Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Short Story

I've been reading so much lately that I haven't had much time to write about it. (And I'm always watching movies). This blog is quite neglected. I'm working through the Maze Runner series in anticipation of the film, I read all the Vampire Academy books (though it's hard to say why), finally got around to Ender's Game, reread Divergent and finished the trilogy, have been reading theology books by Keller, Stanley, and Chandler when I have the time, read the entire Selection Series, started another John Green novel and countless others that I've had to put back on the shelf for now (sorry Jesus Feminist and Cassandra Clare)

But I'm starting to get bored of YA which has dominated the past 6 months for me as I prepared for movie adaptions. I need to inject myself with some fine literature. I've decided to read some John Steinbeck novels---the funny ones---and I've gotten very into short stories as of late. I was always a fan of short stories ever since I started reading Flannery O'Connor, but I never really pursued them. Now, with less time to read, but wanting to get some high quality literature in, I'm turning to the short story.

Short stories are artful and underrated. And they can give you an appreciation for authors you may not have previously cared for.

I, for example, do not enjoy reading Hemingway. I realize he's considered a literary genius, and I understand why, but the understated and sparse writing style just isn't my cup of tea. I prefer the rich details of Faulkner. Both of these authors (both friends and rivals) represent a generation of writers that did it all. Poems, short stories, novels---nothing was out of reach. And I miss that. Modern writers are often pressured to keep to their genres and categories. It's hard to gain respect in other forms of writing once you're known for one. But back to Hemingway. I'm not a huge fan of his novels, but I'm finding that I like his short stories. They're sparse, but contained---and therefore often poignant (or infuriating).

Yes, short stories are something that we need to revive. If I was an English teacher, I might even focus on them since the provide for a quicker and easier read that is still rich enough to teach from.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: The Selection

"The Selection"
Written by: Kiera Cass

Look y'all, I like YA literature. I also have a soft spot for dystopian themes. One of my favorite adolescent books is The Giver. The Giver was somewhat innovative back in 1993 (over 20 years ago) when Lois Lowry published it. It was one of the first modern dystopian books targeted towards children and probably helped pave the way for books like The Hunger Games. The biggest challenge The Selection series faces is that YA dystopian is extremely overdone these days. What with Divergent, The Hunger Games, Ender's Game, and a slew of others---the genre is over saturated and no longer considered creative.

To it's credit, the concept for the Selection series is intriguing. It's a blend of dystopian, reality TV, and fairy tale. What girl doesn't love a good fairytale? It's like Cinderella meets the Bachelor in Panem. It was fun to read and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. Still, it feels like a guilty pleasure. There is so much to critique. The writing, while not distractingly bad, is nothing special. The plot is extremely predictable. The characters feel a bit simplistic. A feminist critique would probably tear this book to shreds. The main character (America Singer) is arguably a strong female lead (in a predictable she challenges the prince and doesn't change who she is sort of way) but at the end of the day this a Princess book that probably makes young girls dream about wearing tiaras and fancy dresses more than leading a country. It also has quite a bit of blatant social commentary. I feel like the best social commentary or critique is the one that remains ambiguous. When you just come right out and say it the story starts to feel like the author's personal soap box, a tool to get their opinion heard, rather than a nuanced story that raises questions about the world we live in. To make matters worse, the authors acknowledgements at the end of the book sound as if they were written by a middle school girl. Perhaps a middle school girl with a gift for writing, but writing that is only considered good because she is 13.

I know that children and adolescent literature can be done well even when it's genre specific. Harry Potter is possibly the best example of a long fantasy series that is well-written, supremely plotted, and accessible to both girls and boys, adults and children, highly educated and average readers. From an purely objective position this series just isn't going to go down in history as one of the best. I predict this book will be optioned for a really terrible movie franchise (following in the footsteps of Beautiful Creatures, I am Number Four, Vampire Academy, and all the other horrid YA adaptions trying to hitch a ride on the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games) that won't make it past the first movie---but we'll see.

Is it possible to recognize that a book is not very good and still like it? Apparently so because despite all the obvious reasons to hate this book---I rather enjoyed it and plan to read the other installments.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book Review: Shadow & Bone

"Shadow and Bone"
Written by: Leigh Bardugo

This is a pretty unique contribution to the YA/Fantasy genre. I wouldn't say the writing is amazing, but it's certainly not terrible. I enjoyed reading it. The world created by Bardugo is pretty complex (complete with LOTR style maps and categories of beings that are new and hard to keep up with at first). It seems to have very heavy Russian influences---geography, clothing style, language, etc. It's almost like an alternate history for Russia/Eastern Europe---one that takes place in a time that must have been long ago, yet has an added magical element that takes it into the fantasy realm. 

