Dec 30, 2014

Holiday Movie Marathon: Annie

Winter Break can be fun.  The kids are out long enough for travel.  There are some BIG events to celebrate - for us the includes two birthdays, Christmas, and New Year's Eve/Day.  But it also can be trying for parents as they deal with the roller coaster of emotions from their kids.  There is the massive high of Christmas, followed by the doldrums of the week after Christmas, followed by the excitement of staying up late on New Year's Eve, followed by the crabbiness from staying up late.  That all culminates with the depressing realization that school is about to start.  I find it humorous that this actually worked its way into a traditional Christmas song.  "And mom and dad can't hardly wait for school to start again," snuck into It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. 

To combat that second week complaining and boredom, I decided to take the kids to catch up on all the movies we have not been able to go to this Fall.  There was a glut of family-friendly films that were released in November and December.  We just haven't found the time or resources to attend.  So this week is our Holiday Movie Marathon.  It doesn't have to be a "holiday movie."  It just needs to be a movie that came out over the holiday season.  The tentative lineup is as follows: Annie, Hobbit 3, Big Hero 6, Penguins of Madagascar, and Night at the Museum 3.  If I can find a way for Heather and I to see Mockingjay, that would be great.  Since I have been a horrible slacker at my writing, I figured I could use this marathon to force myself to post.  So we'll kick things off with Annie.

I used to say I hated musicals.  But that isn't really true.  I don't mind good musicals.  I know some people gripe about the unrealistic elements of this genre: people busting out in song everywhere, everyone knowing the dance moves, stuff like that.  Basically all of the stuff Patrick Dempsey's character said in Enchanted.  The way I figure, my favorite movies are usually superhero or sci-fi films.  Am I really someone to complain about realism?  My shelf of movies include talking raccoons, guys in iron suits, a billionaire dressed like a bat, and multiple science-ignoring spacecrafts.  I think I waved bye bye to realistic a long time ago.  I love Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera.  I have enjoyed Frozen, Chicago, Enchanted, The Muppets.  So we will get that out of the way.  I think some older musicals are just stupid.  It isn't because they are musicals, per se.  It is because they try to find ways to shoehorn weird musical pieces into films where they don't belong.  Take the entire NYC scene from Singin' In The Rain - one of the weirdest scenes in all of moviedom.  Another example would be from White Christmas, where they are rehearsing in Vermont and they do the double shot of the Minstrel Show and the weird dance number.  It was like they said, "Hey there is this cool song, but it doesn't make any sense.  Any way we can come up with a dream sequence or a hallucination scene?"  (Kind of like Glee, when they had Mr Schu with a high fever.)

I have seen the "original" Annie, with Albert Finney and Carol Burnett.  It was good.  I'm not super attached to it or to the story itself.  There are some very recognizable songs that are pretty cool.  And It's a Hard Knock Life made it possible for both the Jay-Z rap AND the Dr Evil/Mini Me version of that rap. So you've got that going for the movie.  My kids like the older version, which they saw after they saw the previews of this new version.  But I wasn't going to be offended that this new movie came out.  It was a movie that could be remade without too much discomfort.

I really liked the new Annie.  It was a fun movie.  You know how some movies are exciting and some are intense and some are thought-provoking?  This movie was fun.  I felt good watching it.  I like movies like that once in a while.  Sure, I also like the darker middle child of trilogies, where hope is lost and the movie ends with great gravitas.  But I appreciate a good fun movie.  This is probably why I am such a big fan of the Oceans Eleven series.  They are enjoyable to experience.  Annie was similar.  I know that some people have jumped onto the portrayal of foster families and how we see orphans in today's society.  But I will let people better versed in those topics debate.  For me, I know that not all foster kids go through the pain that Annie experienced.  But I'm sure there are also some who have it much worse.  However, the movie was not a dramatic examination of the foster system.  Annie's situation was bad enough to make her move to the upper crust sufficiently inspiring.  But it wasn't traumatic.

The two things I most appreciated about the movie were the cleverness and the music.  I really like a clever movie - one that rewards the viewer for paying attention to little details.  This can be through running gags or hidden visual gems or throwaway lines.  Annie was well stocked with these elements.  There were references to the older movie, to the silliness of musicals in general, to our society's infatuation with technology and social media, and even to the behind the scenes people (Will Smith and Jay-Z produced the movie - remember that when Jamie Foxx's Will Stacks is giving a speech early on in the film).  And there was a running gag about how Cameron Diaz's foster parent used to be in C+C Music Factory - you have to keep your eyes peeled for just how many nods to that concept were made.  The kids didn't pick up on all of these things, but Heather and I did.  It is kind of like how Pixar and Dreamworks will sneak in adult jokes for the parents.  They were significant enough that it amplified the enjoyment factor.

The music was the other main attraction.  They kept the original songs, but revised them to a modern audience.  I really like the new adaptations.  But there also were several new songs that really fit into the culture of the movie.  I actually had a hard time remembering which songs were pre-existing and which were new.  I'm sure Jay-Z being involved in the film didn't hurt.  But the biggest star of the film had to be Sia Furler.  She goes by Sia as a musician and her song Chandelier was one of the biggest pop hits of 2014.  One thing I can say with confidence is that she is a very talented musician.  Her voice is fantastic and powerful, and she does contribute it to several pieces.  But her ability to modernize the music, but also to bring the nostalgia to the newer songs impressed me.

Great music wouldn't be anything without great performances.  I wasn't that impressed with Rose Byrne's voice.  And Cameron Diaz was comically over-the-top most of time (I hope that was intentional).  For the first hour of the movie, I was afraid that Annie would make the same mistake with Jamie Foxx that Enchanted did with Idina Menzel.  (I am still bitter that Idina never sang in that film.  Why?  WHY!?!)  But then Foxx got his chance.  It really isn't surprising that he did a stellar job.  I mean, he played Ray Charles and has had a very respectable music career.  I was impressed by the emotion he conveyed as well.  Every time he sang was a treat.  But the overwhelming star of the movie was Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie.  This little girl is someone to keep your eyes on.  She already has an Oscar nomination under her belt for Beast of the Southern Wild - a movie I am now ten times more likely to watch on Netflix thanks to Annie.  Wallis is such a mature actress for someone so young.  She brings such amazing emotion to her performance.  And she is a dang good singer.  For a movie like this to work, the child actor has to be something truly special.  Wallis certainly fits that bill.  I really hope she is able to translate this to a successful career and is able to avoid the trap so many child actors fall into.

As far as appropriateness for kids, I was very pleased at how Annie was able to pull off its PG rating. There was one character that drank a lot.  The cursing was very minimal.  There was not a lot of sexual content.  There was hardly anything remotely violent.  And one thing I really appreciated was that Annie herself was not snotty and disrespectful to adults.  There was some of that behavior, but it was so mild compared to television shows like Jessie.  Annie's attitude towards life was so positive that it was enough to convey any "superiority" to adults without an overdose of snark and sarcasm.  Overall, I felt Annie was a real success.  It was a good remake and a positive, enjoyable movie.  I have no problem recommending it, purchasing it, or buying the soundtrack.  And I look forward to seeing where its star goes in her career.

Sep 30, 2014

Too Big To Fail?

Americans are comfortable with a little bit of corruption.  It almost is like we have grown to accept that it is just going to happen and we just need to deal with it.  We have lived through so many different scandals that we have developed a very cynical nature.  There have been so many movies based on government conspiracies that I would wager most Americans believe that there is always some level of conspiracy going on.  It's just how it is.

There are two instances where Americans will no longer deal silently with corruption.  The first is when it starts to affect our life - especially our wallet.  As long as it is someone else's problem, it isn't a problem.  But when it becomes my problem, then we have a problem.  We had an animal living in the pond behind our house.  Well, we have a lot of animals living out there: turtles, fish, ducks, Canadian geese.  But we had this weird animal out there.  I would see it swimming along from time to time.  It looked like a beaver.  I would see it slithering through and diving under the lily pads.  I found out from some of my outdoorsy friends that it was a nutria - basically a giant river rat.  I liked watching it.  Well, one of my neighbors didn't think it was such a cute animal.  Apparently its activities were infringing on my neighbor's happiness.  The rat would come up into the lady's yard and eat her plants.  It would gnaw on the wooden wall constructed to keep water out of the yard.  And the leftovers from its snacks was clogging up our spillway, causing flooding in that yard.  To me, it wasn't an issue.  My yard has a very steep incline, so flooding is not a problem.  I have a fence around my yard, so the rat wasn't going to come up on my property.  But this lady starting making a stink.  She had a few other homeowners on her side due to garden and flooding damage.  She brought it before the HOA Board (which we both are on) and wanted us to pay to have the eradication done.  On top of it all, she was all weird about the animal being killed - which we all knew would be the outcome.  It was going to cost $800 to clear the pond.  I asked how much it cost for a box of bullets.  She didn't appreciate that suggestion.  Now it became my problem.  I didn't want the HOA to spend hundreds of dollars to pull this animal out.  It wasn't bothering me, personally.  I didn't even realize it was a problem at all.   (Things have a funny way of working themselves out.  The rat got run over by a car a couple of weeks later ... before we paid to clear the pond.  I had nothing to do with it.  Promise.)

