Monday, December 31, 2012

Rocky (1976)


An except of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
If there’s a more quintessentially American film than Rocky, I don’t know what it is. Americans love a good rags-to-riches tale, and there aren’t many things we like better than rooting for a scrappy guy who faces insurmountable odds. It’s part of our history. We are the scrappy no-accounts who, armed with little more than our own determination, stood toe-to-toe with one of the greatest empires in the world and emerged as an independent nation. Or so the story goes. [...] 
We Americans just love this stuff. Our national mascot should really be an underdog, because boy, do we love to watch a longshot make good. It’s part of who we are and how we see ourselves. 
But we don’t just love it in our history and our films. We also love it in our religion. And that can lead to problems. Rocky Balboa is a nobody who’s given a second chance (or really a first chance, as it’s not clear he ever really had a shot at anything big time), and by hard work and sheer determination he shows the world that, by golly, he’s good enough, he’s smart enough (well, kind of), and, doggone it, people like him. And we import this same mentality into our picture of God and the gospel. Sure, maybe we blew it the first time around. Maybe we didn’t do ‘as well as we should have’. Maybe we screwed up. But God is the God of second chances, right? We figure if He’ll just give us another shot, we’re sure we can buckle down and do right. We’re Americans, and we’ve got gumption and pluck and we will not be denied. Just give us one more chance, God, and we’ll prove to You that we deserve Your favor. 
But what is merely a harmless preference in entertainment is absolutely fatal when it comes to our faith. We are fundamentally mistaken about our past, our potential, and our position, and as a result, we are believing a false gospel.
Full review available here.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Top Shelf: Best Reads of 2012 Edition

As 2012 draws to a close, the interwebs are flooded with year-end lists: the best-dressed, the worst-dressed, the best and worst movies, the most memorable moments, etc. I am not in a position to offer an opinion on the best books of 2012, since I don't keep up with the latest publications, but I did make my own list--the best books I read in 2012, broken up by genre--which was recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost. Here's an excerpt:
Best Romance: A Long Fatal Love Chase, by Louisa May Alcott 
Did you know that Louisa May Alcott, she of the quaintly wholesome Little Women, also wrote insanely outlandish romance novels? Well, she did, and they are awesome. A Long Fatal Love Chase is full of improbably named villains with nefarious intentions and a lovely heroine whose flight from said villain takes her from yacht to convent to mental institution, through an assortment of disguises, forbidden love, and daring escapes. In short, it is flat out bonkers, and I loved every minute of it. 
Honorable Mention: A Modern Mephistopheles, by Louisa May Alcott
Full post available here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Les Misérables (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
Javert, on the other hand, has no understanding of grace. He is upstanding, incorruptible, and an unfailing servant of Justice. But those in his path must realize that with Javert, justice is all they will ever get—no less than justice, but no more. Sins must be punished—‘Those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.’ He hunts Valjean relentlessly, and is unmoved by Valjean’s apparent change of heart. When Valjean has an opportunity to kill Javert and chooses to spare his life, Javert lets Valjean go (for the time being), and is immediately so horrified by his lapse of duty that he kills himself. 
Or at least, that’s what he tells himself. Really, even worse for Javert than the knowledge that he failed in his duty is the realization that he, Javert, received grace from a convict. A sinner spared his life, and now he must either accept this act of grace and the change it will inevitably bring about in his life (for grace accepted always changes us) or reject it. And, of course, this is what he does. Because the knowledge that he received grace from anyone, let alone a criminal, is too much for him to deal with. He is determined to stand or fall by his works alone, not by the grace of another. And so, like all who choose this approach, he falls.
Full review available here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie


The Great War is finally over, and as jobs are scarce, childhood pals Tommy Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley find themselves in similar financial predicaments. Strapped for cash, the duo decide to go into business for themselves ... as adventurers. No sooner have they so decided than an adventure comes knocking. Before long, our heroes are smack in the middle of an international intrigue that could destroy England itself. A draft treaty somehow found its way into the hands of a young American girl called Jane Finn, and now both the girl and document are missing. If either of them falls into the wrong hands, the result could be a full scale Communist revolution. Tommy and Tuppence are tasked with locating the missing girl and recovering the document. But at every turn, they find themselves thwarted by the mysterious--and unknown--Mr. Brown, who seems to know all and anticipate their every move. With the help of a highly respected attorney and an energetic American millionaire, the Young Adventurers, Ltd. tackle this, their very first adventure ...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
Miracle on 34th Street is, in many ways, a quintessential example of the heart-warming ‘Christmas’ movie. There isn’t even a whiff of the real Christmas story, of course. That would be too much to ask. Instead, it celebrates Christmas by decrying selfish commercialism and encouraging kindness and goodwill—though it is worth noting that much of the ‘progress’ is itself motivated by pure, unadulterated self-interest. For example, Mr. Macy endorses Kris’s new policy of sending shoppers elsewhere if Macy’s cannot supply their needs because he believes that it will benefit him to be perceived as kind and customer-oriented. Gimbel follows suit so as not to miss out on the public relations benefits of this ‘kindness.’ The two retail giants compete for the role of generous benefactor not because they actually are generous, but because they wish to appear generous in order to receive a financial benefit. And Macy later defends Kris in court not because he actually believes his claims, but because to do otherwise would be bad for business. Similarly, the judge who presides over Santa’s trial is reluctant to lock Kris away not because it would be unjust to do so, or because of any desire to uphold the ‘spirit of Christmas’, but because he fears it would hurt his chances of re-election. Thus, there is a broad streak of humorous skepticism behind this touchy-feely tale, which gives the story a depth and complexity that is lacking in much of the usual holiday treacle.
Full review available here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Right to Die, by Rex Stout


Twenty-six years ago, a young man named Paul Whipple got Nero Wolfe out of a jam. Now Whipple himself is in a jam, and he comes to Wolfe for help. His son Dunbar wants to marry a white girl, and Whipple is dead against it. He's convinced that the lady in question, the lovely (and wealthy) Susan Brooks, must be crazy to want to marry a poor black man, and Whipple wants Wolfe to dig up something that would convince Dunbar not to go through with the wedding. Wolfe reluctantly agrees to investigate Susan, but he's barely gotten started when circumstances intervene and Susan winds up dead--and the police think Dunbar killed her. Wolfe disagrees and, on surer footing in a murder investigation than in matrimonial prevention, he dives right in (metaphorically) to exonerate the accused (and bereaved) Dunbar. But in order to clear Dunbar, Wolfe must shift the blame to the real killer, and he's convinced that the guilty party is in some way affiliated with the Civil Rights organization where Susan and Dunbar both worked.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert


Pastors Kevin DeYoung (Just Do Something) and Greg Gilbert (What Is the Gospel?) team up to address a major question among Christians: Just what is the mission of the church, anyway? Along the way, DeYoung and Gilbert address a board spectrum of 'missional' teachings and examine biblical teaching on the Kingdom of God, social justice,  and church ministry.

