Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Preparing my "house"

I have spent most of the past week doing a thorough sorting and cleaning of my possessions in preparation for the move - my first cleaning of this degree in five years. I have gotten rid of around 30 board games, 50+ books, 100 CDs, and 5-6 garbage bags of clothes and assorted items. A lot of these items had reached the end of their usefulness to me, while some had never been used - mostly finds at Value Village that seemed like good deals at the time. But I realized today that some of the things I have jettisoned were remnants of a person who is now gone - a past me. Many of these things are insignificant, but they represented times of my life that are past. Alphabet fridge magnets, erasable wall calendars, old cassette tapes, Veggie Tales videos - they all represented, in some way, part of who I had been. And with this epiphany, I realized that this sorting and cleaning and packing is not just about eliminating material possessions before I move; it's also about being ready for marriage. I am saying goodbye to some of the physical possessions that have represented worldviews and ways of thinking that are now gone, and clearing these possessions out will help me adjust to the new ways of thinking that are already coming into play. Different things are important now, and I have different needs and desires than what I did five years ago. And every time I wonder if this is the best use of my time, I remember that I am preparing myself and my "house" to be combined with someone else; it's not just about numbers and amounts, but it's about a mindset and how who I have been has become who I am, and how that me will continue to grow into something new over the next few months.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mini-review: Viva La Vida

A fourth studio album, produced by Brian Eno and named after a famous painting, that features more complex lyrical imagery and manipulation of metaphor than in their previous efforts, increasingly experimental and layered orchestration, an occasionally nauseating sense of belief in their own purpose, vague political and religious overtones, and two or three standout tracks that are already fan favorites. Though the album outlined here is Coldplay's Viva La Vida, these criteria form an equally valid description of U2's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. I know the comparison between the two groups has been overdone, but it is useful to look at Vida in the light of U2's work.

Vida is not a perfect album, nor is it even Coldplay’s best or most unified album. Some of the songs are timeless ("Viva La Vida", "Reign of Love", "Violet Hill"), while others are rather dull. But what the album lacks in cohesion it makes up for in ambition, which is both Martin's blessing and curse. He and his bandmates would do well to take a page from the U2 playbook and to temper their unbridled optimism with a healthy dose of cynicism in future efforts.

Just as U2 began their career with albums that explored their faith and personal relationships, Coldplay has focused on the simpler themes of love and trust in their early work. It was on The Unforgettable Fire that U2 started to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world around them; though it was still rather immature, it blossomed into much more, just as we hope Coldplay’s worldview will continue to grow.

This album will produce skeptics of Coldplay's talent, but doubters must remember their history: The Unforgettable Fire was actually rather forgettable aside from "Pride" and "Bad." But U2’s next album was The Joshua Tree.

Read the rest of the commentary on the new Coldplay album Viva La Vida here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Viva La Vida

I managed to get an early download of the new Coldplay album "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends", and after several listens I think this might be Coldplay's best album yet. It is much more guitar-heavy than their previous outings, but the music is also much more layered and developed. The lyrics are much more mature than the simple relationship-focussed lyrics of the last three albums, and there is more religious and political metaphor here than Bono would know what to do with. Plus, the album features "Viva La Vida", which is probably the best song Chris Martin has ever written, including "Clocks" and "Til Kingdom Come". Say what you want about how they're saturating themselves in media, or they're pop sell-outs, but this is undeniably the biggest album of the year (at least until U2 finally announces the release date for their next album). And if you need something else to get you excited, just watch this commercial for the album and iTunes.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones 4

It has been over a week since I watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I have repeatedly considered writing a full review of the movie, but I think that would be giving too much credit to what was at best a lazy effort and at worst an insulting molestation of my suspension of disbelief. I understood after the fact what Spielberg and Lucas tried to do with making a "50's sci-fi B-movie" with the aliens and all, but I don't think it worked with the feel of Indiana Jones. And for every inspired moment - including the setting of the movie in 1957 - there were multiple unbearable sequences, most of which seemed to come out of Lucas' need to employ his cronies and feature random animal critters. The ants, the monkeys, the gophers - they just didn't match up to snakes, or even to the Scarab beetles of The Mummy. The cast was at best middling - the combination of Cate Blanchett's horrible impression of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, Shia LaBeouf's forced imitation of his lack of character from Transformers, Harrison Ford's range of emotions of grouchy to grumpy, and the forced facial expressions of Ivan Drago (the random big Russian), John Hurt and Ray Winstone looked inspired (though, to be fair, their performances suffered from scriptwriting more than their talent). There is little reason to watch this movie more than once, and even that one watching is more for nostalgia and seeing Indy on the big screen than it is for value. Perhaps the lasting legacy of this movie will be the long-overdue introduction of a phrase to replace (or at least accent) "jump the shark": "nuke the fridge". 2.5/5