This is kind of how we approach corruption in the US.  It isn't my problem.  It isn't hurting me.  Don't rock the boat.  But if it encroaches on my comfort, all heck breaks loose.  Look at the investment banking scandal of a few years ago.  Or the Enron/big business scandal.  Or the subprime mortgage collapse.  Or the automaker fiasco.  Those issues had been bubbling for years.  Was anyone surprised that financial advisors were cheating?  I doubt that.  What year did Wall Street come out?  We had been through all of this before, just with different financial elements.  Instead of junk bonds it was Ponzi schemes.  Was the subprime mortgage problem a shock?  How could it be?  How long could banks hand out mortgages to people who couldn't afford to pay for them before the process collapsed?  We know in the back of our minds that things are not always above board with companies, governments, industries, celebrities.  But we turn a blind eye and convince ourselves things may be different this time.  Until it interferes with our life.

The other instance were corruption gets us riled up is when it become blatant.  This is kind of a corollary of the first instance.  Instead of it interfering with our wallets or our lives, it interferes with our comfort.  It makes us feel embarrassed and awkward.   How could we have let this go on?  It makes us look bad.  We frequently see this with celebrities.  We cut actors, musicians, "reality" stars a lot of slack in our country.  It is like we know that they are going to make questionable choices and we are fine with that, as long as it is kept quiet.  If they want to smoke weed, that's fine.  Just don't do it in a park.  If they want to do lines of coke in the bathroom at the Chateau Marmont, that's fine.  Just don't film it and post it on Twitter.  If they want to run a dog fighting ring, so be it.  Just don't advertise the fights.  When those private foibles become public scandals, we throw our hands up in mock indignation.  "How could they do this?!?"  What we are really asking is "how could they be so blatant in their stupidity?"

If you don't think this is accurate, I want you to think back a few years to the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal.  Vick was going along as a maddeningly erratic and fragile quarterback when we all started to hear about his involvement in a dog-fighting ring.  There were the usual denials, followed by proof of the existence of the ring.  Vick got arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his role in the whole thing.  During the whole process, we heard about how this is a cultural issue.  In the culture that Vick grew up, dog fighting was an acceptable practice.  Vick didn't know that it was a problem.  But it went public and we all went crazy.  Now, think about this.  In the years since Vick's dog fighting ring went public, how many dog fighting rings have you heard about being broken up by the cops?  With the amount of public outrage over Vick's crimes, you would think dog fighting is completely detestable in our country.  And in the dialogue, we kept hearing about how this was cultural - meaning that there are more of these rings going on right now.  Thinking back to how people wanted Vick banned for life from the NFL and imprisoned for a hundred years, shouldn't we have formed some kind of task force to uncover and shut down these dog fighting rings?  We know they are out there, right?  Why aren't there federal agents played by a young Kevin Costner busting into warehouses and backyards across the country, leading dozens of people into paddy wagons?  It isn't happening because it isn't blatantly in our face any more.  It slinked back into the shadows and we left it alone.  As long as Amanda Bynes isn't hurling phones and bongs out of hotel windows, Charlie Sheen isn't showing up drunk for interviews, Justin Bieber isn't racing his silver rocket car through rush hour traffic, these people can be crazy all they want.  Just don't embarrass us with your crazy.  Don't get your crazy on me.  As long as your favorite NCAA team keeps its player payments, arrests, and false test scores quiet, it is fine.  But if it becomes blatant, the team gets blistered.

All of this has come to mind as I observe the NFL.  The National Football League is a mammoth industry that generates gobs of money.  Its influence is not just felt in cities with teams, although those cities certainly do benefit a great deal.  Its presence on television brings huge ratings and advertising dollars to those channels.  Hundreds of companies are intertwined with the NFL: restaurants (McDonald's), soda companies (Pepsi), shoe companies (Nike), computer companies (Lenovo, Microsoft), pizza companies (Papa John's).  It goes on and on.  The NFL took in $1.07 billion from sponsorships last year.  The last television contract was for $8 billion.  That included CBS paying $275 million for the rights to simulcast Thursday night NFL games along with the NFL Network.  They don't have any exclusive rights.  Think about this - CBS is the number one network on television.  On Thursday night they already had the number one comedy show on television.  But they were willing to juggle their entire schedule for the right to run games that were already being shown on another network.  The NFL is enormous.

The spillover effect of the NFL leaves its mark on college and high school athletics.  As technological, medical, and pharmaceutical breakthroughs find success in the NFL, they work their way down the chain.  The same goes for game planning.  And for coaching techniques.  And for desired athlete qualities.  Yes, some things work their way back up the chain like the Nike and Under Armor uniforms from Oregon and Maryland or the wildcat formation.  But for every one innovation that swims upstream, a hundred flow back down.  As the offensive linemen in the NFL got larger and faster, that desirability moved down through the ranks.  As quarterbacks needed to become more mobile, that quality was harvested from below.  In addition to qualities trickling down, so did behavior.  The NFL players make a lot of high risk, high reward plays.  Defensive backs would launch themselves at wide receivers.  Kick coverage teams fly around with reckless abandon.  Running backs put their heads down and bull forward.  Soon college and then high school players began to play the same way.

Through all of this, doctors were concerned about the overall health of younger football players.  Only 6 percent of high school senior players will play in college.  Only 1.7 percent of college seniors will get drafted by the NFL.  That means 0.08% of high school players will ever make it to the NFL.  Out of every 1,000 high school players, not even one will make it to the NFL.  But that allure keeps players striving and aiming to be that one in a thousand.  So, even though there are numerous health risks, players keep going.  Offensive lineman pack on weight to reach the right size, even though they don't do it the right way and are really just massively obese.  Young teens start weight training before doctors would advise that practice.  These students tear up their knees, ankles, backs and doom themselves to a lifetime of pain.  They sow the seeds of drug addictions by using painkillers at a disturbing rate - in addition to other pills like amphetamines and steroids.

Then there is the risk of concussions.  Actually, it shouldn't even be called a risk anymore.  It has basically crossed the line to an occupational hazard.  The numbers are horrifying.  I've talked about concussions before on this blog and there is a ton of research out there telling the truth about concussion dangers.  Players get into dozens of collisions every game that are equivalent to a car crash.  Some players estimate that they get into two to three plays per game that ring their bells and possibly give them a minor concussion.  More and more players are talking about how they already have memory loss.  Bret Favre, who has only been out of the game for a couple years, said he routinely forgets where he is or why he went there.  Former players are committing suicide at an alarming rate.  There are massive health repercussions from ALS to depression to Alzheimer's.

Now we are facing the specter of domestic violence as well.  Ray Rice punches his fiancee out in an elevator and gets suspended for two games.  The NFL reconsidered its punishment after the country lost its collective mind once the video footage hit the airwaves.  Rice's lawyer has complained this is the NFL equivalent of double jeopardy, being tried for the same crime twice.  They actually have some valid arguments there.  There is just too much evidence that the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL knew the extent of Rice's actions and covered it up.  So because they got busted and went into damage control mode, Rice got his contract terminated and his ability to play in the NFL revoked.  Adrian Peterson, one of the biggest stars in the league, beat his four year old son so savagely that he had a dozen open lacerations on his body.  I won't say he disciplined his son because this goes far beyond discipline.  I have kids and understand the concept of punishment.  I also have seen discipline that crossed the line when I was a child.  Peterson was not just punishing his son; he was taking out his anger and frustration on him.  He obviously was not in control in that moment.  And it makes me wonder how many other times that had happened.

At the same moment all of this was happening, several other players were being charged with domestic violence crimes.  The owner of the Dallas Cowboys was being investigated for sexual impropriety - which was largely brushed off because the statute of limitations had expired.  As I watched the reactions of America, it was like it couldn't decide what to do.  This level of corruption and horrific behavior usually would have triggered our offense mechanisms.  But something stopped that.  It was like the fact that it was football and we all love football halted us from going further.  We got angry about Ray Rice and he was punished.  But it stopped there.  Some people were angry about Peterson, but others defended him because it fell under "corporal punishment" and no one wants to step on that issue.  He was deactivated for one game while the investigation started.  But the Vikings actually reinstated him for the next week before a bunch of people lost their minds and the team reconsidered.  In the midst of all of this, the commissioner understandably came under fire for his gross ineptitude.  He scrambled and danced in his press conference and managed to deflect the anger.

