Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Top Ten Films of 2016

Top ten lists are, of course, silly things. A year or two from now, I may look at films on this list and realize I haven’t given them another thought. There may films I haven’t seen from this year that will become favorites, or films I saw, like Zootopia or Kubo and the Two Strings, that I’ll think I should have found a place for. But I love reading these lists, so I might as well go on making them myself.

10) Captain America: Civil War This film really makes the list because of one scene. The whole film is fun, but the scene where Tony Stark meets Peter Parker captures the character of Spiderman better than even the first, very good, Sam Rami films (I & II, not III).

9) The Witch This is a very odd horror film about, not surprisingly, witches. It is set in 17th century New England in the days of the witch trials, but the conceit is that the witches are real. Much of the dialogue for the film is taken from the transcripts of the Salem witch trials, adding a depth of realism.

8) The Lobster The last film was odd. This film manages to be even more odd. In the future, single people must find a mate or be turned into an animal. Yes, turned into an animal, of their choice. Colin Farrell has decided that if he doesn’t find a woman to love, he will be a lobster. It’s in the tradition of the avantgarde works of the 1960’s, but writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t take it all too seriously.

7) Captain Fantastic Viggo Mortensen gives a great performance as a hippie, homeschooling father of six who must deal with the death of his wife and with in-laws who want a very different life for their grandchildren.

6) Hell or High Water Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Texas bank robbers who might be folk heroes if they had lived in the old west or days of the depression rather than the present day. Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger who seeks to bring them to justice.

5) Hunt for the Wilderpeople Last year, a film from New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi made my top ten (What We Do In the Shadows), and he makes it again with a whimsical story of a foster child taken in by an elderly couple at the edge of the wilderness.

4) Love and Friendship Whit Stillman is one of my favorite screenwriters. He is very witty, and he usually directs his own story. For this film, though, he decided to adapt someone else’s work. He managed to find someone else with an equal, perhaps superior wit: Jane Austen. Stillman turns Austen’s unfinished novel, Lady Susan, into a very complete film.

3) Hail Caesar Joel and Ethan Coen tell a story of old Hollywood blending Biblical epics with Communist plots (the communists are as real in this film as the witches are in The Witch). This is one of the Coens’ “funny” films, more in the vein of The Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading than serious films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. The critics didn’t regard this film as highly as most from the Coens, but I liked it very much and thought it had some interesting things to say about faith.

2) Hacksaw Ridge Mel Gibson tends to make brutal films, and this is not an exception. But it is a powerful true story of a pacifist, Desmond Doss, who nonetheless desired to serve as a battle medic in World War II. I saw a number of Christian films this year, most of them not very good, but this story of a Christian man was excellent.

1) Sing Street  A number of people put the film La La Land at the top of their favorites for the year. It is a good film, an entertaining musical, but it’s not my favorite musical of the year. This film from John Carney, the creator of Once, is an autobiographical tale of his life in Ireland in the 1980’s. A young man in a Catholic high school tries to impress a girl by asking her to appear in his band’s music video. Though, in fact, he doesn’t have a band. But he forms one, which leads to a hope to build a new life. Mindy and I watched this film in the midst of our year long journey of touring the country and found in the film a kindred sense and appreciation of adventure. We’ve watched it twice, and I think we’ll almost certainly watch it many times again.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Films Viewed in 2016

In theaters or through streaming services:

Kung Fu Panda - Theater*
Hail Caesar - Theater***
Race - Theater**
Zootopia - Theater***
Miracles from Heaven - Theater*
Risen - Theater*
God's Not Dead 2 - Theater*
Love and Friendship - Theater***
The Jungle Book - Theater*
My Name is Doris - Theater*
Captain America 3: Civil War- Theater***
Sing Street - Theater***
The Family Fang- Theater**
The Nice Guys - Theater***
The Man Who Knew Infinity - Theater**
The Meddler - Theater***
Central Intelligence - Theater**
Finding Dory - Theater***
Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Theater***
Star Trek Beyond - Theater (IMAX)**
Ghostbusters - Theater*

