the possibility of Jim, you were a little bit concerned. But I was interested in this tension….. Jim has a quality of not being “cool” in a way that most actors are trying to be cool. They have to be in harmony with themselves, and kind of macho, a seducer… and he doesn’t have that.”

Indeed, Carrey's performance is the most understated and mature of his career. He makes the character of Joel likeable, complicated, and sympathetic, even if he is a loser. We can relate to his failures, though, and we hope to see him find the relationship and love he needs.

Eternal Sunshine offers the audience insights about relationships that suggest we can find more fulfilling relationships when we bear with each others’ failings instead of turning our back on them. I complimented Kaufman on having given us a story that ends on a more upbeat note than the chaos of Being John Malkovich and the feeble glimmer of hope at the end of Adaptation.

He responded, of course, by confounding my expectations yet again. “I’m not sure [the characters] learn so much. When you finish the journey through the memory, you could say that he learned something, and you know that he really loved her. You wish they could start again. But at the end… that’s erased. I think that the ending of the movie is pretty open to interpretation. Your interpretation is absolutely valid. But it is open to interpretation. We know tentatively this sort of tentative decision they’ve made to try again, but we don’t know where that’s going.”

I pressed my point. “Well, it struck me that way because at the beginning of the film, when they encounter a problem, they turn away and run. They do the erasure. At the end, they’ve seen the ugliest and have heard the ugliest thing they could say about each other, but they’re still—”

Kaufman cut in. “In reality, Joel and Clementine have known each other for two days at that point. They’ve learned that they’ve known each other before and that all of these terrible things have happened, but at this point they’re kind of infatuated with each other. I’m not sure that, if you are infatuated with someone, and you’re given this piece of information, you may not incorporate it the way you would after two years of that kind of fighting. There might even be something kind of romantic about learning that you had this big relationship before. If you’re imagining yourself in this future with someone that you just met, the fact that it’s stormy can’t possibly resonate in the way that it would if you’d actually lived it. I think it’s questionable. That being said, I agree that it’s a great moment between them. And I wish them well.”

He adds, “At the end of Adaptation, Charlie has the courage to talk to Amelia, and they love each other. I’d argue that that’s a positive ending.”

Gondry has an entirely different response to offer. “People see fate in things — they go together because they are meant to be together. To me I like to see things in a different way. It’s very slight little event that makes them stay together or destroys them. It could be this one single little thing that could influence the rest of their lives… It’s nice to show these nice little fragile moments. A lot of people say that they are meant to be together—”

Kaufman interrupts again. “And that’s fine. Because that’s built into it also.”

Another reporter asked Kaufman if he thought this film would have broader appeal, and she suggests that his other films went over the heads of most moviegoers.

“This one will appeal to everyone,” he says with a sly smile. “They’re going to love this one.”

Do you really think so? she asks.

“You know what?” he says brusquely, “I don’t care. I feel like I did my part of this movie because I wanted to, and I am pleased with the movie that we made. I’ll be happy if people like it but I’m not going to worry about it.”

I try to change the subject. “Walker Percy talks about how pictures can steal our memories. Our obsession with archiving our memories in images has the unfortunate result of making us focus on the pictures instead of dwelling on our memories. I was thinking about that watching this film and the idea of memory erasure.”

“Are you talking about Message in a Bottle?” he responds, surprised.

“Yes.”

“What a great book. The chapter about the Grand Canyon..."

“That’s it!” I’m surprised that he knows exactly what I’m talking about. “And Sam Phillips has written a song that branches off from that called ‘Taking Pictures.’”

“Oh really?” Kaufman’s wide awake now, perhaps glad to be talking about something besides the movie.

So, of course, I bring it back to the movie with another question. But he moves right past the question to discuss a different idea he’s excited about. “There’s a problem. When you’re writing and you’re trying to envision a scene, it’s best to base it on life. But then so much of what you think about life is based on what you’ve seen in films and television shows.

“I’ll start doing a scene that feels like I know it, but it’s not something that I really know… it’s just something that I’ve seen in a million movies and have sort of incorporated it into… you know… ‘This is the way two people will relate to each other in this moment.’ And that to me is very scary. It’s also very dangerous to what I consider my work. Movies and images… they’re like a virus that takes over who you are. That’s why it’s important to me, when I’m doing this stuff, to be truthful. Truthful, in a sense that it’s truthful to me … because that’s all I can do. If I feel like I’m doing something honest, then I feel like I’m not putting garbage into the world. It’s my experience, and therefore it has some veracity. This is a true moment as I’ve understood it… and then I try to translate it into a scene.”

Gondry jumps in: “I take a lot of film kind of randomly. And then later you look at it, and you’ve captured a moment that is kind of special. You might take a picture of your girlfriend, perhaps, and it will alter the reality and present it in a way that is not correct. Later, when you’ve broken up, you’ll look back at them and you’ll say, ‘Wow. This was such a great relationship.’ But you just see all the best parts.”

Kaufman agrees. “Taking pictures can also be an aggressive act. I know people who will take them to be sort of separate and superior to a situation.

“One day I borrowed a camera. I was very self-conscious, and I was at an airport and I was waiting for the person that I was traveling with. I went around taking pictures, and suddenly I wasn’t self-conscious anymore. And I never take pictures, but I felt like I was in a different position now.”

Gondry’s nodding enthusiastically. “That’s true. Like when you are in a scary situation… I went in a helicopter, and I was hanging out on a harness with a camera, and as long as I was taking pictures I never had any fear. And as soon as the film started running out and I was waiting for them to give the camera back, I was in a panic. It puts you in a different state of mind.”

At this point, I’m hanging onto the conversation in a panic, trying to keep up with them. But my precious, short time with these creative geniuses is up. I express how much I’d like to continue the conversation on the subject of memory and imagery, but I know full well that next time I see them, the subject matter will be something entirely new. And I’m sure it will be fascinating.

UPDATE 2009: I did end up meeting Charlie Kaufman again, on the occasion of the release of Synecdoche, New York. You can read about that at Image journal's blog Good Letters.


Hellboy (2004)

This review of Hellboy was originally published at Christianity Today in April 2004.
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Some superheroes focus on settling a score. Some learn lessons about responsibility, talent, and weakness. But for some, like Hellboy, being a superhero is just a job.

For director Guillermo Del Toro, the job of bringing the comic book hero Hellboy to the screen was a labor of love—love for comics, and especially for the work of artist Mike Mignola, Hellboy's creator. Del Toro effectively recreates Mignola's flair for shadows and big, bulky imagery. This is a comic book world quite unlike any we've seen before.

HellboyWe get to know Hellboy through the eyes of John Myers (Rupert Evans), an FBI agent who has been transferred to the mysterious Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He's welcomed there by a wizened geezer named Professor Bruttenholm (Alien's John Hurt in fine form). Bruttenholm shows him around this secret government freakshow, assuring him, "There are things that go bump in the night." Hellboy, the Bureau's most notorious weapon, is the biggest bumper of all.

This massive, red-skinned, horned devil from hell—the most disgruntled comic book hero to reach the big screen since Harvey Pekar—has abandoned the evil powers that spawned him. He's hard at work as a secret weapon for the Bureau. In his spare time, he consumes mass quantities of meat and carbs, plays with his collection of kittens, and lifts weights. When called upon, he pursues and destroys monsters and supernatural bad guys with an air of obligation, indifference, and sarcasm. Superman said, "Up, up and away!" Hellboy says, "Aw, crap." Saving the world is a chore, but he gets it done.

