Monthly Archives: December 2007

Oxbridge 2008: Be There.

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As we near the end of 2007 and look forward to 2008, there is one event that I urge all of you to take a look at and consider attending: the Oxbridge 2008 conference. It may sound daunting (the price! England! The weak dollar!), but I assure you that it’s an investment you’ll not find unworthy.

The Oxbridge conference is so-named because half of it takes place at the University of Oxford and the second half at Cambridge (both are beautiful and ancient campuses… highlights of any trip to Britain). The C.S. Lewis Foundation (the sponsor of the triennial conference) organizes the conference every three years around a broad theme that crosses disciplines and interest areas under the umbrella of “mere Christianity.” The goal is to foster a contemporary site of Lewis-era scholarly Christian discourse the likes of which is rarely found in churches today.

I went to Oxbridge 2005 three years ago, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The speakers, the performers, and the people I met and casually dialogued with made the event utterly priceless and life-changing. For any thinking Christian—whether you are still in academia or are a lifelong learner—the Oxbridge gathering is really a must-do. Where else do you get to encounter several hundred of the world’s most thoughtful Christians (off all denominations, ages, nationalities, etc) who have gathered with the shared purpose of living the legacy of C.S. Lewis in the 21st Century? That is—pondering and discussing how the life of the soul and the life of the mind can be reconciled toward the productive end of a culturally relevant Christianity. Whether you’re talking with someone over a pint at an Oxford pub, or in a café on the edge of the Cam river in Cambridge, the ideas you’ll exchange during this conference will stay with you for many moons.

This summer’s Oxbridge conference deals with the theme “The Self and the Search for Meaning.” It seeks a collaborative discourse about what a coherent Christian understanding of human nature and psychology looks like (or should look like) in this postmodern age we live in. Who are we? What meaning have we? Is there a Self that supercedes our fragmented “selves”? Such questions will make for a most provocative inquiry—in which we probe the “big questions” of identity and existence that lurk within and are rarely explored collectively in contemporary Christian circles.

Speakers slated for this summer’s conference include a wide variety of prestigious authors, academics, psychologists and philosophers, with some big names featured, like Fuller president Richard Mouw, author Philip Yancy, NEA (Nat’l Endowment for the Arts) Chairman Dana Gioia, geneticist Francis Collins, philosopher Richard Swinburne and United Methodist Bishop William Willimon.

At a time when critical thinking worldwide is sinking into digitized oblivion and the worldwide church is in more need than ever of an intellectual wake-up call, something like Oxbridge 2008 is of utmost significance. Beyond an excuse to take that long-sought trip to England/Europe (which for many attendees is the ostensible motivation), Oxbridge is an experience that will undoubtedly enhance your faith and enrich your life. Hope to see you there!

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Top Ten Comedies of the Year

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For whatever reason, comedies tend to get the shaft come awards season and year-end lists. But there is definitely something to be said for a great comedy film (it’s one of the hardest types of film to do well). Thus, in keeping with the listmania theme of December, here is my list of the ten best comedies of 2007.

10) Waitress: Keri Russell’s gleefully naïve piemaker was one of the funnier female comedic characters of the year.

9) Dan in Real Life: Peter Hedges’ romantic comedy gave Steve Carell a chance to tone it down a bit (even opposite Dane Cook), and the result was a solid, completely satisfying and sometimes hilarious film.

8) Enchanted: This film proved that Disney can do ironic self-referential comedy really well, though the real story is definitely Amy Adams, who gave one of the best comedic performances of the year as Princess Giselle.

7) Hot Fuzz: This British send-up of everything from buddycop action films and Bruckheimer-brand mayhem to Tony Scott-inspired quickcut absurdity was by far one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year.

6) Knocked Up: It was the year of Seth Rogan and Judd Apatow, and this was their crowning achievement. Rare is the film that wins over the elitist film critics, the populist frat of the land, and the occasional conservative Christian (for the pro-life undertones of the film).

