Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri


Dante's epic journey continues as he and Virgil ascend through the seven levels of Purgatory (corresponding to the seven deadly sins), where souls must suffer and be purified before entering Paradise.  The imagery here is not quite as vivid as that in Inferno, and the torments less horrifying.  Which makes sense, since the souls in Purgatory have been saved and will (eventually) make their way to Heaven, unlike the souls of the damned in Hell.

In Inferno, the souls were classified according to their sin, and each soul was associated with but one sin.  Thus, if a soul were a glutton and a fraud, there was no provision for that soul to be punished for both sins--they would instead be punished as one or the other.  There was no travel between circles, except for Dante and his guide.

Purgatory, on the other hand, is designed for travel.  A saved soul starts at the bottom level, and ascends upward, stopping at each level or sin of which he has been guilty, and staying as long as his particular sins require.  Thus one may be guilty of pride, envy, wrath, and so on, and will be punished for (and purified from) each as appropriate.  If one is not guilty of a particular sin, he simply passes through that level without pain or pause.  (There is also a provision for accelerating the process or skipping some levels, if the departed soul is prayed for by those still living.)  This arrangement was, in many ways, much more convicting to me than the single-sin system in Inferno.  If asked to pick the circle of Hell in which I would reside (apart from the saving grace of Christ), I would not know what to choose.  I am far too varied in my sins.  But Purgatory allows me to admit my fault at each new level.  I, too, would spend countless years on the terrace of pride, then envy, then wrath, and what-have-you. 

There is, of course, the issue of Purgatory as a spiritual concept in and of itself--an idea that many (including myself) do not accept.  Still, the poem has merit, even for those whose beliefs about the afterlife do not include this painful refining process.  After all, the sins derided are still sins, and Christians undoubtedly undergo a certain amount of discipline for sin in this life, regardless of whether they move directly to heaven in the next. 

Bottom line:  A convicting read.  As with Inferno, it works well read aloud, and would likely make an excellent audiobook (though I would recommend digesting it in short chunks to maximize absorption and retention).  Again, many of the cultural and historical references will be unfamiliar to the average lay reader, so a well-annotated version (such as Ciardi's) is key.

Overcoming Sin and Temptation, by John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, & Justin Taylor


Editors Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor do their darnedest to make one of the most notoriously unreadable Puritans accessible to lay readers.  This is my first exposure to Owen, so I can't really compared their 'modernized' version to the original, but I can say that all though it was substantively dense and organizationally complex, it was also quite readable. 

In fact, Kapic and Taylor are so determined to simplify Owen that they footnote and define more than 250 words throughout the book--words ranging from the complex ('tergiversation') to the poetic ('ere') to the seemingly straightforward ('alacrity').  As a bit of a logophile, I got a bit distracted--I was curious to see which words were deemed 'obscure' enough to require footnoting.  However, it is still helpful, particularly for those unaccustomed to using context clues to bluff their way through weird words. 

And now for Owen himself.  As I said, this was my first exposure to the brilliant theologian, and I have to admit, his reputation is well deserved.  His analysis of sin and temptation is spot on and extremely convicting, and I was surprised to see how many of my own sinful thoughts and justifications were exceedingly common back in the 1600s (and likely before).  Nothing new under the sun, indeed. 

Owen is incredibly insightful, and his impressive intellect is founded on extremely solid, gospel-centered theology.  It is a pity that he's not more readable--he really should be a staple of every Christian's literary diet.  But then, I guess Kapic and Taylor are doing what they can to make that happen.

Bottom line:  Read it. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)


Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn), owner of a small gym aptly titled 'Average Joe's', is in financial trouble.  He has defaulted on his mortgage, and will lose his gym to evil competitor Globo-Gym, run by the unbelievably slimy White Goodman (Ben Stiller), unless he and his gang of misfit gym members can come up with $50,000 in the next thirty days.  Fortunately, the national dodgeball championships are coming up, and you'll never guess what the grand prize is . . .

