Sunday, April 29, 2012

Clash of the Titans (1981)


Perseus, half-mortal son of Zeus, is unexpectedly plopped down in Joppa, where Calibos, the son of Thetis, goddess of the sea, has recently been transformed from handsome man to hideous monster.  This transformation puts a bit of a kibosh on Calibos' betrothal to the lovely princess Andromeda, who in turn develops the hots for the dashing young Perseus.  When Andromeda's mother unwisely brags that the young princess is prettier than Thetis herself, the goddess goes all Wicked Queen on Andromeda's Snow White behind, and promises to send the monstrous Kraken to destroy the village unless Andromeda is sacrificed to it.  Perseus, deeply smitten with Andromeda himself, is having none of that, and, with the assistance of an elderly poet and a mechanical owl, he sets off to consult the Stygian witches for advice on how to defeat the Kraken.  The ensuing adventures bring him face-to-face (in a manner of speaking) with the legendary Medusa and ultimately the Kraken itself.  With Calibos sabotaging his every effort, and with his own nasty habit of losing the magical gifts bestowed on him by Zeus, will Perseus be able to save Andromeda before it's too late? 

This film was the last major production from fantasy/horror legend Ray Harryhausen, and he certainly went out with a bang.  The movie is chock full of good old fashioned stop-motion effects, claymation, and all sorts of classic horror cinema techniques.  The cast is a rather motley collection of respected actors (Laurence Olivier as Zeus; a young(er) Maggie Smith as Thetis; Burgess Meredith as the poet) and . . . others, including former Bond girl Ursula Andress as Aphrodite and relative unknown Harry Hamlin as Perseus. Hamlin isn't exactly a brilliant actor, but he's good at standing there draped in a shortish toga and looking confused until it's time for him to brandish his various magical weapons--when he hasn't lost them, that is.  

There's also plenty of cheesy wonderfulness, mostly provided by the stop-motion effects and the presence of a rather random and improbably named mechanical owl called Bubo (whose vocalizations sound suspiciously like R2D2, though Harryhausen swears that the idea of Bubo predates the lovable droid).  Hamlin battles all sorts of mythological critters, from giant scorpions to a two-headed dog (I guess Cerberus was busy) to Medusa herself, who is surprisingly scary for a stop-motion monster.  Pegasus makes a fairly realistic appearance, and the Kraken is, well, Godzilla Goes to Greece. 

All in all, it's a ton of fun and I can see why it's a classic.  If you enjoy old-school B movies and haven't seen this one . . . well, first you need to repent (as I did), because you should be ashamed of yourself, and then you should go out and rent (or borrow) this movie posthaste. 

Wrath of the Titans (2012)


Demigod Perseus wants nothing more than to raise his young son in the idyllic quiet of his simple fishing village--just as he promised his late wife Io.  An unexpected visit from his father Zeus reveals that the increased lack of belief among mortals has severely weakened the gods, and that the Titan Kronos (father of the gods) is on the verge of breaking out of Tartarus, the prison of the underworld where he's been trapped since before the dawn of mankind.  Perseus is at first reluctant to get involved, but when his village is attacked by a chimera, he decides to help Zeus restrain Kronos.  In the meantime, however, Zeus himself has been captured by his brother Hades (who seeks revenge for being exiled to the underworld by Zeus) and his son Ares (who resents Zeus for his preferential treatment of Perseus); they plan to hand Zeus over to Kronos so that Kronos can use what remains of Zeus' power to fuel his escape (in return for which assistance, Hades and Ares hope to be granted continued immortality when Kronos takes over).  Perseus--with an assist from former god (and divine weapon-smith) Hephaestus, fellow demi-god and mischief maker Agenor (son of Poseidon), and Andromeda, queen of Greece--must now journey to the underworld to save Zeus before Kronos drains Zeus of the last of his power, breaks free, and destroys all of humankind.  Mythological shenanigans ensue.