5) Death at a Funeral: This great British ensemble pic turns one of culture’s most sacred ceremonies into a circus of comedic insanity and fun British colloquialisms (“are you mental?”).

4) The Darjeeling Limited: Wes Anderson’s film was maybe not as funny as his others have been, but in its own weird “too cool for school” way, Darjeeling definitely packs in the subtle jokes and understated character humor.

3) My Best Friend: This little-scene French film had me smiling ear to ear from nearly the first frame to the last. It’s a joyous, innocent, hilarious buddy comedy with some pretty profound themes to boot.

2) Lars and the Real Girl: Not exactly a comedy in the proper sense, but some of its scenes are definitely among the year’s funniest. Ryan Gosling and Paul Schneider deliver simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking performances in one of the best overall films of the year.

1) Juno: This pint-sized indie masterpiece is yard-for-yard the funniest film of the year, even when at its heart it might feel like a tragedy. It’s all about growing up—negotiating that awkward transition from childhood to adulthood, and Ellen Page (as Juno) makes the whole thing seem effortless and sweetly ridiculous.

Bonus: Top Five Guilty-Pleasure Movies of 2007

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5) Beowulf: It may be an offense to the English majors in the room (myself included), but this motion-capture action epic is a whole lotta fun. “I… Am… Beowulf!”

4) The 300: By all means a ridiculous piece of techno-pop fluff (and “the new Braveheart” for Wild at Heart youth ministries everywhere) but this sword-and-sandal epic is undeniably a fun indulgence in cinematic excess.

3) The Mist: Stephen King is always good for some cheap thrills at the movies, and this is no different. The monsters are great, and Marcia Gay Harden plays a deliciously evil Christian fanatic (always fun!).

2) Live Free or Die Hard: Bruce Willis rocks it in this over-the-top action romp. It’s mostly brawn but does have some brain (unlike something like Transformers), and features vintage Bruce moments like the “Yippee Ka Yay (sound of gunshot).”

1) 28 Weeks Later, Planet Terror and Death Proof (tie): Nuance is nowhere to be found in this go-for-broke trio of zombie/musclecar/violent mayhem. Don’t miss the “helicopter as weapon of mass destruction” moment (in both 28 Weeks and Planet Terror) and the insane final car chase scene in Tarantino’s Death Proof.

Top Ten Music Videos of 2007

Thanks to YouTube (and no thanks to MTV), the music video has made a comeback in recent years. To celebrate this very fine form of sonic-visual fusion, here’s my list of the best music videos of 2007:

10) Rihanna (feat. Jay Z), “Umbrella”: Yes the song is a bit ridiculous, but it’s so catchy! And this video is definitely one of the more visually interesting TRL hits in recent years.

9) Battles, “Atlas”: A little bit stuck-in-the-box for indie rock’s most experimental new band, but cool nonetheless!

8) Peter, Bjorn, and John: “Objects of My Affection”: This dizzying (literally) video is equal parts retro whimsy and spacey futuristic atmospherics.

7) Kanye West, “Stronger”: The robo-tech Japanese chic vibe of this video is as hot as the song. Thoroughly modern and yet a little bit 80s. Love Kanye’s sunglasses too!

6) Mute Math, “Typical”: Not the first to shoot a video backwards (remember Coldplay’s “The Scientist”?), but this one is just so much fun to watch. And the song’s pretty good too.

5) The White Stripes, “Icky Thump”: The Stripes continue their streak of awesome videos with this, the title track from their latest album. Features Spanish subtitles and Meg White with a creepy white contact over one eye!

4) Justice, “D.A.N.C.E.”: The French techno band Justice complement a great song with this visually-stunning experiment in digital graphic design. Feels like a font-driven comment on statement t-shirts or globalization or something. Or just a cool-looking video.