I like Vince Vaughn.  While he can sometimes be the wild-and-crazy character (as in the surprisingly good Mr. and Mrs. Smith), here he takes on a more straightforward leading man role.  Not only is he genuinely likable as a protagonist, but he is an excellent foil for Stiller's own turn as the over-the-top, maniacal, and disgusting villain of the piece.  The supporting cast is also excellent--I always enjoy seeing Stephen Root, Joel Moore was his dorkily charming self, and Alan Tudyk seems to positively relish his role as a man who genuinely believes he's a pirate.  Even Justin Long, who I sometimes find annoying, seemed sypathetic after he'd been bombarded with dodgeballs a few dozen times.  Plus, it's hard to be annoyed with anyone who brings back memories of Bring It On

As always, Stiller parades a host of delightful cameos across the screen (Shatner! Gary Cole! Lance Armstrong! Chuck Norris!).  Equally always, his real-life wife Christine Taylor holds her own as the only real flesh-and-blood woman in a world of caricatures.  I am always surprised that she has such good chemistry with Stiller; couples who sizzle in real life often fizzle on screen, but Taylor's been consistently good when starring alongside her husband. 

There were a few times when the jokes went a bit past my own personal funny/gross threshhold, but that's par for the course where Stiller is concerned.  Fortunately, this movie falls squarely in PG-13 territory, so it wasn't too offensive. 

Bottom line:  An occasionally crass, mostly funny movie.  I liked it.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)


Young Jan and Ellie Curtis and their parents move into an eerie mansion in the English countryside.  The owner, Mrs. Aylwood, lives in a cottage on the property and has a nasty habit of lurking around and looking creepy (as Bette Davis is wont to do, for indeed it is she).  Jan discovers that Mrs. Aylwood's daughter Karen--to whom Jan herself bears a striking resemblance--disappeared thirty years ago.  Then Jan starts seeing strange things, and Ellie seems to be hearing voices . . . What happened thirty years ago?  Where is Karen?  Are the girls being watched?  By what?  And why?

I didn't love Lynn-Holly Johnson's acting style (shout everything!), and I found myself annoyed with Ellie's inability to keep her dog from running off at inopportune moments, as well as her perpetual insistence that she was not, in fact, doing the weird things that she was, in fact, doing.  But Bette Davis was phenomenal, and the images of blindfolded Karen in the mirror were genuinely creepy. 

In fact, my first exposure to this film was by way of the old 'Walt Disney and You' promos at the end of VHS copies of various Disney classics.  Interspersed with all the clips of more familiar films were these unsettling snatches of a pale, ghostly girl reaching out from a mirror, her face half-swathed in a white scarf . . . [shiver]. 

Plus, the alternate endings are fantastic.  The DVD features the final 1981 theatrical ending, but offers viewers the option of viewing two alternate endings--the initial theatrical ending from 1980, and the original ending concept--both of which take the movie in a decidedly more science fiction direction. I highly recommend both of them.  They are hilarious. 

All in all, this is a decent hybrid of horror, mystery, and thriller, with hints of fantasy/science fiction, all wrapped up in a fairly family-oriented package.  The trailer firmly admonishes parents that this is not the usual Disney fodder, and indeed, some of the sequences are pretty creepy.  Still there is no gore, no swearing, no sex . . . all in all, pretty family friendly and worth checking out, especially if you like a bit of horror without all the fountains of blood.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fallen (1998)


Denzel Washington is Detective John Hobbes, whose capture of notorious serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) ultimately leads to Reese's execution.  However, after Reese's death, Hobbes uncovers a string of copycat crimes eerily similar to Reese's own brutal murders.  With the help of his partner (John Goodman) and a professor of theology (Embeth Davidtz), Hobbes must try to solve these mysterious crimes before he himself is accused . . .

The casting here is first rate.  Denzel is the honorable everyman, just like pretty much every other movie he's ever done.  Goodman is a great sounding board, buddy, and world-weary cop, Gandolfini is all too believable as a possibly-dirty-but-generally-good cop, and I suspect this is not Donald Sutherland's first time playing a police higher-up with political bigwigs to appease and a department to run. Davidtz is an inspired choice, as she is attractive without being a bombshell, and combines delicate fragility and fear with strength of mind and will. And Koteas is creepy as all get out. 

Sadly, the story does not measure up to the cast.  There is a fine line between a David-and-Goliath tale and a tried-and-true invincible villain.  At some point, the odds against the hero become so astronomical that the story ceases to be interesting.  While the villain here is equipped with some interesting and even creative powers, he is not sufficiently hobbled with points of vulnerability.  There's a reason vampires can traditionally be stopped by garlic, wooden stakes, and sunlight; why werewolves can be shot with silver bullets; why Smaug is missing a scale; why Buffy was a slayer with superpowers; why the Winchesters have salt shotguns and exorcism rituals and demon traps and who knows what all.  A truly impervious villain--like an impervious hero--is a bad narrative choice.  Here, while the writers make a haphazard attempt to limit the power of the villain, it is not enough.  Functionally, the villain is powerful enough that the story stops being scary and starts being annoying.  Also, the hero's big plan to Defeat the Bad Guy is unnecessarily complex and ultimately pretty stupid. 

