Friday, December 31, 2010

My Top Ten Films for 2010

Okay, here are the rules.

I) The film had to be released in U. S. theaters in 2010. (Which ruled out things like the amazing restoration of 1927’s “Metropolis” or the purely imaginary adaptations of my Bill the Warthog books.)

II) I had to see the film in the 2010 calendar, in theater or on DVD. (I haven’t seen “Black Swan” or “The King’s Speech” and others that might have broke into the top ten, but I really think “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is the only film that probably would break the top five.)

So here they are from the bottom up.

10) “Daybreakers” – I’ve always loved vampire fiction, from Bela to Barnabus to Buffy, so if you come up with a new angle, I’m easy to please. The idea of this film is that vampires have taken over the world but now they’re running out of humans and therefore out of food. I liked the little creative touches like blood baristas and daylight proof cars with cameras and screens that allow vamps to drive. Ethan Hawke is a solid lead, but the real fun is seeing Willem Defoe and Sam Neill bite the scenery like it was a tasty neck.

9) “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”- Director Edgar Wright did very creative, innovative work in this film (though I didn’t like this film as much as his “Shaun of the Dead” or “Hot Fuzz”.) But though this film is adapted from a graphic novel, it is arguably the first decent video game adaptation.

8) “The Fighter” – It just seems right that Christian Bale steals this film in the supporting role as the crack addicted brother of true life boxing champ, Micky Ward. After all, Heath Ledger stole “The Dark Knight” from him (partly because of his death, but chiefly because it was a fantastic performance.) The true story is an inspiring one, but there are a few too many Jerry Springer stereotypes on the screen.

7) “Winter’s Bone” – One of the great things about this film is the opportunity to a part of the country that films rarely, venture to, the Ozarks. A sad tale of the meth culture in this destitute region, but the hope is supplied by the courageous character of the young girl, Ree, played very well by Jennifer Lawrence. Looking forward to more from writer/director Debra Granik.

6) “The Town” – The MA accents in “The Fighter” were fun, but even better are the Boston, MA accents in this Ben Affleck directed crime flick. Based on a very good Paul Hogan novel, this film has good performance and some excellent action sequences. Who would have thought after “Gigli” that we would be looking forward to Ben’s next flick (along with Debra’s.)

5) “Inception” – Even better action sequences than in the town (especially in the gravity hallway) than in “The Town” and fun mind games, too. Christopher Nolan has yet to make a film I didn’t like (his “Momento” is one of my all time favorites.) I wrote about it here:

4 ) “Toy Story III” – It’s hard to make a good Number III as the Godfather, Spiderman and Mad Max will testify. But James Bond assured us it could be done. Pixar does it with this return to the adventures of Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Very funny and yet also with an ending that is ripe with sniffles. Sure to win Best Animated Feature.

3) “The Social Network” – Many people scoffed at a Facebook movie, but computer geeks have a vast impact on our day to day lives. But this movie isn’t just about playing Farm and Mafia Games online, but about greed and genius, loyalty and friendship and many other very important things. May well win the Best Picture Oscar, which would not be a bad choice. David Fincher has come a long way from “Aliens 3”.

2) “True Grit” – Remakes are often scorned and rightly so. Even good directors have made bad remakes. (Did “Psycho” really color, Gus Van Sant? Did “Planet of the Apes” need monkey Abe Lincoln, Tim Burton? And is James Marsden a great replacement for Dustin Hoffman in “Straw Dogs”, Rod Lurie? Oh, that’s right Rod, I was talking about good directors.) The Coen Brothers sure screwed up their remake of “The Ladykillers”. But they do it right with this film that made me laugh more than any other film this year. Jeff Bridges has the really tough job of taking the John Wayne role and he pulls it off. People often slam Ethan and Joel Coen of being cold, but I found the last third of this film very moving. And the spiritual content of the Charles Portis novel was not forgotten.

1) “Get Low” – Two favorite actors, Robert Duvall for drama and Bill Murray for comedy. And they’re together. In a very Christian film. I’m happy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Now there is a reason why this is a Top Seven list rather than a Top Ten. I decided this should be for shows broadcast in 2010 and that I viewed in 2010. Three shows I watch on DVD I'm watching in a time delay (so don't tell me spoilers.) I watched the 2009 seasons in 2010 and won’t see the 2010 seasons until 2011 at the earliest. I’m pretty sure they would make the list if I was watching them when broadcast. So there are three less titles on the list in honor of MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD and DEXTER. (And these are all scripted shows, which explains the absence of CASH CAB and Oakland A’s games.)

1) LOST – Yeah, I had problems with the possible purgatory subplot, but that wasn’t the whole story, even in Season 6. No show has ever astonished me, made me cry or even laugh as hard as this show. I loved the characters, and not just because so many of them were so very pretty. And it was always so rewarding to see Linus punched in the face.

2) 30 ROCK – It’s amazing how this show still brings the funny in the fifth season. The Christmas episode alone would have earned this a place on the list with the Black Swans and Jack’s Christmas card (“Happy Holidays…Is what terrorists say, Merry Christmas”)

3) COMMUNITY – This almost took spot #2 and it may next year. Love the characters, Abed speaks the meta truth. Paint Ball and Zombie episodes were fantastic movie parodies while barely keeping within the confines of the world of sitcom.

4) THE PACIFIC –Maybe this would have a higher spot if I had finished the whole thing, but four episodes have earned it this spot. Hope to finish the show before 2011 and that more episodes are like Guadalcanal and less are like Melborne.

5) MODERN FAMILY – Now that LOST is gone, this may be the prettiest cast on television. And quite funny.

6) RAISING HOPE – The only new show on the list. (I like RUNNING WILDE, but it’s about to die and I also like HAWAII 5-O, but that’s because it’s awesome stupid.) Finds a nice balance between gross and sweet, hysterical and bizarre. Particularly like Garret Dillahunt who I’m used to as psycho killer (DEADWOOD and LIFE), but now is a zany sitcom dad (grand dad.)

7) CHUCK – The show is more than inconsistent, but when it’s on, it’s on. Plus Adam Baldwin. ‘Nuff said.

May TV be your friend in 2011. (But just one of your friends. Probably not your BEST friend.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blake Edwards passed away last night

My Top Five Blake Edwards films:

1) The Return of the Pink Panther

2) The Pink Panther Strikes Again

3) The Revenge of the Pink Panther

4) S.O.B.

5) Breakfast at Tiffany's

"Does your dig bite?" "No" Vicious champ "I thought you said your dig did not bite?"
"That's not my dog."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I Don't Want To Be Like You-ou-ou

The saying goes that you don’t want to see how sausage or legislature or children’s songs are made. Okay, they haven’t said it much about children’s songs in the past, but people might start saying it after they see the 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story.

Of course, Richard and Robert Sherman didn’t just write children’s songs. The brothers began their career together writing pop songs like “Tall Paul” and “You’re Sixteen”. Disney Studios took an interest in them and asked them to write a song for the Hayley Mills comedy, The Parent Trap (“Let’s Get Together –Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”.)

Walt Disney put the brothers on contract (the only songwriters the studio had on contract.) At the studio they wrote songs for such films as The Sword and the Stone, Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book, winning Oscars for best score and best song for Mary Poppins (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”. They also wrote one of the most popular and annoying songs of all time, “It’s a Small World”, for the ride of that name.

