Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Films I watched in 2014

The Lego Movie – Theater***

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Theater***

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Theater***

The Raid 2: Berandal – Theater***

Muppets Most Wanted – Theater**

Godzilla - Theater***

God's Not Dead - Theater*

Veronica Mars - DVD**

The Edge of Tomorrow - Theater***

Million Dollar Arm - Theater**

Three Days to Kill - DVD**

22 Jump Street - Theater***

Chef - Theater***

Guardians of the Galaxy- Theater***

Boyhood - Theater***

Calvary - Theater***

A Most Wanted Man - Theater**

The Battered Bastards of Baseball - Netflix***

Locke - DVD*

Stage Fright - Netflix*

The Monuments Men - DVD*

A Walk Among the Tombstones - Theater***

Sabotage - DVD*

Brick Mansions - DVD**

Alan Partridge - Netflix***

The Drop - Theater***

Noah - DVD*

Gone Girl - Theater**

Bad Words - DVD**

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me - Netflix**

Need for Speed - DVD* (homeless man's shopping cart)

Repentance - DVD*

Ride Along - HBO*

Fury - Theater***

Walk of Shame - DVD*

The Rover - DVD*

Draft Day - DVD*

Enemy - DVD*

Big Hero 6 - Theater***

Interstellar - Theater***

Birdman - Theater**

John Wick - Theater**

Ida - Amazon**

Whiplash - Theater***

Heaven is for Real - DVD*

Nightcrawler - Theater***

Joe - DVD**

Under the Skin - Amazon*

Babadook - Theater***

My Favorite Films of the Year

10) Chef - It shouldn't be a revelation a father is important for a son, but it's a concept difficult for many in our culture to grasp. John Favreau wrote, directed and stars in this story of a divorced father who uses his rushed visits with his son for movies, amusement parks and pizza parlors but comes to realize his son needs much more. His son needs an introduction to the dangerous world of manhood, including the world of work. Some have understandably complained about the crude language in the film, but knowing a bit of the world of restaurant kitchens, I'd say it is sadly realistic. A warning, after the film you'll want a good Cuban sandwich ASAP.

9) The Battered Bastards of Baseball - You may know Kurt Russell as a Disney hero or as Snake Plissken, Wyatt Earp or Goldie Hawn's significant other, but this film has Kurt as the son of Bing Russell, baseball team owner. The Mavericks were an independently owned baseball team that rebelled against Major League Baseball. And considering how much MLB charges little league teams to put Big League names on their uniforms, they deserve to be rebelled against. There's talk of turning this documentary into a feature film, but it's just fine as it is.

8) Interstellar - Christopher Nolan may be the only filmmaker these days who can get a big budget for epic film not based on a comic book. This tale of the future, a dying world and hope in space has some weak character and gapping plot holes but also has big ideas and tension and a vision, so you will keep thinking about it and arguing about it after you visit. And you must admire Nolan's hope that we'll "look for our future in the stars rather than staring in the dirt."

7) Calvary - Brendan Gleeson is great as a priest in a horrible little small town in Ireland. Everyone in the town expresses disgust with the scandals of the Catholic Church when they actually have scandals in their own lives that are even more horrible. I'm very much looking forward to writing about this dark film in my churches in movies column (at

6) Fury - David Ayer wrote and directed one of the worst films of the year ("Sabotage") and this, one of the best. Maybe one of the big differences between the films is that Brad Pitt can act while Arnold Schwarzenegger can't. This tale of tank soldiers trying to hold on to their humanity, to their Christian faith in the hell of war is brutal, yet worthy.

5) The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson makes his own worlds, and this one about an eccentric hotel manager who loves older women and good living is a world not to be missed.

4) The Drop - Tom Hardy plays a bar keep who seems like a harmless, perhaps not too bright fellow who's perhaps a bit too tenderhearted about dogs and women. But why doesn't he feel like he's good enough to take communion at church. James Gandolfini's last film, and he's good. But Hardy is great.

3) Whiplash - Want to see a film about jazz drumming? Maybe you do. Miles Teller plays a drummer who gets wants a mentor who's the best who will make him the best. But is it worth gaining the whole world of drumming excellence and yet lose your soul? Band leader J. K. Simmons says it is.

2) Guardians of the Galaxy - Okay, so I'm a sucker for walking trees and talking raccoons and Chris Pratt cracking wise. The other Marvel comic film of the year, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was quite good but this was even better.

1) Boyhood - Writer/director Richard Linklater had his actors keep quiet about this project... for twelve years. That's how long he took to tell this rather simple story of a boy growing up. His divorced parents seem to be trying their best, but maybe it isn't good enough. You come to love the characters as the director does, even when he doesn't take them quite seriously.

My Least Favorite Films of 2014

I just finished reading Michael Adams' book, "Showgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Quest to Find the Worst Film Ever Made" (2010) which provided that whenever you think you may have found a really bad film, there's a more horrible film waiting just around the corner. So I'm sure you may have been subjected to worse this year, but these provided me with the least pleasure this year.
There are "so bad it's good film" such as "Plan Nine from Outer Space" whose very incompetence provide some viewing pleasure. I did not find these films to be like that.

So here is my bottom five for the year:

5) Noah - I went into this film with some hope. The director and writer, Darren Aronofsky has made some interesting, even great films ("Pi", "The Wrestler", "Black Swan", "Requiem for a Dream".) And I thought it would be interesting to see how he would handle the very real challenge of turning the Biblical story of Noah into a feature. And with Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins in the cast, how bad could it be? The answer is very.
With magic, rock monsters and a stowaway on the ark the film presses toward all kinds of crazy, but not good crazy. The idea of making the story about conservation of the earth wouldn't be a bad idea if it didn't go over into the extreme environmental nuttiness of the earth being better off without people. Noah as a mad baby killer just doesn't work for me.

4) Need for Speed - To me it seems like it should be possible to make a decent, at least a dumb fun, film out of a video game. To my knowledge the dream of an adequate and not horrible video game movie has not been achieved. It seemed like a possibility with this film. "The Blues Brothers", after all, is basically car crashes and blues music and it's awesome. And this film featured Aaron Paul fresh from "Breaking Bad" glory. Alas, car crashes in this film are sad. It really lost me when it treated crashing into a homeless man's shopping cart, destroying all of his worldly goods, as the funniest thing ever. Maybe in the sequel (may it never be) they can kill a puppy for giggles.

3) Sabotage - Arnold Schwarzenegger has made plenty of "so bad they're good" films. Just last year he made "The Last Stand" and even better/worse "Escape Plan" with Sly Stallone that were objectively awful and I enjoyed them both very much. This story of a special-forces drug enforcement team that decides to score a fortune off a cartel was tastelessly gory, mean spirited and incoherent. A quite strange thing is the writer and director of this film, David Ayer also make one of my favorite films of the year.

2) God's Not Dead - This has been the Year of the Christian Film. Since the golden days of the studios, major filmmakers have been quite hesitant about making explicitly religious films. It looked like things might change a decade ago when Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" seemed to come out of nowhere make a fortune. But the studios seemed to make the unusual choice of placing their distant of evangelicals over their usually omnipotent greed. This year though, three film with clearly Christian content took in big bucks; "Son of God", a repackaging of TV's "The Bible" took in $60 million, the studio backed, recognizably casted "Heaven is for Real" took in $90 million and GND took in $60 million. (You could stretch things and include "Noah" in the faith marketed trend and it took in $100 million.) Sadly, all of these films were bad and "God's Not Dead" is the worst.
Kevin Sorbo (who seemed more intellectually astute when he played Hercules on TV) is a college philosophy professor who torments his students into written denials of faith in God. But one bold Christian student makes a stand for the faith and prevails. When I first heard about this film I had a spark of hope, because the persecution of faith, typified by the University of California's treatment of InterVarsity is vital topical issue worth pursuing. This wasn't the film to do it
Besides the lame treatment of the main subject, we have a presentation of women in the film that verges on misogyny; all the women are dim or harridans. And the film also features a Laurel and Hardy team of clergymen of vague denominational affiliation who spend most of the film trying to get to Disneyworld, but at the end of the film accomplish a death bed conversion of a traffic accident victim and then practically give each other a high five for success. Cameos from the News Boys and Duck Dynasty cast members can't save it.

1) Repentance - This year I've begun writing posts at about churches in films. The title of this film and a bit of reading about this film starring the Oscar winning Forest Whitaker and Anthony Mackie (Captain America's Falcon) led me to think this might be a worthy subject. A successful "spiritual advisor" takes on a trouble client to lead him to enlightenment. Little does he know that the client blames the advisor for his mother's death in a traffic accident and is seeking revenge. The film blends Christianity with New Age quackery and the occult in thoroughly incomprehensible hodgepodges. There are quite unpleasant sequences of abduction and torture. And a "happy ending" that's as unpleasant as it is nonsensical.
You probably hadn't heard of this film before I mentioned it here. I apologize for bringing it to your attention.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Favorite TV Shows of 2014

As I've mentioned in the introduction to these lists the last couple of years, TV watching continues to move away from being the communal event it was when I was young. With a few exceptions like the Super Bowl, people watch shows through different venues at different times, sometimes years from when others viewed them. I watched a few shows "live" (when first aired), and others on Hulu or Netflix or DVDs much later.
My rules for these lists are as follows: The show must have had new episodes during this calendar year. I had to watch new episodes in this calendar year. Therefore, a couple of shows that usually make this list, "Justified" and "Mad Men" didn't make it, because I haven't yet been able to watch the most recent seasons. I decided to include five dramas and five comedies, and mention other shows I've enjoyed.


