Sunday, August 29, 2010

Movie Review: Salt (2010)

Directed by Phillip Noyce (2010)

No Spices Needed

Go see it. It's a damn good thriller.

Since this is a spoiler-free movie review, there's only so much you can say about a thriller with the tagline: Who is Salt? What I can tell you can be summed up in seven words (above), but I'm not sure how convincing it would be if I read a review like that, so let's delve into what we can tell you.

As I've mentioned in other reviews, Angelina Jolie is the most convincing female action hero alive. The only one close is Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil) and she's really a distant second. The script for Salt cements Jolie's action icon status by doing something a bit different: it keeps her dialogue to a minimum. She speaks, but there are long stretches of the movie where she carries it with her kinetic energy and charisma alone. And her eyes. There's a lot going on in the close-ups, not the least of which is an impressive array of emotions and a fierce intelligence that has not only seen it all, but lived it as well.

As we now know, the part was originally written for Tom Cruise, who chose Knight and Day instead, and the script was altered to fit Jolie. Although Cruise could have handled it (his action prowess is underrated) Jolie is a better fit here. Her ability to carry ambivalence as well as emotional complexities is better suited to the role. There's weight to her, a certain sadness, that makes the movie more than the sum of its parts. And its parts are good. Schreiber is excellent, as he always is, and I'm still confused why he isn't a star. Is it because his first name is Liev? I'm not talking about race, but simple pronunciation. He brings tangible believability to every role he plays. And in a thriller that never stops from the moment it starts, you need actors to help provide heft for their characters, because even great action scripts don't have much time for character development.

The film is shot in a linear fashion, and cut quickly, but it's easy enough to follow. It's a simple way to distinguish good action movies from the rest. Bad action films are cut and thrown together like an overcooked stir-fry -- you never know what vegetable you're eating because they all taste like chicken. That never happens in Salt, which grips you from the opening scene and never lets go. It reminded me at times of The Bourne Identity, albeit for different reasons. (And no, Salt is not about amnesia.) When the movie ended I looked at my watch in surprise. I hadn't even noticed the time.

As for the themes of the movie, I think you'll be surprised at some of the questions that might come up on your way out of the theatre. And even if there's no discussion, there's one thing you'll all be able to say to the people waiting for the next showing; "Go see it. It's a damn good thriller."

**** (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Saturday, August 21, 2010

One Thing We All Hate… And Need (for better relationships)

"I still don't get it. Why can't you tell him?"

"He'll go crazy. You know what Aaron's like."

I sighed but didn't push it. Aaron was my friend, though I spent more time with Ginny, his wife, since we worked together. I sighed again and glanced around the cafeteria. A few Grade Eight kids were hanging out at one of the tables, but other than that it was quiet. I was working with an autistic student in the school, but he hadn't shown up today, so I'd been doing some paperwork when Ginny sat down across from me. She was small, with curly red hair, and a timid air when she talked about herself.

"Listen, Aaron's a good guy. If you think he's flirting too much, then just tell him. He probably doesn't even realize it." I said.

Aaron was a teacher as well, tall and lean, with voice like a low hammer. We'd hung out a couple of times when the schools got together for an event.

Ginny shook her head.

"I can't. He'll think I'm possessive or jealous, that I don't trust him."

So why are you telling me? Ginny was nice, and she was a friend, but it was hard listening to your friends complain when they were so unwilling to do anything about it. Still, I knew what it was to be afraid to be honest with people. When I was twenty-one, I interned as a young adult pastor. In my review at the end of the year, my Senior Pastor's remarks included a comment that I'd never forgotten. "Until Steve is willing to face his fear of confrontation, he will never be the leader he can be." At the time, I really didn't understand it. I'd always thought avoiding confrontation to be something of a skill. And yet, he'd not only remarked on my tendency to avoid it, but that this was somehow a bad thing. When I asked him about it later, he told me that I was going out of my way to avoid certain issues, and that unless I dealt with them, they would never get resolved. That was what a good leader did, he said. He also mentioned that it was impossible to grow in our faith if we were unwilling to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves.