Speaking of chores, if Hollywood keeps turning out comic book movies at this rate, it is going to become tedious. The thrill of CGI special effects is wearing off. Filmmakers face the formidable task of delivering something original and compelling, something more than just violence, explosions and revenge stories. X-Men and its sequel passed the test with flying colors, offering style and substance. Spider-Man delivered the goods. Hulk was artful, but its finale was awful. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen flunked. Daredevil was a dud.

Here's the good news: Hellboy and his gilled, web-footed sidekick Abe Sapien are spectacular. They're two of the most remarkably realized comic characters ever to reach the screen.

There is no better actor under heavy prosthetics than Ron Perlman; he's made a career of it (TV's "Beauty and the Beast," Star Trek: Nemesis, The Island of Doctor Moreau). He's always deserved a movie of his own. Hellboy is his big chance, and he's brilliant. He is completely convincing as this not-so-jolly red giant, perfectly comfortable performing acrobatic stunts under tons of latex and paint. And he doesn't over-play the comedy—he under-plays it beautifully. He's a lonely, soft-hearted, alienated child who bashes his way through to the bad guys and hits them like a ton of bricks.

His equally compelling sidekick, Abe Sapien, is a "mer-man." Doug Jones brings this amphibious psychic with graceful physicality, but the voice is perfectly pitched by David Hyde Pierce (Niles from TV's Frasier). You'll believe a man can gill-breathe.

But there's bad news. This dynamic duo is stuck in a dull, derivative, poorly plotted movie. They're forced to share screen time with cookie-cutter companions. Myers is as compelling as day-old bread. Jeffrey Tambor is a clichéd government jerk. The cops that follow Hellboy around are just idiots waiting to be picked off by the bad guys.

Hellboy's enemies are interesting at first, but they wear out their welcome quickly.

The boss, the famously indestructible Grigory Rasputin (Karel Roden), looks like he got lost on his way to a goth party. He's dull, overdressed, and wearyingly melodramatic. Whenever he opens his mouth, you just wish his annoying blonde girlfriend Ilsa (Biddy Hodson) would make herself useful and shut him up. What's his motivation? Anarchy? Power? Rebellion against God?

This bald brute is responsible for letting Hellboy loose into our world back during World War II, an episode that serves as the film's prologue. Working for Hitler, Rasputin opened a portal into some hellish dimension, trying to summon the Seven Gods of Chaos. Allied Forces arrived and spoiled his plan before the dangerous deities could RSVP. But one brave Brit, the young Bruttenholm, discovered the infantile imp before Rasputin did. He named him and adopted him.

Now, 30 years later, Rasputin's after Hellboy in order to "finish the job." How? It's complicated. Suffice to say that there's something special about Hellboy, something only he can do to give evil the upper hand. (Hint, hint.)

Rasputin has help, two secret weapons that are as hard to kill as their master. Monster #1 is Kronen, a zombie ninja with a clockwork heart. He's like a walking Ginsu-knife demonstration. It's likely he went to school with Darth Maul and X2's Lady Deathstryke. He's mysterious too, until we see him unmasked as a prime candidate for Extreme Makeover.

Monster #2 is the Sammael, a demon built like a hairless lion with a head that's half-squid, half-beetle. But when he pounces into the open, he's not scary—he's just ugly. He's every exterminator's worst nightmare: Whenever he's killed, he replicates himself twice. He's a "resurrection demon," you see.

This all sounds cooler than it is. Rasputin and Ilsa are posers without personality. The Sammael are just dumb animals for Hellboy to squash. (Aren't demons supposed to be spirituallyunsettling?) Only Kronen earns our serious concern with his lurking, slicing and dicing.

The explosive clashes of good and evil only serve to blow more holes in the plot. Abundant Catholic symbolism adds a sense of importance to these events, but that never amounts to much either. Abe wears a holy relic for protection. Hellboy carries a gun in one hand, rosary beads in the other, and he gets a cross tattoo. But these are treated merely as talismans—good help in a fight, like a bulletproof vest or garlic against vampires. There is no suggestion of what they mean. Hellboy regrets his hellish origins so much that he grinds down his horns to look more human. But he's far more interested in his girlfriend Liz than in showing gratitude to the source of the grace that redeemed him.

Disregarding the dumb plot and vague religiosity, it's Hellboy himself and his love story that keeps the film from falling apart. His true love, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), isn't much of a character. She's basically Stephen King's Firestarter, an alienated girl with an oh-so-combustible temper. Blair plays her so glamourlessly that she's almost boring. But we care about her because Hellboy does. His affection for her is what makes him sympathetic. Who hasn't fallen for someone and felt awkward and unqualified?

The best scene in the film comes during an interlude between Sammael smackdown matches, when Hellboy shadows Myers and Liz, determined to ensure that they do not fall in love. He finds himself on a rooftop with an unlikely new friend, and his distress is a wonderful thing.

In fact, all of the film's high points are incidental character moments: a conversation about cigars, the way Hellboy responds when kittens are in danger, witty repartee between "H-B" and a laryngitic half-resurrected corpse.

Guillermo Del Toro is a talented director of drama and mystery. 2001's The Devil's Backbone is a great ghost story and a sorely overlooked film. But Del Toro does not yet know how to give action scenes a sense of momentum. Through most of the film, Hellboy just trudges along like a dutiful Ghostbuster, chopping up slimy Sammael demons like sushi. The action is thunderous and chaotic, but it never develops the exhilarating thrill of theX-Men films. The big finale wraps up with an anticlimactic trick right out of Men in Black.

As watchable and likeable as he is, Perlman's Hellboy eventually seems as tired of the action as we are. When the film wraps up with some painfully sentimental narration that tries to tell us what this story means, we just want to follow our hero home, watch him play with the kittens, and have some pizza.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

[Here's my original review, which I posted at the original Looking Closer website on January 21, 2001. Ah, what a beginner I was. I also reported on Christian media coverage of the movie in my Christianity Today column called Film Forum.]

For the record, I'm not a big fan of the Harry Potter books — so already I'm in the minority. And many will immediately disqualify my opinion of the film because of it.

But Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a film now, and needs to be fairly treated as one. It should not be a prerequisite to have read, or be a fan of, Rowling's books in order to offer an opinion of the films. While it would be worthwhile to discuss how closely it adheres to the novel, it deserves to be assessed for its strengths and weaknesses as a movie.

So in this review I'll first say a few words about my response to the book, then review the film in detail, and then I'll close with some comments on the controversy over Harry's interest in wizardry.

THE BOOK

I did read and enjoy the first book, but a few things nagged at me. I couldn't help realizing that kids are enjoying these books without have been introduced to so many of the great works of fantasy from which they borrow.

Rowling is given so much credit for her imagination — and yes, she does fuse elements of traditional myths and fairy tales very inventively. But we mustn't overstate it and give her credit for having invented — or re-invented — the fantasy genre. What she has done is design a sort of amusement park version merging ideas from existing fantasy epics — those by George Macdonald, T.H. White, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Malory, Hans Christian Anderson, and The Grimm Brothers, to name a few. And she's invited kids young and old to come and have fun with timeworn tropes.

Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't immediately earn her a place among the classics of the genre. As a lover of the classics, I cringe to think that countless children will have their first encounters with unicorns, magic wands, flying broomsticks, spooky castle corridors, dark forests, trolls, and long-bearded wizards will come from Rowling's efficient, eager-to-entertain fiction, rather than from the richer resources from which she draws inspiration.

This isn't a criticism of her or her work, but of those who admire her work too much and give her more credit than is due. (Of course, we can always hope kids will go on to read greater works, now that their taste for literature has been whetted. And Potter's world is a better alternative than the cartoonized, sugar-coated, oversimplified treatments that Disney has given fairy tales.)

I hear that Rowling's writing improves as the series progresses. That's great. I'm thrilled kids are reading and using their imaginations. I just hope they will open their minds to heavier, deeper, more challenging stuff in the waiting periods between Potter releases.

THE MOVIE

The first Harry Potter movie is here, and it more a success than a flop. That is, what's in the book is onscreen, bearing a remarkable resemblance to what readers probably imagined.

The environments are surprising, spooky, and inviting. The script never becomes dull; Steve Kloves' writing lets each character's particular wit shine. And congratulations to the cast. It's harder work to portray these things effectively onscreen than just to write them down. (But then again, it's healthier for us to read and imagine them than just to be spoon-fed them by Hollywood, isn't it?)

It's Chris Columbus's direction that kills my enthusiasm for the film. While most scenes are adequate but not sensational, I found myself longing for a DVD, so I could scan from scene to scene and get to the heart of the story faster. The book gives us a more suspenseful buildup, while the movie just works its way through a series of introductions and tests. I couldn't help but notice that while the matinee began at 1:40 p.m., the "sorcerer's stone" mentioned in the title was not even mentioned until 3:30! This was a problem with the book as well, but perhaps the movie should be re-named.

How about calling it "The Many Expressions of Harry Potter"? The film introduces us to a vast cast of characters and important magical objects, and for each one the camera zooms in on Harry's reaction-puzzlement, happiness, semi-wicked glee, astonishment. Harry is so busy reacting that we don't get to know him. The film passes up many opportunities to let our focus shift from his surroundings to him. The only reason we root for him is because bad things happen TO him, instead of because we know what's on his mind or his heart.

At one point, we see him sitting in the window of his room at Hogwarts, and there's a great opportunity to sense longing or loneliness, like the moment when Luke Skywalker stares out at the two suns of Tattooine in Star Wars. Because George Lucas paused and let the moment resonate, that image became the heart and soul of "Star Wars", the moment when Luke became the true central character. But Columbus rushes right on past moments like that. He's in too big a hurry to pack in every page of the book (with only a couple of exceptions, noticeable because everything else made it in).

That's too bad. In the books, Harry taps into our longings for identity and family. In the hands of a director with greater vision, Big-Screen Harry could have done the same thing. Instead, Harry is reduced to a wide-eyed cipher, looking about at characters far more interesting, witty, and surprising than he.

And what a colorful crew they are. My personal favorite is Hermione, the brainy girl who befriends Harry. Her cocksure attitude makes her a big screen cousin to Princess Leia. If this was real life, the story would degenerate into a romantic tug-of-war between Harry and Ron, and if I was one of their adolescent classmates you'd have to count me in as well. She's played by Emma Watson, only one of many talented young actors making their big screen debuts here, and it's not hard to imagine her growing up to be the next Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham Carter.

The entire cast is to be commended. Veteran actors John Hurt (Alien) and Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest) almost steal the movie with their brief but vivid scenes and over-the-top line delivery. Richard Harris wisely plays the benevolent Professor Dumbledore with surprising and effective restraint. And it is uncanny how Robbie Coltrane brings Hagrid to life. He's burly, brusque, and prone to blunders, and whenever he's onscreen the film gains much-needed energy and personality. Being a lifelong fan of owls, I must say I became twice as alert whenever they graced the screen (thus, once scene in particular was like a dream come true.) Even in the company of such a distinguished cast, they were more dignified, interesting, and memorable than anyone.

Unfortunately, these fine performances are nearly wasted by Columbus's predictable direction and John Williams's overbearing, relentless soundtrack. There's nothing distinct about Columbus. He's happy to resemble other directors, Spielberg most of all, with innumerable slow-zooms of gaping youngsters, reminding us that this is the man responsible for those nagging memories of open-mouthed Macaulay Culkin. The camera just points and shoots, offering those who read the book no new surprises. It is, for the record, Columbus's most impressive work to date, and he pulls off some of the necessarily spooky scenes like the voyage into the archetypically "dark forest" or the energy of a Quidditch match (for which he obviously studied the Pod Race in "The Phantom Menace".) But his high-action scenes are not nearly as coherent as Spielberg's; they're generally chaotic, noisy, and full of unconvincing digital effects. And the confrontation with Shrek's big brother in a dank Hogwart's ladies' room only made me long for a troll that's actually scary (Just wait until The Fellowship of the Ring opens next month. There you'll see what a troll should be.)

And Potter brings out the worst in composer John Williams. His overdramatic and redundant themes sound like a parody of his earlier work, ripping off Schindler's List (the main theme is only a few notes different), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and above all, Hook. At times the music drowns out action and even dialogue, getting emotional so you don't have to, telling you "This is scary!", "This is sad!", "Be happy!"

Since Columbus can't offer us anything interesting to replace Rowling's peppy narrative, the movie ends up being a far inferior experience, a big moving-picture book with very little storytelling... just a bunch of introductions and tests to be passed. The central plot of the book...Harry's predestined conflict with Voldemort... is shoved aside until the last few moments of a very, very long movie.

But the script and the sets make it all worthwhile. Steve Kloves' adaptation really moves, and it's full of good humor. The sets are distractingly gorgeous. The paintings on the walls in Hogwarts move, just as they do in the book, and some of them are hauntingly beautiful. The perfect DVD would allow you to enlarge and enjoy the drama in each of those museum-quality frames. The children have good chemistry, and I look forward to seeing them grow up in the sequels... which, by the way, are already being produced.

THE CONTROVERSY

A few words about the controversy, for those worried about the effect of the "magic" in Harry Potter's world upon children. A lot of worried Christians are going around condemning the books, believing what they are told (sometimes by their church leaders). And they're being told that the Potter franchise is, and I quote, "a training manual for witchcraft."

I highly recommend that adults investigate the book for themselves. (By that I mean... read it.) Your kids are going to be surrounded with this stuff, if they aren't already. You don't want to tell them things about Potter that you haven't confirmed.

I am not in any way convinced that there is any wicked agenda behind the Harry Potter books. I've heard the claims about Harry's lightning-bolt scar being shaped like a satanic symbol. I'm sorry, but a lightning bolt is a very common symbol; I once wrote a story where a character had the same scar as Harry, and that doesn't make me a Satanist.

As for the spells and Harry's education at a school for wizards, this is all based on whimsy, fairy tale, and stereotypes that have developed over decades of Halloween parties. What does their "good magic" enable them to do? All the stuff kids like to imagine. Fly. Become invisible. Lift things off the ground without touching them. They aren't cursing anyone's souls. They aren't using voodoo dolls. They're not killing. The villains of the story show us the truly fearsome behavior. Evil is shown as evil. Good is represented symbolically as good magic.

