home anywhere film of the year

This is the second in what will be a series of between two and 17 posts (the first is here) designating the first annual home anywhere _____ of the year awards. Actually, that’s not true. We’re not going to name a film of the year for any one (and the sum of) the following reasons:

  • We didn’t see that many films in 2005,
  • Of the films we did see, we can’t really remember whether or not we saw them within the last year, and
  • We have no idea which of these films that might or might not be eligible for such a prestigious award was the best.

Normally silly things like that might not stop us from just making up a winner for this prestigious award, but we have just enough film nerd friends to guarantee that a messy and ill-conceived winner would generate all sorts of dissension and turn home anywhere into the world wide web center of cinematic controversy. And, frankly, our Typepad Plus level subscription simply doesn’t buy us sufficient bandwidth for such an event.

Instead, I’m just going to write about the movies I’ve seen lately and say what I did and didn’t like (and yes, we’re aware that I’m alternating indiscriminately between "we" and "I" as I write…I’m mysteriously freed up like that). I do this as a service to you as you make decisions about whether or not to allow the ridiculous-celebrity-funding movie business to take you for seven bucks plus a sizable concessions endowment for these particular reels.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t set foot in a theater for a period of between 4-6 months in the time surrounding the arrival of our smiling baby girl. Then, in the period of just over a week, I made four trips to the movie house. Following is my take on each of those experiences in no particular order:


With apologies to my friends and family in the oil business, ace and I give this one two enthusiastic thumbs up. Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not a reductionist piece of George Clooney liberal propaganda. It is an intelligent, interesting (and I assume loose) adaptation of this book, exploring the complicated interplay between the oil industry, international politics, spy games, Islamic fundamentalism, and terrorists who will pull out your fingernails to get you to talk. In the spirit of Traffic (Syriana was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who was the screenwriter for Traffic), the film skillfully tells several independent stories that don’t wind up being so independent.

I know some are so sincerely suspicious of Clooney and his motives that they can’t imagine this being anything but a Michael Moore-ish smear job on conservative politicians and oil companies. I won’t say it paints an altogether flattering picture of the business or politics related to the oil and gas industry, but it’s not 126 minutes of Dick Cheney caricatures either. It is, of course, a particular subjective version of a particular sort of story, but it didn’t strike me as terribly unfair or unrealistic. The characterizations are complex, and there are few, if any, apparent stereotypes and oversimplifications. The tensions between greed, conscience, power, and humanity are obvious, even among some of the less tasteful characters. Perhaps the most powerful and unsettling aspect of the film is the sense that you’re getting a glimpse of how this part of the world really works.

I should also add that Clooney is terrific as the doggedly well-intentioned CIA agent in the middle of this whole mess. Despite his silly celebrity antics, I think he’s one of the better actors on the A-list, and this was one of his more convincing roles. There were also nice showings from the likes of Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer, two of those guys who always seem to be perfect for the roles they play but seldom really stand out. Matt Damon is tolerable, but not much more.


King Kong

Now I’ll admit that I’m often pretty skeptical of these kinds of high production blockbusters. On average, I’d say I make an effort to see one out of every three or four movies hailed as "the year’s biggest thrill ride of adventure and exhilaration" or whatever. I can’t say I was as jacked up as some of my friends to see the King of the Kongs, but I was sincerely interested and expecting to like it. I guess that was primarily because of the capital Peter Jackson earned through the Rings trilogy, because I typically like Jack Black, or because, in general, guys like to watch monkeys. How could I not like a movie made by the guy behind the 42 hours of Tolkien footage starring Jack Black about the biggest monkey to ever score a hot blond, right? Well, um…here’s how…

Though I acknowledge that some of the visual aspects of this movie were utterly spectacular, I just never found anything beyond Kong vs. T-Rex and the other effects to buy here. In a movie that was Kingkong_1 easily 30 to 45 minutes too long, I didn’t think any of the characters I was supposed to care about were given enough depth or texture for me to care about them. By the mid-point of the exercise, I was so frustrated with this fact that even the otherwise fascinating action sequences were becoming an irritant because they never gave way to actual plot or character development. Where Jackson might have flirted with excess in action magic at points in the LotR series, I thought he mostly disregarded restraint and discretion this time around and did to the story what those crazier than hell (and I mean that literally) voodoo people were about to do to poor Ann. (And speaking of the crazy voodoo people, is there any doubt that Peter Jackson has officially replaced Stephen King as the Hollywood guy who obviously has the most disturbing dreams?)

Those of you who fervently disagree are, of course, free to post your own thoughts. I know some folks saw everything I didn’t in the film, and I’m fairly sure I’m the only guy in the country who’s been told that this movie about a big gorilla and his uber-hot blond girlfriend is too cerebral for me. That is, of course, quite possible. Just not likely.

[Editor’s note: It took every ounce of restraint I could muster to refrain from including in this review the sophisticated poem about King Kong that I learned in elementary school. It includes phrases that rhyme with King Kong, like ping pong, Hong Kong, and well, some others.]


