Despicable Parenting

by the Night Writer

Despicable MeBehind every super-villain is a lousy parent. At least that’s the message I picked up on when the family sat down the other night to watch the DVD of Despicable Me, the animated movie featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segal and Julie Andrews. Whether it’s the main character Gru’s self-centered and impossible to impress mother or the demanding and bullying father of Gru’s also-evil nemesis, Vector, the path to megalomania appears to start in the nursery.

These two parents are only minor elements of the story, however, as the central dramatic tension and humor comes from the diabolically dysfunctional Gru’s attempts at parenting three orphan girls he adopts as cover for one of his fiendish plots. In fact, as I think of it, the only “normal” kids in the movie are the orphans who don’t have any parents, though they do suffer a bit at the hands of Miss Hattie, the director of the orphanage who is an “iron fist in a velvet glove while wearing a pair of brass knuckles type”. The plucky heroines are unfazed by either Miss Hattie or the woefully ill-equipped Gru’s attempts at authority.

Granted, I’m not going to get too serious about the “reality” or message of a movie that also posits that the moon, having been shrunk and stolen, will snap back into its normal orbit again when it re-enlarges, but still.

If a key part of humor is doing the unexpected then a movie where the adults are smarter than the children would surely be the smash comedy hit of the year.

Don’t miss this war

by the Night Writer

I wanted to take a minute to tell you about a great mystery series our whole family has been enjoying: Foyle’s War.

Foyle's War

It’s a British series set in the southeast of England beginning in the early days of World War II. Michael Kitchen stars as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle who would much rather be doing something to aid the war effort but is pretty much stuck in Hastings.  For a quiet area (except for the occasional air raid), Foyle finds himself investigating quite a few murders. A quiet, resolute man he methodically rolls up clues and killers against the backdrop of war-time intrigue and paranoia. Similarly the series quietly grows on you as the main characters subtly reveal, bit by bit, a little more of their own histories and motivations.

Kitchen is absolutely fantastic in understated performances that demonstrate he probably has the most expressive wrinkles and folds in his face of any actor I’ve seen — though you get a hint that there’s great passion being kept under tight control. Complementary players include the awesomely named Honeysuckle Weeks as Foyle’s preternaturally perky driver, Samantha (Sam) Stewart and his wounded investigator, Sgt. Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), plus first class performances by a host of single-episode (so far) actors.

While the mysteries and performances are engrossing, the thing that really sets this show apart is the painstaking attention to detail in dress, settings and the human undercurrents of xenophobic patriots, Nazi sympathizers and government officials with their own agendas and an ever-shifting series of moral and dramatic issues. Each episode is about an hour and a half and there were only four episodes in each of the five years of the show. We ‘re halfway through the second year right now and can hardly wait to get each new disc from Netflix.

Check this out if you like superbly crafted dramas with unforgettable characters.

Thinking Green

by the Night Writer

Here’s a little recycling in honor of St. Patrick’s day — a couple of older posts that I’m re-running here because they fit the occasion. If you weren’t reading this blog in 2006 they’ll be new to you, and if you were, well, you’ve probably forgotten and they will seem new to you.

The first is an account of the events surrounding my first college St. Patty’s day, celebrated on a campus truly dedicated to the holiday:

I don’t think there will ever be a St. Patrick’s Day when I don’t think about my first semester of college when I enrolled in the Spring term at the University of Missouri-Rolla campus. UMR is mainly an engineering college but it was close to where I lived at the time and a convenient way for me to knock out some general liberal arts credits before transferring to the main Mizzou campus in Columbia.

St. Patrick’s “Day” was actually a 10-day party at UMR. The campus was about 90% male then, almost all in grueling engineering classes that seemed to require binge drinking in order to cope. The reason St. Pat is such a big deal at UMR is because he is deemed to be the patron saint of engineers for having driven the snakes from Ireland and thereby creating the first worm drive (engineering humor). The rites and festivities of the season were under the auspices of the St. Pat’s Board: upper classmen (some I think were in their 30s) elected by their fraternities, eating clubs and campus organizations. For most of the year their duties seemed to be based around regular “meetings” marked by drinking and carousing. Come March, however, they were especially prominent in their filthy green coats (part of their semi-secret initiation rites) as they enforced the rules and protocols of the holiday (for those familiar with the St. Paul Winter Carnival – especially in the older days – think green Vulcans).

Part of the tradition was that all freshmen males were to have beards in the week or so leading up to St. Pat’s, and were to carry shillelaghs (an Irish cudgel). Most people think of shillelaghs as being a bit like walking sticks, but at UMR there were specific requirements: the shillelagh had to be at least two-thirds the height of the student and at least one-third his weight, and it had to be cut from a whole tree with at least some of the roots showing. The punishment for being caught beardless by a Board Member (and they usually traveled in packs of two or more) was to have your face painted green. The penalty for being without your shillelagh was to be thrown into Frisco Pond. Frisco Pond was actually the town’s sewage lagoon, but was called Frisco Pond because the St. Pat’s Board of 1927 rerouted the Frisco railroad into the pond after one of their meetings. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea to them at the time.

