Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Beowulf & Grendel

(At last I’ve got my desktop back, and substantially operational. Now I can post the movie review I promised last weekend.)

I’ve been waiting for Beowulf and Grendel for some time. There was an official website, where they posted photos and production information, but as is the case with so many movies, there were problems in the distribution phase. I had high hopes for it. The costumes, in particular, looked to be far more authentic than anything we’ve seen in a Viking movie to date. (Technically it’s not really a Viking movie, since it takes place in the 6th Century, and the Viking period didn’t officially start until the 8th Century. But I doubt if a Northman living in those times would have seen any important difference.)

The film never did get meaningful release. It played in a handful of theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and now has gone to DVD. This is unfortunate in many ways, since it’s a well-acted, visually fascinating piece of work.

But I don’t like it much.

It was great to look at. The costumes, as I said, were outstanding. The armor and weapons were (thankfully) done with exacting care, barring some not-unthinkable improvisations (in contrast to the ones used in The Thirteenth Warrior, apparently the result of a scavenger hunt through the props department). The Icelandic locations were grimly beautiful as only Iceland can be–though a little disorienting, since the story is expressly set in Denmark, and Denmark has never–now or then–looked much like Iceland (it was heavily wooded in Beowulf’s time).

But Beowulf and Grendel is a preachy movie, and what’s worse, it’s a sort of preaching I don’t like.

If you read the Beowulf poem, you read the story of a heroic young man (played by Gerard Butler in the movie) who kills a mighty monster in order to protect the people of a family friend, King Hrothgar of Denmark. It’s a black-and-white story. Grendel, the monster, kills because he’s bloodthirsty and evil. Beowulf kills him (and later his fearsome mother) because he’s brave and strong and good.

The movie turns all this on its head. The new slant isn’t really revolutionary, because we’ve heard it all before, time and time again. It merely spoils the story. Grendel is now the heroic social outcast. He’s the utterly innocent victim of racial prejudice. He never kills anyone except those who’ve injured him (he’s able to pick those precise ones out through his superhuman sense of smell). It’s the Danes (typical imperialist, bigoted Europeans!) who have killed his father for sport.

I have no objection to humanizing villains. It’s something I take pains to do in my novels. A villain is more effective, more believable and more morally useful when the reader can sense our common, perilous humanity and recognize once again Solzhenitsyn’s profound dictum that “the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.”

But it can be overdone. The filmmakers (director Sturla Gunnarson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins), instead of offering insight into human complexity, have essentially switched sides. Now it’s the Danes who are mindless, bloodthirsty monsters, and Grendel who is the pure and unsullied Ideal.

Aside from being a cliché, this approach makes the movie a lot duller than it might have been. Beowulf, pretty much the only Dane with a lick of decency or compassion, fights without enthusiasm, and his victory is a hollow one. Suddenly The Thirteenth Warrior (which was based on the same story) looks better as a movie. At least there was serious fighting with important stakes in that movie, not to mention a hero who cared about what he was doing.

The whole thing is summed up in a line at the end, where one of Beowulf’s men, listening to a friend composing the first draft of the epic poem, says, “[His] story is sh*t.” That’s what this movie all boils down to. It’s a movie about Beowulf done by people who despise Beowulf.

It’s rated R and deserves it. Lavish use is made of the “F” word, and there’s some gore (though not as much as there might have been) and sexual situations. An Irish priest (unimaginatively named Brendan) shows up in order to demonstrate how impotent and misleading Christianity is. The real voice of wisdom in the film (again, predictably) is a witch played with offputting smugness by Sarah Polley (who was the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

I’d planned to buy this movie. I’m glad now I rented it first.

Paul by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos [in George MacDonald’s Phantastes]. I do now. It was Holiness. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, Chapter XI).

For some years I have told people that there is one author in particular whose sandals I feel myself utterly unworthy to untie. That author is Walter Wangerin. If I could trade my entire past and future literary output for the ability to say that I’d written The Book of the Dun Cow, I’d… well, I’d be strongly tempted. If any work of expressly Christian fiction written in my lifetime is likely to endure, I think it will be that marvelous book. Not only for its outstanding literary quality, but for the Holiness Lewis found in MacDonald and I find in Wangerin.

