November 22, 2011

11/22/63 ... a book review, but not THAT book!

So today is the anniversary of three deaths. JFK was shot on this day in 1963. Also, Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World, among other books) died of an intentionally lethal overdose of LSD. In 1963. Finally, C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books) died on this day, as a result of a long battle with kidney disease. In 1963.

A couple weeks ago, one of the best-selling American authors of all time released a book entitled 11/22/63, about a time traveller who intends to stop the events of that date. You've probably guessed it has to do with the Kennedy assassination, not the two British authors. I haven't read the book (it's a brick -- seriously, a couple hundred copies of that book and I could build a garage) but that's okay, because that's not the book dealing with this date that I'm writing about for this blog post.

No, the book I'm writing about -- and recommending -- is called Between Heaven & Hell: A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley. Written by philosopher and C.S. Lewis scholar Peter Kreeft, the book is a modern Socratic dialogue between these three men.

Kreeft uses each of the men to express a different philosophy and a different view of who Christ was. Kennedy represents a modern American "Christian", or "humanist Christian" as Kreeft puts it. Someone who believes Christ existed and was wise, but that Jesus was not God and miracles were exaggerations of Christ's true actions. Huxley represents a universal philosophy, one that makes Christ's teachings an expression of universal truth, but not THE expression of THE truth. And Lewis represents "mere Christianity", the common and essential beliefs of Christians and the catholic (little "c" is intended here) church.

The book itself is brilliant. Sometime after these deaths on 11/22/63, these three men meet . . . somewhere "between heaven and hell". As the title suggests. Of course, their actual location becomes a matter of debate. As their conversation continues, they begin discussing "life, the universe, and everything" (not in those words). Questions arise about Jesus' divinity and whether someone can be intellectually honest if they merely believe Jesus to be a good teacher, the historicity of the Bible, free will, and what does "truth" even mean?

The book tackles deep questions and gives deep answers. It's a dense book, too, packing a lot into its 100 pages. But it gets you thinking. It gets you asking these questions. It gets you mulling over the answers.

It's all imaginary. Yes, yes, I know, obviously it is imaginary. But that's not what I mean. This isn't a matter of Kreeft creating a true "dialogue" through the manipulation of three men's writings. Rather, he casts these three men in representations of an argument, as opposed to the arguers themselves. Using these three famous men, who all happened to die on the same day, as a storytelling device, he crafts an engaging and dramatic conversation. In Kreeft's own words, "the purpose of the dialog is not historical accuracy; the argument is all, as it is with Plato's Socrates." Thus, Kennedy, who rarely spoke publicly about his religious beliefs becomes a symbol for modern "casual Christianity". Only when reading Lewis' lines, which contain numerous allusions to his famous writings about why Christianity can claim to be Truth (capital "T" also intentional), did I feel that this might actually have been what he would have said. (I've not read anything by Kennedy, and my knowledge of Huxley is limited to a few readings of Brave New World over a decade ago.)

So I do recommend it. I recommend it to people who are Christians and want to explore answers to some of the questions being posed to them about their faith. (And these are important questions. Christians are, too often, afraid to approach some questions. Perhaps because they are afraid that the answer might invalidate their beliefs?) I recommend it to people who are not Christians, but wonder how anyone could possibly believe such hogwash as a man who claimed to be God.

But beyond saying it's a good book, with a lot of meaning, I'd also like to recommend HOW you read it. Take your time. Reread some of the passages. It's a short book, perhaps an afternoon read. But I said before it is dense. Every sentence builds on the last, as arguments are made, challenges given, and answers explained. But don't let that deter you. Rather, embrace that and use exercise some of your extra brain muscle.

~ Ben

November 17, 2011

U2 and the JLA (thoughts on digital media)

I’m looking through the iTunes store, and something catches my eye. It’s a featured album, it’s only $7.99, and seems to be some sort of benefit for a charity.

The title? “AHK-toong BAY-bi Covered”.

The contents? Every song from U2′s “Achtung Baby”, covered by a different artist. Some of the names I recognized. Others, I have no idea who they are. Most of them — even the names I recognized — were performers that, even though I had heard OF them, I had never heard. NIN and Jack White and Gavin Friday being the expections.

But they were all much more well known that the bands on that old cover album I bought years ago. And I like U2. And it was for a good cause.

And hey, I bought and liked Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.

So I bought “AHK-toong BAY-bi Covered”. And you know what? It’s not bad. How’s that for a blazing review. My entire review might as well be “it could be worse”.

Truth is, it COULD be worse. I know, I’ve bought worse.

So this gets me poking around a little bit more, and I find iTunes has the Achtung Baby remastered album. Now, I already have the album. I already have most of the b-sides from the singles of this album. But there were a few I didn’t recognize. A look back at my library and I find that, indeed, I do not have two of the tracks.

Well, I do now.

Then I looked at the Joshua Tree remastered album, and there are some tracks there that I don’t have.

Again, I do now.