Cafe Society - Theater*
Captain Fantastic - Theater***
Hell or High Water - Theater***
The Insanity of God - Theater*
Pete's Dragon - Drive-in*
The Secret Life of Pets - Drive-in*
Scout Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse - Hulu**
Don't Think Twice - Theater**
Sully - Theater***
Queen of Katwe - Theater**
The Witch - Amazon***
Miss Perigrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Theater***
Elvis and Nixon - Amazon**
Priceless - Theater**
I'm Not Ashamed - Theater**
Kubo and the Two Strings - Theater***
Hacksaw Ridge - Theater***
The Finest Hours - Netflix**
Eye in the Sky - Amazon**
Dr. Strange - Theater**
London Has Fallen - Netflix**
Arrival - Theater**

Moonlight - Theater***
The Confirmation - Netflix***
Moana - Theater**
Keanu - HBO***
Magnificent Seven - Theater**
The Lobster - Amazon***
Loving - Theater***
Midnight Special - HBO**
The Edge of Seventeen - Theater**
Rogue One - Theater**
La La Land - Theater***

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top Ten Films of 2015

10) "What We Do in the Shadow" Because I love the vampire/were wolf comedies.

9) "Antman" The Marvel Movie of the year (sorry, Avengers)

8) "Ex Machina" - My favorite Oscar Isaac film this year (sorry Star Wars)

7) "Bridge of Spies" - Sure, some of it was corny. But Spielberg and Hanks still bring some great moments.

6) The Martian - Funny and smart, about as good as the book.

5) "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" - Japanese film about a woman who believes "Fargo" was real (we've all been there)

4) "Mad Max: Fury Road" - Not as good as "The Road Warrior" but what is?

3) "Brooklyn" - A sweet love story (though the heroine isn't so sweet when you think about it)

2) "Spotlight" - An ugly story told as well as it could be told.

1) Inside Out - Once again, Pixar makes the best film for adults, for the kids.

Bottom Five Films for 2015

I'm sure there may have been worse films, happy to have dodged them, but here are the five worst films I saw last year.

5) "Blackhat" Michael Mann has made great movies. Thor as a computer hacker was not one of them.

4) "Do You Believe?" was a bad Christian film. But it was almost worth it to see Maddie Hayes married to the 6 Million Dollar Man.

3) "Taken 3" - I was all for Liam's daughter rescue the first time around. The audience felt taken this time around.

2) "Pixels" - Adam Sandler crushes your childhood dreams of video games coming to life. The Anti-"Wreck It Ralph".

1) "Woman in Gold" - The Holocaust used as way to save Ryan Reynolds' career.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My Top Ten Books of 2015

Favorite 2015 Nonfiction

You don't have to got much further than 'Black Lives Matter' to see the Civil War still matters.

Jesus said we should visit the prisoner. It's sometimes not an easy thing.

That other big boat sinking is also a fascinating story.

Orville and Wilber come across as two interesting men of integrity.

The main reason to read this is to laugh a lot. The other to be reminded that people you know are going through difficult things that they are afraid to share.

Favorite 2015 Fiction

You get Sherlock and Dr. Who stories in one place.

Non Fanny Brice, but an interesting story of the making of a sixties sitcom.

The TV show did not know how to end the story by Lindsay does. (As for that title...Spoilers!)

Is everyone on the train reading this? They have good reason to.

This book got hated on a lot. But as a quite imperfect father, I liked reading this part of Aticus Finch's story.

And why are these my top ten? I think the main reason is that these are the only ten things I read this year that were published in 2015.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Problem with Heroes

I'll admit to mixed emotions about the protests against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. I first read about the racism of the former president (of both Princeton and the United States) in junior high in a piece claiming he endorsed the film Birth of a Nation as being "History written in lightning." Though I subsequently learned that the quote is dubious, Wilson's favorable writings about the  Ku Klux Klan were not, nor was his work to promote segregation in the federal government and in the armed services.

Seeing a man formerly considered a hero of liberals and the Democratic Party torn from a podium of honor like communist statues after the after the fall of the Wall, as a Republican, has its appeal for me. But another part of me - the better part, I think - sees the foolishness of a cultural revolution to purify unpleasant history from our presence. I think a healthy perspective comes from my faith and knowledge of Scripture.

One of the great heroes of the Bible is Abraham, the great man of faith who followed the call of God to find the Promised Land. But the book of Genesis repeatedly presents embarrassing episodes of this great man denying his own wife in moments of cowardice. And his son, Isaac, did the same thing. And his son, Jacob, was a momma's boy and a swindler. Yet these men are honored as the founders of the nation of Israel.