Still, I haven’t been a big reader of Wangerin’s books. That was partly because I thought he’d gone over the top with his sequel, The Book of Sorrows, a book almost unendurable for me from an emotional point of view. Also he’s a pastor in good standing in the Very Large Lutheran Church Body Which Shall Remain Nameless, and I have to assume that means we have major theological disagreements, particularly in terms of our views of Scripture.

But if Paul is typical of the stuff Wangerin’s been putting out all these years, I’ve got some catching up to do. I can quibble with some of his dramatic choices, but taken all in all this is a fine, spiritually nourishing work of fiction, one that I heartily recommend to all readers.

The book is largely a retelling of the material we are given in the Book of Acts in the Bible. The story of Paul’s life is told from multiple viewpoints—people who knew Paul like Barnabas and Prisca and James the Apostle and Timothy (one exception is the philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor, who keeps us posted on events in Rome). Each chapter presents the story from a different point of view, friendly or hostile to Paul. Each narrator is well-defined and believable as a character. Wangerin makes use of historical research to flesh out Scripture’s spare accounts, helping stories and passages we’ve known all our lives take on new vividness.

I can hardly think of a better commentary on Acts and the Epistles than this, as a gift for a new Bible reader.

I wouldn’t have handled some of the material the way Wangerin does. He alters the scriptural account in small ways. For instance, as he tells it here, Barnabas’ break-up with Paul was not a result of a fight over giving John Mark another chance to accompany them, but over the dispute about eating with Gentiles. Dramatically, though, it works better this way, and we all know that it’s possible for two witnesses to remember different causes. Wangerin is also bold enough to add small paragraphs to biblical passages, as if restoring lost sections. I don’t think I’d have the nerve (or the temerity) to add to Scripture that way.

Wangerin also invents some unrecorded incidents (though not many), and one in particular (concerning a prison escape) struck me as kind of far-fetched.

But overall I enjoyed the novel very much, and it improved my comprehension of the New Testament (and I speak as one who’s read the New Testament many times).

I encourage you to read Paul. Drink in the Holiness. Wangerin’s health is bad. We may not have many more books from him.

The Man Of My Life by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

I’m not sophisticated enough to read Montalbán.

All my life I’ve had a reputation for being fairly bright, but I’ve borne this secret shame—there’s lots of modern literature, highly praised by people of greater intellect than mine, that I just don’t comprehend. I read these works through (or did, when I was in school and had to), but they speak to me not at all, and I have to assume it’s my own fault.

But I’m not entirely sure that’s the reason I didn’t like this Spanish novel. I have a suspicion that this one is just plain superficial and dull. Somebody sent it to Phil for review, and he passed it on to me without finishing it. I read the whole thing because I enjoy writing nasty reviews better than he does.

Montalbán’s detective hero, Pepe Carvalho, is advertised as Barcelona’s answer to Philip Marlowe. I suppose that’s true. Just as Marlowe embodied a certain world-weary, mid-twentieth century American cynicism which, being American, retained a reservation of personal integrity and courage, Pepe Carvalho is the perfect postmodern European.

Pepe is, above everything else, cool. He’s too cool to have close personal relationships. There is Charo, his on-and-off girlfriend, a former prostitute. There is Biscuter, a physically unimpressive young man whom Pepe rescued from the streets and made his personal assistant. But Pepe doesn’t open up much to either one. He cares about gourmet cooking, and he likes to start fires in his fireplace with books that have displeased him. I suppose that’s supposed to constitute character development.

Pepe’s too cool to believe in anything, religious or political. This novel puts him in contact with a confusing array of cults, parties and movements, and he analyzes them all with the detachment of a man who has transcended all that. He has been, we are told, both a Communist and a CIA operative in his time (the CIA, of course, taught him to commit soul-destroying cruelties, assuming one has a soul).

The plot involves a young man, son of a powerful capitalist, who has rejected his father’s values to start a satanic cult, “Lucifer’s Witnesses.” He has been accused of murdering his male lover, another leader of the same cult, who happens to be the son of a rival capitalist.

Then the plot, such as it is, begins a confusing wander (or meander, the pace is pretty slow) among groups like neo-Cathars and rival parties of Catalan nationalists. I quickly lost track of them.

