Great Movie Round-Up

In the last few weeks I’ve watched several very good movies. Here’s a quick rundown of each:

  • Zodiac – This movie is an intense crime drama which depicts a hunt for a vicious serial killer in the 1960s and ’70s. Very tight plot and excellent performances by every actor involved. I liked how the movie made it plausible that the police involved in these sorts of investigations aren’t the infallible experts you might find on television, where everything gets wrapped up in a nice tidy bow.

 

  • Schindler’s List – A very artsy portrayal of the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who goes from opportunistic profiteer to selfless humanitarian. A very hard film to watch, very much like the more recent 12 Years A Slave. It’s easily the best thing I’ve ever seen Liam Neeson in. The only other one that comes close is Batman Begins.

 

  • The Big Short – Promoted as a comedy, this expletive-riddled picture successfully dramatizes an explanation of the 2008 financial crises in a compelling manner. It’s humorous at some moments, and the plot is tight and smart, but it hardly qualifies as a genuine comedy, or even as a dark one. Christian Bale shows off his acting range nicely.

 

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – This movie was very long, very quiet, and very slow. Gary Oldman, another Dark Knight Trilogy alumni, does a good job with his role, as does every other actor in this movie. The film is something like a roller coaster: It slowly rises to the top of the ridge, before rushing downward and whizzing about through all the loops and sharp turns, and then grinding to a halt.
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Wonder Woman: On the Shoulders of Aphids

Wonder Woman is the first installment in the DC Extended Universe that I found to be at all watchable.

Granted, I haven’t seen half of the DCEU (Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad), with Man of Steel being my only point of comparison, so I can’t in all honesty make a completely fair judgement.

But compared to Man of SteelWonder Woman knocks the 2013 Superman film out of the ring and into the concession stand.

It’s humorous, at times touching, and boasts some kick-butt action sequences.

Chris Pine’s portrayal of Steve Trevor is without a doubt the stand-out performance of the film. His charismatic presence combines with a knack for comedic timing to create a well-rounded leading man.

Gal Godot as Diana, the titular (though yet-to-be-dubbed-as-such) Wonder Woman is also a good foil to Steve, setting up a lot of decent punchlines. The fish-out-of-water gags that dominate the first half of the film are much cleverer than those displayed by Thor.

Speaking of Marvel’s resident demigod, if I had to give a gauge on Wonder Woman‘s overall quality, I’d compare it to the 2011’s Thor. Overall, I’d say that they’re on the same level, but unfortunately, its in the specifics that the comparison ends.

Whereas Thor has a likable but dull hero and a cool and sinister villain in Loki, Wonder Woman has a marvelous heroine and a terribly weak set of villains.

For those who don’t want spoilers, I’ll save my digital ink, but I will say that the real villain of the piece turns out to be a combination of Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, and the Duke of Wesselton from Frozen.

It’s just as silly as it sounds.

Wonder Woman is great only because all the DC movies that came before it are mediocre, at best.

But it is, at the very least, a decent popcorn movie. I look forward to future installments.

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Goodreads Review: The Gospel According to Jesus

The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says “Follow Me”? by John F. MacArthur Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This rather old book by John MacArthur was a read that rocked me to my core. I had previously heard of MacArthur’s controversial doctrine of “lordship salvation” from persons (or persons who knew such persons) who clearly had a bone to pick with him.

But I am convinced that MacArthur’s theology is grossly misunderstood. Contrary to popular belief, MacArthur does not espouse a works-based-salvation theology. Rather, he advocates for a doctrine as old the New Testament itself: “You shall know a tree by the fruit it bears.”

In a nutshell, MacArthur’s main beef is with ministers who refuse to question the idea that mere assent to basic theological facts (i.e., the so-called Four Spiritual Laws) is equal to saving faith.

Instead, says he, we will know if a person is saved if their actions reveal a changed heart. They are not saved if they insist that they are saved but to do nothing to demonstrate such a reality.

What MacArthur’s ideological opponents have wrong is that they believe that he is espousing a “faith-plus-works” theory of salvation. Such a view is obviously heretical, but this man is no heretic. MacArthur would be a heretic if he stated that we will be saved if we do enough good things meriting salvation, our faith be darned.

But MacArthur plainly does not say this. Instead, he says that faith is good, but it will be known to be genuine, saving faith if a changed life is the result. Such a change can only be effected by the Holy Spirit, a doctrine which no one doubts.