5) "Ripper Street" - A police procedural set in London shortly after the killings by Jack the Ripper. Since the bobbies didn't solve those murders, their prestige is at an all-time low. Modern policing, with the use of forensics and statistical steady is only beginning in this grim but clever drama. I haven't yet completed the second season, but very much enjoyed the show's inclusion of John Merrick, the Elephant Man. (From the BBC, but I watch it on Netflix.)

4) "Game of Thrones" - Yes, the show continues to include gratuitous nudity and violence, but it also brings the viewer into a brutal yet fascinating world of grounded fantasy with kings and queens, knights and assassins, dragons and magic. Highlights this year included the death of a character much hated and a grand courtroom address from Peter Dinklage. (HBO)

3) "The Flash" - The CW Network since its inception has been a wasteland of vapid pretty, young people whining. Now it's changed a bit and two of its shows are making my list. "The Flash" is the cheeriest of the superhero shows on the air now. Yes, the actor (Grant Gustin) playing DC's comic book speedster Barry Allen is pretty (as are his friends) but he's also charming. It's just fun.

2) "Sherlock" - The BBC is miserly in its output of this series about the great sleuth in modern London, but it's forgiven for making all three episodes of every season funny, clever and engaging. The wedding of Watson and return of more than one character thought dead were among the highlights. It's hard to decide if Steven Moffat is more brilliant writing this show or Dr. Who (a great show I have yet to catch up with on current episodes.) (BBC and PBS)

1) "Olive Kittredge" - This HBO adaptation of a novel in four parts was quite unexpectedly by favorite thing on TV this year. Francis McDormand plays an intelligent but cranky school teacher, wife and mother over the span of decades. It captures life in a small town in Maine better than even native son Stephen King has in his writings. The show is quite sad, but in the end hopeful. And bonus - Bill Murray.

(Runners up, "Person of Interest", "The Walking Dead" and "The Blacklist".)


5) "Jane the Virgin" - Amazing but true, another CW show. A spoof of and salute to Telenovelas, this story of a young woman who accidentally is impregnated through artificial insemination really shouldn't work as a story, but it does. Almost shocking to see a network program that presents a character who chooses to be a virgin for religious reasons portrayed positively. Quirky and funny.

4) "Moone Boy" - One wonders how long this story of a young boy and his imaginary friend can last, since when Martin Moone gets much older he will seem deranged. But in its second year it is still quite fun. (Hulu)

3) "Brooklyn 911" - I've heard police officers remark that the most realistic police show ever made was the comedy, "Barney Miller". Whereas this police comedy is in no way realistic. Who cares? It's makes me laugh. (Fox)

2) "Parks and Recreation" - Heading into its last season next year, this sitcom about a small, municipal office in suburban Indiana is apart from an awful first season, consistently the best sitcom on the networks. Libertarian Ron Swanson, a rare advocate of conservative values in the media will be missed after next year. (NBC)

1) "Silicon Valley" - A warning that this show can be quite crude, but if it wasn't it, one might not believe one was spending time with a group of tech geeks on the verge of the big time with a tech start-up company. Created by Mike Judge (responsible for "King of the Hill" and "Office Space" and some of my other favorite things) the show started slow and built to a quite satisfying conclusion of its first season. (HBO)

(Runners up, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "Veep".)

Instead of Reviewing Media, I'm Reviewing Life: Top Ten Moments of 2014

10) Posting the first church review on our DeanandMindyGoToChurch blog, beginning our adventure for the next couple of years.

9) Cheering an Oakland A's win over the Mariners when it still looked like there might be a chance for them to accomplish something with the year.

8) Puzzling with my friend, Eric Edmund, in a Thessalonians Bible study over what work is worthy.

7) Watching a 49ers playoff game as our greatly missed friend, Sue Hufford, tried to find the luckiest place to stand in the room to benefit the Niners.

6) Lighting sparklers in a parking lot with my wife Mindy, son Bret and daughter Jill.

5) Standing under the trees for a reunion picture with some of my Piner High Classmates.

4) Praying with thanks during the celebration of my nephew Jordan's 1st anniversary party of his brain surgery.

3) At standing on a bridge at my brother's Sierra Endangered Cat Haven, to join my mother's ashes with my father's.

2) I went with my daughter Jill to see the SciFy Channels presentation of "The Birds" in the park and so for a moment you could turn in one direction and see the Golden Gate Bridge on the screen and turn to see the Brooklyn Bridge in the flesh (in the steel?)

1) I had the privilege of praying at my daughter Paige's wedding (to the very excellent Grant Lowe) and appreciated the laughter when their shared love of Spiderman was acknowledged.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some Books Read This Year

These are the books published in 2014 that I read this year:

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer:
Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good by Kathleen Flynn

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be by Maureen Corrigan

Personal (Reacher #19) by Lee Child

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

These are the books published in 2013 I read this year, because, really, many of these I couldn't get a hold of until this year:

Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Quest for Gold at 1936 Berlin Olympics
by Daniel James Brown

George Washington's Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade

The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey

The Disaster Artist: Inside the Room by Greg Sestero

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

A Curious Man: The Strange and Curious Life of Robert "Believe It Or Not" Ripley
by Neal Thompson

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O'Connor

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder

Encounter with Jesus by Timothy Keller

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornsby

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Review of "Lila: a Novel" by Marilynne Robinson (2014, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”, “Fever Pitch”) is a very funny writer and I was enjoying reading a collection of his book reviews. But one thing was annoying me. Several times he expressed his admiration for Richard Dawkins and went on rants about the foolishness of anyone who still believed in God. And then Hornby came across the novel “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. Not only was he awed by the style of her prose and the power of her intellect, he just didn’t know what to do with her open and solid Christian faith.

Many other secular critics found that the power of Robinson’s writing couldn’t be denied. That 2004 novel won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book presented not only a Christian perspective, but a Calvinistic theological perspective, so its acclaim was unexpected by many of us Christians who expect the worst from the literary elite, but its respect was well earned.

“Gilead” was the story of an old preacher, John Ames, facing the end of his life, writing to his young the story of his life he knows he won’t be able to tell him in person. “Lila” is the story of that boy’s mother.

Lila lives through the Great Depression in the heartland of the United States as an orphan cared for by a destitute, uneducated, migrant woman. She lives a life of quiet, and sometimes noisy, desperation before, by what seems to be happenstance, getting meet and marry a small town pastor many years her senior.

The novel wrestles with the wonder of grace, and how one can accept it when so many others seem to be without. Profound theological issues are explored, but from the perspective of a woman who has spent most of her life thinking about where she might get her next meal.

The book is really a prequel to “Gilead” and will not disappoint those who loved the first book. (It is actually the third book in a series, the novel “Home” being the second.)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Honeymoon for Three?

My wife and I are nearing our 30th anniversary, but out wedding day stays fresh in our minds, partly due to surprises. Surprises enacted by and for various members of the wedding party.

Even the rehearsal the night before had its share of surprises, mainly for the officiant, the pastor, my father-in-law to be. My brother and brother-in-law had a reputation for pranks at wedding ceremonies. But most of those pranks had been played with the aid of the officiant. For instance, when the pastor asked for a ring at one wedding, a telephone rang and was handed to the groom. (Understand this was pre-cell phones, so it was a bulky, black, office model phone.) Another time the pastor asked for the wedding band and a uniformed marching band entered the building.

But the father of the bride would have no such foolishness.

They promised to be on good behavior for the service. Not the rehearsal.

They came to the rehearsal dressed in their finest from the local Salvation Army and wore masks that frightened the flower girl (and some of the bridesmaids.) My bride and I asked the organist to play Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll” for the rehearsal recessional, but she couldn’t find the music. So we were surprised when she played circus music, but the bride’s dad was more surprised.

The rehearsal was full of jokes and puns and much laughter. The father of the bride said in his decades of ministry, it was the most difficult wedding rehearsal he’d ever conducted. We felt a little bad, but more proud.

Promises were made for no silliness during the wedding ceremony and those promises were kept. But again, no such promises applied after the service.

We were at the bride’s father’s church and there was a policy that no rice was to be thrown, to limit clean-up and reduce waste. The bride and I decided that we didn’t want to be pelted with bird seed (the proscribed projectiles) so we had a friend pass around much more pelt friendly marshmallows. But these were not officially approved throwing supplies so the bride’s mother scurried around to collect them. She was unable to collect the marshmallows from the friend that had stationed himself on the roof above the exit.

