August 28, 2016


(Don't watch the trailers. There are no good ones. Don't do the film justice.
But if you must, watch this one: Only Halfway Decent Ben-Hur Trailer)

The latest big screen "Ben-Hur" is a fresh take on the beloved 1880 historical fiction novel: "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" by Lew Wallace, that deftly and intricately weaves the story of Judah Ben-Hur into the Gospel account of Jesus. However, this re-make sadly limps in the faith department, which, of course, is the punchline of the whole shebang. With that, I am signaling that I assume you know the story and so shall be dropping SPOILERS in this review. 


Judah is from a wealthy Jewish family living in Jerusalem along with his adopted brother, Messala Severus, a pagan Roman. At the beginning of the movie, they are best of friends and both avid horsemen (foreshadowing the famous chariot race between them at the end of the film). Messala leaves the family to join the Roman army. He wants to marry Judah's sister, but he feels he has lived off the charity of Judah's family long enough, and wants to build his own life and fortune first.
Enmity between the Jewish Zealots and the Roman legions is heating up. Judah, a friend of Rome, openly opposes the rabble-rousers and believes in "keeping the peace," even at cost of Jewish freedom. Judah truly lives what he believes, doesn't want to see harm come to either side, and takes active measures to calm animosities. But his flaw was in trusting Rome too much. When he and his family are mistakenly taken for Zealots and arrested, he loses everything and winds up a galley slave. In his absence, Esther, his wife, becomes a follower of Jesus.


The cinematography is impressive from the get-go. The film wastes no time in back story, but plunges us into the hoof and heart pounding antics of Judah and Messala. Familiar characters like Pontius Pilate and Dismas pop up here and there, reminding us of the destiny that Judah is poised and privileged to be a part of. Certain scenes could have been a little more gritty (although this version is much more gritty than the Charlton Heston version), particularly when Judah becomes a galley slave and then escapes and is afloat on the sea (he could've/should've been more beefy/burned). Morgan Freeman--who despite his overused narrator's voice, and in my opinion, tired old ways of almost non-acting, not trying any more--puts in a solid performance as Ilderim, the wealthy horse owner. Ilderim's role is rather major to the story's turning, and Freeman accomplishes the task with aplomb.


A few shoddy oversights mar the film throughout: at times the everyday hair (especially the women's) and everyday garb is almost indistinguishable from twenty-first century styles (think Eileen Fisher). I also question whether Jewish women went about with their hair uncovered as a matter of course. It's darn distracting, as are the moments (quite a few) when the filmmakers evidently couldn't figure out how to have characters "find" each other again, serendipitously meet up, etc. What happens is a character will just emerge from "stage left": "Hi!" Also very distracting. Esther's role is extremely one-dimensional, and the actress plays it thus. If you're looking for the red-hot romance of Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet...forget it.

In general, the acting is good, but not great. However, in the hands of a director who milked some of the well set up scenes (and epic scenery) for every ounce of danger and tension, it could have been much better. However, I cannot say this of the final chariot race which is the centerpiece and masterpiece.

The best fleshed-out character? Rome itself. The character of the Romans is constantly bandied about and three-dimensionally depicted. I felt that the "worthy nemesis" (Rome) needed a "worthy protagonist" (Jesus, and Judah's eventual following of him) which the film did not deliver. There were some noble attempts, but it needed to be much stronger. Jesus' unexplained: "Love your enemies" in the face of the "might makes right" of Rome was screaming for so much more "showing" of how socially transformative Christian charity is--even at its birth. God's love needed teeth (ideally in the depiction of Judah's character arc)--teeth that were a match for Rome's violence. I don't think the film succeeded here. Judah's mother and sister were not even cured by the blood of Jesus from the Cross (as in the 1959 "Ben-Hur"), but by rain running off the Cross.


In some overall ways, this "Ben-Hur" is an "almost" film. It's "almost" a great re-make. Except for the chariot race which succeeds in every way. (And I'm all for remakes: Let's see what you can do. Give us your perspective. What are your new insights? Can you best  the original? Show us what you've got.)