And why should I be interested? Pepe himself doesn’t seem very interested. He didn’t seem to me to do much actual detecting in the book. He’d get calls from various people telling him to meet someone at this or that spot, and generally he’d go there and be beaten up or witness a crime. But, after all, he knows that it’s all a put-up job, that the real criminals are multinational, globalist corporations who kill people for profit and have innocent people blamed. Justice, such as it is, is something Pepe will dispense himself in the end, as he has no faith in the corrupt justice system either.

The only point at which Pepe displays anything like human emotion is in connection with “Yes,” a mysterious woman who introduces herself to him first through anonymous faxes, daring him to guess which character from his past she is. She is, he learns at last, a beautiful American-born woman with whom he had a brief affair when he was younger and she was very young. For her he displays real feeling, but he is reluctant to take her away from her husband and children. This is commendable, of course, but one can’t tell whether the refusal springs from any kind of moral scruple, or from a more basic inability to give himself wholly to anyone or anything.

But maybe I misjudge the book. Maybe it’s just too good for me.

I’ll tell you this, though—the translation isn’t. I speak as a man who does bad translations himself when I say that this translation is very, very poor. The dialogue, in particular, has the tinny sound you hear in dubbed Italian westerns. Take this excerpt, from a scene where the suspect young man is being pursued by thugs. A young woman named Margalida sees the baddies (or goodies, one is never sure) pursuing him by motorbike:

Furious, she turned back to Carvalho.

“Your pistol! Why didn’t you get it out?”

“I hardly ever carry one.”

“Some private eye you are! You have to have a gun for this kind of thing. Now they’re going to catch Albert.”

Well, I finished it at last. But if I had a fireplace in my house, I know which book I’d use to start the first fire of the winter.

The Big Law by Chuck Logan

Chuck Logan was recommended to me as a good thriller writer who, like John Sandford, lives in and writes about Minnesota.

I can’t say that I won’t read any more of his books. But I’m afraid I liked this one a lot less than I hoped to.

I would have preferred to start with the first book in the Phil Broker series, Absolute Zero, but my bookstore didn’t have a copy. So I went with Number Two, The Big Law.

I’ve written before about male fantasy figures as series heroes. I think Phil Broker (mostly) fits into this category. He’s rich as a result of finding a huge treasure of gold in a foreign land. He lives in his own big, rustic house on the shore of Lake Superior, having retired young from police work. Over his fireplace he has hung a Viking dragon’s head ship’s prow (that wins him points with me).

On the other hand, most male fantasies don’t include raising a baby singlehanded.

Phil has a wife, a female soldier (and hero). She has returned to active service and is currently serving in Bosnia (the book was published in 1998) when Broker gets involved in a case involving his ex-wife, Caren Angland.

Caren calls him unexpectedly, asking to come and see him. She’s frightened. She’s married now to Keith Angland, another cop and Phil’s former friend. She has proof that Keith is crooked. That he has taken money from the Russian mafia and murdered an informant.

As she flees her husband, Caren picks up a newspaper reporter, Tom James, who is supposed to document the story. But Keith follows and gets to Phil’s house ahead of her. In the violence that follows, Caren falls into a waterfall to her death, Tom James gets shot, and Keith is arrested for Caren’s murder.

But if that’s the end of the story, why do both Phil and his soldier wife get threatening letters shortly afterward?

And what happened to the money Keith got from the mob?

Chuck Logan is a good writer. The story builds tension nicely. The writing is fresh and sharp. Logan chooses his words carefully, and places them for maximum effect.

And yet… I had trouble caring much.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I couldn’t identify with Phil Broker. I can’t point to a single defect in Logan’s depiction of his character.

But I felt like I couldn’t get near the man. He never came alive for me. Even though he displays great passion in his concern to protect his baby daughter, he never gets my full sympathy.

I’m a writer. I’m supposed to be able to analyze these things. But I can’t identify what’s wrong here.

I’ll probably have to read another in the series to see if the problem is Logan’s or mine.

Once Upon a Time at the movies

Today has been gorgeous in the City of Lakes and its environs. The weekend’s blessed rains washed the humidity out, and the temperature stayed south of 80. This is what outsiders imagine a Minnesota summer day to be like, but it happens all too rarely in real life.

By way of Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog, I have discovered one of the funniest blogs I’ve ever read. Luther at the Movies purports to be film criticism as practiced by Dr. Luther, whose natural exuberance cannot be stifled by the mere accident of death. If this doesn’t win all you thin-blooded Calvinists over, I don’t know what will.