It didn't help that so many people grew up in "quietly tense" homes. The older generations seemed to delight in this idea of "sucking it up" and not saying anything when an issue needed to be addressed. Or blaming the inability to properly communicate on gender differences. ("Who can understand a woman, Steve? They're SO different!") Unfortunately, from what I'd seen of these marriages, even the ones that had lasted twenty five years, it wasn't something I really wanted in my own life. It wasn't like you got a gold star for years of service. For me, it was pretty simple. If your relationships sucked, especially the one with your significant other, than your life did too. It was the reason I was in the process of getting divorced. It also meant that I really wasn't one to talk. Most of the 'confrontations' in our house had been punctuated by yelling and hurt feelings. Still Ginny had asked, so I figured I would try to answer her question.

Honestly, Ginny, there's nothing wrong with a bit of jealousy. It means you care. I don't mean the controlling kind, but jeez, if what he's doing bothers you, you have to say something. Otherwise, you're going to have to put up with it for the rest of your life. And let me tell you, if you can't be honest with one another, marriage sucks."

"Well, you would know about that." She said, flicking her hair.

I took a deep breath and didn't respond.

"I'm sorry, Steve." She said, reading my face. "It's just that, well, marriage is difficult. Relationships are not so simple." She smiled at me like I was one of her students. "You can't just tell someone what's bothering you because maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe we just need to talk about it to vent a little, and then it will be okay." She paused. "I know I feel better. Thanks."

The bell rang, and kids started piling into the hallway.

"I gotta go. Bye, Steve."

I waved, and managed to put a crooked grin on my face, though it fell as soon as she'd left. What did I know about relationships, I thought. I'm the biggest failure here. I still felt like I'd made the right decision about my marriage. It'd been mutual, and we'd both seen how destructive it had become. Maybe Ginny was right though. Maybe I just hadn't learned to 'suck it up' like so many people did in their marriages. Hell, and their friendships, for that matter.

I turned back to my work, but the characters might as well have been Egyptian hieroglyphs. I wondered if one day I'd get another chance to prove my theory about honesty. It was ridiculous to think that I would be single forever, but when you're going through a divorce, it's how you feel. One day, I thought.


I think the first time I heard the word "confrontation" was watching a baseball game as a kid. Face to face, the pitcher trying to either throw the ball past the hitter or induce him to hit it to one of the guys on the pitcher's team. I also heard it mentioned as something that happened between countries, but in terms of relationships, well, it wasn't until I was nearly done high school that I heard it mentioned in that context. And when I did hear it, the implication was that confrontations were something nasty, and always led to a fight or an argument, or God forbid, a breakup. Confrontation was bad because it led to conflict, which was also bad. In fact, the two words were nearly always used as synonyms. And in relationships, romantic or otherwise, the best thing to do was to avoid both. It took me a long time to understand that not only were the two words radically different, but that one of them was necessary for a healthy relationship.

By definition, to confront someone means to "to stand or come in front of; stand or meet facing." Conflict, on the other hand, is a "struggle or clash between opposing forces." Confrontation generally precipitates conflict, but they aren't the same thing, and while both have negative connotations to them, a confrontation does not HAVE to be something negative. In fact, a great deal of our relational woes stem directly from our belief that confrontation is bad and needs to be avoided at all costs. When that happens however, we start down a road from which many relationships never recover.


The wind swept hard across the water, rustling the waves against the dock so that it creaked loudly in the morning sunlight. I was sitting on the deck of the cottage with my notebook, nibbling on the end of my pen. The pine trees swayed across the lake, climbing the low rise north above the water. It was a breathtaking view, crystallized in the wind and sun, and one I wanted to take with me when we left later that morning. There'd been ten of us, sharing the cottage for three days of sun and fun. Inevitably, especially with the rainy weather the day before, there had been some brush ups and blow ups. Two nights earlier, I'd suddenly become very upset with my best friend because he'd beaten me at chess, and I had missed the two key moves he'd made to win the game. (If it sounds ridiculous, um, that's because it was… ) I went outside for a few minutes, realized that I was being an idiot, and apologized. After that, things were fine. It made me think about how often we brush against one another, especially in groups and families, and how little we are prepared to handle confrontations. Unless you major in something like social work or psychology or counseling, the skills necessary for learning how to confront people will not be something you learn in school. And yet, if we were all just a little better at it, it would make our lives so much easier, with much less tension, and the reason for that is simple. In every community, be it a marriage, a group of friends, a family, or a church, someone will inevitably act in a selfish and unhealthy matter. If it's allowed to fester, it will not only affect the group dynamics, but it will become one of the defining forces within the group or couple as well.