After Walt Disney’s death, the brothers left the studio and continued to write for films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Slipper and the Rose and Charlotte’s Web. During all this time, people assumed that since the brothers worked so well as a team, they must get along well together.

But we learn in the film that the brothers who were just two and a half years apart in age were much further apart in personality and disposition. They couldn’t stand each other. They worked together in the office, but kept their distance outside of it. They didn’t allow their families to socialize. When their father died, they held two separate receptions after the funeral.

Those closest to Richard and Robert knew their differences. Robert, the elder, born in 1925, is introverted, quiet and moody. Richard (born in 1928) is extroverted, talkative and on occasion has a sharp temper. In World War II, Robert experienced much. He said he had been a know-nothing kid, but in the war “I learned.” Richard, on the other hand, served in the USO.

Their differences arguably made them a great song writing team. Their differences also drove each other mad.

Really, not a very new and different story: brothers not getting along. Starting with Cain and Abel, on to Jacob and Isaac, and even Jesus had brothers who said he was crazy. What is strange is that the authors of “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” couldn’t get along.

In I Corinthians 13 we read that without love, one is nothing. So is there value in the work of the Sherman brothers? The odd thing is that although they couldn’t get along, the Sherman brothers surely love each other. In the interviews in the film, that love comes through, even as the brothers admit their resentment.

If this story sounds a little dark for a tale of the composers of “The Aristocats”, you might be interested to know who made the film. The film was directed by Gregory Sherman and Jeff Sherman, cousins who are sons of the composers. They were kept apart for decades by their fathers, but they came together to make this film with the hope of bringing their fathers together. We never see if that part of their plan worked. But this film, certainly, is a work of love.

(Two other documentaries about Disney film making have recently been released, Waking Sleeping Beauty about the revival of Disney animation and Walt and El Grupo about Disney in South America.)

(The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story is rated PG for language and smoking.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Did I Tell You About The Book You Should Buy...

No, not just another Bill the Warthog book (fine as they are), but this one here:

"Self-published" is such an ugly word. Think of it as created for you and a few other very special people.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Poor Say Thank You By Asking for More

For the December issue of our church newsletter, I’ve been prone to write two kinds of articles. One: a rehash of the Best Christmas films ever (so if you haven’t watched It’s a Wonderful Life – go watch it already. And have a hankie ready for the film’s finale.) Two: a preview of holiday films to come, on occasion based on their literary pedigree (I’m looking forward to True Grit, based on a good book and a remake of a fine John Wayne film. Usually, I’m not thrilled with the idea of remakes, but since this is from the Coen Brothers, this is an exception.)

Instead, I’m going to write about an anti-Christmas film (really an anti-Christian film, but we’ll see in this context it’s the same thing.) Most films that attack the Christian faith take a safer route than the film I’m going to discuss. Many films, Elmer Gantry for example, attack the clergy. Well, most Christians are more than willing to admit that all have sinned and more than a few scoundrels have abused their roles as evangelists, pastors and priests. Some filmmakers (such as the Pythons when they publicized The Life of Brian) claim that they have no problem with faith itself, just with “organized religion”. But I see very little virtue in the apparent alternative, “chaotic religion.”

But Viridiana, filmed in Spain in 1961 by acclaimed writer/director Luis Buñuel takes a much bolder stand. It attacks Christianity on the grounds that acts of charity and compassion are futile and without worth.

The film tells the story of a young novice (the Silvia Pinal ably plays the title character) who is instructed by her Mother Superior to visit her uncle before she takes her vows. She has up until then had little contact with the uncle who financially supported her.

She obeys and visits her uncle (played by Fernando Rey) at his vast but decaying estate, and finds him to be a man of rather depraved tastes. He tells Viridiana that she reminds him of his late wife and asks the much younger woman to marry him. When she refuses him, he drugs her coffee and takes advantage of her (to an unclear degree.) After this incident, the uncle kills himself because of his guilt.

Viridiana learns she has inherited her uncle’s estate, but it is to be shared with her uncle’s illegitimate son, Jorge. Like his father, Jorge, is a man who pursues pleasure above all else.

Viridiana decides to open the estate to the poor in the village, inviting the blind, the crippled and the destitute. But they take advantage of her hospitality, staging a party in the house that becomes not just an orgy, but a mockery of the Last Supper.

In one of the film’s famed sequences, Jorge is seen trying to perform an act of kindness. He sees a man dragging a dog chained to his wagon. Jorge buys the dog from the man so it will no longer be abused. But they we see another man, another wagon and another dog even more greatly abused. The implication is any act of charity can only change a minute faction of the evil in the world.

The film implies that those who are charitable will be betrayed and abused and no lasting good will come of any of it. Better to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we will die”.

But these charges come as no surprise to anyone who knows Scripture. Jesus acknowledged the futility of ending all need when He said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7.) His entire life is an example of generosity responded to with ingratitude, betrayal and violence.

But He came to save His enemies (Romans 5: 7 – 8). He came in the flesh that first Christmas, knowing that He had come to die. But His viewpoint is bigger than ours. He knew that after the cross would come the resurrection. We can know that acts of compassion are not futile because every gift we give in His name, He receives (Matthew 25:4.)

Friday, November 12, 2010



I won't go into why, but today I thought I heard that Bill Murray was dead. I misheard, fortunately. But it me think again about one of the only actors working today that will inspire my attendance, just because he's in the film (unless it's a new Garfield movie, of course.)
Most Saturday Night veterans have a hard time sustaining a long team film career. Chevy Chase made some good funny films after a year on the show and then went on to make truly heinous ones. (Fortunately, he is funny again on Community after years of anti-funny following Christmas Vacation.) Dan Aykroyd's last good film was in 1997 (Gross Point Blank), Eddie Murphy's 1999 (Bowfinger) and Mike Myers has had over a decade since the first Austin Powers film. (I found Shrek to be funny, but Murphy and Myers have long since killed the good will for that film with lousy sequels and TV specials.)
But Murray is arguably the third funniest screen personality after Buster Keaton and the combined Marx brothers.

So my top ten:

1) Phil Conners in GROUNDHOG'S DAY - A very thoughtful film and a very profound film.
It was voted by some group or other as the most spiritual film. But still a very funny film.
Phil is a weather man but more importantly, a jerk. But the process of living the same day again and again makes a better man of him. Murray manages the transformation of redemption quite ably (much better than in SCROOGED.)
Quote: People like blood sausage too, people are morons.

2) Carl Spackler in CADDYSHACK - Perhaps Murray's most insane character, the ground's keeper with a vendetta against a gopher (that looks like a groundhog.)
Quote: So I've got that going for me.

2)Jeff Slater in TOOTSIE - Another comic masterpiece. Murray plays a small role as Michael's (Dustin Hoffman) boyfriend. But he steals much of the picture playing the straight (in many ways) man.
Quote: That is one nutty hospital.

3) Bill Murray in ZOMBIELAND - One of the great cameos. Of course he would survive a zombie apocalypse out of sheer coolness and laid back disposition.
Quote: Garfield, maybe.

4)Dr. Peter Venkman in GHOSTBUSTERS - The character Phil in the show Modern Family tries to prove bravery by bragging about how many times he watched this film. There are a few scary special effects, but basically the film is just hysterical. Venkman is described as a game show host in the film and he does achieve that level of smarminess.
Qoute: Yes, the man has no neck. (That's the TV dubbed version of the line. The line in the film is about a thousand times better.)

