Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Top Seven Films for 2009

Sorry, just can't do a top ten left. I saw more than ten movies this year, but there are a lot I've missed as well. All of these films received a theatrical release in 2009 and all but one I saw in the theater. Also, as with all such lists, we're really talking about favorites rather than best. A little historical perspective is needed for a best list. So, starting with my favorite:

1)A SERIOUS MAN - This film had a shot at the list just because it's by the Coen brothers. But last year's BURN BEFORE READING was much further down the list. This tale of a modern Job is pretty sparce on hope, but not on humor. It makes the need for the true Messiah abundantly clear.

2) UP - Again, this was a likely canidate going in, Pixar had not had a loser yet. But this film more heartfelt emotion than one would expect of a cartoon with a giant talking bird named Kevin. Director Pete Doctor captured the joy and heartbreak of a life long relationship in moments. Yeah, I cried, okay. And as a fan of the great art that is "Dogs Playing Poker" (in Jr. High, I had them on a t-shirt), I had to love the dogs in this film.

3) MOON - Mick LeSalle of the SF Chronicle had this on his ten worst films list. I'm a regurlar reader and regular disagreer with Mick. Sam Rockwell gave a (many) great performance(s) in this story of a moon miner who discovers himself (again and again) on a three year mission. A Twilight Zone episode (not a slight at all) that could carry the burden of being stretched another hour. (And is there a less comforting companion than a Kevin Spacey voiced robot?)

4) (500) DAYS OF SUMMER - Zooey Deschanel is cute as can be, of course, but she is required to play a bit of a cypher as the Sid in the film. (SID AND NANCY, see both films and you'll understand.) But Joseph Gordon-Livitt (yeah, the kid from 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN) carrys the film. With this and BRICK and THE LOOKOUT, I'm tempted to go to the theater to see anything he's in that doesn't have 'G.I.' or 'JOE' in the title. As the tag line says, this isn't a love story, but it is a great story about love (or the nature of romantic love.)

5) TAKEN - As Jonah Goldberg wrote, this is great 'Daddy porn'. We learn that the world, especially wives and daughters, would be better off if they would just listen to Dad. And when they don't, he'll go in and clean up the mess without even a "I told you so" because that's the kind of guy he is. Great action without noticable CGI.

6) DISTRICT 9 - Thoughtful science fiction about aliens stranded on Earth. Blatant, but not quite heavy handed references to apartheid (it's set in South Africa). Writer/director Neill Blomkamp obviously benifted from the assistance of producer Peter Jackson, but it's unique style is all his own. (Okay, it does steal abit from the BBC version of "The Office".)Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe is such a bureaucratic weasel that it takes time before you realize he a hero. (Not the hero, a distinction that belongs to a "prawn".)

7) ZOMBIELAND - I had to see this as I'm writing a zombie book. And it is good zombie fun. Very funny intentionally, with one of the great cameo apperances of all time. Woody Harellson is the most fun he has been since "Cheers". Difinitely in my list of top five alltime zombie films. A film that teaches the importance of following the rules as well as the necessity of breaking them.

So, that's my top seven. In a month or two, I might fill a top ten but listing what else would have made the list.

Some films I saw this year and enjoyed, but didn't seem list worthy: EXTRACT okay, but not as good as the better episodes of Mike Judge's "King of the Hill"), STAR TREK (fun, but the plot didn't really hold together and I hated Spock's follow your heart speech at the end), PUBLIC ENEMIES, SHERLOCK HOLMES (worth seeing for Robert Downey, Jr.)

But these are some films I haven't seen that I think might round out the top ten: CORALINE, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, THE HURT LOCKER, UP IN THE AIR, BRIGHT STAR, SUNSHINE CLEANING and PRECIOUS. (I haven't seen AVATAR, but from what I've read about it, I can't imagine I'd put what of the most technilogically advanced movies of all time that harangs about the evils of technology on my list. I don't think I'll be able to overcome the tag "Dances with Smurfs" that some wag gave it.)

So to the imaginary readers of this blog (if you're real, let me know), Happy New Year!

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's Not a New Story

“Bad artists copy…Great artists steal,” Picasso is alleged to have said. It’s a fun exercise to look for the story roots of many films in order to see where the theft occurred.
The Lion King, the popular Disney animated film and Broadway musical, is obviously not a wholly original story. The basic tale of a prince who contemplates revenge for his father’s death at the hand of his uncle is not a story that originated in the Magic Kingdom. It was told long ago under the name of “Hamlet”.
Clueless may have seemed like a dozen other teen comedies but it was actually a rather faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma”.
Joel and Ethan Coen, the Academy Award winning film making team, love to play games with the sources of their film. Fargo opens with a grim title card stating that the story you are about to see is true, with only the names changed to protect the innocent, in the great tradition of “Dragnet”. Which is all hogwash: the tale of kidnapping and murder was completely fictional, as the brothers cheerfully admitted in later interviews.
The Coens convinced the Motion Picture Academy that the screenplay for their comedy O Brother Where Art Thou? should be nominated in the Adapted rather than the Original screenplay category. They claimed it was a retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey”. But the similarities between the two works are amusingly meager.
The Coen’s latest film, A Serious Man, makes no claim to be from any particular source in the credits. But it seems to be quite obviously based on the Biblical book of Job.
The film tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhbarg), a college physics teacher living in 1967 Minnesota. He soon finds himself engulfed in a series of mini-catastrophes. Admittedly, the trials he faces are nothing compared to those faced by Job. Job suffered the loss of his property, his servants, his livestock and most horrendous of all, his seven sons and three daughters.
Larry’s sufferings are a little more pedestrian. He suffers harassment from a student who tries to bribe him and then threatens a law suit. His children steal from him and treat him with little respect. His wife wants a divorce and forces him to move into a seedy motel down the road. And Larry is assaulted by the unending phone calls of the bureaucracy of the Columbia Record Company insisting he pay for albums he never requested.
Job was called, even by God, a righteous man. Larry is at best, the serious man of the title, striving to live up to the responsibilities and obligations of a husband, father and teacher.
Like Job, Larry believes that God is ultimately responsible for any trials he faces in life. Job had three friends who ministered to him (or plagued him, depending on how you look at it) and tried to explain God’s ways to Job. Larry seeks help from his synagogue’s three rabbis. Their help is rather comparable to the help Job receives from his friends.
On one of these visits to a rabbi, Larry asks, “Why does He allow us to wonder about the whys of life if He never intends to answer?” The rabbi has no answer.
I think we all share in Larry’s frustration. We somehow think that the minor and major sufferings in life would somehow be more bearable if someone would just explain to us why these things happen. If there was a reason, laid out clearly to us and perhaps allowing for a little of our input, then we could happily deal with everything life throws our way.
But it just won’t happen. It didn’t happen for Job and it won’t happen for us.
We do have something that Larry doesn’t appear to have. We have something that Job didn’t fully understand. Job longed for a mediator between God and man.
We know that Jesus came to be a mediator and that He experienced life as we experience it. Therefore, we may still not understand suffering in life, but we know we have a God that experienced it as we do, and He understands it. It may not be all we want. But it’s enough.

A Serious Man is rated R for strong language, sexual situations and nudity.
The Lion King is rated G, but has some strong themes and images that might disturb the very young
Clueless is rated PG-13 for language and sexual suggestion
Fargo is rated R for violence, language and sexual situations
O Brother Where Art Thou? is rated PG-13 for language and comic violence

Thursday, October 15, 2009

500 Days of Summer

“She’s better than my dream girl. She’s real.”
That is my favorite line from a film filled with a lot of clever dialogue, (500) Days of Summer. It’s spoken by Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler) to an unseen interviewer when asked about his long time relationship with his girl friend. He first goes into a long list of the ideal qualities of his Perfect Woman. But then acknowledges he prefers reality.
It’s a key point in this film, which, as its tag line says, “is not a love story. This is a story about love.” Or as the other tag line says, “Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.” The film chronicles the 500 days of a young man named Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in his pursuit of a girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Those days are not presented in chronological order, which is one of many stylized features of this clever comedy.
Tom believes in true love, and Summer scoffs at the idea. He believes there is one perfect girl that he will find and then all of life will fit together. Summer is just looking for a good time. Tom becomes convinced that Summer is his perfect girl and that they are meant for each other. Throughout the film, Tom tries to convince Summer he is right.
The thing I loved about this film is that it skewers many of our society’s false ideas about love and romance.
Tom believes in a love at first sight, that one can trust one’s feelings to know one’s life partner. While it is true that initial attraction can lead to something more, immediate attraction (the pull of hormones) isn’t necessarily trustworthy. God’s wisdom leads us to rely not just on our feelings, but also our minds and His Spirit for direction in such important decisions in our lives.
Summer believes there is no such thing as love. She observed the loveless marriage and subsequent divorce of her parents, and doesn’t believe that people really can care for more than their own needs and desires. Sadly, many in our society have come to believe that narcissism is the only real option for life. Summer learns from her relationship with Tom that there may be something more.
The couple enters into a sexual relationship quite early in their relationship. Our culture claims that this is no big deal, but the film shows that a sexual relationship without commitment has serious consequences. Inevitably, one person will believe such a step means more than the other. Seeing the pain this causes Tom reminds us that God did not call us to wait until marriage for sex because He is a killjoy. Sex was made for the context of safety found in a committed, exclusive relationship.
Sorry about being a little slow here. (500) Days of Summer came out in the summer but I just got to it a couple of weeks ago. But the movie has hung on in the theaters for months, having gathered a bit a cult following. It’s listed, as I write this, at #197 of the top 250 films of all time at IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base… remember though, this list is voted on chiefly by young computer geeks). Its following comes from solid performances, a smart script by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber and innovative direction from Marc Webb.
But I appreciated it most for showing what love is not. We, fortunately, can go to God and His Word to find out what it is.
(500) Days of Summer is rated PG-13 for language and sexual situations. It is scheduled for a Blu-Ray DVD release December 22.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Another Blog