3) Feist, “1,2,3,4”: A joyful warehouse dance video that could be subtitled “Polyphonic Spree goes line dancing.” Really, a lovely video for one of the happiest songs of the year.

2) St. Vincent, “Jesus Saves, I Spend”: St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) plays the world’s coolest den mother in this wonderfully kooky video. Features a singing caterpillar, a swamp monster and “sleeping bag escape” merit badges!

1) Chromeo, “Bonafide Lovin”: Chromeo work their 80s dance magic amid a Sims-esque virtual reality world. Watch out for the shockingly pink shoes and the cool digitization effects in the end. It’s like a Second Life disco!

Honorable Mention: Interpol, “The Heinrich Maneuver”: for the most enjoyable twist ending of a video all year!

Atonement

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A few brief thoughts on this film, which I saw last night. First of all, it is just as exquisitely made as Joe Wright’s last film, 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. Like that film (also starring Keira Knightly and based on a beloved book), Atonement is chalk full of sumptuous costumes, sets, and luxuriant camera movement. The film is as stylish and artistically superior as anything you’ll see this year.

There is one incredibly beautiful single shot sequence in particular—at the bombed-out beach city of Dunkirk. It’s at least five minutes long and the roving camera effortlessly captures an eye-popping array of fluid sights and sounds. It’s one of those sequences that only the cinematic artform can capture, and at times like these the film offers something Ian McEwan’s novel cannot: a jaw-dropping experience of sight, sound, space and time.

But more than the striking artistry of this film (and its great performances), I was most affected by the final ten minutes in which-without spoiling it—the entire story is thrown into doubt. Or, I should say, the film re-defines itself as more than just an epic love story, but as a meditation on the nature of art and storytelling.

What are the personal or psychological motivations to tell stories or make art? Is it for the benefit of others? Or is it to make amends with ourselves and atone for our former sins? And in telling stories, is fidelity to “how it was” really as important as making the story as whole and fulfilling as possible?

In addition to raising all of these questions, Atonement seems to be emphasizing the formalist split between story and plot (fabula and syuzhet, to use Russian formalist terminology). That is, the “reality” of what the author intends to express (the “plot”) and the seemingly arbitrary interpretation/construction of the reader or viewer (the “story”). With a film like Atonement, there are at least three realities going on at any given moment: the reality of what actually happened (presumably in the life of the author), the reality of the author’s portrayal of it (which in this case is admittedly skewed and subjective), and the reality of the audience (which is always different, viewer to viewer). Atonement weaves a gorgeous, epic and tragic tale, but it intentionally undermines itself by questioning the truthfulness of perspective, memory, and reconstructed reality.

Oddly, after I left the theater my thoughts went to Harry Potter. Specifically I was thinking about J.K. Rowling’s recent announcement that the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is and always has been a homosexual. When she made the stunning announcement I immediately thought, “hey, what right does she have to make Dumbledore gay?” But then I thought that just because she says he is doesn’t mean he is in my construction of that world. After all, the “reality” of Potter world in Rowling’s mind is not necessarily ever the same as mine, or any other reader. Art—even if it is objectified (and mass-reproduced)—is always subjectively experienced and interpreted. Thus, its “reality” is never as concrete as we think (or hope) it is. Rowling can say Dumbledore is gay all she wants—and even write him that way if she wishes… but the fact is, he is only an idea on pages. He is whatever the reader makes him to be.

The word “atonement” means “at one” and is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.” In the novel and film, the character of Briony (who is ultimately revealed to be the author of the novel, Atonement) is trying to achieve a peace and at-oneness by “playing God” and reconciling herself to the worlds she has shattered. But the tragedy of it all is that she is only “God” within the pages of her fictional accounts and reparative revisionism. Fiction can help heal, but it can never alter history. Or maybe it can—depending on how you define “history.”

Let the Lists Begin!

