Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights

As a constant student of history and literature, the stories of King Arthur and his Court have always been interesting in both of my favorite areas of study.  The stories of Arthur portray a society of early England that we know very little about while providing the reader with captivating stories that have withstood the test of time and have resulted in countless depictions in television, movies, and various books.  When reading, it is utterly apparent why these tales have been popular among a wide variety of readers, as their many action/fighting scenes appeal to male readers while the chivalrous/romance scenes appeal to to female readers.

I enjoy history and literature so much, that in college I made them my major and my minor respectively.  When studying history, I decided to focus on European history and spent a lot of time researching and writing about the Middle Ages and was especially captivated by the idea of chivalry.  Chivalry, of course, is a central theme to The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights and is still a popular idea in the minds of many hopeless romantics today.  What I found in my studies is that chivalry as it is represented in the stories of Arthur is not remotely close to what true chivalry was.  I remember reading that knights were more apt to rape a damsel in distress than to rescue her from it.  The idea of chivalry and romance was a popular idea with noble women in the Middle Ages who hired musicians and storytellers to come into their courts and entertain them with stories of love and romance (which is something that they lacked in their own lives).

Now that I have gotten my historical rant out of the way (and that was the condensed version; the long version is my 46-page senior seminar paper), I can get into what I thought of the book.  As far as entertainment is concerned, The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights is phenomenal.  There is a reason those stories have lasted for over 1,500 years.  The book is not one story in and of itself, but rather a collection of short stories and legends about various members of the Round Table.  Due to this format, a reader is not left hanging or wondering what will happen next at the end of a chapter because the end of any particular chapter is the end of that story. 

While this allows for a variety of stories to be told and characters to be introduced, it is not the best format to have good character development.  Many knights, such as Sir Bors, were extremely captivating and I would have loved to have seen more of them in the stories that were included in this work, but I was not able to see them develop much at all because none of the stories were really connected in any way.  There are many stories about Arthur and his knights that were not included in this volume, so it would not be impossible to find more information and more stories on any of the characters, but that kind of defeats the purpose of reading.  The point being that if one is looking for a book in which a connection with the characters can be made, The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights is not for you.

That being said, it is certainly a book worth reading.  The legend of the quest for the Holy Grail is a timeless classic and was incredibly enjoyable.  In all the stories, though, the reader needs to just accept that there are going to be certain events that just happen to occur to keep the heroes alive.  For instance, Sir Lancelot will be fighting and almost be beaten, but then out of nowhere will come Sir Gawain who had been two days behind him at the beginning of the story to save him.  Things that would not possibly happen in real life happen in these stories.  That is part of what makes them so interesting; readers are constantly in suspense as to what might happen to help the heroes overcome insurmountable odds.

This was definitely a quality read, and any lover of history, literature, or romantic stories will enjoy it.  I must warn you, though, that the final chapter is about the war between Arthur and Lancelot and the Death of Arthur, so do not expect a happy ending to the book.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Remember the Best or Remember the Worst

Joe Paterno died yesterday of complications due to lung cancer.  While he is the winningest coach in NCAA football history, he tarnished his legacy by not report sexual abuse allegations directed towards his friend and long-time assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, and was fired early in the 2011 season for his transgression.  After his dismissal, the statue of him outside of Penn State's football stadium was removed and he left the game in shame.  Many, including myself, had strong feelings of disdain towards Joe Paterno.  I am a teacher and when the scandal broke, all I could think about was that it could have been one of my students... and that made me enraged.

Now Joe Paterno is dead and has met the only Judge whose ruling really matters.  Here on Earth, though, we have a new question to ask: how should we remember Joe Paterno?  This thought came to sweeping over me as I read an article by Rick Reilly, and it can be found here.  The basic point of the article is that what Paterno did, or in this case failed to do, was horrendous; but should we only remember him for this one, albeit devastating, mistake.  Reilly then tells the story of a young football player who Paterno mentored and supported through a long paralysis battle.  A very touching story, indeed.

On one hand there is Joe Paterno the football coach, who pushed his players not only to be good athletes but also to be good people; he would do literally anything for his guys' good.  On the other hand, there is Joe Paterno the concealer, one of many men who could have saved dozens of children from a life time of shame and embarrassment (it is only fair and right that it be noted that Paterno was not the only guilty party).  What should he be remembered for?

I think about this, and then I think about my own life.  I have made plenty of mistakes, and I do not know of anyone who could say differently about me or, furthermore, about themselves.  If I were to die, I would want to be remembered for the good that I have done, not for my mistakes.  I am confident that Joe Paterno desired the same.  Many people say that he forfeited that right when he failed to do anything about the sex abuse that was happening right under his nose.  I, however, disagree.  I am not saying that we should not remember that or disassociate him with the scandal because he is dead; he made a mistake and his namesake will have to deal with the consequences of it.  We cannot, though, ignore the good that he did during his life as well.  There will always be a huge black spot on his legacy, and deservedly so.  I still am furious that these children were not protected and that nothing was done to help them.  However, we also need to think about the dozens of young men that he pushed to be better than they were, not only on the field but as aspiring businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and other workers.

