Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Movie Wrap-Up

I thought I'd mention some of the movies I watched--most of which I never blogged about.

The Visitor [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
Blogged about it. Great movie. Highly recommend it.

Killer of Sheep [NR] (I'd rate it PG)
◊ ◊ ◊ • • 3/5
Amazing footage. The making and release of this movie is a better story than the movie itself. Interesting and worth seeing for historical reasons.

August Rush [PG]
• • • • • 0/5
If I can't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything. Robin Williams was just one of the many awful things about this movie.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days [NR] (I'd rate it R)
◊ ◊ ◊ • • 3/5
Tremendous acting and cinematography. The character development is complex and provoking. Unbearably stark and depressing in it's graphic portrayal of an illegal abortion in communist Romania. I don't recommend it unless you're up for looking darkness and cold despair in the eye.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ • • 3/5
Interesting story, but the character development was not very compelling. The most creative thing about the movie was the director's decision to give the audience the main character's one-eyed view of the world. It's worth seeing if you like artsy fartsy movies.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose [NR] (I'd rate it R)
◊ ◊ • • • 2/5
More of a Hollywood horror movie than a real exploration of the subject. It didn't seem like the director knew if he was trying to scare the audience or tell them a serious story, and so he did neither very well. I'd say he came out more on the horror side of things. I wouldn't recommend it.

The Kite Runner [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
I thought this movie was pretty good. I have not read the book, but my wife has, and she liked the movie too. She thought that a few elements of the plot worked better in the movie than in the book. I'd recommend seeing this one.

Superbad [R]
• • • • • 0/5
The name says it all. I was interested in this movie because of some of the reviews I heard about it, but I found it to be unbearable and pushed the eject button within the first ten minutes.

Juno [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
A quirky, smart, and surprisingly thoughtful little movie. Good performances from all the cast. Jason Bateman was especially impressive. The writer's approach to a tough topic seemed honest and without agenda. This movie is thought provoking and a good conversation starter. It's worth watching.

Sideways [R]
• • • • 1/5
Sad, hopeless, and juvenile. Paul Giamatti is great at playing depressed and pathetic characters like the one he plays in this movie. Unfortunately, the movie is even more depressing and pathetic. I can't really think of anything I liked about this movie. Don't waste your time with it.

Atonement [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
This movie seemed a little too long, but the plot is very strong and satisfying. The acting and direction was great. I especially liked James McAvoy's performance. Toward the end of the movie there is an amazing extended continuous single camera shot (no edits) of the wartime scene along the beach of Dunkirk. The musical soundtrack was brilliant. If you like dramatic narrative, this is a good one to see.

Dogma [R]
◊ ◊ • • • 2/5
Interesting, careless, and pretty dumb. Mostly dumb.
Not worth seeing.

In Bruges [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ • • 3/5
Dark comedy. Great story. Wonderful acting. Some VERY unnecessary scenes. Excessively profane language and graphic violence. The canal tour of Bruges in the DVD bonus materials was unbelievably beautiful. Made me want to visit Bruges.

Lars and the Real Girl [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
One of my favorite movies of the year. It's very whimsical yet profound. The acting is wonderful. It takes an over-the-top approach to explore the meaning of being real and being human. I like it so much, I bought it!

No Country for Old Men [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5
Very dark and existential. Like most Coen Brothers movies, it wrestles with big ideas: meaning, purpose, ethics, and being human. I didn't think Woody Harrelson was a good choice for his part. He did a decent job of acting, he was just too noticeable. I would have preferred someone less recognizeable in that part. Javier Bardem's performance was chilling. This one's not for everyone, but worth seeing if you can stomach the coldblooded violence. My favorite scene was the interaction between the killer and the old man at the gas station.

The Fountain [R]
◊ ◊ • • • 2/5
I found this movie to be interesting but confusing. Look it up online and read the description of the plot and you'll understand why. Though it was visually appealing and well-acted, I just couldn't make sense of it. I stuck with it all the way in hopes that it would eventually become clear, but in the end I was still confused. The musical soundtrack was terrible. Don't watch it unless you have someone who can explain it to you. :-)

Raising Arizona [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5
Funny and dumb. Very entertaining. I finally got around to watching it. Maybe you will too someday.

