The Kingdom of Heaven is coming …

Just a few Kingdom of Heaven links I’ve picked up.

1. “SIR RIDLEY SCOTT’S new blockbuster, ‘Kingdom of Heaven,’ could hardly be more topical. It shows Muslims resisting Christian invaders…”

Well, the New York Times would start last Sunday’s article like that, wouldn’t they. The situation is certainly a lot more complex than that, not only historically but in Sir Ridley’s film, too, where Salah-ad-Din is quite clearly a conqueror with a string of past successes, even if he is also a conqueror who knows how to bait the more warmongering elements within Christendom.

The article continues: “Mr. Scott and his screenwriter, William Monahan, have tried to be balanced. Muslims are portrayed as bent on coexistence until Christian extremists ruin everything. And even when the Christians are defeated, the Muslims give them safe conduct to return to Europe.”

Um, this is balanced? All the extremists are Christian and all the Muslims are nice and peaceful? I think the film, to say nothing of history, is more complicated than that, though I don’t think the New York Times is.

Co-star Eva Green, who is French, is quoted as saying: “It’s not like a stupid Hollywood movie. It’s a movie with substance. It’s very clever and brave, and I hope it will wake up people in America.” To what? “To be more tolerant, more open towards the Arab people.”

Um, well, Salah-ad-Din was a Kurd, not an Arab. It’s kind of like how the bigoted vandals in Crash call the Persian character an Arab in their graffiti. Not all Muslims are Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslims. Looks like “people in America” are not the only ones who need to learn a few things about diversity.

2. Historian James Reston Jr. is still accusing the filmmakers of plagiarism, reports the Associated Press:

Reston, son of former New York Times executive editor James “Scotty” Reston, said producer Mike Medavoy optioned the rights to his book in November 2001 and weeks later sent a letter to Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott.

The Dec. 12, 2001, letter mentions Reston’s book by name and asks Scott to consider a movie based on the characters. “Think ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘A Man For All Seasons,’” Medavoy writes in the letter, which Reston provided to the AP.

Scott declined Medavoy’s pitch, but went on to make “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Reston argues that Scott and his screenwriter scuttled their previous historical epic “and miraculously the screenwriter came up with this concept based on ‘Warriors of God’ in a two-week timeframe.”

I have never seen A Man for All Seasons — though I’ve got a library copy sitting next to my VCR as I type — but I am a huge, huge fan of Lawrence of Arabia, and as it happens, there were moments in Kingdom of Heaven that did remind me of that film.

As for the timing of Medavoy’s letter, all I think any of us can say with any prudence is, Who knows? But just in case anyone wants to compare timelines, I will note that Scott says, in the New York Times story already linked:

What really interested me was something that seems to have disappeared from our vocabulary, which is the notion of grace and chivalry. Then, after I had finished “Black Hawk Down,” I met Bill Monahan to discuss another project, and I asked him if he knew anything about knights. He said the Crusades were his pet subject.

And in the roundtable interview that I attended three weeks ago, Scott said:

Don’t forget, we’d pre-decided this before the Gulf War, right on the edge of 9/11. I had already made Black Hawk Down before 9/11, in fact 9/11 occurred when I was about to put Black Hawk out. I was prepping it to go out probably in March or April, May, because of the nature of the film it was — it’s not exactly a summer movie — and then 9/11 occurred and we thought that would be shelved forever, and instead, within 48 hours, we thought it was actually quite relevant to put it out right now, and that’s how we got it out before Christmas. Whilst that was happening, I had already talked to Bill Monahan, whose pet subject is just this period. It’s about 176 years of Muslim and the Christian — Catholic, if you like — conflict. . . . I think we would have made this film, this film would have happened, with or without the Gulf War and with or without 9/11, basically.

So, putting the two Scott quotes together, it sounds like he “finished” Black Hawk Down before September 2001 (it was actually filmed between March and July 2001, says the IMDB), with plans to release it several months later; and then he approached Monahan, still before September 2001; and then Medavoy’s letter would have arrived three months later — after Scott and Monahan had already put their wheels in motion.

For whatever that’s worth.

3. Finally, Anders makes a brilliant point about Sir Ridley’s film that now seems so obvious to me, I can’t imagine why I never came across it before: “Am I the only one that thinks it’s funny that a movie about knights is being directed by a knight?”