It's also worth noting that the characters in the book and in the movie celebrate Christmas, which strikes me as odd if the book wanted to turn kids against Christianity.

Furthermore, Scripture has a lot more to say on the subject than protesters want to admit.

In Deuteronomy 18:10-12, we are indeed exhorted by God, "There shall not be found among you anyone that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination ... or an enchanter or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard ... For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord."

This verse admonishes us not to become witches or sorcerers in the real world... and it's referring to attempts to connect with and harness the spirit world for one's own advancement, one's own power. It does not say we cannot use the fanciful idea of magic the way it has been used as a convention in literary traditions for ages. Since the stories of Arthur, and earlier, such "magic" has been a way of symbolizing mystery and intangible things like virtue, bravery, and the abuse of power.

Indeed, if you find your children pursuing a serious interest in the Occult, then you should challenge them with conversation and questions about how they perceive the difference between fairy tales and reality. Parents who read fairy tales to children and teach them how to interpret them will be a step ahead of those who let television and media do the babysitting. But I have yet to hear of any children who, after reading Harry, has done anything more unusual than start reading more books.

The Bible has more to say, though, about something that you won't hear on the paranoid-hysteria-building video "Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged".

David Bruce at HollywoodJesus.com suggests how the Apostle Paul might respond to such popular phenomena:

Zeus was considered a demon by certain early Christians. They protested Zeus, destroying his images and statues. They burned books about Zeus and warned others to avoid Zeus. There are Christians today who want to do the same thing to Harry Potter images, books and movies and for the same reasons. Yet the Apostle Paul approach to Zeus was very different. Standing before the Council in Athens, Paul said. '...For in him we live and move and exist. As one of your own poets says, 'We are his offspring.'" (Acts 17:28) * So the approach Paul employed was to use Zeus, and not trash Zeus. However I fear there will be too many Christians will participate in a Harry Potter/Zeus Witch Hunt.

Bruce concludes with a passionate plea:

Please, let's end the Witch Hunts! Use Harry Potter for the glory of God, just like Paul used Zeus for the glory of God. Please! Let's end the insanity. Enough already.

Zeus was actually worshipped by people in Athens, celebrated as a real god. Harry Potter is perceived as a fiction. Surely, if Paul approached the cult of Zeus as a corrupt belief that could be discussed and used for God’s glory, then we can approach Rowling’s storybooks with the same patience and discernment. Rather than burn books, let’s open them and help young readers see what is true and false within them. Parents, lead by example.

To break down the distinction between active worldly witchcraft and the childlike imagination that can mature into great faith discredits the storytelling traditions that have influenced our understanding of good and evil for centuries. Good old Merlin is a wizard — should we burn The Sword and the Stone and the other Arthur legends? Wonderland is full of magic for curious Alice, but kids rarely climb down rabbit holes. Nobody in my neighborhood has jumped out a window believing that they’ll fly like Peter Pan if they "think of a wonderful thought." In South Carolina's The State newspaper, editorial writer John Monk suggests, "You might as well say Gone With The Wind teaches young readers to be slave owners, or Treasure Island entices children to be pirates."

By fourth or fifth grade, most children can distinguish between Shrek and the Real World, between Veggie-Tales and vegetables. While you read to your own child, you can make sure they understand the important thing in Harry Potter is not the way spells work, but what sets brave Harry apart from proud Malfoy and power-hungry Voldemort. Pay attention as Harry responds to the devil’s temptations. It is the Darth Vader-ish villain who snarls, "There is no good and evil; there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." Harry bravely disagrees.

The gulf between the religion of real witchcraft and the use of symbolic magic in storytelling is a vast one. Rowling’s fantasies, like The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Lord of the Rings before them, give readers a whimsical language for discussing the forces at work inside them and around them. Harry’s magical gifts are symbols, metaphors for mysterious things in the real world, invisible powers like creativity, love, hate, humility, pride, generosity, and selfishness. Science Fiction does the same thing—just exchange magic wands with lightsabers or laser guns, magic brooms with the Starship Enterprise or pod racers, spells with secret codes in The Matrix.

Approach your movies and your storybooks the way you approach Thanksgiving dinner. There’s a lot on the table — you can stuff your face with some of it, but you’ve got to be careful with others. Sure, it’s conceivable that someone could choke on a bone if they’re not careful. Should we skip the turkey out of fear and settle for a plate of mashed potatoes?

Happy Thanksgiving. Chew your movies carefully.

 


The Age of Innocence (2004)

2015 Update: Here are some remarks about The Age of Innocence that were posted when I was a reviewer on a church website in the late '90s. That makes it one of the first reviews I published after college. The site was called Green Lake Reflections. I've learned a thing or two about review writing since then, but that my opinion of this film is still similar. It remains one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films.

What comes to mind when you hear the name Martin Scorsese? Movies about gangsters and thugs, most likely. Stories about the Mob. Stories about dangerous men learning to get what they want from life through the use of force. GoodFellas. Taxi Driver. Raging Bull.

So what is Scorsese doing as director of an Edith Wharton adaptation? What’s with the frilly dresses and the romance?

Actually, Scorsese's on more familiar territory with The Age of Innocence than it might seem. The 1870s in America were governed by a restrictive system of manners and order that valued modesty and formality over the messiness of being truthful and compassionate. Men engaged in careful duels while they put their feet up and smoked their cigars, concealing weapons of wordplay in their eloquence. Watch how Scorsese choreographs the hushed, harsh conversations in this film, how the clicking of a lighter at the end of a double-edged declaration is like the pop of a gun after a macho turn of phrase in a gangster flick.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) really isn’t that different from the walking time bomb that Robert DeNiro played in Taxi Driver. Oh, sure, Newland has money and position, but the social rules of the day keep him from what it is he truly desires, a gorgeous but politically-incorrect widow named Madame Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). He wants to break the rules, to upset this fragile house of cards that keeps Ellen isolated, friendless, and lonely. But he cannot without spoiling his reputation and risking his secure position in the community. Newland must choose between acting on his plan to marry the prim, proper, and girlish May, or to act on desire and admiration for this exotic and sophisticated rebel who so clearly desires him. The community conspires to force him into the marriage, seeing full well that his heart is straying to the newcomer. Finding himself between a life of respect and honor and a life of shame, this gentleman must choose.

Daniel Day-Lewis — who made a comic art of restraint in A Room With a View — is similarly restrained here, but makes Newland an admirable, sympathetic, and tragic figure. And Michelle Pfeiffer is glorious and energetic as Ellen. Winona Ryder gives one of her best performances as the ultimate well-mannered lady, May Welland, who uses her social influence both to conspire and manipulate as well as to lend a note of much needed grace in the midst of chaos.

The Age of Innocence reminds us that Hollywood's tendency to champion the desires of the self runs against the grain of much classic literature. I think it demonstrates powerfully that no relationship is as simple as it appears, and sometimes a smile can conceal devilish motives. It also shows that while tradition can devolve into a conformity that stifles compassion and love, acting in mere self-interest can ultimately be just as destructive.