I'm interested to see where the trilogy goes from here. The story of book one was interesting and I can see what the overarching conflict of the series will be, but as a stand alone it was a bit anti-climactic and obvious to me. I am also wondering if it will get optioned for a movie and become the next big thing in YA entertainment. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

"The Fault In Our Stars"
Written by: John Green

Honestly, this review sums up my thoughts perfectly so there's no need to even write my own. The book has been on my radar basically since it was published. I heard they were turning it into a movie and thought maybe I should read it before then. A couple weeks ago my 12 year old niece finished it and insisted I read it immediately so that we could discuss it. So I picked it up and found that it caught my attention in the first couple of pages. Many good books take awhile to warm up, but it's a pleasant surprise and experience when you find one that you get sucked into right away. It's a quick read. Even just reading in my spare time it took under a week to finish. YA literature appeals to me and I often wonder if what I enjoy reading is actually any good. I think this one is. It's thoughtful and funny. It asks all the existential questions that I struggle with daily, had a witty humor and that was just my taste, and though often described as sad---I found it surprisingly hopeful.

It's possibly one of my all time favorites and I plan to read it again. I am looking forward to the movie adaption in June and have picked up a few other John Green titles to see if his other books are just as good. I hope so!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Movie Review: Noah

Released: March 2014
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Since this ended up being a controversial film I will give my conclusion upfront: As a Christian, I'm not personally offended by the movie. However, for other reasons unrelated to my faith, I did not enjoy the film and cannot give it a wholly positive review.

I will start by addressing the controversies from the perspective of someone who is both Christian and an Aronofsky fan (and a fan of film in general).

If you're a Christian then it's worth asking the question, "Can an Atheist make a movie based on a story from the Bible." The short answer is yes. Of course he can. He did. Unless Christians are proposing that they cannot make art or film based on or including any elements that aren't pulled straight from the Bible then you must allow for people of other faiths or non-faiths to enter the conversation about Christian faith. I personally find the urge to separate art into sacred and secular categories very troubling---but even if you disagree (and I understand the concern about misrepresentation) it would be impossible to achieve that separation.

There was a lot of discussion over Mr. Aronofsky being quoted to saying it was the "most unbiblical movie ever made" which a little research will tell you was taken out of context and only meant to mean that Bible stories rarely hit the big screen in such a big way. In fact, it was incredibly thoughtful and spiritual for someone who claims be be an unbeliever.

There were certainly some mystical/magical elements that would make Christians uncomfortable but for an unbeliever magical and miraculous are hard to differentiate so that should not be surprising. The articles claiming we've all been fooled and that this was a ghostic or kaballah based film I think are a reach, but seeing as it's a short story I could see Aronofsky visiting all of the creation/noah accounts that exist among a variety of religious traditions. Still, at best it would be subtly eluding to, not outright proclaiming any of those views.

I also saw a lot of commentary about biblical accuracy issues and I agree with that. It's not biblically accurate. As someone who read the biblical account prior to going to the theatre as a refresher...a lot of liberty was taken. And not just the speculative stuff (how the sons met their wives, what it was like being in the ark, etc) but the story was actually changed from what is found in the Bible. In some areas it was subtle and understandable, in others it was unnecessary and even baffling (seriously rock creatures?), and in a few areas it was drastic. The most drastic change, I felt, was the actual character of Noah. Don't get me wrong, Aronofsky's Noah was a very interesting character. He gave him a lot of layers and I think that was probably something that had to be done. However, just to be clear---the murderous, harsh Noah portrayed in this film is actually the opposite of the biblical Noah. The biblical Noah was the last "good man" on earth. There is no indication that he was violent. He was trying desperately to save people, not fighting them off. He was mocked for building the arc, which everyone knew about and thought was foolish, not trying to keep it a secret. In fact, it took him 120 years to build the arc, and when the flood came he had all of his full grown sons and their wives with him. He was certainly following what he felt God asked him to do, but he was not taking the destruction of humanity into his own hands. 

I am not angry at Aronofsky's Noah. He's exploring an idea about sin and humanity that I think is worth talking about. According to the Bible, sin is something in the heart of every man---including Noah. By saving humanity through Noah, a good man, God is also allowing sin and evil to persist. It will be back. Evil will grow, men will murder, there will be bad things in the world again. So why let man live at all? Why not just wipe man and evil out altogether? It's a great question! The answer that Christianity gives is a story of God's love and plan for the redemption of humanity. Aronofsky's answer, or non answer, has something to do with God's love for his creation as well though it's perhaps incomplete.

