Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I Am

Sometimes "Christian" movies are pretty good.  Often, they stink.  But I have to give some credit to aspiring filmmakers who try to make high quality movies with a Christian message.  The most successful recent church-based movies have been from Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia.  Their movies, Flywheel, Facing the Giantsand Fireproof were pretty decent, if a little on the sappy side.  Last year, New Song Community Church in Southern California produced To Save a Life.  Now Mariners Church in Irvine, California has produced I Am.

I really wanted to like this movie.  It has a cooler, darker, grittier vibe than the Sherwood movies.  The style seems to have been influenced by movies like Crash or Traffic (both of which I really liked).  Unfortunately, I Am's execution is but a poor reflection of those movies.  Everything was there technically.  The acting was passable, at least as good as a decent TV show.  But the story, or interlocking stories, I should say, just didn't click.  The storylines were stilted and the characters and scenarios were cheap stereotypes.
Some scenes were filmed in this super awesome looking Mariners Church wedding chapel.
This movie grew out of a series of videos produced for a Mariners Church Bible study on the Ten Commandments.  I don't really even see that they provide much fodder for discussion. Maybe some people struggle with decisions like whether to cryogenically preserve themselves, whether to claim credit for their late rock star son's song, or whether to kill the man whose medical experiments claimed my wife's life.  Is there value in using extreme situations to illustrate the struggles we all have with sin?  I think they just make it easier to excuse ourselves, like the old, "I know I'm not the greatest guy who ever lived, but I'm not as bad as Hitler" kind of argument.

So kudos the Mariners Church for the effort, but what a shame that the movie wasn't any better.  Not that great from the perspective of simple movie watching pleasure, and not that great for spiritual reflection.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The movie glutton goes to Christian Youth Weekend at Six Flags

This weekend's concert was a bit of a contrast from last weekend's trip to the symphony.  Kelly, Elliot and I joined thousand of screaming teenagers and their youth leaders for a noisy night at Six Flags's Music Mill Amphitheatre.   I love the fact that Elliot loves worship music.  He's a worshipper with heart and his favorite music to listen to is the worship songs of artists like Chris Tomlin and David Crowder.  He and Kelly went to see Chris Tomlin play a Christmas concert last year at a local church, and when he learned that David Crowder was going to be at Six Flags, of course he was excited to go.

The opening act was a band I had never heard of, Needtobreathe.  I guess I'm not really in tune with Christian music these days; they won the Dove Award for Group of the Year for 2010 and 2011.  I had no idea they were so hot.  Besides their success in Christian music, they've had some success on the mainstream charts and have had their songs featured on some movies and TV shows.  I recognized one song from the radio, but now I can't tell you what it was.  They play solid rock and roll with a Southern twinge.  I couldn't tell you what they were singing about most of the time.  Elliot and I agreed on that.  I asked him if he liked them and his comment was, "I can't understand what they're singing."

That may have been a sound system issue, because when The David Crowder Band came on, I couldn't understand a lot of his singing, either, and I know many of his songs.  They played several familiar songs, with lots of audience participation.  Clearly this was a crowd of Crowder fans!  After a few songs, Crowder said we were entering the "rock opera" portion of the concert.  They broke away from the familiar set and began some extended jams.  I was really getting into it!  Fans like to hear their faves, but the best part of a live concert is the extemporaneous, energetic breaking away from the usual play list.  Crowder is clearly a fun-loving, innovative, extremely creative musician, with much, much more to offer than "three chords and the truth."  Unfortunately, my wife's and son's musical ears are more attuned to KLTY than to experimental rock.  They both said it had gotten too loud and too wild and wanted to leave, so we missed the last part of the show.  But I thought what we saw and heard was terrific!
This is not his stage hair.  He looks like this all the time.
I love the David Crowder* Band's music, although I never have understood the asterisk after his name.  (By the way, they have a trunk load of Dove Awards, too.)  They are musically and lyrically creative (not to mention visually--Have you see their Lite Brite video of "SMS [Shine]"?)  Mostly I love that they create worship music that draws young people into worship.  As worship leader at University Baptist Church in Waco, as a worship leader at the Passion conferences, as an award-winning recording artist, and now as my son's favorite band, David Crowder will stay at the top of my list as well.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The movie glutton goes to the symphony