As you can see, there's kind of a lot going on here.  It's a very busy film.  And, I confess, it may have seemed more than usually busy to me on account of I watched it in IMAX 3-D, sitting in the front row.  I freely admit that my viewing situation may have affected my ability to follow the plot, and may have made things seem more chaotic than they would otherwise be if viewed in a less overwhelming format. 

Matthew 11:28, a hymn

Rest in the Lord; rest weary heart,
          With sin and sorrow worn,
And conscience ranking with the smart
          Of pitiless self scorn;
Oh, counting all beside but loss,
          Climb Calvary's lowly hill,
And there beneath the bleeding cross
          Rest, and be still.

Rest in the Lord; what time the storm
          Around thy pathway raves,
Behold His calm majestic form
          Serenely walks the waves;
And hark! that tranquil voice is heard
          Which winds and waves fulfill;
Oh, rest upon His changeless word;
          Rest, and be still.

Rest in the Lord; although the sands
          Of life are running low,
Though clinging hearts and clasping hands
          May not detain thee now:
His hand is on thee; death's alarms
          Can never work thee ill:
Rest on His everlasting arms;
          Rest, and be still.

Rest in the Lord: no conflicts more, --
          The latest labor done;
The weary strife forever o'er,
          The crown forever won.
Beside the crystal stream, that flows
          From Zion's heavenly hill,
Rest in eternal Love's repose;
          Rest, and be still.
~The Rev. Edward Henry Bickersteth, recorded in Christ in Song: Hymns of Immanuel, Selected from All Ages, with Notes, Volume 2, by Philip Schaff

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Raven (2012)


Well-known writer Edgar Allan Poe is flat broke and clean out of ideas.  That is, until someone starts using his stories as inspiration for a series of grisly murders in and around Baltimore.  When Poe's beloved (and unofficially betrothed) Emily is kidnapped, he must find a way to solve the mysteries--and write about them--before she becomes the final victim.  

In case you haven't guessed, this is not a terribly original plot.  It's been done on crime dramas like Bones and Castle, and to some extent in The Bone Collector. However, this is, to my knowledge, the first time anyone has dragged Edgar Allan Poe into the mix.  Poe, years past his classics like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum", is clearly plagued by writer's block (at least as far as his stories go; he's clearly still able to produce criticism and some poetry).  So of course he is required by the killer to resume his gruesome tales by writing up horrifying accounts of the various copycat murders for the Baltimore Patriot. Note the hints of Misery lurking in the background.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Trusting Christ: A Hymn

I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,
          Trusting only Thee:
Trusting Thee for full salvation,
          Great and free.

I am trusting Thee for pardon,
          At Thy feet I bow;
For Thy grace and tender mercy,
          Trusting now.

I am trusting Thee for cleansing
          In the crimson flood;
Trusting Thee to make me holy
          By Thy blood.

I am trusting Thee to guide me;
          Thou alone shalt lead,
Every day and hour supplying
          All my need.

I am trusting Thee for power,
          Thine can never fail;
Words which Thou Thyself shalt give me
          Must prevail.

I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus;
          Never let me fall;
I am trusting Thee forever,
          And for all.
~Miss Frances Ridley Havergal, recorded in Christ in Song: Hymns of Immanuel, Selected from All Ages, with Notes, Volume 2, by Philip Schaff

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Boy: Tales of Childhood, by Roald Dahl


Beloved children's author Dahl shares a few anecdotes from his childhood in Wales, England, and Norway, including the adventure of the goat tobacco, how he almost lost his nose, instructions on faking acute appendicitis, various boarding school escapades, and the Great and Daring Mouse Plot.

There really isn't any sort of overarching theme to these stories; Dahl just meanders through the past, walking the reader through some of his more prominent memories, many of which are borderline run-of-the-mill (though some are quite extraordinary).  Occasionally the reader gets a glimpse of an event that influenced Dahl's books (such Cadbury's habit of using boarding schools as 'focus groups' to test new candies and chocolates), but for the most part these are just reflections on a fairly normal life.