If you've read much of DeYoung or Gilbert's work (to say nothing of D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, and Michael Horton, all of whom wrote blurbs for the back cover), you probably have a pretty good idea of what they think the mission of the church is. (Hint: If you guessed the Great Commission, you are correct.) What's new here is their attempt to engage with those who embrace a gospel of the Kingdom or who tend to elevate social justice to the church's primary mission.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Mirror Crack'd, by Agatha Christie


Movie star Marina Gregg has just bought Gossington Hall, the big manor at the edge of St. Mary Mead. The whole village is agog with the news, and turns out en masse for the big fundraiser on the grounds. The event is a huge success ... until a local woman winds up dead, after drinking a poisoned cocktail. Before long, the authorities have concluded that the lovely Marina was the intended victim--a conclusion that is bolstered by the threatening letters she receives and the arsenic-laced coffee she narrowly avoids drinking. Chief-Inspector Craddock is stumped--and not above consulting his favorite adopted aunt, Jane Marple. Miss Marple is more housebound than she use to be, but still sharp as a tack and perfectly willing to lend her not inconsiderable talents to the solving of this mystery. But who could have done it? One of Marina Gregg's many ex-husbands? Someone on her staff? One of the children she impulsively adopted and just as abruptly rejected, all grown up and bearing a grudge? A crazed fan? Her current husband seems to adore her, but perhaps appearances aren't what they seem ...

The title to this work comes from Tennyson's beloved poem The Lady of Shalott (familiar to many modern readers largely because of its appearance in the television adaptation of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables):
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

White Christmas (1954)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
The overall theme is one of continued connectedness, obligation, and sacrifice. On some level, this works itself out comically (as in Wallace’s continued sense of obligation to Davis for saving his life, and Davis’ shameless willingness to exploit that sense of obligation). But there are more serious implications as well. [...] Wallace and Davis undertake to move their entire show—cast, sets, and all—to rural Vermont to help out their old Army general. This is far from a low cost endeavor. It is nothing short of an act of personal sacrifice. And when Wallace exhorts his fellow veterans to come to Vermont to show appreciation for General Waverly, they do so. That they would leave their families on Christmas Eve, and at a moment’s notice, is evidence of a deep devotion to the General. 
The interesting thing is that none of these individuals were supposed to have been terribly good friends. [...] Time and time again, Wallace and Davis remind each other that they are doing this or that undesirable task ‘for a pal in the Army.’ The emphasis is clearly on ‘Army’, not ‘pal.’ The connection between them is not personal; it is based on a shared commitment to and service of a particular cause—a common experience that transcends personalities, professions, geography, and even time. On the strength of this connection, Wallace, Davis, and the other veterans of the 151st Division make costly sacrifices.
Full review available here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Death of a Dude, by Rex Stout


It's summertime, and Archie's out Montana way living the good life with the well-heeled and playful Lily Rowan, who just so happens to own a ranch and a couple thousand head of cattle. It was supposed to be a vacation, but we know better, and before long Archie's up to his eyeballs in murder. Everybody seems to think Lily's ranch foreman Harvey bumped off the no-account city slicker who got his daughter pregnant, but Archie's convinced that Harvey would never shoot a man in the back. Still, knowing it and proving it are two very different things, and it looks like Archie may be out West for the long haul. This is, of course, a completely unsatisfactory state of affairs for Nero Wolfe, so the corpulent genius trundles off to Big Sky Country to expedite matters. Will the dynamic duo be able to clear Harvey and catch the real bad guy? And will Wolfe ever get Archie back home to the comfort of his beloved brownstone?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Twelve Unlikely Heroes: How God Commissioned Unexpected People in the Bible and What He Wants to Do with You, by John MacArthur


Well-known preacher John MacArthur walks the reader through the stories of twelve 'unexpected' Bible heroes (in ten chapters--Gideon and Samson are paired, as are Mark and Onesimus).

I confess that I was expecting something a bit ... different. With a title like Twelve Unlikely Heroes, I somehow got it into my head that the stories would all involve lesser-known bible characters--some of the more obscure judges, perhaps, or Jael, or Abigail, or Haggai or Titus or somebody. So when I flipped to the Table of Contents and saw names like Joseph, John the Baptist, and James, I was a little disappointed. Not that they're all big names--MacArthur includes Enoch, Miriam, and the aforementioned Onesimus. But still, his focus was different than I'd anticipated.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)


From 1943 to 1949, Disney's animated 'feature films' were not, in fact, full length movies, but were instead 'package films'--a collection of shorter films. There was a war on, after all, and many of the animators and creative minds behind Disney were otherwise engaged--producing training and propaganda films. In fact, the first few 'package films' were themselves a form of propaganda: Saludos Amigos (1943, Disney characters go to South America and have adventures) and The Three Caballeros (1945, Donald Duck receives various presents from Latin American friends) were designed to foster goodwill with South America and counteract the Nazi influences there. The rest of the package films weren't directly related to the war effort, but WWII left a significant creative drain in its wake, resulting in a lot of half-finished storylines, which were then cobbled together to make feature length films--Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948). The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was the last in this series.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie


When the rich Emily Inglethorpe drops dead from strychnine poisoning, everyone suspects her new (and significantly younger) husband, Alfred. But Alfred's not the only one who benefits from her death--or the only one who had the opportunity to commit the heinous act. Was it one of her sons, who stood to inherit the manor at Styles? Or perhaps her daughter-in-law, Mary Cavendish, who was overheard quarreling with the victim shortly before her death? Then there's Dr. Bauerstein, who seems awfully friendly with Mary Cavendish, and has an expert knowledge of poisons ... and Cynthia, the poor relative staying with the family and working at a pharmaceutical dispensary in the next town ... and, of course, the various staff members, chief among whom is the redoubtable Ms. Evelyn Howard, the murdered woman's companion and factotum. The local police are at a bit of a loss, and Lt. Arthur Hastings, who is staying with the family while he recovers from his war wounds, can't make heads or tails of it all. Fortunately, an old friend of Lt. Hastings just happens to be staying nearby ... the inimitable (and ingenious) Hercule Poirot!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller


The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory. One-time shepherd and pastor Phillip Keller walks the reader through the 23rd Psalm as David the Shepherd King would have seen it. At least, as Keller thinks David would have seen it.