The bride left the service looking lovely as ever in a new getaway dress. The groom looked a little better than usual wearing a gorilla mask.

We assumed our car would be decorated, so that didn’t surprise us. My bride and I were a tad surprised by the back seat being filled with crumpled newspaper. But soon we were on the road, on the way to our honeymoon hotel.
We were still hungry because the fun of talking with family and friends had kept us from eating at our reception. But we also wanted to get the car washed quickly, slightly embarrassed by the “Just Married” honks we were receiving.

I asked, “Where do you want to go first?”

She said, “I don’t know, where do you want to go first?”

From the back seat, from beneath the newspapers, we heard, “I don’t know, where do you want to go first?”

We drove back to the church and I with great mock indignation tossed one of my groomsmen out of the car onto the parking lot. There was a good crowd of people in the parking lot, evidently expecting our return.

Decades of marriage have given birth to a variety of surprises, most of them good. For us, the biggest surprise was that, after being told in premarital counseling and from some marriage veterans that a good marriage would be a lot of work, we haven’t found that to be the case for us. We’ve had a good deal of fun through the years. (Having a wonderful and gracious wife will do that, sometimes.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Review of Maureen Corrigan's So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

The best thing about Corrigan's writing (true also in her memoir Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading) is her expression of the joy of reading and books. Her love of The Great Gatsby is contagious, and certainly made me want to read it yet again.

And it's fun the varying paths that are taken in the study of the book; as a biography of F. Scott Fitzgeral, a tracking of the book's critical and commercial fall and rise (quite the opposite of how things usually happen), and the reaction to the book for a great variety of readers.

My one qualm with the book (similar to one I had with her reading memoir) is political.When she writes about the book's character Tom Buchanan's passion for the book "The Rise of Colored Empires" she writes, "Because Tom's tirade is played for laughs in the very first chapter of The Great Gatsby, it reassures us from the outset that the novel is inclusive, even progressive, in its politics" there seems to be an assumption that racism and a belief in eugenics is "conservative" and the opposite of the politics of the left. When, in fact, many leading progressives of the time were firm believers in eugenics (see Margaret Sanger) and inveterate racists (see Woodrow Wilson). But as with here memoir, Corrigan has a rather simplistic political view (pretty much "Conservatives, Republicans...BAD....Liberals, Democrats...GOOD!")

Corrigan's observations about the symbolism in the book are delightful, and her observation that these symbols and the book's tight structure can pass unnoticed because of the eloquence and charm of Fitzgerald's prose. Also interesting was her linking the novel to the PI noir tradition and her insight that the rise of the book's popularity might be linked to its being one of the books made available in mass quantities to GI's headed overseas.

I do have one other quibble. Corrigan says that The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's only great novel. Tender Is the Night is a great novel, about this she is just flat wrong.

How About "As the New Saying Goes?"

My grandmother (father's side) spent a number of her last years in a convalescent home. She was in southern California, we were in northern California, so though my aunt was there most days, we only saw her a couple of times a year.
Part of the adventure of these visits was seeing the other residents who weren't as together as my grandma. There was The Soldier who made his bed many times a day and would stand at attention by his bed. Another gentleman in a wheel chair would make race car sounds. There was an escape artist that made it to the streets more than a time or two (kind of like Steve McQueen with his motorcycle, but not really at all). My brother would often say on these trips, "I hope I have enough sense to shoot myself before I'm in a place like this."

But my grandma sure didn't feel that way. Though wheelchair bound, her mind was fine. And her smile was in very good shape. The staff loved her. She was cheery and always appreciative of the nurses and attendants. She wasn't demanding, but was treated well because she was loved.

And she loved to talk. She would tell about all the happenings in the home (that's how we heard about the escape attempts). She would tell old stories about family, her husband who was forced to travel the country to support the family during the Great Depression and about her six children (my dad was #4.)

At the conclusion of one of her stories, of one of her sons working in a Colorado coal mine or daughter serving in the Peace Corps, she would conclude the story with these words, "Well, as the old saying goes..." And then she'd go on and tell a different story.
We would never know if she actually had an adage in mind or if it was just a conversational tic. I'm sure sometimes it was one and sometimes it was the other.

But it sure would make you wonder. If she was telling a story about an impulsive action by one of her sons, was the "old saying" she was thinking of "Look before you leap" or "He who hesitates is lost"? If she was telling about dealing with want in difficult days was the "old saying" she was thinking of, "A penny saved is a penny earned" or "Penny wise and pound foolish"?
Or perhaps you could come up with your own saying. My favorite self-made adage is "Cleanliness is next to godliness; why settle for second best?"

"As the old saying goes..." could go in a lot of directions. Grandma has been gone a lot of years. And now I wouldn't care what old saying she was thinking of, if only I could hear her saying it.

Friday, October 3, 2014

My Drunk Hotel Guest Story of the Week

Night before last, most of the hotel was booked with one business group. Shortly after I arrived, I got a call complaining about loud people in the hallway on the 3rd floor. I went up and found a group of women in the hall way drinking wine and talking loudly so I told them they could carry on the party in the lobby or go to their rooms.
I went up ten minutes later to see if they had dispersed (they had) and while wandering the hall I noticed the door to room 3.11 was propped open with a shoe.

A while later, I got a call from room 3.03: "Hi, I left my key in my room." "Alright, I'll meet you at your room with a master key." "I'm not sure of my room number." "I'll meet you the room you're in with the master key and a room directory." "Thanks, you're the best."

Two women were in 3.03. One opened the door and the other woman was scanning the floor. I asked the woman's last name (Ms. Gingold) and then told her room number. "I told you, you were in 3.11."

"I can't find my shoe," Ms. Gingold said. "Oh, I think I can help you with that as well," I said. She was wearing one shoe, a three inch platform shoe. Therefore she was hobbling. "Could you give please give me a piggyback ride to my room?" Because we try to help guests in whatever way we can and she looked light, I said "Yes." Her friend from 3.03 took a picture of this, which I'm sure will get me fired someday.

But here's the fascinating part of the story. The shoe that propped open her door was a black flat. The matching platform shoe was about a foot in from of the door.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Quick review of "The Case of the Curious Bride" by Erle Stanley Gardner (1934)

I've often watched the Perry Mason television show, but this is only the second Perry Mason novel I've read. Both the character and the story structure of the two are quite different. The television show is a traditional whodunit. The emphasis is on finding out who committed the murder (always a murder) and seeing that justice is done. In the couple of books I've read, the emphasis is on Perry getting his client off, and he doesn't seem particularly interested in who committed the murder (always a murder.) In both books I've read, though we find out who committed the murder, it's unclear whether the murderer will ever face justice from the legal system. Even more different is the way the character of Mason in presented. As played by the large, imposing, yet also somehow soft Raymond Burr, Mason is rather tenderhearted toward many of his clients. He is quite obviously not a man of violence, preferring to depend on his wit and the law. He is wily, but upright and honest. Mason in the books...Is different than that. For instance, this is Mason in the book confronting police detectives: "Mason's jaw jutted forward. His eyes became steely. "Pipe down, gumshoe," he said, "or I'll button your lip with a set of knuckles."" Can't imagine Burr saying that. He also is much less interested in fair play than the TV character. In this book, he tampers with evidence, barely staying within the law. But hey, he gets paid and paid well at the end of the book, so he's got that going for him. (Trigger warning, if bothered by sexism or racism, these 1930's pulps might not be for you.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Review of "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" by Maureen Corrigan (Random House, 2005)

Looking at my Goodreads account, it lists over 1500 books I've read and there must be many books I've read in my life but I can't remember to post. We recently moved and gave away hundreds of books but still have hundreds more, some on shelves and some still in boxes. So it wasn't difficult for me to relate to and delight in Maureen Corrigan's love of books. Corrigan is most famous for her weekly book reviews on NPR's program about cultural trends, Fresh Air.
Especially since many of the books she loves, I love. When someone praises Raymond Chandler, I'm already well on the way to calling that person friend. But one thing made me wonder whether she would be hesitant to call me friend; because, I am, politically conservative.

You might not think a book about literature, about how books enrich us and occasionally deceive us would be a relatively nonpartisan affair. And much of the book is. But at times she puts her political leanings front and center such as in her account of a job interview at Columbia University where she says she "tried to pass myself off as a 'soft' Marxist (not exactly what Lenin had in mind." Whether she truly considers herself a Marxist or not isn't quite clear but she certainly considers herself part of the political left.

She can be quite dismissive of conservative lovers of books, such as in this passage, "Books are powerful. On that point, conservative culture cranks like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney and I agree. But, unlike those two purveyors of literary uplift, I think the influence of books is neither direct or predictable." (Yes, that's a point far too subtle for these conservative dunces to grasp.)