I’m number four! I’m number four!

I just got an e-mail from an editor who was at the Evangelical Press Association conference this week, and he tells me that my film column for BC Christian News placed fourth in the award for “Standing Column”. I had no idea I was even in the running here, so this is a pleasant surprise. I don’t see any info on this online yet, but my editor tells me that this is the company I’m keeping:

1. Indeed, “A Parting Word,” by Chris Tiegreen
2. The Church Herald, “Signs of the Kingdom,” by Louis Lotz
3. Leadership, “Commentary,” by Brian McLaren
4. BC Christian News, “Movie Reviews,” by Peter T. Chattaway
5. Plain Truth, “Growing Places,” by Susan Reedy

So now I’m not only an award-winning journalist (see below), I am also specifically an award-winning movie critic. Cool.

Re: earlier awards. I have won a few in the past, but almost always for my news stories in BC Christian News. The Canadian Church Press gave an honourable mention to this story in 1998, and to this story in 2004; I got another honourable mention in 2003 for this story in Faith Today on the Harry Potter phenomenon. The Christian Newspaper Association also gave third prize to this story in 2001, and another third prize to this story in 2004.

Sounds a little like “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” doesn’t it? It’s still fun to be in so many wedding parties, though!

UPDATE: And now it’s time to spread the joy around. Turns out Christianity Today‘s “movie channel“, to which I contribute, took first place in the “Online Publications” category — despite being such a new site! (It was only up and running for about 10 of last year’s 12 months). Jeffrey Overstreet has the scoop.

MAY 13 UPDATE: In case anyone’s interested, my editor just sent me the comments that the judge made regarding my award:

1. Why this works: Simply put, Chattaway is one of the best writers on Christian themes I’ve read in this contest over the years. He not only describes well the films he’s seen, but leaves little doubt about his opinions and adds lots of personal knowledge that enriches the experience.

2. What needs improvement or doesn’t work: Could be a tad tighter.

3. Remarks: Inspiring to see a writer of Chattaway’s caliber writing about Christian themes.

Plus I got 9 out of 10 for each of the four categories: writing style, well-expressed opinions, appeal to intended audience and uniqueness of contribution. For whatever that’s worth.

MAY 21 UPDATE: I noticed something else while showing the EPA website to a friend of mine today. The EPA site says how many entries were received in each category, and there were 58 entries in the ‘Standing Column’ category, in which I came 4th. I believe the only writing-oriented category that had more entries was ‘General Article’, with 86. ‘Cover’ and ‘Two-Page Spread Design’ also had more entries, with 70 and 59 entries respectively, but those are more design-oriented. For whatever that’s all worth!

MAY 31 UPDATE: And now I’ve won another award for my film reviews, this time from the Canadian Church Press! Details here.

MAY 12, 2006 UPDATE: Another year, another fourth-place EPA award — this time for ‘Critical Review’! More details here.

JUN 9, 2006 UPDATE: And now my article on ‘The paganism of Narnia’ for BC Christian News has taken first place in the ‘Review’ category at the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers!

MAY 6, 2007 UPDATE: Another year, another CCP award — this time for ‘Media Review – Newspaper’. More details here.

JUN 2, 2008 UPDATE: And now my article on His Dark Materials for BC Christian News has taken second place in the ‘Editorial’ category at the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers.

JUN 4, 2009 UPDATE: My film column has picked up another CCP award, once again in the ‘Media Review’ category. Details here.

AUG 9, 2009 UPDATE: My film column has picked up another FCN award, this time as the ‘Best Column’ of 2008. Details here.

Hitchhiker’s disappointment

The wife and I caught the new film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy last night, and I regret to report that the film never really caught on, for me. I hope I can appease certain friends of mine by humbly bowing low and covering my head in ashes and saying I probably just don’t “get” the series, but I would be relieved beyond measure if it turned out that a fair number of them thought the film didn’t “get” the series either.

Just for the record, I have only read the first book in the series, and that was over a dozen years ago — I strongly associate it with the “Hoy House” days, for those who know what that means. (And for those who don’t: In April ’91, I moved out of my parents’ place, and until August ’92 I lived with an ever-expanding number of friends in a house on Hoy Street, which came to be known as “the Hoy House”. We were all sci-fi buffs; this was when I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was just more than half-way through its run at this point, and I also got around to reading the original Hitchhiker’s Guide — but not its sequels.)

