Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Green Hornet (2011)

Besides "The Adventures of Tintin," I didn't read comic books when I was younger. I still don't. But due to the recent spate of films derived from Marvel and DC comics, my interest in these characters and stories has grown. My interest was thus piqued when I heard about a new comic book character that would soon be arriving in cinemas: Britt Reid, alias the Green Hornet, and his sidekick Kato.

Britt Reid (played by Seth Rogen) is the son of a newspaper magnate, who dies and leaves him the corporate empire without any idea of how to run it. But with loads of money and a sense of adventure, Britt recruits his father's resident mechanic/barista Kato (Jay Chou), as well as amateur criminologist Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), and goes out to fight the criminal underworld of Los Angeles. He fights the city's resident criminal mastermind Chudnofsky (the delightfully self-conscious Christoph Waltz) and the obviously corrupt District Attorney Scanlon (David Harbour).

I'm not sure whether it comes across in the original comics, but Britt Reid is, at least in this film, is almost spectacularly unlikeable.  He epitomizes the "spoiled playboy" stereotype, but unlike Batman/Bruce Wayne, that is his actual personality.  There is no change of heart that causes him to yearn for justice; there is no deep philosophical or metaphysical yearning to make his deeds meaningful. His inaugural act as the Green Hornet is to decapitate the statue of his dead father. He is a coward, a boor, an over-sexed miscreant, and abusive friend, and a petulant man-child.  He has no sense of personal responsibility, no sense of humility, and really no sense of virtue whatsoever.  There is one redeeming moment towards the end of the film where he refuses a bribe from Scanlon, but that decision was borne equally out of pride as out of Reid's fledgling moral idealism. I found it totally impossible to like the character, and nearly impossible to root for him.

Besides the catastrophe that is the main character, the film is a mixed bag. The sidekick Kato is not only highly proficient, but also far more responsible and creative than Reid. Even if it would have been a travesty to the original comics series, I would have much preferred a movie in which Kato were the real Green Hornet who was using Britt Reid's resources and general cluelessness to fight crime on his own. Britt Reid shouldn't have been the protagonist, but instead the plucky comic relief. However, Kato was obliged to remain the buffoon's valet, and Jay Chou's acting did nothing to elevate this character from mediocrity.

As for Lenore Case, the criminologist, this role was mostly reduced to spouting random plot points from gang movies and crime films. To give her character depth, she was shoehorned into the 'love interest' role as well. But, in light of Britt Reid's utter lack of charm, this sideplotmostly mostly consists of Cameron Diaz acting alternately offended and incredulous at Britt's offensiveness.

The secondary villain, the District Attorney Scanlon, was utterly unremarkable as well.  The third-act twist which reveals him to be corrupt (having bribed and then killed Britt Reid's father, on behalf of the crime lord Chudnofsky) was so clearly foreshadowed, it was hard not to think about his "sudden but inevitable betrayal" while watching the earlier scenes.

Perhaps the sole redeeming factor of the film was the villain, Chudnofsky. He belongs to the "old guard" of the criminal underworld, who'd risen by hard work and high explosives. He remains insecure, however, both because of his unpronounceable name and because he's constantly overshadowed by more image-conscious criminals. We first meet him in one such encounter: he rapidly dispatches four armed guards then casually asks the drug kingpin (an uncredited appearance by James Franco) for tips on improving his public image. Waltz plays this scene beautifully, and his character's plot arc (he ultimately becomes the quip-spouting caped criminal, "Bloodnofsky") is a beauty to behold.  More's the pity, for those gems were encased in the thick walls suffering from narrative dry rot. "The Green Hornet" was an immense disappointment.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Enchantment

Orson Scott Card is one of the most recognized writers of science fiction and fantasy today, perhaps best known for writing Ender's Game and its sequels.  A list of his other novels, stories, and series is pretty staggering on its own, spanning the sub-genres of political thriller, time-travel, space travel, magical fantasy, and historical fiction.

One of his lesser-known stand-alone works is the novel "Enchantment," which may be broadly characterized as a modern retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. In fact it is a meta-fictional take on some of the classic Grimm fairy tales, Slavonic folk stories, and Jewish myths, with an ample helping of Cold War politics and time travel to take the edge off. It features Card's characteristic chapter format with rotating multi-persona perspectives, a complex mythology of magic, pagan polytheism, and religious doctrine, and a startlingly effective love story.  There's also a complimentary self-aware reference to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."  All told, this might be my favorite of Card's novels.