Walk the Line

I have known of Johnny Cash for most of my life, in part because my Dad grew up in rural Arkansas not too far from where Cash was raised. I can’t say I remember my Dad being much of a fan, but I remember being aware that John and June were generally held in high esteem in that part of the world. Cash I didn’t actually get to know the man or his music until the last year of the his life when I got my hands on his last album, American IV: The Man Comes Around (which I believe you should own if you don’t already).

By the time I heard about this film, I was already in as a fan of the music and the man. I think his fairly public appetites for both sin and redemption tell a story about almost all of us and tell it with more honesty than most of us ever manage when we tell that story ourselves. So my only real obstacle was the fact that I’ve never cared much for Joaquin of the Phoenix family. (Who is this out there naming their children things like River and Joaquin anyway? What’s that you say? They also made kids named Liberty, Summer, and Rain? My apologies to Joaquin, who obviously got the normal name. What’s that you say? He once changed his name to Leaf because he felt left out among his siblings? Poor kid.)

So let this stand in testimony to my open-mindedness, lest my review of Kong suggest otherwise: Joaquin "Leaf" Phoenix is outstanding as Cash. If they hand him an Oscar, I’ll have no complaint. Ditto with Reese Witherspoon, who may be on her way to a pretty special career. They are completely believable and startling authentic as the complicated, tortured, and strangely storybook couple, and their performances are enough to make this a really good film. Though the script didn’t quite seem complete to me, that isn’t necessarily a knock on the writers or director. I just think this is one of those very rare cases where the silver screen version of someone’s life is actually an understatement. By all accounts, the man really lived an unbelievable life, and maybe his own telling (which can be purchased and sent to me from my Amazon wish list on the left, by the way) is the only way to do it justice.

My last note on Johnny Cash: If you’ve never heard or seen the lyrics to his song The Man in Black, or even if you have, make haste.


Chicken Little

This was purely a father-son day excursion in my first week of mock unemployment. I’m excited about getting into the habit of Aiden and I spending consistent, designated time together, and he’s finally old enough that I was relatively confident he could sit still for the necessary 80-90 minutes to watch an 01 animated picture on the big screen. He’s been to the movies before, though never with much success (from our perspective anyway). That said, he’s remained convinced that he wants to go to the movies pretty consistently, and he recognizes the theater every time we pass it. Chicken Little was the only G-rated option we had, so off we went to watch the sky fall.

I’m happy to report that the boy and I had an excellent time. I smuggled in some M&M’s and raisins for him, a candy bar for myself, and we bought popcorn and soda waters. We had the whole theater to ourselves, and Aiden more or less watched about 90% of the movie. He started getting restless toward the end, which means he did better than me by about half an hour. You’ll notice I’ve said very little about the movie itself, but that’s not out of neglect or because I’m distracted by our personal story. It’s just because there isn’t much to say. It was more like a really long episode in any average TV cartoon series than a big animated feature, and I think Aiden agreed. The kAt1_2id can watch movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo as much as we’ll let him, and he’ll talk about them for days. As we left this one, we had the following conversation:

Me: Did you have fun?

Aiden (enthusiastically): YES!At2_1

Me: What was your favorite part of the movie?

Aiden: ….mmmm…the popcorn!

And that’s about as good a review as I’d be able to write.

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Sometimes Christians make me tired

Amy and I entrust our two kids for a few hours on most Mondays and Wednesdays to some nice ladies at a large local church. We’re not members of this church, but for all the beauty and brilliance of our particular faith community, we just aren’t big enough to pull off the Mother’s Day Out infrastructure. It’s important to us as a family that Amy gets to be home with our kids most of the time, but the ratio of our various obligations to my capacity-for-generating-income-while-still-doing-something-that-doesn’t-violate-my-conscience-and-allows-me-to-stay-sane requires that Amy, whose capacity-for-generating-income-(insert all those other hyphenated words here) far exceeds mine on a per-hour basis, do her occupational therapist routine for several hours a week. Hence the Mother’s Day Out.

Monday was my last day of living on the borderlands of the "doesn’t-violate-my-conscience-and-allows-me-to-stay-sane" part of my occupational life, and I cut out of the office a little early to pick up my two favorite people under four feet tall. As I pulled out of the church parking lot, I found myself behind the minivan belonging to the woman who was screaming at her kids on the way out of the building. What that view entailed inspired me so much that, as I got the kids ready for school yesterday, I packed the digital camera alongside the bottles of milk, Aiden’s banana-based lunch, and assorted nap paraphernalia in hopes of coming upon this lady and her window sermon again. Guess what:


I have to admit that it took me a minute to piece together this mysterious message. I had heard vague rumblings about a "Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas" controversy brewing between "us and them." Since I seem to identify with the "us" in that equation less and less often, I think I sighed and then tried to avoid all further exposure to that conversation. But here I sat on Monday, stalled at a red light with this screaming lady’s window screaming "Merry CHRISTmas" at me along with some strange art.