Of course, Dahl is not a normal writer; even the most mundane tales become interesting when he tells them.  Not that he spices them up, necessarily.  He just tells them really, really well.  The end result is a book that is, quite simply, a very pleasant read.  I was a bit surprised, actually, by this--this is the man who gave us some fairly dark children's tales, after all.  His darker worldview does creep in from time to time, particularly as he describes the corporal punishment and authority figures at his various boarding schools, most notably one cruel headmaster who was promoted to high position within the Anglican Church (much to Dahl's consternation). But by and large, the tales he tells are surprisingly upbeat and told with gentle good humor and a good deal of affection, especially when discussing his mother, other family members, and the few teachers who apparently didn't loathe small boys.

While this is not the most brilliant autobiography I've read, I enjoyed it, and I suspect others will as well.  It's short, as well--nothing here to intimidate the busy reader (or younger readers, for that matter).

[Fun Fact:  Meg Ryan's character reads this book aloud to children in her bookshop in You've Got Mail.  I'm not sure the book as a whole would be interesting enough to hold the attention of younger kids, but some of the anecdotes are definitely read-aloud-worthy--especially the Great and Daring Mouse Plot, which is what Ryan reads.]

The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar


An excerpt from a new review posted on Children's Books and Reviews:
The subjective appeal of a novel like this is not always immediately obvious. There are no dragons here; no princesses to be rescued or aliens to be annihilated. There are no vampires or werewolves or scrappy teens fighting for their lives. There isn’t even much teenage angst or romantic drama. Alton is just an ordinary boy living an ordinary life. Fortunately, Louis Sachar is not an ordinary writer. With the same flair for storytelling that won him such acclaim in Holes, he creates characters we care about and makes their relatively uneventful lives interesting. Don’t get me wrong—the story is perfectly acceptable. But it is the skill of the storyteller that really makes this book. [...] 
A book about a boy who spends his summer playing cards with old people might not seem like bestseller material. And indeed, it is unlikely to become one. There is nothing here to seize the public consciousness with quite the frenetic fever (and fervor) that tends to accompany modern bestsellers. This is, quite simply, a really good book. And given the subject matter, this is itself a testament to Sachar’s ability as a writer.
Full review available here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Christ in Song: Hymns of Immanuel, Selected from All Ages, with Notes, Volume 2, by Philip Schaff


Schaff returns with yet another collection of, well, hymns about Christ, from all ages.  This volume includes categories like The Love and Loveliness of Christ, Christ our Refuge and Strength, Love and Gratitude to Christ, and Christ All and In All.  Within each category, the hymns are arranged chronologically, and range from the third century all the way up to the mid nineteenth century (when this collection was published).

While it might be a bit overwhelming to sit down and read the whole thing cover to cover, it makes a great devotional, especially when read aloud. It would also make great gift for that one musically gifted friend you have, since many of the hymns--presented here without melodies--are simply begging to be set to music again and reintroduced into worship.

As with the previous book, there are some duds, but by and large the hymns Schaff selects are decent enough, and some are positively excellent--there are new (to me, anyway) hymns from well-known writers like Horatius Bonar, Augustus Toplady, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, William Cowper, and John Newton, along with many great hymns from seriously talented writers I've never heard of but will make an effort to track down in the future (Jane Borthwick, among others).  My personal favorites in this collection include "Through the Love of God", by Mary Peters, "When Time Seems Short", by G.W. Bethune, "When This Passing World", by R.M. McCheyne, "Awake, My Soul, In Joyful Lays", by Samuel Medley, "Rest in the Lord", by E.H. Bickersteth, and "I Am Trusting Thee, Lord Jesus", by Frances Havergal.

Volume 1 was, I think, a little stronger overall, but this installment is by no means a waste of time or money.  Though I have no idea why this reprint edition has pointe shoes on the cover.