To be completely honest, I am fed up with all of it.  I am angry.  I have loved football as long as I have known about sports.  I have great memories watching football: Sunday afternoons with my dad, Super Bowl parties, UCF games, Jaguar games.  But I have reached a breaking point.  This year, I have watched very little football.  I have opportunities.  Last night I was sitting on the couch watching TV and flipping over to the game never entered my mind.  I shuttered my fantasy football league this year that I had run for over a decade.  This isn't just a busy dad finding other things to do.  This year should be the year I want to see the NFL the most.  My favorite team (the Jaguars) drafted a UCF player (Blake Bortles) who is now their starting quarterback.  I know his mom.  She taught both of my sons in preschool.  I remember him as a middle schooler.  I should be glued to the tv during the season.  But I just can't.

I'm not the only one that feels this way.  My favorite sportswriter is Bill Simmons.  I have read his stuff since he first got signed by ESPN.  I love his writing style and his passion for sports.  But I also love the fact that he is a fan first.  He is irate over all of this.  He has been attacking commissioner Goodell for his role in these scandals.  Finally Simmons snapped on a podcast and went off on the commissioner.  He called him a liar - something that the media almost universally has agreed upon.  The end result?  ESPN suspended Simmons for three full weeks without pay.  What!?!  A media member has been questioning the NFL for weeks and finally says what many fans are thinking.  And he gets suspended?  For three weeks!!!  To recap, Ray Rice was originally suspended for two weeks for punching his fiancee so hard she fell backwards and got knocked unconscious.  Then he dragged her out of the elevator like a sack of flour.  Two weeks.  Stephen A Smith, another ESPN personality who is a complete idiot, got suspended for one week for basically saying not to judge Ray Rice too quickly and that the fiancee "may have had it coming."  One week.  Adrian Peterson was originally suspended for one week for savagely beating his four year old.  The other domestic cases originally had no suspensions.  Mike Tirico, another ESPN turd, has been accused of several instances sexual impropriety with no suspensions.  Jerry Jones, owner of the Cowboys, was accused of sexual impropriety with no suspension.  Bill Simmons, tired of all of this bull, went off and was suspended for three weeks.  Why?  Because ESPN is the biggest partner of the NFL and pays $1.7 billion a year to show Monday Night Football.  The NFL told ESPN to get Simmons under control.  You don't believe that happened?  There is precedent.  Years ago, ESPN ran an original series entitled Playmakers that was supposedly based on the NFL.  There was drug use, rape, racism, homophobia.  The NFL threatened to pull out of their relationship with ESPN if the show wasn't cancelled.  Boom.  The show is gone.

I don't get it.  The NFL makes a giant deal about women's issues in October for breast cancer awareness month.  It is the only time players can wear non-uniform elements, as long as they are pink.  But there are players beating up their girlfriends, fiancees, and wives and the NFL does nothing.  And we, as viewers, seem shocked.  Why?  These guys are hopped up on so many supplements and chemicals.  They are in a culture where rage and lack of control is encouraged on the playing field.  How long did we think it would take before that spilled over into their homes?  Didn't professional wrestling teach us anything?  Look at the number of former wrestlers who have died early, committed suicide, attacked their significant others.  One of the saddest stories was Chris Benoit.  He was considered a good guy.  Then he killed his wife, his son, and himself.  Why?  Depression, concussion damage, steroid damage.  "Well that's an extreme case!"  Really?

December 2012.  Kansas City, Missouri.  Twenty-two year old Kansas City Chief player, Javon Belcher, drives to the Chief's facilities.  He shoots himself in front of the head coach and general manager.  It turns out he had murdered his girlfriend earlier.  His body was exhumed last year and last week we found out that his brain showed evidence of CTE - the damage caused by concussions that causes people to lose their memories and control of themselves.  He was 22.  Look at the erratic behavior exhibited by NFL players.  Donte Stallworth is speeding and strikes and kills a man in Miami.  Ray Lewis (doesn't) stab a man to death in a parking lot.  Plaxico Burress shoots himself in the leg.  Josh Gordon keeps failing drug tests.  Jonathan Martin and Richie Icognito have the most unhealthy and bizarre friendship ever, complete with accusations of bullying and racism.  Jadaveon Clowney gets busted for driving over 100 mph down Interstate 77 twice in a week.  There is a laundry list of this stuff.  How long until this boils over?  How long until the corruption is actually bad enough to make us do something?  It is already blatant.  It is already out of control.  But I guess it hasn't affected us personally enough yet.

In 1991 there was a movie that came out called The Last Boy Scout.  It starred Damon Wayans, Bruce Willis, and Halle Berry.  It wasn't a very good movie.  It took place in the world of professional football with Wayans as a pro player and Willis as a detective or something.  There were tons of scenes that hinted at the excesses in the NFL: drugs, sex, money, ignoring injuries.  But one scene has always stuck with me.  It was one of the opening scenes.  A player was taking back a kickoff and pulled out a gun and started shooting the would-be tacklers until he scored and then shot himself.  It came out that this player was in deep with gambling debts and he felt he had to score to keep his family safe.  I thought that was ridiculous.  What player would shoot other players on the field like that?  Less than 25 years later, would you honestly be that shocked if something like that actually happened?  Chances are, it would be stunning.  But not shocking.  That should show you there is a problem.  If a sport actually has fostered an environment where a murder on the field would not be spin-your-head crazy, that sport is out of control.  My question is if that possible tragedy would even be enough to take down the NFL.

Sep 12, 2014

Thirteen Things I Love About My Son

Today, my oldest offspring exits childhood and enters adolescence.  That’s right: I am the father of a teenager.  To be perfectly honest, this terrifies me.  It is like the opening scene of a horror movie.  At least I would assume it is like the opening scene of a horror movie, not ever watching horror movies or ever having a teenager before.  I just know that the teen years are often characterized by people as very combative.  There is a lot of arguing, repeating yourself, wondering where your child’s brain went, arguing, teaching, praying, worrying, arguing, and arguing.  I’m not looking forward to that.  We have always said that Josiah has a lot of similar characteristics to me.  And I was a relatively easy teenager to deal with (compared to the stereotypical nightmare).  So maybe we will be fortunate.  Maybe all of that dread will end up being for naught.  

Either way, to mark the exit of my dear Josiah from child to teenager, here are the thirteen things I absolutely love about my son. 

1. He is unbelievably artistic.
Josiah has always had artistic ability.  Those people who have known him for a long time have marveled at his talents since he was a little guy.  And these have certainly never diminished.  He is an incredible artist.  There are certain styles he likes (Wimpy Kid, Lego, Mincecraft) and he can turn anything into those styles.  It is quite cool to see.  But he also can come up with his own stuff.  I wrote a children’s book and I needed it illustrated.  On a whim, sitting in carline one day, I asked him if he could draw me his version of the character.  Two minutes later, he shows me a picture and asks, “How’s that?”  It was perfect.  It was better than I had imagined it, but exactly how I had imagined it.  So he’s illustrating my book.  I am constantly amazed at his art skills.

2. More than just artistic, he is unbelievably creative.
There is a difference between artistic and creative.  One of the things I have always loved about Josiah is how he can create entire story lines and worlds out of nothing.  He got a stuffed dog for his birthday years and years ago.  Over the years, that dog has expanded to a whole group of stuffed dogs.  Natalie and Gabe also have a large collection of dogs.  Josiah came up with “Puppy World” for these dogs.  It changes and grows.  I will sit downstairs and listen to them playing the latest iteration of it and smile, impressed at how intricate everything is.  Josiah does origami, writes, sculpts, draws, and creates games.  I told him years ago that he has the creativity and brain power to create something on the level of Star Wars or Harry Potter.  I think he could end up like George Lucas, JK Rowling, or James Cameron - crafting a massive universe out of just his own creative mind.

3. His sense of humor
For a long time, I bemoaned that my son had no sense of humor.  I am generally considered a humorous guy.  So it vexed me a great deal that Josiah didn’t get my jokes.  And when he did joke, it wasn’t funny and was often inappropriate (not dirty, just not appropriate for the situation or conversation).  But, as he has gotten older, he has become extremely witty and funny.  Example - I recently purchased a waterproof bluetooth speaker for in the shower because, you know, dancing on a wet surface is a great plan.  I told the kids that it also could do phone calls.  Josiah chirped in, “And it can Face Time.  ‘Hey, AHH! Why am I talking to you in the shower?’”  

4. How he plays with Gabe
There is six years between Gabe and Josiah.  That is a pretty big gap.  My brother and I were five years apart, so I know that there can be difficulties between brothers with that kind of difference.  But Josiah and Gabe play together a LOT.  It may not always be smooth sailing, but it is really neat to see how they play together.  Minecraft, Angry Birds, MarioKart, Puppy World.  There are some days where they play all day together.  Of course, there are some days where they fight seemingly non-stop.  But we’ll focus on the good stuff for today.