At first I thought the slashed target was an anti-gun message. I couldn’t quite figure out why that seemed to go with the Christmas greeting, but I figured it had something to do with all that "peace on earth and goodwill to men" stuff. After a few seconds, I realized that this lady apparently had no use for the latter part of that phrase, and that she was wishing another kind of will on the folks at Target. I immediately assumed that this was related to the aforementioned brouhaha over Christmas and holiday greetings. I’ve since been informed that Wal-Mart is supposed to be the primary object our public scorn, so I’m not sure if this lady just took a wrong turn in the midst of her zealous window paint rampage or if Target has gone secular as well.

Either way, I just do not get this at all. Look, I find the whole PC-run-amok thing completely silly. Someone said that the Times Square Christmas tree is the Times Square Holiday Tree this year, and I think that’s laughable. I’m all for inclusiveness, but Muslims and Jews and atheists don’t have holiday trees. Decorative evergreens in December are Christmas trees. It’s just a word, and it is what is. Christmas trees aren’t oppressing anyone. Maybe we need to go to Festivus poles, feats of strength, and airing of grievances and be done with it.

But far more troublesome to me than any of that is what has apparently become the base impulse of American Christians when faced with anything that doesn’t make them feel like the most important kids in the room — combat. As ace and rk‘s wife have noted in other places and other conversations, this particular battle is even more absurd because of the consumerist syncretism of most of us in the American church. We lost something far more important than "Merry Christmas" a long time ago. Santa Claus and overspending usurped God incarnate and peace on earth well before Wal-Mart lost its religion, and we’ve played right along. To stand up and scream about verbiage now just further distorts what this whole thing is about for the unbelieving around us.

And that’s just one of many unsettling symptoms I see of this instinctive desire so many of us seem to have to fight for Jesus any chance we get. Problem is, I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t want us fighting for him. I think he wants us loving and forgiving and speaking truth. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned – those are things he said we’ll do if we carry his name. Rescuing the persecuted (and no, having your Christmas loot put in bags that say Happy Holidays does not place you among the persecuted), giving life to the dying, and doing Kingdom battle against sin and death – these are worthwhile endeavors for Jesus followers. Seeking power and protection and position…when did the wheels fall so completely off of our spiritual practice that we can even entertain these as legitimate Christian enterprise, much less normalize them as heroic acts of faith?

This is not about sanding the hard edges off Jesus or the Gospel so they go down smooth for the world. Far from it. Frankly, I find the need for institutionalized Christianity far more belittling to Jesus and my belief in his power than any secular agenda or opposition. If Jesus is who he says he is, everything in creation is ultimately subject to his power and authority. By his Spirit he can transform the very core of a human soul without my interference. What in the world makes me think he needs me to subdue the evil Scrooges and Democrats threatening his (our?) hold on the political and profit-making institutions in our culture? If he is King, he is King. Let that alone be our resting place and our agenda. Let’s throw off everything that so easily entangles us and advance his Kingdom by being like him and by no other means.

So, whether you’re Christian or Muslim; Gentile or Jew; Target or Wal-mart:

Happy Holidays…

Merry Christmas…

Peace on Earth…

Goodwill to Men.

home anywhere album of the year

This is the first in what will be a series of between 1 and 17 posts designating the first annual home anywhere _____ of the year awards. In other words, if I have the time and inclination to grant other artists/writers/filmmakers/friends/wives/children comparable awards, I will do so. If not, you’re on your own for finding quality in those areas.

13729_01Anyway, we here at home anywhere listen to a good bit of music. Not as much as your average teenager with an iPod surgically attached to its skull region (do I sound old and cranky?), but what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality in that particular comparison. Of all the music we’ve heard this year, the dark, smooth altcountry/blues/gospel sounds and rich lyrical images of Amanda Leggett’s home please us the most.

After many years of adding her one of a kind voice to other people’s music, Amanda has grown into her own skin as a writer and a performer. We truly love the sound of this album, but we may be even more affected by the depth and texture of the songwriting. Amanda gracefully marries stories of sadness and hope in a way that affirms life as we all really know it and anticipates life as we long for it to be. Our favorite track (so far), Teaching Me My Name, is part love song, part fairytale, part sermon, part scripture.

Now it’s true that Amanda is a friend of ours and that she borrowed half of our name for the title of her album, but we believe we’ve managed to keep our personal bias at a minimum in selecting her for this prestigious honor. Folks, the songs are just that good. As I wrote over at cdfuse.com, where you’re going to go to buy her album:

These are real songs about real life penned by a real person with a real (and terribly uncommon) sense of what was, what is, and what might be. Now if only they could find someone with a rich, unique voice to drive and drift through them. Oh wait, there’s that too. Seriously, it’s the best album I’ve bought since last Tuesday. No, really. It’s that good.

Well, I didn’t write all of that. There are unwashed plebeians visiting that site who probably wouldn’t get the home anywhere sarcasm, but you get the point.

In all seriousness, I strongly urge you to give home a listen and consider purchasing it (and maybe a few for Christmas gifts). I won’t exhaust a lot of words trying to describe Amanda’s music or compare her to more famous musicians you know and like. You can read more about her influences and style when you go to listen to the album.