Sunday, December 30, 2007

Gotthammer's Best of 2007

I used to be Old Faithful when it came to compiling a top ten list of films I'd seen each year, as they were released in that year. I saw less than 10 films in a movie theater in 2007; I see them only occasionally on DVD as well. There are too many images I don't want my 2 year old son taking in at his age, and by the time he's gone to bed, the best Jenica and I can manage is to watch an episode of whatever television show we're wading through on DVD.

Because of my graduate studies, I do read a lot. And because, up until June, I was a pastor, I read a lot of books on Christianity, both practical and theoretical. Due to my volunteer work at the Gathering, I continue to read fresh works in this area. My scholarship freed me up to do some free reading as well, and my ever-present I-pod Nano and a subscription to provide me with the opportunity to read while I'm shoveling snow or mowing the lawn.

So this year, instead of a "best movies" list, I've compiled a general "best of" list. These are the things I obsessed, ranted, and raved about in 2007. Few were products of the year, but their criteria for the list is that I experienced them for the first time in 2007.

Favorite Films
Pan's Labyrinth. It was the movie I watched the most times over following that first viewing in February in theater. It was the major case study for my thesis on Fairy Tale Film. I've watched the film multiple times, both with and without director Guillermo Del Toro's commentary. I've watched all the special features. And yet strangely, when Jenica and I had time for a movie this past week, I chose to watch Pan's Labyrinth, yet again.
300. The source of both rants and raves. This was easily one of the topics most likely to set me off on a lengthy diatribe about nationalism, Orientalism, and academic snobbery. Equally likely was that I'd just gush like a fan-boy, depending on your inclination towards or against the film.
The Host. Godzilla with brains; this movie was a wonderful tale with multiple layers of meaning. Even as I write this out I want to go watch it again.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. One of the strangest movies I've ever seen; simultaneously disturbing and enticing. The Czech New Wave is certainly an interesting film phenomenon.
Beowulf. An experience in 3D, and the film I'm most looking forward to using in lectures someday, since Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary created a screenplay that plays with both sides of the academic pissing match which surrounds the original poem.

Favorite Reads:
His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik- I don't think I can improve upon Time Magazine's review of this book: "Enthralling reading--it's like Jane Austen playing Dungeons and Dragons with Eragon's Christopher Paolini."
Velvet Elvis and Sex God by Rob Bell - I like the way this man thinks. I wish he was my pastor, but by reading his books, I get a little bit of that anyhow.
World War Z by Max Brooks - It's the end of the world as we know it, and Max Brooks weaves some rather intriguing social and political commentary into what is simply just a great book about zombies.
Baltimore by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. One part Dracula, one part Frankenstein, one part Creature from the Black Lagoon with Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales thrown in for good measure. An excellent piece of Gothic fiction.

Favorite Television
Avatar: the Last Airbender: This children's animated series kicks more ass than most of the adult live action fare out there. The story arc is epic, the characters are great, and the artwork is spectacular. It's just a solid work of fantasy, and utterly original in a sea of Sponge Bob and Naruto clones.
Battlestar Galactica: One of those series where I wish I'd had the idea. The reimagining of the 80's series was brilliant; the post Blade Runner Galactica is about more than just shooting Cylons in space. Its about asking what it means to be human.
Heroes: I like to consider this series the sequel to M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable." What would happen if superheroes really existed? Favorite Hero? Hiro, without a doubt. Don't we all love Hiro?

Favorite Songs
Hall of Heroes by Battlelore
Tale of the Sea Maiden by Leaves' Eyes
Liam by In Extremo
Believer by Kill Hannah
Come by After Forever
Collapse and Rescue - Steve Jablonsky
Kyla Cries Cologne - Fair to Midland

Favorite Albums
Rival Factions: Project 86
Fables from a Mayfly: Fair to Midland
Year Zero - Nine Inch Nails

Pet Peeve of the Year: Zeitgeist. It's the number one search that Gotthammer gets hits from, but it still pisses me off (my monthly hits went from the hundreds to the thousands after I posted about it), especially given some of the reading I've done since my initial posting on the subject. That said, it did produce my favorite personal quote of the year, which is "Sheep and shitheads come in all shapes and sizes, and Christianity does not have the monopoly on either."

Things I did for the first time: Won a scholarship, appeared semi-regularly on a television show, wrote an article for a magazine other than Youthworker Journal, wrote a thesis, wired lighting and plug-ins, finished writing a book, and played with my band out of town in a bar in a hotel (which is where we stayed).

I'll be putting together another yearly update from the E-town Perschon's in the next week or so, but until then, a very Happy New Year to you all!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

My Unlimited Article

It hasn't hit the newsstands yet, but it's on the world wide web.

Back in early fall, I got a phone call from Dan Rubenstein, the editor for Unlimited Magazine, a new periodical from Venture Publishing Inc. He wanted to do an article on how traditional faiths were trying new approaches; in the course of our conversation, he asked me if I'd ever written anything. When I said yes, he asked if I'd be interested in writing an article about my own experience as a pastor and a rock musician.

What a crazy opportunity. No one ever asks a minister to tell his story in a magazine that featured Extreme Fighting in its first issue. And if they do, they usually ask someone like Leonard Sweet. I can't really express how grateful I've been for the opportunity to tell this part of my story. And in such a public forum.

You can read the article over here. And if you see Unlimited when you're at can read it there too. But I'm sure all the folks over at Venture would appreciate it if you purchased it first.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Darkest Day of the Year

20 years ago I got up while it was still dark, packed up my dad's Yamaha 6 channel amplified mixing board, speakers, a blank cassette (it wasn't actually blank - it had the Statler Brothers' Christmas on it, and I would pay for this mistake later in the weekend), and drove to Redcliff, a town just across the South Saskatchewan River from Medicine Hat, the city I grew up in. Having carefully navigated my way to the address on a piece of paper, I came to a house I'd never rang the doorbell at, to pick up Albert Hauck, a friend from my high school German class and the new drummer for my band.

My band. It was a pretentious thing to say, because I personally had no musical ability outside being a tone deaf singer and 2 years of piano, neither Royal Conservatory grade years. I just loved music, and had played my first live show two months earlier at a church in rural Saskatchewan with a group of friends I'd met at camp. It had given me a taste of what it would be like to really perform. And I wanted more.

Albert and I loaded up the drums, and drove to Temple Baptist church, where we met up with Craig Learmont, who I'd known since we appeared as the bad boys in our elementary school production of "Pinocchio." There's an irony to Craig and I playing bad boys together, as we were anything but growing up together, although Craig's dad was convinced I was a bad influence on his son. Craig played keyboards, and guitar, and pretty much anything he had a week to mess around on musically. I was there because I owned the recording equipment, and had that charismatic aspect that garnered comments like "Mike is a natural leader" on my report cards since Grade 2.

It was December 21, the Winter solstice. The Darkest Day of the Year, though I didn't know it that day. It remains the brightest day of 1987, the day I can remember with greater clarity than any other day that year. It was spent writing some songs and recording them. 3 versions of one song, "Modern Day Pharisee," which has no surviving recording to attest it ever existed, though I'm pretty sure Craig and I could force it out of our memory banks and into the air if forced to at gunpoint. The quality was terrible, but I didn't much care. We were recording music, creating something together as a band. And that's all I cared about.

It was the first step in a 20 year journey that isn't complete. In those 20 years, I learned to sing, to play both bass and 6 string guitar (both acoustic and electric), and boned up on my keyboarding skills enough to write my own compositions on piano which were impressive enough that my piano teacher in college had me perform a piece at our recital. I wrote music for 3 musicals, played in 7 different musical groups, recorded 2 cassettes, 7 CD's and an odd assortment of unreleased tunes.