5. His sweet heart
Josiah undeniably has a very sweet heart.  He deeply loves the people in his world.  Actually, that love also extends to animals, too.  We have been boarding a dog for on of Heather’s cousins.  The dog had been with us for four months.  He got picked up last weekend by his family so he could be closer to them down in Florida.  Josiah cried for two hours after Jaskee left.  He has that level of affection for things.  I remember when we would go and visit my mom or Heather’s parents.  When we left, Josiah would be despondent.  He missed them so badly.  He knows that Natalie has a hard time sleeping, so he will let her sleep in the top bunk of his room whenever she needs to.  I love the fact that he loves so deeply.  It will make him a great husband and father.

6. He puts up with me
Years ago, my kids came up with the word “funnoying” to describe me.  I was fun and annoying.  Josiah knows this better than most.  I mess with him a lot.  It isn’t a mean thing.  I think it is my way to connect with him and keep a level of closeness without the overt affection that a teenaged boy isn’t fond of from his dad.  Josiah puts up with me and, being honest, I think likes knowing that I care enough about him to be silly with him.  We actually have a very good time together in our silliness.

7. He is (mostly) patient with my ignorance
Josiah is our first child.  So that means he was our first toddler, our first kindergartener, our first teenager… I don’t know what to do in each of these seasons of life.  I try my best, but I am still learning on the job.  I make mistakes.  Josiah seems to understand that, which is awesome.  When I mess up, I apologize and we talk about it.  He knows that I am doing my best.  I know that he is doing his best.  That doesn’t make everything easy, but it means we still love each other through it all.  

8. He’s my movie buddy
Every dad needs a movie buddy.  Josiah is more than happy to go with me.  We have very similar movie tastes, so we look forward to the same films.  Marvel, Hobbit, Pixar.  My brother was my dad’s movie buddy.  I remember how much I wanted to be able to go with them.  It was the coolest thing when I was old enough to finally go and see Hunt for Red October and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  As a dad, I couldn’t wait until he was old enough to go with me.  

9. He is a great kid
There are times I wonder where Josiah’s brain went.  I mean, he is a teenager.  But the fact is that Josiah is a GREAT kid.  The stuff that we wrestle with is so minor compare to so many kids.  He wants to do the right things.  He doesn’t rebel or openly defy us (most of the time).  He stays out of trouble at school.  He doesn’t like it when the kids at school are acting up.  That is a priceless quality to have.  

10. His compassion
Going beyond his sweet heart, Josiah also has great compassion for others.  If he knows someone is hurting, it hurts him.  He empathizes so deeply with them, it makes it hard for him to stay calm.  There have been times where Natalie or Gabe have gotten hurt and Josiah has completely broken down.  Sure, in the moment it makes it much harder to deal with two people in distress than just one.  But I certainly would not want him to lose that compassion.  On those instances where I have hurt myself or have had my RA flare up, he wants to make sure that I get taken care of too.  This will pay off buckets when I am old and need a kid to feed me.  :)

11. His candy hoard
Josiah doesn’t eat his candy.  He hoards it.  Easter, Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, End of the Year.  When we moved from Orlando and packed up the boys’ room, there were buckets and bags of candy stashed different places.  What is so great about that?  Well, if I am having a hankering for Skittles, I know right where to go.  And, since he doesn’t have any clue how much candy he has, he never knows I just pilfered his stash.  Now that I think about it, that’s a pretty selfish reason.  I’ll try again.

11. His saving nature
Josiah doesn’t like to burn through things.  He hangs onto stuff, like candy or money.  He has saved up money on two different occasions to purchase something he wanted, putting off his immediate desires to get something better later on.  First, he saved up a bunch of money to buy the Lego Death Star.  But he instead used it to help buy our dog, Katie.  Then he saved up enough money again to but the Lego Death Star.  $400.  He gave up birthday and Christmas presents to get enough money saved.  Most kids that age won’t be that willing to save.  This could bode well for his financial future.

12. He is his own person
Josiah doesn’t try to be someone else.  He has his own personality and is content to be himself.  There are times as a parent I am trying to show him how he should change something - comb his hair, wear nicer outfits when going places.  But he is perfectly content to be himself.  He doesn’t like sports.  He knows I like sports.  He wants to be with me, but he just doesn’t like sports.  He likes t-shirts and shorts and tennis shoes.  He doesn’t like my music and doesn’t feel like he has to.  He is comfortable in his own skin.  How valuable of a quality is that?

13. He brings me joy and always has

I’ve told this story before, so I won’t elaborate.  One of the darkest days in US history was September 11, 2001.  The world seemingly fell apart before our eyes.  It was in that swirl of fear and uncertainty that Josiah was born.  As terrified as we all felt, I had this beautiful baby boy that had become part of my life.  It softened the pain and brought joy when there should have been none.  There have been many times where I have found joy in my kids when things were tough.  There are moments now when I am exhausted from work and weary in my body where I will sit on the couch and just watch the boys playing or look at some of Josiah’s artwork and smile.  It is like an external battery charge.  I love that I get to spend time alone with Josiah every afternoon as we wait in the carline for the elementary school to let out.  I love talking to him.  I have no doubt that God has big plans for him.  He is going to have a big impact on the people around him.  I can’t wait to see the man he becomes.  I am honored to be his dad.  Happy birthday, Josiah.  

Aug 24, 2014

I'm Retiring

At church today, the Pastor started a new series on the book of John.  Being a big fan of the Gospels, I appreciate that book.  However, I can honestly say that I have never done an in depth study on John.  I know that it is the "weirdest" of the Gospel books.  The first three are very straightforward narratives; John is more of a poetic emotional journey.  Pastor James pointed out some of the curious differences between John and the other Gospels: John has no exorcism stories, John has no parables, John never mentions the Apostle John by name.  This last point is one of the more interesting elements of the book.  Whenever it comes to a point in the story where John should appear, the author instead mentions "the Disciple who Jesus loved."

I have always found that strange.  Not strange like inappropriate or anything.  Just strange.  We know from the other Gospels that John was one of the closest circle of Jesus' Disciples.  There were several instances where Jesus took just Peter, James, and John with Him.  Jesus entrusted His mother to John at the crucifixion.  So John was closer to Jesus than most people, even more than the average Disciple.  But, still, it seemed like a weird way to identify yourself.  If John didn't want to call himself John, why didn't he say "me" or "I" instead.  (I doubt it was because he wasn't sure which pronoun case to use.  He did, after all, get the tricky who/whom thing figured out.)  Why go with a phrase like "the Disciple who Jesus loved?"  And wasn't that insulting to the other Disciples?  I mean, if I was Bartholomew, wouldn't it get tiresome to be constantly reminded that John was more special than me?  And don't give me that whole line of reasoning that these guys were the Disciples and they didn't have immature thoughts like that.  I think there are more than enough stories in the Gospels that refute that.  They get busted for arguing over who will be the greatest in Heaven.  James and John had their mom go and ask Jesus to put them in a special place in Heaven.  They chase kids away from spending time with Jesus.  They don't believe Jesus rose again.  They make a ton of boneheaded decisions.

So Pastor James addressed that very issue today.  And his explanation (cobbled together from his own thoughts and other sources I don't remember) follows thusly.  When we look in the other Gospels, we see John identified with a different nickname.  He and his brother, James, were tagged with "Sons of Thunder."  Now, if you were a wrestling tag team, that may not be so bad.  But if you are supposed to be a follower of a rabbi who is claiming to be the Messiah, that probably isn't the cred you hoped to attain.  What do you think of if someone is called a "Son of Thunder?"  What comes to my mind first of all is Thor, naturally.  At least in his early incarnations, Thor is brash and loud and impetuous and arrogant.  In the movie, he gets thrown down to Earth because of his hardheadedness.  He can be fun and he certainly is loyal.  But he doesn't think before he acts.  We see this even in the new line of comic books by Marvel where Thor gets stripped of his title and is basically left as some big dude wandering the Earth, trying to figure out what to do now.

So that's John.  Loud, temperamental, arrogant.  Is that an uncomfortable picture to paint of good ole St. John?  I mean, he's the guy lounging next to Jesus in The Last Supper.  He is all sissified and emasculated.  Hardly the kind of guy who would be labelled a troublemaker.  Again, how quickly we forget.  This is the same guy who wanted to rain down fire on an unbelieving community.  He wanted to get the choicest spot in Heaven so badly he had his mom ask Jesus for it.  And, later on in church history, he gets imprisoned, beaten up, and exiled to a deserted island.  (If you want to believe extra-biblical history, he may also have been burned with boiling oil.)  He may not have always been a boisterous talker.  Maybe he was quiet a lot, but when he got pushed to the limits he exploded like thunder.  Either way, his reputation was that he was not someone to be trifled with.