Keller's insights are certainly helpful, particularly in America's increasingly non-agrarian culture. He includes meditations on the relationship between sheep and shepherd, the importance--and blessing--of having a good and wise shepherd, the dangers that threaten the flock at every turn, and the hard work and sacrifice of the shepherd on behalf of his sheep.

I have always understood Psalm 23 to contain a combination of metaphors--David seems to transition smoothly from comparisons to sheep (verses 1-4) into language that evokes a royal banquet and possibly a coronation of sorts (verse 5) and thence to a sort of benedictory prediction of future care and blessing in this life and a hint of the life to come.

Monday, December 3, 2012

And Four to Go, by Rex Stout


This one's a rare four-story collection of holiday homicides.

The collection kicks off with 'Christmas Party', wherein Wolfe himself--in an effort to investigate the depth of Archie's commitment to a particular female--bartends a Christmas party. In disguise. As Santa Claus.  When the host drops dead from cyanide poisoning, Wolfe skedaddles, but the police are understandably suspicious of the mysterious unknown Santa-bartender who vanished immediately following the murder. The only way to keep the world from finding out is to find the murderer before the police find Santa (er, Wolfe).

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Top Shelf: Christmas Edition

For those of you gearing up for the holidays, I figured I'd collect all my holiday posts to date in one place. Because I am all about making your life easier.

I've reviewed a few Christmas-related devotionals over the years, including The Meaning Is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent by Paula Gooder and God Came Near by Max Lucado, both of which are excellent resources for preparing your heart for the Christmas holidays and meditating on the real reason for the season. 

If biography's more your speed, I also reviewed The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, by Adam C. English.

For the musically inclined, Calvin Stapert's Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People is an excellent read.

And of course Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol is a holiday must-read--and a short one at that.

If you're not looking for a whole book, I also did a blog series on the Gospel content of 13 well-known Christmas carols, including What Child Is This?, The First Noel, Good Christian Men, Rejoice, We Three Kings, and perennial favorite O Holy Night, just to name a few.

I've also posted some thoughts on the incarnation, with an assist from theological bigwigs like G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.I. Packer.

And of course, we mustn't forget the Christmas movies! I've reviewed both White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street, as well as the best Christmas movie of all time: Die Hard.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Friday, November 30, 2012

God of All Creation: Life Lessons from Pets and Wildlife, by James Robison


Texas televangelist James Robison shares 28 lessons he's learned from animals and pets--most notably his miniature dachshund Princess. I had highish hopes for it, on account of the Beth Moore blurb on the back, but the end result is just ok.

Robison's lessons are pretty straightforward and simple--nothing earth-shattering or mind-blowing here. The chapters are short (the whole thing is less than 200 pages), and would likely make a decent devotional, albeit a fairly fluffy one. The writing is nothing special and borders on sappy, which is to be expected in a book like this, I suppose. Robison's relationship with his dog has clearly taught him a lot about how to relate to God--recognizing His voice, enjoying His company, obeying His commands, trusting Him with our hurts, etc. And there are some cautionary tales as well.

Which leads me to my main issue with this book. There seem to be only two categories in Robison's book: good dogs and bad dogs. Good dogs are happy and have a good relationship with the master. Bad dogs ... die. I'm not kidding. The two most pronounced examples of bad behavior end with the death of the dog. One chased cars and eventually caught one, to her detriment, and another had a talent for escaping and getting into mischief and also meets his demise at the hands (wheels) of a car. I understand the cautionary nature of these tales (and certainly a dog has less capacity for long-term sanctification or improvement than a human), but the end result feels more law than gospel.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Wonderful O, by James Thurber


A fun short story by humorist James Thurber, though nowhere near as clever or delightful as the  fanciful The 13 Clocks.

Two pirates, Littlejack and Black, plus their minions, set off on a treasure hunt that takes them to the island of Ooroo. The inhabitants don't know anything about any treasure, so the pirates and minions scour the island, wreaking havoc and destroying anything that gets in their path. Along the way, the pirate Black, who has an unaccountable loathing for the letter 'O', tries to eradicate it from the island. He has it removed from all the books, and soon starts ordering the destruction of any object with 'O' in its name. 'O' activities are outlawed, and a nitpicky lawyer is tasked with working out the details of the legislation (so, for example, 'cows' are outlawed unless they are in groups, thereby becoming 'cattle').

Things get worse and worse on the island. Communication is difficult ('shoe' has become 'she', etc.), and the islanders are at their wits' end. With the help of a local legend, they finally figure out how to rid themselves of the oppressors and, in the process, discover the real treasure (which, surprise surprise, contains the letter 'O').

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Footsteps in the Dark, by Georgette Heyer


The Fortescue siblings--Celia, Peter, and Margaret--are thrilled with the estate they've unexpectedly inherited. The Priory is the perfect place for a holiday, and they, along with Celia's solicitor husband Charles Malcolm, are determined to enjoy themselves. After all, the locals' talk of The Monk that haunts the ground is only so much rubbish, isn't it? But before long, the Malcolms and the Fortescues learn firsthand that there may be more to the ghost stories than they thought--eerie noises startle them, a cowled figure keeps popping up around the house and grounds, and a skeleton drops at their very feet. But Charles and Peter aren't convinced that supernatural forces are at work; they believe they're being tormented by a flesh and blood villain. But why? And who could it be? Mr. Titmarsh, the entomologist who's always flitting about their grounds? He claims he's looking for moths, but could he have a more sinister purpose? Then there's the irritable, heavy-drinking French artist, Louis Duval, who rants and raves about The Monk. Is he just crazy, or does he know something? And what about the mysterious Mr. Strange? He claims to be on holiday, but no one seems to know anything about him, and he certainly has a habit of showing up under suspicious circumstances. Margaret is positive that he means them no harm, but the others aren't so sure. But if not him, then who? What are his plans for the new tenants of the Priory? There's already been at least one violent death connected with The Monk--who will be next?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, by Adam C. English


