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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 23, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


A Star, Dawn Treader, Best Films

I recently ran across someone's choice of a favorite Christmas poem:

I do not wonder that God chose a star
To be the sign
For heralding the advent of our Lord;
The still, white shine
Of any star holds something in its heart
Of the Divine.

He chose a star with its clean silver fire,
Its brilliancy,
Its exaltation, and its steadfastness --
Its purity:
The one sign that the shepherds and the kings
Alike, could see.

As the editor and publisher of an online poetry magazine (http://www.strongverse.org ), I sometimes despair of finding any contemporary poets who know how to write lines that scan and make sense in English. It seems to be a lost gift. But this poet obviously has command of the language, and so I looked her up with some hope.

The poet is Grace Noll Crowell, and to my surprise she was once widely regarded as America's most popular and beloved poet. Poet laureate of the state of Texas, she was widely published in the 1940s and 1950s, and people still pass along her poems, especially those dating from World War II, when she published many remarkable poems that deal with grief and loss.

Next week I'll introduce you to more of her work, because it's completely out of print yet does not deserve to be forgotten. I'm going to link it with a discussion of a great contemporary poet who is the leader of the movement toward poetry that is designed to communicate -- what I call public poetry.

Meanwhile, I also ran across a website -- Internet Monk -- that offered Chaplain Mike's choice for favorite Christmas poet. He calls attention to the work of Christina Rossetti, many of whose verses have been set to music. Most of us have heard and loved the incantatory words of "In the Bleak Midwinter," with its beautiful melody and the depiction of "snow on snow on snow."

But I never connected the lyricist of that song with the poet who created this:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him --
Give my heart.

Check out what Chaplain Mike has to say at http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/my-christmas-poet

*

I'm not really an expert on C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, though I do teach a class on the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis. Still, I know the books well enough to admire the work of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely in adapting them faithfully and effectively into films.

For the newest installment, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, they added writer Michael Petroni to the team. Michael Apted was also brought in as the director. This is the man who directed Nell, Amazing Grace, Gorillas in the Mist, and one of my all-time favorite films, Coal Miner's Daughter.

While director Andrew Adamson did a fine job on the first two films, Apted's work with the child actors got far better performances from them. This may be because the two repeat actors -- Georgie Henley as Lucy and Skandar Keynes as Edmund -- now have more maturity and experience. It's not surprising that they have become quite good.

What Apted did so brilliantly was direct young Will Poulter in the very difficult role of Eustace Scrubb. The way C.S. Lewis uses Scrubb in the series makes him a nightmare for casting, because he spends most of Dawn Treader as a priggish, obnoxious twit, but then learns both courage and tolerance, setting him up to be the hero of the next film!

Hollywood casts by type. How do you find an actor to be the cowardly twit in one movie, and then, playing the same character, to be the decent, courageous hero of the next? Imagine casting the same actor to play Eddie Haskell in one movie, and then Harry Potter in the next, and you'll have some idea of the problem.

But with Will Poulter, they nailed it. He is utterly convincing as the self-righteous jerk of a cousin who torments the Pevensies in the house where they are taking refuge from the dangers of England in World War II. His unreasonable insistence on rationality in an irrational world, coupled with his cowardice, makes him completely obnoxious -- yet in a rather likeable way.

The movie doesn't cheat -- it doesn't make him ugly and sneering. We see that he's quite sincere in his panic at being forced to rethink his whole understanding of the way the universe works.

But Poulter's real achievement as an actor comes after his character learns courage from Reepicheep and is redeemed from the consequences of his folly by Aslan. Suddenly, Poulter smiles and a completely new person emerges -- someone genuine, generous, likeable.

How much of this is the talent or skill of the actor, and how much is a happy confluence of facial features, is impossible to tell in an actor so young -- but I hope it's talent and skill, because then we can expect more excellent work from him in the future. It certainly would bode well for the next Narnia film.

The Book Voyage of the Dawn Treader is episodic and disjointed, not a problem in a novel but a terrible one in a film. The writers do a fine job of reshaping it into a single coherent story, though, as always in this series, it does help if you've read the book, even if you only vaguely remember it. Certainly you should come to it having seen the previous films, so you already know who Aslan, Caspian, and the Pevensies are.

The result is a very enjoyable film, if not a great one.

They make only two mistakes, in my opinion. First, they opted to show us Aslan's healing of Eustace without any explanation of what was actually going on. Where the book has Aslan dig his claws directly into Eustace's dragon-skin, peeling it off very painfully, I'm sure the filmmakers thought this would be too disturbing for children to see. Instead, they have Aslan claw at the sand and show the marks of the claws on Eustace's body. This certainly improves the film's ability to be viewed by children without giving them nightmares.

The problem is that their metaphor is far weaker than Lewis's, and it is weakened further by the fact that we don't find out what it all meant until Eustace describes it later. In the book, we know what's happening while we see the scene; that is a far more effective way. But, given the limitations of the genre, I think the writers were quite resourceful in coming up with a second-best solution.

The real irritation for me -- and it's not a small one -- is that the makers of this film are far more evangelical than Lewis was. Lewis was a mere-Christianity proponent, and absolutely not a Calvinist of the irresistible grace, faith-without-works school.

The filmmakers, however, have characters urge others to "have faith" and "believe" without any expression of what they're supposed to have faith in and believe in. It is certainly terrible advice to urge anyone to "believe" in general -- they will end up spending a lot of money helping Nigerian princes get their funds and aiding friends they've never met who've had their money stolen in London.