Amores Perros (2001)

This review was originally published on the first version of Looking Closer, at the Promontory Artists Association website, in 2002.

Well, this is going to be tricky: Amores Perros deserves high praise for its thoughtful, meaningful storytelling. But it should also be introduced with a caution.

This is brutal, heavy stuff: a hyperviolent movie against violence. I encourage you to think twice before you put yourself through the wringer of this movie. Just as the villain of Apocalypse Now looks into the evil abyss of his own heart and gasps, "The horror! The horror!", so this debut from director Alejandro González Iñárritu stares unflinchingly at the cruelty humans exhibit toward each other and to animals.

While a lot of wickedness is displayed in graphic detail in this film's three interlocking stories — it includes a graphic portrayal of infidelity in a story that treats marriage as sacred, and a tale of murderous sibling rivalry in a story that celebrates family — the film emphasizes how desperately we need to be tender, compassionate, and forgiving. And its searing vision will leave you reflecting on the value of every human life, even the most depraved life.

Like Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros focuses on three stories about criminal behavior.

It begins with the story of a young man who wants to rescue his brother's abused wife, and to escape the oppressive evil in their home. But first he must find enough money to afford the escape.

The second story is about a rich married man who has an affair with a supermodel, which leads to devastating consequences.

The third follows the life of a mysterious vagrant whose heart, hardened by a life of violence, is slowly cracked open, driving him to a moment of crucial decision.

Each of these stories focuses on people who do the wrong thing and pay the penalty, or people who do the right thing in a very wrong way, and pay the penalty. Perhaps some of these people, driven to crime either out of bloodlust or necessity, will learn from the harsh consequences of their actions and become better people. Perhaps not. But what makes this film so difficult to watch is a very baffling and unique characteristic...

There are dogs everywhere.

And the dogs are as important to the story as the large cast of human characters. Almost everyone in this movie seems to have an important dog in his or her life. And the way people treat their dogs is an interesting and undeniable commentary on how they treat each other.

Caution: One of the film's stories deals quite graphically with an illegal dog-fighting ring, and the camera does not shy away from bloody dog carcasses — but a message at the beginning of the film insists that no animals were actually harmed, and I sincerely hope that's the truth.

If you're like me, you'll want to scream for the madness of these bloody, unconscionable games to stop, as street gang punks launch their pit bulls and Rottweilers at each other to the death. While clever editing spares us any scenes of actual bloodletting, there are plenty of sickening close-ups after the fights are over.

Many people will disapprove of this movie because of these scenes. Many of those same people will not say much about the violence between humans in the film. Why? We see people mistreat each other constantly, on television and at the movies.  We may not like it, but I'm willing to bet most of us, myself included, have become a little numb, a little calloused. I can intellectually justify why I appreciate certain highly violent films, but I cannot justify how I have let my emotions grow dull in response to such portrayals. There are feelings that should rightly flare up when witnessing human violence. Even when it is a villain that is bleeding. The audience, myself included, cringed and became somewhat sick at watching dogs half-dying or dead. Why was I not equally injured, or more so, to watch the way these family members turn against each other, the way these people use and abuse each other?

I think that there is something in this contrast that accomplishes the movie's primary objective. It reminds us what we should  feel towards each other. It exposes our hard-heartedness. (Don't get me wrong: I'm not not saying movies should not portray violence. I am saying far too many movies portray violence excessively and irresponsibly, without giving us room to feel what we should feel about it. Thus we become accustomed to it. And it takes heavier and heavier shocks to wake us up again.)

Amores Perros immerses you in a world so dark you end up craving the light... so that when you see glimmers of it, when a bad guy suddenly and strangely pities his own enemy, when a liar suddenly realizes that he is his own worst victim, when a killer suddenly comes face to face with the truth about himself... you find yourself grabbing onto that thread of virtue and saying "Yes!" Love is the answer.

Overall, Iñárritu's first movie is impressively powerful. He gets first-rate performances from a wonderful cast; I hope I see these actors again. His camerawork reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's brilliant cinematography in Traffic, and his characters are as starkly drawn as Tarantino's in Pulp Fiction. Other critics have noticed the influence of Bunuel. I heard echoes of Kieslowski's Decalogue and Three Colors trilogy (with one obvious connection to Red).

But this director is far from working with the subtlety of Kieslowski in his moral storytelling. It's easy to shock an audience, to hammer home a moral lesson by showing the consequences of evil.  In the way he uses dogs throughout the movie, Iñárritu is giving us something to think about. Beyond that, though, he is heavy-handed. This movie shouts: "Look at how miserable the unfaithful married man becomes because of his affair! Look at the consequences of a supermodel's vanity! Look at the consequences of using evil to accomplish something good." If Iñárritu learns some more restraint... if he trusts his audience to think... he may become one of the masters.

While the onscreen violence towards animals would give lasting nightmares to a lot of people I know, there are others who won't see the truth unless it hits them in the face like a baseball bat. Maybe... maybe somebody will be in the audience who is lying to his wife. Maybe somebody will be dreaming of doing a little bit of wrong in hopes of getting out of a jam. Maybe there will even be someone prone to solving problems with violence. This is the kind of movie that might make them go home, look in the mirror, and see themselves for what they are becoming.

I am grateful I saw Amores Perros. It made me feel ashamed of my own hard-heartedness, and challenged me to ask myself questions. How can I re-sensitize my heart, after becoming numb from the violence in the news, in the movies, and in rush-hour traffic? No, Amores Perros isn't the subtlest movie I've seen. But it was certainly a wake-up call for me. And I believe it might be for others as well.


Star Wars, Episode Two — Attack of the Clones (2002)

2015 Update:

Are you ready to go back... to Attack of the Clones?

These were the first impressions I posted after an opening-night screening of Star Wars, Episode Two opened. It's been more than a decade since then — I write this while fans count down the last 16 days before Episode Seven arrives — and I find that this post reads like a review hastily written in the heat of fanboy debate and conversation. But I'm preserving it as a piece of Looking Closer history... a snapshot of a Star Wars enthusiast's struggle to sustain his love for a fantasy series even as it declined sharply into mediocrity.

I miss being able to love George Lucas's worlds the way I did when I was a kid. I'd like nothing more than to find imaginative storytellers restoring a playful sense of adventure, strong characterization, real suspense, and wild imagination to the saga.

But I'm going to keep my expectations in check. We'll see what happens.  

My First-Impressions Review

Great cinematic storytellers know that movies are something we watch. That is to say, what we see on the screen is as important, if not more so, than what we hear. Movies have been about pictures from the beginning, and the best filmmakers have crafted productions that would be worth watching even with the sound turned off. Otherwise, why not stick to radio or literature, where everything is communicated with voice and script?

George Lucas has never been much good with dialogue — in fact he treats it like a necessary burden. But he is a master of innovative big-screen imagery. And thus, his scripts, which wander from functional to tedious to maddening, are usually worth enduring for the sake of visual spectacle. (The one wonderful exception is Star Wars, Episode Five — The Empire Strikes Back, which stands as one of the greatest adventure films ever made, in every aspect — script included.)