Last weekend during Fort Worth's Main Street Arts festival, I took the kids to the Fort Worth Symphony's Open House.  They had an instrument petting zoo and played a short concert.  Zippy was restless, Chloe covered her face, but Elliot and I enjoyed it.  In the little goody bag they were giving away we found a pass for one adult and one child to attend the symphony for free.  Elliot and I returned Saturday night for the concert.  We were thrilled when we picked up our free tickets--center orchestra, row G!  Not many better seats in the house!  When I go, I usually sit WAY up top in the cheap seats!

The first piece on the program was the short "Huayno Sinfonico 'Cascay'" by the 20th century Peruvian composer Francisco Pulgar Vidal.  One of the things I love about Miguel Harth-Bedoya's tenure at the Fort Worth Symphony is his introduction of the works of lesser-known Latin American composers.  Several times each year the symphony will feature a piece from South America.  This Vidal piece gave a lively start to the night.

The featured selection for the night, Tan Dun's "Water Concerto," tested the tastes of symphony goers.  Tan Dun, best known for his award-winning soundtrack for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composed this concerto to include a variety of water-based instruments.  The features soloist, renowned percussionist David Cossin, had two big bowls of water and various implements to splash and drum in them.  Two Fort Worth symphony percussionists accompanied him.
Some examples of the use of water: patting and slapping the water with his hands, flicking his fingers in the water, beating the surface of the water with upturned plastic cups, putting his hands in the water and raising them above the surface so that the water drips off.  He had a plastic tube in a separate container which he beat on with a flip-flop.  As he raised it in and out of the water it changed pitch.  Similarly, they had some gong-type instruments and some bells that they played with mallets then raised and lowered them in the water to change pitch.  He floated salad bowls of various sizes upside down in the water and played them with mallets.  He had a funky looking stainless steel bowl full of water with handle at the top and rods sticking up all around it.  He played the bottom like a drum and used a bass bow to play the rods.  He also bowed the gongs.

While the use of water was clearly creative, and the music accompanying the water was certainly of high quality, I could help thinking I was getting hoaxed.  Mostly I was reminded of Stomp, when, for instance, they come on stage with a sink strapped to themselves and use the water and the metal of the sink to create a form of music.  I also thought Tan Dun must have done a lot of his composing in the bath  tub.

The final piece of the night was Beethoven's 7th symphony.  Now that's music!  Here were are, 200 years after he composed that great work, and it's still fresh and powerful.  (Harth-Bedoya noted beforehand that it was quite revolutionary at the time of its premiere.)  Tan Dun's work in contrast to Beethoven's reminded me of a visit to an art museum where you have an exhibit of some classic masterpieces, then step down the hall to the modern works.  The plain canvasses with simple geometric shapes, the splashes of paint, the non-representational art, the piles of trash and found objects in the modern art gallery may make some interesting artistic points, and some might not be that bad to look at, but mostly they are shallow works, requiring much less skill and insight than some timeless masterpieces, and that will be quickly forgotten.  While Tan Dun's "Water Concerto" was enjoyable to listen to (and watch--the percussionist was soaked by the end!), I have a feeling the Fort Worth Symphony of 2211 is much more likely to be playing Beethoven.

Try, just try to watch this without laughing out loud:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sturm (Storm)

As a shallow movie glutton, I feel inadequate to comment on Storm.  Not that it's a great, brilliant movie, although it may be.  It just deals with complex historical scenarios in a complex way.  I should know and remember more about the Bosnian war, but I simply don't.  Storm brings some of those vague memories back, as it follows an investigation at the Hague into war crimes committed by the Serbs in Bosnia.  The prosecutor, Hannah Maynard, is on a mission to get to the truth, but her witnesses may not be so reliable.

