Saturday, March 29, 2014

7 Quick Takes Friday vol. 35

Let's pretend I posted this yesterday, Conversion Diary readers.

1.     As you know, I wasn’t all that impressed with Frozen. I confess, however, that I have been listening to Let It Go incessantly for the past couple weeks. The thing is like crack for your ears! I would, however, like to reiterate that the ending is terrible; a limp, dry note that leaves you thinking “wait, what? That’s how they decided to end it? A massive crescendo, and then…a dismissive little semi-spoken line?” It’s the A Nightmare on Elm Street of songs: brilliant up until the very last second, where it fumbles in a truly jaw-dropping style.

2.     Yes, I did just seriously compare a Disney song to a horror movie! That makes me awesome!

3.     I mentioned Harding last time, so I’m going to share another anecdote about him: Harding’s presidency, as you probably know, was rife with scandals (a large reason for his low standing among Presidents). Harding himself, however, like his predecessor Grant, wasn’t involved in any and was pretty much a wholly honest man (some politicians still were in those days). When the scandals started coming to light and he came face-to-face with one of the men responsible, Harding went ballistic: he seized the man by the collar and screamed at him, calling him a dirty rat and (presumably) other choice epithets while he “shook him like a terrier.”
We sure could use a man like Warren G. Harding again (and that is the first time that sentence has ever been uttered by human lips). 

4.     Warm weather is finally here! And by warm I mean “above freezing and sunny.” Sometimes. Feels close enough that I’m running again. I don’t get very far, since I’m still stiff and out-of-practice from winter, but at least I can say I’m doing it, and that’s really the important thing (yes, Let it Go has joined my list of running songs).

5.     Well, The Chronicles of Hendricks is finally posted in its entirety. So far the little reaction I’ve gotten on it is pretty positive, which is certainly encouraging. Only now I don’t have anything ready to replace it! The next book in the series is still at a pretty primitive stage, but with the reactions to Hendricks I’ve decided to put more time and effort into that one, so we may see it sooner than I think! In the meantime, feel free to pop over and read Hendricks if you like (WARNING: This book contains violence, the phrase ‘mucous pool,’ and copious references to justifiably-obscure works of fiction that only I get).

6.     I'm already late, so let’s round it out with a couple pithy quotes I recently added to my quote list:
“But then I am a bit old fashioned in that I still believe in truth, that people ought to be able to distinguish by smell a Big Mac from a filet mignon.”
-        David S. Oderberg, "Perennial Philosophy's Theory of Art"

7.     "Is emptying bed pans in a hospital menial work? What would happen if bed pans didn't get emptied? Let people stop emptying bed pans for a month and there would be bigger problems than if sociologists stopped working for a year."
-- Thomas Sowell

 Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Wrestling With God

                There’s a reason Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is so admired and famous. It is, really, the perfect image of the whole theme of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the simultaneous reaching of man for God and of God to man.
                That really is the great mystery and staggering conceit of the whole faith: that man actually is somehow participating in the works of God. He is not simply a passive subject, but stands up and reaches out for and even contends with the Divine. The word ‘Israel’ means, essentially, ‘who wrestles with God.’ This is in contrast with ‘Islam’ which means ‘submission to God.’ Israel struggles for God: makes demands of God, dares to ask questions of God, seeks to understand God. In what can only be described as intolerable cheek, Israel demands to be an active participant with the Divine. This is the faith where Jacob seizes hold of the angel of God and refuses to release him without a blessing, and where an example of ‘man after God’s own heart’ is a passionate, hot-tempered warrior-poet.
                This ‘intolerable cheek’ would be rank blasphemy if it weren’t commanded by God. The Lord made man to be free. As such, He demanded a level of autonomy or personal glory from him. When God put man in the garden, He put the forbidden tree with him. God gave man the chance to sin, knowing all that would come of it, because He wanted man to have the dignity of something that was his own and, save in that it was given by Him, not God’s: his own free choice. God does not choose for man. In unspeakable humility, He surrendered that portion of Himself to man and determined that man would have a say in his own creation. It is a small say, just as the one tree was a small part of the Garden, but it is the finishing touch that gives man his unique character. He is dependent, and yet independent. Contingent, and yet self-determining. Totally subject, and yet free.
                Thus is the dignity of man: the only animal able to stand up and converse with God. God does not just reach for Adam, but Adam reaches for God. Man’s achievements are not simply nothing, nor is he bereft of rights or dignity, for God gave him these things.
                This explains two vital facts about the Catholic Church: first, that she often venerates purely secular achievements such as the Glories of Greece and Rome, and second the extreme honor due to Mary the Mother of Christ.
                To take the first issue, secular or non-Christian achievements may not be able to save a man’s soul, but that doesn’t mean they are not glorious themselves. Whether Aristotle was ultimately saved or not does not change the wisdom of his teachings. Whether Hector beheld the face of Christ after his death has no bearing on his nobility. It is, of course, infinitely more important that a man should be saved than that he should do great deeds, but the greatness of such deeds is not simply an illusion. The wise Medievals sang the glories of the pagans who came before them until the world was sick of it. Caesar, Alexander, and Hector were listed alongside King David, Charlemagne, and Godfrey as the nine worthies. Rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s includes the honor due to great achievements and glorious deeds. “This is the work of our sweat! Our blood! Our blistered hands!” as the ancients said of the Seven Wonders. The God of Israel is not offended by man’s standing on his feet and seeking after greatness: Magnanimity is a Christian virtue. He is a God with whom man may lawfully hold discourse and even disputes, who may demand answers and ask for signs (in Isaiah, God even rebukes men for not having the dignity to make a request of Him when offered). The heroic impulse was given man by God and is good.
                The other, the extreme honor due to Mary, is because she represents the pinnacle of Man’s reaching for God: the exact point where the finger of Adam touches that of the Creator, and what is formed by that connection is the God-Man: Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary, in whom all mankind is blessed. The wrestling of man and God results in God becoming man and so enabling man to become like God (which, after all, was the cause of the conflict in the first place). This wrestling is nothing like an ‘equal relationship:’ God forbid! As if Man would ever be able to endure something like that (what would he be able to offer?). But it is a relationship and not merely a series of directions, and man has a real part to play in it. And what a staggering, almost terrifying compliment it is to be told that God expects something from us! That He wishes us to make some kind of contribution, to “put in our oar,” so to speak, to (if it is not too absurd a phrase) help Him!
                This is the contradiction, the paradox at the heart of our Faith: that God is supreme, but Man still counts for something, if only because God made him so. It is a puzzle that no theologian or philosopher will ever answer: that Man can struggle with God.
Vivat Christus Rex!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Reviews: 300: Rise of an Empire


