Dramatic License

A weblog of thoughts, inspirations, experiences of, in and about live theatre, film, television, literature and other media.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Review - Fireflies by Faith Hill

Is it just my imagination, or are there only three really memorable songs on Faith Hill’s new CD, Fireflies? And is it just my imagination, or are two of those co-written by John Rich? Can anyone else in Nashville write compelling music and lyrics today? Unfortunately, I don’t think my imagination is running wild with me at all.

Fireflies, Faith Hill’s latest offering, is a CD filled with beautiful songs. The best of which are “Mississippi Girl,” “Like We Never Loved At All” (both co-written by Rich) and “Dearly Beloved.”

The CD opens with the very upbeat and catchy “Sunshine And Summertime.” It’s a real toe-tapper, but it lacks any kind of real substance. It’s message seems to be that everything is all right with the world if we all just make new friends and keep close to them. If Up With People were still around today, they would probably adopt this into their repertoire.

One of the few other up-tempo songs on this CD is “We’ve Got Nothing But Love To Prove,” another peace, love and happiness song worthy of the Up With People repertoire. A bit of sizzle here, but little steak.

Substance on this CD comes from “Like We Never Loved At All” and “Dearly Beloved.” “Like We Never Loved At All” is a slick pop-country duet with Hill’s husband, Tim McGraw, which puts one in the mind of the Tammy Wynette and George Jones duets of the 1970s. It is the vocal centerpiece for Hill’s voice on this CD, the one song where she is able to exercise those beautiful pipes of hers. The melody soars and the passion sizzles in this one. However, if it weren’t for McGraw’s distinctive country twang, there would be little about this song that marks it as a country song. It could play just as easily on pop stations as country stations.

“Dearly Beloved” is the only truly country song on the CD, a bluegrass-styled commentary on the current state of love, courtship and hastily arranged marriages. This one does what every really good country song should do: attack contemporary social issues with wit and humor. It reminds me of the Dixie Chicks’ “Earl Had To Die.” It’s a shame that today’s country stations, so concerned with gaining and maintaining the emerging crossover audience, probably won’t play this fun little song in favor of the glitzed up, slick pop-country “Like We Never Loved At All” and “Mississippi Girl.”

Coming from Faith, “Mississippi Girl” is a much more believable autobiographical tune than “Jenny From The Block” sung by Jennifer Lopez. Unlike J Lo, we believe that Faith really lives her offstage life the same way she would if she were nothing more than a housewife in Star, Mississippi. We regularly see Faith appearing on interview shows wearing her “old ball cap” and we know that she is authentic when she sings this. Kudos to John Rich for capturing the real Faith Hill and giving her a song that only she can sing.

As for the rest of the CD, it is a collection of truly beautiful songs that are, unfortunately, unmemorable. That much beauty gets lost among the rest of the beauty. This is a CD overloaded with pretty folk singer ballads, none of which has the soaring vocal melodies that are a hallmark of Faith Hill’s career. Although I have played this CD numerous times, I couldn’t tell you much more about the remaining songs because they don’t stick with me the way “Mississippi Girl,” “Dearly Beloved” and “Like We Never Loved At All” do. Even the hippie songs, “Sunshine And Summertime” and “We’ve Got Nothing But Love To Prove,” have standout phrases that stick with you after you’re done listening. However, the majority of this CD plays like a collection of Indigo Girls B-sides. The producers would have been better off taking all of these beautiful ballads and spreading them out over several CDs and putting a few more up-tempo and memorable songs in their places on this one.

Faith Hill has two very important things going for her: goddess-like looks and a heavenly voice. Goddess-like looks don’t play through the speakers, so she is best off focusing on powerful up-tempo country and pop power ballads that showcase her heavenly voice with soaring melodies and passionate lyrics rather than pretty, but unmemorable art songs. Fourteen songs, overly weighted toward the pretty, was about four songs too many for this CD.

*** out of *****

Review - The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe

I’ll bet you didn’t know this: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is a Christian allegory. All right, you did know because every Christian congregation, radio station and bookstore in the nation has been hyping this big screen adaptation of the C. S. Lewis classic as if seeing the movie will lead to everyone’s conversion and salvation. Hey, I was intimate with Wardrobe for 9 weeks about 15 years ago. So I knew this going in to see the movie, but I didn’t know it back then. As a young director, just out of college, I directed a high school production of one of the many stage adaptations of the novel. I read the novel several times, but being a new director I didn’t do any further research. It didn’t strike me until the final dress rehearsal of that production that it was a Christian allegory when I had the epiphany that it was after one rehearsal when Aslan said, while being taken captive by the White Witch’s army, “Peter, put away your sword.” So, I wouldn’t feel too clueless, if I were you, if you missed the Christian aspects of the latest screen adaptation yourself.

I was able to take advantage of a rare day off this Christmas weekend and see the film with my family. I love the story and wanted to share it with my children. Afterward, my son asked a lot of questions about why Aslan did what he did and I was able, like a good Christian father should be, to explain to him that Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus. When I said that, my wife’s face lit up with recognition. I said, “You didn’t know that?” She replied, “No.”