It is a shame that in one instance he could not follow his own teachings.  But before you disagree with me, I want you to think about your darkest secret, the thing you would be horrified about if the world knew all about it.  And now think about it coming to light a couple months before your death.  How would you want to be remembered?  We ask ourselves if we should remember the best or remember the worst.  I say that it is only fair to remember both.

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Due to our culture's recent obsession and fascination with vampires and the popularity of movie series such as Twilight and Underworld, I decided to read the novel that started it all.  Of course there were many vampire stories, myths, and legends before Dracula, but none have made as much of an impact on our culture as the timeless classic by Bram Stoker.  As I read the classic novel, the captivating plot and brilliant narration style made it quite obvious as to why this book has become one of the most popular horror novels of all time.  The many Dracula movies and television depictions of the title character are a testament to the genius of the novel and are proof that it belongs in any list of greatest books of all time.

When reading a novel, one can expect it to be one of two narration styles: third-person with the author being the omniscient narrator, or first-person with the main character telling the story from their narrowed point-of-view.  The brilliance of Dracula is that it is a combination of both.  Stoker wrote the book as if it were a compilation of various diaries, newspaper articles, letters, and memorandums written by several of the main characters.  These various writing were put in chronological order by the characters in order that they can best study the mystery as to how to find and destroy Count Dracula.  The result is a wide variety of first-person accounts that when put together create the same reading sensation as if the entire story were told in the third-person by an omniscient narrator.  This concept is not particular to this book, however; more recently Rick Riordan has used a similar technique in The Red Pyramid, a story about a brother and sister who are in a conflict with the Egyptian gods.  Dracula, no doubt, may have influenced Riordan to write in this style.

As far as character development goes, the book is an absolute masterpiece.  Most times, a reader only sees a character develop from the perspective of the narrator, whether it be in the first or third person.  In Dracula, readers are able to see characters develop from a multitude of perspectives due to the narration style chosen by Stoker.  The result is a deep understanding of each character and an attachment to certain characters that is rarely achieved in any book.

There were times, I must admit, that the language was lost on me.  The book comes from a different country in a different time and had many terms and phrases that are unfamiliar to the modern reader.  I did have the benefit of reading it on my Kindle and could look up many of the words' definitions just by moving by cursor in front of the word.  There were, however, some Latin words and phrases that I could not translate right away and was, for the moment, left to use context clues as what their meaning could be.  These instances, though, did not deter from a high level of enjoyment and entertainment while reading.

Having read Dracula, I feel like I have a better understanding and appreciation for the images and movies that are played during the Halloween festivities.  The book itself was not nearly as gory as modern movies portray vampires, but it was highly suspenseful and had, in my opinion, a more shocking affect than any Hollywood movie could achieve.  This is perhaps why it has been a favorite amongst vampire enthusiasts and literary fans for over 100 years.  It takes a very special book and a brilliant author in order to achieve such a level, and Bram Stoker's genius narrating style and enthralling character development have made Dracula into one of the best books of all time.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Society of Irresponsibility

It does not take much to convince anyone that society, as a whole, has become more irresponsible in recent years than it has ever been.  All one has to do is open any newspaper or any news website and read about the latest criminal who has been arrested or being searched for murder, theft, embezzlement, or any combination of crimes.  Sometimes it seems like reading a daily newspaper is like reading a violent crime novel.  Or, take for instance, the growing rate of infant death because of negligence by their parents, who are too irresponsible to buy a decent crib for their child and instead place on the mattress next to them when they sleep.  One can also look at the recent outcry of the "Occupy Movement," which states that the government should repay all college students' loans for them and that corporate America should dish out jobs to them, but not make too much money because it is not fair that there be some rich people and some poor people.  Yes, it does not take much to see that society has become repugnant, irresponsible, and lazy while adopting an attitude of entitlement.  Where did this attitude come from?  Why has society taken a turn for the worse?  One only has to look to the government who leads this ungrateful and spoiled population.  How can the American people be expected to be resourceful, financially responsible, and morally upstanding if the government that leads them has been found incapable of doing so itself?

It does not take long to find the moral bankruptcy of our current administration.  On May 8, 2009, President Obama's budget eliminated a great deal of funding for abstinence only education in schools; In August of 2010, he cut funding to 176 abstinence education programs; in 2007, while still a senator, Obama voted against banning partial birth abortions.  While some may disagree and say that abortion is not immoral, it is important to keep in mind that oppressive, cruel governments like China also legalize abortion.

It also does not take long to find the financial irresponsibility of the current administration.  In the last three years the national debt has almost doubled.  This country has gone through a failed stimulus, a growing unemployment rate, a decline in the middle class, and the worst economic situation since the Great Depression.  One would assume that any leader of a country that is facing such an economic downfall would jump at any opportunity to get money into the economy.  This administration, however, did not.  The Canadian government approached the United States with a proposal to build a pipeline from Canada into the United States so that America could buy more oil from Canada and less from the Middle East.  In addition to the $7.6 billion Canada was willing to spend on this pipeline, this would have also created hundreds or thousands of jobs for Americans to help build it.  Furthermore, the oil America would buy from Canada instead of the Middle East would save this country billions of dollars.  This would certainly not solve the debt crisis, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.

