Sunday, January 31, 2016

Crosswalk’s Best Movies of 2015's Top 10 Films of 2015Well, January is almost behind us and awards season is in full swing. It’s time to look back at the best movies of 2015. The Christian website Crosswalk announced their best-of list for 2015. Their article includes reasons for inclusion and brief snippets from the reviews themselves. Here is their top 10:

10 Creed
9 The Martian
8 Brooklyn
7 Mr Holmes
6 Mad Max: Fury Road
5 Cinderella
4 Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
3 Room
2 Spotlight
1 Inside Out

Of this list, I have seen only 2, both sci-fi films (#6 and #4). I enjoyed both a lot. But I intend to see most of the others before Oscar night. More lists to come shortly.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- changing and choosing good

Director: J. J. Abrams, 2015 (PG-13)

Ten years after the end of the first trilogy (episodes 1-3) and the "birth" of Darth Vader, a new Star Wars film emerges: The Force Awakens. It has been 38 years since the first Star Wars movie was released and changed Hollywood history.  I remember seeing that film as a boy in England and was thrilled beyond words. Thirty-two years on from the end of original trilogy (Return of the Jedi), this new movie is set 30 years on from that storyline.

I won't reveal any spoilers here. Having just seen it, I knew little going in and that made for some fun surprises. I will say that this film was as good as the first movie. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between the two movies. To say more would be to say too much.

With JJ Abrams at the helm, the franchise has seen a successful reboot (just as he did for Star Trek in 2009). The Force Awakens moves away from the glitter of cgi to the grittiness of reality. The props, the vehicles, the spaceships all feel used, dirty. The characters also feel true to the original.

This film, like the first (episode 4), uses unknown actors. Daisy Ridler in her first American film plays Rey, the female protagonist. A scavenger, she is eking out a barren existence on the desert planet Jakku. John Bodega, best known for his role as Moses in Attack the Block, plays FN-2187, a starship trooper. The film centers on these two characters.

At the start of the film FN-2187 is sent with a platoon of other troopers to a planet in search of something that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants. Dressed in black and with a Vader-like mask, Ren is the Darth Vader of this trilogy bowing only to the Supreme Ruler. When he orders the platoon to commit mass murder, FN-2187 has qualms of conscience and refuses. He chooses against the First Order, the new evil empire ruling the universe. Only when he escapes is he given a new name, Finn. And when he meets Rey on Jakku a classic Star Wars chemistry develops. Finn is running from the First Order but is not a rebel fighter like he tells her. He wants to hide in the outer orbits. She wants to fight. Eventually, he finds strength to once more do the right thing.

One of the themes of this film is that people get second chances to do the right thing. Finn, though raised to be a First Order warrior, recognizes when acts are evil and chooses to do the right thing. In life, we all face choices of right and wrong. Even if we choose wrong, we still have later opportunities to choose again. Indeed, the ultimate choice is for the kingdom. In doing so, we are born again (Jn. 3:3). We might face this choice and ignore it, but we will get the chance later. We cannot run away from this choice.

Later in the movie, one character faces an enemy and has a tough choice to make, saying: "I'm being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain. I know what I have to do but I don't know if I have the strength to do it." This is so reminiscent of the apostle Paul, himself a person who had transitioned from the Roman empire to the Christian rebels. He said in a biographical letter, "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing" (Rom. 7: 18-19). His internal struggle is universal. We all face this. Only in Jesus can we find victory to subvert sin and do good. It is the choice we face daily.

Some have made much of the fact that the protagonists are respectively female and black. But that is to read too much political correctness into this film. The rebellion is inclusive, not worrying about skin color or gender. This is true of the new rebellion under Jesus. Once more, Paul said: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Underneath we find the same humanity facing the same choices.

This is the Star Wars for a new generation. It's a terrific thrill ride of a film. The force has indeed awakened. And I really don't have a bad feeling about this trilogy.

Copyright ©2015, Martin Baggs

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Turkey Films 2015 -- the real turkeys

With this fifth edition of Turkey Films I felt I needed to go back to literal basics with this Thanksgiving game my family play each year. The rules are unchanged. I put the word “turkey” into a movie title to come up with a turkey film that makes us laugh and gets us into the holiday spirit. But this year these films are real turkey turkeys. They are the films that show up at the very bottom of my list of rated reviewed movies. They are horrible and warrant the moniker of turkey films.

1. The Monument Turkeys
2. He Died with a Turkey in his Hand
3. He was a Quiet Turkey
4. Eraturkey
5. Lonesome Turkey
6. The Turkey Countess
7. The Spiderwick Turkeys
8. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Turkey
9. The Wendell Turkey Story
10. Last Chacnce Turkey

Enjoy this list. What are your turkey turkeys? Go, gobble up a few and list them for your family. Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy time with your family and friends this holiday and through the Christmas season.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Music Review: "Adore (Christmas Songs of Worship)" -- Chris Tomlin

Four words came to mind at my first two or three listenings to Chris Tomlin’s new Christmas album: slow, acoustic, meditative and melancholy. Many of the 11 songs are new Tomlin originals, mostly arranged and performed simply with acoustic guitar and piano.

The album starts with a new worship song: “He shall reign forevermore.” This is classic Tomlin, a worship anthem that we’ll be singing in church for years to come. But from there the tempo slows down and we get three or four slower songs. “Adore” is almost melancholic. “Midnight Clear (Love Song” takes the traditional carol and imbues it with a new arrangement. I like that Tomlin took the lyric, “It came up on a midnight clear, that glorious song of old” and adds to it with the “melody breaks through the silence” to become “the love song of God.” This has extended that Christmas classic in a powerful way. “Noel,” though, is the weakest song on this album and is not the carol of old.

The middle portion of the album starts with a hymn rather than a Christmas song. “Hymn of Joy” is Beethoven;s “Joyful, joyful we adore thee” and is simply a worship song with a an additional chorus. I am not sure why this shows up here. The next two songs are traditional carols, “Silent Night” and “What Child is This”. The former has a new arrangement and ends with a reading of Isaiah 9, while the latter is powerful in its simplicity.

My favorite song on this album is “It’s Christmas” It begins with a jazzy up-beat rendering of “Away in a Manger” and migrates into pop with the chorus. Adding sax and drums, it ends with “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” This feels like Christmas, with joy and happiness. It  is something to sing about.

The album closes with three new songs by Tomlin: “A King like this,” “Bethlehem” and “A Christmas Alleluia”. The last song brings synthesizer music to the front as it leaves the listener with a meditative mood.

America’s worship leader has given us another Christmas album, once more live. However, I found myself wishing for more upbeat joyful songs like “It’s Christmas” or more traditional carols like “Hark the Herald Angels”, which he recorded on his earlier Christmas Album (“Glory in the Highest”.  I found myself returning to that earlier album, which I enjoyed more. This is not a failure in Tomlin’s resume, just not as good as his earlier albums. It was a little too slow for my yuletide sensitivities.

Disclosure (in accordance with the FTC’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”): Many thanks to Propeller Consulting / Flyby Promotions for providing a free copy of the CD in exchange for this honest review and post.