The worst thing Corrigan seems to be able to imagine is for a person to become coservative. She adores Kingsley Amis' satire of academia, Lucky Jim, but is distressed that Amis "transformed from an Angry Young Man to a club-going, Merrie Old England Tory bag of wind. How can such things be?" She notes other instances of awful transformation, "Similar invasion-of-the -body-snatchers-type conversions besmirch literary history: the defection of New York Intellectual Norman Podhoretz to the right, the mutation of progressive reporter Joe Klein, who had written a moving biography of Woody Guthrie, no less, into a centrist pundit and author of the anonymous Clinton parodic novel Primary Colors. Why? Why? Why? If reading good books doesn't necessarily make you a better person, apparently neither does writing them."

So, a progressive is a better person even than a centrist. And mocking the philandering and dishonest is over the line, I assume because it hurts "the cause".

But consider the moral behavior Corrigan give a pass. She laughingly refers to the fraudulence of the autobiographical writings of Lillian Hellman, but seems to find them delightful nonetheless. And she mentions when she teaches about Dashiell Hammett she speaks admirably about his deserting his wife and child to devote himself to writing. Apparently, their leftist leanings excuse such behavior.

One wonders how Corrigan survives at National Public Radio and teaching at Georgetown University where there is such a diversity of political thought. (She does have some conservatives, apparently, in her life. When she talks about the diverse group of people at her wedding she says that there were "even a few Republicans.")

I did appreciate a chapter wherein she praises some Catholic novels from her youth. Though now she considers herself at best a nominal Catholic, she still values many of the lessons learned from nuns in her youth (though she has distain for much of the Church's theology and practice.) But she notes that much current literary criticism writes of Western religion with dismissive condensation.

I've long enjoyed Corrigan's book reviews on Fresh Air and I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed her tales of growing up, going to a parochial school in the '60's before going to graduate school and a career in public radio and academia. It's just a little sad to read about how she has in her life traded one rather narrow view of the world for another.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Favorite Books from Childhood

If I hadn’t loved reading books as a kid, I doubt very much I’d be writing children’s books now. I always loved TV and movies and video games didn’t come along until my adolescence. But books provided the best vicarious adventures and escapes.

Happily, I found a wonderful wife who also loved to read as a child. She still loves to read. She still loves to read children’s’ books as a matter of facts. No surprise that our kids were readers and it was a joy to pass on to them childhood favorites (though not all were appreciated.

10) Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson – Reading this to my kids as an adult, I was surprised by how violent and bloodthirsty this book. No wonder I loved it.

9) The Adventures of Homer Fink by Sidney Offit – What? You haven’t heard of it? Color me shocked. This story of a kid growing up obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology freed me to pursue quirky interests.

8) Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss – I liked a lot of Seuss, but this was my favorite. As the fifth of five kids, I related to the power struggle to be the top turtle.

7) Swiss Family Robinson by Jonhann Wyss – Yes, I saw the movie first. And I was a little disappointed they didn’t fight pirates with coconut bombs. But it seemed so real, and I wanted an island of my own.

6) The Danny Dunn Series (such as Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint) by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin – This was kid level science fiction, all the gadgets Danny got a hold of were either real or presented with a scientific rational. I wanted my own laser.

5) How to Care for Your Monster by Norman Birdwell – Before he made his fortune with the Big Red Dog, Birdwell made his true classic, presenting the Universal Studios Monsters as pets.

4) The Encyclopedia Brown Series (starting with Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective) by Donald Sobol – I have stolen shamelessly from this series about a police chief’s son who solves crimes for my Bill the Warthog series of kid’s mystery books.

3) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – I came to love The Adventures of Huck later, but as I kid, I wanted to be Tom (and kiss Becky Thatcher.)

2) The Great Brain series (starting with The Great Brain) by John D. Fitzgerald – Stories about a little con artist. He always gets a bit of a comeuppance, but I enjoyed the parts before that happened. (The first five books of the series are great…Not so much for the rest.)

1) The Chronicles of Narnia (starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) by C. S. Lewis – As a kid I loved the adventure and loved the theology. I loved explaining who Aslan was to friends who hadn’t figured it out. Still books I reread more than any others.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Goldilocks' Guide to Church Hunting

(This is an article of mine that was published in the now defunct magazine for teen girls, Brio & Beyond, for the October 2003 issue)

Once upon a time, Goldilocks went to college at Fairytale University in the Big Woods. Up until this time, Goldilocks had always gone to her parents' church, the Grimm Brothers' Church of the Safe and Cozy, but now she had to look for a church of her own.
The first church she visited was too big. There were not only a lot of people, but there were also bears. You can guess how she felt about bears. No one said "hello" to her except a big, bad wolf that she ignored.

The second church she went to was too small. She arrived a few minutes late, and everyone stared at her. The, because she was the only visitor, Pastor Rumpelstiltskin asked Goldilocks to stand up while everyone tried to guess her name.

The third church was too cold. The Snow Queen shook her hand at the door, and Goldilocks spent the entire service trying to thaw out. The last church was too warm. On her first visit the Pied Piper asked her to join the choir, and a woman asked her to lunch at her Gingerbread House.

Goldilocks couldn't find a church that was just right, do she gave up.

Back to Real Life

OK, you know this was just a fairytale. But the problem is real for girls who have to look for their own church for the first time. Remember, God wants you to be with other believers. Hebrews 10:25 says, "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."

Many people have the fairy tale dream of finding a church that is "just right." But that's not always possible. People aren't perfect, so no church is perfect. Someone once said, "If you find a perfect church, don't go - you'll probably spoil it."
So how do you find the church God wants you to be in? Start with prayer. Ask God to direct your steps to the church He has in mind for you. Ask others to pray with you, too.

Next, ask people you trust for advice on churches. If you're moving to a new area, ask your pastor or youth pastor if they know any good churches in the area you're moving to. If you're going to a school to a school with on-campus ministries such as Campus Crusade, InterVarsity or Navigators, ask leaders and members of the groups for advice on churches in the area.

If you don't have a talking mirror to consult, you'll probably want to consult the internet. You might want to call the church to answer questions that aren't answered in a church's website. Here are things to consider when looking for a church:


Goldilocks wanted a church that had neither too many nor too few people. There are advantages and disadvantages to churches of different sizes.

A large church is more likely to offer a greater variety of programs and groups with people your age. But initially it may be difficult to avoid getting lost in the crowd.

A small church may give you an opportunity to become involved more quickly. In a small church you may be able to get to know people of different ages. It can provide a good opportunity to learn from the wisdom of older people and to enjoy families with children. But, you may feel awkward because everyone already knows everyone else.

As you hunt, you'll find churches with a couple of dozen members, some with thousands of members and many churches with sizes in between. God uses all His churches, but you need to find the one where He wants you to be.

The people who attend a church will be a key component in your choice. You might select a church because you have friends who attend it. You may also end up in a place where you have to make friends. Would Snow White have dreamed she would get along so well with those seven small men?


You may remember the battle between Jack and the giant over the golden harp. That fight was nothing compared to the way Christians have fought over music.

In Psalm 150, God calls His people to worship with music, yet what God made to be good often becomes a source of division. Some people claim that the only true way to worship is with the grand old hymns of the faith, and other people argue that only praise songs express worship from the heart.

Different music styles are similar to different languages.
Some people decide to become multilingual with more than one worship language. Others want to stick with the language they know.
You need to decide how important the aspect of music and worship style is to you. Is one style of worship your top priority? Or are you willing to adjust to another form of worship? Someone I know who loves music attended a church that included only one hymn after the sermon. Even though he would have enjoyed more music in the service, this guy stayed at the church because there were other things about it that he valued.


When you're church shopping, don't just consider how a congregation can minister to you; also think about how you can minister in the church. Are there opportunities for you to serve? Is there a youth group you can work with? A ministry to the poor? You may decide it's more important for you to find a church where you can be useful than to find a church that's useful to you. You never know how much you might enjoy bringing baskets of goodies through the woods to the elderly.


This is a biggie. What does the church you're visiting teach about the reliability of the Bible? About salvation? About Jesus?

These are important questions that'll help you learn if the church is a solid choice.

If the church is part of a denomination, some of your questions about theology (religious beliefs) will be answered easily. You may already know the stated beliefs of denominations such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Nazarenes, Methodists or Lutherans. (But even then, individual churches can vary differ within a denomination.)

Most churches also have a statement of faith to read. If one isn't available at an information booth or church office, ask a church leader for a copy. If the church doesn't have a printed statement of beliefs, you may need to set up an appointment with a church leader to ask the questions yourself.

You may want to consider questions such as, "Is there a way for a person to be saved outside of believing in Jesus as his or her personal Savior and Lord?" or "Is the Bible true in all it teaches?"

There are other issues to ask about: the role of the Holy Spirit, baptism, the role of women in the church, etc. Think about which issues are important to you and ask about them.

It's also important to see if the preaching turns you into Sleeping Beauty and to watch out for growing noses. In other words, is the teaching interesting and true?