I therefore highly recommend this book as a good kick-in-the-pants for the spiritually lazy. It sure did for me.

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Goodreads Review: Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the movie adaptation of this gripping slave narrative on DVD three years after it came out in theaters.

The movie brutally related a terrible, horrifying, heartrending tale of pure injustice. My history teacher said that the movie reminded him of the film “Schindler’s List”, in that he thought it was a good movie, but would never want to watch it again.

Putting aside the movie, the book “Twelve Years a Slave” adds layers of personality to our narrator, Solomon Northup, renamed “Platt” after being kidnapped from his life of freedom in the north and being sold into slavery in 1850s Louisiana.

Northup relates his tale of woe in grinding detail. He relates the general customs and traditions of enslaved blacks, the way of life of a local Indian tribe, and the range of personalities exhibited by his several masters, from the kind-hearted Baptist minister William Ford, to the lecherous and sadistic Edwin Epps.

Frequently given are the full names of persons involved in the events Northup recounts. He wanted to demonstrate that it is a wholly true story. A modern writer would have gotten lost in these details, but Northup’s aptitude for succinct descriptions and biting sarcasm result in a slim read which could be finished in a weekend.

Padding out my edition, which I acquired at a bargain price from Barnes & Noble, are a series of essays. The include an essay by Steve McQueen, director of the 2012 film, along with essays on the subject of slave narratives by a handful of academics.

Unfortunately, I was not able to finish the final, concluding essay in my edition, as I unfortunately misplaced it soon after I had reached that portion. A pity, but I am glad to have read the book at all.

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To Catch a Thief: Better Days with Better Movies

In 1984 by George Orwell, the people of Oceania are tranquilized through an endless stream of mass-produced, low-quality entertainment, from pop music to pornography.

Winston attends a movie featuring the gruesome deaths of a ship full of refugees. Julia works as an operator of novel writing machines, all part of the sinister Party’s propaganda apparatus.

In our own world, things are little different.

The state may not directly control the American entertainment industry. But that does not change the fact there are few recent films which are both popular and good.

This was not always so. Case in point: To Catch a Thief, a thriller in which there is not a single gunfight, sex scene, or four-letter-word.

To Catch a Thief demonstrates that it is entirely possible to make a thrilling, high-caliber film without resorting to vulgarity and shock-value.

The film tells the story of a retired cat burglar living in France who must now clear his name after a new “cat” begins pinching the valuables of American tourists.

Released in 1955, the film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and stars Cary Grant in the lead role. By today’s standards, it is rather tame for a thriller.

At the same time, it would probably bore young children who have spent too much time on the internet or watching television.

But for those with an appreciation for vintage cinema, it is a wonderful, beautiful film.

From the opening scene which abruptly cuts from a pleasant opening credits montage to a screaming woman, to the car chase along a narrow country road, to the final revelation of the thief’s identity, there is not a dull moment in it.

The plot is smart and airtight. Everything makes sense and every detail matters.

Even a dilettante such as myself can see that it is a technical masterpiece. From what little I know of cinematography, To Catch a Thief excels. It did after all win an Oscar for it.

Nor is there a shred of real indecency. No blood is shed, no skin is shown, not a single obscenity is uttered.

The action is focused on the events taking place, in keeping with the chief strength of film.

Where gravity is required, subtler means are in place to communicate the feeling, such as when an angry cook crushes a handful of carrots in his fist.

There is romance, and plenty of smooching, but not in the egregious, titillating way found in modern films. Where such displays today are meant to sell tickets, in To Catch a Thief they are meant to sell characterization.

Nor is there a trace of profanity. I have heard plenty of reports about how films such as Manchester by the Sea are fawned over by critics, despite their rejection by mainstream audiences.

The chief complaint of such films is that they are both inanely bleak and utterly polluted with swearing.

(I have not seen Manchester by the Sea, chiefly because I do not care to spend $13.00 to sit through that sort of thing.)

Andrew Klavan has noted that in the days of the Hayes Office, in which Hollywood self-regulated the content of its films, even the mediocre films were good by today’s standards.

Now, says he, filmmakers can show anything on screen, and now most films “kinda suck.”

I firmly believe that with the Hayes Office in place, filmmakers were forced to be creative with the limits they had to work with.