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
This is, I think, a great reminder to Christians of the importance of humble, everyday acts of obedience. Most of us will never participate in or even witness a physical miracle. We can’t calm the sea for endangered sailors or multiply the supply of wheat or ooze magical healing goo from our tombs, as Saint Nicholas is rumored to have done. And even if we have the opportunity to punch a heretic, it might be best to abstain (criminal assault laws being what they are). Nevertheless all of us can be good stewards of whatever blessings we have received. And while our salvation comes not from our good works but from our position in Christ and his atoning death on the cross for our sins, He calls His justified people to a life of obedience. Trusting in His grace and relying on His power, we can obey God in the small things and trust that in His sovereignty He can use these small daily obediences to bring glory to His name in ways we could never imagine.
Full review available here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Not Quite Dead Enough, by Rex Stout


Another two-in-one book, like Black Orchids before it. This time, the unifying thread is not Wolfe's rare flora, but his work for the United States Army during World War II. In 'Not Quite Dead Enough', Archie, now a major and working in domestic counter-intelligence, is sent to recruit Wolfe's help with various military intelligence issues. To Archie's surprise, Wolfe is neither reading in his office nor up playing with his orchids, but is in fact 'training' to join the Army as a soldier so he can kill some Germans. Archie is flabbergasted, and must figure out a way to convince Wolfe that he is far more useful to the Army as a brain than as a soldier. The trouble is, any argument would require Wolfe to use his brain, and it appears that he simply will not do so. So Archie sets out to use the only hook left--Wolfe's ego. Before long, Archie himself is a murder suspect, and Wolfe is faced with the ignominy of having his former assistant tried for murder ... unless Wolfe can figure out whodunit.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Father Hunt, by Rex Stout


Amy Denovo wants to find her father. The trouble is, she doesn't know who he is, what he does, or where he lives. All she knows is that her mother received checks for $1000 every month from Amy's birth until her mother's death in a hit and run accident a few months back. But was it really an accident? Wolfe and Archie chase lead after lead in an attempt to track down the long-lost father, determined to find an answer. Whether Amy likes the answer she gets ... well, that remains to be seen.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)


Millionaire Frederick Loren (whom we will call Vincent Price, for lo, 'tis he) has a killer idea for a party. He'll invite 5 strangers--a pilot, a psychologist, a stenographer, a journalist, and the drunken, raving owner of the house, all of whom are strapped for cash--to join him and his wife at a haunted house he's rented just for the occasion. Anyone who stays the night will receive $10,000 (almost $80,000 today, if you adjust for inflation). Not too bad for a night's non-work. Of course, it's not so simple. The owner reveals that no fewer than 7 people have been murdered in that house, and it is these ghosts who now haunt the premises. When the caretaker and his creepy blind wife take off early, locking the guests--and hosts--in the house, they must find a way to survive until morning.

This. Movie. Is. Hilarious.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dial M for Murder (1954)


Margot Wendice is the wealthy wife of retired tennis star Tony Wendice. She is also the sometimes-lover of Mark Halliday, an American author of detective fiction. Unfortunately for her, her husband is wise to the affair and decides to have her bumped off before she divorces--or disinherits--him. The murder plot seems foolproof, but circumstances intervene and his wife survives. The hired killer is not so fortunate. Now Tony Wendice has to deal with the police snooping about, and they're bound to get suspicious, unless he can convince them that his wife is herself guilty of murder ...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Black Mountain, by Rex Stout


Marko Vukcic is dead. Nero Wolfe is extremely displeased by the murder of his oldest and dearest friend, and is even more displeased when, after weeks of effort, he is unable to locate or identify the murderer. Marko, it seems, was involved in international intrigue in their native Montenegro, and it seems increasingly likely that his murder is connected to his activities there. When Wolfe receives news that his adopted daughter (also a Montenegrin) was killed in nearby Albania, he decides to take matters into his own hands, and he and Archie hop a plane to Italy and thence to the Black Mountain itself. Wolfe is bound and determined to find the killer and bring him to justice. But first he has to survive a harrowing trek through the mountains, beset by Communist dictators--Tito's regime on the one side and Stalin's Russia on the other--and the local rebels who resist them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
[...] Herriot’s writing is possessed of a good-natured jollity that invests even the bleakest tales with good humor and optimism. A vivid account of a late-night call in the freezing wind, stripped to the waist and soaking wet, with his arm up a cow’s backside and a group of stoic, unsympathetic farmers looking on, will be followed by a sincere reflection on his incredible good fortune to live and work in this forbidding yet beautiful land. While Herriot is occasionally discouraged or frustrated by his clients’ lack of appreciation (or their persistence in adhering to the utterly nonsensical folk cures their fathers swore by), it is never long before Herriot’s good temper wins out and he is restored to his customary cheerfulness and humble gratitude. 
Perhaps most striking of all—at least to me—is Herriot’s indefatigable patience. Granted, patience is a virtue which I have never been accused of possessing in over-abundance. I am frequently frustrated by circumstantial setbacks, human folly, the inability of the UPS man to deliver packages in a timely fashion, and any number of technological glitches inflicted on me by computers/websites/smart phones/etc. In short, I am frustrated by anything and everything. So it is with no small amount of fascination—and a good deal of envy—that I read of Herriot’s seemingly limitless patience.
Full review available here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Red (2010)


Retired CIA agent Frank Moses is having a hard time adjusting to his humdrum, post-black-ops life. The only bright spot in his life is Sarah, the customer service rep who handles his pension, and with whom he has frequent phone conversations. When a hit squad attacks his house in the middle of the night, Frank is determined to find out who sent them, and why. The task is a bit too big for him, but fortunately he has an assortment of old associates who are only too happy to be recruited to assist him in his mission--as well as Sarah herself, who is unexpectedly swept up in the drama on account of Frank's known attachment to her. Meanwhile, CIA Agent William Cooper is tasked with finding and eliminating Frank, who has been tagged as 'Retired Extremely Dangerous.' As Frank and company inch ever closer to the source of their trouble, Cooper begins to question his mission ...