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As you know, I loooove lists… so if you thought I was going to limit myself to one “best of 2007” post on Dec. 31st and that’s it, you’d be mistaken! “Best of the Year” frenzy begins today on The Search, and will go through the end of the month (culminating with my top ten movies of 2007 on New Year’s Eve!)

So, to kick things, off, and because this category has no risk of missing any latecomer additions, today I’m listing my picks for the best television shows of 2007:

10) American Idol (Fox): What can I say? As trifling as it is, this show is the most compelling television for four months out of the year… I’m addicted.

9) The Hills (MTV): Am I joking? Sort of… But anyone who has seen this show must admit it has a definite “can’t turn away” quality. Plus, from a theoretical, “what is real?” point of view, the show is fascinating.

8) Project Runway (Bravo): Continues to be the most interesting, consistently quality reality series on television.

7) The Daily Show / Colbert Report (Comedy Central): Yes, these are two different shows, but the spirit is the same in both. It’s the Comedy Central “newsblock,” and it’s ridiculously fun to watch.

6) Rome (HBO): HBO’s Caesar series only had two seasons, but its great cast (a who’s who of British thespians) and classy period melodrama made for some really good, highbrow TV.

5) The Office (NBC): Gets better and better every season… the cast has nailed down the nuances and hilarious quirks of their characters, and the writing is consistently dead-on.

4) Lost (ABC): This show redeemed itself near the end of its third season, reminding us all why we got so addicted in the first place. Can’t wait for its January return!

3) 30 Rock (NBC): Miles above the majority of comedy on TV in terms of sharp, culturally astute humor. Tiny Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan lead the funniest ensemble cast since Arrested Development.

2) Mad Men (AMC): Who knew AMC was in the business of making amazing one-hour dramas? This 60s period piece (about Madison Avenue ad men, their whiskey and their women) was the best new series on TV this fall—with great acting, glossy eye candy, and sharp social commentary.

1) Friday Night Lights (NBC): I suppose it’s getting repetitive by now, but this show really is the best thing on TV. The acting, writing, production, and general “breath of fresh air” spirit of the whole thing is really unrivaled among network shows. Here’s hoping it’ll survive for a third season!

Upside Cinema

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“Holiday Season” in Hollywood often means two things: Awards movies and feel-good, family fare. And the two usually do not overlap. Sadly. However, this season a lot of the happiest, most joyful films are also some of the best, most critically acclaimed and Oscar buzzworthy. Could it be that Hollywood is finally waking up to the fact that movies can be real, gritty, AND positive? That “true to life” does not always need to leave the audience feeling morose and down on humanity?

Take the film Juno, for example. Here’s a film that straddles the line between fluffy teen comedy and heavy relationship drama with utmost ease. It’s a beautiful, maturely told story that cuts no emotional corners and doesn’t force-feed anything (whether it be laughs or tears). It deals with serious human turmoil (teen pregnancy, abortion, divorce) with a rare and elegant nuance that manages to make it funny without making light of it. When 16-year-old Juno (the unforgettable Ellen Page) tells her parents that she’s been “dealing with things way beyond my maturity level,” she might as well be speaking for the film as a whole. Juno could so easily have slipped into cheap teen sex comedy, Alexander Payne-esque satire or some heavy-handed family melodrama (Life as a House comes to mind), but it refuses to be pigeonholed in any one of these genres. Instead, Juno focuses on its characters and life in general. The result is a film that feels frayed and weary but ultimately hopeful—and above all, real.

Some other films that have come out recently have also taken the high road and made the messiness of life seem somehow lovely and affirming. Bella is an obvious example—a film that hinges on a serious matter (unwanted pregnancy) but is otherwise concerned with everyday joys like good food, family, and dancing. Dan in Real Life also has this feeling of joyful revelry and earnestness (even if it sometimes feels a tad forced). One of my favorite films of the year, Lars and the Real Girl, also features sadness and strife within an overwhelmingly warm, life-is-good worldview. I would even put The Savages into this group. It’s a seemingly glum film about aging and death, but the way that it refuses to let its characters fall victim to cynicism and self-destruction makes it ultimately just as hopeful and loving as Enchanted (itself a prime example of this “feel-good cinema” trend).