Since that Darkest Day of the Year in 1987, music has been a huge part of my life. And I want to commemorate those 20 years somehow. In an interesting moment of synchronicity, Unlimited Magazine had me write a feature article on my experiences as a rock musician and a pastor for the upcoming January/February issue, so in one way there is already something to mark the 20 years by. But I'd been planning something else since this year began. Each month of the next year, I'll be posting one memoir of these 20 years of music. 20 years of the Green Rabbit, but that's another story.

For today, I'll let a tune suffice. One song from "Through a Glass Darkly," the first CD I recorded in 1994 with the band Craig and Albert would help form and then leave, Athan Asia. It's a song I wrote in 1993 about the a figurative Darkest Day in 1987, and then the literal one in December of that year, when "3 live corpses walked into the cellar."

Did you hear the voices singing about the Kingdom of Heaven?


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DVD Review: The Polar Express 9.5/10

People watch Rankin Bass Christmas specials with jerky stop-motion animation every year, and yet somehow Polar Express has been relegated as the "bad animation" whipping boy for the 21st Century's Christmas favorites? Having read (and looked at the pictures) the children's book, I think the animation suits the mood perfectly, and several of the set pieces are hauntingly beautiful. The film is strongest when aboard its namesake, but the moments at the North Pole remain enchanting enough. If it weren't for the sudden cameo of a certain pop star, it would be a perfect Christmas movie. Tom Hanks' characterizations are fantastic, and the theme of belief and faith seasonally appropriate. Highly recommended, especially if you have children who love trains. A Christmas favorite for our family.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Book Review: Hogfather - 7/10

Not Pratchett's funniest or best Discworld novel, but when considered against other possible holiday reads, especially within the fantasy genre, this one's a gem. I read it this December of as a placebo for not being able to see the film version made in the UK. The plot is simple; the Hogfather, Discworld's equivalent to Santa, has gone missing, and the hilariously deadpan Death has decided to take his place on Hogswatch night. Highly recommended if you're looking for something festive and are a fan of fantasy, British humor, Douglas Adams, or Christopher Moore. As with most of Pratchett's Discworld books, no prior knowledge of the other books in the series is necessary; it helps enrich, but does not hinder enjoyment.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Reflection: Ave Maria

There are two commonly held Nativity stories in the canonical Christian scriptures, but I'm fond of thinking of Revelation 12 as the third one. I imagine John sitting in his cell thinking about how he wrote a gospel without one, and deciding he'd throw it into his Apocalypse as a deleted scene. As with the rest of the book of Revelation, it's a Nativity with powerful symbolism.

A great Sign appeared in Heaven: a Woman dressed all in sunlight, standing on the moon, and crowned with Twelve Stars. She was giving birth to a Child and cried out in the pain of childbirth. And then another Sign alongside the first: a huge and fiery Dragon! It had seven heads and ten horns, a crown on each of the seven heads. With one flick of its tail it knocked a third of the Stars from the sky and dumped them on earth. The Dragon crouched before the Woman in childbirth, poised to eat up the Child when it came. The Woman gave birth to a Son who will shepherd all nations with an iron rod. Her Son was seized and placed safely before God on his Throne. The Woman herself escaped to the desert to a place of safety prepared by God, all comforts provided her for 1,260 days. - Revelation 12: 1-6, The Message

There's a Christmas special for WETA workshop to produce in there I think.

I gave a seminar at a conference this past year on the book of Revelation. My goal with the 90 minute session was to provide a summary of the book as well as some keys to discerning how to read it. There are a number of ways Christian theologians approach John's Revelation; I'm what's called a preterist-idealist. I think the book was written for a very specific audience, primarily first century Christians. I also think the symbolism is primarily aimed at them. However, I also believe that if we understand the first century context of the symbolism of the book, we can discern some powerful concepts for what it means to be Christian in the 21st century.

One of the first century keys in Revelation 12 is the number 12. The woman wears a crown with 12 stars on it. The 12 stars on her crown are a rather easy symbol to decode and can be defined from withing the context of Revelation itself. As G.K. Beale notes in his commentary on Revelation, "Other references to crowns" are connotations of the people of God (the "saints"), as are the stars, which represent the 12 tribes of Israel, or 12 apostles, or both. The people of God, at any rate; the stars themselves are symbols of "angelic representatives in heaven of the seven churches on earth" in Revelation 1 (626-27).

While our immediate assumption, given that this woman gives birth to a Messianic child would be to say she represents Mary, most scholars would disagree. It's unlikely this woman represents the historical or personal mother of the Messiah. We should think of her as the apocalyptic, or theological significance Mary points to as the mother of Jesus. In other words, Mary is what's happening on the mundane level...but the woman in Revelation 12 is the theological significance of Mary's actions. So we could say that the Woman is not Mary, but Mary is the Woman.

And yet Mary is a powerful representation of the Woman who represents the People of God. She is a virgin, innocent and pure. Both Israel and the Christian Church are portrayed as a woman, beautiful and beloved, but sometimes unfaithful. Mary herself was not unfaithful, but was certainly perceived as such. She bore the appearance of the harlot, though she was a virgin. In this way, Mary is a summary of Israel at its best and worst. She is the handmaiden of the Lrod, the willing servant, the beautiful virgin; "I have loved you with an enduring Israel" (Jeremiah 31:3-4). And yet to her neighbors, she must certainly have seemed unfaithful.

The Woman is not Mary. But Mary is the Woman. Rather, the Woman is the People of God.

You and I.

So now we might say, the Woman is not you or I. But we are the Woman. Therefore, as Walter Wangerin has said, we are part of the sisterhood of Mary.

You see, Mary is also a model for people who are not part of the pure, inside track. She was certainly Jewish, but not of the actual "line of David" as her husband Joseph was. She is kin to Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba, wife to a Hittite, who all married into the line of David from the outside. All of these women are included in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. Wangerin tells us that "Hebrew genealogies almost never mentioned women. Yet Matthew names four in the ancestry of Christ. Not one of them is here by birth. Each becomes a matriarch of Jesus rather by her character and by God's grace. This is the sisterhood Mary is about to enter" (53).

It is also the sisterhood we are called to join.

We are called to join the sisterhood of Mary, and to allow the same apocalyptic, theological significance to inform our lives. Wangerin rephrases Gabriel's question to Mary in Luke's Gospel in this way; "Will you be the door of the Lord into this place?"

Doorways from other worlds are always gateways to hell in popular culture. If someone is opening a gateway in a movie, it's usually going somewhere bad. Or letting in a demon. It's all H.P. Lovecraft's fault as far as I'm concerned. Every gateway opened in a Lovecraft story is bad news. And if a virgin conceives a child in popular film or novels nowadays, it isn't the Lord who's been overshadowing. It's always Satan. Or a minion. Or a close neighbor with black robes. Regardless, the question posed to us given these two is, "which kind of doorway are you?"

We are called to incarnate Jesus every day. To be doors for the Lord into whatever place we are in. To be like Mary, and say "may it be to me as you have said" in response to Gabriel's question.

Protestants aren't into Mary so much. Smacks of papal whatever. Me, I'm post-Protestant, in that I'm not sure what the hell I'd be protesting about Catholicism, or perhaps I'm uber-Protestant in that I protest Protestantism as well as Catholicism. Or neither. Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. And I like the Christmas song Ave Maria. And I think Mary is a helluva role model for me and anyone else interested in incarnating Christ.

So I got to thinking, what if saying "Ave Maria" didn't so much mean that I'm actually praying to Mary, but rather recognizing the Mary in myself and others? It would be like saying Namaste, which is a Buddhist greeting that recognizes the common divinity in myself and others. So this Christmas, when I say or sing "Ave Maria", I'm not saying it just to the woman who gave birth to a baby in Bethlehem. I'm saying it to the Woman in Revelation 12, of whom Mary is a part...a representative. But then again, you are as well. And so am I. So when I say "Ave Maria" this Christmas, I'm saying it to you. And I'm saying it to me.

I'm saying, "Hail YOU who are highly favored. The Lord is with YOU. Will you be the door of the Lord into this place?"