It's not always fun to look for a new church (although it might be), but it's certainly important. God will be faithful to lead you to a place where He can work in your life and use you to encourage others.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Quick Review of the Film "Locke" (2014 - written and directed by Stephen Knight)

A class action lawsuit might be in order for all those who bought this film based on the blurbs on the DVD box. "Explosive and flat-out thrilling" says the Wall Street Journal. "A powerhouse of suspense" says Rolling Stone. Let's see what could rival these quotes in the realm of fantasy. Perhaps, "Carrot Top's Chairman of the Board exudes wit and intellectual rigor!" says the New York Times. How about, "Ben Affleck and JLo promise to be the next Bogart and Bacall based on their performances in Gigli" raves the TV Guide. Or "Ryan Reynold's Green Lantern finally brings comic book films into the realm of Bergman and Kurosawa!" says Highlights Magazine.

The film is just so picking dull. Tom Hardy is an interesting actor, but phone book reading might have been better than watching and hearing him deal with family and job problems while he drives. And yes, that is the whole film, Hardy talking on the phone while he drives. If you are one of several Americans who finds soccer deadly dull, wait until you see a film sequence in which you get the thrill of a disembodied teenage boy recreate soccer highlights on the phone (tis not as exciting as that sounds.)

Don't listen to any critical raves, they are a siren's song.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Review of "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia" by Dennis Covington

In Dennis Covington’s account of Pentecostal Appalachian Snake Handlers, he talks to a woman who has decided she will not touch poisonous serpents in the month of July, because in two precious Julys she had been bit. So during that July, she would only drink strychnine. “Good idea,” thought Covington, “Play it safe.”

Covington didn’t play it safe when he researched and wrote “Salvation on Sand Mountain” in 1996. A reporter for the New York Times, he went to cover the attempted murder trial of Glenn Summerford, a preacher convicted for trying to kill his wife with poisonous snakes.

But he didn’t stop with the trial. He went to spend time with the snake handling congregation that had lost their pastor to a 20 year jail sentence. And not only does he capture the culture of a number of these churches, he eventually becomes, for a time, part of it. He handles snakes himself.

The Scriptural basis for the churches is Mark 16:18 where Jesus said, “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink poison, it will not hurt them at all.” Nowhere in the book is it mentioned that Mark 16: 9 – 20 is a passage with relatively weak textual support, it might have been in the original text.

A passage of Scripture that is not mentioned Matthew 4 where Satan tempts Jesus on the highest point of the temple saying “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” One would think that snake handling, poison drinking, as well as touching hot stoves and sticking fingers in electric sockets might well be called testing God.

None of the Snake Handling Preachers really go for the seminary learnin’. They have favorite passages that focus on faith and the miraculous. An interesting quirk is the emphasis on the name of Jesus. In fact, many of them take the idea that Jesus being the only name by which one can be saved and say that Jesus is the only name for God. They scoff Trinitarians, saying that God is not in three persons, there’s just Jesus. Most Christians have a word for that teaching…Heresy.

But Covington comes to love the energy, music and rapture to be found in the Snake Handling services. And he eventually joins in, singing and testifying, and eventually snake handling and preaching. But his preaching leads to him leaving this strange world.

It is a captivating story, well told. While one may question the sanity of many of the people featured, one comes to admire their faith.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Review of "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America" an anthology edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (Harper Collins, 2008)

In 2016, my wife and I are anticipating a great adventure, traveling to each of the United States. In preparation, we've been reading.

There is some good writing in Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey's collection of essays about the 50 states, "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America" but much of it is written from a penthouse view from Park Avenue. The book itself is a good idea. In the thirties the WPA made a series of guidebooks, one about each of the states. (Obviously, Alaska and Hawaii were not written about in those volumes.) This book has one chapter, one essay about each state each written by a different author.
The problem with the book is that each author seems to have the same aesthetic, cultural and political sensibility. Obviously there are chapters about red state but all the chapters have a blue state sensibility. One would think with such a book it would be possible to find natives of states. But often there is instead a New York tourist in a state. Literally. Here is the opening from the chapter on South Dakota by Said Sayrafiezadeh:
"The idea of traveling to South Dakota for vacation had been all mine. I hit upon it one night in my apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan."

Or pieces by people who grew up a state in a red state and moved to a blue state, for example from Daphne Beal's essay about Wisconsin, when imagined Cheese Heads ask if she was really asked to write the chapter about the state, "'Yes, me,' I imagine myself saying, smiling, always smiling because that is the state-determined social contract among us, and perhaps adding that such a wedge (a cheddar-Swiss hybrid, if you've never seen it) took a precious amount of room in my New York City closet for a long time."

Admittedly, not all of the writers live in New York. Ha Jin, who writes about the nine years he lived in Georgia now lives in Massachusettes. Jim Lewis has lived in New York and London and to his credit he now lives in Texas (but Austin, of course) but he was assigned to write about Kansas. Lewis lived a short time in Kansas, not long enough to appear on his Wiki page. He writes about "the Kansas of the Mind", an imaginary place, because he can't write about the real one since, as he writes "The mind is a kind of Kansas, or mine is anyway. Or my memories are: For one thing I seldom go there, so however near they may be, they remain somehow far away." (Yeah, a real Thomas Guide to the state there.)

But with limited contact, many of the writers are still able to write about flyover country with these tools:

1) Bumper Stickers and Billboards. One essay after another points out the nutty stuff these hicks advertise on their cars and roadways. Can these people really believe that fetuses deserve to live, that ordinary people should be allowed to have guns and that God exists?

2) Historical accounts about how Native Americans were treated in the previous centuries, clear evidence of the current backward state of current Anglo populations.

3) Talking with the sometimes limited number of right thinking people the Republican wilds. Such as in this chapter by George Packer on a state captured by The Southern Strategy, "The tribe of surviving white liberals in Alabama today is so tiny and embattled that they all know one another personally...They suffer from a commingling of conscience, privilege and impotence. And a large fraction are members of my extended family...They are secularists in a state that at times seems to be run as a Christian theology." So like Abraham argued about Sodom and Gomorrah, even these states should be saved because there are at least 10 righteous, um liberal, men, um persons.

4) They can acknowledge the natural beauty of the states, while pointing out the residents want to destroy that beauty with pavement, fast food restaurants and fracking.

5) Heartfelt accounts about how they always will keep the state in their hearts (and perhaps occasionally visit it on holidays when Paris is out of the budget.)

6) Making visits to the Red Land at great risk. In the essay on South Dakota, the author goes to the state at great nutritional peril. After all, his girl-friend says, "All they eat is beef and not just beef but bison beef"

So, I admit, there were chapters I started, read 2 or 3 pages and moved on. But some of the chapters were very good. Dave Eggers writes a fine salute to Illinois opening with these lines, "The slogan on all license plates on Illinois, for as long as anyone can remember, has been the Land of Lincoln. Everyone in Illinois and all sensible people elsewhere believe it to be the best license-plate slogan of all the state of our union" And it keeps getting better.

Susan Choi writes a moving and funny account touring Indiana with her father who still lives in the state (she, not surprisingly lives now in Brooklyn.)

John Hodgman writes sardonically about Massachusetts, Jonathan Franzen interviews the State of New York herself, Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel write about and also cartoon their states.

The book has wonderful things. It can best be enjoyed by skipping the writing that isn't always so wonderful (thought the states being written about are all, in fact, glorious.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is it Fair to Say Some Robin Williams Air Time Should Go to Queragosh?

I really liked Robin Williams. I admired a lot of his work. I met him a couple of times and he seemed like a genuinely decent guy. So I don’t mean any disrespect to the man or his wife or children. But…the President and Secretary of Defense were quick to put out statements honoring Williams’ art and work for the troops. That’s appropriate. I watched a bit of ABC National News last night (a rare thing) and they gave a lot of time to Williams’ death and life. That’s okay, his death had quite an impact as I can see when I look at my Facebook pages. I just wonder how many people know about ISIS taking the city of Queragosh in Iraq and how they are killing Christians; there are reports of ISIS beheading children. I don’t know how you strike a balance about such things, between celebrity news (that is genuine news) and horrific world events. I just didn’t hear the folks at ABC mention Queragosh. Or the President either.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dana Gioia: An Impressive Guy (Part III)

I try to be a cultured guy, I really do. When I read that a poet has won the Doodle Brand Endowment for Outstanding Poetry of Year I check out his or her (or whatever other gender happens to be pertinent) poetry on the net or at the library and I usually come away baffled.

Last week I went to hear poet Dana Gioia lecture and I asked in the Q & A time why when I read so many contemporary poets I had no idea what they were saying. He answered simply, "Because they're bad." He did elaborate, "They're are good poets that are difficult, such as T. S. Eliot." Gioia then went on to recite a passage from The Wasteland. "Now, you probably couldn't get everything out of that listening, but the emotion came through. And the second and third reading would be rewarded. Whereas with much modern poetry, it's an elaborate box with a difficult lock but when you open it you find nothing. We live in the wreckage of postmodernism."

Gioia said that one of his goals as a poet is to be clear. He credits his working class background and his mother's love of poetry with that goal. But many modern critics now mock the simplicity, heart and rhyme schemes that made much poetry in the past so rich (along with Eliot he quoted extensive passages from Shakespeare and Poe.) And when he got around to quoting his own poetry, I was happy to find that it was clear, thoughtful and beautiful.