They knew that if they wanted to appeal to a mass audience, they had to make their films as decent as possible. To Catch a Thief was a product of this age, as are many classic films.

The system worked because the majority of moviegoers were average Joes living in middle America who just wanted to watch a good movie without having to endure an exercise in pointless vulgarity.

Things have changed.

In the words of Cal Thomas: “Many old films are watchable today. Some are considered classics. I doubt most of today’s films will be worth watching in 50 years. They aren’t now.”

Image from rubinmuseum.org

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Monday Round-Up

Before I finish my series on Talk Radio, I thought I’d give a quick update about what I’ve been reading lately, some movies I’ve watched, and an idea I had for a startup.

Books

I recently finished reading two books related to Christianity and the church.

Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer is a short, slim read that concisely and brilliantly makes the case for involvement by Christians in creating works of art, whether they be the fine arts or more popular mediums like cinema or the novel.

The only flaw was the truly asinine introduction by Michael Card. You can read my full Goodreads review here.

The Prodigal Church by Jared C. Wilson details how the modern American Evangelical church has embraced secularism in a misguided effort to attract large congregations.

Wilson is sympathetic to the motives behind this shift, but seems indecisive of whether the “church-growth” or “attractional church” models of churching are totally flawed or mildly good. You can read my full Goodreads review here.

Movies

I watched The Sound of Music all the way through for the first time a few weeks ago. It’s a truly charming film, containing many elements which are completely foreign to the modern era, such as positive depictions of the church and large families. I’d even go so far as to say that Maria von Trapp ought to be hailed as a Feminist icon.

My full review on Letterboxd here.

I also finished watching the German film Downfall last night. It was a very difficult film to watch, similar to Twelve Years a Slave. Depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler during the Battle of Berlin, we see that one of history’s greatest monsters was in fact quite gentle and kind in his private life, even if he believed and acted on truly reprehensible ideas and ambitions.

I intend to review the film in more detail on Letterboxd shortly.

Ideas

I’ve recently been going through some of the books listed in The Personal MBA reading list.

As a Bible and theology enthusiast, I began to realize that something like that really needs to be provided for pastors, preachers, and ministers.

I began doing research on whether you really need to have a Seminary education to be a pastor. I found this article by Albert Mohler who stated that in the end, the answer is “no.”

Mohler opines that while having a formal education in the Bible’s original languages, church history, systematic theology, exegesis and homiletics would be a splendid thing for all preachers to have, the fact is that the cost of such an education is incredibly high.

The result is that seminary graduates tend to leave with tens of thousands of dollars in debt with no way of affording the meager salary a small church can offer them.

This gave me an idea: What if there was a resource website, similar to that of The Personal MBA, which provided a list of the 99 best books on Pastoring and related topics?

What if someone created a website or wrote a book detailing such knowledge, intended for use by lay ministers or preachers who can’t afford a formal seminary education?

I could call it, “DIY Seminary.”

Must investigate further.

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Rated P for Passable – An Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation Review

Note: This review is adapted from an article I wrote on LinkedIn on November 4, 2016, which was in turn adapted from a review I wrote for Ancient Secrets Of Lead Generation: Your Primitive Business Guide To Better Leads With Less Effort on my Goodreads.com account.

Today’s business blogosphere is teeming with thought-leaders and wannabee-thought-leaders, including myself.

The ones who manage to grow a big enough following are invariably offered book-deals.

The typical result of such book-deals is a compilation of the newly minted thought-leader’s most popular blog posts.

Combine that with a sliver of original content and a punchy-sounding title, and you’ve got something that will fly off of conference room tables and help fuel the thought-leader’s personal brand.

Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation by Daryl Urbanski is one such book. Although it contains legitimately good business advice, it is without a doubt the most sloppily-written eBook I have ever read.

I put this book on my to-read list after I saw it on Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA reading list. After having read it, I concluded that Ancient Secrets does have some good points.

Unfortunately, they are rendered nearly moot by its chronically haphazard editing. This is another hallmark of the books put out by mini-thought-leaders such ask Urbanski.

Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation is a slim volume with advice which is almost as gaunt.

The basic principles of hanging out where your target audience is and using targeted ads for different demographics are rather elementary, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

What’s unique about Urbanski’s book was that he made me rethink my ideas regarding these tactics.