I bought the DVD of Once Upon a Time in the West a while back, and I watched it yesterday. What an incredible piece of work that film is.

If I were to read the things I’m about to write about a movie I hadn’t yet seen, I’d probably boycott it for life. Fortunately for me, I first saw the movie without knowing anything about it (I’d never even seen an Italian Western before), so I was caught in the majesty and sweep of the thing, and nothing I’ve learned since can cut that visceral connection.

It was 1969, my second year of college. I had an evening at loose ends, and decided I wanted to see a movie. This western was playing at the theater in Forest City, Iowa, so I walked downtown to see it.

It was the strangest western I’d ever seen. Parts of it troubled me a great deal.

But it stuck in my head as few movies ever have.

Westerns are generally “about” scenery, when it comes down to it, and OUATITW certainly lays the scenery on heavy. It was filmed both in Spain and in the United States, and director Sergio Leone used John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley to particular effect. On a big screen, the spectacle is breathtaking.

But even more than scenery, this movie is about music. One of the commentators on the DVD notes that the film was shot like a music video. Before there was a script, the genius Ennio Morricone, who’d already done the classic scores for the “Dollars” movies, wrote the music. The script was built on that. I’d nominate it as the greatest film score ever written, and there are those who agree with me (actually I agree with them, but I’m on an ego trip here).

They don’t make movies like this nowadays. Today’s action movies are all about speed. Forget plot consistency. Forget character development. Just put bodies in motion and crash them into each other a lot. Blow things up. Set things on fire.

Once Upon a Time in the West is purposely slow, like Henry Fonda’s walk. It’s about tension that builds and builds, from Charles Bronson’s shoot-out with three familiar gunmen at the beginning, to his and Henry Fonda’s climactic showdown, in a corral around which the whole world revolves.

Slowly.

Mysteries abound. What was Brett McBain’s secret? Why is Charles Bronson pursuing Henry Fonda, and what is the meaning of Bronson’s recurring flashback of a man walking toward him? How can any heterosexual male manage to spend time around Claudia Cardinale without spontaneously combusting?

There’s a political subtext, I’m afraid. At the time some people congratulated the Italian Westerns for bringing to us a newer, grittier, more realistic picture of the American West than the old Westerns had.

This is balderdash. Even granting that the old movies were bowdlerized (of course they were), that doesn’t mean that the kind of cynical violence and cruelty we see in spaghetti westerns is closer to reality. Cowboys were Victorians. Yes, there was a lot of prostitution in the West, but men still took their hats off to ladies, regardless of their reputations. Even cold-blooded killers like Kid Curry, or genuine psychopaths like John Wesley Hardin never killed innocent people for sport (not white people, anyway). They believed in virtue and considered themselves respectable men. Jesse James taught Sunday School off and on.

When Sergio Leone shows us Henry Fonda murdering a little boy, he has a purpose in mind. He wants Americans to think differently about themselves and their history. He wants the viewer never to be able to watch My Darling Clementine or Young Mr. Lincoln the same way again.

And he succeeded. More’s the pity, in my opinion.

But the spectacle. The music. I can’t get free of Once Upon a Time in the West.

New Light by Annette Gilson

Brief Summary: Beth comes to St. Louis, Missouri, hoping to start a new chapter in her life. She doesn’t expect to have visions and get caught up in the drama of a New Age commune.

In New Light, Annette Gilson’s remarkable debut novel, her narrator, Beth, tells the curious story of her experience in St. Louis shortly after arriving from New York. It opens with what I consider the sticking point of drama, Beth’s intense visions. Without explanation or drug use, she feels her spirit burgeon, swelling into the night sky, pressing so close to stars as to feel their burn. Her vision gives her common ground with Houdini White, a scientist who has been studying vision phenomena and the New Age communities which claim to work with them. One of those communities, called New Light, is relatively close by, so Beth and Houdini visit it for several days.

It’s a quiet story, broken up by Beth’s short discussions of mystical science and conflict between the characters. Gilson’s writing carries the tension and mystery effectively throughout the book. (I love the conclusion.) At New Light, Beth and Houdini meet a leader named, The Mother, who cultivates a mystery for the dozens of people living with her. Everyone there is supposed to be a visionary, but each one comes at it differently and all interdependently. Because Beth has experienced vision outside the group, she could have remarkable gifts for their enrichment.