So for your weekend's amusement and culture, here's the first half one of Gioia's poems from his collection "Pity the Beautiful":


The dead say little in their letters
they haven't said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different ever sentence sounds
heard across the years.

My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He's half my age, with jet-black.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.

Come back, Dad! I want to shout.
He says he misses all of us
(though I haven't yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions now is dead.

There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma - a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.

I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don't have forever.

Find and read the rest of the poem, it's worth it. Which is not true of most living poets.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Dana Gioia - An Impressive Guy Part II

For centuries, if you drew a Venn diagram, one circle with Fine Art and another circle with Roman Catholic Art there would be very little found in just one circle. Come the Renaissance and the Reformation the circles began to separate. Still, a majority of the work in the Fine Arts circle (music, paintings, sculpture, literature, etc.) had religious or Biblical themes.
Things have changed, according to Dana Gioia in his essay, "The Catholic Writer Today" (published in the December 2013 issue of First Things and as a pamphlet published by Wiseblood Books.) He writes, "If one asked an arts journalist to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect, would be unable to offer a single name."

Gioia notes that there are a couple of Catholic writers in the literary world that have respect, Ron Hansen and Alice McDermott for example, but even then there are many more writers that mock or attack organized religion than those that practice or even tolerate it. Fifty or sixty years ago this was not the case when Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers and many other Catholic and Catholic influenced writers dominated the literary scene. Some of the great genre writers of the time, Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake and Walter Miller were also Catholics.

Gioia writes, "Sixty years ago it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as writers and believers. These writers published in the mainstream journals and presses of the time...Catholic authors were reviewed and discussed in the general press."

But things have changed. Gioia writes, "Today the cultural establishment views faithful Catholics with suspicion, distain or condescension...Anti-Catholicism has also been common among the intelligentsia...As the British novelist Hilary Mantel recently declared, 'Nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.'"

Gioia argues that the lack of a Catholic (and perhaps even a Christian) voice in literature (and all the fine arts) diminishes the world of art and the intellect. For without it, there is not the dialectic debate of the issues that really matter. Sin, grace, faith, eternity, even love, have unique, long standing meanings in the Catholic understanding of things and have provided some of the great themes of literature. Great literature has come from expounding on these themes from a traditional view and great literature has come from those reacting against them. But without these themes, the world of literature and art is much poorer.

So much of literature today is existential whining because there is no acknowledgement of anything beyond our day to day joys and woes.

Gioia argues the literary world which claims to love diversity doesn't even admit the loss of a Catholic voice, though Catholics are a quarter of the American population. Sadly, he also argues, the Catholic Church itself doesn't seem bothered by this situation either; content to live in a parallel world of art. Church music, writing and other art can exist outside of the mainstream of the art world.

I'm a writer of children's books and my Christian publisher distributes books through Christian bookstores and the internet. They have made a conscious decision to not seek to put their books in secular bookstores in order to keep good relationships with those Christian bookstores. We live in a world with greatly segregated choices. One could read nothing but books from Christian publishers, listen to nothing but Christian radio and even watch Christian film and TV exclusively. Except for certain exceptional breakthroughs, there is a world of Christian art, popular art and fine art; and these worlds all occupy their own Venn Diagram circles, rarely touching.

Gioia doesn't expect a renewal of Catholic arts to take place through the efforts of the Church and certainly not through the efforts of the fine arts community. He writes, "The renewal of Catholic literature - or fail to happen - through the efforts of writers."

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dana Gioia - An Impressive Guy Part 1

This has been my year for poets. Usually one doesn't come across poets in one's day to day life. They're like actuaries and Feng Shui consultants: you know they're out there but you don't expect to see them. But this year U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway spoke at my daughter's college graduation. Last April I actually paid money to hear Poet Laureate Billy Collins. And last week I went to hear Dana Gioia, the former Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. He's also, you know, a poet. He says poetry is his true calling and everything else he's done otherwise, as a business man, a professor and bureaucrat he's done to support time with his muse.

He's a very impressive guy, so I'm going to divide these posts about him into three segments over the next week: first about his work with the NEA, next about his writing about the place religion in the fine arts and finally about poetry. I'm sure you'll plan your schedule accordingly.

When Gioia was first asked by President George W Bush to serve as director of NEA, he didn't want to go. He said asked repeatedly and felt like Jonah being asked to go to Nineveh. He accepted before he had to "be delivered in the belly of a whale."

Gioia describes Washington as a place where blood sports are practiced with civility and impeccable fashion. He took the position knowing that Democrats would oppose him as a Republican appointee and Republicans opposed the agency he would head. But he made a commitment with himself and God before taking the job. He would endeavor to act as a Christian. He would not lie and he would treat others with respect and listen.

Gioia is, not surprisingly, a believer in the transformative power of the arts. He grew up in a working class area in southern California and has gone on to highest corridors of power in government and the media. But two sources of culture changed his life. His mother loved poetry and quoted it to him often. And he frequented the public library. It led him to a love of literature that changed his life.

Gioia set as a goal as NEA director that funding decisions would be based on artistic excellence and not partisanship. He is concerned by the coarsening in the popular culture and the self-involved focus of much of the finer arts community and hoped the work of the NEA could address those issues. He also wanted to be sure funding went to all people, not just to the coastal elites.

He said he would often hear from those on the right, "You aren't going to sponsor gay art projects?" And he would respond, "There are gay people in America, aren't there? And the NEA is for all Americans." From the left he would hear, "You aren't going to sponsor Christian projects, are you?" And he would similarly respond, "There are church goers in America, aren't there?" He also established a policy of grants going to every congressional district.
He was most proud of a program to bring Shakespeare to military bases and a writing project for servicemen returning from combat.

Gioia met regularly to members of congress, listening to concerns and complaints about the NEA. And every year he was able to get an increase in funding. He credited the President and the First Lady for their steadfast support.
These days, considering what goes on in the federal parks service and the IRS, I expect NEA funds are being used to paint campaign signs for Wendy Davis, film commercials for PETA and enact a passion play for kindergarteners about the life of President Obama. That's why I would love to see the NEA eliminated. But with the right leadership, I think the agency can do more good than, say, farm subsidies or Obamacare.

With $17 quartrogazzillion in federal debt, I'm all for cutting federal spending. If I was in congress, I would voted to eliminate the NEA. But if I could be assured that a guy like Gioia would always be directing the agency, maybe not.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Full Padding of God (a skit)

(Skit published by Lifeways in their National Drama Service, Spring 2001 Edition)

Scripture - Ephesians 6

Props: TV monitor or projection TV and video of "NFL's Greatest Hits" or effect can be achieved by actors watching imaginary screen, listening and reacting)

Cast: Reporter (Blair Smith) and Player (Bo Masher)

Reporter: This is Blair Smith here on the sidelines with Bo Masher, moments before he goes on the field for perhaps the biggest bowl game of his life. So I need to ask you, Bo, how do you feel?

Bo: Hey, I feel great! I'm ready to g out and give it my all, 130%. I'm going to play my game, stay within myself, and we're going to work as a team, it's ours to win or lose.

Reporter: That's great, Bo. I couldn't help but notice that you aren't wearing any football gear, besides the jersey. Were you planning to dress during the National Anthem?

Bo: No, Blair, I think I can play more freely if I'm not wearing all those pads. I'll be able to cut, turn, and jibe more easily. So, no one will hit me, so I won't need the pads.

Reporter: And the reason you have no cleats?

Bo: I have an endorsement deal with Basset Hound shoes to promote these very fine dress shoes: so comfortable, so fashionable, and yet so sturdy, you can wear them to the supermarket, down the wedding aisle, or even on the football field. Basset Hound Shoes.

Reporter: And the reason for no helmet?

Bo: I need to see, and people need to see me. When I wore that helmet, people couldn't see the face of Bo Masher. They couldn't tell me from Barry Sanders (insert relevant name here.) But now people will see the face of Bo Masher, and know who is doing that magic on the field.

Reporter: One last thing, Bo. Can you look at the monitor to remind yourself of exactly what happens on the football field? (Thirty seconds of carnage on the screen.) Aren't you a little frightened Bo of going on the field with all that violence without the protection of cleats, pads and your helmet.

Bo: Nah, I'll be fine.

(Bo leaves the stage. Sound of a whistle and football play. Bo comes back to center stage on crutches.)

Reporter: Any regrets, Bo?

Bo: Yeah, maybe I do need some of that gear. I got to know my limitations. And you know what else? While I was talking to you, I missed the team prayer. But I got to go. I don't feel so good.

Reporter: Thanks, Bo. We'll be returning to the action now. But remember, these sideline interviews are brought to you by Ephesians 6 Wear. Don't leave home without it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Review of "George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution" by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

The book begins with this paragraph, "September - 1776 He was twenty-one years old and knew that in a matter of moments he would die. His request for a clergyman - refused. His request for a Bible - refused. After writing a letter or two to his family, this Yale grad uttered, with dignity, the famous statement 'I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.'"