Ginny never addressed the issue of flirting with her husband, never confronted him with it. If they're still married, it will not only still be an issue, it will be, in fact, one of the predominant characteristics of how she defines her relationship. The same is true within families and groups of friends. If there is an issue that you cannot confront, an issue that you cannot talk about, then you have assigned that issue as one of the cornerstones of the way you will relate to the others in the group.

It's not hard to figure why we avoid confrontation. Why I avoided it for so many years. Frankly, it's difficult, and it requires humility and vulnerability. There's also a tendency to think, as I used to, that confrontation requires anger and yelling and tears. It doesn't. The reason people get angry when confronting others is because anger helps drive away the fears that control so many of us. Our fears of rejection. Of being alone. Of being not liked. Our fear of wrecking other relationships or worrying that people will think we're a jerk. Anger helps us, momentarily, to push past these fears. But anger is a double edged sword, and when we use it to confront people, the end result is conflict.


Confrontational Tips

So, what to do? The first thing is to practice confrontation on ourselves. I keep a journal every day, just a couple of paragraphs, and challenge how I responded to things the day before. Did I honour God the way I should yesterday? Am I loving people the way I'm supposed to? How did I handle things at work and with my friends? Am I being too cynical? (A particularly challenging one for me.) You will have different questions, depending on what your self-identified weaknesses are and what your goals are in life. (You don't have to journal but I find it helpful.)

But understand this: you have no right to confront anyone about anything until you are willing to confront yourself.

We've all known people who criticize others and make people feel like crap without checking the mirror. The heart of positive confrontations is the humility inherent in identifying the other person's shared humanity. When you are used to honestly confronting your own behavior, you will be better equipped when someone else challenges you. And if you can listen to someone else's honest critique about your behavior, you have given yourself a terrific tool for your relationships that most people do not possess. Why? Because people who can confront themselves have little difficulty confronting others in a quiet, tactful manner.

The second thing is understanding that tone makes a difference. (No anger allowed. If you're angry, you're not ready.) So do words and expressions. "Perhaps", "maybe", "I'm not sure", "this makes me feel", are all good choices. Remember that the goal of confrontation is to solve an issue, and that it is hard to for people to hear negative things about themselves or their behaviour, especially if they genuinely don't realize what they're doing. Having spent a number of years working with the developmentally disabled, I'm sensitive to people who park in the handicap spots without the proper sticker. I will ALWAYS confront them. However, I keep my tone polite, and usually say something along the lines of "I'm not sure you noticed the sign, sir, but this is a reserved spot." Anyone fit to drive can see the sign, but the point isn't my self-righteous indignation or feeling superior because I wouldn't park there, the point is to get them to move and feel the weight of what they're doing, and always in quiet tones. (And yes, they always move.)

In terms of our relationships, confrontation is the only way to wipe out the power of fear that girds so much of our lives. We let our fears dictate the outcome of our relational choices, and we end up feeling trapped or miserable because we refuse to ask the hard questions of both ourselves and the people around us.

In many ways, it is not unlike standing across a lake and staring at the green grass and quiet fields of peace and contentment on the other side. The bridge however, the one we call Confrontation, looks shaky and small, something only Indiana Jones could cross. The reason it looks so small is that like all skills, confrontation takes practice. In time, it gets easier and the bridge widens. But it's still something we'll probably dislike, if not hate. Who likes looking in the mirror? Who likes telling others things that are hard to hear? Without confrontation however, we are inevitably relegated to below standard relationships, and ultimately, a below standard life.

My prayer this week is that you'll take up the challenge of confrontation. Go for a walk and think about some of the fears both in you, and your relationships, that need to be addressed. I know we like to say that relationships are complicated, and sometimes they are, but too often the complications arise out of our tendency to avoid the issues that matter the most with our loved ones. Stop letting Fear run your life, and have the courage to take the first step towards a life that is not only your own, but yours to give away.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Movie Review: Death at a Funeral (2010)

A Very Slow Death…

Directed by Neil LaBute

Death at a Funeral is a farce, based on the 2007 British film of the same name. I wish I'd known that before I watched it. I'll be honest, the farce may be a theater tradition, but most of the time they're just stupid. It's an intellectually redundant form of broad based comedy, the idiot relative of its more refined cousin, satire, which actually requires thinking. And generally speaking, the only thing worse than a French or British farce, is an American one. It simply doesn't work in Hollywood because big American films are always trying to make sure that everyone is happy at the end. That's assuming, of course, people GET to the end. I first checked my watch about forty-five minutes into the movie. I checked it again about ten minutes later. At one point I yawned, and it was only 9:30pm. So, that wasn't a good sign. But maybe I should go back to the reason I watched the movie in the first place.