Ave Maria.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Reflection: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay...

To my knowledge, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is the only Christmas Carol which reflects the only phrase repeated more then twice in the Nativity narratives from the Bible; "fear not." Every angelic manifestation in both Luke and Matthew's accounts of the birth of Christ is followed by those two words. Apparently something about the appearance of an angel is something which inspires fear. These are apparently not the angels one sees in Precious Moments illustrations or on the covers of all those Angel spirituality books which were all the rage about ten years ago. They're not fat little cherub baby angels, or Cupid with his bow. They're not Hallmark greeting angels. They're angels drawn by H.R. Giger, or Simon Bisley. Bisley's a regular artist for Heavy Metal magazine; his work is generally characterized by weapons as disproportionate as the physical statistics of the scantily clad warrior women wielding them. He's done a book of illustrations based on stories from the Bible, and I think his angels are the sort which would have to say, "Fear not" after they show up.

The angel who appeared to the shepherds "watching their flocks by night" is said to have had the glory of the Lord shining around him. The way most modern worship treats the concept of the glory of the Lord, you'd think it was something pastel in color, and perhaps vanilla hazelnut in flavor. The maker's of last year's movie The Nativity either had the lowest budget ever for representing the glory of the Lord, or were under the impression that it resembled a curly haired man backlit by a bright light. Backlit hair is what causes the shepherds to be "sore afraid"? Those words in the Greek are megas and phobios, which any English speaking person can recognize modern equivalents; mega phobia. Super Sized Scary. In Exodus 24:17 the glory of the Lord appeared as a "consuming fire on the top of the mountain," and was so frightening the nation of Israel refused to approach the base of the mountain. In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet's reaction to seeing a manifestation of the Lord in the temple solicited a "woe is me!" response, an ancient world equivalent to "I'm totally fucked!" Ezekiel say only "the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the Lord," a sort of Glory Lite, and he ended up flat on his face in terror. So I'm thinking there's more going on here than cheap backlighting, or a bright light shining through a window. I'd suppose it looks more like Aang, the protagonist of Avatar: The Last Airbender when he goes into his Avatar state. It produces a "Sore Afraid" reaction in the characters who are witness to it.
These fear-inspiring angels are often overlooked in the Christmas story, to our detriment. Their presence in the story is evidence of the apocalyptic nature of the Nativity narratives. This isn't to say they have something to do with the end of the world. That's how we commonly understand the word "Apocalypse" now, but it isn't what Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature is primarily concerned with. N.T. Wright has said that to speak of something in an apocalyptic manner is to invest "space-time reality with its full, that is, its theological significance."

The birth of Jesus is spoken of in an apocalyptic fashion in Revelation 12, where a child is born to a woman, and a giant red dragon immediately tries to kill the child off. Scholars are in strong agreement that the child is the Messiah, so it's sort of like a really intense version of the Christmas story with an insane effects budget. And it mirrors King Herod's attempt to murder Jesus by killing all the children under the age of 3 in the Matthew account. The story also echoes Moses' escape from Pharaoh as a baby. A commentary on Revelation 12 notes that "Many ancient mythologies contain a story of an evil usurper who is doomed to be vanquished by a yet unknown prince. The usurper tries to escape his destiny by killing the prince when he is born. But the prince is unexpectedly snatched away from danger until he is old enough to kill the fiend and claim his rightful inheritance and throne." This motif in stories about Jesus' birth tells us that the story is about more than just a birth. This is apocalyptic.

Science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer writes that " sometimes applied to writings or paintings in which great forces--supernatural or natural--are at work, usually evil work, and great things are occurring. Cities are toppling, the earth is opening vast mouths and swallowing up armies, huge and hideous monsters stride the world, the sun is turning black or expanding into a giant star, hordes of half-human, half-beast things are torturing naked people, the stars are dripping blood. In short, things on a vast scale are threatening the world. And there is always the feeling, even in the non-biblical writings and paintings of good and evil in earthshaking conflict. Hell has broken loose and only an archangel, or a hero, or God himself can defeat it. Nowadays, there is the feeling that the archangel or hero won't show; it's all over with the world. But in the earlier days of the apocalyptic works, the savior would appear when needed."

Mary is having a baby. It is an event that, while dangerous in the first century B.C.E., wasn't uncommon. It wasn't out of the ordinary. Yet the Nativity writers, and the author of Revelation have invested the event with its "theological significance." So Mary is not just having a baby...she is giving birth to the savior of the world. The angelic annunciations signal that this is no ordinary child. And the ones who sing the birth of Christ are part of the angelic "host". The Greek word used there, stratia, refers to an army, or band of soldiers. These are warrior angels...who sing. Which wasn't weird, given that the musicians marched with the army in Biblical Israel.

Warrior angels, a crazed king attempting to assassinate an infant Messiah, red dragons as stand-ins for the devil...sounds like a fight is brewing.

My wife and I were in Mazatlan, Mexico for Christmas in 1996, where we saw a unique Nativity Creche. It had all the usual suspects; Mary, Joseph, the baby in the manger, the Shepherds, and the Wise Men. And in the unusual suspect. A red devil, looking really pissed off. At first, I was taken aback...but upon further reflection, I realized it made perfect sense.

To free all those who trust in him from Satan's power and might...

A fight brewing indeed.

In "The Novels of Charles Williams," Thomas Howard quotes T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, equating "the fear in a handful of dust" with the "enormous and alarming significance lying just under the surface of even the most ordinary things." While scientists would approach this from the vantage point of sub-atomic activity in a handful of dust, prophets remind us that heaven and hell are potentially present in every action we take. "The sarcastic lift of an eyebrow carries a seed of murder since it bespeaks my wish to diminish someone else's existence. To open a door for a man carrying luggage recalls the Cross since it is a small case in point of putting the other person first. We live in the middle of all this but it is so routine that it is hard to stay alive to it."

Christmas takes us out of the routine, shakes us up, and reminds us to live in an apocalyptic fashion, to invest our lives with theological significance. We aren't simply donating to charity or being patient with a grocery-clerk-in-training, we're fighting on behalf of Heaven. Likewise, we aren't only being greedy pigs at Christmas or yelling at the grocery-clerk-in-training, we're advancing the cause of Hell. I don't want to be sensational when I say this. I'm not advocating a "devil under every rock" sort of spirituality, or a "angels everywhere" conceptualization of the universe, but simply to allow the Nativity narratives to remind us to view our lives through a more cosmic lense, and see that our actions bear significance, even when they are little ones. After all, an avalanche can be started by the movement of pebbles. We are invited to engage in the apocalyptic conflict, because, as Greg Boyd writes in God at War, "For biblical authos, to wage war against such things as injustice, oppresision greed and apathy toward the needy was to a cosmic war that had engulfed the earth." Or, as John McClane put it in one of my favorite Christmas movies, "if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem."

Friday, November 30, 2007

Reflection: Remorse for Any Death

This morning my son Gunnar picked up one of our cordless phones and said, "Phone?" I affirmed his astute observation, and asked if he was wanting to call anyone. He replied, "Papa?", which means Grandpa. I asked which one he meant, and when he didn't respond, I grabbed the closest family photo and pointed to my dad. "This Grandpa?" I asked. "Yep," he replied without hesitation.

All of this is a little odd, because Gunnar generally requests phone calls to his Grandmothers, not to his Grandfathers. We rang my dad up, and Gunnar talked to him for a little while. I think he knew already my dad needed that phone call today.

Our family has had dogs since I can remember. Nuktuk, a Siberian husky sled-dog who spent the off-season with us; Chugga, a dachshund I can remember picking out of a litter; Smokey, the dog I grew up with, a Heinz-57 mutt who came into our lives when I was in grade four, and left when I was in college. I remember that day with stark clarity - I was working at a summer camp as the director, and my parents called to let me know they were planning to put Smokey down. She'd been sick with epilepsy for a long time, and it had become unmanageable. They drove out to the camp so I could say goodbye. I held her for a while, and then they drove away, Smokey looking out the window at me one last time. It's amazing how much dogs get into our lives.

