Posts tagged with: movies

The newly released Charlie Wilson’s War is a film based on a book that chronicles the semi-secret war that led Afghan freedom fighters to defeat the Soviet military during the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays former Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who is also known as “Good Time Charlie” for his womanizing, drinking, and recreational drug use. The viewer is led to believe Congressman Wilson is not serious about his elected position until he takes up the cause of the Afghan people, who suffered immensely under Soviet aggression. Other starring roles are Julia Roberts as Christian “right wing” financier Joanne Herring, and the late CIA officer Gust Avrakatos, played by actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The dialog between the main characters is intense and entertaining.

First of all this film is not for children. Wilson suffers from a severe bout of immorality, which is graphically depicted. However, the film does teach several important moral and foreign policy lessons. In the 1980s the United States did transition from a policy of containment of the Soviet Union to a more aggressive policy which called for greater engagement, including everything from harassment to actually formulating a policy to reverse Soviet expansion, putting it on the retreat.

While this film does not lack entertainment value, one of the drawbacks is the depiction of the Afghan struggle. America’s support is quickly glossed over, with no background information or deep treatment of the subject ever provided. In addition, some conservative officials in the Reagan administration have criticized the film. Bill Gertz at the Washington Times added:

The movie also erred by showing Mr. Wilson and his CIA collaborator, Gust Avrakotos, as enthusiastic backers of supplying advanced U.S. Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan rebels. Fred Ikle, the undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration, said the CIA initially fought against sending Stingers, while Mr. Wilson was lukewarm on the matter. Both later supported the plan once rebels began downing Soviet gunships with them.

Additionally, some conservatives felt the film’s intent is an attempt at revisionist history by cutting out Ronald Reagan entirely and key members of his cabinet who enthusiastically supported the Afghan Rebels. In fact, Reagan’s epic war against communism can be traced back to his days as a labor leader in Hollywood.

There is certainly enough material in the film to make conservatives wince. Apparently the movie was supposed to be much worse, but Wilson had to step in and demand changes in much of Aaron Sorkin’s script. In the film, Christians are slyly depicted as hypocrites. Additionally, the film needed to be more triumphant at the end. The movie also reinforces the myth that support for the Afghan freedom fighters led to the rise of Osama bin-Laden and his cohorts, who supposedly were armed by the United States.

There are positives however. While it is inaccurate to portray Wilson and his CIA partner as lone mavericks against Soviet aggression, it is right in making a hero out of a committed anti-communist. It also depicts the evil of the Soviet military that specifically wounded Afghani kids, targeting them intentionally. The film also depicts the importance of standing up to and countering communist aggression, and that there was a strong moral component to funding the freedom fighters. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the film is how bipartisanship support was needed to combat America’s enemies, a fact which seems to be lost on Washington today.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When I first heard that the epic tale of Beowulf was being made into a feature-length film, I was excited. Ever since I had first seen the live-action version of The Fellowship of the Ring from Peter Jackson, I had thought that a similar project could do a wonderful job with the Beowulf epic.

And then when I learned that the Beowulf film was going to be done entirely with computer-generated images (CGI), I was disappointed. Frankly I lost interest in seeing the movie entirely. But as time wore on, enthusiasm for the film from some of my friends, as well as some of the trailers, reinvigorated my hopes for the film version of the Beowulf epic.

And now that I’ve seen the film, I’m crestfallen. To be sure, the movie delivers in the special effects department. I saw the IMAX 3D version, which is projected in 3D throughout the entirety of the film. One of the advantages of using CGI which I had not considered at first, was the quality of the 3D images. In contrast to the climactic scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, the 3D effects were crisp, clean, and stunning.

That’s where the strengths of the film end, however. Far too often the plot deviates from the storyline that made the Beowulf epic a classic for the last millennium. Set in the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era, the Beowulf story includes all the great elements of heroic mythical narrative. The modern retelling departs from the tale’s classic history in at least two major ways, and these departures are most decidedly not improvements.

The first has to do with the treatment of religion, specifically Christianity, in the modern version. While the poem was first composed in the high Middle Ages, it was set in a pagan culture prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia. There is a great deal of scholarly debate on whether the tale is solely about pagan virtues or whether Beowulf is “a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues.”

In the new film version, Beowulf is neither simply a pre-Christian pagan nor a proto-Christian eminent pagan. Christianity plays an explicit and confused role in the film, seemingly brought in to act as a counter-point to Beowulf’s embodiment of the pagan heroic virtues. At one point, Beowulf seems to be reading directly from a text like Nietzche’s The Anti-Christ. In contrast to Beowulf’s heroic humanism, the hero would agree with Nietzsche, “Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it.”

If the attempt to bring Christianity explicitly into the Beowulf tale was an attempt by Hollywood to cater to the newly invigorated evangelical demographic, it fails at the same level of ineptitude as Howard Dean’s attempt to woo Christian voters in his 2004 election run (when asked what his favorite New Testament book was, Dean responded, “Job”).