It is quite difficult to imagine Eric Snowden ever saying the words that Nathan Hale said just before his death. Of course, Snowden might be more competent at stealing and communicating information than Hale ever was. But Hale was easily a greater man.

Kilmeade and Yaeger begin with the story of Hale, ill equipped for the tasks of a spy, but initially the only man the courage and willingness to do the job. Hale's story has been told in history books for the last couple of centuries. The story of the six spies that aided Washington and the Revolution's cause are much less known.

In fact, the identity of one of the spies, Robert Townsend was unknown for a century and a half until he was uncovered by the work of a diligent historian. The book follows the quiet work of five men and one woman who worked in British occupied New York. The deeds of the spies allowed the French to come to the Rebels aid unmolested, helped foil the treachery of Benedict Arnold and helped win the battle of Yorktown.

The spies didn't seek fortune and after the war, for the most part, sought no fame. It is impossible to imagine them running off to a totalitarian country to avoid capture and then bask in celebration as fighters for freedom.

The book is a quick read at two hundred pages and a pleasant read. It's good to celebrate these heroes, even if they didn't seek celebration.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Conservative Iron Chef

If you want to take a break from super heroes and obnoxious sex comedies this summer, you could see Jon Favreau's Chef. Favreau wrote, directed and stars in this charming film that features a character that faces dilemmas we all face: How to balance work and family? How should we respond when a boss asks us to compromise our integrity? Who is a better companion: Scarlett Johansson or Sofia Vergara?

Carl Casper is the chef of a restaurant that was trendy but has fallen into a bit of rut. But his professional life is in good shape compared to his personal life; divorced and neglectful of his son, he uses his work to avoid any other responsibility.
The story is warm and funny. Favreau seems to have pulled in chits to form quite the all-star cast for a small, independent film; besides Johansson and Vergara, Dustin Hoffman plays Casper's boss, Robert Downey Jr. is very funny and a number of other familiar faces (Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, John Leguizamo among other others) brighten the film. But the real costar of the film is Emjay Anthony, a ten year old who plays Casper's son, Percy.

And through Percy, Favreau introduces a remarkably conservative message. Admittedly, a conservative message by Hollywood standards. By such standards, Favreau's Iron Man also had a remarkably conservative message: Islamic terrorists are dangerous and should be dealt with with force. Kind of obvious, I know, Hollywood has set a low bar. And the conservative message in Chef? Dads are important.

As the film begins, Casper is usually late for his appointments with his son and often cuts them short. The visits are centered on amusement; theme parks, pizza and movies. But Percy wants more. He wants to go with his dad to work. Without saying it in words, Percy wants his dad to introduce him to the world of men.

Our society says kids do just as well in single parent homes as two parent homes. And even if it is admitted that two parents are better than one, than it is argued that two moms or two dads are probably better than the traditional family.
Chef presents the importance of a father introducing a son into the world. Circumstances force Casper to care for his son for quantity, not just "quality" time. He teaches his son the importance of hard work and a job well done. Casper presents Percy with a chef's knife with quiet ceremony, emphasizing that it is not a toy, but a tool that must be respected.

He also introduces Percy to the man's world where drink, smoking and swearing have a part, but with responsibility and moderation (a taste for beer, cigars smoked in Percy's presence and if you have ever been in a restaurant kitchen, well...) Some might have problems with this, but there is certainly something to be said for not letting kids discover the temptations of the world alone.

Radical thoughts these, that kids are better off when their parents stay together, that it's a good thing for fathers to pass on their skills, that men and women have different roles in parenting...For a Hollywood film though, not too shabby.
(Chef is rated R for language and sexual references.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Church During the First Week of July

Last week visiting a church, a song was sung for offertory that made me as uncomfortable as an atheist listening to a town hall prayer spoken in Jesus name. The song was 'This Land is Your Land'.

I was trying to figure out what bothered me about it. It wasn't just that the song was written with a communist tint (though, of course, the verse "A high wall there that tried to stop me, A sign was painted said: Private Property" was not sung.) Something else about it bothered me.

That something else was confirmed today when I visited a different church and the offertory was Ray Charles' version "America the Beautiful". (It was a recording of Ray, nothing THAT miraculous occurred in the service.) I really love that song, especially that version of the song. But it still bothered me. Why?

I grew up in a church that had a patriotic section in the hymnal. We had an American flag along with a Christian flag (I believe there was occasional disagreements over which flag should be higher.)

I love this country. I believe its foundation was a glorious gift from God to His creation. I love patriotic songs and sang along with many of them joyfully while watching fireworks on the Fourth. (I even like "This Land is Your Land" for its evocation of the vastness of the country and our ties to it.)

But the time set apart for worship in a church should keep the worship on praising God. I thought back to those songs included in our old hymnal and considered if I would be comfortable with any of them in a worship service. So, which of these songs do I think should be used in worship?

"This Land is Your Land" - No. Just, no.

"America the Beautiful" - Wonderful song, but again, in worship the focus should be on God's beauty, not this nation's.

"God Bless America" - After 9/11 I thought it was very cool when this was sung along with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at MBL games. But in church I'd rather be reminded that heaven is our true home, rather than singing about America as our home sweet home.

"My Country Tis of Thee" - The fourth verse is a wonderful prayer - "Our fathers' God to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, With freedom's holy light, Protect us by Thy might, Great God our King." But the song as a whole is more about the country than God, so no. Not in a worship service.

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" - Okay, here's my exception. Sure, I know Julia Ward Howe wrote this song about the Civil War. And it is quite militaristic. But there's some good theology in the song (I love as "Christ died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.") So this one, I'm happy to sing in worship.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Two Lightening Bolt Horns Up for Michael Lewis' "Flash Boys"

I don't have a lot of interest in the world of finance, but Lewis makes this a story about people: people trying to make things fair. One of the things I appreciated about this book is the respect that the author and the people he talked to have a great appreciation for capitalism and the purpose of markets to finance the work of entrepreneurs, factories, farms and businesses of all kinds. But the "villains" of the piece are those who are gaming the system, using the very regulations that were intended to make the system more fair. Yet Lewis finds there are still traders, bankers and technicians that are willing to risk there own careers and finances to make the system just (or perhaps truly just for the first time.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Liberty Island Magazine Contest Winner

Liberty Island Magazine is a new fiction journal for conservatives and libertarians. They had a contest to see who could write kid's lit on par with what the USDA was already putting out. Here was my accepted entry:

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Review of "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War" by Mark Harris

In 2007 alone, as the war in Iraq continued, Hollywood made four films about the war. Films like “In the Valley of Elah”, “Lions for Lambs”, “Rendition” and “Redacted” portrayed the U.S. military at turns as incompetent, corrupt, and murderous. Sometimes the soldiers were victims and sometimes as villains but the politicians and military brass were always stupid and/or evil.

During a Vietnam War, Hollywood made one film about the war, “The Green Berets”, in which the US cause was just and her soldiers were true. The film was widely mocked.

Things were a little different seven decades ago. During World War II, Hollywood was convinced of the justice of the war and was willing to put itself at the service of the government and the military. Nothing bad about the US or her allies would appear on the screen or anything good about Germany, Japan or Italy.

But not only were the studios making films for the cause, some of the best talent of the studios went into the service, some drafted and some volunteers. This book is about five of the best Hollywood directors who choose to join the military and make films assigned by senior officers. For many this wasn’t an easy office job, but they went into the heat of battle to record the fighting for training the troops, inspiring the folks at home and for the sake of history.

John Ford (“Stagecoach”, “The Searchers”) was the first of the major directors who willingly signed up for service. He was at the battle of Midway and held a camera (and dropped it on occasion when the bombs got close.) John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon”, “The African Queen”) went to the Aleutian Island and suffered the cold with the troops to see battles with the Japanese. William Wyler (“Mrs. Miniver”, “Ben-Hur”) was born a Jew in Germany and returned to Europe to observe bombers attack his homeland. George Stevens (“Gunga Din”, “Shane”) was one of the first to Dachau and provided with film the most damning evidence at the Nuremberg trials. And Frank Capra (“It Happened One Night”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”), well, he did pretty much stay behind a desk or directed in studios in the U.S. But along with the others, he put his career at risk while other men continued to advance in Hollywood (Ford for years gave John Wayne grief about staying home.)

The book is full of interesting, sometimes funny stories about the strange meeting of Hollywood glamour with gritty reality. Laurence Olivier tried to serve in the RAF, but after bringing down five planes (his own) during training, it was decided he could serve the Queen best making movies.

Though there is no doubt much good was done by the film makers, but at times they were willing to sacrifice truth for the cause, and depict the enemy with the most vile of stereotypes. But frankly, I have much more respect for Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” which portrayed the struggle of soldiers coming home to Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” which plays loose with the facts to show American soldiers as sadistic rapists and murderers. Once upon a time, there were true heroes in Hollywood, though they would shun that title.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why I liked "Sycamore Row", John Grisham's recent novel

Reading this book I was one over again by Grisham's ability to keep one turning pages. I'm making no argument for great literature, but right now JG and Lee Child are the two writers who best keep me wondering what happens next.
And I love how Grisham's faith is just a part of his writing. The protagonist, Jake Brigance, has a daily devotional time. No big deal is made of it, it's just there. An incident of a car wreck includes victim forgiving because it is what Christ would have them do. No big deal, just part of the story.