Anyway. Coming home from the theatre last night, I remarked to my wife that it has been 21 years since Ghostbusters, and if I’m not mistaken, that is generally considered the first “big-budget special-effects comedy” — and I think this is a very, very difficult genre to do well. The tens of millions of dollars spent on all the major special effects builds certain expectations that your typical light, fluffy comedy can’t meet; and if the filmmakers aren’t careful, the effects can begin to seem like an awful lot of work for a few quick laughs. To a certain extent, comedy and humour are all about having a sense of proportion — and unless the filmmakers know what they’re doing, the very act of making such an enormous, expensive film tends to suggest a lack thereof.

Let’s put it this way. The lumpy, grotesque, bureaucratic Vogons reminded me of Terry Gilliam creations, and not in a good way; and the reunion of Sam Rockwell (as Zaphod Beeblebrox) and Alan Rickman (as the voice of Marvin) reminded me of Galaxy Quest, which I thought was a much better spoof of sci-fi and its fans.

And the casting seemed strangely off to me. Take Zooey Deschanel, who I have loved and adored ever since she played the influential big sister in Almost Famous (2000) — heck, she’s the only reason I even remember The New Guy (2002). As much as I like her, I am not sure that she was the right choice to play Trillian; her tone doesn’t quite match the film’s, and there is a scene in which she sheds a tear that just cried out for empathy, yet there was nothing else in the rest of this film that really encouraged any empathizing. (I also got a bit annoyed by the way she kept saying “Sector Zee-Zee-Nine” instead of “Sector Zed-Zed-Nine” — what with this and the casting of Rockwell as Zaphod and Mos Def as Ford Prefect, the story has definitely been Americanized.)

On the bright side, I absolutely loved every scene that Bill Nighy was in. He was great in Shaun of the Dead (2004), he was the best thing in Love Actually (2003), and he was quite possibly the best thing here, too. I must check out more of his films.

And the animated sequence was exceedingly cute, too.

Orthodox alien palindromes

Just a few quick random things.

1. Four weeks ago, I posted a link to an article I wrote on Orthodox converts. Today, that article has been re-posted here, with a snazzier layout — and a good thing, too, as the original link has been dead ever since ChristianWeek revamped their website.

2. I have been wondering lately if Steven Spielberg had changed his mind about the peaceful nature of aliens, as depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), given that he is now putting the finishing touches on his version of War of the Worlds. (I must admit I have never seen his mini-series on alien abduction, Taken — and now that I discover it co-starred Dakota Fanning, who is also in War of the Worlds, I think I should check it out.) In fact, I have been half-wondering if his new film will somehow make the alien invasion look like our fault, not unlike how Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) alluded to the imperialistic aggression of its humans.

What the film will do remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Spielberg tells the Associated Press that he still believes any aliens we meet will be peaceful:

I have to certainly believe what my heart tells me. That the first time there is a meeting of the minds between extraterrestrials and human beings, it’s going to be friendly. . . . I can’t believe anybody would travel such vast distances bent on destruction. I believe anybody who would travel such vast distances are curious explorers, not conquerors. Carrying weapons a hundred-thousand light-years is quite a schlepp. I believe it’s easier to travel 100,000 light-years with their versions of the Bible.

Of course, crossing the oceans once seemed like quite a schlepp, too, and the people who did it brought the Bible and their weapons with them. And if the “first meeting” between aliens and humans were to take place here on Earth — that is, if one side of this meeting had not put the effort into crossing any light-years at all, and thus had not had any of the alleged reasons to evolve more peaceful purposes — then there would presumably still be all sorts of ways that the meeting could be non-friendly.

3. I saw Todd Solondz’s Palindromes this morning. It’s about a girl named Aviva (played by half-a-dozen different actresses: some thin, some fat; some white, some black; some younger, some older; most of them unknown, one of them famous) who gets pregnant, so her parents force her to get an abortion, and when the operation goes bad, she runs away and gets involved with a group of pro-life do-gooders known as the “Sunshines”.