After two hours of building a well-paced drama, the end is a mad dash to neatly wrap things up in a blatantly inconsistent way. The end needed to take its time. Even though in first century Palestine (and elsewhere for that matter) religion and belief in God/gods was assumed, we do not observe Judah nor Messala doing very much existential seeking. There is hardly any religion/Godtalk. Then, suddenly, at the end, Jesus' Crucifixion and forgiveness is understood and assimilated. Judah (and Esther) had brief and meaningful encounters with Jesus prior to Calvary, but for the message of Jesus to rather immediately coalesce with our characters' hearts and wipe out years of horrific betrayal, abuse, and bloodshed did not ring true to me in the least.

After her "conversion," Esther talks and acts a bit like a West Coast Jesus Freak from the 60's and 70's, and the Christianspeak sounds like 80's posters, T-shirts and mugs. The lines/scenes of faith at the end are executed with almost robotic, "let's get this over with"-ness. I remember the final scenes also wrapping up rather quickly in the Charlton Heston version of "Ben-Hur," but it was done much more organically, synergetically, artfully, believably, and movingly. The current "Ben-Hur" makes faith and charity almost seem a simplistic, fundamentalist, but at the same time tenuous anchor in a storm. The pivotal reconciliation scene between Judah and Messala was laughably lame, and it could have been so much better! This film was well done in most respects and then it dropped the ball when it came to crafting genuine and authentic human experiences of redemption.

This version of "Ben-Hur" is an exciting, even riveting at times, quasi-biblical adventure, but it falls flat when it matters most. I've just re-watched the movie-musical "Les Mis," and couldn't help comparing the two. One is a CGI tour-de-force with fine action sequences. The other goes to the depths of human pathos and convinces us that misery and death will not have the last word, as it shimmers with divine hope.


Should you watch the Charlton Heston "Ben-Hur" again or for the first time? Yes! The eleven Academy Award winner (including "Best Picture," 1959) has aged well. Particularly poignant is the love story between Judah and Esther. True chemistry and passion! The chariot race changed filmmaking forever, did not have the benefit of CGI, and stuntmen lost their lives for it. Prepare to be astounded. And for true film buffs, there's even a silent 1925 black and white version available on the 4-disc collector's edition.

Due to the gorey violence and many CGI horses getting realistically destroyed, "Ben-Hur" 2016 is not for the kiddos.


--The galley slave really made me think of the consequence/curse of Adam's Fall: toil will become exceedingly difficult for men (as will bearing life become exceedingly difficult for women).

-- "They will invite you to their games to watch others suffer so you'll forget what you have lost."

--"They want blood. They're all Romans now."

--"The compassion that Jesus offers them is more dangerous than all the Zealots combined."

August 27, 2016


Looking for a fairly "acceptable" series for pre-teens/teens? Set in the early 80's, "Stranger Things" isn't perfect, but it's got a lot of good stuff. Four do-or-die friends (pre-teen boys) play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (uh-oh, problematic in itself) that comes to life. Or rather coincides with a top-secret government experiment going on in their neighborhood. It's a bit of sci-fi meets supernatural thriller meets buddy movie meets John Hughes.

The series starts off with a lot of bad language (taking the name of the Lord in vain: "Jesus!"--especially awful when kids say it. You can teach your kids to say: "May He always be praised!" when they hear it), a teen sexual encounter (that goes awry), dysfunctional family dynamics (except for the fierce motherlove of Joyce, played by an Emmy-deserving Winona Ryder) including one useless and one abandoning father (but there are other good male role models).

So why am I recommending this? There are amazing portrayals of keeping promises, friendship, sacrifice, and in the end, all kinds of people stepping up the plate to love and do the right thing. The adults work together, the teens work together and the kids work together. Families are reunited.