Due to this administration's lack of moral integrity and financial ineptness, how can it be a surprise that more and more Americans fall into debt while spending what little money they have on devices and vices that they should not spend any money on in the first place.  The government hands out money to people in poverty, which is fine in a sense, but what happens to that money?  There are a number of people who are working hard and are trying to use that money that they get from the government to make themselves more independent.  But there is a great number of people who let the government money create in themselves a sense of dependency, and out of this feeling comes an attitude of entitlement. 

Who can blame them, though?  They are led by a government who wastes, fails to save, and refuses to accept projects that will make money.  It is not surprise then that Americans waste money, have little to save, and would rather be given money than make money.  Irresponsible government has created our irresponsible society.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Book number two of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was an epic sequel to the first book that has become so popular in America recently with the release of the movie by the same title.  The second book picks up about a year and a half after the first book ends.  Whereas this kind of time leap is difficult to portray while keeping the story flowing at a reasonable pace, Stieg Larsson did a marvelous job connecting the two stories.  More than once I found myself thinking back to the first book in a moment of revelation in which I finally realized why many of the descriptions of Lisbeth Salander's life and personality were put into the book.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a riveting crime-thriller that keeps the reader up late at night turning page by page, always engaged in the story that unfolds with every chapter.  Many conflicts that are left unsolved in the first book are resolved in this sequel, but their resolution brings on a whole new set of life-threatening issues.  Many characters who played a minor role in the first book have a much larger role in the second.  Because of this, the character development is continued from the first book into the second book, something that is very hard to do well.  New characters are introduced and the reader finds himself becoming attached to the new characters in the same way that the old characters do within the story.  This makes the reader feel like a part of the story and when two new characters are brutally murdered, one cannot help but take it personally and desire justice on a similar level to that of the other characters in the book.

With the release of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the increased popularity of it due to the new movie, Lisbeth Salander has become one of the most popular and intriguing fictional heroines in recent literature.  She is such a mysterious and perplexing character to both the other characters in the book and to readers because it is difficult to identify with her all the time.  However, she has such a strong sense right and wrong as well as sturdy rationalization for her actions and beliefs.  This is why readers embrace her.  The Girl Who Played With Fire explains her past and the reader finally finds out what "All the Evil" is, the incident which led to her being institutionalized when she was 12.  What the reader realizes is that they, along with many others within the story, have misjudged Salander whether it be intended or not.  Many sequels do not satisfy the desires of readers to learn more, especially when there is a third book because the author intentionally leaves things unresolved in order to sell the third book.  This second book, though, satisfies the reader's thirst for explanations and solutions while unwrapping new problems that need to be solved in the next installment.

While this book was not as dark as the first (I don't know if there is really anything as dark as the first book), it does have some similarities to it.  For instance, the amount of sex in the book is, in a word, overwhelming.  While the second half of the book is relatively clear of any sexual content, the first half is over-ridden with it at times.  I found myself putting the book down at times because one can only read so much of that kind of material before it becomes too much.  Another similarity is the family conflict that is portrayed in the novel: while the first novel is centered on the search of a missing girl who was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, this story focuses on Salander's family and the circumstances that surrounded her past.  It does not take the reader long to theorize that Larsson did not have a good family life, or at least did not have a high opinion of the nuclear family, because there are no healthy families in his books.  It is a theme that perhaps reflects the decline of the traditional family in modern culture as more and more marriages end in divorce and more and more children are born out of wedlock.  It is not surprising, then, that his books are so violent and disturbing as there is no family foundation on which their lives could have been built.

This book was a thrilling read and I am very excited to read the final book in the trilogy.  While Larsson has resolved nearly all the conflicts from the first book, new issues and mysteries have been uncovered and will, presumably, be solved in the next book.  A highly recommended read, especially after such a dark beginning to the crime-thriller trilogy.  It keeps the suspense going while easing off of the disturbing material that haunted readers and movie-goers.  Crime-thrillers are among the most entertaining books to read, and Stieg Larsson's trilogy is the most entertaining right now.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Solider Spy

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I knew that I just had to see it.  When I realized what a great cast the movie was going to include, I knew that I was going to see it and love it.  Whenever I go into a movie with these kind of expectations, I almost always disappointed.  "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," however, was a fabulous exception to the trend.  Strong acting, obviously brilliant directing, and a perfect complimentary soundtrack made this movie an instant Oscar contender.

The movie takes place in Cold War Britain, a very fascinating place and time in world history that is usually depicted in the popular James Bond movies.  However, the similarities between "Tinker" and James Bond are few and far between: they take place during the Cold War and they are set in Britain.  That's about the extent of commonalities.  "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is exceedingly complex and complicated to understand.  It is certainly a more intellectual portrayal of the intelligence and espionage phase of the Cold War than the action-adventure style of the James Bond movies.  While action-adventure spy thrillers are almost always entertaining and, for the most part, well done, it is refreshing to have seen a movie that challenges the viewer to think and keeps him guessing at every turn.