But do these supernatural visions tell them anything? Nothing that deep introspection wouldn’t. In this novel, supernature appears to exist as a nebulous expression of oneself. The message resolves to this: watch your world and those in it; be aware of yourself and your surroundings, then maybe you’ll have more peace than the people who strive and yearn too much.

Perhaps this is understandable peace, which is the reason the Lord God described his peace as beyond understanding. Like the poor community which doesn’t complain about filthy water, the understandably peaceful decide to be content with transcendence that doesn’t surpass their skin.

Beyond the Summerland, by L.B. Graham

Summary: The son of a nobleman journeys to a beautiful southern city for extensive training and is caught up in an adventure which appears to be the harbinger of an epic war.

Beyond the Summerland, the first of five in the Binding of the Blade series, is a fairly exciting story once you get into it. Joraiem, the son of one of the nobles who rule Kirthanin, is of the age to go to the Summerland for the political, physical, and academic training that all of the young nobility receive. Along the way, he meets several interesting people who will also be trained for leadership, the most interesting being a large warrior who carries an ancient sword and is mystically connected to a tiger. A dozen or so men and women train in the Summerland for weeks before the danger increases and all of them feel compelled to risk everything on what may be a doomed mission.

This is L.B. Graham’s first novel, so perhaps I should ignore some stylistic matters, but those matters are the reason Beyond the Summerland takes some patience. The prologue or opening chapter should be 2/3 shorter due to needless detail. Throughout the book, the story bogs down in a few paragraphs of narrative which don’t sound unnatural to me but are unneeded. For example, Joraiem may think through a situation and give the reader no more understanding than that a few story points are being made too obvious. Despite this, it’s an enjoyable story, and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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Turning Freetime into Books

[First posted May 24, 2003] The Boston Globe reported on Massachusetts resident Francis McInerney, who is Amazon.com’s #7 reviewer [Now he is #36]. He began writing reviews a few years ago in his free time and has become influential among some editors. At least, I assume he has some influence with those editors who send him advance reader copies and galleys.

Quoted in the article, Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor of the Chicago Tribune, said, “I tell reviewers that a review should be a letter to a very smart friend. It should be rigorous, intellectually enterprising, artfully written, persuasive, and the reviewer should be clear about any conflicts and about point of view.” That reminded me of something George Grant said about the books he reviews. He said that after he had read a few chapters, he could usually tell whether the whole book would be worthwhile and if it was, he usually praised its merits. If it wasn’t, he stopped reading. That’s why, he said, most of his reviews were positive. He didn’t want to waste his time or his readers’ by reading and reviewing an avoidable book. World Magazine Editor Marvin Olasky made a similar comment regarding the books he reads while on his treadmill.

That’s as it should be, isn’t it? What purpose is served by negative reviews in general? Steve Almond, who had a short story collection published in 2002, wrote an article on the pain of negative reviews in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It supports my notion that book reviews in general ought to be positive. The existence of the review draws attention to the book being review, and some believe that no publicity is bad; so why do some books warrant a special warning for the hapless reader? I think I understand negative reviews of bestsellers. Books on the Top 10 lists attract attention, and if a particularly bad book makes it there, professional reviewers may feel obligated to warn their trusted readership against it, as does David Prather of The Huntsville Times in his review of the best-selling The Da Vinci Code. He wrote, “How much dreadful writing can [readers] accept to follow an interesting plot?” But of course, a bestseller must have something going for it or it wouldn’t be a bestseller—or maybe, it wouldn’t be a bestseller for weeks on end. But for those books which receive a lot of hype, like Mrs. Clinton’s upcoming, deserve honest reviews from a professional. (first seen on MobyLives.com)

Speaking of reviews, The Mobile Press-Register reviewed a biography of the great Southern writer Peter Taylor. Reviewer Thomas Uskali summaries the book by Hubert McAlexander by writing, “McAlexander covers every year of Taylor’s life, but in a manner that bogs down in details gleaned from interviews, letters and other research. Taylor himself told McAlexander that he didn’t consider his own life worthy of a biography, and while it is absolutely certain that Taylor’s life warrants one, it is also clear that there is much richness that gets overlooked in the barrage of minutiae.”