Some of you may not remember, but when Chris Rock released his 1998 HBO special, Black and White, there were many, myself included, who considered him the preeminent comedian of his generation. Perhaps the closest thing to the reincarnation of a young Eddie Murphy. Unlike Murphy however, Rock was never able to transform his stand up success to movies, not in a starring role, at least. Lawrence, on the other hand, was a box office power for a short time in the late 1990's. In many ways, he was the antithesis of Rock; a sometimes funny stand up comedian whose stylings did translate into some big hits. Then Hollywood paid him $20 million to do Black Knight, he became arrogant, and was never the same.

All comedians are angry, but when they become arrogant – that is, when their arrogance infects their comedy – they lose their mass appeal. Ever wonder why Adam Sandler is still popular? The anger, and therefore the humility, real or not, is still evident in his work, and people can still identify with him.

As for this typically unfunny farce, well, there isn't a lot to say. There's a funeral, obviously, and some well known actors playing types. I already mentioned the two leads. Luke Wilson is himself. Tracy Morgan is himself. Regina Hall acts as though she's still working with the Wayan brothers. (Psst. This isn't another Scary Movie. You don't have to squeak your voice on every line reading.) Danny Glover is a grumpy, wheelchair bound grandfather. Zoe Saldana is here, although I'm not sure why. Seems like she's accepted every acting offer since Avatar. She probably would have been more effective here in the blue, ten foot body, with the long tail. None of these actors are ever funny. Oddly, the only laughs in the movie come from James Marsden. His frazzled character is the only one we actually believe.

Death at a Funeral never lets you inside. You never get the sense that the movie cares about its idiot characters, perhaps it's not supposed to, and consequently, doesn't care about you either. The best part of the movie was checking the display on my DVD player and realizing there were only nine minutes left. The movie is 89 minutes but feels much, much longer. If the purpose of this farce was to slow down the minute hand on my watch, the movie is a tremendous success. Otherwise, you'll wish you were the one in the casket.

* (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: World Without End by Ken Follett

Sex in the… 14th Century Village?

So, what happened?

If I had the opportunity to interview Ken Follett about this sequel to his runaway, 1989 bestseller, Pillars of the Earth, that's what I'd ask him. I know that over twenty years have elapsed between the two books, and that people change, but I'd want to know when he stopped writing novels and started writing religious propaganda.

I still remember discovering Pillars, sometime in the late nineties, on a paperback table in a local Chapters. A few of my friends had recommended it, and after reading the back cover, I decided to pick it up. I hadn't read any of Follett's thrillers, and this story, about a monk and a mason who want to build a cathedral, seemed weighty and ponderous. I figured I'd have to slug through it.

I'd never been so delighted to be wrong. Pillars was a wonderfully crafted story, populated with characters who, if some became types, were written with warmth and affection. That included the main protagonist, Prior Phillip, the honest monk who longed to serve God but was often thwarted by those self-seekers around him, including several of the monks under his care. And while the book sketched a church rife with corruption, it did so according to the characters, not their ideology. The men and women in Pillars were self-aware, but not otherworldly so, and they fit with the book's 12th Century setting.

So, what happened?

I can't help but ask that question because the disappointment with his follow up is so severe. Pillars of the Earth, in some ways, was a bit of a soap opera, but the melodrama was contained somewhat by the loving care with which Follett described the architecture and the importance it played within town life. Unfortunately, there's no such affection in World Without End. I would say that Follett gets the historical details right, except it doesn't take long to realize that the characters here have been transplanted from a very, very long episode of Sex and the City. The male characters are either cruel or weak, except for the gay monk and any man born with some sort of physical shortcoming. The female characters think and dwell in post-enlightenment, post-feminist, post-modern, post-male, post-digital, post-universal ideas with much confusion and angst. This would make sense, of course, if they HAD been transported back in time. Maybe that's the chapter Follett forgot to write, in which case, the book would make a lot more sense.