Some of these are tracks I have heard of, and others of them I didn’t know existed. But here were these songs, songs I will enjoy over and over again, available to me for the first time. Yes, just $1 a piece for a song and a smile and a legal way to listen to what, up until know (to my knowledge) has only been available conveniently and cheaply as illegal downloads. I can;t say for certain, because the truth is I haven’t looked.

What a world we live in! A world of technology and wonder!

And this is where digital comics need to start catching up! For just yesterday, I was looking for a way to read (again, legally) an old storyline from the Justice League of America series. It’s a long story, but basically I heard some guys on a podcast talking about the story, and I realized they were talking about a comic book I owned when I was a kid! I had always wanted to know what happened — I had part one of the story, and it ended on a cliffhanger. I thought it was a two part story, but here I find out it was actually a five parter! A mini-series. A graphic novel length story involving time travel and alternate universes.

I wanted to read it.

ebay had the other four comics I was missing for $5 each, plus $5 shipping. And that was the cheaper sellers. I wasn’t paying $40. Mile High Comics was more reasonable, with the comics coming in at $3 to $6, and My Comic Shop had about the same pricing.

Then I had an epiphany. What about digital downloads? How cool would that be? Just look it up in DC Comics’ Comixology app! Download and read ‘em on my iPad.

No luck. The catalogue just doesn’t go that deep. And then I thought about the pricing. For this storyline, I probably would have paid the $1.99 they are charging for old comic issues. But as I started digging around and looking at some of the other, older comics they had, I just wasn’t inclined to buy a digital file for $1.99 to $3.99. I don’t know if that says more about me than it says about them.

With U2, I made an impulse buy. I didn’t think twice about buying a small handful of songs for $.99 each. These are things I will be going back to, maybe not over and over again intentionally, but they are now in my U2 playlist, and they will get randomly played when I’m in the mood for some U2.

With the comics? Am I just a cheapskate? But the truth is, unless a comic makes a big, big impression on me, I’m not going to go back and re-read it. That $1.99 price (or $2.99 or $3.99 for new comics) is just high enough to keep me from making an impulse buy of something I'm never going to read again. And their catalogue is just limited enough (“limited” to well known characters and stories — it’s just not deep enough to get to the obscure kinds of things I like) to keep me from finding the things I would pay more for. (I do understand there are technical details that set price tag and content where they are.)

Meanwhile, in other media, we have movies. Netflix is a science fiction lovers dream, with complete series like Dr. Who and Stargate and every single Star Trek episode from every single series. But for movies and television, with much more dollars at stake than anyone else, they still seem to be dragging their feet in fully embracing the brace new world of digital media. (I can’t speak to books, because I really haven’t bought any books to read on my iPad, so I haven’t searched or browsed. But I do know that my own books from Zondervan are available as digital downloads.)

As for the story? Justice League #s 207, 208, and 209 and All-Star Squadron #14 and 15 (I think)? I can live without them. But maybe I can find them on the cheap at a comic convention in the near future . . . maybe even for less than a dollar . . . and on paper!

What do you say?How has your “media consumption” changed in the new frontier of the digital age?

~ Ben

For $15 and $13, I honestly recommend both of these albums, even if you already have the albums, because of the extra 14 tracks of rare material they come with. These are two of the greatest albums ever, so if you don't have the albums, well, you should. Or, do like I did and get the individual tracks you may not have through iTunes . . .

November 15, 2011

You Know What? I'm OK with (some of) DC's Character Redesigns . . .

So, yes, I'm mainly talking about Superman.
Because I don't care about, say, Animal Man. He was never an icon. And yes, Harley Quinn's redesign is pretty atrocious. I don't even know about the character and I hate the redesign.
And Batman, Flash, Aquaman . . . they're basically the same. But for Batman, his costume has changed over time. He has benefited from the movies (starting with Burton's Batman until, most recently, The Dark Knight) because having your character in front of millions of people worldwide and looking different in the comic . . . well, the comic has to follow that example. Batman has followed trends and set trends.
Superman? His costume barely changed for the television series and the first four movies and Lois and Clark and the cartoons, and Superman Returns didn't do much to push forward the character's fashion sense.
To be clear, I love the classic Superman design. I truly, truly do. But, that said, I understand why they redesigned him. And I somewhat agree.
The original Superman outfit was based on (my opinion) circus strongmen and trapeze artists. It was, like the character, very much a part of the times. And in that time, it was cool.
The costume has changed a little since he first came on the scene . . . but not much. (For an overview of the costume change over time, check out these guys: The Superman Costumes.) I would almost say the costume became something timeless, but that's not quite true. It was became somewhat ridiculous until Christopher Reeve managed to wear it sincerely and without irony. He made it work, and he made it work well, because he believed that a man who could do all the things Superman can do and wanted to do all the things Superman did do would wear those clothes.
That was the good old days, though. The days when people could be earnest, not cynical. The days when someone could wear tights and a cape and colored briefs that matched the cape over those tights . . .
No. They couldn't. We were forgiving. We accepted it and moved on, but now we've seen it all before and seen it all a lot and as talented as artists are, truth is, we just don't suspend our disbelief in the same way.
So we get armored Superman. And I'm okay with that. I'm not reading the comic (hey, I'm not MADE of money!) but I'm okay that they've changed my Superman.
Although I still think Wonder Woman should wears pants. Because, as impractical as it is for men to wear underwear on the outside, it's absolutely practical for woman to ONLY wear underwear. Right?
~ Ben

November 10, 2011

Green Lantern is a movie about Hollywood . . .