Ringworld, by Larry Niven


200-year-old Louis Wu and his girlfriend-of-the-moment Teela Brown are invited to join an expedition to a far-distant world.  With their companions (a large, ferocious cat-like warrior Kzin and a superintelligent three-legged, two-headed Pierson's Puppeteer, they head off beyond the limits of Known Space to explore the Ringworld--a mind-bogglingly enormous, artificial ring-shaped world built around a sun-like star.  Unfortunately, they arrive via a near-fatal crash landing on the seemingly abandoned world, and the rest of the journey is plagued by similar mischances, as they try to learn about the Ringworld and repair the damaged spacecraft so they can return home.  Who built the Ring? Is it inhabited?  What happened to the inhabitants?  And will they ever get back home again?

This is what is usually classified as a 'hard' science fiction novel--which is to say, it features a lot of scientific detail.  Which makes sense, since Niven has training in mathematics and what-have-you.  The details and descriptions get a bit hard to follow (especially in the audiobook version), but fortunately you can get the gist of it even if the details are hazy.

There's not a ton of plot here.  The adventurers head off to the Ringworld and . . . stuff happens.  And they try to get home.  So plot-wise, it's a bit of a nonstarter.  Somehow, though, the writing is good enough that I didn't really mind it.  I wasn't desperate to know what happens next, but I still enjoyed the book and wasn't ever tempted to quit reading (unlike some other hard sci-fi, cough*RedMars*cough).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Top Shelf: 20 Great Reads

I've been getting a lot of requests lately from friends looking for book recommendations.  Granted, there are a lot of good books out there.  But some of the 5-star material is meant to be studied or pored over meticulously, as opposed to just read and enjoyed.  And, of course, there are a ton of amazing books that everyone knows are amazing, and that everyone has read already (or decided not to read for whatever reason).  And there are those zeitgeisty books that everyone is talking about around the watercooler--the ones with a 100+ person waitlist at the local library.  But you already know about those.  That's not what this list is for.  I'm not going to include, like, Pride & Prejudice, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Help, or Hunger Games, or Harry Potter, even though I've read them and enjoyed them and I wholeheartedly suggest you read them if you haven't already.

Instead, I want to recommend some great books that don't get as much hype--books a lot of folks haven't ever heard of, at least in my (limited) experience.  If you have heard of them--or have even read them--well, then I guess you get to give yourself a big old pat on the back. (And if you've got recommendations of your own, feel free to sound off in the comments--I'm always looking for good books!)

To wit, I present, in no particular order, this list of 20 Great Books I Recommend to People Who Are Just Looking for a Good Read.

Gran Torino (2008)


Crotchety veteran Walt Kowalski is something of a misanthrope. Alienated from his (awful) family, bitter that his formerly white Detroit neighborhood is now mostly Southeast Asian, annoyed by his Hmong neighbors, openly contemptuous of the baby-faced priest at his late wife's church, he pretty much just wants to be left alone to drink beer on the porch with his dog.  But when the local Hmong gang pressures his young neighbor into trying to steal his beloved 1972 Gran Torino, Kowalski takes matters into his own hands and ends up getting much more involved in his neighbors' lives than he intended.

This movie was pretty much amazing.  I tend to steer clear of any movie that even remotely resembles Oscar bait, on account of I don't much care for blatant emotional manipulation, nor am I fond of movies that aim to make me uncomfortable or uplifted and/or want to transform me into a sniveling mass of tears and mucus.  Although this movie was not actually nominated for an Oscar, it was widely expected to garner a number of nominations and even a win.  I was, as a result, rather skeptical.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner


Buechner examines the arc of the gospel using the well known genres of tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale--that is, bad news, good news, and transformation or fantasy. He begins with the tragedy of sin and the fallen world, pictured in Christ's shed tears over the death of Lazarus.  From there, he movies on to the comedy of God's grace, pictured in Sarah's laughter when an angel informed her that she would bear a son in her old age. He then ties in the elements of fairy tale, familiar to us from Grimm and The Wizard of Oz, among others.

This was a pleasant and poetic little book.  At just under 100 pages long, it's a quick read, and Buechner's fiction writing roots show through in the highly narrative style he adopts.  He takes liberties with the details of the Bible stories he retells, but they're minor enough that they don't hinder the underlying themes, and obvious enough that readers are unlikely to get confused (for example, he describes Pontius Pilate as a stressed out leader who's just given up smoking).  