If you've stumbled across this for what I write about movies, you might be interested in another blog of mine:

Monday, October 5, 2009

New Oncourse Article on Kayne West

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Different Take On 'I Read the Book'

Have you ever been talking to friends about the blockbuster hitting the screens the coming weekend or discussing a recent Netflix pick and have someone say, “Well, I read the book” or “The book was so much better.” Fair or not, I often detect a snobbish air to the phrase, as if the person really said, “You may think you know the story, but I immersed myself in the tale page after page, and you really haven’t experienced it.
Well, I don’t care if you consider me an intellectual snob, but there is a movie based on a book coming out. By the time you read this, it’s been released, but as I’m writing, it hasn’t been yet. And yes, I’ve read the book.
It’s called “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” (written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett). I used to read it to my kids all the time. You may have read it yourself. It’s the story of the town called Chewandswallow where the weather was quite unusual. When the sky opened in a storm, water didn’t come down in different forms, food came down in different forms.
The people of the town were never without their knives and forks because their food would come out of the skies for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The morning might start with a drizzle of orange juice and bagels followed by sandwiches with apple slices, and the evening might bring, yes, the meatballs of the title along with spaghetti noodles.
Children love the book, as do the adults who read it to them. It’s a wonderful fantasy to think of food being so accessible and plentiful. Who but the most weight- conscious among as wouldn’t like a marshmallow snowstorm?
Why doesn’t God work the world this way?
An amazing thing is, He has done things very much like this at times.
If you read Exodus 16 about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, you’ll see that God provided food in an amazing way. When the dew dried in the morning, the people found manna, a kind of bread, on the ground. And in the evening, quail would gather for easy capture and cooking.
So why doesn’t God do this all the time? The story of the Israelites gives a clue: they soon begin to complain about their free lunch (or breakfast & dinner more properly). We often don’t appreciate what is given to us.
Before work was placed under a curse in Genesis 3, Adam was to work in the garden and care for the plants and gather his fruit.
In First Thessalonians we are told to make it our ambition to lead a quiet life and work with our hands (4:11) and respect those who work hard (5:12). Yes, the Lord’s prayer encourages us to pray for our daily bread, but that doesn’t mean we sit on our hands and wait for God to bake it.
As it turns out, even in the city of Chewandswallow, the storms of food get to be too much, and the people must build boats of stale bread to sail to a new land where people work for their food.
Yes, we begin life without working too much for our food, just sucking the milk in. And you may well have someone cooking for you now. But God always intended for the labor to be part of the joy in eating.
We partner with God to make His blessing come to earth. Working with Him shouldn’t make us less thankful, but more so.
(The movie “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is rated PG for language that was not in the book, and it didn’t have the nutty scientist or monkey I saw in the trailer. But I’m never one to complain about adding monkeys.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I was going to write a full review of "Becket" with Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole but it just didn't flow. But I must say, it is worth seeing. If just for the scene where Burton as Becket gives away all his material goods to the poor and says it's like a holiday. He wishes he had something that he could give away that would feel like a sacrifice, but it's all joy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In Honor of 9 opening on 9/9/9

The feature film '9' opens today which is nominated on an Oscar nominated animated short subject. I reviewed it, along with the other nominated shorts that year back in 2006.

Hidden Art
By Dean Anderson
The day before the Academy Awards this year, I decided to see all the movies nominated for Best Picture in one day.
Admittedly, it probably would have been a bit more of a challenge if I’d tried to see all the films nominated for best feature film… I saw the films nominated for Best Animated Short Picture, and the challenge, was not so much. The Rialto Theater had them all playing together on one program with a bonus short.
Now let me make it clear that Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry (former Oscar winners) were nowhere to be seen. In fact, there was a warning that these films were for mature audiences only. In retrospect, I found the warning odd, since there was not any extremely offensive material. But many still think of animation as being just for kids, and the theater’s management must have wanted to avoid filling the theater with kids who would be in danger of being bored and perplexed. (Though Jasper Morello did have some violent images and The Moon and the Son has, what they call, language.)
The first short, The Fan and the Flower, was not nominated for an Oscar, but was animated by Bill Plympton, a big name in modern animation (What? You’ve never heard of him?). It tells the story of the love between a potted plant and a ceiling fan. Now that might sound bizarre, but… No, it’s bizarre. But also quite touching. And a wonderful tale of sacrifice.
The Mysterious Geographic Exploration of Jasper Morello, animated by Anthony Lucas, is an adventure story that uses Jules Verne imagery of flying ships in a world of the clouds and morphs into a horror story that rips off Alien. It went on too long, and just kind of ends, but its look is unique and rather beautiful.
I can’t fairly judge the short, Badgered, (by Sharon Colman) because I don’t think the theater had a good print. Many times it was hard to see the picture on the screen. It features a badger (no surprise) that just wants to nap, but is disturbed first by two crows and eventually a nuclear missile silo. It was cute, but no great shakes.
9 is a very strange apocalyptic tale of a burlap rag doll that battles a mutated cat skeleton. Yes, I know you’re saying I’ve seen that story a million times, but it is well done. And the rights to this work by Shane Acker have been purchased by Tim Burton (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands) to make it into a feature film.
Many of you will soon see the nominee, One Man Band, because it was created by Andrew Jimenez and Mark Andrews of Pixar, and because it will be featured this summer with the Pixar/Disney releases Cars. It was certainly had the best production values of any of the shorts -- it looked fantastic, with detailed backgrounds and winning characterization. It is the story of two competing one man bands that try to win the heart (and coin) of the one little girl that comprised their audience. It is very funny and has a nice message about pride and greed.
But I didn’t think it was the best film. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences favored the same short I did, The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation by John Canemaker and Peggy Stern. If you think of animation solely in the terms of Disney fairy tales and cats chasing mice, this is far from that. Canemaker uses not only animation, but also home movies and photos to have an imagined conversation with his now dead father. The son uses the film to have a conversation with departed father that is equal parts reconciliation and revenge.
The film wrestles with the issue of the desire for parental approval, even after we come to see the faults of our parents. It is a painful story; the father was abusive and even had mob ties. But the father also had some redeeming qualities that the son learns about belatedly. It maybe a better film than any of the films nominated for best feature film.
And yet most people won’t see it. But after receiving its Oscar, more people will see The Moon and the Son: an Imagined Conversation than The Fan and the Flower -- a very nice little film. It makes me think of all the little films that didn’t make the cut for Academy Award nominees, so even fewer people will see them. Let alone pay to see them.
Which made me think of all the stories written in notebooks -- paintings in attics--songs only whistled -- that will be known only by their creators. Come to think of it, how many people get to see the wood work of Bill Bean? (Not enough, I tell you.)
But if the only reason art was created was to make money and win awards, most art would be a failed enterprise. (After all, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, and Joseph Conrad were all rejected by the Nobel Committee of Literature.)
But if art is made in the reflection of the Creator, well that’s a different matter altogether. After all, many come and applaud His Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. But think of all the tiny wild flowers and spider webs that He is also responsible for that will never be seen be human eyes.
So if God has given you creative gifts, whether in animation or writing or cooking, practice them with joy. God will reward you, and He is always happy to hear your acceptance speech.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Article at On Course

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Good Enough for the Kids?

Have you ever heard anyone say, “It’s not very good, but I think kids will like it”? It might be a book, a play, a TV show or a movie. Perhaps you’ve said it. Because, you know, the kids haven’t seen Citizen Kane, so they’ll be satisfied with Prince Puppy Pooper V. As long as there are bright colors and loud sounds, they’ll like it, right?
Kids’ entertainment is assumed to be a few rungs down on the quality scale, and it’s assumed that those who produce entertainment for kids just couldn’t cut it in the world of “grown-up” entertainment.
I loved having those assumptions challenged as I read I’m Proud of You, Tim Madigan’s memoir of his friendship with Fred Rogers. Yes, that Fred Rogers. They call him “Mister Rogers”. Of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”.
Fred Rogers was not looking all his life to make it the world of show business. He didn’t dream of being a movie star but settled for the world of children’s television. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. One day he happened to see a children’s television program with a lot of noise and commotion and pie fights. He thought, “I can do better than that. And kids deserve better than that.”
He realized that parents entrust their children to television at times, and that this did not always have to be a bad thing. So he made a television show that addressed children as people worthy of respect who had unique challenges and opportunities ahead of them.
His program (which became a staple of public television) addressed everything from bedwetting and bedtimes to death and divorce. He addressed children’s real problems in the safe and calm world that was his neighborhood.
Watching Fred Rogers, it was easy to assume he was a simple man. Which he was -- but simple in the good and not the negative sense. His was a simplicity that came from integrity and honesty and not from being slow on the uptake.
In fact, Fred Rogers was well read and well traveled. He loved to read challenging works of theology by writers such as Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner and Thomas Merton. He was good friends with the pianist Van Cliburn, and he met prominent world leaders.
We have a problem in our society because we see so many of the qualities that are important as signs of weakness. Many of the qualities that characterized Fred Rogers the man and his program (gentleness, tranquility, kindness and a lack of cynicism) are perceived as out of step with the “real world” of us sophisticated adults. But these are some of the very qualities that typified the life of Christ and that we are called to emulate.
In our entertainment and conversation, we too often value a knowing snarkiness that proves we aren’t vulnerable. It doesn’t take long for that cynicism to sneak into the entertainment and the lives of our kids. And our kids lose out because of this.
In the book, Madigan talks about how difficult it was to talk to Fred Rogers when he was considering divorcing his wife. How could one talk to Mister Rogers about such a thing? But Fred Rogers reached out to Madigan with compassion. And he expressed gratitude to Madigan for being willing to share his pain with him.
Madigan said that he didn’t want to sound sacrilegious, but he felt that when Fred Rogers cared for him, it was like Jesus was there. Which is, of course, how it should be when we care for others as well. Jesus took time to give children his best (Matthew 19:14).
(Though Fred Rogers is no longer with us, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” reruns still play on public television. And for a quality movie for kids about the life of Jesus, consider the animated film, The Miracle Maker [2000].)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New article posted at On Course

Giving God Your Worst:

Why Root for the Bad Guy?

