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.)