Besides injecting this curiously modern anti-Christian element into the story, the people responsible for translating the epic poem into a screenplay modify the plot of the story greatly. Without giving away any spoilers to those who insist on seeing the film in spite of my warnings, I’ll only say that the Beowulf epic is conflated with a dynamic from another great hero saga, that of King Arthur and his demise at the hands of his bastard son Mordred.

If you are looking for a modern work recasting the Beowulf epic in a new way that is actually interesting and compelling, check out John Gardner’s novel Grendel, which tells the tale from the monster’s perspective in a quirky twist of existentialist angst. Unless you go to the film solely for the special effects or have absolutely no appreciation for the narrative legacy of the epic, avoid this Beowulf film.

Oh, and there are no fire snakes. Boo!

See also: “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st-Century Guilt Trip?”

And: “Anti-Christian Crusade: Beowulf is the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history.”

Cross-posted at

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Today was a pretty full day that just wrapped up a few minutes ago. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, opened up the day with a keynote address, “Pioneering the New Media for Christ.”

Mohler emphasized the communicative mandate of the Christian faith: “To be a Christian is to bear the responsibility to communicate.” Setting this statement within the context of stewardship, Mohler emphasized the biblical foundations for a Christian view of communication. In creation God made human beings in his image, as communicative and rational beings. The account of the Fall in Genesis 3, however, provides us with the context of sin.

Although Mohler didn’t make the link explicit, the Fall’s effect on communication comes to expression in the Genesis 11 account of the Tower of Babel. So language can be both used properly and misused (to lie, to slander, to gossip, and so on). But after Creation and Fall comes Redemption, which is expressed in terms of the divine communication, the revelation in Jesus Christ (the Logos of John 1).

Mohler engaged Francis of Assisi’s instructions to teach and preach “with words when necessary.” Admitting that actions must be consistent with our declarations, Mohler asserted that words are always necessary. “No one is going to intuit the Gospel,” he said. Citing Romans 10, Mohler noted that faith comes by hearing the Word.

With a brief theology of communication in view, Mohler examined the varieties of technological means that have been used to transmit the Gospel. Christians, he said, are a people of the Book, a “literary” people. Noting that Christians initially used radio to a greater extent than television, Mohler provided the basis for a comparison of various kinds of media.

In this way, the advent of the Internet is more like radio than TV, insofar as the ease of access, production, and broadcasting, in North America is far more extensive than was popular access to TV in that medium’s early days (78% of Americans have access to a computer, and that percentage is markedly higher the younger the target group).

Mohler’s address provided evidence for the claim that blogging, podcasting, and videocasting are legitimate and important media for Christians to responsibly and prudentially engage the culture and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The talk raised the following issues for me. Given that “Godblogging” as a phenomenon is “talk about God” in a particular form, the possibilities for identifying the parallels, relationships, and continuities between “Godblogging” and “theology” (God-words) are plentiful. I also considered Augustine’s treatise on Christian rhetoric, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), especially Book IV, as a source of seminal relevance.

On a more minor point, Mohler attributed the lack of Christian engagement in film in the early days of Hollywood to economic and artistic deficits. It seems to me that there was just as much a cultural deficit, which is perhaps what he meant by an artistic deficit, in the sense of the inability to appreciate beauty wherever it exists. There was (and still is among some) a profound and deep distrust of the theater and film (and television by extension) as inherently deceitful and powerful tools of diabolical power, given the pagan backgrounds of the theater.

Here’s what the CRC’s 1928 Synodical Report on Worldly Amusements had to say about film in particular:

It is also common knowledge that the moving picture industry is to a large extent in the hands of unscrupulous men, whose only concern is large financial profits regardless of the moral influence of the presentations. A large number of these pictures are a shameful exploitation of the sex-instinct; and many other exert a baneful influence through the portrayal of crime, a flippant attitude toward parental authority, the dignity of hte govenrment and of the church. Because of these things the movie-theater is undeniably one of the most destructive forces in our country, morally pestilential.

Based on these and other observations, the committee recommended abstinence from theater attendance by Christians.

With that minor caveat, Mohler’s address was full of Christian wisdom about the technology of our culture and Christian engagement. More to follow in the morning.

Also: The folks at Stand to Reason are live-blogging the event. There are a number of posts on Mohler’s talk.

In the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the character of film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, declares, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time last night, thanks to the recommendation from a friend in Virginia. As a fan of classic films, I had high hopes for this film, which was directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder also directed one of my favorite classics films, Stalag 17.

William Holden starred in the film, playing a Hollywood script-writer named Joe Gillis. It is evident Gillis is an out of work and down on his luck kind of guy. Gillis meets Desmond when he is trying to flee the men attempting to repossess his automobile. He has a blowout and parks in the garage of what appears to be an abandoned mansion, which is owned and inhabited by Desmond and her butler. The dark, sinister, and shady side of Hollywood takes off from there. Desmond is a former silent movie super star, now washed up and forgotten. She hires Gillis, in the belief he can help launch her “return” to Hollywood glory by editing her movie script. If you are interested in an overview of the entire plot, check out this film site.