It's intense, but if your young people are already used to intense screen stories, this might be a good one to watch as a family--and, of course, always discuss. And I gotta say, I pretty thoroughly enjoyed ST. It is such a joy watching today's child actors, and the girl who plays "El" is a REVELATION. She's so good that she could make a Cate Blanchett look like an amateur.

A good review:

August 13, 2016


The beloved classic, "The Little Prince," was released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix, and may or may not disappoint fans of the fable. Jeff Bridges' rich, warm, craggy American voice brings to life Saint-Exupéry, the author and aviator. Three different kinds of storytelling visuals are utilized: the now-familiar computer animation, sporting oversized heads and large, expressive eyes ("Inside Out," "Despicable Me," etc.); stop-action figures, and Saint-Exupéry's own line drawings brought to life.

This presentation of "The Little Prince" is couched within a contemporary story of a little girl and her mother, which fleshes it out and grounds the sometimes metaphorical etherealness of the story. There is even a counterbalance of cynicism and incredulity on the part of The Little Girl (no name!) who is being raised by an over scheduling, overly pragmatic, overachieving mother. All The Little Girl knows is science, facts, calculations and her "life board" (a plan of "what is essential" that her mother has concocted, which lays out every single hour, day and year of The Little Girl's life). The Little Girl's watch alarm sounds when it's time to move on to her next "project." She is hardly a child at all. Her surroundings are gray and drab.


When The Little Girl and her mother move to a new neighborhood, they wind up next to a tall, skinny, ramshackle Victorian house in disrepair (shades of "Up"). Like its ancient inhabitant (The Aviator/Saint-Exupéry), it's out of step (in a good way) with the austere, cube-like, cookie-cutter homes in what is obviously a new development. Since her mother is at work non-stop, The Little Girl (about nine years old) is left to her own devices for most of the day and night, or rather she is left to her "life board" which consists mainly of studying in order to secure a certain, successful future. (Hers, of course, is a terrible life, and is actually child endangerment.)

The Little Girl makes friends with The Aviator rather quickly (unbeknownst to supermom), begins spending lots of time with him and slacking on her studies. (Again, sending a terrible message. I don't believe we should automatically demonize men, young or old, as potential creepy-deepy predators--but a little girl [or boy], left alone day and night, hanging out with an old guy her mom doesn't even know?) On the up side (pun intended), The Aviator's home and yard is an unkempt playground of sorts. In contrast with The Little Girl's Soviet-esque home, Saint-Exupéry's environment is colorful, full of birds, flowers, music, whimsical widgets and his broken-down plane that he is forever trying to restart.

Saint-Exupéry lets The Little Girl be a kid. In fact, he teaches her how to be a child. How to take normal kid risks (like climbing a tree), to believe in herself, that she is capable of doing things, even if she hasn't studied them and they're not on the life board. Little by little, on paper and verbally, Saint-Exupéry tells her the story of The Little Prince. Skeptical at first, The Little Girl is eventually captivated by the tale. She rolls the characters and dialogue and lessons around in her head. She discovers artifacts that represent The Little Prince and his world, or shall we say "worlds," or shall we say asteroids! The rose, the fox, the serpent, the sands of the Sahara all come alive in her underused imagination. But The Little Girl never loses her practicality, and when she comes to the end of the story, she is furious. SPOILER ALERT: If you don't know the ending of "The Little Prince," I'm revealing it here. The Little Prince chooses death (by serpent bite--let's call it what it is: suicide) in order to go back to his asteroid--just exactly how this all works is never explained--to be with the rose that he ultimately loves but abandoned (because of her vain demands and because "they were too young to know how to love").


This ending does not sit well with The Little Girl at all, and in anger, she cuts off her friendship with the pilot. Worse yet, shortly thereafter, the old man is rushed by ambulance to the hospital. He had been hinting to her all along that he was preparing to "leave." His health had been obviously failing, but in her child's mind, The Little Girl assumed he was talking about going in his plane on a trip from which he wouldn't return.