I really don't believe Aronofsky is trying to undermine Christianity or be blasphemous with this film. I think it's thoughtful and interesting. I enjoyed seeing an Atheist's take on the Noah story and the character of God. While he doesn't get it completely right, I am not afraid of his mistakes and have enjoyed the meaningful conversations they have raised. 

So as far as positive aspects, there were many great questions raised by the film including questions about God's nature and sin itself. Christians having to face the perception of a more wrathful OT God, God's grief over destroying his creation, and our sinful nature is a good thing I think. Also, Bible stories are rarely told on this scale. Visually there were some pretty incredible scenes. My personal favorite  was the creation/fall narrative scene which was visually stunning. And the acting is pretty good. I am a fan of Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins, and Emma Watson so I always enjoy their performances.

Yet, despite the positives I have to say that I did not think this was a great film overall. All controversy and inaccuracies aside, the film that was presented was itself fell short. It was mostly the story and a few of the artistic choices that killed it. The story presented was very disjointed, at times even inexplicably bizarre, and at other times just plain boring. When I saw it, I knew immediately that I didn't like it. As I've let it settle I've grown to like aspects of it more than I did at the time, but I was pretty disappointed with the film as a whole and I can't see it being a film I want to see again.

Basically, I like Aronofsky as a director and I was disappointed because I expected more. I did think it had some great elements, I'm okay with the concept of taking artistic liberties and I feel he was very thoughtful and most of the Christian backlash is unwarranted. However, despite all of that I still feel it was not a very good film. I can't seem to shake that feeling.

But to end on a positive, I stumbled upon a poem written by Aronofsky as a child about Noah that I thought was really excellent so I will conclude my review by sharing it.

Evil was in the world
The laughing crowd
Left the foolish man at his ark
Filled with animals
When the rain began to fall
It was hopeless
The man could not take the evil crowd with him
But he was allowed to bring his good family.

The rain continued through the night
And the cries of screaming men filled the air
The ark was afloat
Until the dove returned with the leaf
Evil still existed.

When the rainbows reached throughout the sky
The humble man and his family knew what it meant
The animals ran and flew freely with their newborn
The fog rose and the sun shone
Peace was in the air
And it soon appeared in all of man’s heart

He knew evil would not be kept away
For evil and war could not be destroyed
But neither was it possible to destroy peace
Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin
But the rainbow and the dove will always live
Within every man’s heart

Monday, March 3, 2014

Oscar Highlights 2014

I get tweet-happy once a year. I know the Oscars are not everyone's cup of tea and that any big trending event gets overwhelming and annoying on social media if it's not your thing---but we all have our indulgences. For some it's sports, for me it's movies. I love the medium of film and I genuinely enjoy when it's celebrated and recognized. The Academy Awards are one of my favorite nights of the year.

This was a year of firsts for me when it comes to the Oscars. It was the first year I had people over for an Oscar party (albiet a small low-key gathering), the first year I hosted an online twitter-party (which was a bit overwhelming but super fun), and the first year that my predictions were almost 100% correct---nothing really surprised me. That never happens.

Maybe it was the difference of watching in a group, or the fact that it was one of the most hilarious host years, or the fact that I'd seen more of the films than ever in the past---but this goes down in my mind as my favorite oscar experience to date.

Here were the highlights for me:

- Ellen 

In my opinion, Ellen is by far the best Oscar host. She is hilarious. We were all dying at everything she said the entire night. She really kept it from getting boring.

- The speeches were shorter

With a few exceptions (of course) most of the speeches were brief this year. I'm not sure anyone got played off? (Which always happens). Do they always have the countdown for speeches? If not, that really helped.

- The celebrities felt like real people

Photo-bombing, selfies, tons of prompter mistakes, tripping, ordering pizza, audience interaction, etc. The event felt a little less pretentious this year than usual. It felt less rehearsed, flawed, and refreshing. Sometimes we forget that celebrities are actually people. (Who knew?)

- Benedict Cumberbatch

- In memoriam

This is one of my favorite segments each year because it's a little history of film lesson. Major highlights for me this year were Peter O'Toole and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

- The music

The music is usually pretty good for an awards show that isn't really about music, but not many years give the mix we got this year---from iconic rock band (U2), to stage legend (Bette), tony-winner (Idina), and top 40 favorites (Pink, Pharrell)---it was an eventful year. No big musicals this year, but a fun mix none the less.

- Twitter

Ellen broke twitter and the RT record. Since twitter is just for FUN I have to say this was a funny/fun thing to happen and will be ignoring the obligatory backlash of criticism about our current culture/celebrity worship, etc. It was a pretty cool picture.