Sunset Boulevard masterfully portrays the emptiness of self love and selfishness gone mad. It is equally a haunting look at spiritual emptiness and decay. I was drawn in by the dramatic acting of Gloria Swanson, who turns into a warped and pathetically sad individual as she continually plots her return, which is in reality only in her mind. The dramatic scene at the end is a captivating portrayal of this madness at its pinnacle. The film was obviously controversial, because it exposed such a negative and dreary portrayal of Hollywood in its heyday.

The film is packed with powerful imagery and symbolism. In addition, the powerful use of black and white was phenomenal, which was made all the more haunting when coupled with the musical score. What is also powerful, is that the film is so relevant for today’s audiences. One look at Hollywood gossip shows, Hollywood worship television shows, and the self love, narcissistic culture, makes this clearly evident.

As a Christian, the film scores big as a reminder of the decay and shallowness of a life that pursues vanity, greed, and narcissism. It also reminds us that sin has consequences. Many of us are aware of people who are locked in the prison of their shallow, self-loving world. The probing question being, are we a community that seeks to be saved, and sacrifice for others, or a society seeking instant gratification? The vexing question has even found its way into the Church, in the form of prosperity gospel theology. But those who know the power and truth of real freedom, know Christ. We are made whole and complete in the sacrifice, suffering, and resurrection of Christ. The Apostle Paul said in 2nd Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Paul also notes in Romans , “We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

There once was a time when it was, in practice at least, more difficult and costly to copy videocassette tapes than it was music tapes, compact discs, or computer programs. That, in part, is the justification for how the US Copyright code treats music and computer software differently than, say, movies.

It’s also why you see rental companies, like Blockbuster and Netflix, that specialize in delivering rental videos for limited home usage. Other companies, like Gamefly, specialize in the rental of video games for consoles like the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360. Gamefly can do this because games for consoles, whether cartridge-based or disc-based, don’t qualify as “computer software,” and are thus not under special protection.

And in some states, there are increasing restrictions on how you can sell your used music CDs, for instance.

But as is so often the case in the world of technology, things change rapidly. The advent of the PC and powerful CD and DVD burning technology has made copying DVD movies as easy as copying tracks from a music CD.

Moreover, the PS3 in particular describes itself as a “computer entertainment system,” and comes with a hard drive, to which files can be copied, theoretically easing game load times and storing player profiles and statistics. This raises the question of what truly differentiates a game for the PS3 “computer entertainment system” and a game for a PC. Because of the particularities of copyright law, the former can be rented commercially, while the latter cannot (at least not without direct permission from the copyright holders).

The reason that you can rent games for such console systems is that such a game system is understood to be “a limited purpose computer.” But many PC gaming systems aren’t actually used for anything besides gaming (even though they theoretically could be).

Some commentators are in agreement with the view of Apple’s Steve Jobs: “There’s no mainstream demand for music subscriptions. The music business isn’t built on long-term rentals; it’s built on one hit after another. It’s confectionary. Tunes are addictive for a while and then discarded. It’s like the drug business: Users are always looking for the next hit.”

To the extent that this is even true, it may simply be the result of the different copyright treatment of music, movies, computer software, and video games.

Last weekend I had the joy of sharing in a special meeting in Newport Beach, California, that was appropriately named the Issachar Project. This small project is the work, primarily, of my friend Andrew Sandlin of the Center for Cultural Leadership. Andrew is convinced that there must be an intellectual and existential coalition of (1) Christians working in Hollywood and elsewhere in the film industry and (2) serious Christian thinkers in the arts.

You may recall that the sons of Issachar are described in the Scriptures as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Their number was small but their impact was great. This unique gathering included men and women, mostly under forty. The purpose of this group was not to form a “think tank” but rather to explore the neglected dimension of knowing God through beauty and imagination, in other words to explore how we know him incarnationally, not merely intellectually.

Most of the invited participants at this unusual meeting were film and television script writers, producers, teachers of the arts and reviewers. We heard four presentations on subjects like how Genesis 1 provides a storyline for narrative, how we should understand Acts 17 as it relates to the Mars Hill context of our times, and why we should watch films in the first place. Brian Godawa, author of the outstanding, and highly recommended new book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment (InterVarsity Press), was a major contributor to the event, as was Jack Hafer, who produced the fantastic feature film, “To End All War.” (more…)

The Templeton Foundation and Movieguide are sponsoring two panels at the upcoming Screenwriting Expo in Hollywood (Oct. 19-22).

According to AgapePress (courtesy of The Church Report), “‘Christians in Hollywood’ and ‘Writing for the Family Film Market’ are the titles of two panels slated for what is billed as the world’s largest conference and trade show for screenwriters’.”

“Christians in Hollywood” is briefly described in the catalog (PDF) as a chance to “Meet the players—and the prayers—in the Hollywood Christian Community, and learn how to find your audience.” That session is scheduled for Sunday at 10 am…placed conveniently enough to conflict with most Sunday morning worship services.

Later that day at 2 pm, “Writing for the Family Film Market,” asks, “What does a family film look like in the 21st century? This panel will feature experts in the theatrical, television, and home entertainment worlds of family film.”