I don't agree with all of Buechner's statements--some of his descriptions of the tragedy of the gospel (that is, sin and the fallen world) seem to undermine the sovereignty of God, and his discussion of the gospel as comedy (the unexpected and ridiculous love of God) borders on irreverent or unclear.  He describes the gospel as a a cosmic joke, not because it is untrue or a prank, but because is undoes the sequence of expected events--that is, sinners deserve wrath.  Given modern usage of 'joke' and 'comedy', the terminology could be confusing.

The general point of the book seems to be that the gospel is not just a bunch of theological facts, but a story that preachers must experience for themselves before they can share it with others.  All of which is well and good, but the fluffy, touchy-feely language could easily be mis-read by those with fuzzier theology and a rather amorphous idea of truth.  Even though Buechner does not appear to run afoul of orthodoxy here, it could be (mis)read as an endorsement of postmodern liberal theology.

Bottom line:  This book shouldn't be the basis for any substantive theological ideas, but it's useful for gaining an over-arching perspective on the story of the bible as a cohesive whole.  An easy (and quick) read.

Bag of Bones (2011)


Writer Mike Noonan is still reeling from the unexpected death of his beloved wife, Jo.  In his attempts to overcome the writer's block (and depression) that follows in the wake of this tragedy, he relocates to their summer cottage on Dark Score Lake. While there, he encounters a charming young woman, an adorable little girl, a creepy old man, and a host of horrific dreams and visions.  Not surprisingly, bad things happen.

This adaptation of one of King's better novels is utterly abysmal.

Admittedly, the novel is long and complex, and a completely faithful adaption would likely be both interminable and confusing.  And as with many first-person narratives, much of the plot development occurs in the narrator's head, making television adaptation difficult.  Still, there had to be a better way to handle it than this . . . mess.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Hymns for Lent VII: Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

[NOTE: The seventh in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

On this Easter Sunday, we turn our eyes from the tragedy of the cross to the glorious victory of the empty tomb by examining one of the best known Easter hymns--or one of the hymns most associated with the celebration of Easter Sunday:  Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.  The full version clocks in at ten stanzas, the first seven of which are attributed to Charles Wesley.  The last three were borrowed from a similar 14th century hymn called 'Jesus Christ Is Risen Today'.  These days, it's fairly common for churches to truncate the hymn down to about four or five verses

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hymns for Lent VI: Rock of Ages

[NOTE: The sixth in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

Appropriately enough, this will be our final meditation on Good Friday before moving on to celebrate the resurrection.  Written by Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady, this well-known hymn was inspired by a fissure in a gorge where Toplady found shelter during a storm.  This fissure (or the one where folks believe Toplady hid, at any rate) is now marked as the 'Rock of Ages' and can be visited by tourists.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Hymns for Lent V: Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted

[NOTE: The fifth in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

It's Maundy Thursday now, and Holy Week is well under way.  We continue our meditation on Good Friday with the rather directly titled 'Smitten, Stricken, and Afflicted,' by Thomas Kelly.

Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message, by Ravi Zacharias


This is a difficult book to summarize.  Well-known Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias ostensibly wrote this book to distinguish the claims of Christianity from those of other major world religions.  At least, that's what you would expect based on the title.  But the title isn't really accurate.  Other religions are mentioned, albeit in passing, but Zacharias' treatment of other religions is cursory and selective at best, and his normally incisive reasoning seems muddy.

I've enjoyed hearing Zacharias speak, and have great respect for his intellect and his logical abilities.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, those abilities do not seem to be on display here.  Zacharias seems to flit about up in the air without ever landing on any solid conclusions, and the conclusions he does reach don't seem to follow logically from the statements and arguments and observations that precede them--even the statements I agree with seem to hang out there unsupported.  Indeed, if I didn't already agree with him, I doubt I would be persuaded.

I often found myself suspecting that he had perfectly sound reasons for particular conclusions, but that he wasn't, well, 'showing his work' for lack of a better phrase.  Maybe I'm not clever enough to follow his argument, but I suspect I am not the only one, and I think the book could have been much better if he'd spelled things out more clearly.