A year later, my parents brought Patches home. I was living in Edmonton already, so I never really thought of Patches as my dog, but I spent enough time around her that she was definitely part of the family to me. Another mutt, with a goofy spirit. Not as small as Smokey, but not as big as her best friend, Nala. Nala was a German Shepherd my parents inherited when my sister and her family moved to Houston. Patches and Nala became close companions. In recent years, I referred to them as the two old ladies.

Last year, Nala was diagnosed with a defect in her hip common to purebred German Shepherds. Worried she'd die before Gunnar could meet the dogs, we took a trip down to Medicine Hat so he could see them. We were very fortunate in that this was not the last time he would see the two of them. There were a few more opportunities over the past year, but today the opportunities came to an end. Nala's condition had worsened, and Patches relied on Nala for guidance since she had become mostly blind and deaf. My parents decided that with winter approaching, it was the kindest thing to do.

Donna Haraway says this about dogs in her Companion Species Manifesto: "Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships--co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all." We've seen that in our own household, a relationship between humans and dogs, over and over. We do not stop relating to these companions because of our grief. We carry on.

Still, the death remains. And in remembering these two good companions, who provided me with hugs and cold wet noses, who simultaneously fascinated, frightened, and befriended my son, I will close from a line of poetry from Jorge Luis Borges' "Remorse for Any Death":

The dead person, everywhere no one,
is nothing but the loss and absence of the world.
We rob it of everything,

we do not leave it one color, one syllable:

here is the yard which its eyes no longer take up
there is the sidewalk where it waylaid its hope.

Even what we are thinking
it might be thinking too;
we have shared out like thieves the amazing treasure of nights and days.

The images in this post are all of the dogs we've owned. Patches, Nala, and Smokey: these are images I worked on for a calendar of our dogs we gave to my dad a few Christmases back.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Beowulf: Movie Review - 9/10

I've got a lot to say about this film, given the paper I wrote on filmic adaptations of Beowulf, but I'm behind on my thesis, so I'll let a brief review suffice for the time being. Hopefully, time will allow for writing a conclusion to that original paper in the near future, to strike while the proverbial iron is still hot.

This revisionist cinematic version of the epic poem stays surprisingly true to the heart of the heroic ethos. While many seem to have missed the subtlety of the story amidst the spectacle of 3D CGI, puerile humor and over the top gore, Gaiman and Zemeckis have raised complex issues surrounding the idea of macho heroism, deconstructing without destroying it. My guess is the story is getting lost in the midst of the spectacle, which is unfortunate; this is the best Beowulf brought to screen yet, paying tribute not only to its original source text, but to the postmodern theories regarding Grendel and Beowulf as two sides of the same coin.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ratatouille: DVD review - 10/10

A gourmet blend of solid storytelling, great voice acting, and some of the best computer animated visuals I've ever seen, which is as much a culinary delight for the eyes as the entrees made by Remy the rat are for the taste buds of Paris gourmands. Another hit from Brad Bird and his crew--this is why Pixar is top of the heap in animation these days, and why Dreamworks is just...dreaming.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Golden Compass: Reflections on the 'danger' of Pullman's trilogy

I received the following email from my sister asking for my 'expert opinion'.

You may already know about this, but I just learned about a kids movie coming out in December starring Nicole Kidman. I believe it's called The Golden Compass, and while it will be a watered down version, it is based on a series of children's books about killing God (it is anti-Narnia).

Please follow this link, and then pass it on. From what I understand, the hope is to get a lot of kids to see the movie - which won't seem too bad - and then get the parents to buy the books for their kids for Christmas. The quotes from the author sum it all up. I'm going to tell everyone about this movie. I hope it totally bombs because we were all paying attention!

It's a quote from the page on the Golden Compass, replying to the allegation that "The 2007 film Golden Compass is based on a series of books with anti-religious themes". Snopes has ascertained that this is true. Sheer genius, this post. "I hope it totally bombs because we're all paying attention." The battle cry of the sign waving Christian. And after years of creating media storms through their own self-inflicted controversy, these people still don't understand that "telling EVERYONE about ANYTHING" simply raises its profile. Ever since the release of the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ I've been aware that this sort of protest results in the very opposite of what these people are hoping to achieve.

Any cursory search for information on the Narnia films will produce a link or two to Golden Compass' author, Phillip Pullman giving his highly critical opinion of C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. I wrote a paper about it in my undergraduate which I posted here. It doesn't take a deep search to find out Phillip Pullman's anti-Christian sentiments. The DaVinci code this ain't, and you don't need a website devoted to urban legends to find this out.

I'll let you all know right off, that unlike the complete waste-of-time I opted not to watch in its inglorious entirety (see my Zeitgeist post), I have read all of Pullman's trilogy of which Golden Compass is the first book. In truth, I've read them twice; once by myself, and then again to my wife. I then read Golden Compass a third time in a close reading for an English course on Children's literature. That was during the height of the Evangelical Christian backlash against Harry Potter, and all I could think was, "It's a clear indication that Pullman's books don't have near the success of Rowling's, or Harry's evils would be yesterday's news." The attitude towards the Christian church is clear in these books. And its not a positive one.

That said, I don't think the books are evil. I don't think they pose a threat to my faith. Or anyone else's faith for that matter, unless their faith is the glass house type, that shatters at the first challenge given it.

My approach to ministry when I was a pastor was to encourage my students to think for themselves; most of the students at Holyrood have read the His Dark Materials series, and we had some good discussions about elements in the books over coffee.

My literary background is in Comparative Literature. One of the ways we approached texts in my coursework was to ignore who the author was, or what the author had stated was supposed to be the point of the text. For example, Tolkien said he hated allegory, but many readers find allegorical elements in his works. Or, Lewis was a Christian writer, but his books contain a good deal of pagan elements. Or, to the point at hand, Pullman is an atheist who writes about the death of God. But which God?

The God of the secondary world(s) of His Dark Materials is the God of first century gnosticism. It is a God who is no god at all, but an angel with a superiority complex who has fooled angelic hosts into thinking he's God. So we're not dealing with the God of Christianity, or Judaism or Islam. We're dealing with the God of gnosticism, a false God, whether you be a believer or not. Further, Lyra, the heroine of the series effectively defeats (with the aid of many heroic companions) this God after a death and rebirth scenario. As Gotthammer visitor 'Sapience' commented in my earlier post on Pullman, "I think Pullman actually ends up self-defeating in his polemic. Lyra ends up as a Christ figure; the conspicuous absence of the Son in novels based on Paradise Lost makes us look for Christ in her (did you notice that Jesus is only mentioned once in more than a thousand pages?). She harrows hell, her end choice is one of self-sacrificial love, etc. She's not Christ, but Pullman makes us think of Christ when we see her--and I don't think it's intentional either." There's a Christ story in the final book, albeit a generically mythic death-and-rebirth one, overlapping with Christianity where it contains shared mythic elements. So whatever Pullman says off the page about Christianity and organized religion, there are some very worthwhile themes in His Dark Materials for Christians and atheists alike to engage with. It is, as Cathy McSporran suggests in her excellent article on both Lewis' and Pullman's works, " a space 'where two worldviews collide'."

That's the strength of the books. While there is an overtly corrupt organized Church in Lyra's world, there is also a clear storyline of spiritual growth, of a redeemer figure, and of concepts of the afterlife. The book handles both sides with complex characters (although as I've noted in my paper, Pullman is sadly one-sided in his handling of the Church - those characters are all bad, whereas the rest of his cast has multi-faceted depth), and allows for an ambiguity that permits the reader to continue to choose their path. It leaves us with the option to join and help build the "Republic of Heaven". And when you read what Jesus says about his "Kingdom" of servants and love, I'd say the Kingdom and the Republic are less at odds and more in common than the Evangelical watchdogs would give credit for.