The main character, Carrie... errr… Caris, is confused about everything. She's the daughter of one of the town's leading men (one of the few good men in the book, but he also has a deformed leg, so naturally, he's a good guy) and she hates that men can do whatever they want and she cannot. Follett, who clearly thinks that his main character is an excellent feminist who only cares about equality, doesn't realize that he's actually shown what he thinks of feminism by turning her into a petulant, whining brat. Caris also dislikes the church because the monks don't value rational thinking and the only reason the church exists is to keep people down. So, she muses about this quite a lot. She wonders why Reason and logic are not more valued. She never writes these thoughts down, but who knows, perhaps Descartes was thinking about her when he started his own musings on rationalism 150 years later.

Anyway, Caris loves one of the men in the town, Merthin, who's a brilliant engineer but also small and not good looking. (Can you see a pattern here?) He wants to marry her, but she doesn't know what she wants, so she muses more about the fate of women, who seem to have no option but to marry men, all of whom will inevitably lord it over her. All except Merthin, who is quiet and gentle. Still, he's just a stupid man, so Caris bullies him in her moodiness, toys with his emotions, is completely unable to get a grip on her own, and generally treats him like crap. Is this Follett's idea of feminism? Does he realize that he's drawn his proto-female savior as a complete jackass? According to Follett's rendering, she's just a bit confused. That is, what will she do with all this incredible 21st Century self-awareness? Why couldn't we set the time machine ahead just a little?

Between the musings of our central reporter, err, character, we have the battle of good vs. evil, as revealed in the battle between the nunnery and the priory. Women vs. Men. And the winner is… well, the monks, of course. Those jerks have everything handed to them. The convent is prosperous, and the nuns are all kind and caring. The priory is filled with a bunch of shallow, dim-witted men, who can't figure out why they keep losing money. That statement, by the way, is repeated throughout the book. The monks apparently have no idea why they're losing money. (They never do figure it out.) The nuns do even better however, when Caris somehow recalls a book she read from Italy that reveals a new method of book keeping that allow her to keep track of her assets and liabilities on either side of the ledger, which makes it, like, so much easier to figure out if the convent is ahead. Why, she's the greatest accountant since the guy who got Capone on tax fraud! Oh wait, that doesn't happen until 1933, and here, it's only 1333. Never mind. Oh, and did I mention that Caris single handedly saved her father's business by, you guessed it, single handedly discovering a new way to dye wool. It's all so amazing!

Trouble comes however, when Caris ends up being accused of being a witch, and because she has a mole, you know, down there, she's like, totally a witch. And none of those stupid townspeople will listen because they're all scared and a bit slow. (We did do the nose and hat, but she's still a witch!)The prioress saves her though, by offering Caris a place as a nun. She knows that this angry young rebel doesn't actually believe in God, but the girl is such a good leader. So strong! But even she doesn't know that Caris is not just going to be any nun, but THE GREATEST NUN THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

The novel skips ahead a decade, and Caris is now one of the leaders in the convent. No, she doesn't have faith and has no use for God, but she's actually more warm and caring than the rest of the nuns (probably because she knows how stupid the whole God thing is), and the whole town knows it, too! Also, she's super smart, (did I mention what a good leader she is) and it is she who discovers that the prior has stolen the nuns' money to build himself a palace. He refuses to give it back. This is an outrage, of course, so Caris sets off to find the bishop, who is travelling with King Henry III as the English army sweeps across France. No problem. She'll get that money back no matter what.

So she sets out from the convent, and boy, she is really mad. Accompanying her is a beautiful younger nun, Mair, who's also a lesbian and in love with her. They do experience some difficulty when the two of them, alone, cross into France, and discover that the English army has raped and burned the French villages along the coast. Another big problem is that the sexual tension between the two nuns is pretty high, because the two girls have had sex, but Mair really, really loves Caris and Caris still thinks a lot about Merthin, although he's moved to Italy and she's still not sure whether or not she wants to marry him. Merthin is so unfair. Why can't they just keep having sex like they did before? Anyway, that makes it really hard on Mair, who really, really loves her and is so hot. So between the sexual tension and relational difficulties, along with the burned out villages and two massive armies trying to destroy one another, Caris realizes they need a disguise. The two of them dress like men, and manage to fool both the French and the English armies, even though they first must spend a full week on the battlefield helping the French surgeon dress wounds. When she finally gets to confront the king, she is very, very frustrated with him because he just won't listen to her. Typical man! The soldiers however, are gossiping about these amazing nuns, who have somehow travelled across two countries and two armies at war without a scratch, and have also managed to heal their relational difficulties. Thank goodness Caris is so clever!