In each Star Wars film, the screen is full of childlike play. Invention for the sake of invention. While we can find all sorts of meaningful metaphor and mythic resonance in his stories, Lucas also provides exhilarating, creative displays of light and color, and a fascinating array of creatures and spaceships. It helps that Lucas has Ben Burtt on board, who is as much a master of sound design as Lucas is of visual invention.

It hurts to think about how much better these Star Wars prequels — The Phantom Menace, and now Attack of the Clones — could have been if the scripts had been composed by talented writers. The actors have no chance of developing believable and interesting characters, as they’re being directed by someone who seems completely unconcerned about subtlety or complexity, or character development. Critics who disdain Star Wars films are right to be dismayed. What a waste of potential. What an insult to audience intelligence.

But for Lucas, these characters are “types.” They are the archetypical heroes of the comic books and B-movies of his childhood. He aspires to make them nothing more. And, as disappointing as that is, if we’re going to gain anything worthwhile from the Star Wars prequels, we’ll have to live with that. These are groundbreaking comic books for the big screen, enjoyable only if we try to ignore what’s written into those dialogue balloons. And despite the outrageous dialogue, the narrative does continue to raise spiritual questions, explore political dilemmas, and present provocative ethical dilemmas.

So let’s consider Star Wars, Episode Two — Attack of the Clones. Yes, the screenplay is another embarrassing, cringe-inducing display of incompetence. And yes, the movie is glorious to behold.

* * *

At the end of The Phantom Menace, young, impetuous Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) had been freed from slavery and accepted — reluctantly — by the Jedi Council as an apprentice for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan agreed to train Anakin to grant his own teacher’s dying wish.

Now, Obi-Wan has his hands full. Anakin, ten years older, is still reckless, and he has grown arrogant. He thinks he knows how to fix the troubled Republic, which is dividing up into clashing factions. And he wants to break away from his orders in order to find and rescue his mother from slavery. A Jedi is not supposed to act impulsively — and not solely on personal feelings. But Anakin’s feelings are powerful. We know it is a matter of time before he breaks away from his teachers and superiors to do his own thing.

Above all, Attack of the Clones is a story about good teachers and bad teachers, good students and bad students. And, like other films in the series, it's about the dangers of following one’s selfish impulses, and the rewards of giving up one’s desires for the greater good. But it also raises questions about the definition of true love and the design of good government. Which is preferable: the tyranny of a well-intentioned overlord, or a democracy in which the majority makes foolish decisions?

Anakin and Obi-Wan are assigned as bodyguards to Padme Amidala, who was a Queen in Episode One but now it just a Senator. Many of the Republic’s member-worlds are pulling away to form a Separatist movement and Amidala is trying to persuade the Republic to seek a diplomatic solution to their problems instead of military action. But someone wants to silence her. Behind the curtain, a villain is manipulating the Republic. He wants military power, and so he is determined to destroy Amidala’s influence. A conspiracy is in play. When an assassination attempt fails to claim Amidala’s life, Anakin is sent to hide her in a remote place while Obi-Wan Kenobi goes in search of the assassins.

What Obi-Wan discovers is that the division in the Republic is not accidental. There is in fact a plan in motion, led by a renegade Jedi, to overwhelm the Republic. And the Jedi Council are not only weakening in their powers, but they are playing right into the enemy’s hands.

We have to stop and wonder: What have the Jedi done wrong? Have they become so accustomed to sitting around and pondering the universe that they have lost touch with their own vulnerability? Which Jedi exemplifies what a Jedi should be? When Anakin is told to ignore his friends in need so that he can achieve a “greater good”, is this sound advice? (We already know his his son will fare with such a test.)

Anakin, alone with Padme, takes this opportunity to declare his love for her. This defies Jedi rules about avoiding “attachments”, and reminds us of a priest’s vow of celibacy. Are such vows foolish or detrimental? Is Anakin rebelling righteously? Or is he a slave to his hormones? It's another good topic for debate in movie rich with such dilemmas.

Anakin’s intensifying emotions are interrupted when he senses that his mother is in danger, and hurries off to rescue her. What transpires back on his home planet of Tatooine will change him forever, pushing him further down the path of resentment and anger that will make him the monstrous Darth Vader.

In the end, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Amidala, and the Jedi Council are drawn into a violent conflict between Separatist droid armies and an army of Clones fighting for the Republic. This battle dominates the last 45 minutes of the film. But even when it is over, the Jedi are in terrible peril. They are being drawn into a trap set not just by the Separatist’s leader, but in fact by a higher mastermind who is controlling both the Separatists and the Republic. To see the trap spring shut upon our heroes, we’ll have to wait until Episode 3.

* * *

1999’s The Phantom Menace was the Star Wars movie that most depended on talk. Thus, it showed Lucas’s weaknesses more than any of the other films. But it also displayed his strengths: Empowered by digital animation, he took us to entirely new kinds of environments and introduced creatures that were unlike any that had ever walked across the screen. He was trying out new ideas.

In Attack of the Clones, it’s clear that Phantom Menace taught Lucas a few lessons. Here, he wields new animation techniques the way a Master Jedi wields a lightsabre. Alas, the dialogue (as many critics have noted) is still mediocre and at times downright appalling. Case in point: the clichéd, groan-inducing romance between Anakin and Padme Amidala. Two of their scenes are the most unbearable in the whole Star Wars saga (even worse than Jar Jar’s Phantom Menace scenes). Anakin’s vows of love are at times positively awful. And Padme’s replies aren’t much better. If Lucas had hired a better writer than Jonathan Hales, I’m sure the romance would have become more interesting, and we would have avoided these scenes of sentimentality. As it is, the love story’s lack of invention weakens an otherwise compelling adventure movie.

Still, it would be a mistake to spend much time quibbling over five or ten misguided minutes in a 142-minute film. The rest of the time, you’ll likely be wide-eyed, intrigued, and thoroughly entertained. Lucas’s Star Wars universe has always been exciting to visit and beautiful to look at… but never like this. While it lacks the truly exceptional quality of The Empire Strikes Back’s script and performances, Clones is, for this moviegoer, the most visually enthralling adventure of the series so far.

Those critics who are disregard the film entirely due to lackluster acting and lousy dialogue overlooking these things:

  • The sound design, which may be the most elaborate and amazing achievement in sound effects to date. it’s a concert played on a new world of instruments, full of surprises. Pay attention to the incredibly orchestrated noise of the car chase through Coruscant, the sound of a battle in the rain on Kaminoa, and — my favorite — the sound of a depth charge exploding in an asteroid field. Lucas doesn’t just give us new sounds; he gives us new kinds of sounds.
  • The visual effects, which have never been better. Lucas makes up for Jar Jar Binks by supplying an impressive array of likeable digital characters this time… Yoda, best of all.
  • The costuming, more lavish and extravagant than any sci-fi film we’ve seen. Star Wars costumes have always been a little ridiculous. (Princess Leia’s hairdo used to seem a little crazy. Wait till you see Amidala’s impossibly varied array of hairdos and costumes here.
  • Revelations that subvert our assumptions and transform what we thought was a simple back-story into something complex. We’ve learned to associate Yoda with a quiet hideaway, murmured tutorials, and quiet grumpy fits — but wait until you see him in this episode. We’ve learned to associate those gleaming white stormtrooper outfits with trouble — wait until you discover whom they first served.
  • John Williams’s rich and compelling score, one that never overpowers the action. It’s one of his best works.
  • Better performances, in general, than those in both Phantom Menace (where most of the actors seemed like action figures) and Return of the Jedi (where even the roguish Harrison Ford and the smirking Carrie Fisher seemed bored).
  • Ewan Mcgregor exhibits more energy and humor than he did last time. His resemblance to Alec Guinness’s Kenobi of the 70s is almost spooky at times. His action scene with Jango Fett in the rain is one of my all-time favorite Star Wars sequences.
  • Hayden Christensen plays Anakin as a stubborn, moody adolescent prone to fits of rage and resentment. And when he wants something, he pursues it with a menacing smile (no pun intended). He’s unlikable, and he should be. He’s simple-minded, and he should be. He is far from eloquent, and — contrary to the host of complaining critics, he should be. It’s the perfect voice for the young Darth Vader. Vader was not a grand statesman. The Dark Lord’s most memorable lines: “The circle is now complete!” “You are unwise to lower your defenses!” “Join me!” “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” I can hear this Anakin saying those lines.

