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Volume 17, Issue 5: Ex Imagibus

Holiday Flurry

Reviewed by All Sorts

Pride and Prejudice
directed by Joe Wright.
reviewed by Peter J. Leithart
Pop quiz. Which are you likely to find in an Austen novel?

a) During their first ballroom dance, the crowd disappears, leaving Darcy and Elizabeth to dance and converse alone.
b) While Jane is lying sick at Netherfield, Mr. Bingley visits her bedroom.
c) At the climax of the movie, Elizabeth takes an early morning walk in her night clothes and Darcy comes to meet her, walking across the misty heath with his shirt open.
d) As Elizabeth explains her love for Darcy to her incredulous father, she giggles and says, "We're so much alike. We're both so stubborn."
e) On a shelf on the other side of my library is a Jane Austen action figure, holding a book, a portable writing table, and a quill pen. (According to the packaging, her weapon of choice is "the character sketch.")
It's a trick question, and the correct answer is "f"—none of the above. Society never melts away for Austen or her characters. Misty heaths and open shirts are Bronte, not Austen, whose male characters remain well-buttoned. No Georgian gentleman would enter a lady's bedroom and she would never have let him in. Austen respected her heroine too much to let her fall into triteness.
Joe Wright, in his directorial debut, manages to capture some of Austen's wit, and the film is entertaining. Keira Knightley is lively and endearing as Elizabeth, Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy less so. Judi Dench as Lady Catherine glares imperiously from under her impossibly high-stacked wig, and Tom Hollander's Mr. Collins is so base that you wish someone would stomp on him.
Austen's virtues as a novelist cannot transfer intact to film. As soon as the carefully chosen gaps in Austen's narratives are filled in by visuals—as they must be—her novels lose their magic. That is an unavoidable difficulty, a sin of inadvertency. But the filmmaker changed Austen's novel into something else when he decided to tell the story of Pride and Prejudice in a romantic idiom that Austen mocked at every opportunity.
Now, an action figure armed with a character sketch—that's a bit closer.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
directed by Andrew Adamson
reviewed by Douglas Wilson
C.S. Lewis worries somewhere about margarine as a substitute for butter. He understood the need for such things in wartime, but his worry was that young children growing up with margarine might actually come to prefer it over butter. And that would be a travesty in the world of condiments.

This movie presents the thoughtful parent with the same kind of dilemma. For those children who are steeped in all things Narnia, this movie is a welcome adaptation of the LWW. For those whose introduction to the books is through the movie, the possibility exists that their taste will come to prefer the margarine to the butter. But margarine is really okay, especially when you look at the dry toast titles of the other movies at the theater you attended.
In the most important ways, the movie stayed faithful to the lines of the story written by Lewis. Aslan was done very well. The Stone Table scene was just right. The talking animals were effective, particularly the wolves. The casting was great. This was nothing like the BBC farce of a few years back, where for Aslan they used a couple of guys in a vaudeville lion suit.
Some changes or additions to the book were welcome or effective. This would include little touches like the White Witch wearing Aslan's mane going into battle, or increasing the scope and breadth of the battle. They were cutting with the grain.
Other changes—particularly the ones made in deference to current filmmaking dogmas—were less welcome. Gotta have dramatic tension every seven and half minutes, darn it! Or whatever it was they were doing. To do less would violate Orthodoxy. And while the witch was suitably creepy, she wasn't the right kind of creepy.
But to sum up, in no way did this movie wreck the book. And to some, that may be unexpectedly high praise.

Walk the Line
directed by James Mangold
reviewed by Douglas Wilson
Time for a little John R. Cash.