Moses, writer of the first five books of the Bible, was God's agent in presenting the Law to the nation of Israel and, in turn, the world. But Scripture also records the unfortunate fact that he murdered a cruel overlord who was abusing a Hebrew slave. David, of course, murdered to cover his adultery.

Those of us who grew up with the Bible learned these stories from an early age. And yet, I don't remember any Sunday School protests. Never any occupations of the Christian Education building. Never any talk about throwing the Ten Commandments out of the Bible because the words were given by a killer or throwing out the Psalms because there were written by a philanderer who arranged the death of the man he cuckolded.

Those Bible stories prepared us to face the ugly truths of life that all men were imperfect and that noting on this Earth was pure. That's why, I think, we were able to accept that many of the Founding Fathers (Washington, Jefferson and Franklin among others) - who wrote so movingly about liberty - were slave owners. Just as Moses presented Laws he himself failed to follow, our country's Founding Fathers often failed to live up to their own ideals. They recognized their weakness, which led to such important concepts as the balance of powers.

How much better is to have, as an example, men and women who stove to do better, to proclaim virtue greater than they could themselves accomplish than to look for perfect heroes? We who believe in Original Sin are not surprised by the shortcomings of the cast of history.

There are a great many people in our history more worthy of respect than Woodrow Wilson but - for better or worse - he's an indispensable part of our nation's history and, specifically, of Princeton's. Past or present, none of our leaders has ever been perfect. But many of them served a God who is perfect and sought to honor ideals greater than themselves.

There is a place for evaluating the honors bestowed on figures of history. This should be done with thoughtfulness and humility. It should not be a temper tantrum. Someday, these campus protesters may come to realize they aren't perfect either.

(Thanks to Ricochet editors for the polishing.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

All the Fun the Actuaries Allow

In Young Life we routinely sent kids to the electric chair. It was called the Hot Seat. A chair hooked up a 6 volt battery. Some games were in a quiz format with kids getting zapped for a wrong answer. Sometimes the shock came as a surprise at the end of a skit for a kid or leader. (Campus Life actually can take the credit or blame for innovating this particular stunt.)

At Woodleaf (Young Life's camp in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains) during the fall retreats, fields were watered down, if they weren't already swamps of mud. Many years ice and frost covered the field. We then played a game called Wells Fargo. The campers were divided into two teams, the Cowboys and the Indians. Each leader and high school student got a piece of tape on the forehead that became the "scalp". One of the objects of the game (along with stealing gold from the other team's "bank") was to "scalp" as many members of the other team as one could. Girls could scalp guys, but guys couldn't scalp girls. So roving band of ten or twelve girls would target guys, often bringing down linebackers. After the game, muddy campers would jump in the chilly lake to clear off. (Do I need to mention that doctors visits after a round of Wells Fargo were not an infrequent occurrence?)

A game less likely to cause physical damage (though perhaps not free of psychological damage) used a sheet and lipstick as props. Three girls and three boys were chosen as volunteers. The same lipstick was applied to each of the girls who then went behind the sheet. Small holes in the sheet revealed three pairs of lips. Each boy was assigned a pair of lips. They were told to kiss the lips and guess which girl he had kissed. The boys didn't know that each had kissed his own mother who had been asked to sneak into club.
Young Life is an interdenominational Christian organization that uses camps and clubs as a means to form relationships with High School students (and Middle School students) and present them with the Gospel. The games and skits were tools.
In I Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul wrote, "Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible... I have become all things to all people so that by all means possible means I might save some." Young Life did a lot of crazy things to win kids over because it was the  motto of founder Jim Rayburn that "It's a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel."
Of course, this was all thirty years ago. Now the insurance companies and adult committees have reined in much of the insanity that was common place.
I did some fairly stupid things as a youth pastor. Once, the church had a piano that was well past its prime. So I let kids attack it with a sledgehammer. It did make the most amazing sounds but a kid could have gotten badly injured. Not to mention the time we did bowling at color TVs.
I'm older now and currently out of youth ministry. I'd be much more cautious these days because that happens with age. Professional Youth Ministry in Churches and Parachurches has been tamed.
But I can't say I don't miss the wildness.