Meanwhile, back in Kingsbridge, the man she loves, Merthin, continues to startle and amaze the townspeople with his nifty inventions, but hhe has been unable to convince the town to let him use his genius again to help rebuild the church tower. The townspeople, you see, are mostly stupid. (Those 14th Century morons.) Especially the men. So even though Merthin's ideas have literally saved the town from destruction, twice, no one supports him. (Did I mention that Merthin is small and not very good looking?) Thankfully, Caris gets back not a moment too soon, and she shows him what he needs to do to win the town over. There are more obstacles, but Caris overcomes them all. She resigns from the convent, appoints her successor, also manages to appoint the bishop and the prior, and finally decides to marry Merthin, as they become partners as the town's two most influential people. Did I mention that through a large swath of the novel Caris helps the town overcome the plague and is appointed not only as the head of the convent, but the head of the priory as well?

So, Mr. Follett, I know that I'm repeating myself, but what the hell happened?

About fifty pages into this book I started getting angry, but I kept reading in the hopes that I would find the same writer who'd once written one of my favourite novels. When it didn't happen, I kept reading because I knew that I would review it, and I wanted to spare people the fourteen bucks and hours of time reading this narrow minded schlock. The characters in the novel are not actually people, they're excuses for promoting Follett's agenda. Never mind that they have no nuance to them, what really offends is this idea that people are either good or bad. In Follett's case, bad people are those who believe in God, good people choose reason instead of God and treat people in the church as either weak minded or devious. Follett's ideas about feminism are as offensive as those of a fundamentalist, in that while it seems like he's favouring his female characters, what he's really doing is showing you just how silly women are, in his opinion, when they get power.

I'm sorry, but if you haven't figured out that people are not simple, and that religion and gender and sexuality has nothing to do with whether or not a person exhibits admirable qualities, then it's time to stop writing. Or at least, label your work like they do for Muslim fiction and Christian fiction. Just let us know that you're working through an agenda. Or write the chapter with time machine and how Caris was really an assistant on Sex and the City, and wanted to be like Carrie except that she wasn't funny and had no apparent flaws.

In Diana Gabaldon's review of this book for the Washington Post, she called it a morality play. That's one author showing kindness to another. World Without End treats both its characters and readers as idiots, and produces the same smugness Caris exhibits towards the people in her village. If that's what it means to be non-religious, I think I'd suddenly want to go to church. The irony is that Pillars of the Earth was written as a result of Follett's love for cathedrals, with the understanding that such cathedrals were not only a place to inspire majesty and grace, but to unite towns and villages behind a single idea, the acceptance of their own humanity. Twenty years have gone by, and Follett no longer has any use for humanistic ideals about the great possibilities that lie within people or the difference we can make in the world around us. His title reflects as much, and after you finish reading it, you realize that World Without End is not a statement of hope, but the conjoined misery of a rich, old man, who looks around and realizes that no matter what we try to do to make things better, things will never really change, and the world will keep on spinning out its misery.

Zero stars (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)

Directed by Louis Leterrier


This looks like a great summer flick. That's what you're thinking through the first twenty five minutes or so of Clash of the Titans, a 2010 remake of the campy 1981 cult classic. In the 2010 version, the sets and costumes are well done, the actors are determined, and the special effects are competent. But about halfway through this story of a demi-god, Perseus, who must complete certain heroic tasks to save the city of Argos from the gods, something changes. Oh, everything still looks good, but you realize that you don't care all that much. It isn't the fault of the actors, although Liam Neeson's Zeus looks, and sounds, like someone playing Santa at an office Christmas party. The star here is Sam Worthington, who plays Perseus, but the script gives no time for character development. Worthington, who was good in Terminator: Salvation and even better in Avatar, does his best, but his Perseus is a one note hero. He's Russell Crowe without the sadness, and consequently, the ballast, for us to care about him that much. And while the demi-god is insistent throughout the movie that he is choosing to be human, you don't believe it. He sounds like someone helping at a soup kitchen for a couple of days, who then looks forward to telling his other rich friends about his experience "relating to the people" over a bottle of Bordeaux. For an adventure story to work, you have to empathize with the hero. You have to believe that they are both fallible and flawed, and that's just not the case here.