That being said, there were some bright spots along the way, including the obligatory use of dead languages, a rather unorthodox (and static) chase scene, and extremely effective use of The Rolling Stones. 

Bottom line: it's not a terrible movie, but it's not great, either. 

NOTE:  Rated R, primarily for language.  Much of the 'horror' in this film is psychological, so there is little gore.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Bat (1959)


Starring Vincent Price as Vincent Price, and Agnes Moorehead as Jessica Fletcher.  In other words, awesome.

But if that's not enough to snag your interest, here's a more straightforward description--Agnes Moorehead plays a mystery author who rents a huge (spooky) mansion in the town of Xenith, which is being terrorized both by rabid bats and a serial killer known only as "The Bat".  In other news, the local bank was recently deprived of $1 million, and no one knows where the money is.  Vincent Price plays the creepy town doctor, who seems to know more than he is letting on . . .

Honestly, though, the one-two punch of Price and Moorehead ought to be enough to earn this film a spot on your to-watch list.  It's public domain, so you can download it for free if you don't feel like tracking down a hard copy.  Moorehead is a tougher, more angular amateur sleuth than Angela Lansbury--no disrespect to the erstwhile Mrs. Potts, of course.  And Vincent Price does what Vincent Price does best.

Bottom line:  Old school creepy fun.  Even if it's not actually scary, and features the most bloodless throat slashing I've ever seen.

Waiting for Guffman (1997)


From the makers of This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show comes this classic and hilarious homage to community theatre.  Which means that viewers have a pretty good idea going in whether they'll like it or not. Christopher Guest films have a definite flavor.  You know what you're going to get.

Guest, as usual, relies heavily on improvisation.  Fortunately, he also relies on an impressive lineup of usual suspects--Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Parker Posy, Bob Balaban, Michael Hitchcock, and Larry Miller.  They are more than equal to the task, and the results are nothing short of hilarious.

Then, too, much credit must be given to the behind the scenes labors of Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, who co-wrote the music for the show-within-a-show "Red, White & Blaine."  While the level of acting in this community theatre troupe is abysmal, the music (and instrumentation) is fantastic--thus allowing the awkward 'actors' to take center stage.  

Having grown up in an around the Midwest (and attended college in small town Missouri) and participated in a number of extremely amateur theatre productions, I have a definite soft spot for this film.  In fact, some of my college friends memorized and performed "Red, White & Blaine" (complete with music and choreography) for a coffeehouse. With memories like that, I can't help but love this movie.

Still, Guest's style of humor is such that I think it translates to those from a more urban, less dramatic background. If you liked any of Guest's other mockumentaries, you might want to give this a shot.

NOTE:  Contains some profanity and adult content, but no sex or violence.  So probably not a family film, but still loads of fun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Rundown (2003)


Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars as 'retrieval expert' Beck, an imposing man and capable fighter who is often sent to, well, retrieve things.  But when he is ordered to retrieve his boss's treasure hunting son (Seann William Scott) from the wilds of the Amazon, things get a little crazy . . . especially if the cruel and greedy owner of the nearby gold mine (Christopher Walken) and the obligatory hot bartender (Rosario Dawson) have anything to say about it.

I should love this movie.  It's cheesy action adventure from start to finish.  The Rock takes on forces that would impress Commando's John Matrix (speaking of which, while I love a good cameo--see, e.g., The Expendables and the otherwise disappointing Ocean's Twelve--this one felt like a forced non-sequitur).  And there are a lot of things I liked about it.  I liked the fight scenes.  I liked The Rock--with quiet gravitas, a good-hearted reluctance to use violence, and the comic timing required to pull it all together, he's shaping up to be quite a capable action star.  I liked Christopher Walken's over-the-top-and-yet-somehow-also-mailed-in performance.  I liked the bizarre Scottish pilot, especially when he was preaching damnation in a rather surreal prelude to the climactic final battle. 

So why didn't I love this movie?  Three words:  Seann William Scott.

Narnia or NOOMA?