As mentioned before, the acting in this movie was phenomenal.  Gary Oldman, one of my personal favorite actors, perhaps played the best role of his career as George Smiley, who is searching for a double agent among Britain's chief intelligence officers.  The most brilliant part about his performance was his facial expressions.  Smiley is a man of few words and it seemed like almost 20 minutes after he first appeared on camera that he actually spoke a full sentence.  Many questions directed at him were answered with stares or looks that communicated what his reply was; and the amazing thing was that the audience, as well as the other characters, could understand what he was thinking.  It's astonishing to think that just as he was making this movie he was also making the third Dark Knight movie, in which he plays Commissioner Gordon, an entirely different role than that of George Smiley.  His performance is one the best for a male leading  actor in recent memory and should land him an Oscar nomination.

Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt also were incredibly solid as per their usual selves.  Mark Strong and Colin Firth especially were intriguing as their characters played more and more important roles in the story as the movie went on.  The way they brought about their character development on screen was absolutely masterful, showing audiences why they are two of the best actors in Hollywood today.  Tom Hardy, who is starting to make more of a name for himself with movies like "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises," played a much different role than I have ever seen him in and was fantastic.  With this role he has shown audiences that he is not just an action star or a tough guy, but that he can also play the serious and dramatic roles on a very high level.  There were no acting weaknesses in this movie.

The story itself was quite confusing and challenged me to think more than I am used to doing when I go to movies these days.  It is not that the idea behind the movie was confusing, but that it is a movie that switches between the past and present often that made it hard to follow at times.  This had to be done, however, to explain the relationships between some of the characters (including a very, shall we say... interesting one between Colin Firth and Mark Strong's characters).  The movie is based off of the book of the same title by John le Carre, and I think that I should find the movie much more clear once I have read the book.  Due to its complicated nature, I cannot help but feel that it will not win all the awards that it should since modern movie culture does not like to have to think too hard about a movie and would rather sit through more action-packed and exciting thrillers.  This is a real shame because the movie was quite brilliant and entertaining.  I fear, though, that it has been released in a time where audiences are not patient enough to think the plot through, which would certainly increase appreciation for the movie.  It did, however, have some noteworthy, recognizable stars which might save it in the eyes of the general public.  Serious movie fans and those who appreciate or know a thing or two about Cold War history will, no doubt, find Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be utterly entertaining.

Friday, January 13, 2012

James 3:1

"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."  When I first read this verse, I was researching Bible verses that pertained to education in my Teaching the Faith class while I was studying to become a teacher.  For the longest time, I did not think in depth about this verse and assumed that it only pertained to teachers and pastors.  As I now ponder, however, I believe it is speaking to all Christians who put themselves in a position of leadership in a church or Christian school.  There is a very severe warning in this verse, and not heeding it can result in controversial and unfortunate circumstances.

The warning, of course, is that "we who teach will be judged more strictly" (notice that the author does include himself in this passage).  The question many will ask then is "By whom will we be judged?"  The answer to this question is twofold: obviously, the first answer is that God, who is the Supreme Ruler and Judge of all creation will judge us, as He will do to all people on judgement day; the second answer is that we will be judged by our peers and everyone who is around us.  It is this second answer that can lead to detrimental situations that do nothing but poison God's Church on earth.

If one were to look up this verse in a Bible, one would see that it is the first verse under the heading Taming the Tongue.  Later in the section, James writes: "No man can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."  Many times, we use this verse to teach our children why it is important to speak kindly of each other and to refrain from cursing or swearing.  While these things are important, we all too often forget the audience of this epistle.  The first verse, mentioned at the beginning of this post, makes it clear that it is intended for "we who teach."  This is not just pastors and teachers, though; this includes elders, DCE's, lay leaders, Bible study leaders, and the like.  The reason James directed this section to them is because their words and their influence is heard and felt by the entire congregation which they serve.  They represent God's church to the people who come to worship there.  If their speech is filled with slander, gossip, lies, or harmful opinions, they do their church no good whatsoever.

Hypocrisy is, sadly, common in churches.  Whether it be on a large or small scale is of no relevance for all sins are equally condemning in God's eyes.  Children are taught by the church to be kind to one another and we teach them the importance of not spreading gossip or rumors about one another; at the same time, the elders, teachers, pastors, and all other leaders in small or large offices look for ways to demoralize each other in the eyes of the congregation.  They let personal vendettas deter from the overall purpose of the church: to go and make disciples.  They spread lies, or if not lies then slanderous facts, about each other.  "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be."

Of course, no one is perfect.  Everyone sins and is need of forgiveness.  James 3 was written because circumstances such as the ones mentioned about were and will always be part of the Church on earth.  This is not right and it is not a result of anything God did, for God can lead no one to sin; it is a result of sinful people being put into positions of leadership.  This is a dilemma that will not be solved until Jesus comes again; there will always be sinners leading God's Church.  Keeping this in mind, it is important to remember something very important: the Christian Church will always be led by leaders who are made and loved by God and are saved by grace through faith, just like everyone else who believes in Savior Jesus.