5) Herman Blume in RUSHMORE - This is the film in which critics began to recognize the genius of Murray. It was always there, but they finally started to figure out that he wasn't just funny. (But funny is plenty.) A man in a romantic rivalry with a high schooler could be just sad, but it is so much more.
Quote: She's my Rushmore.

6) Bob Harris in LOST IN TRANSLATION - I believe this is the only Murray film that was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. He was actually talked about for Best Actor, but the Academy does not have that much sense.
He was hard to believe as a Big Hollywood Action Star, but he was quite believable in his tender interaction with Scarlet Johannson.
Qoute: Whatever he whispered into Scarlet's ear.

7) Frank Quinn in GET LOW - Bill Murray, one of the great comic actors versus Robert Duvall, one of the great comic actors. So much fun to see them together. His funeral director gives Murray another chance to showcase his patented world weariness and cynicism.
Qoute: I sold 26 of the the ugliest cars in the middle of December with the wind blowing so far up my ass I was farting snowflakes into July.

8) Bunny Breckinridge in ED WOOD - This role almost makes it based on the name alone. But this tale of the world's worst director is Tim Burton's best film. Bunny, you may not be surprised, is not a terribly masculine character. A small role again, but wonderful.
Quote:What about glitter? When I was a headliner in Paris, audiences always liked it when I sparkled.

9) Tripper in MEATBALLS - Yes, imaginary reader (I don't want you, or me, to think I'm so delusional as to think someone reads this after I write it) you are wondering where is STRIPES? That is a better film than MEATBALLS, but his character has funnier lines in this film. Especially in the morning announcements.
Quote: Kids are starving in India and you're walking around with a sombrero full of peanuts.

10) Badger in FANTASTIC MR. FOX - I was going to rant about how Bill Murray should never do voiceover work because of GARFIELD and OSMOSIS JONES, but this makes the list. His second film on the list with Wes Anderson, but there are good Anderson films that didn't even make the list. A film starring in a film makes an awesome film. But his small parts often manage to make a film awesome as well.
Quote: The cuss you are.

I don't think there is another Saturday Night Live star that has ten great films. And Murray has more good films that did not make this list. Very cool.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Another Random Top Ten List

Commercially Produced Candy

Not the best, just what I like.

1) BUTTERFINGERS - This will not be the only chocolate/peanut butter candy on the list, I love that stuff. Tastes the best and has an interesting texture. If the chocolate is pealed away, it is sort of like a wood chip, splintering in the same way. Love these.

2) PIXIE STICKS - Really just artifically colored and flavored sugar in paper straw containers. What's wrong with that?

3) GOOD AND PLENTIES - You have to love black licorice, and I do. Plus, "Choo-choo Charlie was engineer" will never leave my head.

4) JUNIOR MINTS - Second only in the world of mints to Girl Scout Cookies, but they're, you know, cookies. Fun to smash between your fingers as well. (Honorary nod to Peppermint Patties.)

5) PEZ - Okay, the candy doesn't case that great, but it's alright. But the toy dispencers rule. The little heads of everything from Little Orphan Annie to Han Solo, from Tigger to Bilbo Baggins. Even featured in a classic Seinfeld episode (as many fine candies have been.)

6) REESE'S (CUP & PIECES) - Gotta love the classic PB & C match-up in the little paper wrapper, but ET and Elliot's brand can not be forgotten either.

7) FLICKS - The little chocolate candies from Ghiradellis that just make the list because I used to get rolls of these at the movies. Big nostalgia points.

8) MILK DUDS - The carmel chewiness just kills the teeth. But it is tasty and is fine theater food as well.

9) MILKY WAY - Boy, the milk candy just pulls it out at the end here. These are especially good straight from the freezer. (This spot almost went to THREE MUSKETEERS which are also excellent freezer candy.)

10) EVERLASTING GOBSTOPPERS - If it's good enough for Willy Wonka, it's good enough for me.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Random Top Ten List

Top Ten Sitcoms

1) CHEERS - Managed to have characters we cared about and yet remain very funny. Classic one liners (What's up Norm? My nipples, it's freezing out there.), slap stick and subtle character based comedy.
Also survived and thrived with character changes (Coach to Woody, Diane to Rebecca) which killed shows like M*A*S*H and News Radio. Also was able to spin off an excellent show when it left the air (Frasier). Good guest characters like Harry the Hat and Andy, Andy.
As a conservative, I love that writer Rob Long and Cliff the postman have gone on as advocates of conservative institutions and causes.
It even managed a decent final episode (though not as great as the final episode of "Newhart". But of course, "Newhart" is not making the list.)
Everyone join in on the "Kelly, Kelly" song.

2) ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT - In an interview, show creator, Mitchell Hurwitz. recently admitted that he set such a high standard of cramming jokes, plot lines and characters into a small period of time in this classic that he was having a hard time reaching his own standards in his new sitcom.
Yeah, it could have raunchy jokes, but they were funny and they flew by fast. Most of the characters were morally repugnant, but they were so personally unselfaware that you forgave them. Briliant use of Charlie Brown theme songs and "Afternoon Delight".
Before the phrase "Jumping the Shark" jumped the shark, they had Henry Winkler acutally jump a shark in the most casual manner possible.
David Cross was hysterical with his thoughtless double entendre and his business card for himself as an analyst and therapist was awful and awesome.
Everyone join in on their own chicken dance.

3) SEINFELD - I didn't appreciate this show until I realized you weren't supposed to like the characters. This show has added an amazing number of catch phrases to the culture ("Yadda, Yadda, Yadda", "Not that there's anything wrong with that", etc.).
It was great to have Jerry's best stand up bits committed to film (I love the one about sports fans really rooting for laundry.)
It was never really about Nothing, but it cleverly set up situations where very little happened in a Chinese Resteraunt or a parking lot.
And I met Julia Louise Dreyfuss and she was very nice. (Though the final episode was not as great as "Newhart"'s or "Cheers"'s or probably even "Bossom Buddies"'s.)
Everyone join in on the Elaine dance.

4) THE OFFICE - The BBC version. The American version has had great moments, but also such lows that it doesn't make it.
But Ricky Gervais' two seasons and a special are such artful pain that it has never been matched. (Though Ricky came close with the wonderful Extras.)
It captures the most awkward moments that have ever taken place in the workplace.
Everyone eat some stapler jello in this show's honor.

5) MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE - The best family sitcom of all time. This show was willing to have great absurdist touches (such as the hamster in a hamster ball that roamed the country throughout a season) but it also had real touches such as deciding which bills to pay based on the color of the paper (obviously red is more urgent than white.)
Bryan Cranston has gone on to win Emmys for his work in Breaking Bad, but he was brilliant in this show as well. Jane Kaczmarek was also great capturing both the nuture and the neurotic nature of motherhood.
Malcolm was the narator and the title character, but I always was rooting for the fourth born, Dewey and his special ed class was one of the bolder and funniest of sitcom inventions.
Everyone sing along Meow Mix song.

6) THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW - Pioneer in meta comedy, being a comedy show about the making of a comedy show (while also a domestic comedy.) Van Dyke was one of the great slapstick comics but he also came across as a real person. You really believed he was in love with the graceful and lovely Mary Tyler Moore.
The Walnut Alien Invasion show was a great science fiction spoof and yet also really scared me as a kid.
Carl Reiner was originally supposed to star in the show, and kudos to him for recognizing that DVD would do a better job. And Reiner was great as ego mad TV star Alan Brady. Also wonderful was Richard Deacon as Mel (whose great work on Leave It To Beaver was sadly never recognized with an Emmy.)
The only real weakness in the show was Larry Mathers as one of the most annoying child stars in sitcom history (and that competition is fierce.)
Everyone trip over the ottoman (or not.)

7) THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW - If only for the single episode,"Chucles Bites the Dust" which had Mary laughing at a funeral, this show might have made the list. A great cast of characters that were lovable and yet very funny.
Lou Grant drank too much and was gruff, but someone you would like to work for ("You've got spunk. I hate spunk.")
Ted Baxter was an dim, ego driven newscaster that one believes can easily be found on the local news.
Georgette was one of the sweetest characters ever, and Sussanne was one of sluttiest and they got along in this universe.
Sadly, its spinoffs (Rhoda and Phylis) were not that great and just deprived the show of great characters.
Everyone join that show ending hug.

8) THE BOB NEWHART SHOW - No one did a drunk, let alone a one way telephone call, as well as Bob. Great supporting characters and wonderful writing made this a classic.
Newhart managed two other decent shows ("Newhart" and the sadly unappreciated "Bob".)
Everyone join in on some Mu Gu Guy Pan.

9) 30 ROCK - The one current sitcom that makes the list (Community and Modern Family might make the list if this was made in the future.) Great balance of the absurd and sly satire. Though made by political liberals, they really do take on targets from both sides of the political spectrum.
Everyone agree we are tired of this bit of using "Everyone".

10) NEWS RADIO - Barely bits out WKRP as one of the great workplace comedies. But this one makes the list for the wonderful out of not where season ending episodes such as News Radio in Space and News Radio on the Titanic.

(The Simpsons is arguably one of the great sitcoms, but I'm saving it for a favorite animated shows list.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Social Network

We all have those humiliations seared into our memories. The time a joke told at our expense made the whole class laugh. Being picked last for the team or not at all. Being stood up for a date.

And we imagined revenge. Not the binding and gagging and tossing over a cliff kind of revenge (okay, I’ve thought of that too) but the French proverb “Success is the best revenge” type. We dream of achieving such
incredible success that those who treated us poorly will deeply regret it and the whole world will see us for the phenomenal individuals we are.

Say, you found a company with a very popular product that is valued around the world and in the process become a multibillionaire. Then surely you would have the respect of one and all. Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, the
co-founder of Facebook about whom a major film has just been released that portrays him as a …. let’s use the polite word… jerk.

“The Social Network”, written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) and directed by David Fincher (“Se7en”), follows Zuckerberg from his early days at Harvard, pulling rude computer pranks, through his rise to become one of the most powerful CEOs in the world. And the film strongly implies that his motivation for technological and corporate innovation come from such slights as the girl who broke up with him and the elite university clubs that ignored him.

Zuckerberg is portrayed as a brilliant geek sorely lacking in social skills, deceptive and manipulative in his rise to fortune. He seems at times to be the embodiment of Matthew 16:26 (“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”) except at times it’s unclear if he had a soul to begin with.

Much of the story is told in the form of flashbacks as the film follows legal proceedings of lawsuits filed by rivals and also his best friend, yet it should always be kept in mind that this is a fictionalized version of the events. Much of the history told in the story is not buried in those very lawsuits with very strict nondisclosure agreements.

An interesting thing about the film is that some viewers will see the film as a success story and others will see it as a tragedy. Zuckerberg (portrayed quite ably by “Zombieland”’s Jesse Eisenberg) did achieve something very special in the creation of Facebook. Though a recent some consider it a gimmicky time-waster, it is also arguably the most innovative tool for communication since the Internet itself, created by a man before he hit his mid twenties.

On the other hand, some view Zuckerberg’s falling out with his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), as cautionary tale against putting self interest first. (This theme is suggested in the film’s tagline, “You don’t make 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”)

And you know, kids, you’re both right. This film is about a flawed guy who achieves some amazing things. If this world is all there is, then it’s worth cutting some ethical corners when the stakes are so high. But if there is a God watching us and wanting the best for us and an eternity waiting after this life, then something very vital has been left out of the equation.

Now you may still be saying, “Why should I see this film? I don’t even go on Facebook!” Well, you don’t have to be an astronaut to watch “The Right Stuff”. And the reasons you should see this film include rich, funny dialogue, sharp performances and some interesting moral questions to ponder. In Facebook parlance, I think it’s worth clicking “Confirm” rather than “Ignore”.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Strength in What Remains

This book by Tracey Kidder tells the story of a man named Deo that escaped the genocide of Burundi to live as a one of the homeless of New York City. It's a great, inspiring story. But the story the stuck with me was the story of a Catholic school where the Priest/School Master insisted that the Hutus and Totsies treat each other as brothers. When the miltia came, they demanded to know who who the Totsies were. They wouldn't say, and the milia tried to kill them all. (Killing 40 out of 140 students.)
I couldn't help but think of Galations 3:28 -
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
They were willing to pay the full cost that Christ paid to live out this truth.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Way Down East

I know that some readers may be disappointed by the lack of timeliness for these monthly movie reviews. You might find that by the time I blog the film reviewed is no longer in theaters.
You have to understand I don’t have access to the critics’ screenings offered to the big time reviewers.
Anyway, on to this month’s review of “Way Down East”, a silent feature that was quite a hit when it debuted in 1920.
Okay, ninety years is a tad long of a wait for a review, even from me. But this drama (perhaps better defined as a melodrama) provides an interesting examination of the moral views of the time, and ours.
It’s the tale of Anna Moore (played by one of the first movie stars, Lillian Gish), a young woman who cares for her poor, sick mother. Seeking financial aid, she goes to visit her distant, wealthy relatives. The cousins are embarrassed by their poor relation and offer no help. But at one their parties, Anna meets Lennox Sanderson, a true scalawag. (A title card introduces him as a man with “three interests: ladies, Ladies, LADIES!”)
After Anna rebukes Lennox for his attempts at seduction, she agrees to marry him. The cad arranges a phony wedding ceremony followed by a honeymoon, then abandons Anna, who finds she is with child. Adding to the heroine’s trouble, her mother dies and so does her newborn child. (There is an interesting, theologically problematic scene wherein Anna baptizes her dying son herself, fearing for his soul.)
Anna tries to put her past behind her. She goes to work for a wealthy and yet pious farm family. David Bartlett, the handsome son, falls in love with her and wants to marry her. But when family gossip informs David’s father, Squire Bartlett, of Anna’s past, his actions are swift and harsh and cloaked in Biblical terminology. We then have the film's action packed set piece and Anna is stranded on an ice flow. (The director, D.W. Griffith, bogarted this straight from "Uncle Tom's Cabin". I doubt Griffith, the maker of "Birth of a Nation" was a big abolitionist literature fan.)
I was surprised by how frankly the film dealt with the issues of sexuality and religious judgment. The movie deals with the hypocrisy of men’s immorality being winked though less scandalous behavior of women leads to shunning. The consequence -- condemning a child without a father rather than providing help and comfort -- must have been strong tonic for the time. And viewing trailers for an upcoming teen comedy, “Easy A”, I’ve thought the progress of dealing with such issues in the popular culture has not been all for the best.
From what I’ve read about the film (again, no advanced critics’ screenings for me), “Easy A” is about a virginal high school girl (Olive, played by Emma Stone) who pretends to bed high school boys to enhance their reputations. She then falls under the harsh judgment of the high school Christian club that assures her that she will need to answer to a higher power.
Now I could be wrong, but from what I’ve seen of the new film, it seems to deal with the issues of sexuality and religion with much less nuance than a film made nearly a century ago. It seems all of the Christians in the film are narrow-minded and petty. In “Way Down East”, some Christians are depicted as mean, but some exude grace. In the new film, it seems that sex is a topic of humor and that it would be crazy for anyone to think there could be any negative consequences. (Only Christians could be so crazy, to still believe in avoiding sexual immorality as Paul teaches in Romans 13: 13 or I Corinthians 6:18.)
It is wrong for Christians to judge the sins of others, but it is also wrong to fail to teach that God does have standards for sexual behavior. We should be people with tender and loving hearts. God, as a loving Father, provided sex as great gift in the context in marriage. All around us we see the victims of abuse of God’s gift, whether it be men addicted to online porn, women selling themselves for money (or even a false display of affection) and, yes, children who, according to studies, are less likely to prosper without the care of two loving parents.
As a church, we need to be faithful to not condemn those suffer from the sin that is common to us all, but rather comfort and strengthen those that are weak.
To find a source that deals much better with these issues, you might want to go to a popular novel. I believe the title “Easy A” comes from a work that is now 160 years old, “The Scarlett Letter”. Sexual sin and religious hypocrisy are nothing new. But fortunately, God’s grace is very old, yet ever fresh.