In middle of the gangster epic, Public Enemies, in a scene that takes place in a movie theater, a public service announcement warns that the dangerous criminal John Dillinger is on the loose and that he could even be in this very theater! On the screen, the lights of the movie theater come up and audience members are urged to look to their left and to their right to see if they can spot the infamous robber.
The heads of the audience all swivel to the left and then to the right. All except one. John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) continues to stare straight at the screen. It’s a great scene (though it owes more than a little the tennis scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train), but it made me wonder what makes audiences continue, through the decades, to watch gangsters on the screen.
Back in the early sound era, gangsters were a sensation. James Cagney’s The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar both premiered in 1931 to public and critical acclaim but gained the ire of the censors. In fact, these films helped the Hayes rating board come about. For decades, violence would be muted.
But come the sixties, the Hayes board’s grip on the studios began to slip, and the ratings system of ‘G’, ‘M’, ‘R’ and ‘X’ rated films came into being. The letters would change, but there was a new freedom to again portray the violent world of gangsters. Audiences and even many critics were shocked by the violence of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and The Godfather (1972) would take the crown of all time moneymaker (bypassing Gone With the Wind and itself surpassed by Star Wars).
And gangster films continue to be made. So why are hundreds of films made about this unsavory profession while many, many fewer films are made about, say, architects or librarians?
Why do people go to see films about violent lawbreakers?
There are reasons to see this particular film.
Among the more superficial reasons to see this film are the art and costume design. Those trench coats, fedoras and black sedans are just plain cool. The movie seems to get many of the details of 1930’s right (though a radio broadcast in the background of a Cubs/Yankees game is just silly; there was no inter-league play in those days).
And Christian Bale as G-Man Melvin Purvis and Johnny Depp as John Dillinger are true movie stars, fun to watch. (In the midst of the film, we see clips from the 1934 gangster flick, Manhattan Melodrama, with Clark Gable and William Powell. And it says something that Bale and Depp hold their own against these great stars of yesteryear.)
The direction is sharp, as is much of the writing. (In one scene, Purvis and Dillinger meet, and Dillinger correctly assumes that the war on crime is keeping Purvis up at night. Purvis asks Dillinger what keeps him up at night. Dillinger’s simple reply is, “Coffee.”)
So yes, Public Enemies is a good example of a gangster film. But why do people enjoy gangster films at all?
I’m afraid one reason is the violence. The sin nature of people leads us to desire simple solutions. Instead of dealing patiently with a rude person, wouldn’t we like simply to put the person in his place with the sight of a gun or a quick slap to the face? But Proverbs 3:31 says, “Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways.”
A slightly more wholesome attraction of the gangster film is it seems like an answer to powerlessness. During the Great Depression, it seemed like there was no way out of the trap of poverty that engulfed the nation. But the advent of fast cars and machine guns allowed some to take their fate into their own hands, and Pretty Boy Floyd,
Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger became heroes to many in the nation who felt victimized by the banks. Some still feel affection for a robber that steals from the banks but “lets the little guy keep his own money.”
But the crimes they committed were not, of course, victimless. The banks would pass the cost of the robberies on to customers, and many innocent people were killed during the commission of the crimes.
I think another reason people like gangster films is because, compared to these guys, we feel like we’re not so bad. But Romans 3:10 says that there is not one just. We may not feel like we are as bad as a murderer. Matthew 5:22 says if we are angry with a brother or sister, we are guilty of murder.
Maybe a good thing about these films is the reminder that the consequences of sin are deadly and sure. And we do need to control our desires or they will lead to our destruction.
So, yeah, I like gangster films. But I try to root for the side of the law rather than the side of lawlessness. So here are five other gangster films I’ve enjoyed (and you can blame my sinful nature):
1) Scarface (1932) - . Paul Muni plays TonCamonte (fifty one years later Al Pacino would play Tony Montana in a film with the same name) in this Howard Hawks directed film. This film does not make the life of crime attractive; Muni plays the role as an apeman. Look for Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff as a rival gangster. (Made before the ratings system)
2) The Roaring Twenties (1939) – Cagney and Bogart. You can’t ask for more than that. (No rating)
3) White Heat (1949) – James Cagney again, playing a madman. Perhaps a lot closer to what the bank robbers of the 30’s were really like than Depp’s smooth and charming Dillinger. (No rating.)
4) The Godfather (1972) – Critics have consistently called this one of the top films of all time. Marlon Brando won the Oscar, but the film is full of great performances by Robert Duvall, James Caan, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton…well, just about everyone, including the horse. (Rated R for violence, nudity, language)
5) Miller’s Crossing (1990) – Joel and Ethan Coen delivered another of their many great films. Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne give great performances. At the heart of this film is the question, do loyalty and faithfulness matter in a corrupt world? (Rated R for violence and language)
Public Enemies is rated R for violence, language and sensuality.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

For Crying "Up" Loud

Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Disney/Pixar’s “Up” is the best reviewed film so far in 2009 for good reason: it is the best film that has come out this year. An animated film, it truly is “fun for the whole family”. (Often when you see “fftwf”, it means the parents are to get some fun out of watching their kids laugh at pratfalls and poop jokes. It this film, there are characters that people of every age [except maybe preschoolers] can relate to and find appealing and humor for sophisticated and innocent tastes.)
So, we’ve established this much: “Up” is a worthy film, and if you go to the theater to see movies, then you should go to this one. If you watch films on DVD, you should put this on the list of films to rent or buy. And if you don’t like it, don’t blame me, blame 98% of the critics at
I just want to write something about people watching the film. Shortly after the film came out, I talked to a high school girl about her viewing experience (I’d rather not use your name, Hannah Wycoff, because I wouldn’t want to embarrass you). She noticed a man in her row in the theater began sobbing during a portion of the film. She was baffled because she thought the film was funny throughout. Why was this guy crying?
All right, I’ll admit it. I got misty eyed watching this film. The story of Carl Fredricksen, a 78 year old widower, has a dominant theme of loss: loss of possessions, loved ones and dreams. And it got to me. So here is a question: why do people watch the same film and some cry, while others just laugh or stare like robot automatons?
Obviously, we approach a film with different life experiences. If you come to the film “Up” with loss in your life experience, it may touch you in a different way than those who haven’t experienced loss. Or perhaps the difference in reactions can be accounted for in peoples varied imaginations or emotional make-up or levels of empathy.
Some of it is just a mystery. Art has a way of creeping around our emotional defenses. A simple painting of the sea side can touch some unexpressed inner longing of the heart. A symphonic movement can make us laugh with joy just as a piece of chamber music can make us suddenly somber, and we may have a very difficult time explaining either reaction. The human heart, mind and spirit are complex entities, and we often can’t account for our own responses.
I find these same mysteries come to play in worship. Our reactions to the hymns, choruses, sermons, testimonies and readings can be unpredictable. The same service that bores one person changes the life of another person. That’s all right. Every congregation is an eclectic group of saints and sinners and combinations of the two. So God will work in every person in very different ways (if we allow him to work).
Romans 8:26 tells us that the Spirit of God works in ways that we cannot understand, crying out to God on our behalf for our great and real needs that we sometimes don’t even realize we have. It’s good to know that though we don’t always understand why we cry or why we laugh, why we feel elation or despair, God does. He not only understands our very real needs, He is ready to meet them.
(Addendum: 5 Films That Make Me Cry
I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I get a little weepy watching certain movies. For a great scene about cinematic weeping, watch “Sleepless in Seattle” in which the women talk about crying during “An Affair to Remember” and the guys respond by talking about tears during “The Dirty Dozen”. This is a chick flick, of course, so women can watch the whole film and men can use chapter selection to get to this one great scene. For some reason, I am more likely to get teary at joyful moments than sorrowful ones. Anyway, here’s my top five:
1) “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) The end is what gets me, when we find that George Bailey is the richest man in town.
2) “Henry V” (1989) When Henry gives the speech before the Battle of Agincourt (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”). That guy Shakespeare wasn’t too shabby a writer. [Rated PG-13 for violence]
3) “Field of Dreams” (1989) Sure, it’s about baseball. But it’s really about bringing together fathers and sons. But I repeat myself.
4) “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) Or just about any film that recreates the crucifixion of Jesus. [Rated R for violence]
5) “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” (1993) Okay, this one is kind of embarrassing. But I used to watch the video of this a lot with my kids, and every time I see Shadow, the old dog thought dead, come over that hill, and the music swells, I just… well…um…sniff…I think we’re done here)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pixar Rankings

With Pixar’s 10th feature film opening tomorrow (Up) I thought I’d rank the nine others. The nice thing about making such a list, is all the films are favorites. Pixar has yet to make a bad film. They average great, but the range is good to masterpiece.