           300 was an over the top tribute to the Battle of Thermopylae; crude, heavy-handed, and overly-stylized, but which ultimately worked beautifully because of its absolute commitment both to the righteousness of its heroes’ cause and to their warrior ethos. In a world where most cinematic heroes are plagued with self-doubt and hesitation, the virile and unrelenting Spartans were a breath of fresh air. Besides which, the story itself – 300 men who gave their last breath to defend Western Civilization against invading tyranny – was compelling enough that the extremities the film went to tell it seemed fitting.
            300: Rise of an Empire, on the other hand, is little more than an unfocused, meandering, occasionally repulsive retread of the first film, lacking all the urgency or emotional power of its predecessor: a limp, mindless exercise in style and brutality. The first film at least maintained the basic facts and import of Thermopylae: this one can’t be bothered to do anything similar regarding Salamis.
            The story: as King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) invades Greece and the 300 Spartans march to the hot gates to stop him, the Athenian general, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the hero of Marathon, tries to unite Greece to form a naval defense against Xerxes’ chief admiral, Artemisia (Eva Green).
            There are two major problems that sink the film; the first is the lack of any kind of story structure. The first movie was built around the Battle of Thermopylae: it was a simple matter of “the Spartans, vastly outnumbered, stand at the pass while the Persians throw everything they have at them.” This one wanders all over the place, so that we’ve almost never quite sure where we are or why it’s at all important to fight the Persians here rather than somewhere else, or what the stakes will be if they lose. Nor do we really get a sense of what the Persians are trying to do: half the time Artemisia seems to just be sending out small fleets to attack the Greeks while she sits back and watches with the rest of her navy. If she’s that close to the action, why doesn’t she just send her whole fleet in and overwhelm them with superior numbers on the open sea? The battles have no context and, hence, no urgency, or even any basic notions of what is and is not possible at any given point. When Themistocles leads the Persian fleet into a trap, the reaction is “oh, so they’re close to the shore? Where are they again?”  
The climactic battle of Salamis, meanwhile, falls completely flat, being entirely route and uninteresting. The first film was at least honest about the basic details of Thermopylae. This one can’t be bothered: the narrow straights that gave the out-numbered Greeks their crucial advantage over the massive Persian navy, the attempt of the Persians to block out the straights and trap the Greeks, which backfired so spectacularly on them, the chaos that resulted in neither side being able to keep to any clear strategy, none of this is brought out in the film. Indeed, the depiction of the Persian fleet being backed against a cliff and surrounded by the Greek fleets is flatly the opposite of the actual battle, which had the Greeks surrounded by the Persian fleet (what is the Persian navy even doing all bunched up against the shore like that? As far as we can tell, there’s nothing stopping them from sailing out and overwhelming the Greeks, so why would they waste their numerical advantage by just sitting there in a pile?). About the only accurate detail of the battle is the fact that Xerxes observes the fight from a nearby cliff. 
            At the same time, the movie keeps hitting the same beats as the first one: hero with small band of loyal soldiers? Check. Successful encounters with an overly-confident enemy? Check. Father-son soldier team? Check. Villain tries to convince hero to join him/her? Check. Persians resort to ever-more esoteric methods to break the Greeks? Check. It’s really nothing more than “300 at Sea,” except that implies something more interesting. They even shrink the Athenian navy – the best of the Greek City States by far – into a tiny force of doubtful ships to try to drum up the same sense of overwhelming odds. The combined navy of all Greece being outnumbered four-to-one wasn’t enough for them?
            The burning of Athens, amazingly, is relegated to a single scene with no lead-in whatsoever. This scene being one of maybe three or four that were even set in the city (almost all the others being interior scenes). We therefore get no notion of Athens as being anything at all special or important in the ancient world. That it’s a center of arts, commerce, and learning, the birthplace of democracy and philosophy, and one of the cornerstones of western civilization is never established (worse, the little we see of democracy here is so unflattering that you really have to wonder why they’re so keen on saving it). There is no sense of the burning of Athens being any kind of a tragedy or devastation: it simply happens and the movie moves on. If the characters themselves don’t seem to care about the destruction of Athens, why should we?
            The other and much more serious problem is in the use of Artemisia. First they give her an unnecessarily cruel backstory (which makes it kind of hard to generate any enjoyable hatred for her), then they stick her in a completely gratuitous and vile sex/rape scene with Themistocles (one that has zero relevance to the plot and even less emotional impact, unless faint nausea counts), and finally they end by having burly Sullivan Stapleton engage her in one-on-one combat, wherein he knocks her around the ship and finally stabs her to death. The whole thing is so vile that it sucks out any joy that Eva Green’s performance might have had. Artemisia is too pitiable to be an enjoyable villain and too evil to be really pitied. She’s simply repulsive in the most real-world sense of the term (and, needless to say, none of this has any basis in history).