Fortunately I was able to cultivate my first beard, red and wispy as it was, and I cut myself a suitable cudgel. Carrying books and a shillelagh of the stated dimensions was a challenge, and even more so when certain professors wouldn’t allow them into class, meaning they had to be stacked in the hallways and guarded because Board members liked nothing better than to snatch unattended shillelaghs and then wait for their rightful owners to appear — followed by a honking procession to Frisco Pond. (I did mention the campus was 90% male and fueled by alcohol, right? During St. Pat’s week the campus looked like No Name City from “Paint Your Wagon.”)

The reason we carried cudgels was in case a Board member approached you with a rubber snake and demanded that you “kill” it. This generally meant pounding on the snake with your cudgel until the Board member (not you) got tired. I weighed about 170 then; you do the math as to what my shillelagh weighed, minimum. I was fortunate to go largely unnoticed (as unnoticed as a guy carrying a tree can be) through most of this period. This was especially remarkable given that one of my friends from my hometown was on the Board. Toward the end of the week, however, he came up to me in the dining hall. “Red,” (for my beard) he said, “I think I see a snake.” With chants of “snake! snake! snake!” I was led outside and my “friend” tossed said snake on the ground. It landed, however, in a flower bed. “Freshman! Kill!” was the command. Hoisting my club over my head (and somehow not tipping over backwards) I brought it crashing down onto the hapless rubber creature — and even more hapless plants in the soft earth.

“Hit it again, it’s not dead,” was the order. I looked down once, then again. “Oh, it’s dead, alright,” I said. Actually, it would be more accurate to say, “Missing, presumed dead” because the rubber snake was nowhere to be found in the newly-created crater. Rather than wait around for CSI, or the gardener, the small group repaired to the dining hall to toast the success of the mission and I survived the week, the highlight of which was the St. Pat’s Parade.

In those days the St. Pat’s Board would be out early in the morning with mops and barrels of green paint, painting Pine Street in advance of the parade. High school bands from around the area would march, car dealers would drive demo models with pretty girls in them and various and sundry other parade standards would be present. In particular, however, I remember the Precision Pony Team: a group of students scooting along on empty pony kegs strapped to skateboards with rudimentary heads and yarn tails attached to the kegs. They wove patterns and formations down the street, stopping periodically to lift the tails of their “mounts” and drop handfuls of malted milk balls.

Much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the event culminated in St. Pat (not St. Nick) appearing on the route, riding a manure spreader and attended by his Guard. The duties of the Guard were largely to keep St. Pat vertical (he’d probably been drinking for four days straight) and to bring any fetching lasses from the crowd to St. Pat for a good luck kiss. (I did say the campus was 90% male and fueled by alcohol, didn’t I?).

After this particular St. Patrick’s Day all the other ones I’ve experienced have just kind of faded from my memory.

Note: the annual UMR St. Pat’s parade and related festivities still go on, but in a much more muted manner. A couple of alchohol-poisoning deaths were a factor (sad and true) to be sure, but I also think it was because some of those Board members finally graduated.

Also in keeping with this sainted day, here’s my “Fundamentals in Film” review of the great John Ford and John Wayne classic, The Quiet Man:

Fundamentals in Film: Groundhog Day

by the Night Writer

When I told the lads last week that we were going to watch a classic Bill Murray movie that featured a cute, furry animal they were all, “Cool – Caddyshack!”

“Oh yeah,” I replied, “And what positive message could I possibly squeeze out of that besides ‘Be the ball.'”

There were a number of reasons for me to choose “Groundhog Day“: 1) It’s February, 2) The story, and 3) Bill Murray is about the only actor to come out of Saturday Night Live who’s movies I like. As it turns out, the movie was timely for another reason as well, which I’ll get to.

I think most people know the plot of the movie. Murray is an egotistical, selfish jerk of a TV weatherman who literally gets stuck in Puxatawney, PA covering the annual Groundhog Day ceremonies. Not just stuck as in he can’t leave town, but stuck living the same day over and over again although he’s the only one who’s aware of what’s happening — everyone else in the town forgets what happened before when they live the day all over again. Why this particular jerk is singled out for this anomaly is hard to say, but just go with it. Murray soon discovers that no matter what he does — including getting locked in jail, kidnapping Puxatawney Phil or killing himself — will keep him from waking up at 6:00 a.m. the “next” morning to the exact same story.

When he first realizes there are “no consequences” he indulges in any and every thing he can think of to amuse himself, whether it’s stealing money, taking advantage of unsuspecting women, pigging out on fatty food, sweets and smoking…all while it’s clear that he’s coming apart trying to deal with this unique kind of Hell. He eventually sets his sights on seducing his new producer, played by Andie MacDowell, using his endless series of days to learn everything about her, what she likes, what she hopes for, what might impress her and then trying to use this knowledge to deceive her. She has a good heart and he’s very nearly successful again and again but each time her common sense and character undo his schemes. Thwarted in his quest and ultimately bored by his all his indulgences, Murray tries a number of inventive ways to kill himself, but always waking up back in his bed. At his lowest point he spends another day with MacDowell, not trying to scam her but trying to convince her of the absurd thing that is happening to him. She agrees to help him, and in the wee hours of the morning, exhausted, Murray realizes that what attracts him to her is her kindness, fairness and compassion even when dealing with a guy she knows only as a jerk.

At rock bottom, and from that revelation, Murray starts to change, using his unique situation and “omniscience” to help others. Strangely enough, he starts to have fun and begins enjoying himself by helping others, preventing accidents and becoming the most popular guy in town.