There will be clashes of personality and there will be hurtful things said or done in anger.  However, it is important that these things be handled in a Christian manner and not made public knowledge.  Including, or trying to include, congregation members who have no prior business in the matter can do no good; it can only do harm.  This is where judging by  peers becomes severe and detrimental.  When those outside of the Church, or those in the Church who do not have a strong faith foundation, see and hear their leaders behaving in a way that is opposite to the path that Christ laid out for us, it leads to division, loss of membership, and God's displeasure.  This is how Satan looks to destroy God's Church on earth; by dividing its members.  It is up to those in leadership positions to hold one another accountable (for that is their Christian duty as well), but do so in way that is Christ-like and beneficial to the church as a whole.  Making private issues public is not right, nor is it acceptable to let such matters plague a congregation.  It does not take much to set a church against itself; therefore it is vital to tame the tongue: "The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Series Review: The Kennedys

"America's royal family."  This is what both critics and friends of the highly esteemed American dynasty call one of the most famous political clans in our nations history.  The story surrounding the Kennedys is in one sense legendary and in another sense disturbing.  There is much we do not know about them, especially in respect to their association with some organized crime figures in the late 50's and early 60's.  What we do know about them is that they were anything but ordinary; theirs is a family that was ridden with deceit, ambition, trust, mistrust, and tragedy.  There have been numerous movies made about certain members of their family, most notably John (Jack) F. Kennedy and Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, but none have truly caught the mystifying and intriguing existence of a family whose very name is now linked with greatness.

There is really no good place to begin when trying to list the accolades this mini-series deserves.  The story begins with Joseph Kennedy's sons being influenced from a very young age to fulfill their father's dream of being President of the United States.  Not much detail will be given in this review in relation to the story, for it is a story that anyone can find in any American History book.  Deserving of mention, and incredible amounts of praise, is the acting done by each and every member of the cast.  Greg Kinnear plays Jack Kennedy, the youngest elected President of the United States, and does so with amazing dedication to the accent and mannerisms of the former leader of the free world.  He plays the upstanding political leader the world saw on camera with great mastery, but also plays the lying, cheating, womanizer that few people ever saw (though most people knew or assumed, including his wife).  When watching him give speeches, one has to do a double take to make sure that it is Greg Kinnear portraying Jack Kennedy and not the President himself.

Perhaps the most impressive acting job in this series is the accomplishment of Barry Pepper successfully capturing the voice and attitude of Robert Kennedy, Jack's younger brother and his administration's Attorney General.  While he does not look like Robert Kennedy in any way, he talks with his exact voice and carries himself in the same way that Kennedy once did.  Particularly powerful are the scenes where he defends Jack to the rest of the cabinet when the Bay of Pigs turned out to be a failure, the scene where he breaks off Jack's relationship with Marilyn Monroe for him, and the touching scenes with his wife and children.  Unlike his brother, Robert was presumably a faithful husband who always tried to put his family first.  There are a couple instances where the mini-series focuses on the two families and show the two wives discussing what has made one marriage work and the other fail.

Any person who is a fan of the Godfather movies will immensely enjoy the way this story is told.  Just as the Godfather movies portray the rise and fall of a New York crime family, the Kennedy mini-series beautifully portrays the rise and fall of America's most famous political family.  The script-writers and director did a marvelous job at spacing out the story to take up just eight episodes in such a way that I was disappointed when it ended.  It is like reading a captivating book: you know it is going to end, but you enjoy the journey so much that when the end comes you are disappointed.  It is even more so in this series because you know how it is going to end: with the assassinations of Jack and Bobby.

As I watched this series, I could find not weakness.  Even Katie Holmes, who has drawn much criticism from me in the past, was an amazing Jackie Kennedy.  I do not know if I can think of such a strong performance from a leading female character.  The scene where she is sitting in the hospital in her blood stained dress after her husband was killed with simply gut-wrenching.  The entire presentation of Jack Kennedy's assassination and the events that followed were more powerful than I could have imagined them being presented.  As one who was not alive at the time, I felt a deeper connection to the events watching them in this series than I did from watching archived footage.  It takes a special series to do that, to make history come alive for those of us who could not witness it.  Very rarely does a series do that, and when it does, well, it is really something special.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Movie Review: The Perfect Host

The word "disappointing" is rarely, if ever, associated with a project starring David Hyde Pierce.  This movie, however, can definitely be deemed as disappointing.  I had my doubts about it going in, but Pierce is such a strong actor that I decided to give it a try when I saw that it was on Netflix.  While it is certainly not the best movie I have ever seen, it is also not the worst.