So, how did this person become the same guy who wrote John and the beautiful passages about love in 1 John?  That's exactly the reason that John chooses to identify himself the way he does in his book.  It is like he is constantly amazed at the transformation he underwent.  Instead of being known as a "son of thunder," he was now known as "the Disciple who Jesus loved."  He retired the former name and took on the new one.  He wanted everyone to understand that he was no longer the man he used to be.  That brash, explosive, angry young man was now completely changed by the love of Jesus.  When you look at it that way, it is not nearly so weird.  It isn't bragging.  It isn't boasting.  John was relating a similar opinion to that of Paul.  "If someone like this can change, then anyone can change."

All of this hit me in a profound way this morning because of a conversation I was having with my wife last night.  Heather had two days off back to back.  This rarely happens, mind you.  Rather than lounging around all day and taking a break, she spent most of the day organizing and purging our kitchen pantry.  When 10:30pm rolled around, she didn't feel like doing anything else and was sitting on the couch.  But she was still feeling a bit guilty about being lazy.  I disagreed with her assessment.  I said to her, "As a lazy person, I can definitely tell you that you are not lazy."  But then I took a pause.

For much of my life, I have been saddled with the label "lazy."  Sometimes other people would say it.  Many times I would say it.  I can honestly say that I have battled a lazy streak for much of my life.  I saw it manifest itself in my academics, where I did the least amount of work possible to get the grade I wanted.  It surfaced in my piano playing, where I played as long as it was easy and quit when it got hard.  I've seen it in jobs, in house upkeep, in tasks, in relationships, in diet.  Laziness has been a major struggle for me.  In much the same way, I have been labelled an "angry" person for much of my life.  Again, others would say this of me.  And I would say it of myself.  Another label I got tagged with was negative.  I was a human Eeyore.  I had several people (including a youth pastor) tell me I was the most negative person they had ever known.  All of those things were so accurate, I felt, that I pretty much saw myself that way.  I was an angry, lazy, negative person.  Those were not the only words I attributed to my life, but they certainly were ones that stood out the most.

I have spent a lot of time working on these things.  I know for a fact that for two years now, I have been making a concentrated effort on all of those struggles.  When we still lived in Orlando, I went to counseling with a wonderful man named Cary who helped me a great deal with those issues.  I remember talking to him one day and sharing a story.  In the middle of the story I said something like, "I'm an angry guy."  He stopped me right there and said, "Wait.  I want to dealt with what you just said."  He went on to say that he had counseled a lot of angry men.  And he never once thought of me as an angry man.  He said I was a guy that when I was pushed to my limits or was backed into a corner, I would explode to try to gain control of the situation.  (Sounds like the Sons of Thunder.)  But I was hardly an "angry man."  He pointed out that in all of our sessions, I had never raised my voice to him - even when I was upset with him.  He said that he actually thought of me as kind of quiet.  I had never heard anyone say that to me.

So, last night, I caught myself calling myself lazy.  Then I thought about it for a minute.  Let me share a series of numbers with you.  36.25, 36, 74.75, 71.50, 21, 50, 45.  Those are the hours I have worked over the last seven weeks at my "part time" job with Kaplan.  That doesn't count all of the hours I have to drive to get to tutoring clients.  It averages out to 47.7 hours a week.  That isn't lazy.  I am doing that while also trying to be the at-home parent, keep up with laundry, clean the house, cook dinner for my family and any other people who wander into our house.  I am training through three different curricula for Kaplan.  I have six tutoring clients.  At one point I had 46 classroom students between two classes.  That isn't lazy.  I barely watch television any more.  I have video games that haven't been touched in months.  I read books, but mostly while I am proctoring tests or waiting to pick up the kids.  That isn't lazy.

Lazy had become such a familiar label that I didn't even think about the fact it didn't even apply any more.  Then I looked at "angry."  Cary already had put a giant crack in that belief.  But assessing myself now, I know that I have largely shook that label.  I may still get upset or heated up at things.  But I don't explode anymore.  I don't yell.  In fact, today my daughter actually accused me of whispering to her during a disciplinary moment.  She was getting louder and louder.  I told her to stop yelling and she said, "I'm not going to whisper like you're doing."  Are you kidding me?  As this argument revved up, my kid actually thought I was being TOO QUIET.  That's not angry.

How about negative?  I am a melancholy personality.  I'm never going to be a super-outgoing guy.  But I know for a fact that I have a pretty positive outlook on life.  I don't look for the worst.  I don't expect the other shoe to drop all the time.  In fact, I try to encourage others as best I can.  My students have pointed this out time and again.  They are worried about their eventual test score and I keep on trying to lift them up. My evaluations reflect this.  The classes think I'm funny and fun.  That's not negative.  My wife gave me a super cool anniversary present.  She had fourteen individually wrapped presents (one for each year).  They each had a card saying why I got that item.  Several of them talked about how hard I worked (not lazy), how I made everyone laugh (not negative), how I encouraged her (not negative), and how I kept everyone's stress low (not angry, not negative).

Basically, between all of that stuff and the sermon today, I realized that I needed to retire some things.  Like the Apostle John, I need to hang up those terms that used to define me.  Through the transforming restorative power of Jesus Christ, I am not those things any more.  I am no longer Lazy.  I am no longer Angry.  I am no longer Negative.  I will not refer to myself that way.  And I will not accept it if anyone chooses to lay those charges on me.  I am a different man now.  I work hard, serve my family, love the people around me, and try each day to do better than the day before.  Those names are no longer accurate.  I am now "the man who Jesus loves."  And that is a name I will forever cherish.

Jun 22, 2014

The Monuments Men

My wife is on nights at the hospital, so that means it is time for another round of “David Catches Up on Movies!” Last time, I watched some sci-fi films that I had managed to miss. This time, I am just grabbing anything that piques my interest.  I was again too tired on Wednesday night to watch a movie.  And after my lack of appreciation for the violent films, I decided to pick up "The Monuments Men" with George Clooney and a ton of other people.

I like George Clooney.  I mean, I don't know him or anything.  But I like him as an actor and entertainment personality.  One of my favorite movie franchises is the Oceans trilogy.  I have enjoyed several Clooney starring, directed, or produced projects (Good Night and Good Luck, The Descendants, Leatherheads, Up in the Air, Out of Sight).  I also like the fact that he is concerned about the world around him.  So whenever Clooney is involved in something, it immediately gains my attention.

I like Matt Damon.  Again, I don't know the guy personally.  I enjoy his movies.  Obviously, I am a big fan of Oceans.  I've also loved Damon in We Bought a Zoo, the Bourne Trilogy, The Good Shepherd, True Grit.  He's a good actor.  In addition, he also is very interested in helping the world around him.  Which is great.

I like Bill Murray.  One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day.  I think Murray is a severely under appreciated actor.  I like John Goodman.  I like Cate Blanchett.  You see where this is going.  When I saw the marketing for The Monuments Men, it seemed like a surefire hit.  The cast is astounding.  Clooney directed it.  It is set in World War II, which has such a rich depth of available stories.  And there appeared to be a kind of Oceans Eleven vibe to it.  The previews seemed pretty humorous.  "'I appear to have stepped on a land mine.'  'Well what did you do that for?'"  And I mean, look at the tagline for the movie.  "It was the greatest art heist in history."  Good stuff, right?

Then I finally got to watch The Monuments Men.  I honestly felt like the movie suffered from the same problem that Clooney himself suffers from.  I never know when to take the film, or the actor, seriously.  Clooney has that little smirk, even when he is isn't in a funny movie.  I have had a hard time in some of his stuff because he doesn't really have an intensity switch.  The movie itself had the same problem.  Was it a lighthearted take on a marginal element of World War II?  Or was it something more serious?  

If you look at the cast, it is heavily loaded with actors very comfortable with comedy: Goodman, Murray, Clooney, Bob Balaban (Friends, Christopher Guest movies), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), even Damon.  The previews were heavy on the comedic elements.  The score by Alexandre Desplat had this kind of playful quality.  It seemed to be written for a old-school farce or something.  All of that is swirling around against the backdrop of the horrors of war.  

Then there was another problem, one that the characters IN the film seemed to wrestle with most of the time.  These guys were scampering around Europe trying to save works of art while there were millions of people trying to, you know, not die.  World War II saw some of the worst atrocities in human history.  The violence was so brutal (referring back to Saving Private Ryan, mentioned in my post the other day).  Concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, internment camps, atomic bombs, relentless bombing, starvation.  War is despicable.  World War II was beyond despicable.  As these artists are racing around, they try to get help from "real soldiers."  These war weary men look at the artists like they are crazy.  One officer responds to a request help with, "I know exactly what you want.  You want me to tell my guys, who are trying to fight off an enemy force, to risk being killed by not blowing up certain buildings."  It really was ludicrous.  

