Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Golden Son (Red Rising)

 “I hate how my body shivers at the idea of glory. There’s something deep in man that hungers for this. But I think it weakness, not strength, to abandon decency for that strange darker spirit.” 

Golden Son, the second book in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, is garnering even better reviews than its excellent predecessor. Mr. Brown deftly blends Greek and Roman mythology, sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian fiction (you can see the influences of Star Wars, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Lord of the Flies, and Game of Thrones) into a vast, mesmerizing story of revenge, power, love and betrayal. Mr. Brown noted in an interview with Science Fiction and Fantasy:
"Put simply, Red Rising is a story of rebellion. It is set seven hundred years from now, in an age when humanity has terraformed the planets and moons of our Solar System. The story follows Darrow, a young Red (the bottom tier of this futuristic society) as he attempts to bring to justice the rulers of his society, the Golds, who have enslaved his people for half a millennium. Even if he has to infiltrate their ranks to do it... Golden Son begins several years after the events in Red Rising as Darrow continues in his quest to undermine Gold rule and pave the way for a Red revolution. While Red Rising stayed on Mars, Golden Son explores the far reaches of the Gold empire."
In my review of Red Rising, I noted that I wanted my boys to read about Darrow because of his compelling nobility. He wasn't perfect, but he embodied commitment, faithfulness, love, justice, and a righteous anger that he always managed to aim in the right direction (even if it took a while).

I don’t feel that way about the Darrow in Golden Son. That's not to say I have discouraged my sons from reading it. After all, one can learn the importance of living well by appreciating the reward of virtue or the destruction of vice. Red Rising shows what happens when purpose, character, and nobility bring a stabilizing moral center into a chaotic world; Golden Son shows what happens when that center does not hold.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

“Can you make a modern-day fairy tale in the way you can make a modern-day science fiction story… Can you capture that sort of playfulness again?” - The Wachowskis in an interview with Buzzfeed 

Jupiter Ascending has taken a pounding in terms of art of filmmaking, and rightly so. It's incoherent at times; it's poorly paced; it's both silly and weird; the dialogue is at times woefully lacking; there are two brief scene of entirely gratuitous immodesty and nudity (PG-13); it borrows constantly from other movies (though some of that is meant to be an homage to classic directors or films); the plot holes are monumentally large; and Sean Bean's character inexplicably does NOT die, so that threw me off, too.

Having said that, I found Jupiter Ascending to be strangely endearing in spite of all its inadequacies. Somewhere within the beautifully epic and entirely implausible mishmash of space opera, reincarnation, beekeeping, manga homage and dinosaur evolution, there lurks a story - or at least part of a story - that resonated with me.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Last Man On Earth: Becoming The Person We Hope We Can Be

I decided to watch The Last Man on Earth after some of my friends commented how much they liked the show. A little online research revealed that critics and audience alike had quite a few good things to say about it.* Thanks to Hulu, I recently caught up on this quietly ascending show. 

The Last Man on Earth is precisely and appropriately named (the creators cite Life After People, The Omega Man, I Am Legend, and 28 Days Later as source material for the idea). After two years of searching, Phil Miller (Will Forte) concludes that he is entirely alone on earth. He drives to Tuscon, moves into a mansion, and resigns himself to an ever diminishing life of porn, booze, junk food and innovative demolition. 

He is given what some would think is the ultimate freedom – all the virtual women and real alcohol you want, with all the time in the world to make the adolescent inanity of Jackass into a reality. We (thankfully) don’t see the porn he uses – we just see how it cannot take the place of real people. We see all the alcohol he consumes – and it’s clear he is numbing the pain. This is the existential collapse of man. Phil’s painfully honest prayers and clever attempts at killing time alternate between poignant and amusing, but his inner life is falling apart as badly as his home. It's Ecclesiastes 1: "“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'” When he acknowledges that he is giving up on life, we get it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Worldviews in Entertainment: Starting the Conversation

This past week, I had the opportunity to engage with middle and high school students on the topic of entertainment. In the course of four 2 ½ hour sessions, we talked about some popular YA fiction and watched four movies: Maleficent; Captain America: Winter Soldier; The Amazing Spiderman, and Ender’s Game. (Most of them had read or seen Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Guardians of the Galaxy and Divergent,  I was looking for something that was new to them and wasn't about sparkly vampires).

In order to explore the worldviews, we used the following template of questions for a discussion at the end of each movie:

  • What’s wrong with the world according to the story? What’s the proposed solution)?
  • Who are the heroes/villains, and why?
  • What does the story suggest are important virtues and unfortunate vices?
  • What things does the story just assume (rather than argue) are true or real?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • Does the story make a difference between someone who does heroic things vs. someone who is a hero (or someone who does villainous things vs. someone who is a villain)? Is there a difference to be made? 
  • What does this movie want you to believe is the secret to a good or meaningful life? Does that work in the real world?
  • Does the story make sin/goodness look compelling? Boring? Revolting? Irrelevant?
  • I am of the opinion that the most popular stories confirm either what we hope is true about the world or what we fear it true about the world. Do you see that in this story?
  • Is God (or are Christians) present in the story? If so, is the portrayal honest? What about representations of the people and beliefs in other worldviews?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Originality, Freedom and Form

Every discipline has its fundamentals. Chemistry is built on the periodic table; football greatness stands on blocking and tackling. Painting rests on the foundation of color, line and perspective. Musicians build upon the scales and chord progressions. Writers don’t write novels; they craft sentences. If you want to create art for the glory of God, master the fundamentals of your medium and allow your creativity to build upon that foundation.