Lewis's faith was quite specific: Only Christ, or the Christ-figure Aslan, is to be believed in, and nothing else. Yet there is nothing in Dawn Treader as written to tell us why these children should believe that Aslan will step in to save them from temporal danger. Lewis clearly shows that Aslan only steps in to help people learn from their mistakes and to preserve them from spiritual or moral danger.

Death hardly worries Aslan, since he will see the dead later in his own country, if they're good people. It's not death but sin that takes them away from him.

So when Lucy urges a frightened child to "believe" and "have faith" when Aslan has not promised to save anyone from shipwreck or drowning, and never would, it all begins to take on a very non-Lewis evangelical feeling. It's as if the filmmakers, being fervent believers in a certain kind of Christianity, want to kidnap Lewis's characters and put them to work in service of a branch of Christianity that Lewis specifically deplored.

These moments will make non-evangelicals who actually understand doctrinal differences quite uncomfortable -- this is not the religion of Lewis's Narnia.

These moments are rare enough, however, that you can overlook them if you choose. I chose to, in order to enjoy the rest of the movie, which is true to Lewis in making this a rollicking good adventure story.

Lewis intended audiences to be able to read the Narnia books without ever being forced to interpret them allegorically -- in other words, readers were able to miss all the Christian references and still love the stories.

Having the Christian allusions forced on you ruins the reading of the books. I've heard this from many students whose parents gave them the books to read but then spoiled everything by insisting they immediately see all the Christian references. They're only fun when you can come to the realizations yourself.

Aslan should be loved for himself, and not because we keep seeing the cross whenever he comes onscreen.

I hope the writers and producers restrain themselves in future, and stay more faithful to Lewis's less-restrictive, less-Calvinist brand of Christianity. Irresistible grace has no place in films based on Lewis's stories; nor do general admonitions to "believe" and "have faith."

Please, though -- don't allow these quibbles of mine to keep you from seeing and enjoying the films. They are fine achievements in storytelling, and I should be so lucky as to have a film adaptation of any book of mine that is as faithful to the story, the characters, and the philosophy of the original. Heck, I'd just be glad to see a screenplay of one of my books that actually includes an occasional scene or line of dialogue that I wrote -- so far, I haven't been very lucky on that point.

So if Lewis himself should appear to me in a dream, complaining about the cavalier way that the Calvinists have coopted his religion, I'll try to reassure him that compared to what Hollywood normally does to books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is practically a miracle.

*

As usual, I went to the Internet Movie Data Base -- IMDB Pro -- as a resource in writing this review. But apparently IMDB has added a new feature. Every time I passed the mouse near someone's name, a big box popped up with their picture and bio. It blocked out half the surrounding information. So in getting the names of the writers, for instance, the popup box about the first one blocked the names of the other two!

If it had gone away quickly, or if it had had a little X in the upper right corner so I could close it manually, it would have been tolerable. But there was no such X and it would not go away. Even when I clicked on a name and read the filmography, when I returned to the first page the popup was still there! It was maddening.

I've been to sites where such popups were annoying, but never to one where they were so maddeningly counterproductive. What bad design! Especially because the popups contain absolutely none of the information I'm trying to look up.

It's like visiting a library where a "helpful" librarian won't stop leaning over me, telling me things I don't care about while I'm trying to read the reference book I actually came for.

*

Here at the end of the year, the Oscar buzz abounds. As a member of the Writers Guild, I'm getting DVDs and scripts of movies that the studios think have a chance of being nominated for writing awards. I have yet to see some of the most-touted films.

But the fact is the touting merely depresses me, because what seems to make a movie praiseworthy inside the industry seems to be mostly bleakness, hostility to traditional values, and anti-audience artiness. Having grown up and left my artistic adolescence behind me, those things don't impress me at all, because they're so cheap and easy to do, and so meaningless when you do them.

Fortunately, there have been some good films this year, even though only a few of them are actually being pushed for awards. So far my top five movies, in no particular order, are:

Tangled

How to Train Your Dragon

Toy Story 3

Inception

Mao's Last Dancer

Three of these are animated. It's odd, isn't it, that the most emotionally affecting, the most human movies this year were made by animators. But perhaps that's because the primary audience for animation is still considered to be children and families, which means that it's commercial suicide to make them dirty, unpleasant, bleak, or vague.

Animation is expensive. But animation that people love makes money by the boatload. So Hollywood still makes great animated features -- and then shunts them into an Oscar category apart, so they can't interfere with giving too many Oscar nominations to sad undergraduate-quality screenwriting that is so conformist in its supposed nonconformity that you've already seen the films before you ever see them.

Mao's Last Dancer does a brilliant job of handling a tough story, yet it does so honestly and without having to fake it up in order to juice the ending, the way Spielberg did in the phony Schindler's List. It helps your enjoyment of the film if you already love ballet. I didn't and don't -- but I still loved it.

Inception is brilliant until the very last second, when a cheap-trick cut gives the director arty-points but convicts him of contempt for the audience. Too bad -- otherwise it might have been my clear first-choice pick, a prize that everyone in Hollywood covets. (In my dreams, of course.)

Brilliant and beautiful as Toy Story 3 was, and as delightful, moving, funny, and understated as was How to Train Your Dragon, I'm leaning right now toward Tangled as my choice for best movie of the year. But I can't trust my own feelings right now -- I saw the other movies too long ago, Tangled too recently.

For a vastly entertaining retrospective on 2010's movies, check out the 2010 mashup filmography at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4dEWOB6THE.

We'll be lucky if the Oscars offer us a flashback of the year's movies that's half as good as this one. Evocative, funny, clever, moody, nostalgic, sweet, scary -- it makes 2010 look like a far better movie year than it actually was.


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