Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Where I am now...

3 weeks ago I went to Rhiw, North-west Wales, to spend a week in a cottage with three guys, playing games and enjoying a break from normal life. The scenery was beautiful, the conversation was good, the games of Rainbow 6 Vegas 2 and Halo 3 were welcome, and on a visit to Caenarfon Castle I enjoyed going up the towers far too much, frankly. I took lots of photos!

Basically a great break before heading back into various ministries eg. to friends, to young people at church, and so on. Not often you get to step back and ask yourself: How am I doing with family, engaging with culture and real life, job-seeking (badly), learning to drive (still a little way to go; I have struggled) and blogging (you tell me!!) There is definitely an art to making and keeping good commitments, and I haven't got there yet.

Lately I've also been quite excited about new Good Book Company resources coming out, and pleased to be reminded by John Piper that God works in us so that we see his mercy to us and how good he is and are satisfied in Him. Check out this resource for some of that and a challenge I felt as well about how part of the way we fail God is in not feeling enough passion for Him and His glory.

Finally, here's a couple of things which have amused me:
The trailer for the adaptation of The Road, which I discussed here already, shows how the bare-bones depressing story of that book has been easily made into an appealing (and perhaps better-balanced) suspense blockbuster.

Meanwhile, if you have time this week, check out "The Story of the Killers" on the BBC's Radio 1 website. Oh, and here's a silly link about the dark side of Disney.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Movie review: District 9

This was an excellent cinema-going experience, which my friend and I both found thought-provoking some time after the movie ended. How on earth can we treat people like we do?

The early part of the film unfolds, documentary-style, how the film's aliens have come to be living in the South African slum area known as District 9 (based on an infamous white-only area of Cape Town, from which 60,000 people were forced to move during the 70s, their homes bull-dozed).

When they arrived, mal-nourished and strange, the humans didn't know what to do with the alien nuisance. Feared because of their prawn-like appearance, it isn't long before riots erupt and barbed wire goes up surrounding the "prawn" zone. So the stage is set for main protagonist Van Der Merwe to wade in with an armed team to forcibly evict the aliens and confiscate their personal "illegal" property - and so begins this story about recovering freedom from oppression, at great cost.

The film makes it easy to see how prejudice, cruelty and deception can be the convenient thing, there being great political pressure to get the aliens moved further from Johannesburg. It is an exciting, important project, for the good of South Africa - rather than an illegal act, taking advantage of those who don't know how to defend themselves according to South African law. It's certainly not seen for what it really is: An upheaval of families, the aliens and their children, a bullying of them and herding them up into more of a prison camp than a home.

If this is sounding a bit heavy, it's not all about political allegory. The story twists into a frantic kind of horror, a short section a bit like The Fugitive, and finally an impossible-seeming mission to set things right - which leaves us with a violent, action-y climax. It is definitely surprising, feeling like an energetic South African drama, but also drawing on the action blockbuster genre. I was thinking about the other films I've been to see this year and would say it lies somewhere in the middle of a film like the excellent Slumdog Millionaire and the satisfying summer flick Star Trek. But I guess more thought-provoking than either!

What are you listening to?

Ah, the joys of using Spotify. I've been discovering great album tracks from artists I knew little about, including Ray La Montagne, Amy MacDonald, Athlete (they have 4 albums now?) and someone called Tommy Sparks. Excellent stuff. It's also been a good way to listen to U2's new album... Check out my fairly random playlist:


Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Book reviews: Walking through ravaged America as Cormac McCarthy dreamed it up - and a Dickens book too

I must admit I had a hard time accepting this novel, The Road (2006), for what it is. Often harrowing, it is basically a slow and subtle character-piece masquerading as an apocalyptic survival horror. A father and son travel south through a hostile, ash-covered land that was once America. They don’t have any real destination, they don’t have a hope, they just look for food – and ways to avoid the pain of losing each other. Occasionally attacked by the desperate and starving nameless, our hearts are in our mouths as we see the father trying to provide in a land with no sign of life or colour. Tense moments quickly pass and we feel the monotonous inevitability of their trek down the road and learn how they scavenge, what they talk about along the road, what the country has become.

And so it goes on. As I read it through, it seemed McCarthy (who also wrote No Country for Old Men) has a number of intentions with the book. He shocks us with an uncompromising vision of a ruined planet, and shocks us more by the convincing psychology of both characters, their trauma deftly created through suggestive phrases, the smallest of actions, or the way the father speaks about the old world or about other people. McCarthy wants us to stop and think. What is it to be a father? How do you nurture a child when all the world is lost? What would happen to us if the very earth turned against us? Where would we turn? The book is a portrait of a world without hope – revealed in bleak episode after episode of aching loneliness and difficulty. Not light reading, then.

The grey road becomes a place of danger, or, as their attitudes slowly change, a place of connection with the world, as the pair decide to leave something in the road for other travellers. The road at times too is a symbol of the father’s determination to keep going, and not give in to suicide. The man knows there is no better world for the child to hope for, but he carries on as if there might be. This makes for some powerful moments, as the weary man looks up and sees his son as “glowing in that waste like a tabernacle” (p293). This child he believes he has ruined, this child he cares for, who frustrates him, who bears with him, who is his whole world, who asks him about the past and the strangers they have seen – he is his purpose for living. He must protect this boy.

Dreams become the enemy – at least for the man, tempting him to die and go to another world. He can’t dare to hope for the future, or for death, or think of the past. He just travels the road. It must barely be possible to live like this. Just surviving.

It does raise some questions for each of us in the real world. Do we walk alone? Who do we bear our burdens for? Is there something better to look forward to? Does God care about those who are burdened, starving, living in a grey world of monotony and pain?