There Will Be Blood [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5
Fantastic acting. Great story. Very violent. Powerful and sad. Makes me want to read the book it was based upon (Oil by Upton Sinclair). I loved the soundtrack and wish that the final scene would have used the same music as the opening scene.

Amazing Grace [PG]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5
A fine little movie worth watching. The story of William Wilberforce and his efforts to end the slave trade is very inspiring.

Into the Wild [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5
A sad story of a young man with a fiercely independent spirit. The story ends in tragedy. For me, Hal Holbrook was the star of this movie. It's worth watching just for his performance.

Deep Water [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
A wonderful documentary about Daniel Crowhursts failed attempt to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a solo yacht race. There is much to learn here about human nature, leadership, and personal achievement. I highly recommend it.

The Bourne Ultimatum [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
I have really enjoyed all of these Bourne movies.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
A beautiful movie. A fantastic sequel.

Mystic River [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ • • 3/5
A fine movie, but seemed predictable to me.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5
A great movie.

The Namesake [PG-13]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5
A beautiful story that explores the human experience across vastly different cultures. Some weak spots in the acting, but the story carries the day. It's worth watching.

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man [PG-13]
◊ ◊ • • • 2/5
Leonard Cohen is an interesting man with a lot of great songs. Though it has some good moments, this documentary was pretty cheesy. I hated some of the performances.

Across the Universe [PG-13]
• • • • 1/5
Some of my best friends liked this movie. I like the Beatles too much to like this movie. I still like my friends.

Once [R]
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5
A wonderful little movie with a nice story and some good music. I'd recommend it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Parker Quartet

The New York Times calls the Parker Quartet, winner of Concert Artists Guild's 2005 Competition, "something extraordinary." The Boston Globe hails its "fiercely committed performances," and The Washington Post declares it "a quartet that deserves close attention."

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5

On Friday night, 2008.12.05, I attended a performance of string quartet music sponsored by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Two quartets performed as part of the SPCO's Young Artists concerts (the Ensō String Quartet and the Parker Quartet).

Both of the quartets had mishaps. A music folder fell off the stand during the
Ensō Quartet's performance, and the Parker Quartet's cellist had the misfortune of having a tuning peg slip loose early in the first movement of their piece. Neither quartet allowed the mishaps to diminish their performances. In fact, their grace to press ahead undeterred with good humor only served to underscore their ability.

The Parker Quartet's performance was my favorite of the evening. They played with wonderful precision and feeling. Go hear them if you ever have the chance. I hope my wife (who was not able to attend the December 5 concert) and I will be able to hear them again sometime. I'd love to have a recording of the PQ performing the piece they played that night.

The program said that they were playing Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.127. I was completely confused by this as the piece didn't sound like Beethoven at all. I loved the piece, but couldn't believe it was Beethoven.

The next day I visited the Parker Quartet's website and sent a note to compliment the group on their wonderful performance. I said that I had never heard that piece before and that it didn't sound like Beethoven to me. The cellist responded later that day saying that he had not noticed at the concert, but the program was wrong. They had, in fact, performed Dvorak's Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.51.

That made great sense, and I was relieved to have that mystery resolved. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to question the accuracy of the program. End of story, right? Wrong.

A week later, my friend, Andrew, who had attended the performance with me, came over for a little Christmas visit. I had gone on so much that night about how I enjoyed the Parker Quartet's performance, and how surprising it was to hear something like that from Beethoven, that he ran out and purchased a recording of the Beethoven piece as a Christmas present. We had a big laugh when he heard the whole story and discovered that the mistake in the concert program had resulted in a mistake in his Christmas shopping.

We both agreed that the Parker Quartet and the SPCO were responsible for his mistake, and that they owed me a copy of the Dvorak quartet--or maybe free tickets to another performance. Sounds fair to me. :-)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Theology and Imagination

Truth and Imagination Series (Fortress)

by Alister McGrath

Creation is a brief, beautiful, and inviting little gem of a book (only 87 pages). McGrath explores seven different Christian theological concepts that relate to the theme of creation. Each of the seven chapters is illustrated with a corresponding work of art: The Ancient of Days (William Blake), Adam and Eve in Paradise (Jan Bruegel), Landscape with a Rainbow (Peter Paul Rubens), The Sower (Vincent van Gogh), The Marriage Feast at Cana (Juan de Flandes), The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo), Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel).