9) Cars – This is the worst Pixar feature film IMHO. Which is like saying this is the list crisp $100 bill in the stack. I love the voice of Paul Newman in the film and Click and Clack. The end segment is awesome with the critique of the film from Pixar’s good luck charm, Cliff from Cheers.
But the story of a race car that learns to be humble is at times a bit sappy and the film drags (not in the speedy drag race way) for me.

8) Ratatouille – Yeah, it may be one of the five best films made the year it came out, but that isn’t good enough for top ranking on this list. I love the message of exceptionalism in the film, but I think Brad Bird works the theme even better on another film on this list. Very well developed action sequences, but it doesn’t have the emotional punch some of the other films have.

7) Monster’s Inc – I love monster movies. And this is one of the great one. Sure, the monsters prove to be lovable old fuzzballs, but wasn’t King Kong as well? And Frankenstein’s Monster? And the Wolfman? And Hanibal Lector? (Um…Scratch the last one.)
John Goodman and Billy Crystal do great voice work in this film, but they may be out acted by the Pixar kid who voices Boo.

6) A Bug’s Life – Many people consider this the least of the Pixar films, but I’m a sucker for the team recruited for a mission films (Seven Samurai, Magnificent Seven ) and the variation on the theme of incompetents on a mission (Three Amigos, Galaxy Quest) which this film is. Plus, Dave from News Radio has had very few opportunities to star in major motion pictures.

5) Toy Story – The first Pixar feature is a masterpiece. The rest of the films on this list are masterpieces. Who but Hitchcock, Kurosawa and a few others do the kind of work these Pixar folks have achieved? Of course, here they had the help of Joss Whedon, the great creator of Buffy and Firefly.
Anyway, this film touches on themes of identity and loss in ways that are funny and emotionally devastating at the same time. Some of the best work Tom Hanks has done (which is really saying something) and some of the best work Tim Allen has done (which is saying a lot less, Galaxy Quest excepted.)
Don Rickles in this rules.

4) Finding Nemo – Albert Brooks has done a couple of my favorite comedies (Lost in America & Modern Romance) but this is what he’ll be remembered for decades from now. Same with Ellen Degenerous who is hilarious and heartbreaking as Dori.
But as a dad, the best part is the way the film plays on the themes of protecting and releasing a child.

3) Toy Story II – Okay, we’re talking the rarest of the rare here. A sequel better than the original. We have this and Empire Strikes Back and um… No, the second Godfather is not better than the first. You’re just wrong about this. As funny as the original and even more poignant. Plus it adds a Republican with Kelsey Grammer as the Stinky Prospector. (Along with the ever present John Ratzenberger – the other conservative Cheers vet.)

2) Wall-E – My son thinks this is the best film, but he’s wrong. The first half hour, though is hard to beat. Up with the best slapstick of Keaton and Chaplin. Love the message against the Nanny State, but it’s the robot romance that really touches the heart.

1) The Incredibles – It just is the best. We’ll see how Up compares. But, come on, the best James Bond film in forever and it’s family friendly? How did they do that? The Spirit of the best comic ever, The Fantastic Four, as well? A great score, vocal work, art design, everything. So much better than that animated Mr. Incredible show that played on TV in the 60’s.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Boldly Going Where Bill Shatner Went Before

One out of every three children ages 6 to 11 is afraid the Earth won’t exist when he or she grows up. If I was to guess a single reason why “Star Trek”, the movie recreation of the forty year old TV show, is so popular, I’d guess it was because of the film’s optimism.
Chris Pine stars as the young, yet to be Captain, James Tiberius Kirk growing up hundreds of years from now in the state of Iowa where there the skies are still blue and the fields are still green. San Francisco has not been flooded by the rising oceans of global warming. Nations haven’t destroyed each other with nuclear weapons, but instead, in the world of Star Trek, not only are nations and ethnic groups no longer at war, but there is also peace with a variety of planets, races and civilizations.
There are many things to appreciate in the world of the new Star Trek. Exciting action sequences, some very funny lines and the warm relationship that develop between the characters (that are like family to many viewers): Dr. “Bones” McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekhov, Sulu and especially the half human/half alien, Spock.
Many people relate to the personal struggles of Spock. His Vulcan race insist that all decisions and actions should be made using reason and logic alone. In the film, we see the beginnings of his friendship with Jim Kirk, someone who bases his decisions often on feelings and instinct. Learning to balance the mind as portrayed through Spock and the heart as portrayed through Kirk is a constant struggle in all of our lives.
That balance reason and emotion is called wisdom. The book of Proverbs is all about the pursuit of wisdom in life. Proverbs 2: 1 & 2 says, “Store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding.” We need the balance between the teaching of Scripture for our minds and the prompting of God’s spirit in our hearts.
But back to that optimism in the world of Star Trek. So many science fiction films show a world without hope. In the world of the Terminator films and TV show atomic war destroys millions of lives and war is ongoing. In the world of “The Day After Tomorrow” and this summer’s “2012” ecological disaster looms to destroy us all. Let alone that coming zombie invasion.
In the world of Star Trek there is hope. There will be peace (well, except for those pesky Romulans). There will be prosperity; everyone’s needs will be met and everyone will have a job to do. And people get to fly in cool space ships. People love the thought of such a world.
But that’s just science fiction. The problems this world faces are real. Jesus said those troubles would come. Mark 13: 7 & 8 says “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines.” And He said that was just the beginning.
Scripture tells us this world will eventually come to an end. Hebrews 12:26 we have God promises as much, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also heavens.”
There will be a world of peace, hope and incredible riches. Revelation chapters 21 and 22 describe God’s new heaven and new earth. It will be greater than the optimistic world Gene Rodenberry imagined with the old Star Trek and even J. J. Abrams’ new Star Trek.

(The film is rated PG-13 and does include scenes of sensuality, violence and language.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hitchcock Films I Haven't Seen

Some of these first films might not even exist anymore:


NUMBER 13 (1922)
THE RING (1927)


MURDER! (1930)
MARY (1931)

War films


and finally

UNDER CAPRICORN (1949) with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten, the film I need to see most on this list.

So 41 films and 21 films I haven't seen.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hitchcock Films I've Seen: Day Eight, Last Day

Six films today, rather than five to finish it up.

THE BIRDS (1963) - This is the only film Hitchcock made that verges on the supernatural. The attack the birds (birds of all kinds) make on the human race is never explained. This is the closest thing he made to a monster movie. And for many people, this is all they think of when they think of Hitchcock. I grew up watching this film, it seemed to be shown more than any other Hitchcock film on TV. And it takes place in Bodega Bay, near my home town. We would go there when we went to the beach. I loved hearing them mention "Santa Rosa".
There are odd things about this film. Tippi Hedron seems stiff and her interactions with Rod Taylor do seem poorly written. But something about the artifice of the human relations make the bird attacks seem more real, more terrible. And almost as iconic as the cropduster scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST and the shower scene from PSYCHO, it the scene in the film of the birds gathering on the jungle gym.

MARNIE (1964) - I remember reading a Hitchcock book by Donald Spoto in which he argued that the awful rear projection in this film was intentional. Later, I read somewhere that he admitted he was being too defensive of Hitchcock and this was just a weak film. I'd have to agree with the latter accessment. Hitchcock's sexual perversity is quite strongly on display in this film. It's unpleasant but not very insightful. Sean Connery gives one of his worse performances in this film. Tippi Hendron was not great in THE BIRDS, but in the last scenes of that film she really comes through. She is out of her depth in this film. And the Freudian phychology, that might have seemed cutting edge in its time now seems dated and superficial.

TORN CURTAIN (1966) - Paul Newman was from the method school of acting, a school Hitchcock did not care for. It is said when asked by an actor for motivation, Hitch replied, "Your paycheck." Newman is not at his best in this film, and neither is Julie Andrews (she isn't ever given the opportunity that Doris Day was given to sing.) It is a weak effort by Hitchcock, but it does have some things worth watching. It is a cold war story in which the Commies are truly the bad guys. It has powerful scene in which Hitchcock tried to show how hard it is to kill a man. And there are other moments of geniune tension.

TOPAZ (1969) - This may well be Hitchcock's worst film (especially if you exclude all his silent work.) It is amazing that before THE BIRDS, Hitchcock made three straight masterpieces and this is the third bad film that Hitchcock made in a row. This film was forced on the director by Universal Studios, and Hitch reported this adaptation of a Leon Uris novel was his most unhappy effort.

FRENZY (1972) - Throughout most of his career, Hitch had to find was to weasel content around the censors. In this R rated film, Hitch did not need to restrain himself. He able to depict graphic violence and nudity. I think this often led to great creativity and ingenuity on Hitchcock's part. But this is still a very good serial killer film. I hear that Michael Caine had been asked to play the role of Barry Foster's role but Caine turned him down. It is one of those tantalizing could have beens.

FAMILY PLOT (1976) - Hitchcock's last film. And it is a good one. I'm glad he went out with a suspense comedy, which he made more often than pure horror films. A kidnapping film that pits flakey con men versus cold blooded killers. Karen Black, who I usually consider an inexplicable star of the 70's, was good in this film. And Bruce Dern is very good. And it has Coach from CHEERS. Soon,if anyone cares, I'll list the Hitchcock films I haven't seen.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hitchcock Films I've Seen: Day Seven

Okay, so I missed a day. Sue me.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) This is the remake I was talking about. Hitchcock remade one of his English suspence films with the advantages if a big studio budget, special effects and stars. Most any film is improved with Jimmy Stewart. And Doris Day, in spite of her reputation in some circles as a lightweight, proves herself again here as a very good dramatic actress. This is the film she introduced what became her theme song, "Que Sera Sera". Speaking of music, I believe this is Hitch's first film to use the great Bernard Herrmann (of "Citizen Kane" and the shreiks of the PSYCHO theme.) Herrmann is the conductor in the Albert Hall sequence of the film.