An interesting comparison of two arguably less-than-evangelical writers:
[Lewis] is an evangelical hero who, theologically speaking, may not make the cut of evangelicalism today. Truthfully, I don’t think he ever liked the label himself. But he is loved by evangelicals nonetheless. In fact, he is loved across denominational and traditional lines. [...] Whether you are an emerger or an evangelical, Baptist or Presbyterian, a cessationist or continuationist, a Calvinist or an Arminian (not that all of these are mutually exclusive), C.S. Lewis is not only kosher, but staple. [..]

However, C.S. Lewis was not without “issues” [...] Theologically, there is some stuff we try to sweep under the rug as well. [...] Why? Because he had some “non-evangelical” leanings. Besides not believing in inerrancy, he also believed in the theory of evolution, denied substitutionary atonement in favor of a “ransom to Satan,” bordered on a Pelagian idea of human freedom, seemed to advocate baptismal regeneration, and regularly prayed for the dead. To top it all off, he held out hope for the destiny of the unevangelized, believing that Christ might save them outside of direct knowledge of him (inclusivism). [...T]his list alone would be enough for many to call him a heretic. However, we still love him. We still read him. We still defend him. We still hand out his books by the dozens to friends and family who are struggling with their faith. [...] Why?

Consider another man: Rob Bell.

The Skin Map (Bright Empires #1), by Stephen R. Lawhead


While slogging through the streets of London one rainy Sunday morning, everyman Kit Livingston encounters his long-lost (and surprisingly spry) great grandfather, who requests his assistance in a search for the titular Skin Map--a map made of human skin. From there, Kit is plunged into a world of ley lines, alternate universes, time travel, hungry wild cats, beautiful damsels, and heartless villains. The book follows his adventures, as well as parallel story lines in a variety of times and places (Egypt! Prague! China! London!) and involving an assortment of other characters: The amusingly-named Arthur Flinders-Petrie, whose tattooed flesh would eventually become the Skin Map; Kit's unenthusiastic girlfriend Wilhelmina, whom Kit inadvertently mislaid when he tried to prove the truth of his unusual experiences; and the evil Lord Burleigh, who has vague-yet-nefarious intentions and is dead set on finding the map before Kit or his great-grandfather.  Will Kit find Wilhelmina before Lord Burleigh finds the map? 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Holiness is for prudes . . .

. . . for sticklers, for the uptight, the judgmental. Holiness is boring in the minds of most people. You young people know very well . . . that you're tempted to think that holiness is boring. But that's because, as with the Presence of God, you've never seen it, or experienced its power.
 ~Robert Rayburn, Sermon on Ezekiel 43:13-46:24

HT: The Mortal Coyle

Friday, November 18, 2011

γνῶθι σεαυτόν (Know Thyself)

Many men live in the dark to themselves all their days; whatever else they know, they know not themselves. They know their outward estates, how rich they are, and the condition of their bodies as to health and sickness they are careful to examine; but as to their inward man, and their principles as to God and eternity, they know little or nothing of themselves. Indeed, few labor to grow wise in this matter, few study themselves as they ought; on which yet the whole course of their obedience, and consequently of their eternal condition, does depend. This, therefore, is wisdom, if we have any design to please God, or to avoid that which is a provocation to the eyes of his glory.

[...] There is a constant enemy unto it in everyone's own heart; and what an enemy it is we shall afterward show, for this is our design: to discover him to the uttermost.  [...]

Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is anything of the ways of God! Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you also.  he is at work, by all ways of force and craft, as we shall see. Would you not dishonor God and his gospel; would you not scandalize the saints and ways of God; would you not wound your consciences and endanger your souls; would you not grieve the good and holy Spirit of God, the author of all your comforts; would you keep your garments undefiled, and escape the woeful temptations and pollutions of the days wherein we live; would you preserved from the number of the apostates in these latter days? Awake to the consideration of this cursed enemy, which is the spring of these and innumerable other evils, as also of the ruin of all the souls that perish in the world!
~Overcoming Sin and Temptation, by John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor (Chapter 1 of "Indwelling Sin")