Mini-reviews: P.O.D., Weezer, ScarJo

It has occurred to me that I should do more to communicate what I am watching and hearing. I do find that a "full" blog post is too much to ask, so I am going to endeavour to write "mini-reviews" on a more regular basis. Here are three mini-reviews of albums that have dropped in the past couple of months. Enjoy!

P.O.D., When Angels and Serpents Dance - They might try to tell me that with Marcos back that this is the same P.O.D. as the Southtown and Satellite albums, but the music says otherwise. I think that the band has been replaced by lifeless alien spores, judging by the bland nature of this album. It is one thing to make a "mellow" album; it's another entirely to make a spineless mushy album. Ariann thought we were listening to Creed - need I say more? 0.5/5

Weezer, Weezer (Red) - This is their third self-titled album (preceded by Blue and Green), and their musical and lyrical progress mirrors their titular progress: very little. This album is more of the same: a couple of very radio-friendly jingles ("Pork and Beans"), some straight-forward pop-rock songs that sound like they could have been released on the band's blue album in 1994, and one really good song ("The Angel and the One"). The name-dropping is even more egregious than on past efforts, and as much as they seem to be trying to perfect the "pop" artistry, it seems like Weezer's creative well has run dry. And I think they can do better, which is what makes this album even more disappointing. 1/5

Scarlett Johansson, Anywhere I Lay My Head - I will admit to being much more intrigued by starlet Scarlett's debut album than by those of some of her actor-turned-singer peers, if not only because she decided to cover only Tom Waits songs, which sets her apart from the kind of teeny-bopper music one might expect. And the album certainly gets points for stretching both singer and audience: there are some very unique arrangements and instrumentations on this album, and it does not obey the expected conventions. Unfortunately for ScarJo, her voice does not really work with Waits' songs, and the production often masks her voice behind the studio instruments. I think she could really do something with her voice; this just wasn't quite right for her. 2/5

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Body piercing saved my life

"I can't imagine anything worse than being forced to pay for my salvation by listening to worship music for the rest of my days. Worship music is the logical conclusion of Christian adult contemporary music - not just unappealing but unbearable to anyone not already in the fold. Every song follows the same parameters. It opens gently, with tinkling arpeggios or synthesized harp glissandos that portend the imminence of something celestial in glacial 4/4 time. In the second verse, the band - invariably excellent players - soft-pedals in, gaining in volume to the bridge. And then the chorus. Heavens, the choruses. They could put U2 out of business for good, they're so huge. Another verse. A middle eight. Then, a breakdown when the audience takes over singing. Another massive chorus. Fin. This isn't music to appreciate; it's music to experience. People at a worship service close their eyes and, as ecstasy spreads across their faces, begin to rock rhythmically, arms out, mouthing the lyrics. It's more than a little sexual and a tad uncomfortable if you're sitting next to an attractive person who's been overcome by the Spirit." - Andrew Beaujon, Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock (Da Capo Press, 2006, p. 158-9)