THE WRONG MAN (1956) - I'm watching this film as I write this. This film was made during an incredibly prolific time in Hitchcock's career. In this year and the two previous he made six films (including REAR WINDOW, a masterpiece). This is a very film good film, quite different from any other. It tells a true story of a man wrongly accused of a robbery. That man is played by Henry Fonda, his only performance in a Hitchcock film. It's not hard to spot Hitchcock in this film. He introduces the film, as himself.

VERITGO (1958) - This is one of Hitchcock's most critically acclaimed films (Total Film ranked this as the second best film of all time and #9 on the American Film Institute List.) But then again, this was not always one of Hitch's more popular films. It's kinda "arty". But James Stewart is very good as a police detectiove who thinks he is seeing a woman he thought he saw die. Kim Novak has had her critics, but I think she provides an earthiness that many of Hitch's blondes are lacking. And it is a great way to do sight seeing of the San Francisco of fifty years ago.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) - Maybe the most fun Hitchcock film, Cary Grant goes on a trip of nonsense. Howard Hawks said you only need three great scenes in a film and stuff to hold it together to make a great film. Okay, so you have the great drunk driving scene (with dated rear project effects, but Grant still makes it fun), the crop duster scene (maybe the greatest action scene of all time), the sexy dialouge with the incredible Eva Marie Saint, the very funny auction scene, the Mt. Rushmore chase, one great scene and sequence after another. It's tense and very funny. James Mason is rates with Claude Raines in NOTORIOUS as one of the all time great sauve villians. Yeah, it's worth seeing. Our family watched this on the van DVD player as we drove to Mr. Rushmore this summer. Oh, and my high school drama teacher, Mike Pryor, says he is the one who yelled in the U.N. scene ("He's got a knife!")

PSYCHO (1960) - Okay, this is like crazy. Hitchcock made three films in a row that are on the American Film Institute (this film is #14 and NBNW was #55.) There are a few streaks like that by other directors, but not many. And this set the templet for horror films for years to come. There are some that say the film owes much to Michael Powells's PEEPING TOM, which I saw recently, and PSYCHO is so much better than that film. I remember watching this film alone at home with the lights out and I nearly quit watching because I was so scared. Anthony Perkins gives one of the most scary and funny and iconic performances of all time here. One of the greatest plot twists of all time is in that shower scene. One of the greatest bits of editing ever is in that shower scene. This is simply the best horror film ever made.

Let's see if I get back to this list tomorrow.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hitchcock Films I've Seen: Day Six

Okay, so I didn't post yesterday because, um, it was Earth Day. Yeah, that's right. I saved the planet by not conserving enery and not posting yesterday. So if they is a Planet Earth existing as you read this, it's because I saved it by not posting yesterday. Or the day before. Because people who REALLY love the planet conserve energy on Earth Day Eve as well.

I CONFESS (1953) - This is a rather odd film that highlights the Catholicism of Hitchcock. The plot centers on a man who confesses a murder to a priest. But when the priest refuses to devulge the confession to the police, they suspect the priest of the murder. The weak link in the film is Montgomery Cliff, a great actor, but he does not give a great performance in this film. Rumor has it that Hitch didn't get along well with Method Actors who would want to discuss motivation and character backgrounds. It's said he had similar problems with Paul Newman in TORN CURTAIN. Anyway, the result is a merely average film.

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) - I would love to see this film some day in 3-D as it was originally meant to be presented. But by the time the film came out, that wave of 3-D was dying, so even at the time most saw the film in standard format. This is another adaptation of a stage play (as was ROPE which featured a different gimmick) but it works. Ray Milland turns in a solid slightly sinister performance and Grace Kelly is gorgeous and Robert Cummings is bland as ever. The oddest thing about the plot is it is kind of pro-adultry. The scissor murder scene is great and would have been cool in 3-D (seems to have influenced Kenneth Branaugh's "DEAD AGAIN".)

REAR WINDOW (1954) - Back to masterpiece territory with this Jimmy Stewart/Grace Kelly classic. Hitchcock again takes a limited area (a man's apartment and what he can see of other apartments from his window) and presents us with a full and rich world. We join Stewart in the vice of voyeurism, sharing the thrills and guilt. We follow the lives of several of Stewart's neighbors, including one who may be a killer. There are great moments of tension in the film as well as much black humor. A pre Perry Mason Raymond Burr turns in a wonderful dark and yet sympathatic performance.

TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) - This film seems to have been made just so people could gaze on Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and the French Riveria. Which isn't a bad reason to make a movie. The plot of finding the jewel theif usually takes a back seat to the romance in this film. Full of Freudian imagry (kissing disolves to fireworks, it was a new cliche, then) and double entrendres ("Do you perfer legs or breasts?" refering to chicken, of course) this is a slight, but fun film.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955) - Before there was WEEKEND AT BERNIES, there was TTWH about a corpse that keeps popping up in unexpected and inopportune place around a small New England town where every had a motive to kill Harry. It hasn't age terribly well, but it did open the door for more cinematic black humor. It features an early performance from the talented Shirley MacLaine.

Back tomorrow or sometime sone with a remake that is actually an improvement on the original.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hitchcock Films I've Seen: Day 5

NOTORIOUS (1946) - John Nolte, the editor at Big Hollywood, rates this as the best Hitchcock film. I wouldn't say that, but it probably edges into my top five. It would be hard to find a more charming screen couple than Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (Grant and Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THEIF would be competitors in the most beautiful screen couple) and this is the film where they have one of the longest kisses ever filmed.
But the person who makes the film for me is Claude Rains as the momma's boy in love with Bergman. Most lovable Nazi in screen history.
There is a very funny legion that the McGuffin (plot devise that motivates the players) being uranium caught the interest of the US government in the film as the Manhattan project was well under way.

THE PARADINE CASE (1947) - From one of the best of Hitchcock to one of his worst (at least in the 'modern' Hitch era.) Even Charles Laughton cannot overcome the drab performance by Gregory Peck and a dull murder trail plot.

ROPE (1948) - Hitchcock often like to experiment with different film technique and this was one of his experiments. A master of editing and quick cuts decided to make a film using only long, ten minute takes. (Ten minutes does not sound long, but watch an average tv show or movie and count the seconds between cuts and you will see that ten minutes is an eternity in film terms.) For this film (a retelling of the Leopold-Loeb murder) Hitchcock had a special set designed so that the camera could move freely without stopping to keep the viewer interested.
Jimmy Stewart makes his first of four Hitchcock appearances as a philosopher who plays with the ideas of Nietzsche, but doesn't want to consider the consequences of a world without God. Rumor has it Hitch wanted Grant for the role, instead he cast the man I consider Hitch's best leading man. Stewart gave simply maginficant performances for three directors (Hitchcock, Capra and Mann.)
This was also Hitchcock's first color film.

STAGE FRIGHT (1950) - An interesting performance by Marlene Deitrich does not save this muddled film. The film does feature the debut of Hitch's daughter Patricia (who turned in reliably good perfomances in her father's films). It also caused a bit of a stink with some viewers by breaking an assumed law of movies by lying in a flashback.

STANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) - This may well be my favorite Hitchcock film. Even with the dated minature work with the carasaul at the end of the film, it's just excellent. One of my favorite writers, Ramond Chandler of the Phillip Marlow mysteries, adapted a novel by the ever perverse Patricia Highsmith (of the Ripley novels) about stangers on a train (ah, the title) who meet and one suggusts exchanging murders.
Farley Granger gives a good performance (as he did in ROPE, but little else) and Pat Hitchcock is quite funny. But Robert Walker owns the film as the effeminate, vain, funny pyschopath, Anthony Bruno. There are many marvelous sequences in this film, but my favorite is a scene at a tennis match. The camera focuses on the crowd watching the match, all the heads bopping back and forth following he ball, but one face does not move as Walker glares at Granger.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hitchcock Films I've Seen: Day 4

SUSPICION (1941) - This is my least favorite of the four films Cary Grant made with Hitchcock. Apparently, in this story in which a wife (Joan Fontaine) is suspecious of her husband (Grant), there was much disagreement between Hitch and the about how bad of a guy the husband should be. This lack of clarity in the storytelling does hurt the film, but it is still entertaining. (Leo G. Carroll makes his second of six appearances in Hitchcock films. Perhaps more appearances of anyone beside Hitchcock?)

SABOTEUR (1942)- A rough draft for the far superior NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitch was reportedly very disappointed the studio forced Robert Cummings upon him. For as much as Hitchcock dispaged actors, he highly valued stars. He appeciated the shortcut that a Grant or Jimmy Stewart gave him in winning over audience sympathy allowing him to jump more quickly into the story. The Statue of Liberty makes a cameo and is replaced by Mt. Rushmore in NBNW.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) - Hitchcock sited this as his favorite of his films, and it's one of mine as well. Partly because it is filmed in my hometown of Santa Rosa, California and it allows me to see the city as it existed before I was born. I also love Joseph Cotton's performance as the kindly/evil Uncle Charlie. Teresa Wright is very good as well as the niece Charlie. (Wright had an amazing streak as a new actress - THE LITTLE FOXES, MRS. MINIVER and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and than this film. And she did THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES just a couple of years after this.)Thorton Wilder brought some OUR TOWN flavor to the screenplay.

LIFEBOAT (1944) - Hitchcock made some films for the war effort (which I haven't seen) before going on to make this film little experiment of a film. After working with Wilder, the director turned to John Steinbeck for this World War story about a group of Americans and Brits stranded at sea with a nasty German. Hitch wanted to see if he could make a film that all takes place on a single location and yet make it cinematic rather than stage like. Over all, he succeeded wonderfully. He even comes up with a clever use solution to make his cameo.