Friday, August 20, 2010


I had a good time at my dad’s memorial service. I know that might sound strange, but most people there enjoyed the service. There were good stories, laughter and plenty of food afterward. It was a party. Really, the only thing missing was my Dad. I wish he could have been there.
In recently released film, “Get Low”, the character Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) wants to attend his own funeral. He wants to throw a “funeral party.” He says he wants to give people an opportunity to tell their stories about him. But Bush does not expect the stories to be humorous or heartwarming. He has lived for forty years as a hermit with a reputation as a violent lunatic.
Bush first goes to the local pastor and asks if he can buy himself a funeral, but the pastor (Gerald McRaney) astutely observes that Bush is trying to buy forgiveness. He tells Bush that forgiveness can not be purchased but is a free gift of God. We must confess our sin and receive the free gift through Christ’s sacrifice. Bush leaves and finds a funeral home director (Bill Murray) who is more than happy to take his money for a “funeral party”.
As the film follows the preparations for the funeral, we begin to learn more of Bush’s story in bits and pieces. We learn about his sin and his ultimate failure to atone for it on his own, but forgiveness and restoration is found.
“Get Low” is based on a true story, set in Tennessee of the 1930’s. Told at a leisurely pace, the story does not offer summer distractions of CGI effects and explosions (okay, there is a fire at the beginning of the film), but it does offer its own pleasures.
Bill Murray offers his dry wit within a character of that time and place. Murray has been funny for over thirty years now, while many other comedians have worn out their welcome.
In fact, one of the real joys of the film is seeing old faces. Hollywood has always celebrated youth and “physical perfection”. But there is a special pleasure in seeing the aged faces of Duvall and Sissy Spacek. Celebrated actors when they were making films decades ago in classics like “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now”, “Carrie” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” respectively, neither was known primarily for looks. But now there is a definite pleasure in seeing the lines and spots of age in faces of such fully lived lives.
“Get Low” can be seen as the third film in Duvall’s faith trilogy, the first two being “Tender Mercies” and “The Apostle”.
“Tender Mercies” won Duvall the Oscar for Best Actor and earned another Oscar for screen writer Horton Foote. (It is probably not a coincidence that Gerald McRaney’s character in “Get Low” is Pastor Horton.) “Tender Mercies” features one of the most realistic and moving depictions of a man’s gradual conversion to Christianity in any film.
“The Apostle” was written and directed by Duvall himself. There is no shortage in American media of depictions of clergy who fall into sin and hypocrisy. But this film does so with even more powerful depictions of God’s love and grace.
Each of these films is like a true Christian funeral. There is pain and tears, but joy and hope overcome.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Fair Entry

To get in to the fair this year, most Andersons entered something. The fair cost $9 and the entry fee was $2. Since I got a $2 prize, it was free. (Paige also entered a poem and got a 3rd with a $2 check. Jill's graphic arts entry got 1st & Best in Section for a $5 check. Mindy's doll should have got better than a 4th Place with no check. But her project will at least make a decent present for someone.)

So here is what got me in the fair:


Great are the splendors of Sonoma County

Rarely can those splendors be adequately described

Among those who attempt to do, are poets

Poetry though, is not my forte

Earning free fair entry is enough for me

Sonoma County will need to look elsewhere for someone adequate to panegyrize

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Dream On, Dream On" - Inception

You know how you watch a trailer for a movie sometimes, and you feel like you know the whole movie? (The girl thinks the boy is in love with another girl because she saw them hugging but really it was his long lost sister and the only thing they don’t show is the last kiss and final credits.) After I saw the trailer for “Inception”, I not only didn’t feel like I knew everything in the movie, I wasn’t sure what I had just seen. Which is cool -- seeing a movie that has surprises.
So you might want to not read another thing and go out and see it. Or you might want to know just a little bit. “Inception” is a heist film. You know (last “you know”-- promise), the “Ocean’s Eleven” kind of thing where there’s a big job to pull off, so the leader (Leo DiCaprio) puts together a gang to pull off the big job. The gang includes grizzled veterans and a newcomer to the world of crime, Ellen Page (the perky little teen from “Juno”.) But they aren’t stealing money or diamonds but ideas. And not breaking into a vault but into minds through dreams. Yeah, so it’s different than the average heist film.
And you know (sorry, I thought I was done) how in heist films there’s always that extra twist to make the job tougher? The thing that makes this job tougher is that the team doesn’t need to steal an idea from a dream (extraction), but rather leave an idea (inception).
As with any heist film, there are plenty of fights, chases and explosions, but since some of these take place in dreams, they don’t always have to follow the pesky rules of gravity, time and space. There are rules, though. The film clearly sets up rules for the dream world and fairly follows them. (The writer-director is Christopher Nolan, who brings from the Batman films the experience necessary to make a fantastic world seem real.)
But why should one care about what happens in a dream? After all, dreams aren’t real. We tend to discount dreams as random images created by body chemicals and electronic charges in our sleep.
In the Bible, a dream is rarely just a dream. In Genesis 41, the Pharaoh of Egypt was warned in a dream about years of abundance and famine. Daniel, like Joseph, rose out of slavery to the heights of power based on his ability to interpret dreams. And Joseph was told about his Son Jesus in a dream.
Dreams can clue us in to our greatest fears and desires. I believe God can still, if He chooses, speak to us through dreams.
Just as Leo and company enter the dreams of others in “Inception”, we need to bring God even into our dreams, our deepest hopes and fears. II Corinthians 10:5 says “we must take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ”. Even our dreams.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"My Father's Daughter" is Not a Jerk