I first got the idea to show this movie this month back in November or December, but what makes it especially timely now is that it comes on the heels of the post I wrote earlier this week about the book Born to be Good and the “discovery” that humans have a built-in and measurable warm feeling and reaction to doing good or seeing good things done. Murray’s journey from bewilderment to dissipation, depression and ultimately redemption — though filmed 25 years before the book was written — demonstrates that premise in a funny and touching movie that is as fundamental as any film in this series. (See Sidebar Categories for other films).

Fundamentals in Film: Into the Woods

Fairy tales are one of the oldest ways mankind has used entertainment to teach the value of good behavior and consequences of bad. Most tales at heart tell of a central character who does either good or bad and either triumphs in the end or suffers gruesome retribution (especially in the original, non-sanitized versions of the tales — not for nothing were the most famous compilers known as the Brothers Grimm.) Pure hearts received happily ever after and malefactors suffered blindings, beheadings and bloody reprisals. What a great set-up for a musical comedy!

In Into The Woods, Stephen Sondheim mixes together several familiar tales, adds in his trade-mark clever wordplay and weaves it all together into a fast-paced, two-act, Tony-award-winning musical with a light touch that covers some fundamental values and moral dilemmas. The long-running Broadway show was filmed for television in 1991, featuring the spectacular Bernadette Peters in the pivotal role of The Witch. (The DVD of this production is available from Netflix).

In addition to The Witch, the central characters are Cinderella, Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk”, a baker and his wife, and a couple of handsome-prince brothers. All have something they greatly desire, expressed in the all-purpose and all-powerful motto of the show: “I wish.” There is also a “Mysterious Man” who’s motives in the first act are not clear, though it turns out he is the one who’s first transgression sets all the other plot wheels into motion.

The movie version is a delightful, hilarious romp for the whole family though it is a bit ribald in places with a lot of cleavage and an anatomically-correct Wolf (Hello, Little Girl), as well as some adult themes that are deftly and creatively handled. The message is that wishes lead to actions and actions have consequences, some of which may not be immediately realized. The first act of the show weaves each character’s story together as they interact with each other in their pursuit of their respective wishes, wrapping up in a “happy ever after” — or so you might think. Act 2 then goes into just how happy “happy ever after” can be if you haven’t really resolved who you are and what is truly important to you and in life. The cleverness and humor continues throughout the second act, but profound revelations and morals are in store. Here’s a summary of the character of the main characters:

Cinderella: gentle and kind, she spends a great deal of her hard life wishing for better things but especially to be able to go to the king’s festival. Her inability to decide what it is she really wants, however, leads to a number of complications.

Jack: a simple-minded boy with no father on the scene and a nagging but protective other, he discovers a fabulous new world with giants but his almost-innocent greed and suddenly discovered desire for adventure means complications are most definitely in store!

The Baker and his Wife: These are the characters on whom the story truly turns. A childless couple due to a curse the Witch put on the Baker’s household as a result of his father stealing beans from the Witch’s garden both ties the other stories together and carries the most complete moral dilemmas. The Baker also grew up without a father, and while his instincts are good and decent, he is easily swayed by his practical, ends-justifies-the-means (or beans) wife who’s situational ethics and strong personality add momentum to the causes and effects initiated by others. Ultimately, she is undone by another who’s situational ethics outmaneuver hers. The Baker, however, ultimately overcomes his timidity and realizes his weakness, ultimately leading to him becoming a better man.

The Witch: Somewhere I once heard someone use the line, “I’m not evil, I’m just efficient.” While that isn’t in this show, it describes the Witch. Ruthless, practical and powerful she has her weaknesses and is the character you can’t stop watching.

Little Red Riding Hood: a young girl, not as simple-minded as Jack, but immature and easily controlled by her own desires and indulgent impulses, she learns a hard lesson when she encounters the older, wiser Wolf but after her rescue has one of the most poignant songs in singing “I Know Things Now.” The last line of that song is that “Nice is different from Good.” Keep that in mind as this review continues.

Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince. Two royal brothers and the apparent romantic ideal of any story, they are in fact driven by their competition with each other and their love of the quest and of obtaining that which appears out of reach. Once obtained, they lose interest, leading to heartbreak and devastation, though not necessarily for themselves. As one says when confronted with his faults, “I’m sorry, I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

My favorite scene in the movie is in act two when the Baker, overcome by tragedy and fear, leaves his baby son with Cinderella and runs away, intending to abandon his son just as his father had abandoned him. In the woods, however, he encounters the ghost of his father (the Mysterious Man from act one) and gains an important perspective that helps move him past his own selfishness (click on the video below).

I like everything about that scene and the way it is handled, but I’m especially drawn to the father’s rationalization, as he confesses to the original theft of the beans that set everything into motion, “How was I to know? How are we ever to know?” Exactly — that’s the excuse just about everyone in the show and in real life uses at some point, but as I pointed out to the Fundamentals in Film class when we watched this, is that really true? Don’t we really know that certain behaviors are not going to turn out well, yet we blind ourselves to them anyway?