More Flavel

If the wisdom of God do thus triumph, and glorify itself in the distresses of the saints, then why should I fear in the day of evil? [...] Why doth my heart faint at the foresight and apprehension of approaching trouble? Fear none of those things that thou shalt suffer, O my soul; if thy God will thus be with thee in the fire and water, thou canst not perish. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet let me fear no evil, whilst my God is thus with me. Creatures cannot do what they please, his wisdom limits and over-rules them all, to gracious and sweet ends. If my God cast me into the furnace, to melt and try me, yet I shall not be consumed there; for he will sit by the furnace himself all the while I am in it, and curiously pry into it, observing when it hath done its work, and then will presently withdraw the fire. O my soul, bless and adore this God of wisdom! who himself will see the ordering of all thine afflictions, and not trust it in the hands of men or angels.
Though tost in greatest storms, I'll never fear,
If Christ will sit at th' helm to guide and steer:
Storms are the triumph of his skill and art;
He cannot close his eyes, nor change his heart.
Wisdom and power ride upon the waves,
And in the greatest danger helps and saves.
From dangers it by dangers doth deliver,
And wounds the devil out of his own quiver;
It countermines his plots, and so doth spoil;
And make his engines on himself recoil.
It blunts the politician's restless tool,
And makes Ahitophel the veriest fool;
It shews us how our reason us misled,
And if he had not, we had perished.
Lord, to thy wisdom I will give the reins,
And not with cares perplex and vex my brains.
~Navigation Spiritualized: or, A New Compass for Seamen, by John Flavel (Chapter 28)

Jericho (Season 1)


An excellent (if often tense) show that examines the social, political, interpersonal, and practical aftermath of a large scale nuclear assault which leaves most of the United States in shambles.  The tiny town of Jericho, Kansas, all but untouched by the nuclear attacks that decimated the rest of the country, must learn how to live in this new world.  Together, the townsfolk deal with isolation, food and fuel shortages, horse thieves, small-town politics, medical crises, unlikely romances, survivalist robbers, betrayal, incompetent leadership, murder, infidelity, refugees, bitter cold, unexpected pregnancies, ineptitude, opportunistic mercenaries, and extremely unreasonable neighbors. 

The nuances of these struggles are quite sophisticated, as the leaders try to balance the tensions between safety and liberty, self-preservation and mercy, capitalism and cooperation, punishment and justice, and so forth.  Some of these problems have very definite real-world relevance, and Jericho is a fascinating microcosm of the United States as a whole.  I'm glad the creators decided to explore these issues in a television format, as opposed to trying to cram everything into a two hour film as originally planned.

The series focuses primarily on reformed-and-extremely-useful bad boy Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) and his family--including his longtime mayor father (Gerald McRaney), tough-as-nails mother (Pamela Reed), and milquetoast younger brother (Kenneth Mitchell).  A parallel storyline follows the exploits of mysterious-and-surprisingly-well-prepared Stranger With a Secret Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) and his wife, kids, and shady colleagues.  Like any good series, there are plenty of characters to love--see, e.g., the aforementioned Green and Hawkins familys (except for the younger Green brother, of course), as well as stranded IRS agent Mimi Clark; disillusioned Dr. Kenchy; and likable criminal Jonah Prowse. And, of course, plenty of characters to hate--see, e.g., Gray Anderson, pretender to the mayoral throne; obnoxious and incompetent Deputy Bill; suspicious Sheriff Constantino.  The acting is quite good--even the loathsome and infuriating roles are well-acted.

Romans 8:28, a poem

WHEN once the dog-star rises, many say,
Corn ripens then apace, both night and day.
Souls once in Christ, that morning-star lets fall
Such influences on them, that all
God's dispensations to them then, sweet or sour,
Ripen their souls for glory ev'ry hour.
All their afflictions, rightly understood,
Are blessings; ev'ry wind will blow some good.
Sure at their troubles saints would never grudge,
Were sense deposed, and faith made the judge.
Falls make them warier, amend their pace;
When gifts puff up their hearts, and weaken grace.
Could Satan see the issue, and th' event
Of his temptations, he would scarcely tempt.
Could saints but see what fruits their troubles bring,
Amidst those troubles they would shout and sing.
O sacred wisdom! who can but admire
To see how thou dost save from fire, by fire!
No doubt but saints in glory wond'ring stand
At those strange methods few now understand.
~Navigation Spiritualized; or, A New Compass for Seamen, by John Flavel (Poem, Chapter 27)

The education gospel debunked?

An extremely insightful and thought-provoking review of four different books criticizing the "education gospel":
Education is as close to a secular religion as we have in the United States. In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace. [...]

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption. (Most of these paths now run through community colleges.) Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. [...]

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Gosford Park (2001)


An assortment of respectable guests gather in Michael Gambon's country home for a weekend of shooting, and it happens that several of the guests have good reason for wanting our dear Dumbledore dead.  Cue foreshadowing.  And then [SPOILER] he turns up dead.  But whodunit?