“I was born a poor black child.” That line always made me laugh when I heard Steve Martin say it on his LP “Let’s Get Small”. (I’ll explain what an LP is later, kids, if you care.) He was such a WASPy guy (especially, for some odd reason, with his prematurely white hair.)
But I would think the line would some incongruous coming from the lips of Hannah Pool as well, the author of the memoir, "My Father's Daughter: A Story of Family and Belonging". Sure, she is black. But she is also British with the accompanying accent and she is a 30ish year old columnist for The Guardian. Her position of privilege makes the “poor” part of the phrase seem unlikely.
But when was born to a poor family (by our standards) in the
African nation of Eritrea. She was put in an orphanage and it was there that a British academic and his American wife adopted her. Her adopted parents were told that the girl they named Hannah was an orphan. But decades later, Hannah Pool received a letter from a brother in Eritrea. It was then she discovered she
was not an orphan. Though her mother had died in child birth, her father was still alive and anxious to see her again.
The book is the story of Pool’s fascinating journey to meet and get to know the family she never knew she had.
Pool’s skills as a journalist serve the story well as a Travel Log, introducing the reader to this small African nation with great beauty but that still suffers from a history of colonialism, poverty and war. She brings an interesting perspective on the nation’s customs, a liberated woman in a place
where women are expected to be demure and marriages are usually still arranged.
But the most interesting dynamic in the book is her interaction with her new found family. One of the great questions of her life is ‘Why was she put in an orphanage?’ As she learns parts of the answer to that question, she finds herself jealous of those who were able to stay with their father. But she realizes that her brothers and sisters may well be jealous of the advantages
she has as growing up with the riches of the Western world.
Pool, an atheist, is uncomfortable with the constant praise and thanksgiving her family make to God for their reunion with her. She probably wouldn’t be thrilled when I say that her book reminds of the longing every person that has ever lived has felt without a relationship with the Living God.
Romans 8:23 says, “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We all feel the need for more, for a parent that not only accepts us, but can fully understand us. God not only wants to
adopt us, make us His own, but His knowledge of us is even more complete than any Earthly parent (by blood or law.)
Another book that demonstrates from a theological standpoint the longing for a true Father is Timothy Keller’s “The Prodigal God”, an expansion on Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son’ that makes clear that we are all needy children with a Father anxious for a reunion with us.

(“My Father’s Daughter” by Hannah Pool is available from Penguin Books. “The Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller is available from Dutton Adult. And you can see Steve Martin with his adoptive African American in the 1979 film “The Jerk” which is justly rated R.)

Friday, June 25, 2010


There was once a great story on NPR’s “This American Life” about a man who had an idea for a cable channel called “Puppies”. It would just keep the camera focused on puppies, 24 hours a day (with crawls advertising dog food and flea medicine). The guy felt that people would be happy just looking at puppies yawn, bite and scratch. I think he’s right.
The same kind of thinking went into the documentary, “Babies”. French director Thomas Balmes thought people would be fascinated just to watch babies. If not for twenty four hours - then at least for an hour and a half or so. He was right, of course.
The film was released in France in 2009 and in the United States this year, with a DVD release soon. I can’t imagine much was changed with these various releases, aside from translating the credits.
The film follows the first year of life for four babies in four families in four very different parts in the world. The families are all relatively well off in their cultures. But “well to do” means something different in a western urban center and a third world farm. Hattie and Mari are first born daughters in big cities, San Francisco and Tokyo respectively. Ponijao and Bayar are younger brothers growing among animals as well as siblings (again, respectively, in Opuwo, Namibia and Bayanchandnami, Mongolia.)
We don’t hear a lot of talking, even from the babies’ parents, and I only understood Hattie’s folks, who spoke English, because there is no dubbing or subtitles. The only editorial comment comes from the editing. We see Hattie’s father using a lint brush on his daughter’s PJs. A contrast is found in Panijao crawling through the dirt and sampling the taste of various stones.
There is, of course, quite a contrast in material possessions. Mari lives among the latest of gadgets and electronics to be found in contemporary Japan. Bayer’s family has a TV, but the family probably wasn’t in line for the premiere of the iPad.
One can’t help but wonder as one watches what the best environment for a baby would be. Surely we wouldn’t want a pregnant woman riding a motorcycle through rough mountain roads, like Bayar’s parents. But I would never want to subject any child of mine to the vapid song praising “Mother Earth” heard in Hattie’s playgroup.
I loved the free exposure that Bayar and Ponijao had to animals. But Hattie and Mari would grow up in a world with much more ready access to books. Is it better to be an only child with one’s parents’ undivided attention or to have siblings one can look up to and enjoy?
There certainly are advantages for children in some cultures. One can’t doubt the advantages of western medicine. But there must also be advantages to the freedom of living much more freely in the world of nature. We often think we must provide the perfect environment for our children’s growth and development.
I was thinking of this when looking at Exodus chapter 2. God needed a leader to guide the “Children” of Israel to freedom. And like all leaders (like all people, really), this leader started as a baby. The sons of the Israelites were being slaughtered by the Egyptians. So a wise Israelite woman allowed her son to be adopted by an Egyptian woman and raised in the court of the Pharaoh. I’m sure Moses’ mother would have been appalled if she watched a documentary on everything Moses’ adopted family did as they raised him. But God was in control.
As the song says, Jesus loves all the children of the world. As should we. And we should work to see that all babies, children, parents, well….everyone knows of God’s love for us. Jesus always took time for babies (Luke 18:15). So should we.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Heaven" by Lisa Miller - a book review

When I was a little kid, first grade or so, I had a nightmare about Chilly Willie, the penguin cartoon character. Chilly was out in the ocean and he drowned. But that wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was seeing the bird sitting on a cloud in heaven. And he was going to be there, doing nothing for ever. That boredom was what scared me.
That’s why I was happy to see that Lisa Miller, in her book Heaven (Harper Collins 2010), included a chapter entitled “Is Heaven Boring?” Because a lot of adults wonder about that, it isn’t just the mini-me. Miller explores many interesting questions about heaven and the answers provided by the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) for the last few millennia. Ideas about Heaven from culture (Dante) to pop culture (The Lovely Bones) are also presented.
Miller is Jewish, the religion editor of Newsweek and skeptical herself about the existence of heaven. But her interviews with followers of various faiths are fair and respectful. She calls Anne Graham Lotz (Billy’s daughter) a friend and listens politely (and uncomfortably) to Anne pleas to take the Christian path to Heaven. She also writes about her respect for prominent atheists.
It is interesting to follow the history of views of Heaven through the years and the various ways heaven is viewed today. Is Heaven a physical place or purely spiritual? Does one get entrance to Heaven through faith or works or does everyone get in? How does one’s view of Heaven affect the way one lives life? The varied answers to these questions that Miller finds are intriguing, sometime funny, and thought provoking.
I knew a lot of the things that Miller writes about. I remembered from my seminary days about Augustine’s teaching that unbaptized babies would not get into heaven. (The Bishop of Hippo wrote that just as the thief on the cross would enter Heaven based on his faith, though he was not baptized; babies who are baptized enter Heaven though they have not faith.) I hadn’t known (or remembered) that the church father went on to argue that there was a special baby hell, wherein baby souls wouldn’t really even notice their torture. (Baby hell is a concept worth pondering.)
I was unaware of some of the Muslim theories of the intermediary state between death and the Resurrection. This is a theory that two angels with green eyes and long fangs test the newly dead with a series of questions. Those who pass the test with flying colors will get a window view of heaven. Second tier corpses will get a window to hell with the assurance that they won’t go there. Third level is pretty bad because your grave will be set afire and fourth is worse because your sins are turned into wild animals that will attack you.
I also found fascinating the archeological evidence that in ancient Israel, people kept their ancestors bones under there house and may have consulted and/or worshiped them.
Miller can, of course, present no definitive conclusions with her research. But she seems to believe that it is a challenge to rationalism to believe in Heaven and is very uncomfortable with the idea that there is only one route to get there.
Obviously, these are difficult questions. But I believe in a powerful God who can do as He chooses. And that He has graciously choose to give life to His people after life on this earth.
And as to that question of whether Heaven is boring, I came to my own conclusions when I attended camp as a kid, a few years after that penguin dream. A speaker at camp pointed to the beauty around us (the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains) and the fun we’d had though the week (swimming, games, archery, great food) and said that a God who thought up such great things would have even better things to come. For me, that answered my fear. That’s when I trusted Christ for forgiveness of my sins and began looking forward to Heaven.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