I remember hearing at a writer's conference that Grisham first sent his work to Christian publishers but they turned him down because of the harsh content. I'm so glad they did.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

An OnCourse article on Senioritis just about 4 years ago

You may have gotten a flu shot, but there is no vaccination for Senioritis, the dreaded affliction that attacks in the last days of high school. Especially during the latter spring months of senior year, many students find it difficult to care about studies and are desperate to move on to college, work or really anything that isn't high school.

After 12 years of school, the same schedules and the same people, most seniors are ready for something else. (Kindergarten doesn't count, because who didn't love that year. Finger painting, free play and all the Play Dough you can eat. But school doesn't stay like that.)

Like the common cold, Senioritis doesn't have a cure, but there are methods to deal with the symptoms.

• Symptom #1: Desire to blow off school work.
Maybe you're sure you have enough credits to graduate. Maybe you've already been accepted to the college of your choice. Maybe you've already decided you don't want to go off to college. So why bother? Well, your main reason to do good work should never be to impress college admissions committees. Colossians 3:23 says, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men" (NIV).

• Symptom #2: Hating every day because you want to be out.
As you mark the days until graduation off on the calendar, you may feel as though you are a prisoner carving the days on the cell wall. But there are valuable things that can happen during these days.

You are spending concentrated time with friends that you might not get to see as much--if at all--in the days and years to come after graduation. Don't miss the opportunities for fun. Don't miss the opportunities to tell people about Jesus. You have friends who really need Him. What better time than in these last days? Each day should be used to its fullest, as Psalm 118:24 says: "This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (NIV).

• Symptom #3: Skipping out on church and youth group.
In my youth ministry experience, I've noticed that during the last days of the senior year, some students become scarce at youth group and Sunday school. With so much to cram into those last few months, it's easy to justify skipping church. But, resist the temptation.

The juniors, sophomores and especially the lowly freshmen look to you for leadership. Yeah, a lot of the lessons and activities are things you've done before. But it might not be about what you get out of church but what you can give.

As the writer of Hebrews wrote, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (10:25, NIV). I think the Day in context means the Lord's return, but Graduation Day could work as well.

Other symptoms may also characterize Senioritis, but the important thing to remember is that you will get through this year. It can still be an excellent time, if you allow it to be the Lord's time.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Preferences and Predictions for This Year's Oscars

Three of the films I had on my ten best list for last year are nominated for Oscars (you can look at my December 31, 2013 post to see why I liked the first three films), so not surprisingly the same three top my list of preferred films of those nominated this year for best picture:

List of Nominated Films from Favorite to Least Favorite:

1) Nebraska

2) 12 Years a Slave

3) Gravity

4) Captain Phillips - This may be Tom Hanks best performance as the captain of ship boarded by pirates. His breakdown at the end of the film is quite powerful.

5) Dallas Buyers Club - Again, great performances especially by Matthew McConaughey and Jered Leto as AIDS patients. But I didn't like the way the film embraced the thinking of understandably desperate and at times irrational activists of the eighties. One might think from the film that doctors and hospitals were evil for denying some AIDS patients the drug AZT because they wanted to perform studies with placebos. Then we learn that doctors and hospitals were evil because they were giving patients too much AZT. And unlicensed medical clinics in Mexico were the true cutting edge of technology. And, of course, the only people more evil than Big Pharm are Republicans. But the film captures the time quite well and tells a powerful story. Plus, it has bull riding as many more films should.

6) Her - Lesser Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind are examples of his bizarre magic realism) is still a good thing. For some reason, I never quite warmed to Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his operating system. And there are scenes of "phone sex" that range from very funny to awkward and uncomfortable.

7) American Hustle - In the tradition of The Sting and the Oceans film, a con film set during the Abscam scandals of the '70's and '80's. Decent twisty plot, but there is less to it than the film makers seem to think is there.

8) The Wolf of Wall Street - For the third time, we go retro, into the '90's. At three hours, this tale of debauched, greedy stock traders is at least an hour too long.

9) Philomena - Really dislike this film. It purports to be true story of the journalist who helps a woman find her son who was taken by Irish nuns. And the journalist lectures about journalistic ethics that compel him to tell the true story. But the film makes up things, like a bonfire of convents records which didn't happen. It also has a brutal confrontation at the end of the film of the woman with a nun, who in the real world had been dead for years. We learn that nuns and the Catholic church are even more evil than doctors and hospitals. But not Republicans. We're reminded in this film that they are the worst.

Now, as for what's likely to win?

1) 12 Years a Slave (not just a good film, but a film Academy members can pat themselves on the back for voting for)

2) Gravity (perhaps the most widely liked film, perhaps a consensus pick)

3) American Hustle

4) Captain Phillips

5) Wolf of Wall Street

6) Her

7) Dallas Buyers Club

8) Nebraska

9) Philomena

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Best Pictures That Were Really the Best Pictures

It is an extremely rare thing that a film that is really the best film given the Oscar as Best Picture. There are a number of reasons for this.

1) Sometimes the best film made in a year is not made in the English language. So even though "Rashomon" or "The Lives of Others" were the best films the years they were made, the best they could hope for was Best Foreign Language Film, which they both received. Documentaries are also in their own Academy jungle and are animated films (which were almost completely ignored for a very long time. But even if you say Best Fiction Live Action English Language Film, it doesn't happen very often becauase...

2) No one agrees what "Best" is. Is it for the best craft or creativity or message? Many films have won best picture because the voters like the message. "Racism is bad." "War is bad." "Love is good." But many message films that seemed challenging at the time, haven't held up well as time passed.

3) And time is perhaps the biggest factor. Who would have guessed back in 1933 that the film that would endure scores of years later would be the one about the giant ape? Somehow, "King Kong" has endured and thrived through the years, known by anyone who cared about culture, pop or serious. But who know about Best Picture winner "Cavalcade" besides those studying up to appear on Jeopardy. "Vertigo" was a box office flop and wasn't widely praised by critics, but now is regarded as one of the best films ever made.

4) Most voting by the Academy is politics. For years, studios would pressure employees to vote for their pictures. Even today, when the studios don't have that kind of factor, there are more petty politics at work. I read an anonymous interview with an Academy voter who wouldn't vote for an actor because he ignored him at a party.

5) Finally, on occasion, the Academy has chosen a really great picture as Best Picture, but other great pictures didn't win. "Godfather II" was great, but "Chinatown" is equally great. "The Best Years of Our Lives" is great, but so is "It's a Wonderful Life."

And yet, occasionally it's happened. The best fictional, American made film that came out that year won Best Picture. I figure it happens an average of once a decade. Here IMHO are the times the Academy got it exactly right:








Notice the eighties didn't manage a best picture Best Picture, but the nineties took up the slack. Probably it we'll need a few more years to figure whether the '00's got one absolutely right, but maybe they did with 2007's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

Tomorrow I'll look st the slate for Sunday's Oscars.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Best Picture Winners 2009 - 2013

The count is now 46 out of 80 (and I think I've been quite generous to the Academy all the way through.)

But the rules change starting in 2009, going back old school when there were more nominees. (Spoiler - The new system does not work wonders.)

2009 - The winner was The Hurt Locker, and it's a good film. But not as good as nominees Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man or Up. It's better than The Blind Side, District 9, An Education and Up in the Air (good films all.) It's quite fortunate that the two bad nominations, Avatar and Precious, didn't win. An Academy fail, but the best pick so far of the revamped system.

2010 - Now the picks start getting really weak, with The King's Speech winning Best Picture. Nominees that were far better - 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, Toy Story 3, True Grit and Winter's Bone. I did like KS better than only one other nominee, The Kids are Alright. (It is a rare thing in this year that I like all the nominees to some degree.) I think nominee, The Social Network, is the film that will be remembered as the year's best. Time will tell. But I really doubt time will tell us The King's Speech.

2011 - As I said, I liked all the nominees in 2011, but 2011 has some real stinker. I like the winner, The Artist, but it shouldn't have won. It won because the Academy likes films about Hollywood. Bad films nominated for Best Picture this year - The Help, Midnight in Paris, War Horse and especially, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Decent nominees - The Descendants and Hugo. But the prize should have gone to Tree of Life or my favorite, Moneyball. (Moneyball is about the Oakland A's, which clearly makes it one of the best films ever.)

2012 - Again, I like the winner, Argo. And the Academy clearly like that it made movie makers into life saving heroes. But the best films among the nominees were Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln (which would have had my vote.) I do though like Argo better than nominees Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, and The Silver Linings Playbook. So the new era has not been promising.

We come to the 2014 Academy Awards with an Academy record of 46 out of 84 good picks. Over fifty percent, but that's with generosity. Tomorrow, before looking at this year's films, I'll look at the extremely rare times when the Academy may have actually picked the Best Picture of the year for Best Picture of the year.