SCREWTAPE LETTERS – A RIVETING LIVE PERFORMANCE OF THE C.S.LEWIS CLASSIC

 

SHORT TAKE:

A fascinating one-man play based on the C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters – the letters from a senior demon to his nephew/student demon.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to read and understand the source book: The Screwtape Letters. As a rule of thumb….13 years old and up.

LONG TAKE:

My husband and I spent a disturbingly delightful and entertaining 70 minutes with a demon the other afternoon. The demon’s name was Screwtape and he is the creation of one C.S. Lewis. Lewis is the author of the children’s Narnia series as well as deeply philosophical books like The Four Loves, science fiction like Out of the Silent Planet, religious apologetics like Mere Christianity, theological guides like The Problem of Pain and self-mortifying confessions like A Grief Observed.

Lewis was a prolific writer and a deeply committed, practicing Christian who made the long, arduous and painful, but soul fulfilling journey from casual Christian to atheist to devout believer.

For those unfamiliar with the book, The Screwtape Letters is a precursor to the “found footage” movies so prevalent today but created for far more ennobling reasons. The preface to the book Screwtape warns of the dangers of either denying the existence of devils or, contrarily, indulging in an “unhealthy and excessive interest” in them. The first half of the warning reminds me of the line in The Usual Suspects by “Verbal” Kint who admonishes his listener that: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The latter half of the warning brings to mind a comment by C.S. Lewis that this book was the easiest for him to write but also the one that made him most uncomfortable – so much so that he resisted the urgings of his publisher and the general public to write a sequel. He did, some years later, write a short piece entitled Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which, in a condensed version opens the play.

In any event, C.S. Lewis in his preface to Screwtape Letters, states he will not explain how these letters “fell into my hands”. Suffice to say they are a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Hell, to his nephew/student/lesser demon, Wormwood. In these letters Screwtape attempts to instruct Wormwood in the fine art of seducing a soul (referred to as his “patient”) away from “the enemy” (God) to be food for the denizens of Hell.

During the course of his instructions, Screwtape exposes many of the subtle fallacies and self-delusions to which people who call themselves atheists, as well as those who think of themselves as Christians, can fall prey (my choice of phrase here both gruesomely punny and deliberate).

One would not think that a one-man play dramatizing what amounts to a series of theologically themed short essays could be either interesting or funny. But this play is both. This is a credit to both the wry, dry wit of Mr. Lewis as well as the construction of the play itself. The set is fairly sparse, creating the allusion to a well-to-do Englishman’s smoking room, (smoking – like brimstone. See what I did there?), with two unusual additions. One customization is the twisting ladder which reaches up to the ceiling upon which one can climb to retrieve and send posts via an attached pneumatic tube. The second inclusion is of Screwtape’s wordless, androgynous assistant demon, Toadpipe, who, in the production we saw, is costumed like an evil Papagano from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, all in artificially colorful feathers from head to toe. He/she has no lines but grunts and growls and pantomimes his/her obsequiousness and occasional little mutinies.

The performance was riveting, compelled as we are to breathlessly await the determination of whether the man about whom they communicate will succumb to Wormwood’s ministrations or successfully resist the abyss of Hell.

There is an interesting tension created by Lewis, in that the protagonist, the one with whom audiences, in the overwhelming majority of plays, are naturally manipulated into sympathizing, is a demon from Hell. Resisting the impulse to root for Screwtape, as the protagonist of the tale, is similar to the same pull of temptation which each of us must continually struggle. This odd conundrum reminds us how easy it would be to find ourselves in the clutches of a Wormwood – or that we might already be in this danger. Fortunately, in Screwtape’s commentaries on his increasing frustrations with the failures of his nephew, we are also shown how to extricate ourselves.

We saw Screwtape at the beautiful Jeanette and LM George Theater in Houston, but it is only playing through March 17, 2019. However,  it will be playing at many future theaters to come and you should catch it when you can. OR a community theater in your locale should contact the Dramatic Publishing Company and see about performing it.

In addition, I must compliment the A.D. George Theater whose self-proclaimed mission is:

To produce compelling theatre, from a Christian world-view, that engages a diverse audience.

Screwtape was our first experience with this theater and it promises to most definitely NOT be our last.

BRAVO to the George Theatre and C.S. Lewis!

