Sometimes the best way to critique a culture is to remove everything that is familiar and common within that culture, and then tell a story. Science fiction has done this for years to great success. The removal of the familiar can strip one’s eyes of cultural blinders, and allow the story to be more richly brought to the forefront.

Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto does just this. I saw this movie over the weekend still uncertain about the film’s plot before I watched it. It contains not a word of spoken English (all the characters speak in Mayan), and there is little context for the violent atrocities that serve as the backdrop of the story. Still, Gibson manages to use sparing contextual elements to frame one of Apocalypto’s major motifs: the clash of civilizations.

The Will Durant quote which appears at the film’s opening sums up well Gibson’s intent:

“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Gibson displays well the difficulty of maintaining tradition. Those who seek to preserve a way of life often become moving targets for those who would seek to serve their own needs.

The plot revolves around a village of forest hunters who are attacked and captured for human sacrifice by a more “civilized” group of city-dwellers. During the attack, a hunter named Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife and child in a deep well. Jaguar Paw is taken away, and the stage is set for him to attempt to escape and return to his family.

I won’t reveal much more, but this film has one of the best chase scenes in cinematic history. There are many Gibson-esque moments throughout the film that reminded me of watching Braveheart over a decade ago. It’s really too bad that Gibson helped ruin the release of one of his best works by his bizarre drunken anti-semitic rant last year. The film stands taller than its troubled director.

I will give one warning: the movie does depict a lot of violence. It’s not as bloody as The Passion of the Christ, but the body count does compare with Braveheart.

[9 out of 10]

Fountain of confusion

The Fountain

In order to give his film The Fountain longevity, director Darren Aronofsky reportedly refused to use CGI effects to create the beautiful, nebula-like atmosphere that serves as a the story’s backdrop. Aronofsky might as well have gone with the CGI. Taking its name from a reference to the mythical Fountain of Youth, the lifespan of The Fountain is sure to be brief.

Beautifully shot and adequately acted by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, The Fountain fails in offering the viewer a plot that is a little too multifaceted. Within the context of a search for eternal life, we see allegories to the Christian Eucharist, Buddhist nirvana, and Mayan pagan rituals. Needless to say, none of these disparate themes blend together, leaving the viewer (this one, anyway) scratching his head.

The Fountain tries too hard to be deep, and ends up a bubbling brook.

[5 out of 10]

Bear Grylls Facts

I’m excited about the return tonight of the Discovery Channel series, “Man vs. Wild.” If you haven’t seen it, you should. Former British special forces adventurer-extraordinaire Bear Grylls parachutes into a remote location with only a knife, a flint, a water bottle (and a camera crew that refuses to give him aid). His goal is to survive long enough to find civilization, and along the way show us, the viewers, how to survive in the wild. It’s great fun to see just how Bear Grylls will find food, shelter, and fend off the wildlife.

Bear Grylls is a tough guy. Anybody who can drink water out of elephant dung or kill a fish by breaking its back — with his mouth — is a force with which to be reckoned.

That’s why, in the spirit of Chuck Norris Facts, Jack Bauer Facts, and Fred Thompson Facts, I’ve decided to enter the realm of internet copycatism and create a list of Bear Grylls Facts. Here they are:

  • It is a known fact that Bear Grylls once broke his back during a parachute accident while in the British Special Forces. Lesser known is the fact that he built a makeshift hospital in the wilderness and performed back surgery on himself using only a knife, a flint, and a water bottle.
  • In the wild, Bear Grylls eats all kinds of bugs and twigs for the protein. In civilization, he eats spare car parts for the iron.
  • Bear Grylls’ peculiar name is derived from two things: his favorite food, and the manner in which he likes to cook it.
  • When Bear Grylls got married, he was so excited that he forgot to bring his wife on the honeymoon — but he did remember to bring his knife, a flint, and a water bottle.

Those are just a few (I know, I could do better…). I’ll try to add other facts as I “discover” them. Anyone else know any “facts” about Bear Grylls?

DVD Roundup

Some DVDs I’ve watched since the beginning of the year:

Stranger Than Fiction: It’s hard to take Will Ferrell seriously, and for some strange reason, that’s why this story works — seriously. A great philosophical film with laughs along the way. [7 out of 10]

The Prestige: Any film directed by Christopher Nolan is worth seeing. While I figured out the twist in this movie pretty early, it still held my interest. The plot is slightly too complicated for it to be one of the all time greats, but it’s creative nevertheless. Great acting by Michael Caine and Christian Bale. [7 out of 10]

The Illusionist: This film is the one that’s like The Prestige, but not quite as good. I figured out this movie’s “twist” even earlier, but Edward Norton’s eeriness is enough to keep you watching. [6 out of 10]

The Holiday: All guys (at least the ones who know what’s good for them) know that sooner or later, they’ll have to watch a chick flick. A word to the wise: make sure it’s not this one. Two hours you can’t get back. [2 out of 10]

Click: This movie surprised me. I expected, well, an Adam Sandler movie. What I got instead, was a somewhat thought-provoking Capra-esque tale. [6 out of 10]

Superman Returns: Yawn. What can I say? The Man of Steel is a bit rusty in this one. Imagine Pierce Brosnan doing an impersonation of Sean Connery and passing it off as playing Bond. Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve, so why does he try to be? [5 out of 10]

Casino Royale: Since we’re talking about Bond, Casino Royale is without a doubt the best Bond movie in modern history. The opening scene will leave you shaken and stirred. [7 out of 10]

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days: One of the best I’ve seen in a long time. This beautiful, yet terrifying true story of students imprisoned for resisting the Nazis in 1943 Germany will stick with you for a long time. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but it has a lot of Christian parallels. Hauntingly good. [9 out of 10]

A Failed Flags of Our Fathers

There’s a scene early in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers where, after landing upon Iwo Jima in an eerily quiet manner, the U.S. Marines peer into a dense fog and wonder to each other why they had been permitted to enter the island with such ease. The marines knew something was coming — they just didn’t know the when or what. Much like the fog, an impending ambush hung in the air.