            People sometimes complain that, in action movies, women are only allowed to fight other women. Rise of an Empire reminds us of the reason for this trope: it’s no fun at all to see a big, muscle-bound man smacking a petite woman around the deck of a ship before gutting her with his sword. That’s even allowing that they make 5’6”, slender-armed Artemisia “the greatest fighter in Persia” and show her mopping the floor with a six-foot-plus Tony Todd lookalike. The moment Themistocles backhands her, the illusion is broken and we’re just watching our hero knocking an abused woman around. Coupled with her aforementioned backstory (which opens with her, as an eight-year-old, watching her family getting raped and murdered before she’s kicked in the face) and the gruesome scene where she tries to seduce Themistocles and he effectively rapes her, and you’re left just staring at the screen wondering who the hell thought this would be in the least bit entertaining? 
            There are other, less vital problems that help drag the film down: I found the constant slow-motion to be annoying rather than cool this time, as though the movie were having trouble loading. Apart from Themistocles, it’s hard to keep track of any of the other Athenian characters or their relationship to each other. A subplot about a young man’s desire to fight and his father’s unwillingness to let him is set up, achieves nothing (the father is kind of blasé when he finds out about it), and is dropped at the last minute. Once he’s served his purpose, the film literally forgets about the kid, and we don’t even learn whether he survived the final battle or not. Themistocles’s visits to Sparta are pointless padding and Queen Gorgo’s reluctance to fight anymore makes no sense whatsoever (she’s a Spartan, and she was the one urging the Spartan assembly to get into the war in the last film! Why has she suddenly gone all “stop killing my sons in your useless war?”). 
            The film’s ‘origin story’ for Xerxes is just kind of weird: did we really need to find out why he’s a seven-foot piercing-addict? I mean, I kind of assumed that was just because he was the ruler of the richest, most powerful empire in the world and was into that sort of thing. And does this mean he actually is a physical god, or what? What was the point of any of that, except to pad out the film a bit more?
            To be fair, it’s not entirely bad: the visuals, especially our glimpse of Persepolis, are spectacular. I loved the brief glimpse we have of Xerxes’ bridge of ships across the Hellespont (which was actually the way he got his armies into Greece). Some of the sea battles are pretty darn cool, with rammings and splinterings to spare, and the warrior ethos of the first film is again depicted reverently, with all its comradery and virile dedication to a higher cause. The fact that the Persian ships are rowed by slaves and the Greeks by (apparently) free men is another nice touch (not sure if that’s true, but it’s a nice touch). And as was the case in the first film, any attempt to tell these vital stories from the birth of Western Civilization is appreciated. If the film inspires people to actually learn something about Marathon and Salamis, then it’s done better work than many a superior film.
            Not, of course, that anyone would learn much history for this movie. Besides what I already noted, the most egregious historical sin (which the film makes much of) is having Themistocles kill Darius at Marathon, thus giving Xerxes a “motive” to invade Greece. Leaving aside that this is stupid (why does the most powerful emperor on Earth need a reason to invade an unsightly free state on his border?), Darius wasn’t even present at Marathon. He died peacefully about three years later while working on another invasion plan. Also, the plot point about the Athenians begging the Spartans to supply them with ships was lame: the Athenian navy was vastly the superior of the Spartan navy, and while I’m sure the Athenians appreciated the help, it was Athens who supplied the most and best ships at Salamis – over half the total number – while the Spartans sent a comparatively puny force of sixteen ships. This alteration takes a lot of the glory away from the Athenians and gives it to the Spartans, which is just kind of weird: I mean, the Spartans already had their day of glory at Thermopylae, why did the filmmakers feel the need to give them another by minimizing the Athenian contribution at Salamis?
            Oh, and about Artemisia: she didn’t die at Salamis and she wasn’t an admiral (obviously; Xerxes admiral was actually his cousin, Ariabignes, who did die in the battle). She was a Halicarnassan Queen who commanded a small portion of the Persian fleet (five ships out of 1200) and who occasionally advised Xerxes, who had great respect for her. She fled during the battle when she saw it was turning against them, ramming another Persian ship commanded by a rival in her desire to escape, which both convinced the Greeks that she was an ally and caused Xerxes (thinking she had attacked a Greek ship) to lament “my men have become women and my women have become men!” She was also the one who advised Xerxes to leave Greece, reasoning that if the occupation succeeded, Xerxes would still get the credit and if it failed, he at least would be safe. They both then lived quite happily and profitably ever after in their respective kingdoms.  
            After I saw 300, I wanted to go join the Marines. After I saw Rise of an Empire, I wanted to go take a good, hot shower with lots of soap. The glory of Greece, the heroism of the Athenian navy, and the warrior ethos are there, but buried under tons of vileness and lazy storytelling.