KUDOS TO CINEMASINS FOR BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL TO SAVE LIVES

Jeremy Scott, the primary narrator at CinemaSins about whom I have written in another post created the persona of someone who enjoys finding every possible trivia sin and piccadillo in every movie he reviews. The videos are primarily for fun, occasionally somewhat bawdy, often profane, frequently very funny, but the result is always insightful.   He spends 15 or so minutes showing video clips which point out clichés, newspaper text which has nothing to do with the headlines being used for exposition, wildly incorrect timers, continuity goofs, historical anachronisms, just plain bad acting or terrible CGI, and his two FAVORITE sins – too many opening credit logos and narration which substitutes for plot. And he rarely condemns politely, which is part of his humor schtick. This is a site for older mature teens and up, certainly. But his commentary, while biting, is usually both quite accurate and mostly played for laughs

However, during his “Everything Wrong With A Star is Born” send up video, after he does his usual nit picky comic but precise routine, he calls out the movie’s plot for its attempts to paint the lead male character’s suicide “…as almost chivalrous, and I’m just never getting on board with that.”

Well, Jeremy, neither am I. And good for you. As I pointed out in my post: “A Star is Born: Masterful Variation on an Inherently Dissonant Theme” I make a similar argument against lionizing this behavior.

Jeremy THEN does something that in the hundreds of his videos he has never done before, he breaks the “Fourth Wall” – that barrier between the audience and himself which maintains the suspension of disbelief. Jeremy Scott posts a great big notice for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and their phone number.

This was an admirable and bold move in a culture of death which has even rationalized the wholesale savage slaughter of unborn infants. He has opened himself up to criticism but it will certainly not come from me.

Thank you Jeremy.

Your instincts are good and this is one of the many things on the list of what I would call Everything Right with CinemaSins.

CAPTAIN MARVEL – GOOD IN SPITE OF ITSELF

SHORT TAKE: Latest and fun addition to the Marvel Universe of super heroes and the bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Captain Marvel is a super hero who just happens to be a female, re-discovering her real identity while meeting Young Nick Fury and Young Phil Coulson.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Family friendly: Young teens and up should be fine, perhaps even middle schoolers with parental discretion. A handful of mild profanities but otherwise pretty clean. The violence, albeit mostly cartoonish, one alien autopsy, and threats to a family with small children might upset the littler members of the family depending on disposition.

LONG TAKE:

Mark Twain is incorrectly thought to have said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But much like Rick’s famous misquote from Casablanca: “Play It Again, Sam” or Jimmy Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” or Oliver Hardy’s “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” while close, are famously – not… quite… accurate. It just goes to show how persistent mistakes can be carried on into posterity if quoted often enough.

And just so, I had read in a number of early pre-opening screening reviews that Captain Marvel was rife with promotions of feminist propaganda and an anti-male manifesto. After watching the movie I discovered all this hype to be wrong. On the contrary I found Captain Marvel quite charming, a fitting addition to the Marvel superhero universe, and most importantly – FUN. Not at all the feminist manifesto it was touted to be.

However, I understand how the misunderstanding arose.  For example, what some people, women in particular, perceived as examples of women being treated with negative bias in the military, I saw as the quite natural hazing common to ALL military newbies.

If you remember back to Captain America, Steve Rogers pre-superhero serum, was the butt of a lot of disrespect in both civilian life as well as boot camp. No one at the time complained that it was an example of discrimination against slightly built men, but appropriately just defined his backstory and provided a dramatic comparison for Steve Rogers’ transformation, as well as defining his character traits of courage, persistence and dignity in the face of adversity.

Similarly, Carol Danvers, aka Vers aka Captain Marvel, like any other human, faces obstacles specific to her background and physique before she can become the hero that is needed. Everyone has limitations as well as challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals and dreams. For reviewers to see logical challenges in the very competitive field of Air Force pilot training as discrimination is to have a ridiculous prejudice against men and a foolish bias in favor of women, which assumes that no woman should fail just because she’s a woman. That is inherently stupid. And it’s all just throwaway McGuffin background anyway.

Where did the feminist rumor come from? Like most rumors – from half truths. It is true that Brie Larson made some rather blunt and rude comments about white male reviewers. Personally I wouldn’t take offense were the playing field equal and white men were allowed to make similar comments about women. Her dismissive comment that she is not interested in hearing what a white male has to say about a movie with a female lead does not bother me half so much as the thought that if a white male said something in reverse he would be eviscerated. Can you imagine someone getting away with saying they are not interested in hearing what a minority woman has to say about Justice League since there were no minority women in the lead roles? The liberals would have lost they’re narrow little minds. Yet Brie Larson is lauded for her equally offensive remark. The inequity truly rankles the reasonable mind. How about: I’m not interested in what a woman has to say about 12 Strong because there were no women in the lead roles? Or I’m not interested in what an Eskimo has to say about West Side Story? Or ANYONE other than a white middle class male has to say about Castaway because Tom Hanks was just about the only one IN the movie? You see how ridiculous this liberal, politically correct, so-called “mentality” quickly becomes?

Larson simply expressed herself boorishly in voicing a reasonable desire to include a more interesting combination of reporters, like: the disabled, women, and minorities. I only wish she’d included homeschoolers, and faith-based reporters. But, of course, good luck with that one.