But, on the other hand, you could understand what these guys were saying as well.  Hitler didn't just want to win the war or take over the world.  He didn't even want to just kill the Jews.  He wanted to erase them from history.  Clooney's character keeps saying that it is important to preserve the culture of a people as well.  They make good points.  But, as one commenter on said, "Who cares.  Twelve million people died."  Point taken.
The movie would be humming along, these guys sparring with and razzing each other.  Then, all of the sudden, someone would get killed.  Or they would find giant barrels full of gold teeth pulled out of the mouths of Jewish people killed by the Germans.  Then they would go back to goofing around.  Then they would rush some guy into a battlefield hospital who was destroyed by artillery fire.  Then they would flirt with a French resistance fighting artist.  It was weird.  

I have had a couple of days to think about the movie.  And I still don't really know what exactly Clooney was trying to do with the film.  Were we supposed to sympathize with the artists and their quest to save over three million pieces of art?  Or were we supposed to think that their efforts were juvenile when compared with the massive cost of the war?  There were times when it felt like these guys were being mocked by the movie itself - putting a huge discovery of art in juxtaposition with the barrels of teeth, for example.  At other times, it was clear that they were the heroes, protecting what no one else realized was even important.  But even the overall villainy wasn't clear.  Hitler was the ultimate bad guy.  He was the one behind all of the atrocities - the destruction, the Jewish persecution, the theft and/or destruction of tons of irreplaceable artwork.  But, the most tense moments in the film came when these artists were faced with a confrontation with the Soviets, who were planning on taking all the Nazi-stolen art back to Russia to make up for their losses.  And the people that raised the most ire for me were actually the allied military leaders who completely ignored the Monuments Men's warnings about several dangers, which led to the deaths of multiple people.  Again, it was weird.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed with the film.  It was extremely uneven in tone and message.  The acting was nice.  It was like having a good time with friends, chatting and hanging out.  Then those fun times were punctuated by shockingly horrific events.  Only, then we were expected to just go back to having a good time.  Why?  That's the question I was left asking.  Were we supposed to take on a bigger message, like how easily it is to just forget the horrors of the world around us in favor of what we see as important?  That makes me feel like the Monuments Men were completely misguided in their efforts.  Or were we supposed to realize that the cost of war is more than just lives and structural damage, but also the heart, souls, and culture of the people involved?  In that case, the soldier artists were definitely heroes.  I desperately wanted to like the film.  I wanted to see it as important.  But it felt like the movie itself kept me from succeeding in my mission.

Jun 18, 2014

Olympus Has Fallen

My wife is on nights at the hospital, so that means it is time for another round of “David Catches Up on Movies!” Last time, I watched some sci-fi films that I had managed to miss. This time, I am just grabbing anything that piques my interest.  I was too tired on Monday night to watch a movie.  Our movie this time is the Gerard Butler terrorist action flick "Olympus Has Fallen."

One of the most terrifying books that I ever read also ranks as one of my favorites.  I have never been a person who likes horror or thriller novels or movies.  I have never read a Stephen King book, and the only movies of his I have seen were Shawshank Redemption and Running Man.  So there aren't a lot of books that scare me.  They end up being things rooted in real life - that I can picture happening in a horrific manner.  This book was called Under Siege.  No, it was not the basis of the Stephen Seagal warship movie.  It was a novel by Stephen Coonts (not Dean Koontz, horror writer).  Coonts was another author during the rise of the techno-thriller.  You had Tom Clancy (as I discussed in my last post) and Michael Crichton.  They were the top of the chain.  Then you had some other authors in that realm - Coonts, old school Dan Brown (before The DaVinci Code), Larry Bond, and Harold Coyle.

Stephen Coonts wasn't a bad author.  His books were hardly as good as the best Clancy or Crichton books.  But they were exciting and entertaining.  The main character was Jake Grafton.  He was a fighter pilot, and we first met him in Vietnam during Flight of the Intruder.  That was turned into a disappointing movie, which killed the Grafton series.  Coonts wrestled with the same protagonist problem as Clancy - namely, character promotion.  Grafton went from fighter pilot to government official during the books.  Other characters had to move to the front of the action.  Those people were not always that interesting, unfortunately.

Under Siege, though, was really good.  It centered on a wide-scale terrorist attack on the US Government.  Keep in mind, this was pre 9/11.  The world was a completely different place then.  The USofA was untouchable.  We were still portrayed as the "good guys" in films.  Everyone didn't assume there was always some conspiracy at play, so the movies and books reflected that.  The fall of the Soviet Union made it a little more difficult to have a quick, go-to villain.  But there were mysterious Islamic extremists that made for a handy bad guy.

The thing about Coonts' set up was that it was so, well, believable.  The main antagonist got a list of government officials to kill.  He got paid for each one that he successfully took out.  The goal was to cause massive instability and panic in the country by causing upheaval in the government.  He started by trying to assassinate President George Bush (the First).  He knew that if he attacked someone else first, the security around the President would just clamp down.  So he fired a missile at the Marine One helicopter from a park.  Then he drove to the Senate Majority Leader's house and shot him on his front step.  The next day, he gunned down the Supreme Court Chief Justice on a freeway, driving to work.  Then he took shots at several cabinet members with a sniper rifle, killing a couple.  Everything happened in such quick succession that the country just freaked out.  The DC area turned to bedlam.  Martial law, riots, mob justice.  It was terrifying.  I actually had to put it down a couple of times because it was too realistic.

I bring this up because I was reminded of the book's premise as I watched Olympus Has Fallen.  I am hardly saying this movie was realistic. I'm sure a Washington insider could find fifty plot holes in ten minutes. But the setup was, I thought, brilliant. 

The opening scenes with Gerard Butler, President Harvey Dent and his family, and the surefire tragedy to come were decent. I guess they were important to show how close Butler's Secret Service agent was to the First Family before the family tragedy. But, as far as other characters go, it was kind of pointless. I didn't get connected to the majority of Secret Service guys because they all looked the same. Seriously. They all looked like they had played linebacker at a Big Ten school and gone into government work. I honestly couldn't remember which ones were in both the opening scene and the later scenes. The only one who stood out was Dylan McDermott Mulrooney. He didn't do much, but I knew he was too big of a name to be cannon fodder. 

The movie really picked up when the terrorist plan kicked into gear. It was thirteen minutes of insanity. I know it was thirteen minutes because the main bad guy says to the President Dent, "Standard deployment time for the emergency teams is fifteen minutes. We took the White House in thirteen."  The plan was brilliant. Of course, it must have taken a massive amount of planning and financial resources to make it work. But that is neither here not there. If you start looking for logic in action movies.... Let's just say that's a fool's errand. 

It started with the South Korean delegation arriving for a crucial meeting with President Harvey Dent. They arrive with a legit security detail headed up by, hey!, Dermott McDylan Mulrooney. Told you he was coming into play. There is a crowd of Koreans outside the White House showing their support or protesting or whatever crowds do. A nondescript C130 cargo plane zooms from Chesapeake, Virginia (thanks handy info labels!) towards DC. Air command finally realize that this plane isn't supposed to be there and they scramble jets to take it down. Oops. Hidden doors on the side open to show mini guns that take out the planes. This causes a chain reaction. The President and His Cabinet are hustled down into the bunker below the White House. Being the nice guy he is, El Presidente also brings the Korean Prime Minister and his detail, against protocol, naturally. More jets are scrambled. The C130 starts firing all kinds of guns, missile deterrents, missiles all over the place. The jets are crashing. Crowds are getting strafed. Chaos. The plane finally crashes through the Washington Monument and onto the White House lawn. Explosion. Fire. Chaos. 

The crowd outside the White House aren't what they seem. They are armed terrorists. They start firing all over the place, taking out Secret Service and military personnel. Suicide bombers blow themselves up at the gate. Two garbage trucks come hurdling down Pennsylvania Avenue. They blow up their tires so they can't be moved. More gunmen are hidden inside. An armored car comes along and blows the gate open. The gunmen all stream in and shoot all the security personnel. It is horrific. The editing gives it a relentless feel. There is wave after wave of attacks, each successive one to nullify the next safety protocol. Whether or not it was plausible, it felt possible. It brought that same feeling of horror from the book I mentioned. 

Peppered through this we see how Gerard Butler manages to get into the White House to do his Die Hard John MacLaine impersonation. The rest of the movie is Butler trying to save the President, idiotic military and government officials making idiotic decisions, the North Korean terrorist trying to access the US Cerberus system to blow up all American nukes, and lots and lots of murder.