Moreover, I find meaningful themes at work here:

  • The devolving friendship between Anakin and Obi-wan raises questions about the nature of good teaching and good learning. The conflict of political coalitions raises questions about compromise, diplomacy, the use of force, and the dangers of majority rule.
  • The Jedi have become arrogant, clearly, and thus blind to their weaknesses. How can we — in companies, governments, and especially churches — remain spiritually humble and vigilant, even examining ourselves for flaws and blindspots? The development of a Clone army should raise questions about the wisdom of human cloning, and the tendency of human nature to abuse any new powers that it develops.
  • The role of the Force here is interesting. This time, the characters don’t spend time talking about it. They just do it. The wise Jedi use it for the good of the whole galaxy, while the villains use it for their own gain. The Jedi pursue stillness, calmness, and peace. Villains stir up trouble. (Interestingly, most religious-media voices that condemned Harry Potter for the role of magic are still giving this movie about "the Force" a rave review.)

* * *
In the past ten years, I’ve gone from being a fan of movies to a student of cinema. My tastes and interests have changed. I'm more inclined to watch foreign films than American films, more likely to spend time with independent films than commercial franchises. But I hope that my attempts to take on new challenges and “renew my mind” have not spoiled my love of whimsical children’s stories, of wild and illogical fantasy, of grand romances and crackerjack adventures.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of being childish and the desire to be very grown up.” Star Wars occasionally stoops to childishness. Return of the Jedi was overstuffed with muppet-like creatures and teddy bears that made it difficult to take seriously. The Phantom Menace’s Jar Jar Binks talked like a Saturday morning cartoon character. But most of the time — and this goes for Attack of the Clones as well as the others — it shows a remarkable, rare spirit of childlike enthusiasm rather than childish foolishness. There is a boundless creativity in this movie that most kids and kids-at-heart will enjoy, evident in its many and varied creatures, vehicles, cities, landscapes, and characters… even the names are fun to say.

I think a lot of critics (not all) have become so intent on fine art for adults that they're unable to recognize a good storybook for children. Or maybe they never learned how. (Those who still all disregard comic books as juvenile frivolity haven’t been paying attention.) When our lack of ability to enjoy something sours into contempt for those who do, something has gone terribly wrong with us. Watching Star Wars, we are invited to play with variations on the timeless myths and legends of human history — and the key word there is "play." Whatever the rewards of my cinematic education, however thoughtful I might become about Lucas's strengths and weaknesses, I hope that I never forget how to enjoy Star Wars' playground for the imagination.


X2: X-Men United (2003)

A Sequel that Celebrates the Best Sequels Ever

You’ll think you’re watching a Star Trek film when X2:X-Men United opens. First, there are stars… and then the voice of a former Enterprise captain expounding upon mysteries and the future.

I doubt the resemblance is accidental. Echoes of Trek resound throughout Bryan Singer’s exhilarating, exhausting X-Men sequel — specifically, references to Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.

And that’s not all. Singer has clearly devoted his attentions to those Second Films that have been better than the First: The Empire Strikes Back and Terminator 2 clearly influenced him as well. The film culminates with a soggy disaster similar to the climax of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers alongside an act of heroism that mirrors another of these classics. A top-secret “rebel base” is discovered and invaded by stormtrooper-militia. A highlighted kiss mimics the most memorable sequel-kiss of all-time. One metal-framed hero duels another in a brutal smackdown that must make Terminator’s James Cameron feel like a proud mentor. Instead of an airborne chase through an asteroid field, the X-Men pilot a jet through something just as destructive, and the jet behaves like a relative of the Millennium Falcon. A troubled hero learns the startling secrets of his origins. A villain stops just short of Darth Vader’s invitation: “Join me, and together we can rule…” And let’s face it: Hugh Jackman is Han Solo with claws and a cigar.

That’s not to say Singer is plagiarizing. Not a bit. He’s paying tribute to unlikely adventures that took their standard-setting source material and took it higher and farther than anyone expected it to go. X2 boldly goes farther into mythologizing the experiences of alienated and oppressed — from the persecution of the Jews to prejudice against homosexuals and Christians and racial minorities. There’s even a mutant “coming-out” scene, and timely references to the potential mass arrests and interrogations of a certain subsection of the population.

But Singer works these ideas cleverly into the film’s almost non-stop action. He grounds familiar social dilemmas in strong characters and snappy dialogue, so that the focus remains where it should be: on plot rather than preaching. Things move fast on so many varying plot threads that the film becomes dizzying and almost confusing.

Do you need to see the first movie in order to enjoy X2? No… the visual effects thrill, the characters vivid and endearing, and the comedy whip-smart. But will you understand X2 without seeing the first movie? It’s unlikely.

In fact, even if you did see the first installment two years ago, you would do well to revisit it on video before going to X2, because this one picks up right where X-Men left off.

A Quick Review of What's Going On:

X-Men introduced us to a familiar modern society in which an increasing number of “mutant” humans are learning to speak out about their incredible varying abilities, even though society is showing signs of violent prejudice against them. This prejudice is fueled by the rants of government officials who look suspiciously like some anti-gay or anti-Muslim or anti-anything politicians.

Among the persecuted mutants, two factions are forming. One is in favor of violent “pre-emptive strikes” against those who dislike or plan to hinder the mutants. That group is led by the deeply-wounded and vengeful Magneto (Ian McKellan, masterful as always), who has the power to alter metal with his mind. At his side is Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the shape-changing reptilian beauty who exploits her sexuality to weaken those obstacles that happen to be male.

(Mystique continues to effectively represent the skin-deep artificiality and destructive influence of the popular American “ideal.” In short, she’s Madonna… exploiting sexuality to take advantage of men and get what she wants. Good thing she’s played as a villain.)

Then there’s the other faction: Peace-loving mutants who favor education and diplomacy over violence. They are led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who heads a secret school and refuge for mutant children. Under his care and command, a team of impressive talents strive to prevent rising tensions from spilling over into all-out war. When last we left the X-Men, Magneto was jailed in a plastic prison, Mystique was on the loose, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was searching for answers to the questions raised by his armored skeleton and limited amnesia, and Charles Xavier was grimly clinging to a temporary peace.