Another key lesson comes from the Witch in act two when the cast is confronted with a huge (literally) consequence for their actions and they try to establish the blame for what has befallen them, learning that they’ve each played a part in bringing this turn of events to pass. One way out is a ruthless and cold-blooded “for the greater good” decision, and of course the Witch is ready to act, to the horror of the others. Her response in the song “The Last Midnight” is apt, both for the situation and the lesson of the story:

You’re so nice.
You’re not good,
You’re not bad,
You’re just nice.
I’m not good,
I’m not nice,
I’m just right.
I’m the Witch.
You’re the world.

Ultimately, most debts are paid and lessons are learned and the surviving characters start a new life, not necessarily happier, but definitely smarter ever after.

Fundamentals in Film: lessons from history

I haven’t pulled back from the monthly movie classes with the boys and this month I took us even deeper and darker than where we’ve gone of late (The Dark Knight and The Ghost and the Darkness). Last week we watched two segments of an excellent BBC documentary entitled The Nazis: A Warning From History.

It’s a six-part series (available through Netflix) that looks at the social and political turmoil in post-WWI Germany that gave rise to the National Socialist Party, the intimidation and co-option of the church and citizenry leading up to the war, the atrocities of the war itself and the fall of Hitler and the aftermath of the war. The two episodes I focused on were “The Wild East” and “The Road to Treblinka.” The first described the dividing of Poland between Germany and Russia and the “Germanization” or ethnic cleansing of the German-held Polish territories which included the forced resettlement of the Polish and Slavic peoples. “The Road to Treblinka,” obviously, dealt with the events leading up to the persecution and “ultimate solution” regarding the Jews in Europe. Both episodes were grim, gritty and explicit.

My purpose for showing them was I didn’t want the boys to fall into the easy belief that the Nazis were generic boogey-men taken out of the Hollywood props closet whenever a handy bad guy was needed. Neither were they cartoon caricatures as in the old Hogan’s Heroes TV shows where Sgt. Schult’s signature”I know notthhink!” line was really a macabre parody of the German people willfully ignorant of the horrors going on around them. Actual footage from the relocation and concentration camps, clips of hangings and other executions and interviews with survivors — and with soldiers, townspeople and others that took part in the midnight raids, the extortion and outright theft. It was amazing that these let themselves be interviewed and compelling to watch as they tried to explain the rationalizations they used to justify their actions, or to let themselves sleep more or less peacefully.

Afterwards we talked about how surreal it must have seemed to the people at thetime, living in civilized Europe, to be rousted from their homes in the middle of the night and loaded on trucks, to see their neighbors herded through the streets and to wonder what the world was coming to. We also discussed the possibility that that kind of evil wasn’t necessarily destroyed in 1945, but continued in the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia and Africa, and twitches like a restless leg beneath the flannel trousers in Russia, Georgia and the Ukraine today.

“What would you do?” I asked the boys, if given the opportunity to move into a Jewish merchant’s home, or had the opportunity to sell black-market bread to those starving in the Lodz or Warsaw ghettoes, or put in charge of sorting the people that came off the trains at Treblinka and directing them to the hygiene procedures or medical center? What standard would you use, what rationalization would come most easily?

Most of the group were engaged enough to come back this week for a special encore that was really the main thing I wanted them to see: Martin Doblmeier’s excellent documentary, Bonhoeffer. It is the story of a man who acted on his deepest faith and principals in the face of the darkest times. I wanted them — and you — to know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, what he did and why. To frame it for you, here’s what I wrote on this blog about Bonhoeffer on April 9 of 2005, the 60th anniversary of his death:

“This is the end — but for me, the beginning of life.”

Those were not the words of Pope John Paul II, but of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed 60 years ago today by the Nazis in the closing days of World War II.

I thought of these words this week as the world honored the Pope and I listened to commentators in every media try to put their political spin on what a life of faith should look like. And when I thought of their words in the context of this anniversary, I could only shake my head at the subtleties of God and offer a bitter smile. Bitter at the foolishness and presumption, but a smile nonetheless in order to share in the laugh God must have been having.

Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. Supremely talented and perceptive, he saw spiritual truth in a clear light and threw himself into writing it down and vigorously living it out in total commitment to the lives of those around him, yet he was also capable of the loneliest touch of inner doubt. He was one of the earliest and most unyielding voices in opposition to Hitler as far back as 1933 and struggled to shine a light on Hitler’s co-opting of the German church and to reconstruct Christian ethics.

Fearing for Bonhoeffer’s life, his friends arranged a position for him in America ahead of the coming war, only to have him turn around and return to Germany almost immediately, saying:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

A pacifist, he ultimately saw the need to try and throw a spoke into the wheel of the Nazi war machine and was arrested in 1943 and accused of being part of a plot to kill Hitler. Over the next two years Bonhoeffer wrote prodigiously and powerfully, cramming each paragraph with stunning clarity and revelation almost as if he sensed his time was short (he was 39 – younger than I am now – when he died). As he watched the German church crumble around him and embrace the unbiblical tenets of Nazism, he exhorted his followers and his country that obedience and belief were bound together, saying “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who obeys, believes.”

You can find out much more about his incredible and courageous story here on the pages hosted by the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, but let me return to the present and the spirit of our age so much in evidence the past few weeks, and what Bonhoeffer might wryly refer to as another example of:

…the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.