As mentioned above, I watched the movie because of David Hyde Pierce.  I was not disappointed by his acting so much as I was by the movie as a whole.  Pierce plays his role extremely well and is by far the best actor in the cast.  The movie, a supposed thriller about a bank robber who invades a single man's (Pierce) home to hide out, but finds out his host is not as weak or normal as he seems to be.  The apparently perfect host turns out to be a schizophrenic murderer whose dinner guests are figures of his imagination and he demands that the bank robber partake in his fantasies.  After some twists of fate, the robber gains his freedom, only to discover that this insane killer's day job is a police detective who now hunts him down for his crime.

The entire story was simply weak and predictable.  There were no fantastic effects or camerawork, nor was there any great dialogue.  There was one scene where the robber is hallucinating after Pierce drugs him and sees a choreographed dancing number performed by Pierce and four of his "guests," but that was the extent of entertainment I had watching this movie.  I will not say that watching it was a total waste of my time, but I certainly could have found a better movie to watch. 

I would probably watch this movie again, but not because I think it was interesting.  It's just, well, average.  2/5

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Thoughts On "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps I have been rather ignorant for the past few years, but lately it has seemed to me that more and more movies based on books (and to be specific, classic books) in recent time.  Specifically, I refer to the Sherlock Holmes movies; however, there have also been numerous movies made about best selling books that are too modern to yet be considered classics, but undoubtedly will be considered as such as time goes by (Harry Potter comes to mind as a example).  As I have begun to notice how many blockbuster movies have come from classical literature, I have decided that I should read many of these novels and see what they are like in their original form.  I decided to start with "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, one cannot fairly compare the characters in the book with the characters in the movie.  While they are the same characters their personalities and various quirks are of significant difference.  While such inability to adhere to literary originals is usually enough to deter me from liking a movie, it was not the case for Sherlock Holmes.  I found both the book and the movies to be equally entertaining.  Here though, I will try to maintain my focus on the book.  I mention this quick bit about the movie so that you can understand where my view is coming from; there is no doubt in my mind that if I had read the book before seeing the movie, my view would be quite different.  But be it as it may, the movie undoubtedly has influenced by view of the book more so than the book influenced me on the movie.

The book itself is not necessarily a novel, but rather a collection of short stories.  Each "chapter" in the book is a different adventure and none of them have anything to do with each other.  They are merely the "most singular" cases that the narrator (Dr. Watson) feels are of the most interest.  Due to this format, it was easy for me to move through the book at a good steady pace.  There was not much character development since the only two recurring characters were Holmes and Watson.  While there were a few personal habits that were revealed throughout the book, they did nothing to change the reader's view of the character in any way at all.  That being said, the character of Sherlock Holmes was always enjoyable and I found him always to be entertaining and genius in all of his adventures.  Dr. Watson, on the other hand, as narrator does not focus very much on himself at all; therefore, his character is sometimes flat at times though it would be awkward for him to be any other way since his main purpose in writing the book (this is the illusion Doyle created) is to show the public how brilliant Sherlock Holmes is.

The adventures themselves were enjoyable.  The last one, a case dealing with a woman who discovers that her employer is keeping his own daughter prisoner in his house, was especially riveting.  There were no "page-turner" stories, but their were no overly dull ones either.  My main criticism of them would be that there is a great deal of time spent by Holmes's clients at the beginnings of the adventures telling of their woeful trials and imploring on him to help.  Holmes would then agree to take their case and solve it in a time frame that ranged from several hours to a couple of days.  The format was always the same and it did become a bit redundant by the end of the book.

Regardless of these failings, it was a very enjoyable read.  Through reading it myself, I was able to see why it has stood for so long as a classic.  The cases were so brilliantly thought out and the observations made by Holmes so minute that one has to admire the intelligence of the author, who wrote several other Sherlock Holmes novels and adventures.  I definitely recommend reading this book, especially if you have seen the movies.  I will say that it would be a good idea to read it with a dictionary close by as many of the words and phrases have fallen out of use (I was fortunate to read it on my Kindle which has a dictionary built in so it was convenient for me to look up words I did not know).  If for any reason, one must read this book to understand Sherlock Holmes as he is portrayed in the movies, as Dr. Watson as narrator describes him as an observant, genius, crack addict.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Modern Magi

This upcoming Friday, we in the Christian Church will be celebrating Epiphany, the traditional recognition of when the three (or more) wise men from the East came to bring the Savior gifts of gold, frankincense, and myre.  While we today do not know exactly when the magi saw the star and how long they traveled to see where it led, we do know that they traveled a long way to see a God that they presumably had not even believed in.  You see the wise men were astrologers, a practice that Judaism and Christianity frown upon; they certainly were not followers of the one, true God before they met Jesus.  While this is a very popular story linked with Christmas, the birth of Jesus, we know nothing of what happened to the wise men after they returned home.  We know they did not go back to King Herod, but did they believe for the rest of their lives in Jesus?  There is really no way of knowing.