Storm is powerful in its understated storytelling.  Matching the mood of the subject matter and the characters, the pacing is slow and deliberate.  Even then, the tension and suspense run high.  It's a well-shot, powerful movie, definitely more cerebral than the average Hollywood fare.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ostrov (The Island)

At first glance, Ostrov fits into the same category as Stellet Licht and Lake Tahoe: slow, artsy, subtitled, sort of dull.  OK, so Ostrov is a little of all of that, but there is a lot more to it than the other two.  If you have patience for it, you can glean a solid message of forgiveness and faithfulness here.  The monk Father Anatoli lives at a remote Russian Orthodox monastery where he tends the coal fires.  Taking monastic austerity to its extreme, he makes the coal bin his cell.  He has gained a reputation as a seer and healer; lay people come from around the area for his wisdom and healing touch.  Among the monks, he is a prankster and gadfly, drawing the ire of the other fathers.
In spite of the peace he can bring to others, Father Anatoli struggles with his own sin.  Years ago, as a young sailor, he was given a choice by his Nazi captors to kill his commanding officer and preserve his own life.  He shot the officer, was rescued by the monks, and has spent decades repenting and trying to atone for his sin.  I will uncharacteristically not tell you how or if he gains his peace.  It's worth watching to see for yourself.

This is a dark movie, literally.  Everything is gray and cold.  The sets and story are simple, befitting a remote monastery.  But the story and spiritual message stand out all the more against the gray background.

Bottom line: 3 stars.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Stellet Licht (Silent Light)

I'm admittedly a shallow movie viewer.  This is one of those movies that makes me ask, am I really shallow, or was that a dull movie?

Here's where the weirdness begins for Stellet Licht.  This was the Mexico official entry for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (it didn't end up being nominated).  So why isn't it called Luz Silenciosa?  Because the movie's not in Spanish, silly, that would be too simple!  It's in Mennonite Low German, a sort of German/Dutch hybrid spoken in some Mennonite communities around the world. 
A plus of the movie is a realistic depiction of the life of rural Mennonites in Mexico.
Stellet Licht focuses on a Mennonite family living in a Mexican Mennonite community.  The dad is having an affair and struggling with family life.  There are just enough lingering shots and odd elements here to make me think, hmm, this is sort of poetic, and maybe there is some profound symbolism here.  But it wasn't compelling enough to make me want to carefully rewatch it and analyze it.  Plus, the absurd ending seemed quite out of place, throwing the value of the whole movie into question.
There is barely enough material here to fill a 1/2 hour TV slot, but the director drags it out over 2 hours.  Long, lingering shots of nature (like 6 minutes of dawn breaking at the beginning) and long scenes with people sitting around not talking do that to a movie.  If you've had a long day, be sure to have a cup of coffee before you sit down for this one.  There, do I sound shallow enough for you?

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lake Tahoe

This movie has nothing to do with a big lake on the California-Nevada border.  OK, very little to do with it.  It's there as a symbol of longing, or some such drivel.  Oh, that sounds too harsh.  I sort of liked this movie for the experience of it.  It's a simple story: a young man has a minor wreck, and needs a part to repair his car.  He wanders around town trying to find a part, has amusing encounters with a variety of characters, and, well that's about it.  There is very little story, it moves slowly, and has sparse dialogue.
The only thing that really sets this movie apart is the style in which it was filmed.  As I was watching, I thought, every shot looks like a carefully framed photograph.  Then it struck me: the camera never moves!  In each shot, the camera is stationary.  Characters, if they move at all, move within the frame, but the camera never follows them.  It adds a huge level of interest to an uninteresting movie, like that novel that was written without the letter e. 
As a movie, Lake Tahoe doesn't have much to offer, but as an experiment in film, or as a work of art, it's sort of interesting.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.