This movie had no business being anything less than awesome--with Bruce back in action  in the kind of role he does best, supported by John Malkovich as paranoid conspiracy theorist Martin Boggs, Martin Freeman as ailing ex-agent Joe, and the inimitable Helen Mirren as expert assassin Victoria ... to say nothing of Brian Cox as Ivan, the Russian ex-agent who pines nostalgically for the Cold War days. With a cast like that, the movie ought to have been a lock.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout


It's 1933, and money is scarce. So when private detective Fred Durkin shows up at the office with a woman in tow and a favor to ask, Wolfe is reluctant. The woman is Maria Maffei, a friend of Mrs. Durkin, and she wants to hire Wolfe to find her missing brother Carlo. Before long, Wolfe has connected Carlo--a metalworker--with the death of a well-respected university president, who dropped dead of a heart attack on the links of a Westchester County golf course. But was it really a heart attack? And what ever happened to Carlo Maffei?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
There are a number of recurring themes throughout the film, most notably the tension between young and old, past and future. Bond and M are seen as relics of a bygone age (and Bond himself is feeling his years in a way we haven’t really seen before). The British government has begun to question not only M’s leadership, but even the necessity of MI6 itself. Even within MI6 this tension is present—the elderly Q has been replaced by a younger model (Ben Whishaw, seen recently in Cloud Atlas) who prefers computers to silly gadgets, and sees agents as necessary only when a trigger must be pulled. But Silva is likewise a wiz with computers, and Bond and M eventually realize that in order to defeat him, they need to take the battle to their own outdated turf. 
The resulting film has, of necessity, a delightful throwback feel. We get precious little in the way of new gadgets (I only counted two, one of which is clearly mocked as anything but innovative), but we are reunited with an old friend of the vehicular variety, which more than makes up for Q’s unimpressive offerings. Plus we get to see Bond and company improvise their own arsenal of sorts, with impressive results. Michael Westen would be proud (as would MacGyver). Also, for those concerned about such things, I can confirm that Bond is still a martini man (shaken, not stirred), that he has not lost his flair for self-introduction, that he still knows how to use a Walther PPK, and that there’s still nothing like an Aston Martin DB5.
Full review available here.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Homicide Trinity, by Rex Stout


A collection of three novellas, at least two of which will seem oddly familiar to Wolfe fans. In each case, the motive is established right from the get-go, and Wolfe faces a discrete collection of 4-5 murder suspects. The mysteries aren't terribly complex (these are short stories, after all), but Wolfe gets there ahead of the police every time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus, by David Janzen


An excerpt of a two-part review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
The Christian church has ceased to be a body and has become instead a disconnected assortment of individuals. We no longer care for one another, meet one another’s needs, or walk alongside one another as the early church once did. “Church” has become somewhere we go once a week instead of something we are on a daily—or even moment-by moment—basis. We are fixated on personal autonomy instead of godly submission to one another, we cling to personal possessions instead of viewing them as gifts from God to be stewarded for His glory and the benefit of others, and we seek to elevate our own careers and reputations instead of prioritizing the health and vitality of Christ’s beloved church in the world. 
So says David Janzen, and I confess, I think I agree with him. He raises valid criticisms about the current state of ‘community’ in the church, the materialism that pervades our society, and the emphasis on individualism and independence and self-determinism as unimpeachable human rights to be protected and celebrated (an attitude that has, I think, a unique appeal to Americans, given our historical narrative). He takes issue with the modern idea of watered-down, milquetoast community. And I have to say, he has a point. The trouble is I’m not sure his solutions don’t cause more problems than they purport to solve.
Full review available in two parts here and here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

God's Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions, by J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom


J.I. Packer, author of the Christian classic Knowing God, tackles the issue of discerning the will of God.

In the past few months, I've read several books on this topic. There seem to be two main camps--those who allow for extrabiblical guidance (that is, the supernatural or 'felt' leading of the Holy Spirit) and those who do not. The issue works itself out primarily in the realm of decisions where sin is not implicated, i.e., what college to attend, where to eat lunch, what socks to wear, etc.

Writers like Philip Cary (Good News for Anxious Christians, which I have not gotten around to reviewing yet) believe that the sum total of God's guidance is contained in the Scripture. Thus, God has given us guidance on how to be obedient to Him and live well. If the Bible does not address the issue, then it is up to us to use our intelligence to make an informed choice. (Under this view, it would seem that the Holy Spirit's work in Scripture ended with the original inspiration; there does not appear to be any allowance for the Holy Spirit's continuing work in applying the Word to the individual lives of believers.) A similar position is articulated by Kevin DeYoung in Just Do Something and by Phillip Jensen in Guidance and the Voice of God (which my church uses in its Sunday School class on guidance). DeYoung and Jensen are not quite so militant in their opposition to perceived extrabiblical guidance as Cary, but they clearly view such phenomena with skepticism and disinterest.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Death Times Three, by Rex Stout


Another Nero Wolfe threesome--that is to say, a collection of three novellas featuring our favorite fattie and his back-talking sidekick, Archie Goodwin.

In 'Bitter End', Wolfe partakes of a jar of pate that has been laced with quinine. He is, of course, outraged at the insult to his palate, and vows to catch the guilty party. So off Archie goes to Tingley's Tidbits to snoop around. But when Arthur Tingley himself winds up with his throat cut, things get complicated--not least because Wolfe's client (the lovely niece of the dearly departed) is a prime suspect.

In 'Frame-Up for Murder', a lovely French girl convinces Archie petition Wolfe on her behalf--to rid her brother of an unpleasant woman who is destroying his clothing design business. But when Wolfe and Archie get on the phone with the source of the problem, they are greeted by a torrent of insults, a scream, a moan, and a thud. The woman is found dead in her office, and it seems that Wolfe and Archie were ear-witnesses to the murder. But Wolfe isn't so sure. He suspects that someone is trying to make a monkey of him, and decides to get even by catching the killer.