Final Rating: 1.5/5: Great visuals and some glimpses of the virtue of Greece are lost in a meandering story that has little of the impact of the first one and overwhelmed by the exceedingly nasty use of the villainess.   

Vivat Christus Rex!

Friday, March 14, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 34

Welcome Conversion Diary readers!

1.     I’ve been suffering from idea overload lately: I’ve got so many story ideas that I can’t seem to settle on any one of them long enough to make anything out of it. Lot of monsters, dragons, and snakes. Most of my stories involve snakes somehow. And, for some reason, people getting eaten (but usually not by snakes: what’s up with that?).

2.     I finally checked out a trailer for Noah, and I gotta say, I think it actually looks pretty good. Of course, I’m deeply suspicious about any contemporary religious film, especially if it comes from mainstream Hollywood, but I thought that at least what the trailer showed seemed interesting and respectful (I particularly liked the “I'm not alone” bit). I’ve been severely skeptical of this project from day one, but you never know; it might surprise me.

3.     By the way, one thing I like about how Noah looks is that they’re bringing some imagination and energy to the film. I think that’s one of the things that hampers most Christian projects: they’re too timid and prosaic. The Passion of the Christ was great, in part, because it went all out with imaginative religious imagery (Satan haunting the via dolorosa, where only Jesus and Mary can see him; Longimus the Roman soldier kneeling in the spray of blood and water coming from Christ’s side; Jesus suddenly addressing Pilate in perfect Latin, etc.). However Noah turns out, I hope future Christian filmmakers will take note.

4.      I think I’ve found another new favorite blog: the TOF Spot. Check out his 9-part examination of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism, which begins here. Fair warning: if you’re a big Galileo fan, you might want to brace yourself for a disappointment.

5.     Actually, what struck me most about that rundown is how it seemed to be another example of the phenomenon I noticed surrounding the Depression: the gregarious, talkative extravert (here Galileo) makes a big splash and gets all the credit, despite actually accomplishing very little or even making the situation worse, while the quieter, less attractive introvert (here Kepler) isn’t much remembered, but actually achieved more. I really think I’ll have to make a study of this pattern to see if I can find any other examples.

6.     Speaking of Galileo, here’s his finger. 

Three guesses which one!
(sorry; my initial caption was even more immature) 

7.     Quote:
“In the great fulfillment we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation.”
-Warren G. Harding.
That’s right: JFK’s best line was a snappier paraphrase of Warren G. flippin’ Harding!
Makes me wonder whether Kennedy just stole all his good lines from obscure past Presidents. He probably cribbed the “We choose to go to the moon” speech from Chester A. Arthur or something.

Vivat Christus Rex!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reviews: Frozen