I finally saw Green Lantern. For those who don't know, it's a superhero sci-fi fantasy action movie about Hal Jordan, who is given a ring (and a lantern, which charges the ring) that can create anything Hal can imagine using the power of green (also known as willpower) . . . which comes with a price: he is now a member of an intergalactic police force.

The premise has a lot or promise, and could easily be something really fun and interesting or truly awful. Amazingly, though, using the Hollywood power of green (also known as money) it's not either.

Here's my review: you know that kid that was always in your class who just coasted through school and never went beyond what they had to do in order to get by, even though they were talented and intelligent and maybe good looking? Who could have really contributed to society or been very successful if only they had applied themselves? But who slid through and never really did anything to live up to their true potential?

That's Green Lantern. Not the character, the movie. End of review.

But thinking about it, I had some more thoughts I've been trying to sort through. Green Lantern embodies something beyond a simple "good" or "bad" statement of opinion. (Don't get me wrong -- the following is still opinion. I'm fully aware of that.)

The movie itself is half-hearted and goes through all the motions that superhero movies are supposed to go through . . . and tries to be both Superman the Movie and Iron Man (the first one), but does so without really knowing what made either of those movies work. On a purely technical level, it works, and on a conceptual level, it works, but all the in between stuff -- you know, scripting and acting and filming and effects -- just doesn't gel.

An outline of the basic storyline would look good. "A" happens, then "B", then "C", which was caused by "A", and "B" and "C" together make "D" happen. But four people wrote the movie, and it feels like it has four different tones and four different characterizations for the main cast.

This bothers me. It doesn't bother me as much as the kid I was talking about above (who I sometimes WAS when I was in school and who I came across many, many times when I was teaching school . . . and still do, even out of that setting). Because that kid is a living human being with a future and with a family and who is a part of society. No, Green Lantern is a story. A $200 million story. And if you've read my blog at all, you know that I believe that stories have power. Sadly, the power this story had was wasted.

That's my general feeling about Green Lantern, and as I was thinking about it and all the wasted potential I started thinking about something more metaphorical. Green Lantern is a movie about itself. Green Lantern is about big, expensive, Hollywood movies.

Here is a character who has the power to create whatever he can imagine, and when he does imagine things it just lacks . . . imagination. I know that something like this runs the risk of looking like a Looney Toons cartoon, and we already have a superhero movie like that in The Mask. But I just found myself being underwhelmed by it all. Once or twice, I thought the things he was doing were clever. The other times, it just felt bland.

And, going to that other power of green, the one that the movie's producers have, they could have done anything their imaginations dreamed up as well. But I just found myself being underwhelmed by it all. Once or twice, I thought the things he was doing were clever. The other times, it just felt bland.

That's when it struck me: Green Lantern, in all it's mediocre blandness, is a movie ABOUT ITSELF! And, in a bigger picture sense, about Hollywood blockbusters.

I have a long list of things that should have been done differently to make Green Lantern better, but what scares me is that there are a LOT of people who are MUCH smarter than I am who worked on this movie . . . and this is still the end result.

So instead of Green Lantern, I recommend the follow movies that Green Lantern is trying to be:

Superman, which has the heart of heroism and all ages appeal . . .

Iron Man, which is edgy and has a strong, sarcastic, and confident "hero" at its core who has a lot of life lessons to learn:

The Mask, which has a more wacky, abut also more organic, variation on the superhero who can make anything he can imagine come into being:

Each of these films have flaws . . . but they also have a lot of heart.

~ Ben

November 3, 2011

Good News on the Planet of the Apes

Hmmm. The title sounds like a pretty awful movie. "Good News on the Planet of the Apes".
But the truth is . . . I'm pretty excited about this little tidbit of news I saw people talking about on ye ol' internet:
Actually, it's two bits of news. First, they've signed Serkis to do it. Which means they're getting ready to do it. Whether they do it or not is another story -- a Hollywood story in which nothing is certain until it happens, and even then sometimes it's not certain. But they are getting ready to. This is good news.
The other good news is that the main team behind bringing Rise of the Planet of the Apes to the screen is going to be behind the sequel. The writers, the director, and of course, Andy Serkis.
I really, really liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It was a quiet, thoughtful character driven sci-fi action film. It felt like an independent film with epic scope. And almost everyone I talked to about it (all six or seven of them) were ready to see more when the closing credits came. And the ending of the movie was a game changer, promising a sequel that pushed the character of Caesar, and the story of the world, into new places.
As much as I love the originals (and I do, very, very much) I'm ready for this sequel . . .
What about you? How did you like the new sequel? Is this good new or bad?
~ Ben