Finally, in 'Assault on a Brownstone', Hattie Annis, the eccentric proprietor of a boarding house for folks in show business, shows up on the doorstep requesting an appointment with the man himself. After being told to return during Wolfe's normal office hours, she entrusts Archie with a package and departs. But before she can return, she is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in a stolen car. When Archie unwraps the package, he finds $9,000 in counterfeit bills--indicating that one of the boarders at Ms. Annis's place isn't what he or she seems. Knowing that the Department of the Treasury would rather catch a counterfeiter than a murderer, and determined to see justice done, Archie decides to solve the murder himself, with or without Wolfe's help. Fortunately, the Treasury sends men to search Wolfe's house from top to bottom, which so riles Wolfe that he agrees to assist Archie in tracking down the murderer/counterfeiter.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


In this fairly creative update of the classic Jules Verne story, Brendan Fraser is Trevor, kid brother of the long-missing Max, a vulcanologist who disappeared years before. Now Trevor is following in his brother's footsteps--or he would be, if the university wasn't cutting his funding and converting his lab into storage. Fortunately, Max's wife shows up to drop off 13-year-old Sean (Josh Hutcherson, long before Katniss Everdeen broke his heart) for a visit, and delivering a box of Max's old belongings. Tucked alongside the old baseball mitt and yo-yo is a heavily annotated copy of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Trevor soon realizes that Max used it as a field journal to record his findings, and that current volcanic conditions are a perfect match for those recorded in the journal around the time of Max's disappearance--including a long-dormant site in Iceland. So of course, the boys head off to follow in Max's footsteps. With the help of a (conveniently attractive) mountain guide named Hannah--herself the daughter of a vulcanologist--Trevor and Sean trudge up Sneffels and soon find that maybe Verne's story isn't science fiction after all ...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Downton Abbey (Season 2)


We rejoin the Crawley clan two years after the close of season one. The crisis of Downton's entail is replaced with the crisis of the War, which affects pretty much everyone in different ways. The able-bodied men are shipped off to fight the Germans, and the remaining men join the women in converting Downton to a convalescent home for wounded officers. As with the previous season, the interwoven plot arcs defy terse and summary description. Fortunately, the writers make the most of these arcs, using them to work significant changes in the characters--making the loathsome characters less repellent, and adding a few dings and spots to the more admirable characters. The end result is a complex and impressive drama that rises above the high bar set by season one.

For example, selfish and arrogant Mary, who discovered in season 1 that she really did love the (rather dull) bourgeois lawyer (and Downton heir) Matthew, learns firsthand what it means to love not selfishly but sacrificially, with a genuine desire for the good of the other. This lesson, combined with a few other rough knocks, does wonders for her sense of entitlement, self-pity, and superiority, and she is significantly more palatable with the welcome introduction of genuine contrition and a little humility to her character.

(Matthew, meanwhile, who is briefly interesting during a short stint as a soldier, disappears into the scenery once he is wounded in action. But then, he never really mattered much as a person. He's always been less of an actual character and more of an obstacle--first as the man that Mary was stuck with and didn't want, and now as the man Mary wants but can't have.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Curtains for Three, by Rex Stout


In this collection of short stories, Wolfe and Archie learn that appearances can be deceiving and things are not always what they seem.

In 'The Gun With Wings', an opera singer with an injured throat seems to have committed suicide by eating a bullet. After all, the gun was right there next to him, and who else could have done it? But when the widow swears up and down that the gun wasn't on the floor when she discovered the body. How did it get there? And what really happened?

In 'Bullet for One', the murder victim was shot off his horse when he was out for his daily ride in Central Park. All signs point to Vic Talbot as the murderer, but he has an airtight alibi--two witnesses swear he was in his hotel room across town shortly after the victim was seen by a beat cop, alive and well. Will Wolfe be able to figure out who fired the fatal shot?

In 'Disguise for Murder', things get personal. When Wolfe opens his orchids rooms to the members of the Manhattan Flower Club, a woman winds up strangled ... in Wolfe's own office. Shortly before she died, she told Archie that she'd recognized the man who killed her friend Doris--or, at any rate, the man she saw entering Doris's apartment the day she died. She wouldn't describe him, and she didn't know his name, but she saw him in the orchid rooms, and now she's dead. Wolfe, of course, is deeply insulted that anyone would commit murder in his house, but when Inspector Cramer seals off the office where he spends most of his waking hours, Wolfe is downright incensed, and vows to catch the murderer and make Cramer pay. Which is exactly what he does, even if it means putting Archie in the path of danger.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Martin Luther: In His Own Words, by Martin Luther


A short collection of Luther's works, including the 95 Theses, Luther's Small Catechism, excerpts from Luther's 'Tower Experience', three sermons ('On Faith and Coming to Christ', 'On Confession and the Lord's Supper', and 'On the Office of Preaching'), and Luther's last written words.

I particularly appreciated the opportunity to ingest in full the 95 Theses, which I confess  I had never read. (I know, I know. I'm a terrible Protestant.) They were surprisingly uncontroversial. Which I think I knew, but it was still interesting to hear them and to reflect on how such a mundane non-event morphed into the Reformation. I also really enjoyed Luther's sermon 'On the Office of Preaching', which essentially boiled down to 'once you stop preaching the gospel, you are no longer a preacher, no matter what the Pope says your job title is.'

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sherlock (Season 2)


Sherlock is back, with more cleverly updated and well-executed mysteries. The writers pick up where they left off, with Holmes and Watson facing off against the maniacal Moriarty. Moriarty inexplicably quits the field (or seems to, anyway), and we are once again off and running with new (old) adventures.

The writers wisely selected three of the best-known (and -loved) Sherlock tales to be updated and adapted: 'The Scandal in Bohemia', 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', and 'The Final Problem', in which Holmes and Moriarty face off with disastrous consequences.

Friday, October 26, 2012

How Should Christians Vote?, by Tony Evans


Pastor Tony Evans tackles the timely question: How should Christians vote? I confess I don't know much about Evans--I know he travels in Evangelical circles (and is a chaplain for Dallas's NFL and NBA teams), but as far as I know he is neither a renowned expositor of Scripture nor a student of political theory or philosophy, so it's not terribly surprising that his answer to this question lacks nuance.