- Speaking of Twitter, along with the expected Oscar trending #slaverystillexists was also trending.

I know that trending can be more a reflection of slacktivism than true progress (it is called "trending" after all) but awareness IS the first step to progress and this is the first time (that I can remember) that someone used a movie about civil-war era slavery as a platform to talk about modern day slavery. It always bothers me when slavery is talked about in past tense and the current issues are ignored so this was a surprise and high point for me.

Alright, those were the highlights for me. That's a wrap.

P.s. I didn't expect Leo to win but I'm still disappointed that he's an oscar shut out. He gets nominated so often and his acting is so great---I really want to see him get some recognition someday.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Reposted from my Facebook page:

"Celebrity Deaths: Thoughts on Fandom, Social Media, and Philip Seymour Hoffman"

Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday. 

I know, I know. When a celebrity or famous person dies the question arises as to whether or not those of us who do not know him have any right to mourn the or even talk about it. Today there will likely be many memorializing and others pointing out the absurdity of celebrity culture and fandom. Facebook will be riddled with people talking about it, people annoyed that people are talking about it, people trying to point others to the "big picture", people acting the mans character, many many quotations and complaints, and probably a few jokes or memes. Honestly, I find the whole predictable and repeated spectacle exhausting and wish that people could simply react or not react without the obligatory social media circus. 

Personally, I don't mind if people want to use social media to cope or react to something like the passing of a celebrity. It's okay if a stranger had an impact on you. I understand the annoyance that comes with misinformation, idolizing strangers, bickering, and the need to share every thought on every event or issue...I really really do. But I feel there has to be at least some level of tolerance for all of that if we are choosing to stay on social media. 

There are more cases than not when I feel no need to react. Any sort of commentary on a man's character whether praise or criticism is a little reaching when you don't know the person. But that doesn't mean it's wrong to have an emotional reaction. Our reactions just differ depending on the things we value or the people whose words/art/work impacted us individually. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of my all time favorite actors. I was honestly very shocked and saddened by the news. As I get older anytime I hear about ANY death of someone who is much to young to be dying, it makes me feel sad in that moment. In this case it lingers because I love the art of film and I feel the medium experienced a significant loss. Not for the person (because I did not know him personally) but for the art of the person. He was an excellent actor. One of the best I believe. I often told John Paul that I expected a movie to be good simply because he was in it. He had the extremely rare gift of being able to play most any roll well and could play a variety of villains, heros, and ordinary men without ever making me cast him as one type of character in my mind. He appeared in both artistic and commercial films. Everything from oscar-winning Capote to crowd pleasing Mission Impossible III. I feel that there were many roles yet to be played that we are now deprived of and I think about the roles that were half-complete that will now have to be recast (Mockingjay?!?) and yes, I feel a loss. Admittedly not for the man, but for the actor certainly. 

This kind of loss is the sort that feels a you'll see them again in a movie next year... because there's no closure when you know the artist and not the man.

This was a great article about Hoffman and talks a bit about the tragedy of drug addiction as well (I really hope I don't see too many comments about this being his own fault, selfish, etc) and I particularly enjoyed this quote which sums up this rather long post:

"His death feels a touch more personal, because he was a deeply personal actor. True, he was technically a celebrity, but he hardly fit the mold. No, Philip Seymour Hoffman was the best of what Hollywood had to offer: a man who saw acting as a calling, who studied it as a craft, and who delivered it as an artist."

Friday, January 10, 2014

2014: Anticipated Movies

A ridiculous amount of movies get made each year nowadays.

You may or not know this about me, but I LOVE the art of film. I often stay on top of upcoming projects by the directors and actors I like, follow book adaptions from authors I enjoy, and have fun predicting what movie we're watching a preview for before they get to the title in the theatre. They make so many movies these days that I never get around to seeing more than a handful of what is released each year. Even movies on my "to see" list can go unseen for years. Nevertheless, here is a list of movies I'm anticipating in 2014:

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Captain America: The Winter Solider
The Hobbit: There and Back Again
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The Fault in Our Stars
Into the Woods
Dumb and Dumber To
The Giver
Resident Evil 6

These are all contenders for my movie-going allotment for 2014. Many of these will be seen in the theatre and some will not be seen until much later.

There are several other films I know I probably see in the theatre (save a few my family insists on seeing) but may watch later on like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, Hercules, RoboCop, Vampire Academy, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, I, Frankenstein, How to Train your Dragon 2, Maleficent, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pompeii, Winter's Tale, Sin City 2, Gone Girl, and Annie.

And this just scratches the surface...there are tons of movies other people are probably really looking forward to that I have no desire to see (ranging from Left Behind to 22 Jump Street).