Why, then, is this story even important?  Today there are many people who seek some sort of happiness or fulfillment that will plug the void they feel engulfing their lives.  Some people turn to fame, wealth, knowledge, sex, drugs, and alcohol.  The use of astrology is still a popular fixture in the lives of many Americans and, sadly, many Christians.  If the story of the Magi teaches us anything, it is that people will always be searching for Christ.  The magi, though they did not believe in God (or maybe hadn't even heard of him), somehow knew that this star was important and that they needed to go find the newborn King and give him lavish gifts.  Interestingly, no missionary or pastor or teacher told them about God or the Messiah (at least that we know of), but God sent his Holy Spirit and revealed Himself to them.  People like the magi want to use any means that they can to find their happiness; but they refuse to listen to the Holy Spirit and harden their hearts. 

Today people are still looking for the right church, or the right religion, or the right belief, or the right philosophy.  For many people this leads them to Christianity and salvation.  For far too many others, though, they continue their search.  Just like the magi they travel far and long through life following whatever they hope will lead them to happiness.  The magi had a star from God to guide them; modern magi have Christians.  Christians who are not timid or ashamed to shine for Christ act like God's guiding star to those who are still searching for the Christ.

Many people point to the Epiphany and state how it is the ancient basis for the exchanging of gifts at Christmas.  They also claim that it is a story that shows how important giving back to God from your worldly wealth really is.  Both of these things are true; very true, in fact.  However, let us not forget that the task of the star that led the magi to Jesus is not over.  Jesus passed that responsibility onto us, the Church, when He said "Go and make disciples of all nations."  Epiphany, in addition to being a time of giving and reflection on Christ's birth, should also be a reminder to all Christians that we are God's shining stars to the modern magi that still seek Him.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Movie(s) Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Less than 24 hours ago I finished one of the most disturbing, suspenseful, and brilliant crime thrillers I have ever read, and for those of you who know how big of a John Grisham fan I am you know how high I regard books of that genre.  If you want my thoughts on the book you will have to read my most recent post because here I am going to give my thoughts on both movies that were made based off of the book.  I will start with the earlier of the two which was made in Sweden, is in the language that the book was originally written in, and which most viewers consider the better of the two movies.

Whenever I see a preview for a movie that grabs my attention and draws my interest, I check to see if there were previous versions of the movie made and whether or not the story came from a book.  When I saw the preview for the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I went out and bought the book.  Also having recently added Netflix to my Wii console, I was able to watch this Swedish version of the book.  As I mentioned before, most people who have seen both prefer the original to the most recent.  I, however, am in total disagreement.  I have read the book, and without giving too much of it away let me say that there are at least two but arguably three main conflicts that made the book the international sensation that it was in addition to several important and interesting subplots: Blomkvist and Lisabeth's Salander's hunt for what happened to Harriet, Blomkvist and Salander discovering a serial killer, Blomkvist trying to balance responsibility to his magazine and his current assignment, and numerous others.  This Swedish version excluded most of them.

In this version of the novel, Mikael Blomkvist accepts a freelance investigative journalist position from a highly respected and abundantly rich businessman who wants him to find out what happened to his brother's granddaughter, Harriet, and who in the family killed her.  According to the movie, Blomkvist takes this job for two reasons: first, he has just been convicted of libel and wants to get out of the public eye (working for this man would require him to relocate four hours north for several months); second, because he really wants to find the killer/what happened to Harriet.  According to the book, Blomkvist takes the job for the lone reason that his new employer has promised him information that will vindicate him and prove that his story for which he was found libel was actually accurate.  Eliminating this motivation from the plot of the story also all but deleted the character's true inner motivations.  While his attitudes do change in the book, it is still a major part of what he has to deal with on a daily basis.

This movie also eliminated two of Blomkvist's three sexual relationships in the book.  While I do not complain that there was not too much sex, one of the relationships is direly vital to the subplot of his trying to save his magazine; he has an ongoing relationship with his friend and editor in chief of the magazine.  Her character is basically non-existent in this movie while in the book she plays a pretty substantial role.  The family Blomkvist works for, the Vanger family, actually buys into the magazine so that it will not go under and she is up at the family land multiple times for board meetings.  His relationship with her also is the reason his relationship with Salander comes to a sudden halt (although he does not realize that this is the case).

I could go on about many other things that this movie did not have, but it would take far too long and I think I have succinctly made my point.  In a review of the new Hollywood version of this movie, Rolling Stone writer Peter Travers writes, "Something's missing" (December 22, 2011 edition).  He then goes on to tell how he feels that the new version has a certain something that is missing from the movie.  I disagree with him, and I will get into why in a moment, but for now I am saying that this is the movie that was missing something: half of the plot line.  They took a complex murder-mystery that also included political statements, some psychological ideas, and a little shed of tenderness and turned it into a feel-good suspense/drama with a happy ending.  Not a bad movie, mind you, but if you have read the book then it is incredibly infuriating.

And now onto to Hollywood.  Usually Hollywood butchers novels like they were cows in a stockyard, but this time around they were not so terrible.  There were a few minor difference and some bigger differences, but having now read the book and seen both the movies I can definitely say that this is much better than the Swedish version, and not even by a little.  It is a vast, vast margin.