Sadly, this scene serves as a template for the film.

Flags of Our Fathers is the story of the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima atop Mt. Suribachi. The flag-raising, captured in the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph, sent the soldiers who raised it home on a tour to raise war bonds. A son of one of these soldiers, James Bradley, wrote Flags of Our Fathers to look at the lives of each of these men through the lens of the flag-raising. The book is an engaging, sometimes poignant look at men who found extraordinary courage in their ordinary lives.

Eastwood’s Flags, however, is a war story without a story — a patchwork without narrative. The film goes back and forth, starting with a flashback that begins in the middle of the film’s timeline. Narrators switch back and forth without introduction, and character development is nearly nonexistent. There is no focus in Flags, not the memories, not the war, not the propaganda tour, and certainly not the soldiers.

A bleak chaos rules the film, darkened even by the desaturated Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers–style film techniques. After all, the director’s explicit agenda in this and Letters from Iwo Jima, its sister film, is not to glorify war:

The two films “are not pro-war stories,” Eastwood said. “They are stories about the human condition of war and how tough that is on people, and the futility of war.”

Eastwood’s rigid adherence to this agenda becomes the movie’s undoing — the film’s constant disjointedness is Eastwood’s round-about way of showing the disjointedness of war. If this is the case, Eastwood forgets one important truth: while battles (and even war campaigns) may indeed be disjointed, they still sit within a larger narrative of history. Where there are people, there are stories. Eastwood’s hapless portrayal of these unassuming heroes does them a disservice.

You can never out dance him, or out think him in his mind…

I had never heard of it until last week, but when I was told that watching the 1991 documentary “The Dancing Outlaw” would change my life, I was skeptical. After seeing it this weekend, my life will never be the same.

The fact that is that Jesco White, the last of the mountain dancers, is for real, and has to be seen to be believed. That is all I can say. Just watch it, and it will be in your head for the rest of your life.

You can watch it on the internet here, and order the DVD here.


Evil is most fearsome when it is encompassed in a person, and few persons throughout history have encompassed evil as well as Adolf Hitler. It is hard for most people to even conceive of someone like Hitler, but imagine trying to play him in a movie. When it comes to tyrants, most films go overboard — the tyrant either comes off as a caricatured villian with the requisite sinister laugh, or he is made to look too “human,” with his terrible actions beyond his control.

Downfall avoids both extremes, and in doing so makes for one of the scariest and compelling World War II films ever made. Chronicling the last days of Hitler’s regime in Berlin, the story is largely based on the testimony of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge. That the film is in German (with English subtitles, of course) helps the overall feel, and the performance of Bruno Ganz as “Der Führer” is both riveting and revulsive. You may recognize Ganz from his role as Staupitz in the 2003 film Luther. In Downfall, you will only recognize him as Hitler.

This film is not for children, and it is certainly not for the faint of heart. The maniacal behaviors of Hitler and his confidants (most notably the Goebbels) are vivid reminders of the evil that can exist within the human heart, as if we really needed such a reminder today.

My rating: 8 out of 10

Katie Couric’s Connectedness

The “news” that Katie Couric will assume the mantle of Dan Rather as CBS’s chief newsreader is no more interesting than that age-old debate of whether or not a tree falling in the woods makes a sound. If no one is there, does anybody hear it?

Considering the ads that run during the evening news, most marketers seem to think that unless you need the Purple Pill, Depends undergarments, Arthritis medicine (ask your doctor!), or a host of other geriatric-aimed products, odds are that you don’t watch the evening news anyway.

Evening newsreaders come and go, but something in Ms. Couric’s announcement was telling of the age in which we live:

Actually there are some things that are new. I guess this is the appropriate time for me to share my future plans. I wanted to tell all of you out there who have watched the show for the past 15 years that, after listening to my heart and my gut, two things that have served me well in the past, I’ve decided I’ll be leaving “Today” at the end of May.

It was really a very difficult decision for a lot of reasons. First of all because of the connection I feel with you. I know I don’t know the vast majority of you personally and it may sound kind of corny, but I really feel as if we’ve become friends through the years.

And you’ve been with me during a lot of good times. And some very difficult ones as well. And hopefully, I’ve been there for you.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the support you all have given me. And I so appreciate that you’ve included me in your morning routine.

Speaking into the camera, Couric said, “it may sound kind of corny, but I really feel as if we’ve become friends through the years.” Kinda corny? Kinda.

I wonder how many of Katie’s so-called “friends” could call her up and invite her over to dinner with any success? To how many of these “friends” does she send Christmas cards? How many of these “friends” does she help move or visit in the hospital?

It’s easy to poke fun at Katie Couric. Sadly however, whether we like it or not, the pervasive shallowness that accompanies mass culture affects us all. How many celebrities — whether they be newsreaders, actors, writers, or radio personalities — do we consider our “friends?” How many true friends do we sacrifice at the expense of these anonymous relationships?

The proverb tells us, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17:17, ESV) The self-indulgence of celebrities like Couric allows them to see their mass–broadcasted selves as achieving a real sort of connectedness. Compared with the proverb, it makes one wonder just how connected we in the age of connectivity really are…