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)


Kind of a disappointment, actually.  I realize that adapting five books into a single movie is problematic--though at only 128 pages apiece, the whole series is still shorter than any one of the last four Harry Potter books.  Still, the adaptation felt sloppy and hurried. Some modifications were likely necessary.  Others seemed driven more by budget than anything else.  Still others made no discernible sense whatsoever. Elves became CGI floaty flower-petal-looking things, and the terrifying independent griffin was exchanged for a mere automaton.  And a household brownie cannot seem to make up its mind about the preferred fate of certain forbidden texts. 

The Dry Divide, by Ralph Moody


For starters, this book is loads better than Shaking the Nickel Bush.  Not that it would take much.  Here we rejoin Ralph Moody (now going by 'Bud') sometime after he and Lonnie parted ways in Shaking the Nickel Bush.  Lonnie is never mentioned here, and perhaps it's for the best.  This time around, instead of discovering yet another new and random talent, Moody returns to previously established abilities.  He takes a job working for a wheat farmer, and his work ethic and ingenuity enable him to overcome many seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  If ever there were a man with the soul of an entrepreneur, Ralph Moody is that man.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, by Donald Miller


Let me start out by saying what this book is not. 

It is not a theological treatise.  It is not a doctrinal text.  It is not a creed, a credo, or a statement of faith.  It is one man's description of his spiritual journey and some things he's learned along the way.  In that sense, it's not terribly different from Tender at the Bone, Girl Meets God, Traveling Mercies, or any other memoir.  I would not encourage people to use this book as their own personal bible.  But then, I doubt Miller ever intended it to be used that way.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Philadelphia Story (1940)


I grew up watching this movie, and have loved it for as long as I can remember.  And not just because I have a serious soft spot for Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart (the latter of whom was awarded an Oscar for his performance in this film).  Rather, I suspect my affection for this film is rooted in its crisp dialogue and zippy one liners.  While Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart are the obvious heavy-hitters, the supporting cast turned in solid performances and earned a lot of laughs in their own right--most notably Ruth Hussey (who garnered an Oscar nomination), Roland Young, and Virginia Weidler.

Constantine (2005)


Not a bad film, and extremely well cast. 

Keanu Reeves is (of course) the resigned, world-weary hero with a limited range of facial expressions and Nothing to Lose; Rachel Weisz is the improbably-beautiful-yet-hard-boiled cop with a Special Talent (and a dead sister).  However, the real casting genius is in the supporting actors--Tilda Swinton as the androgynous angel Gabriel, Gavin Rossdale as the slimily debonair demon Balthazar, perpetual crazy man Pruitt Taylor Vince as an alcoholic priest who can hear the dead, Djimon Hounsou as the now-neutral ex-witch doctor, Shia LaBeouf as Reeves' wide-eyed and eager apprentice, and the always delectable Peter Stormare as Lucifer himself. 

The Cowboy and the Vampire, by Clark Hays and Kathleen McFall


This book was much, much better than I expected.  It's the sort of book you purchase from the clearance rack on a whim, figuring that it might be just terrible enough to be entertaining.  But lo and behold, it's actually a decent book.  The leading lady is a bit lacking in personality, it's true, but the titular cowboy and friends pack plenty of punch n the personality department--Tucker, his dad, his paramoid militia-crazed friend, and his loyal dog Rex all liven up the story and add an earthiness and humor to the hyper-serious, overdramatized flavor that plagues so many vampire tales. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature's Most Fantastic Works, by Eric S. Rabkin (Great Courses)


A decent enough lecture series, and quite comprehensive.  Rabkin covers the significant contributions to science fiction and fantasy (including fairy tales and the like) from the Grimm brothers (and earlier) to modern day, including recurring themes and stories.  Which is why this series is 24 lectures long instead of the usual 12.

I didn't necessarily buy all of his symbolism and interpretations--I realize sex is a dominant theme in literature, but I don't know that literature is about sex quite as often as Rabkin thinks it is.  Then, too, he sees allusions that I'm not entirely sure the authors intended.  Of course, there are themes and ideas in the cultural memory, and I have no trouble believing that authors can unintentionally reflect or allude to other works or archetypes.  But making the argument that such allusions were intentional requires a stronger correlation or additional behind-the-scenes insight.

Still, Rabkin knows his stuff and is not unpleasant to listen to, even if he's not the most scintillating lecturer I've ever heard.  And lectures like this are a great source of recommended reading lists, which I always appreciate.