Regardless of all that CAPTAIN MARVEL IS A GOOD MOVIE.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS – BE WARNED

Captain Marvel is about a military pilot, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson who knocked it out of the ball park in The Glass Castle – see my post here) who mysteriously ends up believing she is a member of an alien race’s warrior class, fighting the Skrulls, a race of extremely dangerous shape shifters who threaten the Universe in general and Earth in particular. On an investigative mission she winds up on Earth, meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury and starts unraveling the mystery of her past.

Captain Marvel was co-directed by the established team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who, up to now, have done Sundance award winning shorts and indies. They were chosen because of their insightful enthusiasm for the character of Carol Danvers. The duo have created a very solid and entertaining bridge between the two Avengers movies.

The CGI was interesting but, possibly deliberately, of checkerboard quality. Danvers in full bore Captain Marvel mode looked a bit like a highly rendered cartoon – a nice homage, I thought, to her comic book origins.

As to the youthened Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, either Jackson has a picture of Dorian Gray tucked somewhere in his attic or they did a masterful job with the special effects. Jackson looks legitimately 20 years younger in the movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Clark Gregg, whose younger Phil Coulson looked like a creepy, unnaturally smooth-faced caricature. Even were this choice purposeful due to the nature of the Skrulls and the part they play, other Skrull “imitations” looked far more natural and, assuredly, Fury would have picked up on it far before he did.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, a Skrull adversary. Mendelsohn usually plays flat, two-dimensional bad guys, like the evil mad scientist Orson Krenic, in Star Wars: Rogue One or the diabolical businessman Sorento in Ready Player One. Mendelsohn’s Talos has a bit more to him, even a sense of humor, and it is nice to see Mendelsohn tackle a character with a bit more complexity.

Jude Law, the third man up to bat as Dumbledore, plays Yon Rogg, Captain Marvel’s mentor.

Annette Benning plays both Dr. Wendy Lawson, as well as a manifestation of the Kree Supreme Artificial Intelligence, which serves as teacher to the Kree.

As a side note, I thought the choice of Annette Benning in an important supporting role in a superhero movie was odd, familiar as we are with her in emotion-driven interpersonal dramas, like her shrewish unfaithful wife in American Beauty. Casting Benning in a major sci-fi is a peculiar fit which I am not completely sure works. She is a decent actress. She did manage a very serviceable Queen Elizabeth in a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third some years ago, after all. Science fiction is just not the genre I normally associate her with. However, her screen time is fairly small, so this casting choice is not a big drawback.

And then – MOST importantly – there’s Goose the cat played, depending upon the demands of the scene, by: Reggie, Gonzo, Archie and Rizzo – all of whom got along famously with both Samuel L. and Ms. Larson despite the fact Jackson is self described as not a cat person and Larson is actually allergic to them. Obviously all six of them are consummate professionals. LOL

Pinar Toprak (who, with Danny Elfman, also did the soundtrack for Justice League, and has composed for other films, TV shows and video games) wrote the soundtrack, which stays in the vein of the triumphant and inspirational themes in other Avengers movies. Toprak also intersperses songs like Crazy on You by Heart, Man on the Moon by R.E.M. and Only When it Rains by Garbage, which, similar to the casting of Annette Benning, is another unusual creative choice by this film team, requiring some getting used to, but is not off putting.

In conclusion:

Is Captain Marvel a good movie and a worthy inclusion to the Marvel Universe in general and the Avengers franchise in particular? Yes.

Do I wish they had left the gender politics drivel out of the equation? Most certainly.

But when it comes to marketing, as my Dad used to say: “Say something good about me, say something bad about me, but don’t say nothing about me.” Still, someone should inform Ms. Larson that perhaps it would be sensible, if not just courteous, to avoid deliberately alienating the fundamental demographic which has, frankly, built the financial empire of the comic book industry: THE WHITE MALE – especially since Captain Marvel was created AS a male, so the incarnation as a female is really borrowing off the male pioneered territory. She should be saying an appreciative: “Thank you,” instead of starting a snide spitting contest.

Most comic book hero authors were men: Stan Lee, Bob Kane, William Marston, Jerry Siegel, Bill Parker to name only a meager few.

And without the WHITE TEENAGED MALES there would be no comic book industry such as it is. Up until recently the vast majority of the comic book reading/buying demographic WAS male.

Am I the only one who can see that if the odds were so terribly stacked against woman, as the gender-victim baiters and pseudo politician-community agitators would have you believe, that this movie would never have been made?

Larson should consider that she has made it to the top of what is currently considered the Hollywood Mountain. Her movie is going to make a bazillion dollars. She should learn a little etiquette and be gracious in her win.