Rock writer Andrew Beaujon took a year and a half to write this book, a chronicle of an outsider's look at Christian rock. He attended Cornerstone in Illinois and Florida, GMA Week in Nashville, and a weekend festival at Calvin College in Michigan. He interviewed many of the industry's current and past leading artists, including many who operate in the gray area between CCM and the mainstream: mewithoutyou's Aaron Weiss, MuteMath, and David Bazan of Pedro the Lion. He truly attempts to investigate what is going with this industry, and why it functions the way it does. Beaujon's investigations are balanced and journalistically sound, and he has a way of pointing out the flaws in CCM without sounding preachy or judgemental. He is simply trying to understand CCM, and on a greater scale the American Evangelical subculture that has arisen in the last forty years. There are moments when he comes to points of clarity, and moments when he concludes he cannot understand the appeal of what is happening - his account of worship music, for example. He concludes, much like I have in my studies of the genre, that it is a fundamentally American construct, and that it exists because it does. My only criticism of the book is that, even with as many people as he has interviewed, I wish he had gone further. Artists like Matt Morginsky (O.C. Supertones), Andrew Schwab (Project 86), Leigh Nash (Sixpence None The Richer) and Reese Roper (Five Iron Frenzy) could have provided insightful commentary, and there is little discussion of the Christian hip-hop scene, for which Pigeon John would have been an interesting resource to consult. But the book does a very good job of introducing the industry as a whole to an uninitiated population, and it made me think of my own journey through CCM. Though for a time I listened exclusively to CCM (and U2), I am now at a point in life in which I listen to increasingly few artists who are on mainstream Christian labels other than Tooth and Nail. I would estimate now that only one of every four albums I purchase is found in a Christian store, and that most music in Christian stores drives me nuts. I use CCM listings as an easy resource point to find out about artists I already follow, rather than the complete list. Perhaps the best way to sum up my opinion of CCM is that most of it is immature, both musically and theologically, and, like many evangelical churches, it does not tap into the fullness of the creativity that is present in the Spirit. There are artists who choose to remain in CCM who have moved beyond that early stage - which not coincidentally tend to be artists who I follow - and who see CCM for what it is: at best, a place for new talent to be nurtured and to grow into true art; typically, a marketing tool and a place where people can discover new artists in a safe environment; and at worst, a soul-sucking musical and theological black hole from which there is no escape except to have God himself appear to every church and say that Casting Crowns are not talented. Or at least to have people who know what they're talking about deliver that message on behalf of the divine; after all, that's what I'm here for.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A faithful skeptic?

"But...showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you have vague distorted rumours of them. And this much I know. Some of them - some of them - are true."
- Miles Bennell, protagonist of Jack Finney's novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers (p. 219, 1978 paperback ed.)

I have been thinking a lot about skepticism in the past week because of two books I have recently finished reading. One was the aforementioned sci-fi classic in which a trained doctor is faced with the possibility that aliens are invading his small town; the other an academic examination of strange beliefs entitled Why People Believe Weird Things, written by Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine. Body Snatchers is more about how we process information that seems to lead to an entirely foreign conclusion, and is more of an interesting footnote to this discussion. Shermer's work is very thought-provoking, as he spends the book discussing the problems with beliefs like UFOs and alien abduction, holocaust denial, Objectivism, and creation-science. He uses statistics, anecdotes, logical analysis, interviews, and many other resources to demonstrate the fallacies he sees in each of these movements, which all come back to one basic point: they deny or defy the existing scientific method and knowledge and thus are irrational beliefs. He spends some time indirectly discussing the relationship between science and faith in the creationist section - even going so far as to confess that he is a former "Jesus Freak" - coming to the conclusion that one of the biggest problems that creationists have is that they are performing bad science to justify particular religious beliefs. To Shermer's credit, he does not outright insult religion; he is more agnostic in his perspective, which maintains that the realms of science and religion address separate needs and dimensions of human existence (the observable and the unobservable), and thus should remain separated. But his discussion made me wonder about whether it is possible to be a skeptic within the Christian faith - is there some form of "scientific" method that can be rigorously applied within the boundaries of the church? I propose that it is possible to be a "faithful skeptic", as long as one accepts the following fundamental beliefs of Christianity: that the Bible is the divine word of God, the Church has 2,000 years of tradition that have also been subject to God's leading, and that while we do not understand the working of the Holy Spirit all of the time that God will reveal reasons for the Spirit's movements according to the parameters set out in the Bible. Within this construct, one can productively examine odd beliefs of the Christian faith skeptically, looking for not only logical fallacies but misappropriations of Biblical passages and manipulation of meaning. We do not hear much about "heresy" anymore, but the identification of heresies was essentially a work of faithful skepticism. As I have grown in my faith, I have realized how much we need to be vigilant within our faith since there are many "weird beliefs" that seem to defy both reason and Spirit, including Slaying in the Spirit, the rapture, and the prosperity gospel. Skepticism should not be confused with conservatism, though; we should not refuse to believe something just because we disagree with it, but rather because it does not stand up under the rigours of an appropriate examination that includes Bible, tradition, and Spirit. That is the definition of a faithful skeptic.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Review - Iron Man

Note: This review has been finished for a month; I have simply forgotten to post it. Enjoy!