What he meant was that we all too easily fall into iniquity by trying to determine for ourselves and by our own standards what pleases God. Today there is a lot of easy talk about spirituality as we boomers age and find that our first commandment – “Love thyself” – doesn’t sustain. Christian or otherwise we seek to set our own standards for what is “good enough,” forgetting what it cost those who came before us to raise God’s standard. Journalist David Brooks calls it “building a house of obligation on a foundation of choice,” or, “orthodoxy without obedience.”

You can be thought to be spiritual merely for acknowledging there is a need for spirituality without admitting that you have any responsibility to live up to it in any way. It is a spirituality that honors teachers but not a Messiah. It is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” and described as being the greatest threat to the Church. The threat, however, wasn’t from the world but rather from within the Church.

The complacency of cheap grace allowed Nazism to subvert the gospel in the German church, and the spiritual complacency of America in the 50s and 60s germinated the seeds that bear so much bitter fruit in our culture today. (Btw, you might find it an interesting study to compare the origins, thinking and actions of the original Nazis with the origins, thinking and actions of those who are the first to label others as Nazis today.) It is this “cheap grace” with which we try to cover a multitude of sins while projecting a rich aura of tolerance and enlightenment. As Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship”:

This is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

In what I have read of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – though I am not a Catholic – what I have seen in the life of Pope John Paul II, I sense they both understood that their own lives were not too dear a price to pay for the sake of future generations. As Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison:

The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.

I would not have the coming generation live in ignorance, complacency and hopelessness.

The Dark Knight(writer)

I came across Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns book in the late 80s and was captivated by the story and images, and how powerfully the re-imaged story overwrote my memories of the campy, 1960s television show. This was a deep story: grimmer, grittier, darker and an evocative social commentary on culture and the individual, and the individual’s struggle with himself. I was so pumped up when I heard a little later about the a new kind of Batman movie coming out. Then I heard that Michael Keaton was cast as the Batman. Oh well.

That movie series actually turned out to be okay, though it was understandable why no actor wanted to make it a recurring role as Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney all had a little fun with the part and moved on. It was only when Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale, came out that I saw the vision and felt the excitement that Miller first stirred in me. Given all that’s gone before, there’s a reason the new series has been rebranded as a whole new franchise under The Dark Knight mantle.

I went to see the new movie on Saturday with some anticipation, though I was a little concerned that the movie was being overshadowed by the untimely death of Heath Ledger, who I’m sure you have heard played The Joker. There had been rave reviews of the movie and of Ledger’s performance; even some talk of him being nominated for an Oscar. I chalked this up to bathos related to his passing. I was somewhat familiar with other roles Ledger had played and was underwhelmed. Now that I’ve seen this movie, however, I would cast my vote in his favor. Everything, from the angle of his shoulders, to his voice and laugh, to the twitching of his tongue, created the most compelling and sinister movie villain since Hannibel Lecter.

Best of all, and as strong as the performance was, it didn’t overshadow the rest of the movie. It’s a fabulous story, building onto Batman Begins and gaining momentum of its own. There’s action and special effects of course, but also a story of the nature of good and evil. Granted, the dilemmas are freshman-level ethical “heavies”, but still much deeper than your average (or even above-average) summer blockbuster. In my view it’s as Hayden Tompkins points out in her take on the movie, “Not every choice, however, is one made it the midst of crisis. It’s the choices we make on a day-to-day basis, in the flow of our life, which can just as clearly reveal who we really are.”

As the Joker says in the movie, “Madness is like gravity. It only takes a little push.” Character, however, is harder work. It takes a push, a prod and a continuing series of head slaps sometimes to establish it and keep it going. Consider this movie an invigorating head-slap and go see it.

While you’re at it, go here to listen to a song, My Twisted Humor, that a friend of the Mall Diva’s (alias Princess Flicker Feather) wrote and performed in the hopes that it might make its way into this movie. It obviously didn’t, but it can still work for the next movie!

Fundamentals in Film: Khartoum

I’ve always been on the lookout for films with strong messages dealing with honor and character in this series for teen-age boys, and the stories can be fictional, factual or a bit of both. It’s a bonus, however, when we have a chance to see something of a historical nature that can also help us learn something about the world today. Last month our movie was The Wind and the Lion, a mostly historical story with some movie-making embellishments that provided a useful sketch of early 20th century geo-politics while still offering a rip-roaring adventure.

Afterwards the young men seemed to be interested in the Middle Eastern dynamics of that time and how these were still resonating today. Our next class is Thursday night and I’ve decided to follow up on that with a film I happened to catch on AMC right after Charlton Heston died: Khartoum. It’s an amazing and reliably accurate telling of Islamic jihad in the late 1800s that has striking, and sobering, parallels to today.

Here’s the set-up for the story: It’s the 1880s and most countries in the Middle East are under the influence, if not outright control, of one or another of the European nations. Egypt, supported by England, controls the Sudan, including the capital city of Khartoum. A few years earlier a British officer, Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, had been Governor-General of the Sudan and largely stamped out the slave trade in the country. As this had been the major industry in the land, the economy had subsequently tanked and in the hard times a religious leader, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself the Mahdi (Expected One) and rallied thousands to holy war to drive out the Egyptians and Europeans. He has early successes and England sends 10,000 men under General Hicks to put down the insurgency (Gordon had been recalled to England a few years earlier), but the Mahdi lures them into the dessert and then wipes out the entire command. This disaster is not well-received back in England where the government of Prime Minister William Gladstone is on shaky ground and the public is outraged at the loss of the expedition but also weary of foreign entanglements, especially on behalf of their Egyptian allies. While England and Gladstone want little to do with the Sudan, they need the Egyptians and especially the Suez Canal.