Watching big, expensive adventure movies like this makes you appreciate the greatness of The Lord of the Rings, and the reason why the source material is so important. The original Clash of the Titans, with Harry Hamlin, evoked a great deal more emotion, despite its camp. Perhaps its inability to rely on special effects made it so. In this remake, while the special effects are competently done, the fight scenes serve nothing but to advance to the next set piece, and push the viewer away from the story. You're looking for a controller just as the movie is supposed to get interesting. (Clash of the Titans video game was released for PS3 on July 27, 2010)

In that, the story probably serves better as a video game than a movie. I was looking forward to this one, but so long as The Suits insist on the "necessary elements of big budget movies," and don't allow their directors some creative freedom, they'll continue to serve up schlock like this that is neither interesting nor memorable. Trust me, you'll forget it as soon as it over. And when someone asks you what you thought, you'll be left wondering why it wasn't better, because it looked so damn good.

**1/2 (out of five)


Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Birthday Wish

A friend told me this encouraging story recently, about one of her cousins. He was in his mid-fifties and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and given one year to live. He spent the year getting things ready and preparing his estate for his wife and kids, when he was informed by the doctor he had six weeks to live. He and his wife did some research, and he was offered an opportunity to try some experimental techniques in Washington. The doctors told him he had a fifty per cent chance of surviving the efforts. Amazingly, he survived the experiments. Not only did he survive, but two weeks ago received word that the cancer was completely gone. After living with the prospect of death for over a year, he had his life back.

After she told me, I couldn't stop thinking about this man, about what life would surely mean for him now that the immediate prospect of death was removed. Every day, I thought, would be a tremendous gift. We hear stories like this, and while they happen to be true, we scoff at the sappy conclusions when someone reminds us that we live under the shadow of death every day, that each one could be our last, and that all we have is a gift. And yet, it's true, isn't it? I think we resent the sentimentality of it because sometimes the people who do the reminding are so busy being happy, they make everyone around them a bit depressed. But that doesn't mean that the idea is wrong.

I think about that quite often these days, more as I get older, and especially on days like today, which happens to be my birthday. (I'm turning 23 for the 15th time.) I like getting older, frankly. I like that I have a better feel for who I am and what the world is like. I also like that it's okay to not party all weekend (so exhausting) and that no one thinks anything of it that I like to nap, errr, now and again. It strikes me how easily we forget the important things though, even now. That a life without relationships, without love, is no life at all.

I received a note from a friend of mine today that brought tears to my eyes. She was so kind and so encouraging, her note left me speechless. But it was the kind of thing she always does for others, and so consistent with her character. My life would be considerably less without her friendship. But then, that was true of so many people in my life. If you would have told me four years ago or eight years ago that I would be happily married to a beautiful and brilliant woman, that I would have a number of wonderful friends who accept me for who I am, and that I would live a life where getting out of bed in the morning at 5am is a joy, I would have called you crazy. (Especially the 5am part.) That doesn't mean I am without struggles or issues, as I've documented so often on this site. But the older I get, the more treasures I see in the people around me, and for that, I am extremely grateful.

So my birthday wish then, for all of you, is to know this more deeply. To know that tomorrow is the treasure we build up today. To know that your relationships are the brick and mortar of your life, and what you do with them will determine how you live. And finally, I'd be remiss if I did not mention my deep and abiding love of God, a love that has been nurtured by many people over the past thirty years. As I've gotten older, I've become less sure about the details of my faith, the ones that seem draw so many people into arguments, when by all accounts, we should be doing the much harder work in mimicking the love God has for us.

I first started hearing about this Jewish Rabbi when I was very young. He seemed so wise. So loving. Well, that's how everyone described him at least. That was what you found in the stories, those I was confused by some of the people who said they knew this Rabbi.

These days, it can be hard to distinguish between those who follow Jesus, those who think they're Jesus and those who think only they can speak for Jesus. It's frustrating, and I completely understand why so many of my friends give religion a wide berth. But without God, my life is an empty shell. I have known him since I was a small boy. I know how that sounds, and hey, I understand if people are skeptical, especially if someone has used religion to clobber you and hurt you. But it doesn't mean that I can deny the role God has played in my life. He has given me so many blessings, but more than that, his persistent love pushes me towards people when I don't feel like loving, and pushes me towards a mirror when I need to rethink some things, and when I'm alone, he's there with me. And that, I think, is the greatest thing of all about getting older. The older I get, the less I know. The less I know, the more I see. And the more I see, the more I realize that to exist without the presence of God would be the greatest loss of them all.