We always tell people we want them to make a choice for Christ. Choices cannot be made if the other options are suppressed. That's the sort of authoritarian religious activity Pullman is railing against. All the protesting will do is confirm his belief about Christianity.

On a final note, I'm looking forward to seeing it. And if I had kids old enough to comprehend it, I'd be taking them. All this philosophical musing aside, I'm all about armored polar bears.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pooh's Heffalump Movie: DVD review 7/10

A surprisingly good film, given that Disney's sequels tend towards the lowest common denominator to make the quickest buck. Unlike many of the Pooh spin offs, this one still resonates with A.A. Milne's sensibilities (and even a few passing dialogue references to the original stories), and Kyle Stanger is utterly charming as Lumpy the Heffalump's voice. The downside is Carly Simon's original songs, which sometimes feel out of place in the Hundred Acre Wood. Overall a great film for the young and young at heart.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Charlotte's Web: DVD Review 6.5/10

Long time visitors to Gotthammer are going to note a shift in the number of children's movies I'll be reviewing. We hardly ever find the time to watch grown up films anymore - they aren't the sort of thing we want to expose Gunnar to just yet, and we don't stay up late enough after he goes to bed to watch anything more than an episode of whichever television series we're watching on DVD. So, there's the caveat. I hope the reviews help those of you who are also parents.

The 2006 version of Charlotte's Web is a very able live-action reworking of E.B. White's tale of the deep relationship between a pig, destined to die as Christmas ham, and the spider who saves him, ironically resulting in the very fate she hoped to save the pig from. Julia Roberts' voice is well suited to Charlotte's demeanor, and most of the star studded voice casting is excellent. Comparisons to Babe are ridiculous, considering that Wilbur has seniority as the talking pig in children's literature. Refreshingly squeaky clean amidst all the sneaky innuendo I find in too many children's movies these days. A good family film, recommended.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Twin Peaks: A town I like to visit...though I wouldn't want to live there

I was a late bloomer to the Twin Peaks phenomenon. The show came out in a period of my life when I was so engrossed in my early theological studies and the development of the first musical project I was part of that I completely missed the media storm surrounding the show. My interest in it came as a result of three events Agent Cooper might have seen as synchronicity; I met a girl at college who was a big fan of the show, then read an article in the local paper about the possible connections between Old Testament theology and the symbolism of good and evil in the show, and then finally, a chance viewing of the last five minutes of the episode revealing who had killed Laura Palmer. I was shocked by the brutality of the scene, but riveted as well, unwilling to change the channel. As a result, I saw the final moments when the Giant appears to Agent Cooper in one of the show's many oneiric scenes, saying simply, "It is happening again." I didn't know what it was, but the words chilled me, connected as I suspected they were to the violence Laura's killer had just unleashed upon a new victim.

I was hooked, but this was a show already doomed for cancellation, and I only saw two or three more episodes before the now infamous shuffling of Twin Peaks' time slot on ABC. When the pilot was released to VHS, I watched it, unaware that the closed ending was not the one which had been shown on television originally. Still, the dreamlike, fantastic quality of that closed ending was the quality which most drew me to the show; the spiritual aspect, the idea that the real killer of Laura Palmer had been the demon BOB inhabiting the body of one of the townsfolk of Twin Peaks.

My next visit to the town was for the release of the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, which I viewed in a theater which was virtually empty. The film haunted me the night I saw it, and I stayed up late into the early hours of the morning in reflection and prayer about the horror Lynch portrays in the final days of Laura Palmer's life. Something rang very true in his vision of domestic violence and the ambiguity of the connection between everyday horror and the veil of the supernatural. I told classmates at the theological school I was at by this time that I thought it was the most important film for people interested in Christian ministry, because I had never been so motivated to pray for girls in the same situation as Laura Palmer, victims of domestic abuse, victims of drug use and a sex trade which thrives upon the objectification of women. I continue to think of the film as simultaneously possessing some of the most repugnant visions ever committed to screen, as well as some of the most beautifully poignant. I was not aware of the concept of the literary sublime in those years, but it was certainly what most resonated with me from the secondary world of Twin Peaks.

I saw a few episodes when the show was picked up by Showcase, but my real immersion into the world David Lynch and Mark Frost created occurred in my first few months of marriage. Jenica and I started renting the series, but the store we rented from only carried the first seven episodes, so we purchased the full series on VHS and watched them all in the space of a few weeks, watching late into the night; Jenica, propelled by a need to know who had killed Laura Palmer, me in wanting to unravel the mysteries I had glimpsed in the few exposures I had been given to the town.

We watched it again in its entirety a year later, then again some years later with my brother-in-law and his financee. We loaned the tapes to friends, and I dabbled in the internet forums devoted to the show. Then came the DVD release of season one, which many friends banded together to gift me with for my birthday. It was wonderful to finally see the show without the muddy sound and fuzzy resolution of the VHS copies, and I hoped to see the second season on DVD within the year. Years passed, and it wasn't until the spring of 2007 that the second season was released.

By now I'd started thinking of Twin Peaks through a lens focused by the combined years of reflection on the show's elements, my theological studies, years spent as a pastor, my own shattered relationships and ruminations on the evil within myself, and finally the academic rigor of my Comparative Literature program at the University of Alberta. I wanted to enter the town again with these more mature tools, but without the pilot, it always felt incomplete.

And now, finally I have my copy of the Twin Peaks Definitive Gold Box Edition. I sold seasons one and two on Ebay to subsidize the purchase, which I know makes me a heretic in some serious Twin Peaks fans eyes; I ought to have kept the other two for the special features. But, being a comparativist, I don't really want to know what the directors thought they were doing with the show. What is clear from all the extras I've seen and web articles I've read is that no one really knew what they were doing when Twin Peaks was made. For all the accolades of genius laid at David Lynch's feet, I doubt even he had any idea what he was doing. I think it was one of those great creative acts of serendipity, a merging of many minds and hearts which resulted in something very special.

I've begun watching the series from the pilot onward, late nights on our laptop while Jenica sleeps. She's done with Twin Peaks; for some people one visit is enough. But I'm a regular visitor. I keep going back, not because I'm looking to unravel any mysteries anymore. I love the ambiguity of the show; it's ambivalence is what gives it its sense of wonder, of Todorov's definition of the fantastic where we all hesitate for a moment, wondering what to believe. And in that hesitation, that study of the fantastic, is a brilliant vision of the nature of good and evil. We all know who physically killed Laura Palmer, but the mystery doesn't end there. As the conversation between Cooper, Sheriff Truman, Major Briggs and Agent Rosenfield relates, in the wake of ostensibly solving the crime:

Truman: He was completely insane.

Cooper: Think so?

Rosenfield: But people saw Bob...People saw him in visions. Laura, Maddy, Sarah Palmer.

Briggs: Gentlemen, there's more in heaven and earth than is dreamed up in our philosophy.

Cooper: Amen.

Truman: Well I've lived in these old woods most of my life, I've seen some strange things but this is way off the map. I'm having a hard time believing.

Cooper: Is it easier to believe a man would rape and murder his own daughter? Any more comforting?

Truman: No.

Briggs: An evil that great in this beautiful world, finally, does it matter what the cause?

Cooper: Yes, because it's our job to stop it.

Rosenfield: Maybe that's all Bob is...the evil that men do. Maybe it doesn't matter what we call it.

Truman: Maybe not. But if he was real, and he was here, and we had him trapped...and he got away, where is Bob now?

It's that last question that haunts me. It's the one that keeps me going back to Twin Peaks, to look inside the fractured fairy tale of a Sleeping Beauty who will never awake because of the evil done to her, and to not point the finger, but to hold up a magic mirror, and ask the question Truman asks of us all...and to hopefully respond as Cooper does, with the unswerving goal to stop it; in myself first, but also in the world around me.