Not that he's all wrong. His main point is also his strongest--namely, that Christians should be less concerned with loyalty to any particular party and more concerned with loyalty to God and His Word.  Drawing on his love of sports, Evans compares Democrats and Republicans to the opposing teams on a football field, and exhorts Christians to identify not with either 'team', but with the referees who decide which team 'wins' on various issues at various times. It's not the greatest metaphor, to be sure, but encouraging Christians to let go of party loyalty and start thinking in terms of what God's position is on a particular issue is by no means a bad thing. So far, so good.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
For the Wachowkis, the unifying theme of the stories is a sense of community and human connectedness. I was struck, however, by the portrayal of injustice as a universal experience. In each story, an injustice is being committed, and in each story, the characters involved must decide how to respond to that injustice. Some characters choose selfishness; others engage with circumstances in an attempt to bring about justice. So the fabricant/clone, when confronted with the horrible fate inflicted en masse on others like herself, chooses to take a stand in defense of those whom society as deemed ‘less than human’ and thus undeserving of basic human rights, or even life itself. This decision proves costly, yet the film clearly embraces the sacrifice of self for the pursuit of justice as honorable and right. This idea of self-sacrifice for the sake of justice recurs across several story lines—a young lawyer helps an escaped slave; a freedom fighter saves a helpless girl; a man risks his life to help the daughter of a friend; a woman risks her life for truth and to save thousands, perhaps millions; and a man undertakes a dangerous journey in exchange for a cure for a sick girl. In two of the story lines, this theme is rather muddled, as the victim and the savior are the same person, and, in one story, the perceived solution to the injustice is apparently self-salvation through suicide. 
Regardless of whether we agree with the means used to combat injustice—or even with the filmmakers’ characterization of certain events and actions as unjust—this experience of injustice makes an excellent theme, for it is common to all. If there is any universal constant in a fallen world, it is injustice.
Full review available here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In the Best Families, by Rex Stout


It starts with a seemingly simple chore: find out where a certain married man is getting his sizable income. But one package of tear gas and a dead dog later (along with a murder, of course), and Wolfe finds himself pitted against the powerful super-villain Arnold Zeck. There's no doubt about it--Wolfe is in a deep hole with only one way out. So he flees. Leaves the house, leaves the orchids, arranges for new jobs for his cook Fritz and his orchid nurse Theodore. The house is offered for sale. And Archie ... Archie is given only one instruction: 'Do not look for me.'

Monday, October 22, 2012

We the Underpeople, by Cordwainer Smith


This collection includes five short stories and one full-length novel by Cordwainer Smith, all of which take place in his Instrumentality of Mankind universe and involve 'underpeople'--humanoid creatures derived from animals for the purpose of completing various menial and/or skilled tasks. These underpeople look like human beings, more or less (some retain certain animalian features--noses, whiskers, unusual size, etc.) and have enhanced mental abilities, but at root they are still dogs, cats, bulls, birds, and so on and think accordingly. They are also treated accordingly--that is, treated like animals. And in many cases, worse than animals, for there are rules against caring for sick or injured underpeople; it is easier--and more economically sensible--to just destroy them.

This universe, then, is peopled by true humans, who now have pretty much nothing to do other than run the political worlds (and even that is done only by a few powerful individuals). The underpeople (and robots--there must always be robots) handle almost all the tasks, chores, and other jobs that need doing. Coupled with the complete victory of medical science over illness and the discovery of the life-lengthening drug 'stroon', this means that people live a standard 400 years completely free from danger, hardship, illness, or anything else that might impede their happiness. In fact, they're so consistently happy that they're dying of boredom and misery. Meanwhile, the underpeople are becoming increasingly self-aware and are uniting in an effort to establish their rights.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Champagne for One, by Rex Stout


It's just a fancy charity dinner for unwed mothers--what's the worst that could happen? Archie, roped into attending at the last minute as a favor for a sick friend, is about to find out. When one of the unwed mothers drops dead after sipping some cyanide-laced champagne, the police are ready to call it suicide. After all, the girl had cyanide with her, in her purse, and had threatened to kill herself with it in the past. But Archie saw the whole things, and he's positive the girl was murdered (much to the consternation of Inspector Cramer and company). Wolfe is dragged in when the unwed father in question (who just so happened to be at the dinner) hires the brilliant detective to catch the real killer before the police uncover his connection to the murdered girl. But who could have done it? She had no friends, no boyfriends, no social life to speak of ... yet someone cared enough about her to want her dead.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Prisoner's Base, by Rex Stout


Under normal circumstances, a woman showing up on Wolfe's door looking for a place to stay would be unceremoniously bounced. But if the woman shows up when Wolfe and Archie are in the middle of a standoff, she may end up being escorted inside so Archie can use her to antagonize his employer. The situation is complicated when someone else tries to hire Wolfe to find a missing heiress (the same young lady who just so happens to be upstairs in the South Room). Wolfe's self esteem won't let him accept a fee for finding something that he already has, so he ejects the young woman and gives her a twelve-hour head start before he'll come looking for her. Within three hours, the young woman is dead. Archie feels pretty rotten about the whole situation (having essentially sent the woman to her doom), and vows to catch the murderer, even if means working with--or even for--the police. Which leads to a rather unusual situation: Wolfe takes the case, with Archie as his client.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
[...] Both Mary and Colin start out as selfish, unpleasant children. They are rotten little beasts, in a way that the protagonists of children’s books are rarely permitted to be. It’s actually kind of refreshing. As a child, I remember identifying more strongly with the willful and autocratic Mary than I ever did with more angelic storybook children. 
The cure for this rottenness turns out to be, well, each other. [...] Until he meets Mary, Colin has never encountered anyone willing—or able—to stand up to him. Mary is impervious to his tantrums and refuses to cosset him when he’s engaged in a neurotic fit. In Colin, Mary sees what she used to be (and what, in many ways, she still is). She realizes that the things that helped her be less awful might have a similar affect on Colin, and so, for the first time in her life, she decides to do something for the benefit of another. 
In many ways, this is a rather upside-down example of ‘iron sharpening iron.’ (Proverbs 27:12) Rather than spurring one another on to good deeds, Colin’s sinful selfishness bumps into Mary’s sinful selfishness, and in order to get on together, they each learn to abandon their respective egos (at least to some degree) and become better, happier children in the bargain. And there’s certainly some practical truth to this. When we see our sins reflected in others, we get a better picture of just how awful and ugly our sins really are. And experiencing the practical consequences of our sin (like broken relationships) can certainly motivate us to behave ourselves better. 
But despite Burnett’s optimistic view of human relationships, the changes resulting from our interactions with others and with the world around us are, at best, external changes. Other people can’t change our hearts. The only way we can actually be transformed from rotten sinners into ‘good children’ is through the saving work of Jesus Christ. [...]
Full review available here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Might as Well Be Dead, by Rex Stout


James R. Harold is looking for his long-lost son. The Missing Persons Bureau thinks it's a hopeless case, but that doesn't stop them from referring Harold to Wolfe (mostly so they can watch Wolfe stub his toe on it). And it certainly seems like a fairly impossible task. Paul Harold is a veritable needle in the haystack that is New York City. But as it turns out, finding him is easy. Overturning his recent conviction for first-degree murder, on the other hand--that will be a challenge. But Wolfe is determined to do just that. Convinced that Paul (now known as Peter) was framed, Wolfe sets out to find the real murderer. However, his job is complicated by the fact that Paul/Peter won't lift a finger to help himself. Meanwhile, every time Wolfe unearths a hint, he runs headlong into yet another murder--and one of Wolfe's own employees winds up a victim! (Don't worry, it's not Saul. Or Fred.) Which is great news for Paul/Peter, since he's been in prison this whole time and can't very well have done it. But who is the real killer? And will Wolfe find him before he commits yet another murder?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Radical Question and A Radical Idea, by David Platt


Two books in one. Or rather, two pamphlets in one, since each 'book' is only about 50 pages long, and with dimensions of approximately 4" by 6", we're not talking big pages.