It’s one of those films that is inclined to make some people say that pro-choicers and pro-lifers are mocked equally. But the mockery does not seem particularly balanced to me; the pro-choice people still have fairly normal lives, and thus the audience is allowed to identify with them to at least some degree, whereas the pro-lifers live in some rather unusual circumstances, with strange clothes and a strange way of speaking and so on. (Alas, the yay-Jesus youth-oriented dance-pop is all too believable, and brings back awkward childhood memories.) You spend that whole part of the film waiting for the shoe to drop, kind of like how the pro-lifer patriarch in Citizen Ruth (1996) turned out to be a sexual predator; but in this case, when it drops, we discover that these pro-lifers are involved in shooting doctors. Oh goodie.

Still, you gotta love any film in which a person tries to pressure her child into having an abortion by dismissing the fetus as a mere “tumour”. And I do appreciate the way the mother tells Aviva about how she once aborted a child that would have been Aviva’s kid brother Henry (named after a relative who didn’t care about money, or so we are told), because she didn’t think having a second child would allow her to give her daughter so many material blessings — like N*Sync tickets. Gadzooks, if that doesn’t trivialize the pro-choice stance, then I don’t know what does. And it is significant that, for much of the rest of the film, Aviva renames herself “Henrietta”, after the baby brother she never had.

So, no one could ever accuse this film of being pro-abortion. But it’s also definitely not pro-life — and by that, I mean not only that it is not anti-abortion, but that it doesn’t really find much to affirm in this world. The film’s philosophy is apparently summed up by an alleged pedophile who says that people never change (they end up the same way they start out, he says, just like the palindromes of the film’s title), because there is no such thing as free will — just “genes and randomness,” programming us like “robots”. So, come to that, the film is not very pro-choice either, since it comes out of a worldview in which the very notion of “choice” is an illusion.

Oh, and did I mention that the film begins with a funeral service for Dawn Wiener, the protagonist in Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), the film that put Solondz on the map ten years ago? Turns out she got really obese and might have even been date-raped before she committed suicide. Oh joy.

Ah, what a way to start the day!

“Sound in space? Nooooo!!!”

That’s my wife’s reaction to the trailer for Serenity, the upcoming big-screen follow-up to the short-lived sci-fi series Firefly. She always liked the fact that space was silent on the TV show, as indeed it is in real life. But apparently it won’t be in the movie.

FWIW, she’s a bigger fan of the show than I am, but then, she’s got the Joss Whedon background, via Buffy, whereas I do not. I have refrained from saying anything about this series online until I get a chance to watch the entire thing — I have only seen about half of the episodes so far — but for now, suffice to say I prefer the military adventures of Star Trek and Babylon 5 (all that pulling of rank, all those lines to cross, all those orders to disobey), and I have never been a big fan of westerns, and Firefly is nothing if not a western set in space. And something about the relentlessly sexy women, so many of whom kick butt, gets on my nerves, too.

They type us all in stereo …

Last night, I saw XXX: State of the Union, in which Ice Cube takes Vin Diesel’s place as a criminal with attitude who is recruited almost against his will to become a secret agent (instead of replacing the girls in every movie, as the James Bond series did, this series replaces the agents themselves!). Then, this morning, I saw Crash (the new Paul Haggis film, not the old David Cronenberg one!). These two films have almost nothing in common. But they do both feature Nona Gaye in a small role. And they both make a big, big deal of the way people in various racial and cultural and ethnic communities harbour stereotypes about each other.

XXX: State of the Union may be the more offensive of the two films in this regard, if only because it panders to its core audience so thoroughly. On the one hand, it indulges in every fight-the-power cliche and cleavage-exposing mode of dress that one might expect of a hip-hop movie, which has the unfortunate effect of confirming its target audience’s baser appetites while allowing those outside the audience to continue condescending to that audience. In addition, the film encourages its target audience to harbour prejudicial attitudes of its own; Ice Cube disses his opponents as “hillbillies” and so forth while lumping together country music, the Ku Klux Klan, and similar attributes of “whiteness”. (I think he forgot to mention Nascar or hockey, but I could be wrong about that.)

In addition, there is a sense in which the film tries to have its cake and eat it too; on the one hand, our heroes get to attack the symbols and buildings that represent the American government — there are several shots in which we see the dome of the U.S. Capitol smoulder after being hit by a good guy’s tank — but on the other hand, they do all this to save the President (Peter Strauss, who I will forever associate with early-’80s mini-series like Masada and Kane & Abel) from a wildly implausible “revolution” cooked up by his Defense Secretary (Willem Dafoe in pay-the-bills mode). So, they’re being patriotic Americans, but in a way that essentially desecrates symbols of American patriotism.