And if nothing else, to remind myself why I really got into drinking coffee.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tithe - Book Review - 7.5/10

Holly Black's first "Spiderwick" readers aren't little children any more, and it would seem that she intends to grow up her writing in tandem. "Tithe" explores the same world "Spiderwick" did, but with a much darker, sexual, and transformational vision. Typical of the contemporary fairy tale for teens, it follows the standard "edgy" young adult protagonist who skips school, drinks, smokes, and is sexually aware (if not active). However, while Black starts out following in the footsteps of Francesca Lia Block with her rock and roll urban fantasy world, she deviates about mid-way through from her psychadelic predecessor's path, straying more into the world Charles De Lint has been perfecting for the bulk of his writing career. It's not brilliant, but it is fun, and lives up to the press of being a modern "faerie" not fairy tale. The world Black takes us into is definitely the perilous realm, where not everyone necessarily lives happily ever after.

Monday, November 12, 2007

World Trade Center - DVD review - 8/10

A powerful film which grants the viewer a little picture of this big picture event. The poster which shows the silhouettes of two men between the Twin Towers sums up the narrative ethos. If you're expecting to see a classic disaster film, this will disappoint. Oliver Stone isn't interested in showing us grand scale mayhem; he's just telling us the story of two men who lived through a terrible ordeal, and lived to tell about it.

Some will think me tacky or misguided for posting my review of this film on Remembrance Day, but it was how I chose to observe my remembrance this year, and I think World Trade Center is an excellent example of the difference between War, which is a national policy, and the people who fight, live and die in wars, which is something entirely different, and it is the second of these two which I believe Remembrance Day is for.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Wizard and Glass: Book Review 8.5/10

The fourth installment of Stephen King's Dark Tower series more than makes up for the sloppy mess of the third book, as well as the ridiculously long wait inflicted on fans of the series when it was first released. In keeping with the format of the series to date, the book is played out in multiple vignettes. The first concludes the cliffhanger ending from book three with Blaine the Monorail and the riddle contest. The second is a lengthy flashback to Roland's beginnings as a gunslinger and the genesis of his quest for the Dark Tower. The third feels tacked on and parts of it nearly superfluous (you'll find out what happens to Tick Tock...and likely be disappointed), but acts as a bridge back into the journey along the Beam. The middle section concerning Roland's teenage years is the meat and potatoes of the book, and contains some of King's best writing. If I had reviewed that section alone, I would give it 5 stars. While I have yet to finish the series, I am presently of the opinion that King would have done better to have written solely within the secondary world the Gunslinger inhabits, rather than bouncing between realities. The blend of Old West and High Fantasy is a fascinating one, which would be well worth further exploration. Readers who enjoyed the flashbacks best (fans of the series are divided on this - they either loved or hated this particular installment) will be excited to learn of Marvel's Graphic Novel adaptation, The Gunslinger Born, which will be released in November of 2007.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gotthammer's Halloween Movies

The following are the films I would choose (in no particular order) to view on a dark and blustery night, provided that my wife and son were already tucked in bed, and I was looking for something to give me chills...or pause...or make me feel that delightful horror, that beautiful terror of the sublime. Happy Halloween everyone!

The Descent - this story of a group of women who become trapped in an uncharted cave network is a masterful combination of horror and monster movie, rare for both its emotional depth, as well as for the ability to maintain tension even after the 'monster' has been revealed. One of the goriest films I've ever seen - not for the faint of heart.
The Ring
- don't bother telling me about plot holes in this remake of the Japanese ghost-story Ringu is all about atmosphere; while the actual scare factor is a little low, the surreal creep-you-out factor is very high. The scene at the end where the hair comes over the lip of the well haunted me for days afterward.
Godzilla (Gojira)
- most of us can't relate to how the original Japanese audiences found this black-and-white man-in-a-rubber-suit monster movie terrifying, but we've seen similar reactions to Transformers this past year with references to 9/11. Godzilla is a symbol of nuclear terror, and in this first of a franchise that ended with one of the highest cheese factors in film history, the subject matter is dealt with in a visual poetry difficult to replicate in our jaded, postmodern era. The version without Raymond Burr and with subtitles is the one I recommend.
Sleepy Hollow - I saw this movie two days after I had my world cave in on me in November of 1999. There's something utterly cathartic about the horror genre in regards to deep sorrow, grief, or loss I think. At least this was the case for me in seeing Sleepy Hollow; the monochromatic landscape scooped from Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas mirrored my personal landscape, and the buckets of blood and endless decapitations seemed a fit metaphor for how my future was looking - with its head cut off. Even aside from the temporal and emotional ties I have to this movie, it remains one of my favorites simply for its gloomily brilliant (is that an oxymoron?) mood, and because it re imagined Ichabod Crane in a role which gave greater substance to the overall film. I think I'll watch it again...tonight.

Silent Hill - This film is what you get when you stick a camera in someone's head while they're in the middle of having a nightmare. A really gorgeous nightmare. The visuals exemplify the term phantasmagoria, however dubious the narrative might be. It lives up to its source material, ostensibly one of the creepiest video games ever made, until the last 30 minutes, when it denigrates into familiar Hollywood Horror Schlock, with a style of ending that the horror genre needs to get tired of, and soon. I think the most original ending a horror movie could have at this point would be a completely happy one. Given all the maternal subtext in this picture, it wouldn't have been out of place.
The Host - A daring resurrection of the Giant Monster Movie which is more complex than meets the initial viewing. What is likely to be dismissed as simply another giant monster flick from the East is actually a complex commentary on current issues, just as the genre's seminal work, Godzilla was. Instead of atomic metaphors, the subject matter is a stew of ecological, political and familial. Broken homes, a mutated fish and fragmented rhetoric all combine to make this a film that, unlike some less informed viewers have stated, a film that ought to be taken seriously. That said, "The Host" is enjoyable for all the reasons a good giant monster movie should be. However, like the poster, which would lead one to believe the monster is a giant squid, there's much more in this film than what's on the surface. Highly recommended.
The Cell - Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of 2000, and I'm more than inclined to agree with him. I'm not generally a fan of the serial killer thriller, but the CGI crafted dreamscapes and nightmare settings most of the film takes place in captivated me. The idea of the soul being an place of architecture and structure is a powerful one, and nothing new; 14th century Carmelite nun Theresa of Avila's "Interior Castle" is devoted to it. While the graphics are extremely disturbing at times, the depth the narrative sinks to is commensurate with the heights to which it rises. A visually spectacular project tainted only by the typecasting and tabloid stardom Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn have been subjected to since its release. A film well worth seeing, albeit not for the faint at heart.
The Crow - while it is neither horror nor monster movie, it is unarguably a Halloween movie, from its temporal setting of "Devil's Night" ("Halloween ain't until maƱana..."), Brandon Lee's makeup transforming Eric Draven into a "mime from hell" (who also bears a striking resemblance to Cesar, the murderous somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) who returns from the grave; upon being told "Don't move or you're dead" by a police officer, replies, "And I say I'm dead...and I move." A supernatural take on the avenging vigilante with some of the best action set pieces in the last twenty years.
John Carpenter's The Thing - If this list had to be in some order, I think I'd put this one at the top. The claustrophobic setting of an Antarctic research station is creepy enough, especially when you add Ennio Morricone's minimalist soundtrack. In the tradition of 10 Little Indians who-dies-next films such as Aliens, and more recently 30 Days of Night, John Carpenter's The Thing stands alone, since each death results in a perfect alien doppelganger, so that the suspense is doubled, and even at the end of the film, the question "who is really human" remains ambiguous, unanswered. A classic.
There are a myriad number of notable films for this list; Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas is an annual tradition, a pastiche of horror motifs but not horror per se, the new miniseries of Salem's Lot with Rob Lowe, the brilliant Shaun of the Dead, and one of my favorite long form creep outs of all time, the first 16 episodes of Twin Peaks. So there you have 'em. A few of my favorites, just in time for Halloween. Hope yours is a good one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Steamboy - DVD review - 10/10