            I was kind of hesitant to see Frozen. Everyone seemed to be raving about it, but certain rumors had reached my ears that indicated it might not be the kind of thing I would enjoy. Now that I’ve seen it, I’d say that my fears weren’t exactly confirmed, but I found it disappointing all the same.
            Since it’s already won two Academy Awards, been a huge hit with audiences of all ages, and practically entered the lexicon of Disney greats, let’s admit it has some very real strengths: the animation is gorgeous, the female lead is adorable, the comic-relief sidekicks are delightful, there are at least a couple good songs (including one knock-out), I thought a final-act twist was a delightfully devilish piece of writing, and the climactic moment of self-sacrifice was beautifully done.
            But these are mixed in with serious flaws: it’s unfocused, it suffers from jarring tonal shifts, the male lead is pretty much strictly comic relief, some of the songs are just kind of lame, and it lacks any of the symbolic power that it ought to have. It’s like a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up, except that it knows it doesn’t want to be Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen or anything like it.
            The film opens with a haunting song about the power of the ice, sung by a baritone chorus of icemen. The ice, the song says, is as beautiful as it is dangerous. During the song we meet young Kristoff (voiced as adult by Jonathan Groff) and his pet reindeer, Sven.
            From there we cut to two young princesses, one of whom, Elsa (Idina Menzel), is quiet and shy, but has the power to make ice and snow with her fingertips, the other, Anna (Kristen Bell), is energetic and carefree. Their playtime in the snow that Elsa creates in the ballroom is cut short when an errant blast strikes Anna, leaving her unconscious.
            Frightened by this close-call, their parents separate the two (after taking Anna to a local troll for magical healing and memory modification to hide her knowledge of her sister’s power), leading to years of confused, plaintive isolation for both of them while Elsa’s powers grow swiftly harder and harder to control.
            Then their parents die at sea, Elsa has to assume the throne, and all hell breaks loose, causing her to flee into the mountains and inadvertently leaving her kingdom in a state of perpetual winter.
            So, Anna, leaving the visiting Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), her ostensible fiancée, in charge, sets out to find Elsa and convince her to come back and take away the winter. She’s aided in her quest by a now-grown-up Kristoff and they’re soon joined by the talking snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad).
            From there, the film stumbles in a rather aimless way through Anna’s journey to reach her sister, both physically and emotionally, which is levied by a number of crises that feel less apiece with the story and more driven by the need to have something happen, including a curse with a strict timeline, a betrayal, and a Beauty and the Beast-like siege scene that isn’t remotely as exciting or inventive as its inspiration.
            That’s really one of the chief problems with the movie; the story simply isn’t tight enough. It wanders among its disparate elements and can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants the story to be about: is it about sisterly love, about the thawing of a frozen heart, a romance, a journey of discovery and growth, the need for self-expression, what? There’s no clear goal present, just a vague notion of “find Elsa, shut down the winter, try not to die.” Everything presses and jostles together, the tone shifts wildly (sometimes right in the middle of a scene), and none of the various plots and subplots come to a really satisfying conclusion.
            For instance, when Elsa runs away and builds herself a gorgeous ice palace while singing the film’s best song – Let it Go – it seems to be setting up for her to be a defiantly isolationist Snow Queen…but she doesn’t really. She just acts exactly the same as she did before, in a different outfit and location. Her self-made palace and proud declarations of independence all come to nothing except an awkward interview with her sister and a single tepid action sequence. There’s nothing triumphantly independent about her once the song is over.
            Where do Elsa’s powers come from anyway? Are they, like one character says, a curse? If so, who cursed her? Are they just somehow natural to her? Has anyone else in the kingdom ever had them? Being able to build ice palaces and sentient snowmen with your mind really seems like something demanding an explanation. But the film isn’t interested in this; Elsa’s powers drive the story, but the story itself is oddly blasé about them, to the point that she can’t even use them effectively or consistently. When the bad guys are storming her icy fortress, why doesn’t she just whip up a few more icy minions to fight them off? The one snow-golem she makes is pretty effective, maybe she could make more? It doesn’t seem to cost her anything. Maybe she could freeze the doors shut, or pile up snow and ice to make a barricade or…well, a lot of things. Having given its heroine ill-defined, but clearly overwhelming power, the film then clumsily tries to put her in danger from obviously inadequate foes (seriously; she built an entire palace with a thought and creates abominable snowmen with a wave of her hand, but has trouble taking on two guys with crossbows?). 
            In a way, Elsa’s character arc reminded me of Wicked (lonely and different girl with powers she doesn’t understand, forced to hide and bottle them up before bursting free in a completely awesome song that the subsequent story doesn’t really deliver on, played by Idina Menzel), which might be fine, except it also makes Wicked’s mistake of leaving its heroine too much of a light-weight for the role she’s supposed to be playing. Elsa’s not my idea of a Snow Queen; she doesn’t have the force of personality, let alone the icy demeanor that such a role should call for. At best, she’s a Snow Teenager.
            Anna, the other sister and main protagonist, is a much better character; sweet, endearingly optimistic, naïve, and courageous, she’s a worthy heroine by any stretch. Most of the film is seen through her eyes, and she’s a large part of why the film works to the extent that it does. The moment you meet her, you just want to cuddle her up in a warm blanket and make her a nice mug of hot chocolate.
            Rare for this kind of movie, there are two male leads, just as there are two female leads, though this doesn’t factor in the way you might expect. Only one of the guys is playing the role he seems to be, while the other assumes a different character later in the story, one that I thought worked pretty well, though it’s jarringly at odds with how he’s behaved up to that point. I don’t just mean that he seemed different, I mean that his whole manner and actions seemed contrary to what is ultimately revealed about him to a distracting extent, less like he was putting on an act and more like he was just doing what the script told him to do. In particular, his actions in a key moment of crisis are the opposite of what, in retrospect, he ought to have done. I mean, his whole scheme would have succeeded if he had just ‘not noticed’ something for one more second: why would he sabotage himself like that (except to fool the audience for a few more scenes)?   
            The other male lead is a decent enough sort, though he’s more or less extraneous to the story and is almost entirely relegated to comic relief. Unlike most Disney films, this one isn’t primarily a romance but a story of sisterly love. Still, the fact that the love interest is almost entirely a source of humor and never gets to affect the story appreciably or really do anything heroic means that what romantic element it does have falls flat. He’s just another element that is set up, but never pays off in an interesting way.