This is where things get a bit uncomfortable to me.  And it is probably why I didn't watch this movie when it was out in the theaters.  I find it very difficult to just overlook wanton violence any more.  There was a time when I had no qualms about watching a movie with people getting massacred all over the place.  I've seen more than my share of violent action movies.  Trust me, that was my main movie preference for many years.  I remember going with a group of friends to see Saving Private Ryan.  That is the most violent movie I have ever seen.  There have been stories for years about how the only reason the movie got an R rating instead of NC-17 was because it was made by Stephen Spielberg.  Some of the girls who went with us felt ill and left, or sat with their eyes closed in the theater.  It was horrific, but I was okay.  Things change, though.  I have never seen Saving Private Ryan again.  I used to watch Schindler's List every year.  I can't even remember when I last watched it.  It is hard for me to swallow that level of atrocity any more.

When I say that, people will often respond with, "You do realize they are fictional, right?  This is just a movie."  Not always, they aren't.  Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List weren't fictional.  On screen, it is a representation, but it was based on truly horrific things that really happened.  But even when a movie is fictional, like Olympus Has Fallen, it is hard for me to disconnect.  I watch movies in a different way than a lot of people.  I think about them and dissect them.  I try to dive in and relate to what is going on.  It probably comes from the way I read books.  So when I see a jet in a movie crash into a neighborhood, I don't think, "Oh cool.  That jet just blew up."  I remember in Orlando a few years ago when a small plane crashed into a house in Sanford and killed the kids who lived there.  That family didn't think it was cool.

That is the problem I have with this type of film (and I include disaster flicks in this genre).  It just isn't that entertaining for me.  I don't enjoy watching cities get wiped out like in Independence Day any more.  It is too hard for me to forget the images of real planes crashing into real buildings and real people running for their lives when those real buildings fell into real streets.  How can anyone who lived through 9/11 NOT think about those things?  How can you not think of the horrific school shootings?  Or the Fort Hood shooting?  Those things aren't cool.  I have a hard time disconnecting my feelings about that just because it is on screen.  I am a father of three kids.  I can't turn that off in a theater.  Sure, I try when there is a movie I want to see.  But I still cringed when New York got obliterated in The Avengers or when DC got messed up in X Men 17 this summer.  But there is a level of violence, of brutality, that just crosses a line for me.  I remember feeling that during Dark Knight Rises.  I love Batman and I loved the Nolan trilogy.  However, the horrific brutality in the third one just made it hard to appreciate the film as much as I wanted to.  As bad as this sounds, it wasn't just killing someone.  It was battering them and really hurting them first.  That is something I just can't get behind.

So, when it comes to Olympus Has Fallen, I can appreciate the creativity of some parts of the movie.  The execution of the attack on the White House was impressive.  Gerard Butler did a fine job saving the President.  I appreciated that the movie didn't feel it necessary to have a "US Government is really behind this" subplot.  I get tired of those.  The big lesson I got from the film, though, is that I guess I'm not really in a place any more to enjoy films like this.  There are a bunch of movies that I have wanted to see - even ones I planned on watching in the next few days.  (Lone Survivor and Zero Dark Thirty, to name a couple.)  It feels like visiting a city I used to live in and discovering that I don't like being there anymore.  I moved for a reason, I suppose.

Jun 16, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

My wife is on nights at the hospital, so that means it is time for another round of “David Catches Up on Movies!” Last time, I watched some sci-fi films that I had managed to miss.  This time, I am just grabbing anything that piques my interest. Our first offering was the Kenneth Branagh directed spy-thriller, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

I got hooked on Tom Clancy books when I was in Middle School. A friend of mine was reading them, so I asked my dad if I could borrow his books. That was an advantage of having a book-devouring father that never got rid of the books he finished. They would spill out of a bookcase in my parents’ room onto the floor. You can say a lot of things about my dad, but he was a voracious reader all the way until the end.

I started with Hunt for Red October. It really was my first “grown up” novel. I was fascinated by it. Tom Clancy was a master of the techno-thriller. And his protagonist, Jack Ryan, was the kind of guy a nerdy kid could get behind. He wasn’t a superhero or a muscle-bound behemoth. He was an analyst that got dragged into operations. He had a doctorate in economics and had a different way of seeing current events. When you combined that with Clancy’s bizarre ability to describe military hardware that “didn’t exist,” you had a great book. His next work, Red Storm Rising, is still one of my favorite books ever. It wasn’t part of the Jack Ryan timeline, was never made into a movie, and will never be made into a film. The subject material (Soviet Russia, mostly) and 1980s technology means that it is pretty irrelevant now. I still remember Clancy describing the Frisbees - stealth bombers that eerily matched the real US stealth bomber that no one knew about yet. The whole book gave me chills.

Clancy threw out a prequel next, Patriot Games. It was another big hit and a major literary star was born. The US Government got tired of fighting Clancy, since his information all came from public sources. So they started to buddy up to him. This gave him unprecedented access for a writer of books in this genre. He used this to his advantage in Clear and Present Danger and Cardinal in the Kremlin. But things started to unravel pretty soon. His book swelled in size. It almost seemed like he was drunk on his own military and technological knowledge. By the time The Sum of All Fears came out, the books were almost unreadable. I was hoping he was righting the ship with Without Remorse and Debt of Honor. But, for me, the unthinkable happened. I stopped reading Clancy’s novels. I have tried to get through Rainbow Six about five times. But I just can’t. I recently read Red Rabbit, the prequel Clancy wrote about Jack Ryan’s early CIA days. But it was pretty bad and - shockingly - boring. How many times do we need to be reminded that Ryan’s “just an analyst” or “a tough former Marine?” How many characters needed to reference the fact that Ryan had broken his back in a helicopter accident and still completed his training?

There is a problem when you create a protaganist in a long-term series. You either have to forever freeze him/her in time (James Bond) or you have to address the fact that time moves on. Jack Ryan was just an analyst in the early books. But he was promoted, like most qualified people would be. Supervisors died or retired or were forced out. He moved up to Deputy Director of Intelligence, Director of Intelligence, Director of the NSA, Vice President, and then President of the USA. The President doesn’t go on ops. So what do you do? You start to build the books around other characters that had been introduced — James Clark (a black bag specialist), Ding Chavez (former Marine), even Jack Ryan Jr. Or you have to keep dipping into the prequel pool. That leads to the continuity issue - too many time fishing in that pond can start to goof up events that happened in earlier books.

Wait, I think we’re supposed to be talking about the movie. OH yeah. The Jack Ryan films have been hit and miss. Hunt for Red October was stellar. Alec Baldwin was perfect as Ryan. He was how I pictured the character as I read. Actually, he still is the way I picture him. When Harrison Ford took over, the films slipped. Ford is supposed to be playing “just an analyst?” He’s as old as the President in the films. That’s not admirable, it is sad. Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger were entertaining films. But things really went off the rails with the next reboot, The Sum of All Fears. There already was a built in problem - the book sucked. It was bloated and stupid. A completely new cast stepped in, with Ben Affleck playing a younger Jack Ryan. I hated the movie. So did most people. It seemed like Hollywood was content moving on from Jack Ryan. Tom Clancy’s other works - like Rainbow Six - had turned into a video game cash cow. Plus the spy thriller had moved on from the techno-thriller to the Jason Bourne spy movies. Technology moved too fast to impress people in a movie. It was now about being brainy and brawny.

I was a bit surprised when I saw that Hollywood was dipping back into the Tom Clancy reservoir. Twelve years had passed since The Sum of All Fears! Was there really that big of a crowd beating down the doors for a Clancy movie?  Instead of taking a standing book, though, they just co-opted the Jack Ryan character and wrote an original story. There were some impressive people attached. Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Chris Pine, Kenneth Branagh. And Branagh was directing. I have been a big Branagh fan since he burst on the scene in Henry V. As a director, I thought he did a fantastic job on Thor. I am not completely sold on Chris Pine as a movie star. He is good in some stuff (Unstoppable, Star Trek), but he also can be very one note (This Means War). The whole concept sounded interesting. My wife and I planned on going to see it, but having three kids means that all movie plans are tenuous at best. So that meant the movie was a perfect option for a Redbox viewing.

Admittedly, I was interrupted several times during my movie-going experience.  My daughter for some reason kept coming downstairs - usually during a particularly violent scene that sent me scrambling for the pause button.  I flipped over to watch the end of the San Antonio Spurs/Miami Heat scrimmage.  And one of our dogs kept climbing on me.  However, I still feel I got a pretty good feel for the movie.