An engagingly beautiful and thrilling (in the way boy's adventure stories with airships and metal men tend to be thrilling) film with a Neo-Victorian Steampunk setting, Steamboy is the most ambitious and expensive Anime to date, and from where I was sitting, it appears that every penny made it on screen. I hesitate to even refer to it as a work of animation, given the strength of story, performance and visuals which often transcend the artwork supporting them. It is a rare event when I forgo the original actors' voices in a foreign film, but the English speaking cast is all star; Anna Paquin turns in a throaty tour de force as James Ray Steam, Patrick Stewart rants madly as Ray's grandfather Dr. Lloyd Steam, and Alfred Molina is quietly menacing as Dr. Edward Steam, Ray's father. A great adventure story which some might argue suffers from some slow pacing (I'd call it character and plot development), this is an Anime which, as my wife (who dislikes Anime with a passion) stated, "doesn't look or sound like Anime." It's just a solid movie, well worth seeing. I bought my copy based on the reviews I'd read, sight unseen. And I wasn't disappointed.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Shaun of the Dead - DVD review - 9/10

A terrific zombie film that is more a tribute than satire, albeit a tremendously funny one at times. While it contains a score of intertextual references to the "Z" genre, it belongs to it by its own right; after all, it is the only romantic comedy of the bunch! Although the comedy never lets up, the film is surprisingly touching and thrilling at points. Simon Pegg's everyman hero is very endearing, and once he's wielding that cricket bat, we're cheering for him to the very end. Great, gory fun.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Cell - DVD review - 9/10

Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of 2000, and I'm more than inclined to agree with him. I'm not generally a fan of the serial killer thriller, but the phantasmagoric dreamscapes half the film takes place in captivated me. While the story is extremely disturbing at times, the depth it sinks to is commensurate with the heights to which it rises. A visually spectacular project tainted only by the typecasting and tabloid stardom Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn have been subjected to since its release. A film well worth seeing, albeit not for the faint at heart.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I Am Legend - Book Review - 10/10

Matheson's classic tale of the last man on earth's battle against plague-ridden...vampires? That's right, before Romero ever set hordes of zombies loose upon the silver screen, Matheson had already done it, albeit with vampires. While it can be enjoyed on the surface as an excellent horror-thriller, it is also a strong exploration of the concept of what it means to be human, issues of violence and race domination. It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming film adaptation handles these subtleties, as well as whether or not the poignantly bleak ending will be retained or not. A short, but highly rewarding read. One of my top 10 of all time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lady in the Water Review: 5/10

Shyamalan takes a stab at making a fairy tale film, and while he doesn't completely blow it, he never quite hits the mark either. Giamatti and Howard put in great performances, there is a continual sense of wonder and mystery amidst the mundane surroundings and denizens of "The Cove" but the film doesn't flow with the same ease as Shyamalan's other works. It's definitely not the complete piece of trash many critics labeled it. I think with a greater sense of surreality the film would have worked better. Shyamalan's ultra-realistic cinematic style was ill suited to the fairy tale. Whereas in his previous films his characters reacted in the way people would assume one would when presented with fantastic events. Here, the characters' unconditional acceptance of the wondrous events taking place is difficult to accept given the very real-world setting they perform their lives in. The creation by the writer of Anglo-sounding words such as 'narf' and 'scrunt' in an ostensibly Korean legend seemed boldly anachronistic to me, and stole more of the film's already shaky verisimilitude. Ultimately, the film requires the same sort of childlike faith Clevelan Heep has to watch without rolling ones eyes. Otherwise you'll just be shaking your head and saying, "nobody would do that in real life." And you'd be right. But "Lady in the Water" isn't real life. It's a bedtime story. Keep that in mind and you'll do just fine.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Madagascar Review

Another mediocre Dreamworks animation; this studio relies too heavily upon pop culture references and its all star casts when they ought to be trying to write a good story. Kids will love it because it features some of the most recognizable animals in the world, but as with Shrek, contains enough adult-oriented humor to make some parents cringe. I love Chris Rock, but his Zebra, who pronounces things "crackah-lackin" gives the film a decidedly short shelf life. Thankfully, Sasha Baron Cohen's King Julien single-handedly saves the movie from becoming utterly forgettable. Dreamworks should start using their budget for better writers and real voice actors. 5/10

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Summer Book Reviews

In the wake of finishing my M.A. coursework, I did a lot of reading - of things I actually chose to read, not required reading. I've done up a bunch of short reviews, just like in the movie post.

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block - 6/10
Yet another collection of modern, revisionist fairy tales. The difference between this and many other updated fairy tales is that, unlike her Weetzie Bat books, Francesca Lia Block has leeched all the magic out of the stories - there is still a sense of inherent wonder, however, an aspect of everyday enchantment (I retain my preference for the mixture of both everyday and otherworld enchantment in De Lint). Highlights include a Sleeping Beauty whose magical sleep is heroin induced, and a wolf who is all too real and familiar from the real world. I will admit that the jaded aspect of the characters tends to get old; one would hope we can still find a protagonist for fairy tales somewhere other than the underbelly of modern metropolitan society. Still, a work definitely worth reading for those who loved Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's adult fairy tale series of anthologies.

The Dragon Conspiracy: World of Eldaterra, Volume 1 by E.R. Moredun - 0/10
Don't judge this book by its cover, the only thing "The Dragon Conspiracy" has going for it, as an example of smart marketing. I'm living proof; "oooooh...look at the Dragon in the Jar..." If Moredun had written a book on viral marketing, he'd likely have done better - his notes at the end about how he concocted his own Dragon conspiracy was far more interesting than his narrative, which is unreadable trash. I couldn't finish, no matter how much I wanted to. The poorly written prose challenges the reader to stay focused on the action. The characters lack personal voices, and the action lacks suspense. Don't bother.

His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire Book 1) by Naomi Novik 9.5/10
A wonderful alternate history of the Napoleonic war where dragons provide the aerial support for both sides of the conflict. Good swashbuckling fun written in an engaging prose that is evocative of the period it is set in without being cumbersome. Naomi Novik has created a wonderful secondary world and filled it with loveable characters both human and draconian; the death scene of one of the dragons brought tears to my eyes. Highly recommended.

The Warrior Prophet (Prince of Nothing Book 2) by R. Scott Bakker 8/10
A thoroughly adult heroic fantasy that strips all the romanticism from the genre without losing the grandeur. The moments of the sublime the heroes climb to are made all the richer for the atrocious horrors their antagonists are capable of. Selfishness is as common as selflessness, and Bakker writes in a beautiful poetic prose that forces the reader to savor each paragraph even when the action begs to skim ahead and find out what happens. Not for the faint of heart or prudish, but highly recommended nonetheless.

The Thousandfold Thought (Prince of Nothing Book 3) by R. Scott Bakker 6/10
R. Scott Bakker's third installment in the Prince of Nothing series should have been called "The Self-Absorbed Thought", since almost all the characters are narcissists, or under the sway of one. While this "realist" approach to the fantasy epic felt fresh in the first two installments, I found the third nigh unreadable due to the preponderance of the character's selfish actions; is anyone besides Achamian pursuing a higher goal here? As for Kellhus, the ostensible protagonist of the series, the unbeatable Messiah motif gets old really fast. It's why Superman doesn't really work once the origin and initial revelation is unpacked. If you can't beat him, there's no tension, and no one cares. If I want Philosophy, I'll take a class. While the first book was incredible and the second really well written, the third is simply beating a dead horse.