In the first 'book', The Radical Question, Platt asks his readers 'What is Jesus worth to you?' He looks at some of the hard teachings of Christ--Luke 9:57-62; John 6:53; Luke 14:26-27, 33; Luke 18:22--and uses them to illustrate how the modern Christian's devotion to Christ is, essentially, weak sauce. In contrast, he describes his experiences with the persecuted church in other countries, and the risks those Christians take for the sake of the gospel. He then looks to Christ and, using the parable of the great pearl, asks his readers if Christ isn't worth sacrificing everything for. I suspect this is, in effect, a summary version of Platt's first book, Radical.

The second 'book' is directed less at individual Christians and more at churches. Platt admonishes churches not to get wrapped up in things like fancy buildings and church-run programs and ministries, but to focus on equipping church members to do ministry in their communities. Again, Platt relies heavily on his many international experiences, but this time they are illustrations of what a church really is. A church, he argues, is not a building, but a people. And it is the Word of God, not programs or highly polished worship services, that can draw people to Christ. To Platt's way of thinking, we need to stop asking 'professionals' to do everything and instead turn things over to the laity. This will, in turn, allow the church to have a greater impact in the world (for the simple reason that having hundreds of lay 'ministers' making disciples will necessarily produce greater results than a few professional ministers doing the same). This appears to be a summary of Platt's earlier book, Radical Together.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
From the minds of geek favorite Joss Whedon and frequent Whedon (and Abrams) collaborator Drew Goddard comes this delightfully comedic (yet nonetheless horrific) send-up of the slasher genre. Whedon, fed up with the modern trend toward ‘torture porn’, describes this film as a ‘loving hate letter’ to the horror genre. The Cabin in the Woods is equal parts thrilling, horrifying, smart, gross, hilarious, visually impressive, and incisive. [...] 
Longtime Whedon fans will be pleased to see actors Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) and Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) on the big screen—Kranz in particular is a joy to watch as a perpetually stoned and, as it turns out, justifiably paranoid pothead. For me, however, the high point of the film was Bradley Whitford, who won my heart in the hilarious-but-short-lived (and, for reasons unclear to me, still unavailable on DVD) series The Good Guys, and who is utterly delightful here as a callous, arrogant technician at the forefront of the assault on the unfortunate college students.

As I’ve said, this movie is smart, fun, and totally worth checking out; but be warned, it is a horror flick. Awful, gory, disturbing things happen to each and every one of the college students (among others), so if you’re squeamish and/or prefer to avoid excessively violent films, then this is likely not the movie for you. That being said, I do think the film provides some (likely unintentional) commentary on the gospel.
Full review available here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Black Orchids, by Rex Stout


This one's actually a twofer. In the first novella ('Black Orchids'), an obnoxious young gardener is murdered at a flower show, where Nero Wolfe just happens to be on hand, having made one of his once-in-a-blue-moon excursions out of doors to ogle the world's only black orchids, which are on display at the show. Fortunately, the owner of these precious plants--fellow orchid aficionado and millionaire Lewis Hewitt, a familiar face to Wolfe fans--wants Wolfe to solve the murder (and keep Hewitt's name out of the papers). Wolfe is, of course, happy to oblige, provided Hewitt pays him a handsome fee. And in this case, the only fee that will satisfy our corpulent genius detective is three extremely rare flowers. But if he wants to keep them, he has to earn them, and that means figuring out who killed the gardener, and fast.

The second story ('Cordially Invited to Meet Death') involves the black orchids only tangentially. A prominent-but-eccentric party-planner hires Wolfe to figure out who's been sending nasty anonymous letters about her. However, before Wolfe can really dive into the case, his client dies of tetanus poisoning, and her brother is certain she was murdered. Wolfe sends flowers to the funeral--black orchids, no less--but claims to be both uninvolved and uninterested in the death of his client. But when Inspector Cramer commits an egregious (and insulting) blunder--at least according to Wolfe's standards--Wolfe decides that it is on, and is bound and determined to solve the case before Cramer. That'll learn him.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

And Be a Villain, by Rex Stout


Wolfe needs money. After all, those orchids don't pay for themselves. So, in a virtually unprecedented move, he actually solicits a job. Well-known radio host Madeline Fraser is in a pickle. During each broadcast of her hugely successful radio show, she and her various guests indulge in a bottle of Hi-Spot (a show sponsor). It's a big hit with the sponsor and the public. Until, that is, radio guest Cyril Orchard winds up drinking a big ol' glass of cyanide . . . on the air. The police are at a loss. Not only do they not know who killed Mr. Orchard; they don't even know if he was the intended victim or was just the inadvertent victim of a plot to kill Ms. Fraser herself! Now Wolfe's financial needs have landed him in the middle of it all--radio broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors, and the New York City Police Department. Will he be able to unravel this unholy tangle and earn his fee?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

If Death Ever Slept, by Rex Stout


A clash of wills between Wolfe and Archie (compounded by mutual fits of stubbornness) results in Archie masquerading as a secretary in the home of millionaire Otis Jarrell-- a situation that neither Wolfe nor Archie relishes overmuch. Officially, Jarrell hired them to prove that his daughter-in-law stole (and sold) business secrets. But when Jarrell's gun turns up missing and his previous secretary winds up with a hole in the back of his head, the case rapidly escalates into a full-fledged murder investigation. But who done it? And with a house full of suspects with ample motive, means, and opportunity, how will Wolfe ever find the culprit?