This biopic, like Johnny Cash's life was, is carried by the music. The choice that someone made to make the music pervasive throughout the movie was the right one, and the additional choice to have Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon learn how to sing and/or play the guitar so there wouldn't be any lip-synching was the right choice as well. The music here was the genuine stuff, and there is a lot of it in the movie. Many viewers will probably leave thinking they hadn't heard that tune in a while—and why haven't they?—and go out to find a Greatest Hits CD.
The film takes us through Johnny Cash's boyhood, the tragic death of his older (and good) brother, his first marriage, his addiction to amphetamines, and his final stabilizing marriage to June Carter Cash. His conversion to Christ is far more understated than it actually was in Cash's life, but it is still clearly and definitely there. One good effect of this understatement is that Cash's conversion comes across clearly as a covenant movement—he is returning to his people—rather than as a bolt from the blue.
One of the things our culture needs desperately to recover is what might be called masculine charisma. Cash had it, and this movie portrays it well. That charisma does not mean sinlessness, as the movie makes very clear. But the sin is shown to be destructive of all good things, including the charisma. This portrayal of Cash's life includes an effective painting of the sins of bitterness—that ran deep in the Cash family—drugs, adultery, parental neglect and ambition. It might be beneficial to our souls to look at a movie full of all this, but without the music, I still wouldn't have done it.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
directed by Mike Newell
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
This film was one of the kickoff points for the holiday movie season. It was also the first of the really fat books from the Harry Potter series to go through adaptation. Because of the thickness of the volume, translation to film was supposed to be more difficult. The same difficulty exists for the next two.

I was not too terribly thrilled about sitting through this film, primarily because the pubescent irritability attributed to Harry in later books drives me absolutely bonkers, and also because this book was the weakest of the series. While pages exist in great number (734), editors apparently didn't. Or, more cynically, they did and they knew full well that the thicker volume would retail at thirty dollars while the shorty third book (448 pages) only coverpriced at twenty-three.
The fans aren't complaining. The more additional pages of escapism the better. The only problem is that most of those additional pages don't move the narrative, feel like stalling, or cause hiccups in the suspension of disbelief. When the film adaptation got underway, a great deal of this stuff had to be removed. As a result, I can say that which is not often true—the movie is better than the book, and I enjoyed myself through most of it.
Sure, there's lots of stupid. Prom at Hogwarts was about as fun to watch as the National Scrabble Championships I encountered on ESPN this morning. Nothing there but a lot of tired cut-and-paste personal conflict, and the wizardy brit rock jerks us right out of the atmosphere of magic entirely.
The film functioned as an editor. Narrative gaps and loose ends are removed or slightly more hidden. The pace is quickened, and we don't have time to question the superficially contrived tension.
All the usual morality questions remain, but at least the narrative is less insulting.

The Family Stone
directed by Thomas Bezucha
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
A review is not deserved, but therapy is necessary. Like the other poor saps I shared the theater with, I was suckered in by false advertising. The preview promised a Christmas comedy, a date film. There was going to be a raucous, goofy, but lovable family razzing a blue-blooded potential addition.

This was like watching a liberal version of Left Behind or Tribulation Force. This was storytelling at its worst. It wasn't funny. It wasn't a comedy. If you saw the preview, you saw every amusing line in the script. Mom's dying of cancer. Gay guy. Not sympathetic enough. Gay deaf guy. Gay deaf guy in interracial relationship. Gay deaf guy in interracial relationship trying to adopt. This is a little technique we in the writing business call "subtlety." The unitarian sermon didn't stop, but it didn't present coherent thought either—just repetition, looping redundant, puritanical, judgments. And you the viewer better not question the writer's authority to manipulate characters. You are nobody. Bow to your sensitivity sensei.
I didn't dislike the characters. I pitied them. Every emotion was false, imposed from above by hyper-calvinistic, determinist gods. Honestly, I haven't seen characters so abused since Ayn Rand was busy voodoo-dolling the humanity out of hers.

March of the Penguins
directed by Luc Jacquet
reviewed by Nathan Wilson
Now on video, this "nature film" is phenomonal. But not as phenomonal as actual penguins. These three-and-a-half-foot-tall birds are the ultimate triumph of comedy over tragedy. Given what they go through, and the complexity of behavior necessary for survival, not a single one of them should rightfully be alive. Watch, and remember: these birds (and every other bird) were once dinosaurs who slowly adapted to fit their enviroment.

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