Iron Man

It was only a decade ago that many critics declared the superhero genre dead. The failure of several poorly-executed movies in the mid-1990s had left a negative impression on viewers, and it seemed like the trend of bringing the larger-than-life heroes to the big screen might fade. But within the next year, production began on two superhero pictures with highly-regarded directors, big-name stars, and lofty expectations for bringing life back to the genre: Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. The smashing success of those two movies guaranteed the continuation of the genre, which now welcomes as many as five new entries to its ranks every year. But in 2007, releases such as Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, and Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer brought the genre to new lows. Viewers everywhere had hope that 2008 would bring greater success to the genre, with the impending summer releases of The Dark Knight, Wanted, Hancock, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2, and the season's first big blockbuster, Iron Man. Though Iron Man may not reinvent the genre or bring it to new heights (pun intended), it is a visually stunning and entertaining movie for both fanboys and filmgoers.
Billionaire inventor Tony Stark is irresponsible, libidinous, immature, brilliant, and one of the top suppliers of weapons to the U.S. government. The movie begins in medias res as Stark introduces his newest weapon of mass destruction - the Jericho - on site in Afghanistan, only to be ambushed and kidnapped by a terrorist cell named "The Ten Rings" (a veiled reference to Iron Man's nemesis, the Mandarin). Stark suffers a life-threatening injury in the ambush, and is forced to construct a copy of the Jericho for the cell. He chooses instead to spend his time constructing a perpetual energy source to help stave off the effects of his injury and then to build a suit of indestructible armor so that he and fellow scientist Yinsen can escape. Stark manages to escape, and then determines that he has a new purpose: to make the world a safer place by finding out who is supplying weapons to renegade groups. To do this, he updates his suit and assumes a new identity: Iron Man. But an unexpected enemy surfaces who forces Stark to evaluate his character and his resolve, and a titanic clash between Iron Man and this enemy looms as the story unfolds.
One of the highlights of the film is the casting and performances of the four primary actors, each of whom have been nominated for Best Actor or Actress at the Academy Awards in their career. Of the four principal performers, Robert Downey Jr. is the most impressive as Tony Stark. Though the movie goes to too many lengths to demonstrate Stark’s playboy nature, he plays up that angle of the character well when asked to. Though his dialogue is limited by some stunted writing, Downey Jr. manages to flesh out the character of Stark and to allow the viewer to see the change that is working within Stark's soul.
Jeff Bridges, as Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane, and Gwyneth Paltrow ,as Stark’s personal assistant Pepper Potts, both add unexpected nuance to flat characters, and both have moments of inspiration in their roles. Terrence Howard tries gamely to bring life to Stark's friend Col. James Rhodes, but the character is too limited to allow for any depth to be developed. Though each of the four are hampered at times by the script, their efforts to bring flat characters to life help liven up the entire movie.
The movie is visually stunning, and the special effects are astounding. The fact that effects have progressed to the point where this level of visual acuity is expected of movies of this caliber should not take away from the actual accomplishment of the movie’s effects designers. This is the best looking comic book movie since Spider-Man 2, and arguably the most visually entrancing superhero movie ever. Where the movie fails is in pacing and writing. Favreau lets some of the exposition material go on too long - especially in the establishment of Stark’s playboy identity and sexual prowess - and the movie is about ten to fifteen minutes longer than it needs to be as a result. The dialogue is also fairly weak, clich├ęd, and uninsightful throughout much of the movie, and there are some significant plot jumps. But despite these shortcomings, Favreau does stay true to the established story of Iron Man, and he leaves room for development and improvement in the upcoming sequel (due for release in April 2010).
Iron Man is also a disturbingly violent movie. There are several deaths throughout the movie, which is expected of this genre, along with the requisite number of explosions and a climactic battle of titans to conclude the course of events. What is disturbing about the violence is its contextualization in a current war zone (Afghanistan) and the realism with which it is depicted. One of the most disconcerting moments features Iron Man blowing up and walking away from a tank, which is played for comic effect. This is troubling not so much because of the scene itself, but because of the laughter of some of the children in the audience at that scene. Though the presence of wildly unrealistic technology helps the viewer suspend disbelief, it is still realistically violent, and not suitable for children, even with its comic book aura.
Iron Man is a serviceable and entertaining comic book movie. It provides some laughs, a lot of thrills, and it draws the viewer into the internal conflict raging within Tony Stark. It does, however, also feature lapses in writing and plot development that may have some viewers shaking their heads in wonderment. Fortunately for the filmmakers, most of the viewers will be staring in awe at the cool effects and not scratching their heads at the plotholes and leaps of logic. Iron Man is a suitable entry into the superhero movie genre, and an enjoyable start to the summer movie season.


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