I guess you could say that Urbanski gave me perspective on this strategy by giving an example of it in practice, via his anecdotes of running a small martial arts business.

But that’s where my admiration ends.

The eBook’s core flaw is that it’s littered with typos, misspellings, and bad grammar.

This takes the reader out of the experience of reading to an intense degree, making it difficult to absorb the author’s platitudes. It also undermines Urbanski’s credibility as a marketing guru.

If he cannot produce a high-quality product, then his marketing scheme will only serve to fuel the dubious reputation that reviews like mine will give him.

Again, a lot of eBooks written by mini-thought-leaders such as Urbanski tend to be a bit spotty in terms of editing, but this book left me utterly flabbergasted.

To wit, Ancient Secrets of Lead Generation presents old ideas in a new perspective, making them easy to grasp for relative amateurs such as myself.

Sadly, the book’s execution is critically lacking. It would have been improved a hundred times over if Urbanski had hired a decent proofreader.

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Goodreads Review: Save the Cat!

Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever NeedSave the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was the first book on screenwriting I’ve ever read. Despite its subtitle, it made me want to read more books on screenwriting.

“Save the Cat!” is probably the most well-known book on screenwriting there is. For this reason, I see now that its advice has been disseminated among and copied by a multitude of other writers of books on writing, such as “You Can Write a Novel” by James V. Smith.

What all of the books I’ve read on the subject have in common is they all copy at least some of the advice in “Save the Cat!” in one way or another. Most of them also copy Blake Snyder’s smarmy style of writing.

But Snyder has a leg up on all of these posers. Unlike the majority of writers of books on writing, Snyder has actually written and sold screenplays to studios, and therefore has credibility.

At this point, the peanut gallery will probably say, “Well, just because he sold some screenplays doesn’t mean those screenplays were good.”

Meanwhile, this same peanut gallery (including other writers of screenwriting books) haven’t sold any screenplays. Presumably, if they knew how to write a good screenplay, they would have sold some by now.

The aforementioned James V. Smith, however, also uses this tactic, though he has to his name a handful of obscure military fiction novels, not quite the same as screenplays one sells to Hollywood big-wigs.

Smith therefore has all of Snyder’s ego but none of his achievements. If Smith had gotten a well-known book published by some big publisher that I’d heard of, that would be a different matter.

The advice Snyder himself gives is nothing short of eye-opening. He cuts right to the chase, spending little time hyping himself or trying to prove to his readers that they should believe him. Such an approach is all to common in modern guru books.

Snyder’s advice on genre, story structure, various tricks of the trade, and most importantly, “The Board,” are so fun to read about.

It’s more than just writing advice. Snyder is explicitly nonacademic in his approach, making it feel like you’re having a conversation with some guy you met at a Starbucks.

Indeed, Snyder is indeed a product of a unique era. He hailed from the spec-script hey-day of the 1990s, a prosperous time in Hollywood, yet just before the internet had fully blossomed into the informational juggernaut we know it as today. I wonder what he would have thought about the superhero craze that’s going on presently.

Snyder passed away in 2009. If he still lived, I imagine he would still be going strong in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Web 2.0. Rest in Peace, Mr. Snyder, and good job on having “How to Train Your Dragon” dedicated to you. You would have appreciated it, I’m sure.

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Miracle on 34th Street: When Big-Wigs Had Big Hearts

This previous month, I watched Miracle on 34th Street as part of our tradition of watching Christmas movies during Christmastime.

When I watch old movies such as these, it always strikes me just how good they are.

There isn’t just a higher standard of cinematic craft in place, but the entire value system on which these old movies are built is drastically different from those of today.

In the film, a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), claiming to be the real Santa Claus, becomes the Macy’s department store Santa Claus. He promptly sets out on a one man mission to spread genuine Christmas cheer.

What makes Miracle different is that it doesn’t cast the businessmen running Macy’s as dastardly villains, as a modern film might do.

Rather, it goes with the typical Old Hollywood policy of making sure that everyone gets their just deserts, no matter who they are.

Miracle on 34th Street not only demonstrates that businessmen weren’t typically castigated as scumbags in 1947, but that being decent is good for business.

A major theme in the film is the primacy of kindness and charity over the crass and ruthless desire to “Make a buck, make a buck,” as Alfred (Alvin Greenman) puts it.