The Little Girl and her mom visit Saint-Exupéry in the hospital and amends are made. However, the old man is dying. But The Little Girl hatches a plan. She believes that no one less than The Little Prince himself can save her dear, elderly friend. And here's where it all gets fantastical and stretches the bounds of our most magical thinking. The Little Girl takes off in Saint-Exupéry's old plane in search of The Little Prince. She finds him, but he's all grown up. In a bad way. And here's the real message of The Little Prince, both the book and the movie: Growing up isn't the problem, it's forgetting what it's like to be a child that's the problem. Because to see the world as a child has great value.

"The Little Prince" validates kids being kids as such a very good thing. They are told that they need to take their childhood with them into adulthood. Bravo. In the big city, The Little Prince has been brainwashed to a different understanding of what is "essential": that which makes money. Working hard. Commerce. That which can be bought and sold. This is a clever and brilliant examination of how words and values can get so twisted that they can have opposite meanings, but not just subjectively--"happiness is different things to different people." We are made to understand that Saint-Exupéry is right about what is essential, not big business.


The problematicness of The Little Prince (the original book and this movie) is its sidestepping of death with euphemisms. Why can't we teach kids about death? Because then we'd have to say something real about God. So what we're stuck with is Disney / Life of Pi / Kung Fu Panda "Just Believe!" nonsense. (Believe in WHAT?) The Little Girl rightly demands of the aviator to tell her exactly what happened to The Little Prince, and she gets a wussy "I choose to believe...." She gets: "He's always with me, I hear him laughing in the stars." There's nothing wrong with this kind of poetry that we all use when we've lost a loved one and something they loved in life reminds us of them. But to shovel only this weak drivel into little and big Christian* minds? Pshaw!

We know so much better. We have so much better. We get so much better. Our loved ones live on as they are, as persons, in God, with God. The redeemed will be reunited forever in a very real heaven. We, God, death, life, the afterlife are not just some nebulous ball of sentimental mush. It's all so very real. There will also be "a new heavens and a new earth" as the Bible tells us (so don't be surprised at very real roses and foxes in "heaven")!  And do not get me started on the resurrection of the body in The Little Prince. The body is stated in no uncertain terms to be a shell that we leave behind. Zut alors!

Unfortunately, one of the most prominent messages of "The Little Prince" is that the spiritual is what's most real, what matters most, what endures. The following favorite LP maxims are helpful and true, but only if understood in conjunction with the reality, the equal importance and continuing existence of the body in eternity: "Only with the heart can we see rightly." "What is essential is invisible to the eye."
*I'm saying "Christian" here because we already know better because God has revealed the nature of reality to us (and to all, of course).


--The sad "presence by absence" of supermom's husband and The Little Girl's father feels a bit like some kind of indictment against men/dads. I even thought The Little Girl was going to meet her Dad when she takes off for the big city (every holiday, her Dad sends her a different snowglobe of the city where he works), but nope.

--Perhaps, a Christian narrative might be read into LP? Adam, alone in the world, meets Eve, but it all goes wrong. The Prince (the new Adam) lays down his life for her. But it's the serpent who's employed for the deed? Christian Mingle Mistaken Mystified Mixup.

--The kids' voiceovers are terrific. The Little Prince sounds like Linus from "The Peanuts." The grown up Little Prince is also done tremendously by Paul Rudd.

--"Men grow thousands of roses and they do not find what they're looking for. What they're looking for could be found in a single rose."

--"If you want a friend, you have to tame me."

--My favorite Saint-Exupéry book is "Wind, Sand and Stars," about his life as a pilot--with lots of philosophizing, bien sûr.

--As a newly-minted Education M.A., there's a message here about "education-direct-to-workforce," "education as an arm of labor"....

--Big Cinema Music.

--Crushing stars for energy! Laudato Si!

--Like many kids' movies these days, the kids teach the parents the wisdom. As in "Brave," mom loosens up and learns  from her daughter.

--"The Little Prince" joins the movies "Maleficent," "Frozen," "Brave," "Spy," etc., where "the prince" is either useless, a buffoon or saved by the princess.