SPELLBOUND (1945) - Alright, let me admit upfront that I am not a big Gregory Peck fan. Yes, I like some of his films (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, ROMAN HOLIDAY), but there's just a smugness about the man that I find annoying. So for me, he is the weak link in this otherwise very fun film about a man who needs Ingrid Bergman's professional help to deal with his amnesia. The best thing about the film is the Freudian dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali (another example of Hitch looking to work with some of the most creative artists of his time.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Five Hitchcock Films I've Seen: Day 3

THE LADY VANISHES (1938) - It's a close call between this and THE 39 STEPS, but I consider this Hitchcock's first masterpiece. Dame May Whitty is wonderful as the little old lady who is more than she seems and I love the two English twits whose lives and conversations center around cricket (something about cricket that makes an obsesion about it more funny than if it was soccer or baseball, maybe it's words like "googly" and "mullygrubber".)
The 2005 Jodie Foster film FLIGHTPLAN stold quite brazenly for this film, but it was vastly inferior, even with the introduction of CGI and the switch from a train to a plane.

JAMAICA INN (1939) - A rather silly gothic melodrama set in an English seaside town. Based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel (as were two other Hitchcock films), this film does profit from the presense of the always entertaining Charles Laughton and an early performance by the beautiful Maureen O'Hara.

REBECCA (1940) - a far superior adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel, this was the only Hitch picture to win Best Picture Oscar (it also won for best cinematography). It did not win the Best Director Oscar, Hitchcock never won an Oscar for director and had to settle for one of those "Sorry, We've Screwed Up for Decades" Oscars.
Laurence Olivier and Joan Fotaine are very good, but Judith Anderson steals the show as the dictorial housekeeper.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) - This is a film that had special effects that were considered spectacular at the time that have not aged well. Still, there are some great set pieces, such as the windmill scene and the umbrella scene where in you can play the game "one of these things is not like the others."
And Edmund Gwenn is great in the film, with a performance that is a stark contrast to his Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street".

MR. & MRS. SMITH (1941) - A real departure for Hitchcock, a screwball comedy. I hear the reason that took the film was to work with Carole Lombard, a very reasonable basis for choosing a film. It's okay, but many of Hitch's suspense films have bigger laugh out loud moments (such as Cary Grant at the auction in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.)
The censors irratiated Hitch by censoring toilets in a scene, so he got his revenge with PYSCHO which featured a toilet bowl close-up.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Five Hitchcock Films I've Seen: Day 2

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) - Okay, now we start with the Hitchcock greatness. An innocent man caught up with evil forces by chance is a theme of most of the great Hitch films and this is the first film with that theme in good form. An average guy stumbles into an assasination plot and his family is threatened if he tries to help.
Plus, you have Peter Lorre. It's great fun to watch Lorre and great fun to try to mimic his voice.
This film would be remade by Hitchcock and both films are worthy efforts. An interesting change in the plot is that the wife (Jill played by Edna Best) is a expert with the rifle in this film and in the remake Doris Day is a singer. So the older film has the less stereotypical strenght for the heroine. Fun flick.

THE 39 STEPS (1935) - This film got Hitchcock noticed by critics as one of the greats. This film is on the best of lists and is in the Criterion catalouge. Again, innocent on the run and it works on the suspense and the comedy levels. It strays far from the John Buchan novel it is based on and easily surpasses it. Robert Dohan and Madaline Carroll are a great screen couple and you come to care for them.
Got to love the scenes with Mr. Memory.

SECRET AGENT (1936) - Madaline Carroll is back. Yeah! Peter Lorre is back! Super Yeah! And John Geilgud as well; so not a shabby task. Good film, by the snowy Alpine settings are extra phony looking.

SABOTAGE (1936) - Based on a Joseph Conrad novel, Hitch did a very contemporary Hollywood thing and changed the Socialists in the novel into generic terrorists. A weakness of Hitchcock is he often equates all the world powers and political forces. The villians always seem to have greed or lust as their motives rather than the political motives that do cause evil in the world.
A great thing in this film is it doesn't spare even children from danger, so the suspense it still there, even for a modern audience. And Oscar Homolka and Sylvia Syndey are both very good.

YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) - Okay, not great, very much in the vein of superior 39 STEPS. Worth seeing though, watch by the great crane shot that leads to the man with the blinking eyes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Just for the heck of it - Where to find Bill books

For whatever it's worth, here's links to my Bill the Warthog books:


Day by Day Through Hitchcock Films

Since in yesterdays post, I mentioned my goal to see all the Hitchcock films (at least the sound films), so I might as well post what I've seen here and what I still need to see. I'm going to start by going through the films I've seen and give a quick review. Five a day, starting with the earliest, and then I'll list what I haven't seen the day after I'm done with these.

This is an important film in Hitch's career because it is the first true horror/suspense film he made. It does have some rather striking visual images (such as the shot looking up through the floor as the lodger paces) but overall this reimagining of the Jack the Ripper story is rather dull.

This is a rather important film not only in Hitch's career but also in British film history. It is the first all talking film in British history. It began production as a silent film but then from the former colonies came the sensation of THE JAZZ SINGER and this was made into a talkie. But Hitch has yet to hit his stride and this film is still pretty dull. Another interesting aspect of this film is that the leading lady did, in fact, commit the murder she is blackmailed for (but the killing was in self defense of her virtue.) This film debuted on my birthday.

A really dull film about class warfare. I've seen it, but I barely remember it.

Okay, I admit it's a long time since I've seen this film (on public TV) and I don't really remember it. I know I can get this from the library, so I should.

This is where the Hitchcock films really start feeling like Hitchcock films. Strange conicidents lead strangers together to investigate a jewelry theif. Fun chase ends the film with obvious use of minatures.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easy Access to Hitchcock and Scripture

The first Hitchcock film I watched, I didn’t get to see all the way through. Torn Curtain with Paul Newman played on some network’s Movie of the Week, but I was sent to bed not very far in to the film. I eventually watched it on channel 7, which showed movies weekdays from 3:30 to 5 in the afternoon. Those afternoon movies were heavily edited for time and content, so I’m not sure how much of the movie I saw.
Channel 2 showed The Birds quite frequently. Often enough that I even began to look during the moments that my older brothers and sisters warned me were gory and gross. I don’t know if I was more interested in the avian carnage or the Bodega Bay location filming (I was excited every time my hometown of Santa Rosa was mentioned) but I watched whenever it aired.
In the seventies, I made a special effort to see the other Hitchcock film filmed locally, A Shadow of a Doubt. When I noticed this film was going to be playing on channel 44, I knew we couldn’t pick it up in Fulton with our rabbit ears, so I asked a friend in Wikiup, where they had cable, if I could watch the movie at her house. (She let me).
Sometime in high school I decided that I would see every Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Well, I didn’t actually figure I would see every Hitchcock film, because the silent films of Hitchcock never seemed to play on TV or at the revival theaters. So my hope was to see all of the Hitchcock “talkies”.
I read film books and biographies about Sir Alfred, learned how he started in a small English studio writing title cards for silent films. He met his wife, Alma, at the studio, the woman he remained with after he came to America and throughout his long career and life. I read about how he pioneered the genre of suspense. Hitch made a distinction between horror and suspense. If you film a family around a table and suddenly a bomb goes off, that is horror. If you film a bomb under a family’s table and show them going on with their meal, that is suspense.
I would scout the TV Guide. CBS had, for a time, screened a series of films including Rebecca, Notorious and The Paradine Case on Friday nights at 11:30, so I made a point of getting home from the football games and pizza to watch for the Master of Suspense.
Sometimes I would set the alarm for the middle of the night so I could get up at 3 in the morning to watch Stage Fright or Sabotage. The best times of all were when the revival movie theater in Petaluma would have a Hitch Double Feature such as Strangers on a Train with Suspicion -- and I’d be there.
I was making real headway on the list, but it still seemed like it I might never achieve the goal. For every North by Northwest that screened on TV frequently, there was a Mr. and Mrs. Smith that never seemed to screen anywhere.
Then something changed. The VCR came along. Initially, only a dozen or so films were available for the machines, and they were so expensive only the most dedicated of gadget collectors had them, but in a few years the machines got cheaper and the film catalogs grew.
Not only could I see Hitchcock films, I could own Psycho and Vertigo.
It’s a different world today. I stopped by the library and saw The Man Who Knew Too Much in their DVD collection. I could check it out and watch it at the time of my choosing in the next three weeks, instead of carving out the time a TV station programmer choose.
Those silent Hitchcock films I thought I would never see can be purchased at Amazon. (One collection of twenty early Hitchcock films is available for $7 at The online service Hulu has a number of Hitchcock films such as The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps available for immediate and free viewing.
It is a different world for the film viewer, with incredible opportunities. These amazing leaps in technology led me to think of the incredible leaps for the Bible reader.
One thousand years ago, the only Bible readers would be found in monasteries. The average Christian could not read Scripture. The average Christian probably could not read. They could, perhaps, hear Scripture when they attended Mass, if they lived close enough to a church that had at least portions of the Bible.
With the Reformation and the printing press, the world began to change. Men like John Hus were martyred for their efforts to translate the Bible from Latin into the common languages of the people. After hundreds of years, the Bible became more accessible. Many Christian homes had a Bible, perhaps the only book in their house.
And now, of course, the Bible is more accessible still. There are dozens of English translations. You can choose between translations that adhere closely to original language and idioms or versions that emphasize contemporary vernaculars.
You can listen to the Bible on your CD or MP3 player. You can look up Scripture online at such places as You can read Scripture on your Kindle or your iPhone.
Or you can just get a free Bible from the Gideons, still doing the work of getting Bibles in the hands of students and hotel guests.
We are blessed in a way that Christians of previous centuries could not imagine. We should not let this great gift go to waste. We should not neglect our access to the Word. We should use the advantages of technology and religious freedom to read God’s Word.
And then do something more. We need to learn it. Psalm 119:11 reads, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”
In these days when there are so many ways to access God’s Word, we cannot neglect the tool of memorization that has existed since the Word became flesh. It is still the most important tool.