Now, things go from not-so-bad to everyone’s worst nightmare. I’ll forego detailed plot description: you can get that in any other review. Suffice to say that the much-feared war is on the way. Those mutant factions that were debating now need to form a rapid truce in order to save themselves from extinction at the hands of a hasty government officials controlled by fear and hysteria. That hysteria is the product of clever hype and political maneuvering by a hateful and malevolent villain, William Stryker.

A Talented Team That Could Teach George Lucas Some Lessons

Bryan Cox plays Stryker with devilish enthusiasm, giving him a Vader-like stride and an unhinged jaw that tends to shift from side to side in a crooked grin. Cox is riding the high of his career, showing up in three to four movies a year and making a memorable mark each time.

Cox is just one strong performer in an impressive cast. If George Lucas attends X2, I hope he walks away deeply shaken by what is possible with a smart script, strong characterization, and letting actors act. The X-saga has become the true inheritor of that original Star Wars spirit, while Lucas’s new trilogy has been running almost solely on the visual wonders of digital animation.

Bryan Singer should be commended for achieving something other superhero films fail to achieve: He makes the heroes more interesting than the villains. With so many characters, some X-Men are bound to get the short end of the stick. Last time it was Halle Berry’s Storm, but she gets a much stronger role here. (In fact, X2 is a story of the heroics of X-Women, while the men are jailed, traumatized, or controlled by villains.) This time, it’s Anna Paquin’s Rogue who is left with very little to do but act as an object of desire for the charming Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore, who is showing promise as an actor). Wolverine (Jackman) remains the character most likely to earn movies all his own; Hugh Jackman is clearly the inheritor of the action-hero crown formerly worn by Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford. Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), and Magneto also get their own showstopping scenes.

But if anybody steals the show, at least for this viewer, it is Mystique. While she was merely voluptuous and strange in the first film, here she’s more complex and fascinating. Her shape-changing capabilities are used to brilliant effect, and she earns some of the biggest gasps and heartiest laughs in the movie.

Punchlines and Powerful Metaphors

Did I mention laughs? Here’s the best reason to see X-Men 2: It is the funniest of all the serious action movies. In fact, the crowd roared with more laughter than they’ve enjoyed at any of this year’s comedies so far. There’s not a groaner in the whole script—every punchline works. I saw the film the night before it opened, and again on opening night, and both times the audience missed a good deal of dialogue because the comic touches kept them howling.

And it’s a good thing. Without humor, X2 would teeter into self-importance. Its serious subtext is clearly a subject of passion for the storytellers.

The war that Stryker wages against mutants lends itself to many interpretations — a virtue usually reserved for art films, not action adventures. Its dynamic of a fearful and prejudiced majority’s war on a minority they do not understand might have spoken too directly to issues of sexual minorities. But Singer’s not-so-subtle allegorizing could just as easily be about Christians who are persecuted for their faith, or about Christians ignoring Christ's example and using force and legislation to persecute and marginalize people they deem more sinful than themselves. There are also plenty of references to adolescence, to mysterious changes in body and perspective.

Another interpretation that lends itself to my mind is this: The world is currently suffering from forces who want to strike out at other nations and nationalities. Enemies of the U.S. engage in terrorism with bombings. The U.S., in the name of liberty and God, responds with… bombings. In X2, those who respond to destruction with similar tools of destruction are the villainous mutants. They make dangerous generalizations that clearly will eliminate those who threaten their existence, but they will also eliminate countless innocents and ruin all hope of diplomatic progress. The heroic X-Men are those that echo Christ’s exhortation to resist the urge to strike back, and they press forward, suffering bodily injury and humiliation, in order to gain ground through faith, reason, compassion, and love. Singer’s story is soberingly relevant to current events, without ever losing its grip on the plot.

Some of you are thinking I am taking this comic book movie too seriously. But the more I look at the history of comic books and at the stories that make these characters memorable — Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Hulk, X-Men — the more I realize that these adventures are powerful metaphors for alienation, isolation, oppression, the struggle to connect in a cold and cruel world; the struggle to succeed when surrounded by selfish and unforgiving neighbors; the search for father figures, mother figures, and soul-siblings in a world of broken families; the struggle to deal with physical, intellectual, and spiritual limitations.

Wolverine is the orphan fighting for his place in the world. He, like Hulk, manifests that power of anger and the necessity of self-control.

Rogue reminds us of adolescence, of that feeling of being contagious. She taps into our fear of hurting those we love, of abandonment. In a world when physical expressions of love can just as easily become the pathways of disease, she is a strong metaphor of fear and sadness. She represents our desire for unconditional love in spite of our flaws and failings.

Professor Charles Xavier shows us the burden of responsibility, but he also is truly heroic in his example of restraint, patience, and shepherding love for the lost and the lonely. He is powerful in spite of limitations. He resists striking back with force. He accepts persecution but believes in self-defense.

Cyclops is the crown prince, readying himself for responsibility. He is the jealous lover.

Jean Grey is the pupil, the apprentice… and in this one, she ascends to represent so much more.

Nightcrawler, the film’s most interesting new character, is haunted by spiritual questions, marked by mysteries. He wrestles with feelings of guilt, but his faith has guided him through dark days of humiliation and suffering. He provides a strong alternative to reacting in anger.

And we will see so many more examples in the near future. Still ahead: The Hulk. Hellboy. The League. More Spider-man. More Star Wars. More Lord of the Rings. More Shrek. More Matrix. The Chronicles of Narnia. Fantasy lends itself to highlighting of the truth in some ways much better than stories set in contemporary reality. Fantasy is made up of elemental things, simpler and stronger symbols.

The most interesting dilemma at work in X2 has nothing to do with prejudice, persecution, or alienation. The movie begins and ends with Jurassic Park-style talk about mutation and evolution. There is something striking here (and I give my wife Anne full credit for pointing this out after the movie): When the movie makes its big point about evolution, it is interesting that the speech is referring not to an act of survival, but an act of sacrificial love. How is that consistent with Darwinism? It seems far more consistent with the teachings of Christ. Is X2 inadvertently suggesting that the real “evolution” is each human being’s potential to become like Christ, rather than to develop traits of self-preservation?

A Strong Sequel, Despite an Unfortunate Stumble

X-Men 2 misses opportunities to have a greater impact by playing to the audience’s desire to see the bad guys “get it.” One of the film’s villains has been the victim of mind-control by a villain; for all we know, she is actually a decent person when she has control of her wits. Thus, this villain’s fate has a note of the tragic, meeting a fate that might have been avoided if freewill had been in play.

But more troubling is the fate of another villain, who might have been incarcerated and interrogated for important information, but instead is abandoned to die.

X2 is not the perfect adventure film. It is still overcrowded, keeping us from really getting to know these characters’ hearts. (X-Men was more successful at that.)

And it stumbles in its final minutes. It suddenly concocts a circumstance leading to a choice that should break our hearts, but the sequence comes out of nowhere. It’s too hastily executed and does not carry the weight that it should.

But these are minor gripes. As a big screen comic book, X2 is the most rewarding I have yet seen. Anybody working on comic book films — or Star Wars films — should be devoting themselves to understanding what makes the movies of Bryan Singer (and even moreso, Peter Jackson) work that will remain engaging and rewarding time after time, for years and years to come.