We are in major reboot, prequel territory.  Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is first seen as a student in England during the 9/11 attacks.  He dropped out of school and enlisted in the Marines.  During his tour, his helicopter was shot down, breaking his back. (This apparently is the equivalent to Bruce Wayne's parents being killed in the Batman series.  You can mess around with a lot of things in that series, but not Bruce's parents getting whacked.  Or Jack Ryan breaking his back.)  During rehab he meets two important people - his future wife, Cathy Mueller (Keira Knightley), and his CIA recruiter, Something Idontcare (Kevin Costner).  Cathy is finishing up her medical school training and has just a few hours in her personal training rotation left before she is off to become a brilliant eye surgeon.  Costner has Ryan go back to school to finish his doctorate in economics to better establish his cover on Wall Street.  When we next see everyone, Ryan is an analyst examining mysterious accounts between Russian and American companies; Cathy is a ophthalmology resident; and Costner is not around.  We meet Kenneth Branagh's Russian bad guy as he is told by some mysterious government type played by Mikhail Baryshnikov that he is cleared to start whatever sneaky pete thing he is up to.  So, here is where I start to have my recap overrun by my gripes.

  1. Having been through the med school process with my wife, I don't buy the whole timeline with Jack's wife.  A PT rotation in fourth year?  Doubtful.  Scampering off to an Ophtho residency?  NOT how it works, pal.  Ophtho residents have to complete a year of internal medicine residency first.  In addition, the match process for Ophtho is EXTREMELY difficult.  We have a great friend from med school who went through that gauntlet and it was horrific.  From other Clancy books, we know Cathy is beyond brilliant as a surgeon.  But the whole thing just plays into a very generic "doctor making" timeline.
  2. Movie Marketing can destroy a movie.  I remember when Jim Carrey's movie The Cable Guy came out.  Everyone was expecting another slapstick, crazy Carrey-esque movie.  What they got was a dark comedy.  Very dark.  It was funny, but in a twisted and disturbing way.  The movie bombed.  Similarly, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero was marketed as another muscle-bound Arnie flick.  But it was actually a vicious satire of the entire action genre.  Go watch it sometime.  It is actually very good, if you understand WHAT it is.  Jack Ryan fell into the marketing trap.  Everything played up the paranoia angle.  Who do you trust?  Can he trust Kevin Costner's recruiter CIA man?  Can he trust his own wife?!?  Take a gander at that picture I included.  What's the tagline?  "Trust no one!" This is serious spy stuff, mister.  Espionage! Paranoia! Betrayal!  Trust no one.  Hey, guess how many double crosses there were in the movie?  NONE! Guess how many times I was worried there was going to be a double cross?  NONE!  I used to get more tense in an episode of Burn Notice or Chuck.  Don't make it seem like an espionage thriller when it isn't.
  3. You have Kenneth Branagh in this movie.  He is the current generation's best Shakespearean actor.  That means he is, by nature, a scenery chewer.  That is his job.  Now, I'm not saying I wanted him doing a Russian version of his Loveless character from Wild Wild West.  But, you're playing a Russian villain!  One of his biggest character traits was that he was quiet.  What?!? The ridiculous thing is that Branagh directed the movie, so he is the one to blame for this.  He doesn't even know how to utilize himself?  Maybe that was why Knightley and Costner could have just been played by any other actors without much of a glitch  Actually, getting right down to it, there were quite a few good actors whose skills were poorly tapped.  
  4. I still am not entirely clear what was going on in the movie.  There was some kind of plot where this Russian guy would bring down the US dollar.  He had these moves that were supposed to coincide with a terrorist attack or something.  But I really don't know what any of it had to do with anything.  It was a poorly constructed plan, to say the very least.  
  5. Jack Ryan is supposed to just be an analyst.  But he also apparently had intensive hand-to-hand combat training where he can fight off a MUCH larger enemy in a tight space (bathroom) and drown him in three inches of water.  Mmmm hmmm.  He also can stare at screens in a room and unravel an entire intricate hidden Russian economic terrorist plot, but can't remember the correct protocol words for an extraction.  Ok.  And he can't remember to throw away an incriminating movie ticket stub....
  6. What the heck is a Shadow Recruit anyway?  
I think that this movie was an effort to bring the Jack Ryan character into the Jason Bourne world.  But it didn't work.  I don't know if it was that Chris Pine is no Matt Damon, that the action scenes were harried but ineffective, or that the intrigue just wasn't there.  I was baffled at how little these big movie stars had to do.  I remember watching Kevin Costner in No Way Out and being glued to my screen.  There were so many twists and turns and secrets.  THAT is a spy movie.  This was just a poor attempt to capitalize on a once great character's name.  So, unless Paramount is planning on finally making the Without Remorse movie that should have been made, my advice is to leave Tom Clancy's library alone.

Apr 19, 2014


Today I turn 40. 

I have been pretty vocal with people that this is not a happy occasion. I have no idea why, but I have a mental glitch that makes 40 seems very old. I have said that it feels like I am heading down the back side of the mountain of life. You can't even pretend to be in touch and cool when you are 40.  It has always been that way in my mind. 40 equals old. 

It has been worse for me lately. I really was down about turning 40. Sure, there are all of the usually qualifiers. "It's better than the alternative." "I've got my health, so that's great." And of course my older friends have chirped in with the, "You are young compared to me so shut up." I didn't say they were kind friends. 

I think part of my problem is that there are certain milestones that naturally lead to reflection. New Year's Day. Class reunions. Birthdays and anniversaries that end in 5 or 0. Frankly, I haven't liked what this reflection has shown. I am 40. What have I done? I don't have a career to speak of. I stay home with my kids. I haven't built anything - either physically or economically. It can be kind of disheartening. So 40 hasn't been much of a super happy fun thought. 

This past week the whole family was off. The kids had spring break, Heather was on vacation, and I was ... Um ... the usual. We decided to go to Orlando for the break. We had not been back since we moved to South Carolina in June. The original plan was to have a big 40th birthday bash one night. But living seven hours away makes it difficult to handle logistics. So instead we decided to see as many people as we could and do a bunch of stuff we had missed since we moved. 

So we went to a bunch of restaurants we used to frequent. We hit 4 Rivers Smokehouse and Flippers Pizza and Tijuana Flats. We went to Summit Church for Palm Sunday. We spent a day at Downtown Disney. We even got to try The Coop - the new restaurant by the 4 Rivers crew. All of that was awesome to experience. 

But what really made the week memorable was the time we got to spend with our friends. We didn't get to see everyone we wanted to see, but we did get to spend quality time with a bunch of people. By the time we wrapped up our roster of visits on Friday night, something had begun to dawn on me. I wake up as a very blessed 40 year old man. 

I like to poke fun at how often people use #blessed on their twitter and Facebook posts. But it really is the truest word I feel right now. I am blessed beyond belief. 

- I have a brilliant, beautiful, amazing wife who loves and supports me. She is pursuing her dream, and providing financially for our family through that. She is an example and model for her fellow residents - as well as medical students following in her path. She pushes me to be better and trusts me. 
- I have three incredible, gorgeous children. They are funny and talented and wonderful. I have the unbelievable honor of not only being their dad, but also spending every day with them. Yes, there are days where that honor feels more like a cruel punishment. And there are days I wish there were still bands of wandering gypsies I could sell them to. But, all in all, I cannot believe how lucky I am to have the time and relationship I have with them. 
- I have family who loves me beyond words. That is not limited to the family I was born with. It also includes my parents in-law, brothers and sisters in-law, cousins, uncles and aunts. As I grew into an adult, I was sad about how little I knew my extended family. But now I have such an abundance of extended family that it is impossible to keep up with all of them. My children have cousins who adore them and can't wait to see them - beautiful kids that will be lifelong friends. It is so wonderful. 
- I have friends, such sweet and faithful friends, that have been a part of my life for decades. It really struck me this week that I have multiple friendships of the intensity that some people will never find in their lives. These are people I would not hesitate to leave my children with. And they would trust me with their kids. I know that if something catastrophic happened and I called these people, they would be in a car driving to assist before I hung up. (Of course they would have to wade through about three levels of family who also responded.) They have kids that love my kids like brothers and sisters. As a dad, I cannot adequately express how much these kids and parents mean to me. 
- Most importantly I have a God who loves me to such a ridiculous, illogical, unfathomable level that he sent his Son to rescue me from a life of hopelessness, emptiness, and frustration. He loved me no matter how unlovely, hateful, irresponsible, lazy, and unfaithful I was. I find it quite appropriate that my 40th birthday falls on Easter this year. I get to celebrate my special day on the most special day. I don't have to fear getting older because of what happened on Easter. I don't ever have to feel alone or unloved because of Easter. And I can realize just how silly it is to be down about turning 40 because of Easter. 

So happy birthday to me. I truly believe I am the most blessed man around. Thank you all for the gift you have given me by being a part of my life.