Friday, March 20, 2009

About the film "Taken"

During the summer of one of my college years I got a phone call from the father of a friend of mine. He needed me to take on an emergency house-sitting assignment. I agreed to do so, and then asked for the story behind the request.Parents John and Marg had for the first time left their 18 year old daughter home alone as they went on vacation. It was Fair season in Sonoma County, and Janet (the daughter) went with a friend. At the Fair, the girls found what most teenage girls are looking for: cute guys. Janet invited her “new friends” to her house to play pool. A good time was had by all, and the guys invited Janet and her friend to meet them the next night at the Fair.
The next night, Janet couldn’t find the guys at the Fair. She returned home to find that her home had been robbed. She called her parents in a panic, then went to stay at a friend’s home. That’s when I was called to house-sit. Janet’s foolish choice to trust these strangers could have led to something very much worse.
In the film "Taken", a daughter’s choice to trust a cute guy does lead to much worse. On a trip to Paris with a friend, she is abducted by sex slave traders. The sex trade is a real problem, but I would think the cable news networks would be giving the Paris airports a little more air time if they were as dangerous as they are portrayed in this movie. But realism is not this film’s strong suit. It is a fantasy about a father who will do anything to save his daughter.
And it is a fantasy many Americans have been anxious to share. This low budget French production screened in Europea year ago and just hit American screens in January. With a fairly low wattage cast (no offense to Liam Neeson who played Oskar Schindler and Qui-Gon Jinn and is very credible in his role) the film is looking to make $150 million and has had a remarkable staying power in theaters.
I think much of its popularity is due to its playing out two fantasies (really two sides of the fantasy coin.) One side of the fantasy is for the parent. Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former government agent whose job kept him far from home, damaging his relationship with his daughter and ruining his marriage. His daughter thinks he is overprotective and worries too much. (When his daughter tells him he should worry less, he responds that is like telling water it should be less wet.) His daughter ignores his advice and goes to Europe with a friend. When she’s abducted, it’s up to her father to rescue her.
And if he can rescue her, she’ll see that her father was right, and she will finally appreciate him. Columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote a very funny review of this film in which he called it “Patriarchal Porn” -- not at all in the sexual sense, but rather that the film appeals to a parent’s basic protective instincts. As a father, he wrote that the film fulfills the parental fantasy of seeing a child realize that indeed, father does know best.
The other side of the fantasy is from the perspective of the child. (I did have a little difficulty seeing Maggie Grace as a “17 year old child” in the film, since I watched the actress play an older character in the first season of "Lost" a few years ago.)
Still, the fantasy of a Rescuing Father is a powerful one: the idea that no matter how dire the situation, there is someone who will stop at nothing to rescue you. And Neeson in the film will certainly stop at nothing. He breaks international law, risks his own life and quite ruthlessly takes others’ lives. At times, he makes "24"’s Jack Bauer seem rather effeminate. He will stop at nothing to save his daughter.
Don’t we wish someone cared for us like that?
At this time of Easter, we remember we do have someone like that. We’ve made stupid choices. We choose to sin, and sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). But Jesus entered the world, and He would stop at nothing to save us. But instead of taking the lives of others, He gave up His own life (John 15:13, I Timothy 2:6).
Watching the film, unless you are a much more worthy person than I am, you can’t help wanting to cheer when you see corrupt kidnappers and sexual predators meet their nasty ends. In the real world, God sees even the worst of sinners as rebellious children that He loves and desires to save.
When Jesus died on the cross and rose again, He proved Himself the Ultimate Action Hero.
("Taken" is rated PG-13 for language and a whole lot of violence. It could easily have been rated R for the violence.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Other Top Five Science Fiction/ Comedy Films

Might as well finish this off:

6) Men In Black - As long as we all agree that the second film did not happen

7) Mars Attacks - Yeah, it has its weaknesses, but earns a place just for the scene where the Martians are playing the "We come in peace" recording as they blast everything to heck

8) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - I love the "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish" song

9) The Man With Two Brains - Because any list of comedy films without Steve Martin is just wrong

10) Tremors - Because the worms rule.

(Honorable mention, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adverture, Cherry 2000 [don't care what Rotten Tomatoes ranks it], Demolition Man [Stallone on a list of comedies is usually problematic], Critters 1 & 2 but not 3, A Boy and His Dog [just for that awesome final line of dialouge, Lilo and Stitch)

In case the Chronicle Goes Defunk, Here's My Article at

Memories are like weed darts: Some of them don't stick
Dean A. Anderson, Special to The Chronicle
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Walking my 9-year-old daughter home from school, I notice the great delight she takes in throwing weed darts. You may know what I'm talking about; it's a prolific weed throughout Sonoma County. She puts her thumb and forefinger together at the base of the weed and pulls up, plucking the darts to throw. She then flicks them at the back of whomever she is walking with (her sister, her brother, her father) to see how many darts will stick in the back of a shirt or in someone's hair.
I used to do the same thing as I waited at the bus stop when I was her age (as well as when I was a few years younger and a few years older). My family lived in a rural area of the county on an unpaved road with a dozen or so houses. Some mornings I waited 15 or 20 minutes at the stop for the bus. Of course, there were also mornings I saw the bus as I left the house and ran, hoping it wouldn't leave without me.
The following are the top five memories that come to mind when I think of our bus stop on Fulton Road and Raplee Terrace:
1) The weeds mentioned above.
2) Another weed with a head that would pop off when you twisted the stem just right.
3) Dark mornings. Because President Richard Nixon extended daylight-saving time, there were cold winter mornings when we wouldn't see the sun coming up till the bus was approaching Mark West Elementary School. I really couldn't have cared less at the time about breaking into the opponent's campaign headquarters -- making kids wait in the dark seemed the true impeachable act.
4) Kicking the bigger rocks on our gravel road from my house to the bus stop (and, of course, from the bus stop to my house). If the rock went in a ditch, it was lost. And, of course, I didn't want any other kid kicking MY rock.
5) Karen Cameron and Rachelle Merian repeatedly asking me to tell them whom I liked. I didn't tell them for a very long time. This was highly classified information that couldn't fall into the wrong hands. But day after day, they asked. It seemed their duty to collect all the data in our class about who liked whom. They needed this information because, well, I'm not sure why they needed to know, but it certainly seemed important to them.
Day after day, they asked, at the bus stop and on the walk home, with the promise that they would keep this information to themselves. No one would know. Their persistence paid off. Eventually, I told. And they told. The very person I most dreaded being told. The girl I liked.
So I had no choice to tell this, the cutest, funniest and kindest human being on the planet at that particular time, that I liked her, "You know, as a friend."
This was obviously a traumatic incident in my young life. That's why this memory had stuck with me. But I became curious. Would Karen and Rachelle remember this tumultuous event? Surely, something of this magnitude, they must. I decided to find out.
I had no problem getting in touch with Rachelle. After the bus stop years, in high school, I had driven her to school. Ever since our 20th high school reunion, we have kept in touch with Christmas cards and the occasional e-mail. I sent her a note asking for her bus stop memories.
In a phone call, she responded with these top five memories:
1) Her mother not walking with her to the bus stop.
Rachelle was much farther down the street than I, and she would have liked company for some of that walk, but her mother had to stay home with her younger brothers.
2) All the other kids that waited with us various times throughout the years: her older brothers, Randy and Ricky, and her sister Renee; my brother, Dale; the twins, Ronnie and Gary; and too many others to name, but the list would include Jack, David, Eddie and, of course, Karen.
3) The many times her grandfather driving along Fulton Road would slow down and wave. That made her feel quite special.
4) The mornings it rained and we all would take cover under the garage overhang of the last house on the street. But we would already be drenched from the walk.
5) The morning she had money to buy "The Boxcar Children" from the Scholastic Book Club. She wasn't usually given money to buy when book-order time came around, so this was a big deal. She had two quarters to pay for the book, and was playing with the money.
And what happened was what parents always warned would happen if you play with money. She dropped a quarter -- into the weeds. She didn't know what to do, so she threw the other quarter into the weeds, hoping it would find its companion. And it did. She heard them click and she found the quarters and bought the book.
This coin-finding trick never worked for her again.
You may notice that this list of memories makes no mention of her pleas to know my beloved (or more appropriate to the time, my "beliked"). When I asked her about the incident, she had no recollection of it.
(And upon further questioning, she was unable to recall the name of the girl her inquisition had dragged out of me, though she did remember some of the girls I liked in high school.)
It took a little more work to get in touch with Karen. After elementary school, she had gone to a different junior and senior high schools, and during that time moved off Raplee Terrace. I hadn't talked to her for decades. I checked with my mother for Karen's married name and her assurance that Karen was still in the area. After a calling a few wrong numbers, I finally reached her.
These are the memories that first came to her mind:
1) Our bus drivers, Mrs. Ward and Mrs. Albritton. (Both were moms of students at our school, Susan and Stephen, respectively, as I recall. Both were always threatening to give "tickets" for misconduct. I was never sure what these tickets would do, but it couldn't be good.)
2) Also the dark mornings.
3) Also the rainy mornings.
4) Being chased by chickens. Karen was also farther down the street than I was. I never encountered this fowl problem (there was a particularly nasty rooster, she recalled). She dislikes birds to this day because of these chickens.
5) During her kindergarten year, Karen broke her leg. She recalls struggling to get on the bus with the cast.
You might note once again, a glaring omission. When asked specifically about the afternoon when she and Rachelle implored me to share my heart, the moment my resolve broke and the consequences of it all, Karen had no recall.
I now know something more about those little weed darts my daughter throws, and that I used to throw (all right, I still throw them on occasion). They are wild oats. They are not indigenous to Sonoma County, but were brought long ago from Europe. The weeds with the pop tops are plantains.
These little factoids may stick with you, they may not. Like memories and wild oats thrown at the back, you just never know what will stick.
And you may wonder who it was that I had a crush on in the sixth grade. You're not hearing it from me.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Top Science Fiction Comedy Films

Watching the John Carpenter film "Dark Star" which has some interesting ideas, but such a low budget, it is tough going at times. I was thinking about what the top sci-fi-coms would be. I don't think this film would make the top ten.