            (Hmm, this may count as a spoiler, but I would like to note that in a film that at least broaches the possibility of a romance between a princess and an iceman, no one ever so much as points out the social gap between the two. I guess in today’s world nobody cares, but A). the movie isn’t set in today’s world, B). you’d think said iceman would at least comment on hanging out with a princess at some point, or the fact that they had a secret encounter as children that she doesn’t know about, and C). this robs the relationship of a lot of its potential fun, since half the joy of a fairy tale romance is precisely that it’s so uneven: peasant and princess, maid and prince. The fact that no one even seems aware of the difference makes the characters seem disinterested in their own relationship, and if they don’t care about it, why should we?).  
            Then there’s the snowman, Olaf. I’m a little torn on him. On the one hand, he seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely and his existence is never adequately explained (so, Elsa can create life? How does that work?). On the other hand, whatever movie he wandered in from was a very funny and endearing one, so I’m glad he’s here all the same. The movie gets a lot of mileage from his piecemeal body and loveable innocence, making for a weird, but effective combination of dark humor (as his body parts go flying and he eagerly longs to know what ‘heat’ feels like) and real sweetness.
            The humor here works, for the most part. Olaf’s hilarious and charming, and Kristoff the iceman gets a lot of good jokes, both himself and in connection with his reindeer, Sven (with whom he holds hilarious one-man, two-sided conversations). Anna is likewise as charming as you please, and she and Kristoff play off each other well. I thought an early dance scene with a visiting bigwig was both a cute sisterly moment (one of the few they get) and one of the funniest bits in the film (“let me know if you’re about to swoon!”). Another great bit is a scene set in a local trading post (“I sell ice! “Oh, wow; that’s about the worst job you could have right now.”).
            As for the songs, I found really only two to be at all memorable: the opening Ice number, and, of course Let It Go (although I thought the latter ended on an almost comically weak note compared with the rest of the song. Like as if, say, The Imperial March ended with an extra couple notes on triangle). The rest range from forgettable to lame, though some of this might be the fact that, for the most part, they’re bizarrely at odds with the larger dramatic context, almost as if they wrote the songs separately and then shoved them into the plot. The worst of these is when they stop to have a comedic/romantic number while the heroine is dying of a curse. Granted, the characters at least make a few efforts to bring this fact up, but from the audience point of view it’s the film’s biggest “what the hell were they thinking?” moment. It’d be like Aladdin putting A Friend Like Me in the scene where Jaffar gets control of the Genie.
            There are a lot of potentially  interesting themes here: the birth of the Snow Queen, the love between diametrically opposite sisters, a romantic triangle of prince, princess, and iceman, the dangers of moving too quickly in relationships, love melting an icy heart, and so on, but almost none of them are played out. The film hits one and moves on to the next without doing anything with the idea.
About the only one of these themes I’d say the film really does anything with is the dangers of quick romances, but even with that I’m not sure the events of the film really jell: as noted above, the bad guy acts too heroically for the first three-quarters of the film, making the twist when it comes feel like a last-ditch effort to give the film a little extra drama. I like the twist itself, I just think it could have been better integrated into the story (I can’t resist: contrast this with Wreck-It Ralph, where the ‘hidden bad guy’ steadily became more and more overtly villainous, while a seemingly-unrelated element is quietly set up elsewhere, only to bring the two together in a genuinely unexpected revelation that not only makes sense, but which is in perfect synch with the film’s central theme). 
Sisterly love also fairs comparatively well, though the structure of the film means it mostly plays out in a single spectacular moment. Before then, we only have the opening (adorable) scene of them playing in the snow and a few strained conversations scattered through the rest of the film. It’s more about Anna’s desire to have a relationship with her sister than it is about the actual relationship. You certainly could make a film about that, but to really spark interest it would need something more than what we have here: a greater sense of real (as opposed to imposed) distance between the two sisters, a more serious obstacle to reconciliation than just “I haven’t figured out my superpowers yet.”
            Part of the problem, I think, is the fact that there’s no real disorder present in the main plot; just a series of misunderstandings with tragic consequences. There’s nothing for the heroines to push up against, no evil power that needs to be overcome. There’s just one heroine’s out-of-control powers that she can’t shut down and another heroine’s attempts to…have her shut them down. The whole plot basically hinges on an issue of proper handling with a few related complications, which makes it feel oddly aimless and impersonal. The whole thing could be straightened up in five minutes if just one character had any kind of solid information, and that doesn’t really make for gripping drama (oddly enough, there is a character who seems have that kind of information available, but no one bothers to ask him about it: “hey, Mr. Troll, you seemed pretty knowledgeable about my ice powers when I was a kid, do you have any suggestions how I might control them better?”). 
 You might think that prejudice or unreasoning fear would be the antagonizing force, but it really isn’t. That sort of thing is set up as a threat, but basically limited to a few completely-reasonable terrified reactions on the part of the citizenry and the actions of a minor bad guy, while the chief villain’s evil scheme is only tenuously related to the main plot at all.
            I really think the film would have benefited from making Elsa an honest-to-goodness villainess; someone who finally turned against the people who imprisoned and feared her, and coldly sees their sufferings as just punishment for what she herself suffered at their hands. It might have been more difficult to pull off maintaining sympathy with her (though I’m not so sure; no one has trouble sympathizing with the Phantom of the Opera for instance), but I think it would have made for a much stronger and more satisfying film, as well as being closer in spirit to the original fairy tale (and how cool would it be to have a Disney villain that is redeemed at the end of the film? I don’t think we’ve ever seen that).  
            Which brings me to the fact that the symbolism here is all wrong; there’s no ‘icy heart’ that needs melting, except in a bluntly literal sense. Elsa isn’t cold; she’s just scared. Anna is the very reverse of cold. They might have had some interesting winter/summer symbolism here between the two sisters, but I couldn’t detect any except superficially (since Elsa isn’t being herself for most of the film, so we don’t get much sense of her real character). There is a genuinely ‘cold heart’ present, but it never gets melted. The symbolic power of the original fairy tale of love thawing a frozen heart is completely gone: the climactic act of love might as well be healing a heart murmur.
            Actually, this revised version could be said to be conveying a very nasty message: that really cold hearts can’t be thawed, and that only a heart that was never frozen to begin with can be melted by an act of love. The truly cold-hearted are simply bad and worthless: a kind of Calvinistic/Gnostic predetermination, or in other words, the exact opposite of Anderson’s theme. I doubt very much that this is what the filmmakers were going for, but there’s nothing here to contradict such an interpretation.
            On the other hand, the film’s climax, even shorn of the tale’s symbolic power, is unexpected, extremely moving, and a beautiful vision of selfless love that gives all for the beloved. That’s the moment the whole film is structured around, and it’s almost glorious enough to make the film worth seeing just for that moment.   
            In summary, Frozen has all it needs to be a great film, but it just doesn’t come together. A lack of focus squanders its potential and it ends up being merely okay where it might have been superb.