I suppose this could be the result of differences between Eastern and Western thought processes and argument styles--I do find C.S. Lewis' down-to-earth clarity much more persuasive than Zacharias' untethered mental wandering--but the book seems to be written explicitly for Western readers, and I've never had any trouble following his reasoning in radio talks and lectures.

Ultimately, I have no idea what this book is about--other than 'Christianity'--or what point Zacharias is ultimately trying to make.  This is my first exposure to him as a writer (as opposed to a speaker), so I remain hopeful that this lackluster work is an aberration.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hymns for Lent IV: Beneath the Cross of Jesus

[NOTE: The fourth in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

Continuing the theme of meditating on the events of Good Friday, we turn to a well known and much-beloved hymn:  'Beneath the Cross of Jesus,' written by Elizabeth Clephane shortly before her death.  As noted by the editor of the magazine where the hymn was first printed (after Clephane's death), 'These lines ex­press the ex­per­i­enc­es, the hopes and the long­ings of a young Christ­ian late­ly re­leased. Writ­ten on the ve­ry edge of life, with the bet­ter land ful­ly in view of faith, they seem to us foot­steps print­ed on the sands of time, where these sands touch the ocean of Etern­i­ty. These foot­prints of one whom the Good Shep­herd led through the wild­er­ness in­to rest, may, with God’s blessing, con­trib­ute to com­fort and di­rect suc­ceed­ing pilgrims.'


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams


Arthur Dent is having a very bad day.  City employees want to raze his house, and now his friend Ford Prefect is telling him the world's about to end.  Before he knows it, Arthur is off on a wild adventure through the galaxy, where he encounters a two-headed egomaniac, a pathologically depressed robot, an old man with an unusual (and unimportant) name, a terrible poet, a cheerful computer, and a couple of very irritable white mice.  Fortunately, he also has The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

This book is genius.  Clever, hilarious genius.  Adams' style can be overwhelming for some, but I find this particular book utterly enchanting.  There are tangents galore, but there's also, you know, a plot (sort of).  Still, it can be an acquired taste.  The whole thing reads like a dialogue between Eric Idle and John Cleese.  So if you like Monty Python, or if the news that the audiobook is narrated by Stephen Fry excites you, then there's a good chance you'll enjoy this delightful little book.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hymns for Lent III: Ah, Holy Jesus

[NOTE: The third in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

Having contemplated Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, we now move on to Good Friday and the crucifixion itself with the hymn 'Ah, Holy Jesus', or as it is known in the original German, 'Herzliebster Jesu'.  What better way to start off Holy Week?

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)


Scrawny Steve Rogers wants nothing more than to serve his country by fighting in World War II.  Unfortunately, his slight stature and numerous health problems have led to his rejection by the Army not once but four times.  His determination catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine, a German doctor working with the United States military.  Rogers is accepted into an experimental 'super-soldier' training, where his compassion and courage set him apart from other, stronger candidates who tend toward bullying.  Rogers is selected to undergo a super secret procedure, which transforms him from frail bully-bait into . . . Captain America, super-soldier.  Initially, Captain America/Rogers is used as a PR stunt, performing with chorus girls in an effort to boost war bond sales.  However, a trip to the front lines reminds him of his desire to serve his country, and when he finds out that his best friend has disappeared behind enemy lines, nothing will stop him from leaping into the fray.  However, his best friend is not being held by run-of-the-mill Germans, but by the psychotic Johann Schmidt, a Nazi officer obsessed with harnessing 'the power of the gods' to create impossibly powerful new weapons.  Will Captain America/Rogers be able to rescue his friend (and the other soldiers) from Schmidt's clutches?  What nefarious plot is Schmidt hatching, and can he be stopped?  And will the lovely-but-stern Agent Peggy Carter ever give our hero the kiss he's longing for?

This was, in all honesty, one of the better superhero movies.  Not the best, mind you, but better.