The Burning by Bentley Little 6.5/10
Inverting the cliche' "don't judge a book by it's cover", I picked up Bentley Little's "The Burning" for its cover art of a malevolent steam locomotive belching hellfire. This multi-thread ghost story telling four different stories with one common thread is an uneven read, at times working so well I nearly jumped at revelations coming around the bend of a page turn, at others being terribly predictable. That said, Little's work is a refreshing change from most popular horror, which attempts to explain everything in the final pages. There is none of Koontz's psuedo-rational explanations nor King's alien deus ex machina (although Little does cheap out at the climax to some degree). Instead, the supernatural is simply that, and unapologetically so, which is why I believe this was one of the funnest horror reads I've had in a while. I look forward to reading more of Little's work.

World War Z by Max Brooks 10/10
One of my most enjoyable reads in 2007. I listened to the audio version, which is also one of the best audiobooks I've ever experienced - the all star voice cast includes Mark Hamill and Alan Alda; I kept thinking..."I know this voice!". A documentary of the alt-history Zombie War, told by the survivors. Not literature, but thoroughly engrossing, ontologically complete and sometimes just plain fun for boys who like guns.

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan 6/10
This particular Robert Jordan novel has been the Achilles Heel of me getting over the middle hump of this bloated fantasy series, but I was finally able to make it through, with the help of the unabridged audiobook off I actually found that listening to Jordan's prose (redundant or richly detailed depending on who you talk to) works better for me than reading it off the page. I did a little of both while reading this installment, and enjoyed it. I'm not a die-hard fan of the series, but I loved the first book -- it would be one of my top 10 fantasy novels for sure, but I have the same complaint as many...when will it ever end? I gained a new perspective while re-reading the first 6 books a while back, namely that reading a series like Wheel of Time is like watching a television series. In fact, I think that's the only sort of filmed adaptation that could be done of the books. Aside from the unnecessary (at least it seems so now) wounding of Rand by Padan Fain in the last few chapters, the book was a great "next step" for all the characters in the series. That said, Mat Cauthon's storyline is the one that I liked the most this time around. Rand was too moody and Perrin's too obtuse. And as a quick side note...why are only males ta'veren?

Planet X (Graphic Novel) by Grant Morrison 6/10
Grant Morrison continues to play with the universe of the X-men in fresh and powerful ways. Given the timing of the original release of the issues collected here, the storyline is timely and relevant. Jiminez is no Frank Quitely, but his artwork is definitely first rate.

The Waste Lands (Dark Tower Book 3) by Stephen King 6/10
Like the monster train on the cover, the third Dark Tower novel takes a long time to get going, but once it does, it rolls along at freight like speed and tension, bringing a satisfying close to cap a tedious opening which serves as a poor man's possible world theory and a typical King middle with a house that seems ripped off from Barker's "Thief of Always".

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling 9/10
A highly satisfying epic conclusion to a series that reminded many of us what it was to be a kid again, and then allowed us to grow up once more, along with Harry, Ron and Hermione. Among the delights are the copious cameos, as though the characters were coming to take their bow at curtain call; the book successfully says farewell to Harry and the world of Hogwarts in a way which brings closure, but also sends one back to the bookshelf for book one.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Summer movie reviews

While I haven't seen much in theaters this year, I haven't been idle when it's come to watching movies at home. Between children's films with Gunnar, the odd spare moment with Jenica, the Manly Monday Movies at Mike's (my church small group), and my thesis, I've been taking in a fair number of films. Here are the ones I watched (or viewed again!) this summer. I've rated them all on a 10 scale.

Casino Royale: A much needed restart for a franchise that had sunk to relying on the cheap gadgets, one liners and Bond girls to keep it going. Casino Royale reminds us what the Bond films were originally about. True to the heart of the books, not the letter. Daniel Craig has me saying "Sean who?" 10/10

Children of Men: A powerful story told with a grimly beautiful aesthetic; one of the best movies of 2006, and another reason to be paying attention to what Alfonso Cuaron is up to. 9.5/10

Click: Less dog humping, more serious Sandler. This film had the potential to be Sandler's "Stranger Than Fiction" which was funny without being puerile, and touching without resorting to overwrought soundtrack swells for emotional impact the picture lacked. The scenes with Walken were great, the movie had good potential, but too much dick and fart humor ultimately makes it standard fare instead of a cut above what Sandler is usually capable of. I loved the premise, and some of the ideas were good, but the delivery was too locker-room for me to highly recommend it. Worth a watch, but just barely. 4.5/10

Dragonslayer: A classic piece of pre-Jackson LOTR fantasy film. The special effects were cutting edge for the time it was released, and the dark tone of the film was a bold move on Disney's part, as the film company was still predominantly known for it's bright and chipper children's films. A wonderful film, even after all these years. 8/10

Glory Road:
Remember the Titans does Basketball. A decent feel-good film for when you're feeling like you need something idealistic to pick you up. 6/10

Jet Li's Fearless: A beautifully filmed and choreographed martial arts swan song from Jet Li. While the story is based on the actual life of Huo Yuanjia, the movie is less about history than Li's Tibetan Buddhist beliefs surrounding the way of combat being about peace, and the avoidance of violence rather then the perpetuation thereof. Recommended for those who enjoy this genre. 7/10

First Blood:
The initial installment of the Rambo franchise stands alone as the only part really worth seeing. It sparked a flash fire of trashy carbon copies and boosted sales of Soldier of Fortune, which mar the film's legacy. However, as a standalone work, the film endures the test of time with a pre-action hero Stallone turning in a very capable dramatic performance. 8/10

The Host:
A daring resurrection of the Giant Monster Movie which is more complex than meets the initial viewing. What is likely to be dismissed as simply another giant monster flick from the East is actually a complex commentary on current issues, just as the genre's seminal work, Godzilla was. Instead of atomic metaphors, the subject matter is a stew of ecological, political and familial. Broken homes, a mutated fish and fragmented rhetoric all combine to make this a film that, unlike some less informed viewers have stated, a film that ought to be taken seriously. That said, "The Host" is enjoyable for all the reasons a good giant monster movie should be. However, like the poster, which would lead one to believe the monster is a giant squid, there's much more in this film than what's on the surface. Highly recommended. 10/10

The Illusionist: A sepia toned tale of magic and perception in the tradition of films such as "The Prestige" or "Memento". However, where "The Prestige" ends on a downbeat, the Illusionist closes on a hopeful, optimistic note. A very satisfying film with a competent cast. 8/10

Mad Max:
Thank God for the special edition DVD with the original Australian dialogue. This is a great, high-octane take on the classic Spaghetti western plot, set in a dystopic future some time just around the corner. Has lots of great hip late 70's Aussie slang and a cast that looks like they just rolled in from being on tour. 7/10

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest:
Watched it again with my wife, who missed out when it was in theaters. I was pretty hard on this film when it came out, but the second viewing was better than the first. It's a light hearted romp that places action set piece after action set piece; in this way it pays homage to the serials of the 30's. Watching it in hour long chunks didn't hurt either, as it gets tedious in one sitting. Definitely not as good as the first, but worth a see nonetheless. 6/10

The Pursuit of Happiness:
Wonderful father-son story of overcoming all obstacles. Will Smith demonstrates why he's one of the most celebrated entertainers in North America. Make sure and bring something for when the tears start to flow. 8/10

Silent Hill: Phantasmagoric ambience is the real star of this video game adaptation. Brilliant visuals, disturbing imagery and soundscapes make the first hour an immersion into nightmare. The last hour loses steam however, and the 'twist' ending is typical horror fare. Worth seeing just for the visuals. 7/10

Stranger Than Fiction: Brilliant. Poignant, insightful, and for someone who uses video as a teaching tool, utterly quotable. More of this Will, less Talladega. 10/10

The Sword and the Sorcerer: This film is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. A low budget is really the only thing this film suffers from; the campy lines, the musical fanfares and the over-the-top acting and storyline are all perfect! You can't go wrong with a triple bladed sword! 6/10

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders:
Czech new wave pastiche of horror, gothic fairy tale and softcore erotica. The non-linear narrative explores feminine sexuality through a young girl's journey into adolescence. A beautifully filmed, artfully disturbing, surreal adult fairy tale. 7/10