Given that the film was directed by Die Another Day director Lee Tamahori, a New Zealander who is half-Maori and half-British, I can only wonder what he makes of the racial dimensions of American pop culture. Did he think he was making a social statement of some sort, or was he merely doing what the studio assured him the so-called “urban” audience would want?

And how, exactly, is this film supposed to plug into any sort of current political reality? Perhaps the evil Defense Secretary is meant to be a stand-in for Donald Rumsfeld — but this film’s President, who responds to an unprecedented attack on a top-secret American base by calling, bizarrely, for more diplomacy and political compromise, couldn’t possibly be a stand-in for George W. Bush. (Then again, the film’s President does talk about “compassion,” and is scorned for it by his Defense Secretary; does Rumsfeld similarly scorn Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”?) The film also plays on the idea that the powers that be tend to honour white people instead of black people, even as they steal their ideas from black people — yet what is someone like, say, Condoleezza Rice, if not black and politically powerful? For all the cutting-edge get-with-it attitude this film flaunts, its sense of political outrage seems rather outdated.

Contrast all this with Crash, which is yet another film about American racial politics made by an outsider born in Her Majesty’s Commonwealth. The outsider this time is Paul Haggis, the Canadian writer who spent years working on TV shows like Due South and Walker, Texas Ranger (which he co-created) before Clint Eastwood made a movie out of his script for Million Dollar Baby. Crash is Haggis’s second feature film as director (after 1993′s Red Hot, which he also co-wrote), and it piles on the ironies thick and fast as it tries way, way too hard to show how wrong our stereotypes can be.

That line about country music and the Ku Klux Klan in XXX? There is a very similar bit of dialogue in Crash. There are two black men who, the first time we see them, complain about the racist attitudes of black waitresses (who don’t expect black men to give them good tips) and white women (who cling to their husbands when they see black men on the sidewalk); no sooner have we been encouraged to think of the black men as “victims” in some sense, than they pull out guns and steal a white couple’s car; and as they drive away, one of the men begins inventing a mock “country song” about a Klansman lynching a black person. (But he’s not entirely opposed to “white” things; he does say he likes hockey.) Much later in the film, the man who sang that song hitches a ride with a white man, and the song on his car stereo happens to be a country song — and because we have already seen how decent this white man can be, we know that the stereotype is wrong.

Alas, more rugs are about to be pulled out from under us. But while I won’t give them away, I can safely say that nearly every stereotype — whether of victim or villain — that this film raises is eventually twisted around, as if Haggis was constantly trying to remind us, “Hey! People are more complicated than you think!”

We certainly are, we certainly are. But you know, I can’t say that two hours of watching random people talk about stereotypes as they coincidentally keep bumping into each other does all that much for me. If you changed all the racial topics to religious topics, I would probably still find the film a little dull. I find these sorts of issues more interesting when they lurk within a film’s subtext; I like being able to pull at them and unravel them and see where they go. When these sorts of issues are brought to the fore and spelled out within the text itself, it doesn’t work so well — especially when a film is so ambitious as to throw dozens of relatively minor characters at us and so diligently fair-minded as to try to show how complex all of them can be.

Any one of these movie’s subplots might have made an interesting story in its own right, if it had been fleshed out properly. Instead, it feels like Haggis is too busy tweaking the “types” and pushing our buttons that he didn’t really care that he hadn’t given himself much space to create actual characters. Whatever sympathy we feel for them is due entirely to the actors, and not to the script. (Why are Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito in bed together at one point? Simply so that she can get pissed off when he answers the phone and says he’s having sex with a “white woman,” and then she gets pissed off even more when he says he thought about calling her a “Mexican” instead, even though neither of her parents were from Mexico. As with them, so with every other character; the film shows zero interest in their relationship as people.)

Two moments did work for me, though — one, a scene between a Latino locksmith and his daughter, and the other, a scene involving a cop and an overturned car. These are moments where the truly human dimension of these characters really starts to push its way out of Haggis’s thematic contrivances. And these scenes both happen to make very effective use of music. They made me wish the rest of the film could have been like that; they made me wish the film had earned these scenes.