A famous guitar player visited a local high-school music classroom for some question and answer time. One student asked, “How much did you practice when you were my age?” He answered, “I played my guitar nonstop day and night, surely more than 6-10 hours a day including band rehearsal. And NO, it did not come naturally as I struggled to discover my unique voice on a very difficult to control, loud, feeding back Gibson Byrdland, but I never gave up!”

Another student asked, “How do you memorize a song?” He answered, “To truly be one with our music, we must be naturally driven to play till it hurts. By playing our favorite licks or songs over and over and over again, the song & patterns become part of us. It takes enormous work ethic and dedication to ‘nail it’.”

Originality builds upon mastering the historic fundamentals of your craft. If you master your craft, you can create what you dream. It is a perpetually frustrated artist whose imagination constantly writes checks that his skills can’t cash! Creating art to convey a message without understanding the form, structure, and techniques developed in your discipline is like trying to perform surgery on someone without going to medical school. As a communicator of truth, remember that excellence in your work earns you the right to be heard by the culture.

When I was learning the guitar I practiced religiously. However, as all guitar players know, you get to a place where many people quit. It’s learning the F-chord. You must barre the entire first fret and then place your remaining fingers in an unnatural position and then SQUEEZE! Playing the F-chord actually hurts! Many a beginning guitar player has put his instrument in the basement after encountering the F. Every discipline has an F-chord. You must persevere past it if you hope to walk in greatness.
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- an excerpt from an upcoming book on the arts by pastor and author Carey Waldie. Visit his website at http://www.careywaldie.com.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Black Mirror

Black Mirror is a British TV sci-fi series that takes a serious and provocative look at the unintended consequences of technology. Writing for The Guardian, Charlie Brooker, a creator of and co-writer for the series, noted
”I coo over gadgets, take delight in each new miracle app. Like an addict, I check my Twitter timeline the moment I wake up. And often I wonder: is all this really good for me? For us? None of these things have been foisted upon humankind – we've merrily embraced them. But where is it all leading? If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
Though not prolific (seven shows in two seasons so far),  Black Mirror has won numerous awards, and its viewership around the world is growing tremendously. At least one episode is being turned into a movie, and an American version is sure to show up soon. 

After watching Season One, I was struck by the notion that Mr. Booker is a secular voice crying in the wilderness. Black Mirror is prophetic in the same way that Brave New World was ominously prescient. There are a lot of reasons to fear that the things we love will destroy us, and Mr. Booker has shown himself capable of pulling back the curtain on a future that simultaneously fascinates and terrifies. If you watch an episode without getting very uncomfortable, you're not paying attention.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Katy Perry's Experimental Game and Superbowl XLIX

Katy Perry is charismatic, creative, bold, and she sings songs that get stuck in your head (I dare you not to hum "Roar" once you hear it). She has more Twitter followers than anyone else in the world. She's also a great performer as seen by her impressive Superbowl halftime show that featured Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliot. If your measure of success is technical showmanship, musical talent and star power, it was a solid show. If your measure of success also involves the appropriateness of the show, a different kind of discussion takes place.

Quite a few people weighed in on social media commenting on how "family friendly" and "clean" the show was. There were no wardrobe malfunctions or nudity. Nobody twerked. I heard, "It wasn't Beyonce!" more than a few times as people recalled previous shows that pushed the envelope much further than this one did.

That's all true, but in order to conclude that it was "clean" or "family friendly" I think we need to define what that means. Yes, it was more visually appropriate than a number of recent shows. However, that's hardly the only marker for whether or not the whole family can sit down and enjoy the show. To a large degree the medium is the message, but the lyrics of the songs are messages too, are they not?  So to get a clearer picture of the "family friendly" or "clean" nature of the show, I offer a lyrical snapshot of what was celebrated during halftime of the Superbowl. (Not all of these lyrics made the cut for the show, and some that did were changed, but they are part of the original songs):

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Attack On Titan

Both the anime and manga of Hajime Isayama's Attack on Titan have been absurdly popular and widely praised. Last year, five of the books in the series were in the Top 20 graphic novels in the U.S., beating even The Walking Dead;  8.3 million copies sold in just the first half of 2014 to boost its total sales close to 22 million copies in just under five years. 

To give you an idea of the audience being reached, anime and related merchandise was a $4 billion dollar business around the world in 2006. In 2009, anime accounted for 90% of Japan's television exports. And by the time Attack on Titan finally knocked Eiichiro Oda’s “One Piece” out of its top spot, "One Piece" had already sold 345 million copies around the world. That's the kind of numbers that J.K Rowling, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King move. Anime and manga have been in a slump the last few years (at least in the U.S.), but that is likely a reflection of digital piracy rather than lack of interest.

For those who are new to the anime and manga world, here's a few things to note before looking at Attack on Titan in particular.