I enjoyed reading a chapter a day--almost like a daily devotional. This seemed appropriate (perhaps even what the author intended) as each chapter ends with a prayer and a suggestion for personal reflection.

Though brief, the book is insightful and thought provoking. I think it would be fair to call it a theological primer. I appreciated McGrath's interdisciplinary approach and creative ability to weave history, poetry, and and visual arts into his discussion of every topic. The result is a book that encourages readers to think about theological ideas and perspectives as it appeals to their interest in beauty and imagination.

I'm looking forward to reading other books in the same series. They include: Incarnation, Redemption, Resurrection, God, and Heaven.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Swedish Roots

I just made it through Book 2 of Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrant series. Though it was not intentional, it took me almost an entire year to make my way through 372 pages that tell the story of the emigrants' first year in America. It was almost like reading in real time.

While reading that slowly might ruin most books, it actually worked out pretty well in this case. Moberg's approach in these novels is something akin to recreating a journal--lots of short entries based on a specific event or conversation of a given day. Occasionally, he even includes fictionalized excerpts of letters received or written by one of his characters, a quote from something they've read, or the text of some official document.

The real strength of the books is the character development. The events and circumstances are interesting, but what is most compelling are the feelings, beliefs, perspectives, fears, hopes, and sorrows of the people experiencing those events and circumstances. The kind of things you might read in their journals if they written them.

I'm not sure everyone would enjoy these books as I do. But for me, a Scandinavian (Norwegian-Swedish) Minnesotan living near the area where the emigrants settle (Stillwater, Taylor Falls), Moberg's books feel like some treasure I might have found in an ancient trunk in grandfather's attic.

I just started book three, The Settlers, and hope to make it through books three and four in 2009.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5

Unto a Good Land
The Emigrants Novels, Book 2

by Vilhelm Moberg

Published between 1951 and 1961, Moberg's four-volume epic offers the saga of the Swedish immigrant's role in the settling of the American frontier. Book Two opens in the summer of 1850 as the emigrants begin their trek from New York City to a new home in the Minnesota Territory. The journey takes them by riverboat, steam wagon, Great Lakes steamship, and oxcart to Chisago County.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Visitor

I really enjoyed this movie. It's a touching story that explores both the complex narratives people have and the experiences/forces that bring them together or pull them apart. Wonderful acting, great soundtrack, beautifully shot and edited.

I may have to purchase this one for my personal collection.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 5/5

The Visitor (2008)
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass

Monday, December 01, 2008

Enjoying Kooser

I was born in Nebraska and grew up there. The same goes for my wife. She grew up in the Republican River Valley in the southwest part of the state. I grew up in a little town along the Elkhorn River in northeast part of the state. I was a student at the University, and when we married, we made our home in a little apartment about a city block away from the state capitol building on J street in Lincoln. Our first son was born in that city.

We've now lived in Minnesota so long that it has become home for me. To be honest, it was home the first day I arrived. I immediately felt more at home there than I ever had in Nebraska. Something ancient and Norwegian in my DNA just felt like it belonged in Minnesota, and was glad to finally be back.

Though none of my three sons was born in Minnesota, they all grew up here. They are, without question, Minnesotans. I think of myself as a Minnesotan too, and I've come to believe that home is wherever your kids feel it is.

"Nebraska is a fine place to be from," I say, to my sweet Nebraska bride's dismay, if and when the fact of my Nebraska roots surfaces in a conversation. She likes Nebraska and thinks it sounds like I have something against it. I really don't. I just don't miss it at all. I think of family and friends and years spent there with some fondness, but never with anything remotely close to homesickness or longing.

These days, while enjoying my first cup of coffee in the mornings, I've been reading a little book by Nebraska author Ted Kooser entitled Local Wonders. Oddly enough, my wife bought the book in a small shop way up north in Grand Marais, MN on a recent trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior. Local Wonders is a collection of short pieces and essays, part memoir, part poetic reflection.

The writing is very good, but what's even better is Kooser's keen eye and big heart. That's what gives him something worth writing about. Whether he's trying to start a tractor, taking a walk in the Bohemian Alps, or daydreaming in the recliner chair he inherited from his Uncle Tubby, Ted Kooser sees quite a lot. And much to my surprise, he even manages to stir up fond thoughts and wistful memories in an old expatriate like me.