Final Rating: 3/5: Gorgeous visuals, endearing characters, and some strong material are wasted by a tepid, unfocused storyline that largely fails to live up to its potential. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 33

Still hosted by Conversion Diary.

1.     So, I completely failed the ‘7 Posts in 7 Days’ challenge: it completely slipped my mind last weekend. Bitter failure!

2.     We’re finally in Lent! My Lenten commitments include limiting snacking between meals, limited types of snacks available (basically fruit, nuts, and cheese-and-crackers), soup for dinner most nights, and at least one hour of deplugging every evening (which does not count drive times, exercise, or any other time that I couldn’t be on computer anyway).

3.     Finished A Princess of Mars last night during one of those deplugged times. I loved it, though it does get a little undisciplined towards the end (and then…the Green Martians suddenly become allies with the good Red Martians, but now the bad Red Martians have a million men, and…). Super-romantic and with lots and lots of monsters and sword fights. And it has a simply gorgeous ending line.

4.     Also found and read Red Nails, the last of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. It was deliciously pulpy, with lots of monsters, magic, good-looking women, and stabbity stabbity action.

5.     What struck me most about these pulpy works (Burroughs and Howard) is how, well, decent they are. The heroes slaughter bad-guys by the hundreds, but they also meditate on things like honesty, family, kindness, friendship, self-sacrifice, and so on. John Carter would “willingly depopulate all of Barsoom” for Dejah Thoris, but he wouldn’t tell a lie to save himself from death. Conan’s a barbarian, but he’d never attempt to ‘force himself’ on Valeria (even if she weren’t currently threatening to stab him). The Natural Law is strong in these stories, by Crom it is!

6.     So, I went and saw Frozen after work today, since everyone’s been raving about it for four or five months. Honestly, I wasn’t that impressed. I’ll probably do a full review soon, but I thought it seemed rather jarringly put together, as though they came up with a bunch of different ideas and then put them all in without thinking whether they meshed. That, and the natural symbolism of the story was almost completely absent, with no one's "cold heart" being melted. It’s not bad, just…not great.

7.      Ending with another quote:
“If someone had told me I would be Pope one day, I would have studied harder.”
-Pope John Paul I.

 Vivat Christus Rex!