That being said, I DO think, thematically,  it WAS a wise decision to make Captain Marvel a female, if for no other reason than there is already a VERY well established MALE super hero with a “Captain” nomenclature against which she would NOT want to compete in a popularity contest. (To paraphrase a wise Black Widow – “That’s a question she just  does not need to get answered.”)

Meanwhile – I think we would all have a much better time if everyone, Miss Larson included, and perhaps especially, should just chill out.

Thankfully and ultimately, Captain Marvel is about the creation of a super hero who just happens to be a woman, NOT about the creation of an expressly female super hero.

I must admit that a surprising homage to Stan Lee in the opening credits had me a bit choked up. Without him none of these creations: Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Ant Man, Yondu, Peggy Carter, Dr. Strange, Magneto, Loki, Ronan, Professor X, T’Chala, Groot and the plethora of others that populate most of the Marvel Universe (See the list of Stan Lee’s creations on Wikipedia here)  would exists and for that we all owe Mr. Lee a tremendous debt of gratitude. I pray he finds the joy and inspiration he brought to millions while he was alive awaiting him in eternity. The film makers gave him a lovely appropriate epitaph send-off just before the opening credits to Captain Marvel, as well as a delightful posthumous cameo, almost breaking the fourth wall, in the middle of the movie. Thank you Stan, you will indeed be missed.

TOM CRUISE – ONLY THE MOST RECENT BATON HOLDER IN A LONG LINE OF DEATH DEFYING STARS

I was watching  Cinema Sins on Mission Impossible: Fallout the other day and a thought hit me. (No injury was sustained from said impact though, despite the lack of a stunt double for me. Thanks for asking.)

There is much deserved notoriety in Tom Cruise’s penchant for doing his own stunts in many of his movies –                 his spinning helicopter ride, careening his ubiquitous motorcycle against traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, his snapped ankle acquired – on camera – jumping from one high rise to the next – all JUST in his most recent M.I. outing. These events, while generating a LOT of publicity, are not the first in his career. Cruise is notable for doing his own stunt work as much as he can get away with.  And while he does – and it IS noteworthy – it is neither unique nor new. He follows in the illustrious and dangerous footsteps of others who stood in equally brilliant limelight in previous generations doing, arguably, even more foolish tricks.

I am immediately brought to mind of Steve McQueen who, like Cruise, LOVED his motorcycles and performed almost all of his own riding stunts in The Great Escape. He tried to perform his own driving in the famous chase scene from Bullitt, but one spin-out, which almost took a cameraman with it, convinced Mr. McQueen to let the professional driver do the yeoman’s part of the work.

Gene Hackman did some of his own driving in the famous chase scene from The French Connection, which was so dangerous that the director Friedkin, himself, manned the camera stationed in the backseat because the other cameramen were married with children and he was not. (Though for the MOST dangerous shots, pro-stunt man Bill Hickman did the driving.)

And not all actor-stunt events end so happily. Vic Morrow and two children died when an effects explosion caused the tail-rotor on a low-hovering helicopter to crash on top of them.

And the insanity did not begin there.

Going back a bit further, Errol Flynn did most of HIS own stunts and sword fighting, most famously in Against All Flags, Captain Blood and Robin Hood. Basil Rathbone, playing the evil Guy of Gisbourne in that 1938 version of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest was, purportedly, terrified of Flynn, because he was SURE Flynn was  REALLY going to skewer him, so into the role the master swashbuckler would get.

1923’s silent comedy Safety Last starring Harold Lloyd features an iconic shot of Lloyd hanging precariously from a bending clock arm high above street level. Though precautions were taken, obviously, for the star’s safety, as proven in the tragic case of Mr. Morrow, bad things can happen.

1922’s Robin Hood was the biggest hit in the career of Douglas Fairbanks. He too, was famous for insisting on doing his own stunts and Robin Hood was no exception.

Of those I have mentioned, only Morrow perished attempting a stunt. Steve McQueen died during surgery for cancer, and both Flynn and Fairbanks died of heart attacks; all tragically in their 50’s. Harold Lloyd lived to be 78, but eventually succumbed to cancer. Hackman, thankfully, has made it to the ripe old age of 89 and is still chugging along. Cruise is, to date,  only 56.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the fact Cruise jumps – literally – into the fray. Though, honestly, if he were my son or brother I would NOT be nearly as amused. I’m not critiquing, just observing he is not the first. Cruise is but the most recent in a long line of men who have put their bodies where their money was; movie stars refusing the assist of stunt doubles and graying the hair of many a director who, I’m quite certain, found God, even if only for a moment, while watching their star defy death for the sake of a movie’s authenticity.

Cruise has been quite fortunate that he has, so far, walked – or limped – away from all of his grandstanding. And I pray for his sake, the sake of his family and the movie going public in general, who have enjoyed his movies for decades, that his luck continues to hold out.