The book is arranged by seasons of the year, and after reading the Preface and Acknowledgments, I decided to start with the season I was in--autumn. One autumn essay includes a short poem I like so much I'm planning to have it inscribed on a wall in my house.

If you can awaken
inside the familiar
and discover it new

you need never

leave home.

Today, after shoveling the snow from my sidewalks, I finished reading the section called "Winter." Now, I think I'll put the book aside until the crocuses start appearing. I’m always eager for the spring to arrive. This year I’ll be eager for more Local Wonders.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I Believe In Singing

I agree with what Brian Eno believes about music. Incidentally, it's one of the reasons I think that corporate music is so important to Christian community. Churches that allow music to become a spectator's sport are missing out on something very important.

Listen to Brian Eno's Essay on This I Believe.

Monday, November 17, 2008

This American Life

I'm a big fan of the This American Life radio show hosted by Ira Glass from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. I listen to (and save) every podcast because I find them to be such a wonderful view into the lives and perspectives of so many different kinds of people and circumstances.

Thanks to Netflix, I just watched the entire first season of the new This American Life television program on Showtime. I found the production values to be extremely good and they succeeded in translating the personality of the radio program into the visual format of TV.

I enjoyed the series for the most part, but didn't find it to be as consistent or compelling as the radio show. In fact, I didn't care for a few of the stories at all--something that almost never happens when I listen to the radio show. I would expect TAL on TV to improve in future seasons, simply because I believe the TAL crew is brilliant.

I'm not sure, however, the TV show will have enough of a following to keep it going. Is the TV audience mostly made up of listeners? I'm all for TAL to have success on TV because I don't think the world can have too much TAL. On the other hand, I'm so satisfied with the radio show, I don't really need the TV program to be happy. But if you take away my radio show, I'll be blue!

The first season of TAL on Showtime is worth a watch, but it's not worth as much as listening to TAL every week on the radio.

◊ ◊ ◊ • • 3/5

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading the Big Weather

Mornings we see our breath. Weeds
sturdy for winter are waiting down
by the tracks. Birds, high and silent,
pass almost invisible over town.

Time, always almost ready
to happen, leans over our shoulders reading
the headlines for something not there: "Republicans
Control Congress"--the year spins on unheeding.

The moon drops back toward the sun, a sickle
gone faint in the dawn: there is a weather
of things that happen too faint for headlines,
but tremendous, like willows touching the river.

This earth we are riding keeps trying to tell us
something with its continuous scripture of leaves.

"Reading the Big Weather" by William Stafford, from Scripture of Leaves, ©1999, Brethren Press.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Literature: International Fiction

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
(1965 / Harcourt)

This strange and wildly inventive fantasy uses a first-person memoir style as a medium for relating complex concepts of cosmology to human experiences of the heart and mind. It is genius and surprisingly effective.

I heard about the book by listening to "You Must Read This" on National Public Radio. It was praised and highly recommended by the Salman Rushdie.

My favorite chapters were, "The Dinosaurs" and "The Light Years." The latter gave me insights to human relationships that I think will stick with me for life.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ 4/5

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Current Reading: Historical Fiction

Unto a Good Land (The Emigrants Novels, Book 2)
by Vilhelm Moberg

Published between 1951 and 1961, Moberg's four-volume "Emigrant" epic offers the saga of the Swedish immigrant's role in the settling of the American frontier. Book Two opens in the summer of 1850 as the emigrants disembark in New York City. Their journey to a new home in Minnesota Territory takes them by riverboat, steam wagon, Great Lakes steamship, and oxcart to Chisago County.

Current Reading: Pastoral

The Last Word and the Word after That
by Brian McLaren

Pastor Dan Poole returns with another personal and theological crisis in this final installment of McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian trilogy, which again features fictional characters engaged in nonfictionish theological dialogue. This time around, Poole has been granted an extended leave of absence from his conservative church as it investigates what it believes to be his liberal theological leanings, especially regarding the doctrine of hell and salvation.

Current Reading: Christian Worldview / Arts

Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts
by Hilary Brand & Adrienne Chaplin

Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin explore the full spectrum of issues and concerns that face a Christian who is interested in working within any of the creative arts.