Most people know the story of Sleeping Beauty from the Disney version, though the original folktale probably originated in pre-medieval Europe. The story is simple: a newborn princess is cursed by the regional administrator of the International Wicked Witches Association (Cardinal Directions division), to the effect that she will die on her sixteenth birthday. Fortunately, the curse is 'alleviated' by three wise witches, presumably employed as union busters by the local warlords. Instead, the princess would merely fall into a death-like sleep on her sixteenth birthday, until woken up by True Love's Kiss (patent pending). Sure enough, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle, falls fast asleep, wakes up some time later to a random guy performing mouth-to-mouth, and naturally concludes that this is the love of her life. Happily ever after shortly ensues.

Card begins the novel focused around Ivan, a young Ukrainian boy coming to terms with his father's recent revelation that they are Jewish (his father publicly declared this so they could seek religious asylum in America). While visiting their cousin Marek, the young Ivan stumbles across a mysterious grove, with a strange beast trapped in a circular chasm that seems to be guarding a sleeping girl. Frightened of the beast, he runs away, and after his family relocates to America he shrugs off the memory (and recurring dreams) as a childhood fantasy.  He becomes a scholar of languages, specializing in Old Church Slavonic, a distant ancestor of modern Russian. He visits his cousin Marek again as a young man, to conduct research into his subject, and once again encounters the grove.  He somehow outruns the beast, a colossal stone-throwing bear, knocks it unconscious and leapfrogs the chasm.

Thus begins his adventures through time into the pre-medieval kingdom of Taina, located by the Carpathian mountains in Eastern Europe. The book marshals an impressive array of folktales and cultural anthropological knowledge to convey the distance in culture between Ivan's Ukrainian-American upbringing and the far-removed cultural mores of the land of Princess Katherina.

The chapter-by-chapter rotating viewpoints effectively roots us in the cultural differences and allows us to understand the characters far more intensively than would have otherwise been possible.  We understand and sympathize intuitively with Ivan's predicament, trying desperately to speak and understand the language (and preserve his insights for future generations) while fulfilling the kingdom's expectations of a prince and, of course, impressing the princess.  However, we also can understand the princess' dilemma of finding herself married to a man with hardly any upper-body strength, with no concept of princedom and leadership, and with very strange ideas of what is decent and what is taboo.

One of the delights of the story was when the tables were reversed -- to save Ivan's life, the two must flee ancient Taina and return to modern America.  Thus Ivan is partially vindicated and Katherina is allowed to understand how great a challenge it had been for him.  This sequence, incidentally, is also one of the weaknesses of the story -- Katherina finds it far too easy to adjust to modern life, and there are far too many easy coincidences (Ivan's mother knows magic, and his entire family has some knowledge of Old Church Slovenian, for instance). A fantasy novel may disregard normal conventions of fiction, but must develop and abide by a cogent set of rules for itself to maintain narrative coherence. Having established the 'rule' of cultural encounter from Ivan's adventures among Katherina's people, it seems to partly disregard those rules for convenience when the roles are reversed.

That's not to say the novel doesn't work. It may have simply worked too well and too easily in that particular passage. The love story between Ivan and Katherina, on the other hand, does not skimp on the challenges, and it is probably the best aspect of the story. Due to the cultural difference, misunderstandings abound, but we understand why and sympathize with the difficulty in overcoming them. This is no modern rom-com which forces obstacles in the path of lovers by means of idiocy, inanity, and simple invention.  This is closer to the Austen model of romantic comedy, where human psychology causes those obstacles to arise naturally, and where classical and Christian virtues must combine to remove them.

I have little interest in Eastern European folktales.  Of the ancient mythologies, the Greek and Roman are easily my two favorites, followed by the Norse. Slavonic folktales fail to win, place, or show in the horse-race for my loyalties. Yet I appreciated Card's obvious love for the culture, and his enthusiasm for its native stories is truly contagious. "Enchantment" is an extraordinary novel, and one I would highly recommend.

To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Matt Baglio: The Rite

I read this book without knowing precisely what to expect.  I was interested in learning about spiritual warfare, especially from a Catholic perspective.  I knew that Father Thomas Euteneur (currently of the diocese of Palm Beach, formerly of Human Life International) had written a well-received book on the subject, Exorcism and the Church Militant. That book was unfortunately out of print, but Euteneur did recommend another work as a resource: The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by Matt Baglio.

Among the Catholic rites and practices, exorcism is decidedly the black sheep -- ignored whenever it's possible, and marginalized whenever it can't. Due to an explosion of reported possessions and instances of demonic warfare in Europe, specifically in Italy, the Vatican had decided to debut a course in exorcism for interested priests.  This naturally attracted a good deal of attention from local and international media, including by American journalist Matt Baglio.  Shortly after the course began, Baglio met Father Gary Thomas, a priest from San Jose, California, who had been sent by his bishop to Rome for training. Father Thomas had never witnessed an exorcism and knew virtually nothing about the subject, but was eager to learn and was soon apprenticed to a practicing exorcist, Father Carmine.