But I Could See That For Free

3-D is the current big thing in the multiplex. Last year people paid record amounts to see Alien Blue People in 3-D, this year people flocked to see Wonderland, Greek Gods and Dragons leap off the screen; with Living Toys, Piranha and Witches yet to come. People have always gone to the movies for spectacle.
Historical and Biblical epics brought people into worlds beyond their imagination. Science fiction, fantasy and horror films are like shared dreams on the screen. Comedies delight with outlandish situations that could never happen in real life. And, perhaps, Hollywood’s greatest special effect has always been supernaturally beautiful people in love.
Yet there has always been another side to cinema: simple tales of ordinary people. Rarely have such films been the blockbusters. War, monsters, epic disasters…that is the stuff of blockbusters. But some have always been interested in the amazing opportunity to observe other people living, talking, brooding, celebrating…just living.
One of the most acclaimed films of this kind is Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981). That’s pretty much what the film was: two friends eating dinner. But their conversation was lively and entertaining. Issues of philosophy and morality and meaning were the subjects of this conversation between two intelligent and interesting men. People through the years have enjoyed their company.
Not many people would seek out the company of the title character of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010). Ben Stiller plays a forty year old man recenty released from a mental institution. He once had a promising career as a musician but argued his way out of a record deal. So he went into carpentry, but his aptitude for that profession seems marginal at best. The film observes Greenberg as he dog-sits for his vacationing brother in a beautiful home in the Hollywood hills.
Greenberg is hostile, sarcastic and abrasive. His one hobby seems to be writing letters of complaint to newspapers, politicians and corporations that have offended him. He tries to reconnect with friends from his youth, but they have all taken on the responsibilities of families and jobs, leaving him behind. The one connection he is able to make is with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence, a charming but insecure woman in her twenties (a winning performance by Greta Gerwig.)
But Greenberg even sabotages his relationship with Florence, picking fights, criticizing her stories…just being a jerk. When someone quotes to Greenberg the old line, “Youth is wasted on the young”, Greenberg responds, “I’d take that one further, life is wasted on people.” We see Greenberg abuse alcohol and drugs, enter a casual and thoughtless sexual relationship with Florence, neglect his responsibility to Mahler the German Shepherd….There are a number of awkward scenes in the film that difficult to watch. People might reasonably ask, “I wouldn’t want to spend time with this person in real life, why would I want to pay money to spend time with him?”
It’s a good question. I appreciated the reminder that there are some wounded people in this world that need help. Those people are also difficult to help. As Florence says in the film, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Those hurt, despairing, abrasive people need Christ’s love.
I had a friend in youth ministry who loved Star Trek. He once told me that the reason he loved it was because he loved the idea of seeking out The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek IV). But one day, a counselor pointed out to him that the real adventure, the real undiscovered country, was to be found in getting to know another human heart and mind.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Can't Live Up to the Hype

It can be embarrassing being behind the curve. Not that this is new to me. I not only don’t have an I-Phone, I don’t have a cell phone. No HD TV in our house. Our cars don’t have GPS. And as late as the beginning of March, I hadn’t seen Avatar.
The film that has now made more money than any other film in history hadn’t got any of my dollars. The film that was on all kinds of Best of 2009 lists wasn’t on my list of films I’d seen. Which, since I’m the semi-official film commentator of The Communicator, just didn’t seem right.
My daughter Jill was also feeling some pressure to see the film. Several of her friends had seen Avatar multiple times and were telling her it was a must.
Many of the things I read about the film made it sound like a must. I read that it had conquered technological barriers. The theory known as the “Uncanny Valley” holds that we have no problem seeing cartoons of people. However, the closer those depictions get to reality – while still being just a little bit off -- our senses rebel. Reviewers argued that the director of the film, James Cameron, had overcome “The Uncanny Valley” not only with his creation of humanoid figures (a blue alien race called the Navi) but also with computer generated humans in the film that passed for the real thing.
I’ve loved many of James Cameron’s films, especially the Terminator films, The Abyss and even Titanic , which all had pioneering special effects. Critics proclaimed this to be the best presentation yet, utilizing 3-D technology. (The real raves came from those who saw it in 3-D and IMAX.)
I also followed with interest political, environmental and religious arguments about the film. I read that dialogue in the film mirrored the war on terror. Christian magazines and websites discussed the pantheism and ancestor worship in the film. And Cameron took up a phrase from a right wing review of the film, calling it the equivalent of “Death Wish for environmentalists.”
I read articles about people who left the theater depressed to leave the world of the film (Pandora) and come back to Earth. Pandora was a world full of amazing, beautiful, intelligent flora and fauna that included creatures like dinosaurs and dragons. People came out of the film saying “I want to go to there.”
So expectations were raised high by personal testimonials and the media.
Jill and I agreed that this was a film we should experience in the theater, at least with 3-D if not IMAX, rather than wait for DVD. And the Thursday before the Academy Awards was the last chance to see it before Avatar surrendered its 3-D screens to Alice in Wonderland.
And as often happens when expectations were raised high…they came tumbling down. The theater was about half full, with a chiefly older crowd for the matinee. Yeah, the film looked cool, but a not terribly original plot was made less so by conversations we had heard that spoiled any possible surprises.
About halfway through the film, I went to the rest room. When I returned, Jill said, “You missed several stupid things while you were gone.”
It’s a long film, nearly 3 hours, and we both were getting fidgety 2/3rd of the way through.
We left saying, “Well, we can say we saw it.”
I can’t help but wonder what our reaction would be if we saw it opening night with a theater full of enthusiastic viewers. Would we, too, have wanted to join the world of Pandora, rather than be rather happy to get in the car to get home for dinner?
Hype can boomerang that way. Something gets built up to such a degree that expectations just can’t be met.
It happens in the church, of course. We are told that a book by a Christian author will change your life. We hear that so and so preaches a sermon that will make you a new person. That this Bible study or retreat or seminar is all you need to make your marriage or prayer life or attitude all it should be.
And we’re disappointed. We’re individuals, and different things will appeal to different people. “One size fits all” is almost always a lie.
But it is good to know that God can always meet and exceed the hype. He knows what we desire and more importantly, He knows what we need. And if we trust Him, He will in due time meet our needs and give much, much more.
What Isaiah wrote may sound like hype:
“For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.”
(You can look it up in Isaiah chapter 64.)
But it’s not just hype and hope will come through.
(Avatar is rated PG-13 for language, violence and sensuality.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Article for Senior (Student Seniors, that is)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Just prior to the beginning of the war in Iraq (the 21st century one) I was working behind the hotel front desk and a group of guest (who obviously been enjoying their wine) were discussing that topic loudly. They were in agreement on the proper policy and on the fact that anyone that believed otherwise was either stupid or evil, but they left room for the possibility that some people on the opposing side might be both.
As someone who was, apparently, stupid or evil or both, I was tempted to voice an opposing position. But as an employee, I knew that entering that conversation wouldn’t be wise. Besides, I prefer to avoid conflict.
That topic of conversation continues to be, oh, what is the phrase…a minefield. Some people thrive on diving into such arguments and find a fierce debate stimulating. Some find any disagreement unpleasant and ulcer inspiring. It’s a personality thing.
“The Hurt Locker” is about a man who is looking for more danger than can be found in the thrill of debate. Jeremy Renner plays Staff Sergeant William James, the leader of an elite American Army bomb squad in Iraq circa 2004. James develops an addiction to the dangers of his job.
On assignments to disarm IEDs and other explosive devices, he takes increasing risks. He takes off the protective gear assigned him. He continues to work on bombs as the clock has been clicking too long. He risks not just his own life, but the lives of his fellow soldiers.
And yet, he can argue all the time that the risks he takes are to protect the lives and property of others, fellow soldiers and the Iraqi civilians. So is he taking the risks he takes for himself, or for others?
In one scene in the film, one of James’ barrack mates finds an odd box under a bed. It is full of fuses and detonators and timers. (It is the “hurt locker” of the film’s title.) James explains that the objects are souvenirs from bombs. He remembers the time and place where he acquired each one. He says they remind him that he is alive.
Many of us have hurt lockers. Our most vivid memories are those times when we were in peril. The Apostle Paul certainly had one. In II Corinthians 11 he wrote:
23Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
But I don’t think Paul put himself in danger for the adrenalin rush. Unlike James in the film, or the married person who has an affair to feel the thrill of the forbidden or someone who picks verbal or physical fights just to “feel something”, Paul did what he did because God called him.
God doesn’t call us to live a safe life. But the risks He calls us to take are for the good of others and His glory, not ours. No need to look for trouble. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 assure us trouble will come. But if we trust in Him, He will give us the strength to face those troubles.
(“The Hurt Locker” is nominated for Best Picture and could well win. It is rated R for violence and language. “Lost” fans should be warned about an unexpected Evangeline Lilly cameo.)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Something I wrote for a Family Humor Contest that didn't win