So here is a the beginning of a list:

1) Dr. Stangelove - I think it qualifies for sci-fi because of the Doomsday device and this film is very funny, particularly the performance of Peter Sellers, but I also love George C. Scott and Slim Pickens.

2) Back to the Future - One of the best time travel scripts, it almost makes sense.

3) Galaxy Quest - The best Star Trek film after Wrath of Khan.

4) Buckeroo Banzai - If you don't get it... That's your problem.

5) Ghost Busters - Is this a horror comedy? A fantasy comedy? I'm counting it because of the gear they have "Don't Cross the Beams".

I'll have to figure out the other five later.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

God of the City

To hear people talk sometimes, you’d think that God is barefoot, wearing a straw hat and bib overalls. You’ve probably never heard God described in that exact way, but you’ve probably heard this, “I feel most close to God when I’m out in nature.” People talk about how they don’t think they can find God in a church building but they can find God when they’re camping.
You get the impression, from this kind of talk, that cities must all have a “God Free Zone” sign (like cities with “Drug Free Zone” and “Nuclear Free Zone” signs) and that God honors those posted signs. Sadly, drugs get past those signs, and I don’t think a sign would stop a launched thermonuclear missile. Fortunately, even if someone posted a “God Free Zone” sign, I think God would pass it by. He’s not just a country God. He is the God of the City.
I was thinking of this while watching a recent movie, Paris, Je T’Aime (2006). The film is really a series of very short films made by a variety of prominent writers and directors. There are also a variety of actors, and the only character in all of the stories is the city of Paris.
I hope this doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise when I say one of the best things about this film is the establishing shots. “Establishing shots” in films are those short bits of footage that we see before the action proper begins, shots that establish where and the scene take place. This film has wonderful panoramic views of the City of Lights as well as more focused views of streets and alleys. We see the Eiffel Tower as well as an underground railway station. There are lovely views of the Seine River and markets and restaurants. A variety of cinematographers filmed a love letter to the capital of France.
The stories within the film are a bit hit and miss. I’m a big fan of the work of Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men), and they wrote and directed a segment about a tourist getting to know some Parisians more intimately than he would have hoped. Their contribution to the film is funny and cynical, as one who knows their work would expect. Alexander Payne’s segment about a provincial American tourist seems like a female version of his About Schmidt. My favorite segment of the film comes from Isabel Coixet, a Spanish writer-director, about a man who considers leaving his wife but changes his mind after he learns that she has a terminal illness. A narrator notes that he began to act, again, like he loved his wife and soon discovered that he felt that love again. It captures quite well the thought C. S. Lewis had that we must act on God’s command to love before we will ever feel that love.
There was an old TV show which ended with a narrator saying, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” In this film there are eighteen little stories in Paris, some quite wonderful -- and those that aren’t, are at least over quickly. And after watching the film, one does wish the Concorde was still flying. The title is accurate; the film makers obviously love the place.
Other cities have received cinematic Valentines through the years.
On the Town (1949) with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra was one of the first musicals to film on location in New York City. The film follows three sailors on leave who explore the big city where “the Bronx is up and Battery’s down and the people ride in a hole in the ground.” The film was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen and written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden -- the same team that made Singin’ in the Rain. It’s funny and has great song and dance numbers. And it is one of many films that make NYC look like heaven on earth (which could be set alongside films such as The French Connection and Serpico that picture the city as hell on earth.)
Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) opens with a wonderful image of a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus over the city of Rome. The arms of Jesus are open wide, and the look on the face of the statue is one of love. Throughout the film we see characters that are lost and confused, but we remember that opening image that intimated that these characters are being looked at tenderly from above. And again, after watching the film, the viewer wants to go online to see how cheap one can get airfare to Rome.
Steve Martin’s L.A. Story was obviously made with Fellini’s film, parodying that famous opening shot. The film mocks the pretensions of the rich and famous of the film world, but also highlights the wonderful museums and quirky architecture, and even finds beauty in the freeways.
There is even a film that pays loving tribute to the city of Santa Rosa. There are many reasons to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), from the master’s trademark chills to Thornton Wilder’s subtle screenplay to Joseph Cotten’s chilling portrayal of a killer. But if you live in Sonoma County, the chief attraction of the film may be to see World War II era Santa Rosa, from the library to the train station. It was a small city then, but a city nonetheless. (Hitchcock obviously loved the area. He came up again to film The Birds [1963].)
These films capture the beauty of cities, and that beauty is not separate from the presence of God. The most wonderful thing about cities is the abundance of people and their creations, and those people were made in the image of God.
Scripture makes it clear that God loves cities and cares about them deeply.
In Luke 19: 41 – 44 we find Jesus weeps when He looks over the city of Jerusalem because the people of the city are like sheep without a shepherd.
And if we look at the description of God’s final creation in Revelation 21 (verses 9 – 14), the place He made for us to enjoy for all eternity, we find that He made a city:
“One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
So the next time you think that you can only find God by a mountain stream, on the desert sand or on a snow capped peak, remember…in the seediest hotels in the darkest parts of Gotham, one can usually find a Gideon Bible.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Other Favorite Books I Read in 2008

January is just about over, so I guess I should stop dwelling on 2008 and move along. So a quick summary of my other favorite books I read last year.

If anyone was reading this, they might notice I haven't got to any novels yet. I read novels last year, just enjoyed the nonfiction more.

Part of the reason for this was political. Authors I've enjoyed in the past kept slipping in their political agenda with views quite different than mine. That's okay, but I'm just not entertained by attacks on my belief, especially unbalanced attacks. John Grisham is not an artist for the ages, but I've enjoyed some of his novels in the past, especially "A Time to Kill", "The Firm" and "The Testament". But "The Appeal" which glorified ambulance chasing lawyers and smeared corperations was stomach turning. I loved everything by Robert Harris including "Fatherland" and "Enigma", but "The Ghost", which had some clever plot twists and interesting observations on writing, was also a mean spirtited attack on Prime Minister Blair and President Bush.

I started reading Lee Child's Jack Reacher books last year and enjoyed many of them, especially "Killing Floor" and "The Enemy", but liberal sucker punches are found throughout them. I've been reading them to know better how I can write action and thrills. But I laughed out loud when Reacher found the tax returns of a dead old friend. His friend had given to PETA. Reacher thought that he didn't know much about the organization, but his friend was so thoughtful and rational, it must be a good organization. Yes, the organization that is trying to end fishing by popularizing the term "sea kittens" for tuna is thoughtful and rational.

So I found much more pleasure reading "Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left" by Ronald Radosh and "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg that thoughtfully explored and refuted much of what the media has been saying about the history of socialism. Yes, Virginia, there were communists in Hollywood and they did not have our best interests at heart. (And Joe MacCarthy did not pursue them, that was other Democrats in Washington.) And National Socialism was not a far right party, they were, as the name implys, socialists.

So back to reading new books in 2009. Wasn't too impressed with Carrie Fisher's "Wishful Drinking", but more Reacher and Sarah Vowell's "Wordy Shipmates' are to come.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Couple of Other of My Favorite Books of 2008

I got into a bit of a Lincoln kick and read two very books about President #16, one from 2008 and one from 2007.
The more recent publication, James M. McPherson’s “Tried By War: Lincoln as Commander in Chief” focuses on Lincoln as the war time president. The thing I came out really appreciating about the man was his perseverance. Lincoln had to put up with generals who were at turns hardworking and self-serving, farsighted and foolish, brave and cautious.
His greatest frustration was the caution of his generals. Time and again he urges his generals to take the offensive, but they refuse to move until all the men and supplies are in place. But the generals never seem to believe enough men and supplies are in place, so the more mobile Confederates always seem to be at the advantage. Until he finds his men in Grant and Sherman.
I couldn’t help bet think of George W. Bush throughout the read. In spite of political pressures and military setbacks, both men held firm for victory. War is never tidy. But when it begins it is vitally important that the side of right wins. I believe right eventually won in the Civil War. And I pray that it will again, bringing freedom to the people of Iraq.
Andrew Ferguson’s “Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America” is a very different kind of book. It is set modern America and Ferguson travels the country investigating the historical sites of Lincoln’s life and the tributes that have been made to him.
Many people have made Lincoln anew in their own image. Ferguson is at turns sentimental and savage as he interviews Lincoln imitators (I’m sorry, “presenters”), museum curators and especially historians.
The thing I found most interesting in the book was how everyone tried to make Lincoln in their own image; much in the same way as we try to make God and Jesus in our own image.
A fun and enlightening read.