I thank God for the truth that though we can go through tremendous difficulty, and break our backs working “by the sweat of our brow”, one day He has promised fruition, joy and peace with Him for all believers. We are heading somewhere – a place better than our wildest dreams, with our Saviour God, if we follow Him now. We are not walking alone.

Another book I enjoyed recently is Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Chapter 10 stood out for me as it, like much of the novel, manages to move and amuse within pages. It is a brilliantly crafted and deeply tragic episode in Louisa’s life, as she joylessly consents to an engagement with the blustering Bounderby, and her parents are pure caricatures of what it means to be absorbed by self, or blinded by a rigid worldview. Dickens creates absurd characters who show us our own faults: our pride, our insensitivity, our use of language to put down and exclude, our double standards (not necessarily to those of lower classes as pictured in Dicken’s Coketown, but just excusing ourself for what we do not let others away with) – and of course, our ambition at the expense of humanity and society.

Plenty of other moments shone in the book – but for now I will just say that Hard Times is a vastly superior novel, once you begin to care for the characters, and while it is sad, it is only bittersweet and doesn’t come with the health warning of “savage bleakness” that The Road does. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Grab the popcorn....

Having been away in Wales the past week, with no internet, I'm getting round to blogging on bits and bobs I've been thinking about over summer.

But first, for all those movie fans, I just saw a trio of thought-provoking dramas. Thirteen Days was an excellent political drama, focusing on the Cuban missile crisis, an example of how a film can draw you in to make you imagine what a real-life event was like, and the stresses on US policy makers. It was well-acted, thought-provoking, tense, and a brilliantly made film.

The Last King of Scotland was an incredible performance movie, and you spent most of this lively movie wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. An ugly story exposing the self-centred attitudes of Western visitors to Africa and the fierce proud madness of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. (As a Christian, with minds for Jesus, do like we did and fast forward through the sex scenes.)

And biopic Ray was a quite engrossing but over-long look at the way Ray had to grind his way to the top of the ladder to make records in his own name, and the destructive nature of his personal life, partly overcome at the eleventh hour, by finally quitting heroin. Jamie Foxx plays Ray very well, exceptionally so in a sad scene near the end in which Ray and his wife argue over the drugs.

On a lighter note, it seems Disney are making a major come-back. Not only have they just bought Marvel, they have just announced the next Pirates of the Carribean movie, based on a fun-sounding pirate novel, as well as a new Muppets movie, and a new Toy Story movie with Pixar and a live-action collaboration with them called John Carter of Mars. What else? Only the launch of some new animated horror/adventure films with Guillermo Del Toro, director of the upcoming Hobbit films, and a classically animated movie The Princess and the Frog. Oh and 2 collaborations with Tim Burton, and 2 live action movies with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, including an adaptation of The Sorcerer's Apprentice and an adventure movie based on the computer game Prince of Persia. Oh and a 3-D Yellow Submarine movie. Exciting times!

Well, maybe we should just forget about the last one.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Comic review: A hero who eradicates evil "in brightest day and blackest night"

Enter another world of fantasy with me a second. Hal Jordan is a US pilot who was chosen by a dying alien to become part of and intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. Each member has a glowing green ring which converts their will-power into any physical construct they wish; a brace to steady a jet that's crash-landing, a small vehicle, a wide variety of guns and projectiles, or as some prefer, a really big sword. The ring allows them to fly and travel through space – including to Oa, the planet where the Guardians live, the strange group of infinite beings who set up the Corps and created the rings (and give the orders).

Straight away this set-up allows for all kinds of fun. It can be a chance to explore strange new cultures and whether the Green Lanterns have any right to enforce justice. It can be like a cop buddy movie pairing two fearsome aliens from different sides of a bitter intergalactic war learning to work together as new members of the Corps. The whole idea of “will-power” overcoming “fear” can lead to some epic battles won by sure courage, ingenuity and endurance in the face of intimidating odds and a range of villains which explore what evil really is – for instance in Revenge of the Green Lanterns (collecting comics from 2006) you come across a cyborg who wants to reprogram human beings using nano-technology, wanting to cut off all ties with natural life – why? He's experienced the death of loved ones too painful to cope with and he wants to eradicate death. He doesn't know it, but his desire to order creation his own way is the most human part of him, and speaks of his own fragility.

As you can probably tell, I'm really enjoying the way this part of the DC universe has opened up lately. The 2004 miniseries which relaunched the character Hal Jordan is one of the best mainstream DC comics I've read, and is a good example of catharsis at work in modern pop culture. We cheer as Hal fights away all his demons and all those who have been manipulating him, after a long period in which he had become a villain, and we get to see him become a hero again.

This outstanding sell-out storyline Green Lantern: Rebirth is like an exciting big budget movie, giving a few characters some great moments of dialogue and cinematic-scale action and reinventing the whole Green Lantern mythos, while Green Lantern Corps: Recharge, which focuses on some of the newer Green Lantern recruits, is a bit more like Lost or Stargate, putting a few characters in precarious situations on faraway planets to see how they react. It feels remarkably fresh and I'm beginning to think reading the Corps comics is going to be quite a different experience to reading about Hal in the main Green Lantern comic. Recharge finishes with an explosive finale, a little cheesy, but truly epic, and I've yet to track down the next volumes of GL Corps, but Green Lantern has continued to impress with some good character moments as Hal rebuilds his life on earth, seeking to win the trust of his estranged family, get back into flying, and atone for his past mistakes.

If you like Rebirth try reading on in the volumes Green Lantern: No Fear and Revenge of the Green Lanterns, and then (skipping Hal Jordan: Wanted) move on to the epic-looking Sinestro Corps War, a war of ideologies that has been building since Rebirth. And watch out for Hollywood's take on the character, in a year or two.