As portrayed in the movie, Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) wants to wash his hands of the Sudan but is experiencing pressure to rescue the Egyptian and European citizens in the city before it is overwhelmed by the Mahdi’s (Laurence Olivier) army. There is no way he wants to commit an army to that cause, however, so he charts a canny course of sending the hero Gordon (Heston) back, alone, to Khartoum to organize an evacuation. Gordon, a national hero with a string of successes in China as well as Africa, is known to be a difficult person to control because of his deep Christian faith and what some described as arrogance and mysticism. He nevertheless accepts the apparently hopeless mission, knowing that he’s being sent as a political gesture but also having an agenda of his own. It turns out he grew to love the Sudan and its people during his earlier duty and he couldn’t abide the thought of abandoning his city, or of England abandoning its allies, to the foreseen slaughter of the Mahdi.

Upon arriving in Khartoum he does evacuate some of the Europeans, but also sets about rallying the Egyptian troops and the citizenry to defend the city, while playing a brilliant but dangerous game of military, administrative and political chicken, simultaneously keeping the Mahdi at bay while hoping to hold out long enough for Gladstone to change his mind and send relief. While the movie sets up the primary conflict between Gordon and the Mahdi, it really is a 3-way battle with Gladstone showing his own determination and tactical abilities. The Mahdi, despite his own mysticism, recognizes the danger of turning Gordon into a martyr, as does Gladstone but for different reasons. Gordon knows that this is where he has them both. One of the great lines in the movie is when Gordon says, “Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he’s afraid to lose it, he throws the weapon away.”

Both the Mahdi and Gladstone, again for their own reasons, try different ways to induce Gordon to leave. By this time, English public opinion is pressuring Gladstone to send a relief column to Gordon’s rescue. Ultimately Gladstone makes a big show of doing just that, marching a regiment through London to take ship for Africa, ostensibly to support Gordon but secretly ordered to move slowly in the hopes that Gordon will ultimately “see reason” and abandon his quest. I won’t offer a spoiler here on how it comes out (go to your history books if you want that), but the ensuing battle of wills between the three men, plus lots of real battles between armies, makes this a tense and gripping story with some interesting perspectives on the nature of power, the power of belief, and the designs of destiny.

The history is pretty solid in this story and the movie hews pretty closely to what is recorded. There are a lot of resources for historians to refer to, including the newspapers of the time, Gordon’s own writings during the 10-months of the siege, and the writings of Colonel Sir Rudolph Slatin, a contemporary and friend of Gordon’s who got to spend several years as the “guest” of the Mahdi himself.

Great Quotes:
William Gladstone: “I don’t trust any man who consults God before he consults me.”

Gen. Charles Gordon: “Every man has a final weapon: his own life. If he’s afraid to lose it he throws the weapon away.”

Gordon: “I’m known to be a religious man, yet I’m a member of no church. I’ve been introduced to hundreds of women, yet I’ve never married. I daresay that no one’s ever been able to talk me into anything.”

Gordon: “While I may die of your miracle, you will surely die of mine.”

About Fundamentals in Film: this series began as a class I taught to junior high and high school boys as a way to use the entertainment media to explore concepts of honor, honesty, duty and accountability. The movies were selected to demonstrate these themes and as a contrast to television that typically either portrays men as Homer Simpsons or professional wrestlers, with little in between those extremes. I wrote questions and points to ponder for each movie to stimulate discussion and to get the boys to articulate their thoughts and reactions to each movie. I offer this series here on this blog for the benefit of parents or others looking for a fun but challenging way to reinforce these concepts in their own families or groups. I’m also always open to suggestions for other movies that can be added to the series. You can browse the entire series by clicking on the “Fundamentals in Film” category in the right sidebar of this blog.

Out with the boys

Tonight was “Fundamentals in Film” Night with the teen-age boys and a couple of the dads. We watched a movie, as usual, but first I had to interject some real life — much to the lads’ chagrin.

I haven’t blogged about our movie nights for awhile but we’ve been getting together regularly for two years now, cutting back to just once a month since last fall. I’ve wanted to use the movies we’ve watched and the discussions afterwards to illustrate proper manly behavior and character. Originally the movies we watched were pretty black and white about good guys and bad guys but since the first of the year I’ve begun mixing in movies where the “hero” of the story might not really be such a good guy; my purpose being to show the young men how their emotions can be manipulated and their perceptions bent by the prism of the craft. The first such movie was John Wayne’s “The Shootist”, and since then we’ve watched “Patton”, the remake of “3:10 to Yuma” and some others.

The other day, however, I heard that several of these young men had been together discussing another movie that some of them had seen; a movie with graphic sexuality and they were regaling each other with explicit details. Bad enough that they should be so coarse, but they also happened to be doing so in the presence of my daughter — and without a second thought.

Tonight, before the movie and before I had the food brought in (so I could be sure of having their attention) I stood in front of the room and asked them what they thought the objective was of these sessions. “To teach us morals,” one said. “To build our character,” said another. “To be gentlemen,” said a third. “To show us how to break out of prison,” said another, remembering a previous movie.