Kris’s strategy for fighting this mentality is to refer the parents of children he sees as the department store Santa to other stores where they can find items that aren’t available at Macy’s.

Though his bosses are at first alarmed, the head of the store, R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim), makes Kris’s unorthodox tactic official store policy following an avalanche of public support.

As a result, Macy’s not only skyrockets financially, but sets an example for their competitor, Gimbel’s, to adopt the same policy. This feeling of charity and helpfulness leads the two stores to mend fences.

As I’ve written before, Old Hollywood was made up of people whose sense of morality bled into their art.

This principle is evident in Miracle on 34th Street‘s depiction of commercialism as a problem. Unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s the first in a long line of films to decry this particular ism.

The difference between Miracle‘s take on commercialism and others is that it presents a realistic motivation for someone like R. H. Macy to not be a Grinch.

Macy sums it up nicely when he says that by being “known as the helpful store,” they’ll make more profits than ever before. Mr. Macy is hardly a villain.

In fact, there are practically no villains at all in this charming picture, aside from the sleazy pseudo-psychiatrist Sawyer (Porter Hall).

Speaking of Sawyer, this leads us to one of the hallmarks of Old Hollywood: Justice is always served. Miracle is no exception.

In the course of the film’s events, the vindictive Sawyer is fired after orchestrating Kris Kringle’s unjust insanity hearing.

Fred Gailey (John Payne), the lawyer who defended Kris at the hearing, gets together with the Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the leading lady who rediscovers faith in the good things in life.

Even Alfred gets a direct commendation from Mr. Macy himself, a fine reward for a kindhearted boy who enjoys dressing up as a street corner Santa Claus and giving kids presents.

Things have certainly changed since then. Businessmen are almost invariably portrayed as bad guys in the movies.

“Corporation” might as well be a portmanteau of “corrupt organization.”

The question isn’t whether change has occurred. (It has.)

The question isn’t even whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. (It’s a bad thing, no doubt.)

The real question, the one I want to know the answer to, is why this change happened at all.

Image courtesy of hark.com.

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A Groundswell Review: Old But On-Point

Note: This review is adapted from an article I wrote on LinkedIn on November 4, 2016, which was in turn adapted from a review I wrote for Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies on my Goodreads.com account.

I checked this book out from the library when I saw it on a list of books about “social media marketing.”

In my quest to learn everything about the subject, I had consulted books by Guy Kawasaki and Gary Vaynerchuck. This was something very different.

Written in 2008, my second edition of Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff was released in the slightly-less ancient age of 2011.

Although Groundswell is admittedly a little dated, it does provide much insightful advice regarding social media marketing.

This book was plainly written as a guidebook for executives in established corporations who are trying to navigate the brave new world of social media.

It provides several case studies regarding the issue. Li and Bernoff are a decidedly more technical in their approach to understanding social media.

Thankfully, they avoid the common mistake of focusing on the particulars of the internet and technology.

It is foolish to spend close to two years writing a book about a field which changes every two minutes. Messrs. Li and Bernoff are not foolish.

It was nonetheless rather jarring to hear the book refer to things such as MySpace as significant factors in the realm of social media.

It was even more incredible to find that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were hardly mentioned at all. Regardless, I’ll hardly fault the book for failing to predict the future.

Groundswell has two main strengths.

First, they manage to present their findings, research, data, case studies, and advice in a manner that is easy to understand and accessible to everyone, from the average person to a C-Suite executive.

It’s largely free of corporate-speak and industry jargon that might have hindered a lesser book.

The book’s other big strength is that although the future of social media was made of Playdough when this book was written (and still largely is now), Li and Bernoff do manage to give mountains of good advice regarding what is still a very new subject.

It’s good to know that there’s someone from the old school of doing business who “gets it.”

For example, they perceptively note near the end of the book that it would be foolish to force everyone in a company to be part of social media. It would not only be ineffective, but might backfire.

It’s smarter instead to empower people who are already engaged in social media and let them do their thing.

This and other good pointers, combined with interesting case studies, make Groundswell a book that should be read by all corporate executives at big companies that are still trying to tell Retweets from Likes.

Any that are still having trouble with that are going to be desperately in need of help. Luckily for them, Li and Bernoff have written a book in their language.

Image courtesy of netchange.co

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