One thing it did have in common with the Swedish version was that it deleted Blomkvist's affair with Cecilia Vanger, obviously a relative of the man that hired him.  This affair was no small part of the book; it explains his character's coldness towards him after the affair ends and her unwillingness to cooperate with his questions.  She is the one, according to the book, who points Blomkvist to Anita Vanger, her sister, who (warning: spoiler) admits to having helped Harriet escape from the family and knows where she is currently living. 

Working off of that difference, another major change this version made was that it killed Anita off and portrayed Harriet and Anita as having switched places and lives so that she could be away from her horrendous family and past.  I will grant that this change did not hurt the movie so much, but it was still noticeable and is still somewhat bothersome to me.  The author wrote the book a certain way for a reason.  Still, it can assumed that this change had to occur for the interest of time (the movie was 2 hours, 40 minutes as it was; keeping this subplot could have added 20 or 30 minutes to the end, which goes to show how important it was in the book).

Other than a few other minor changes, the movie followed the book very well.  Daniel Craig was the ideal Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara should be nominated for an Oscar for her role as Lisabeth Salander.  Christopher Plummer was solid as usual in his few scenes and Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd was phenomenal as the sick, twisted Martin Vanger.  David Fincher, who directed favorites such as Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, showed why he is high on the list of best crime-thriller directors.

Do not go into this movie expecting an action-packed adventure with car chases and gunfights at every turn.  The pace is slow, but it needs to be.  That is how the book was written.  If you have not read the book, you may find yourself becoming bored at times, not because it is not interesting but because it is not a typical crime-thriller.  The exciting scenes are few and far between, and there are a few too many sex scenes for my liking (but nearly as many as there were in the book).

Be aware: it is a very dark and disturbing story, one that involves murder, incest, and rape.  It is not pleasant, and while the major conflicts are resolved it does not have a happy ending.  If you read the book, you will understand what the meaning behind all of it though: there are sick, sick people out there who do horrible things to women, and it needs to stop.  Behind every plot and subplot, that is what Steig Larsson, the author, was trying to convey.  Violence towards women is present, its awful, and there are deeper psychological scars than the ones left on the skin of victims.

Book Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

There is a movie called Finding Forrester, in which a young African American teenager befriends a recluse Pulitzer Prize winning author (Forrester), who becomes his writing mentor while he exposes the hermit to the outside world.  Starring Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham, the film is quite exceptional and I highly recommend it.  The reason I bring this up in my review about the first book of Steig Larrson's trilogy is that the author, Forrester, only wrote one book in the course of his life and that book happened to be one of the most brilliant books of his generation.  When I read that Mr. Larrson had passed away shortly after he turned in the manuscripts for his trilogy, I was reminded of that movie.  As I understand it he was a magazine editor, but had published no other novels.

As I reflect on the strong and weak points of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I am hard pressed to find a good place to start.  I picked up the book because I saw the preview for the upcoming movie based on it and thought that it looked interesting.  Since I do not like seeing movies based on books without actually reading the book itself, I decided to read it.  I knew from the movie previews that it was to be very dark and disturbing, but as it turns I out I had no idea what I was in for.

The book chronicles the story of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander who through an extremely bizarre turn of events end up working together to solve a 36 year old mystery about the disappearance of a teenage girl from a prominent Swedish family in 1966.  It also documents how they teamed up to expose and tear down a corrupt Swedish businessman who had gotten away with a laundry list of crimes for many years.  Blomkvist is a magazine writer and  publisher, which is interesting as Larrson held a very similar role himself.  That being the case, it made the story much more informative and, for lack of a better term, believable.  What I mean is that Larrson did not have to create any false scenarios or things of that nature when describing Blomkvist's work because he had first hand knowledge of it himself.

Perhaps the weakest part of the books is that it does get rather slow in some places.  As a magazine publisher himself, Larrson at times found it difficult not to give erroneous or overly detailed explanations of certain journalistic rules or processes.  The easiest comparison I can make is to Herman Melville's similar seemingly useless and dry descriptions of whaling vessels and whaling in Moby Dick.  Strangely enough, both authors never lived to see their books succeed, Larrson having died before his books were published and Moby Dick not gaining notoriety until long after its original publication and Melville's death.

The overwhelming journalistic descriptions aside, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one of the most riveting and thrilling page-turners I have ever had the pleasure to read.  In addition, though, it is without a doubt the most disturbing book I have ever read.  Readers who cannot stomach the television series Criminal Minds would not like this book.  The villains in this novel are ruthless, demented, sick, insane, and so incredibly vile that no amount of effort to describe them would bring a someone who has not read the book to understand just how evil they are.  There were times I had to put the book down and collect myself because the material was too disturbing.  However, I could not be away from it for too long before I picked up again because I needed to know what happened next.

All this being said, I am quite excited to see the movie and have already bought the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire.  I know full well going into seeing the movie that it will not be as disturbing as the book; the material in the book would never be able to be put on screen the way it is written, at least so that it could be marketed to a general audience.  I also know that I will now not like the movie as much as I would had I seen it before I read the book; but it was the movie that led me to the book so perhaps it will not be so terrible.  I also look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.  I highly recommend the books to anyone who likes mysteries and psychological thrillers.

Move review to follow when I see it.