How hard could have been for my mother to remember what my brother and I wanted on our sandwiches? After all, we both wanted liverwurst. Of course, he wanted the Butcher’s Branch liverwurst, which was sliced. Whereas I wanted the braunsweiger that was a spread. Of course, there was the type of bread for her to keep in mind. Now who was it that wanted wheat, and who wanted white?
When it came to which kind of pickle to put on the sandwich, it was simplicity itself. Dale and I both hated sweet pickles and bread and butter pickles. Dill pickles were, and even to this day are, the only pickles Dale and I will eat. Of course, one of us wanted pickle on the liverwurst sandwich and the other didn’t. (Which was easy, really, because Mom just had to remember it was the opposite of the one who wanted dill pickle on a hamburger and who didn’t.)
Now, Mom could get the liverwurst right, and the bread right, and the pickle right, and even remember which sandwich should be sliced and which shouldn’t. None of it would matter if she got the mustard wrong.
My brother Dale preferred French’s mustard, which was a tad spicier than my Morehouse brand mustard. And if you think we couldn’t tell the difference, then you have gravely underestimated the nuanced elementary school palate.
I continue to be astonished that not only did our mother listen to our finicky requests, but that on a fairly regular basis, she fulfilled them. It’s almost more astonishing than a mother’s capacity to clean up vomit or endure scoreless soccer matches.
My mother could remember all of our dry cereal preferences, how dark we liked our toast, the right cheeses for grilled cheese sandwiches, who liked cinnamon on applesauce and who didn’t, tomato soup or chicken noodle, green or red apples, chips or pretzels (and about those chips – corn or potato), and she knew who preferred low fat and who preferred non-fat milk.
I think of my mother while making lunches for my kids. The boy, the oldest, wants peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread, strawberry jam and only Skippy peanut butter – CRUNCHY. The middle child, girl, would like a piece of steak, but if she can’t have that, she’ll settle for no more than five and no less than three pieces of salami on a flour tortilla. The youngest girl – ham, lettuce, Monterey Jack cheese on a hamburger bun.
I sometimes wonder what’s a more fitting cosmic retribution for those liverwurst sandwich demands: my children’s lunch orders or occasional bouts of gout?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Up in the Air

Everything is pretty from far away. Especially from high above. A dump, a swamp, a sewage plant… nothing looks too bad if viewed from thousands of feet in the air. Something about keeping a distance.
Last year’s award nominated film, Up in the Air, provides many lovely aerial shots, along with a clever script, humor and competent performances.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a big believer in keeping his distance. His life is about not letting anything, or especially anyone, close to him. In this film, directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking and Juno) from the novel by Walter Kim, Ryan Bingham has based his life and his philosophy on travel. He spends all but a couple of his weeks in airplanes, conference rooms, rental cars and hotel rooms. The few weeks at “home” are in an apartment with as much personality as the hotel rooms that are more of a home to him.
Bingham has two jobs. One is as roving “life transition consultant” (he fires people for bosses and corporations who would rather avoid such messy situations) and as a motivational speaker. In his speeches he uses the metaphor of a backpack. He asks his audience to imagine a backpack on their shoulders. He asks them to load the knick knacks of their houses into the backpack and then to imagine the feel of the straps on their shoulders. Then he asks them to imagine their furniture and car and house or apartment all in the backpack and the weight they would feel and the impossibility of moving around.
Then he asks the audience to imagine their friends and family in the backpack. He argues that the more attachments one has, the tougher it is to move -- and moving is life. Talking to salespeople, he changes metaphors, and says they are sharks, and if they stop moving, they will die.
There is something to be said about not being attached to material possessions. Jesus has a lot to say about being willing to give up stuff that would weigh us down. But in the film, Bingham reconsiders his attitude toward relationships.
It’s true that keeping people at a distance keeps us from ugly sights (aerial views are prettier). But ultimately, Bingham learns that though people sometimes add to our loads, more often people help us carry our loads.
In his job, he sees people that lose their jobs and have no place to turn, as opposed to the people who face such difficulties with the support of friends and family. The film also has an extensive scene in a Lutheran church. Sure, it’s for a wedding, but it is a reminder of another place support can be found to carry our loads.
The writer of Hebrews, in chapter 25:10, wrote, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
We might be able to travel more quickly on our own. But we won’t necessarily get where we want to be.
(Up in the Air is rated R for sexual situations, language, and nudity.)