“No,” I said to the last speaker, “but if you pay attention here it just might keep you out of prison in the first place.”

“Snap!” said another boy.

Since we all seemed to be on the same page I asked them where on the scale of good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, would talking about sex fall — and especially in front of women. “Uhhh…real bad?” one offered.

I then told them I had heard of a recent instance where some of them had done exactly that. I also said that since they had felt free to do that in public then I, too, would talk about the incident in public. I added that I hadn’t pressed for specific names, so I wouldn’t mention specific names, but that I would address them all for the correction of those involved and the edification of those who weren’t. The squirm factor in the room was now about 7.5.

Among the things I told them was that people have always misbehaved regarding sex but that there have been times when the culture at least held out an ideal that humans could control themselves, or should at least try to. Today everything — TV, movies, commercials, billboards, radio, you name it — treats us like animals that can be lead about by our appetites and that women get no support from the culture to sustain an ideal of purity. In fact, they get a double whammy: men are encouraged to act like animals without restraint while the message to women is that they are the crazy ones if they don’t go along. Then I told the guys that if they didn’t get the proper understanding of the value and worth of a woman then their best days were already behind them because nothing they were being “sold” was anything like reality and they would never be satisfied chasing after some pornographic ideal of sex, beauty and what constitutes a relationship.

Sure, they could go along with the system that seems set up all to their advantage, buy into the stereotype that they’re just hounds, call each other “Dog” and spend their life running around with their tongues hanging out and sniffing butts. And dog they will be, if they are content to let themselves be led about as if there were a large fish-hook in their gonads. The squirm factor was suddenly up past 9, and I was about to kick it to 11.

The movie we watched last month was “The Shawshank Redemption.” It wasn’t one that I particularly wanted to teach because of some of its grittier aspects, but it was a favorite of one of the fathers and of his son and they wanted to show the movie and expound upon the lessons they saw in it so I agreed, albeit with some reservation. Afterward we had had a pretty good discussion about justice and injustice, hypocrisy, perseverance and the importance and indomitability of hope, and how systems are designed to steal hope from you. We didn’t get into the prison rape scenes then, but as this week went on I saw that those gave me an opportunity to make a point.

Tonight I asked the boys what their reactions had been during those scenes last month. “Gross” and “sick to my stomach” were the responses. “What you need to realize,” I said, “is that that is the same reaction God has to any sex outside of marriage.” We talked about 1 Corinthians 6 a bit, and I told them that, yes indeed, sex is a fabulous thing, but there’s nothing that compares to being with a woman who gives herself to you in total trust and security, knowing that she is loved, respected and honored — and that is what happens in the best marriages. “Just getting married won’t make it so,” I said, “If you still have the wrong attitude it’s not going to be a very happy marriage.

“If you want that, then – even now – you have to be thinking not about how you can get what you want from a woman, but on what it is you have to do to make yourself marriageable.” I also suggested that they begin to treat each woman as if she were someone else’s wife, even if the woman is single. “Your wife, should you be so lucky, is out there somewhere now. How do you want other guys to be treating her?”

There are other things we talked about along that line, but I won’t go into them here. Some of these may show up in another post I’ve been working on. I only spoke for about 20 minutes, and it was probably the most rapt audience I’ve ever had but I wasn’t going to push it.

It was time to order pizza and start this month’s movie, “The Wind and the Lion.”This is a great flick, by the way, with the great Sean Connery and a superb performance by Brian Keith as President Teddy Roosevelt. The movie is based fairly closely on a true story from the Middle East in 1904, and features a lot of great action and some very important (and manly) monologues from Connery and Keith that also seemed to fit our discussion topic.

I can’t wait to see who shows up for next month’s movie!

Review: Expelled (updated)

We went to see Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed as planned Friday night. We went to the 6:30 p.m. show and it looked like there were two dozen people in the theater. I hope the numbers increase because it was an interesting movie presented in a mostly respectful way, dealing with a subject that — while it may not occupy a lot of your thoughts or life — can certainly add meaning to these.

Frankly, however, I can see why people will stay away, regardless of their position on the topic of Evolution/Darwinism vs. Intelligent Design (or Creationism as some describe it). Most of us don’t regularly seek out controversy, especially in our recreation times. We don’t go out looking for a fight, yet the buzz around this film from both sides would lead you to think a fight is what you’re in for. If any thing was provoked in me, however, it was thought. So much so, in fact, that I’d like to see the film again because I’d often find myself pondering an interview I’d just watched and being distracted as the film moved to another scene or conversation. In this post I’ll give you my brief take on the movie based on one viewing, plus some thoughts I’ve had in the past couple of days about the nature of the controversy.

First, the movie. All in all it was very well done and, as I said before, respectfully handled. Ben Stein and his crew told the stories of several people on both sides of the Darwin/ID debate and did a great job of letting each side speak without interrupting or insulting the speakers. Stein, a phlegmatic but droll speaker and thinker, didn’t ambush anyone or resort to gimmicks to throw the people he disagrees with off balance, and even gave them opportunities to restate and clarify their beliefs and positions; whether this was a good thing for those people or not you can decide if you see the movie. All in all it was a very pleasant and stimulating experience, though the section dealing with the Nazi atrocities was (as always) difficult to watch and I know some of who have seen and liked the movie have complained that it was still a reach to draw a direct line from Darwin’s theories through the Eugenics movement to the Nazis.