These types of films come as a breath of fresh air to the typical “prestige/arthouse” fare that wallows in human depravity and despair. I’m thinking specifically of two films that have recently released (to critical acclaim) that I think are more despairing and nihilistic than they need be: Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Both of the these films are high-quality and superbly acted (especially Margot… Nicole Kidman is remarkable), but both left me feeling like I needed to take a shower to wash away the despair and macabre family dysfunction. Both films focus on family, and in each case there is little to no love to go around. Devil is about a pair of brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who rob their own parents and descend into a spiral of sex, drugs, and cover-up. Margot is more subtle and passive-aggressive, but perhaps even more insidious. Even Jack Black (at his manic slacker best) cannot lift the film out of its pervasive misanthropy and existential confusion. Even Ingmar Bergman—in all of his nihilistic eloquence—never plumbed the hateful depths that are mined in Margot.

I’m not saying such films are not useful or worth seeing—they are, in small doses, just like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. But as “true” as they may seem (and as admittedly resonant as the acting is), I’d much rather see a million Juno replicas. These feel-good art films are just as real and skillful and uncompromising as the “downer” best picture nominees—the difference is that the “reality” they choose to portray is the upside of life, not the underbelly. And I daresay our world needs a lot more “upside” stories right now.

Quarterlife Crisis

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On December 3 (today) I turn 25. Now normally I steer very clear of these sorts of diary-esque, stereotypically “blog” type entries. I find the whole “publicizing the personal” thing rather annoying, actually. But since it’s my birthday, I’m going to indulge.

So, what are my thoughts on this—my 25th birthday? Well, honestly I’m thinking that I feel old… very old. And not in the “I can’t believe I’m halfway through my twenties” old. I can and do believe that I am actually 25. It’s just that I feel much older than that—like I should be retired now or something. With the rush of the rat race and the grueling pace of my life right now, I suppose the retiree’s leisurely existence sounds like a great alternative.

But this thinking is merely (I hope) a reflection of the mid-twentysomething malaise that most people my age feel: the sentiments of dissatisfaction with jobs, uncertainties about “the future,” apprehensions about whether or not our life trajectories are fitting into our plans (or our family’s hopes, or God’s will, etc).

Or perhaps it is more broadly human than that: the psychological distress that comes with feeling oneself pushing through time unnoticed by most or inconsequential to the overall system. You might call it the Solomon syndrome (the old Solomon from Ecclesiastes, that is), and while it’s not really that productive, it is real.

Aging is a strange thing. It’s something we often think of in terms of Alzheimer’s, Florida, and elderly people in nursing homes and adult diapers. But we are all aging, and we will all one day become the oldest people around.

This is something dealt with beautifully in the new film The Savages, which I recently reviewed for Christianity Today (read it here). In that film—ostensibly about a pair of siblings dealing with a parent with dementia—decay and disintegration are the ubiquitous themes: in the walls, in the plants, in the pets, in our bodies… It’s inescapable, a part of life.

Likewise, growing older and turning 25 is inescapable, a part of life. In reality, “25” is just a word to represent the precise time span that I’ve walked the earth thus far. As an “age” or part of who I am, “25” is much more abstract and arbitrary. Aging and growing are natural processes and universal—but perhaps most importantly, they are things that happen in spite of ourselves. I may not like this feeling of growing older, but what can I do? It’s a reality we have to deal with and make the most of. Perhaps we should even celebrate it. Oh, wait, we already do!

Seriously, though: birthdays are a mixed blessing. Mixed because after age 21 or so, growing older is kind of scary; and a blessing because every year lived is another beautiful gift from God—and a chance to give Him praise and feel His glory.