Baglio wrote The Rite as the story of Father Thomas' training. The narrative conceit is stunningly effective. Both Baglio and Father Thomas begin as a skeptic, but the book conveys their gradual exposure to the Rite and acceptance of the reality of spiritual warfare.  Baglio packs the book chock-full of anecdotes, not only from Father Thomas' experience, but from other exorcists around Italy, and various sufferers.  He also covers the theology of spiritual warfare, a historical survey of Catholic and Christian demonology, and (most intriguingly) modern medical and psychological views on demonic possession.

In an article published in The American, Baglio stated that he "wanted to take an unbiased, non-macabre, almost scientific approach to determine just what the Church actually taught about exorcism." The Rite was quite successful in this regard.  There are occasional sensational details, but on the whole Baglio conveys the surprising banality of the rite, and dispels many misconceptions that accompany the subject.  The Rite may have been too successful, in fact. It attracted the attention of Hollywood (the source of many of those misconceptions), and is the basis for the upcoming film "The Rite" (starring Anthony Hopkins as Father Carmine). Based on the trailer, I have little doubt that this film will be a typical Hollywood bastardization of the source material, but that hardly disqualifies the book as a splendid and invaluable resource for those who seek real theological and scientific content on this much-disputed area of Christian doctrine.

This was cross-posted at my theology blog, Orthodox Reflections.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Carl Olson: Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'?

When I was younger, I had a pretty strong interest in eschatology (from eschaton - the study of the "end times").  I think my interest was primarily motivated out of a love for storytelling.  The book of Revelation has so many wonderful and terrible images that it really does draw you in to the cosmic portrait being drawn, even if the portrait is as indecipherable as modern art.  This storytelling aspect was amplified by the "Left Behind" series, which now seems ideally suited for an impressionable young mind -- a thoroughly engaging plot featuring two-dimensional characters and absolutely abysmal writing.

As I grew older, I grew more familiar with some of the views on the book of Revelations, and I realized that "Rapture theology" was far from the only orthodox approach to eschatology.  My own views were shaped decisively in my freshman and sophomore years of college, when I engaged in a study of millennialist heresies in the Middle Ages and the Reformation.  For many years prior I had studied the history of economic thought, and I was frankly stunned by the many correlations I discovered between heretical eschatology and later utopian ideologies that had secularized these false millennial doctrines. This historical background helped demonstrate to me not only the theological dangers of over-emphasizing the eschaton, but the social and philosophical ramifications as well.

This book, "Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'?", skilfully dissects the doctrines of "Rapture theology" that are so familiar to certain Protestant circles. The organization is a bit scatter-shot, surveying historical millennailists (focusing on the proto-dispensationalist heresies of Joachim de Fiore), major dispensationalist figures (such as Darby, Scofield, and Chafer), and finally the popularizers of the Rapture (especially Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye).

The book analyzes and evaluates some of the crucial doctrinal underpinnings of "the Rapture," and offers considerable clarity in defining various schools and camps of Christian eschatology. The distinctions between pre-millennialist, post-millennialist, and amillennialist interpretations, along with the divisions within Rapture theology (pre-Tribulation, mid-Trib, or post-Trib), are offered and explained. Finally, from the perspective of a historically orthodox Catholic (relying on church dogma and papal encyclicals), the authors presents a critique of dispensationalist theology and a positive affirmation of Catholic doctrine on the millennium and the eschaton.

I am not a Catholic, but I found the arguments both intriguing and compelling. It taught me a good deal about the doctrinal underpinnings of dispensationalism, especially the sharp dichotomy between the nation of Israel and the Church, a "two covenants" approach to eschatology that practically entails two separate "Second Comings" -- a preliminary Rapture alongside the final Parousia. That answered one of my main questions about dispensationalism: why the Rapture was considered a doctrinal necessity in the first place. The book also surveyed some of the more vitriolic strains of anti-Catholicism among dispensationalist writers, a bigotry that almost makes me ashamed to be a Protestant. On a more positive note, the author's case for the Catholic doctrine of eschatology also delved into issues of the Church as the Body of Christ, and the role of church tradition. This work is an engaging read, and an immensely valuable resource for studying Christian doctrines of eschatology.

This was cross-posted at my theology blog, Orthodox Reflections.

To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:
Will Catholics Be Left Behind? (Modern Apologetics Library)Eschatology Books)