So how is it possible that this blatant representation of the Passion of Christ has left two reasonably educated adults clueless about it’s Christian nature until it has been pointed out to us? Is it because the current movie lacks the novel’s “Last Supper” scene? Is it because after Aslan walks through the forest, representing the Garden of Gethsemane, with Lucy and Susan he willingly gives himself over to the queen with no opposition from his own followers? Is it because the movie lacks the novel’s scene where the White Witch forcibly takes Aslan into custody over Peter’s protestations and Aslan says, “Peter, put away your sword?” Or is it simply because the movie, like it’s source novel, is so overloaded with pagan imagery that it is nearly impossible to see the Christian forest for the pagan trees? This could be the topic of a very interesting academic paper. But I digress.

I would answer, “E, all of the above” to all these questions. Because Lewis was an unabashed Christian apologist and because Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia as allegories to illustrate certain Christian principles, the conservative Christian movement in vogue today has taken this up as their banner to promulgate their agenda. We must remember, however, that Lewis was a scholar and a writer of fiction in addition to being a Christian. Without elements of the fantastic, Lewis’ thesis on the true nature of sacrifice might never have gained an audience. While Lewis included a great number of pagan images to captivate his audience, he left enough of the Christian narrative intact to make his point. Unfortunately, despite marketing through Christian outlets, the producers have left too much of the Christian narrative out of this adaptation.

Does that make this a bad movie? Not at all. For the viewer who already knows the Passion narrative, this movie is a great way to start a conversation about concepts of sacrifice, forgiveness, salvation and redemption. For the viewer who knows nothing of the Passion narrative, it is a great starting point to talk about the Passion and the Resurrection. For everyone, it is a visual feast.

From the opening scene of the bombing of London, through the children’s arrival at the Professor’s manor, to Narnia in winter and the final White Stag hunt, this movie is visually stunning. With a few exceptions, the graphics are very realistic. I’m surprised, however, that the worst graphics are not the movie’s creatures, but several shots showing the children walking in front of obviously projected landscape backgrounds. Come on, this is the oldest form of visual effects known to the movie industry. How is it possible the producers allowed these shots to be the worst effects shots of the whole film? Were they shot late and tacked in during post-production? Minor visual effects sloppiness aside, the visual aspects are amazing.

As a director of children’s theatre, I am continually amazed at the ability of filmmakers to find children capable of realistic portrayals of children. All four child actors are very consistent in their performances and incredibly good at working in front of the green screen with nonexistent acting partners as they converse with the Beavers and Aslan. Tilda Swinton is amazing as Jadis, the White Witch. Her controlled calculating portrayal of pure evil is - icy, for lack of a better word. Not one character has been miscast here.

If I have to find fault with the filmmaking itself, it is in two critical areas: pacing and sound mixing. This is a slow-moving film. This is a novel that can be read in the time that it takes to watch the movie. However, this movie that runs just under two-and-a-half hours felt a lot longer. In addition to the final battle for Narnia, there is a much longer battle between Peter and the Wolf (no pun intended) in the novel before Peter defeats him. In fact, the Wolf has a much greater presence in the novel than the movie. I was disappointed that Peter defeated the Wolf so easily, by accident of a poorly executed move by the Wolf, no less. This was a missed opportunity for a great action sequence. And as far as final battles go, Narnia’s was one of the most anticlimactic I’ve seen lately, sorry to say.

As for the sound mixing, I was very disappointed. I lost many of the best lines due to poor volume in a theatre outfitted with incredible Dolby Surround Sound. It is possible to record a whisper and make it sound full and clear. How could the sound people miss this?

For me, though, the best thing was watching all the pagan imagery dancing around on the screen in this movie trumpeted by the Christian right as the next Passion of the Christ and the antidote to Harry Potter. What a wonderful joke the producers pulled over the NeoCons. I haven’t the space to list every image, but I’ll get you started with a few of them. There is the Wardrobe itself. It is a huge oak chest with raised carvings of oak trees all over it. The oak tree is one of the oldest pagan symbols and one of the symbols of the Greek god, Zeus. While the lamppost is an unapologetically Christian symbol, the presence of a faun is very disturbing. The last creature I would ever want an 8-year-old girl to go off into the woods with is a faun. That usually ends up in a drunken orgy somewhere in the woods. If you consider that another meaning of rape is abduction and abduction is kidnapping, then Tumnus has been a very bad Faun indeed! I won’t even mention the juvenile giggles I enjoyed every time the Beavers were onscreen, talked or simply mentioned. While magic is only used by the evil character representing Satan, Santa does bring Lucy a healing potion and both armies are heavily populated with mythical creatures: centaurs, minotaurs, gryphons, chimeras, and fauns. Oh my!

Though more than 40 years younger, Lewis was a literary contemporary of Sigmund Freud. There is much in Narnia that is expounded upon by Freud and Jung, neither of whom is much liked by today’s Neo-conservative churches. I find the Christian community’s embracing of Lewis’ work interesting at best and unsettling at worst. However, since religion is politics in a different robe and since politics breeds strange bedfellows, I can’t imagine a better pair of strange bedfellows than this.

Despite its conflation of myths, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is a visually stunning and well acted, albeit slow-moving, tribute to a great twentieth century work of great literature. If you have not seen it yet, go see it. It is worth it.

Stars: *** ½ out of *****