They may have a point, in that the brutality that man has visited on his brothers throughout history is not limited to a particular doctrine or worldview. Atrocities in the name of faith can be documented as well. Hitler and the Nazis, however, could have been pure hatred and evil, but the scientific footing provided by Darwin and Eugenics supported the idea of inferior races and “useless eaters” and stripped the humanity — in the eyes of the Nazis — from their victims. A more effective analogy in the film was the comparison of the squelching of ID in science and academia to the Communist regimes that built walls, stifled dissent, assassinated (careers in this case) and ruthlessly intimidated those who didn’t go along.

Again, this is not a trait exclusive to Darwinists, though it is a mockery of the noblest principles of scientific exploration and curiosity. Faith, too, has squelched and scorned when it found itself threatened; the fact that the “new” faith does the same is sad and but not surprising, and is even ironic in how its disciples refer to ID proponents as “flat earthers”. Back in Galileo’s time, most people knew the world couldn’t be flat; practical experience with sight-lines over distances showed that and those who watched the stars (there wasn’t television then) could get an idea that maybe everything didn’t really revolve around us. Still, talking about this (in the Church’s eyes) threatened the status quo and social order. Today, if people stop to really think about it, they can sense at a gut-level that the complexity of life (not just the statistical improbability, but impossibility of even a single cell coming into existence randomly or spontaneously and then being able to replicate, mutate and evolve before being destroyed doesn’t make sense, even to those sworn to believe it, as the movie points out). The stakes for protecting the status quo today, however, are much the same, or even higher, as Brent Bozell noted in his review of the movie:

It is a reality of PC liberalism: There is only one credible side to an issue, and any dissent is not only rejected, it is scorned. Global warming. Gay “rights.” Abortion “rights.” On these and so many other issues there is enlightenment, and then there is the Idiotic Other Side. PC liberalism’s power centers are the news media, the entertainment industry and academia, and all are in the clutches of an unmistakable hypocrisy: Theirs is an ideology that preaches the freedom of thought and expression at every opportunity, yet practices absolute intolerance toward dissension. (HT Are We Lumberjacks?)

If one area can be questioned then what might happen to the other pillars of what passes for “intelligent” thought in our world today.

In either camp, it ultimately comes down to faith. Personally, I don’t dwell a lot on Genesis or Revelation in my faith. I know, beyond a doubt, that God is real and what he has done in my life through my faith in his son, Jesus. Exactly how it began and exactly how it will end don’t interest me as much as what God has done and is doing in my life today, and what I can do for others. I need go no further than the miraculous lives of my two daughters who, while they may be unusual, are certainly not mutants even though it was nigh on impossible for them to be conceived.

I would have liked to have seen more discussion of the tenets of ID in the movie in addition to the stories of the remarkable and consistent persecution of those who dared to try to follow the evidence where it leads. Certainly the part about the complexity of cells both boggles and fires the imagination, while the rhetorical contortions of the Darwinist scientists as they try every explanation but God (crystals, space aliens, lightning striking a mud puddle) to explain how life came to be inspire giggles, not boggles.

Make no mistake, Stein didn’t stack the deck when he lined up people to speak on camera for the movie. He had some of the best known names and noted intellects sit down in front of the camera and talk, even though their dismissals of ID theories or research were typically ad hominen attacks on their counterparts or insulting speculation of their opponents’ agendas, with little offered in terms of refuting the ID argument on anything other than its premise.

Toward the end of the movie Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, reads an excerpt from his book describing God — if he exists — as a petty, violently jealous, homicidal tyrant (among other things). If Dawkins is correct in his description, perhaps there is no God because if there were Dawkins would surely have been struck down. Or, perhaps it means that God is real and is as loving and merciful as others say. If so, why wouldn’t Science want us to even consider the idea?

Here’s a thoughtful take on the movie from Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost:

The film doesn’t attempt to present the scientific case for ID (though Stein promises this will be included on the DVD version) nor does it attempt to undermine the credibility of neo-Darwinism (though the Darwinists in the film do a masterful job of that, albeit unintenionally). Stein’s primary focus is on the freedom of academics to merely consider an idea that is deemed verboten in the Ivory Towers. He uses a series of interviews, interspersed with Cold War imagery, in a way that that is both entertaining and enlightening. It is only when it veers off into the historical connection between Darwinism and Nazism that the film stumbles. The conjunction between the two is indisputable, though ultimately as irrelevant as the connection between religion and ID. Scientific theories must be judged on their merit, not on unfortunate outcomes that may result.

Another caution is that Expelled isn’t a fair movie. When Stein interviews advocates of ID he selects scientists and philosophers that are thoughtful and sober while the Darwinists tend to be either a bit nutty (Bill Provine) or unable to keep from damaging their own cause (PZ Myers). Likewise, he stacks the decks in ID’s favor by interviewing intellectual heavyweights like David Berlinski while allowing neo-Darwinism to be defended by Richard Dawkins, a man who is highly educated but of only modest intellect. The result is a film that isn’t balanced and isn’t fair. But it is both funny and infuriating. At least it is, as Stein would no doubt say, if you value freedom. Rating: B+