NOTE: Why not send an encouraging note to someone today. Perhaps an old friend or family member you haven't talked to in a while. Trust me, you won't regret it.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Violence Makes us Feel Better

I didn't think much of it when I stepped out onto the balcony and noticed the swarm of police cars camped out below. I'd often joked about how 911 was really unnecessary at our building because the police were usually already there. But as I looked down from my eighth floor view, I noticed entire families watching from their balconies as well. Okay, so that was new. So were the two helicopters. My stomach clenched, and decided to head downstairs. A tall, hook nosed officer at the door politely told the small group of us that no one was allowed to come or go. I waited by the elevator, willing it to come quickly. Back in my apartment, I headed out to the balcony and noticed the police tape for the first time. They'd marked off a small section of trees to the right of the front entrance. And there were more police cars. So many I lost count.


It was my first thought. My wife had left a couple of hours earlier to head for work, and I'd drifted off for a short nap before working out. I checked my cell phone. Breathed a sigh of relief at her text message. She was outside the city. I checked online to find out more. Apparently a woman had been thrown off a balcony on the 11th floor. The story talked about a "massage" parlour being run out of our building, her screaming, and the police kicking down the door but unable to prevent her from being thrown off the balcony.

I called my wife. Twittered. Exchanged messages. Everything heightened. Everything alive. I felt sadness, felt the barbarity of the act, but more than anything, I simply felt. What I didn't like however, was the suddenly heightened sense of importance I felt at being so near a tragedy. It was wrong, but I was too close to look at it, too close to understand what was happening. Even now, a few days later, I wish for greater sadness. Because the truth is that the most dominant feeling I experienced once I knew that my wife was safe, was excitement. Not the excitement you feel when you accomplish something or watch your team win a championship or share something with family or friends. No, it was something much darker than that.


Scientists have some evidence that extremely violent behavior is a result of reduced platelet serotonin levels in our brain, and that it is a dissociative disorder arising from a lack of maternal bonding and affection. What it hasn't explained is why all humans still tend towards violence. If we exempt those struggling from emotional dysfunction, (a relatively high number in our society) the better answer for the general populace when looking at violent behavior is the basic psychology behind it.

Violence makes us feel better because it raises our status, and it does so in two ways. The first is association. Being associated with violence, even as a bystander, in a liberal democratic society, immediately enhances our status, because for many of us, our daily survival is never in question. Western society has done a better job protecting its people from violence than any other in the history of civilization. We live longer than ever, and our child mortality rate is absurdly low. We may not like all that progress has brought with it, but we live in a far safer society than that of our ancestors. Violence has a darkness to it that is powerful and entrancing, and its allure is even greater when we don't have to worry about it actually affecting us. Think of the Iraq war, with hundreds of thousands of civilian Iraqi deaths, encouraged by many pundits while we simply cheered our soldiers, with no risk to ourselves, and only vague political mush to excuse our excitement over what was, and still is, happening there. When we associate with violence, we become the Roman mob, cheering the spectacle of blood at the Forum, quickened by the darkness that violence brings. It creates not only a heightened sense of awareness in our brain, but serves as a means to delineate the daily routine with an event of significance. And if the event is significant, so are we.

Violence also makes us feel better by doing. That is, we commit acts of violence against one another to preserve our status and enhance our own sense of power. That may not manifest itself in something as barbaric as throwing someone off a building, because the violence Western culture suffers is often more hidden and more subtle. Take for example, supposedly Christian forums where one believer will rip apart someone who doesn't agree with them about a minute point of Scripture. Or how whites trash blacks and heterosexuals tear apart the gay community. People wonder at the vitriol on the internet now, and argue that people would never say these things if they weren't anonymous. But that's not true. It's a different forum, to be sure, but I still remember my grandfather talking about "n******" and other races as if they were inferior. Every day I see acts of violence commited against women in both words and posturing, violence that doesn't always manifest itself physically, but does so behind closed doors more than we imagine.

And the more I read, the more I am convinced that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins do not know what they're talking about. Dawkins, in particular, has made a career out of pontificating that religion is the world's great evil. That most of the violence done throughout history was done in the name of religion. He's right, of course, excepting the Soviet experiment in the 20th Century, which was responsible for the death of about sixty million people. But doing something or committing an act in the name of religion has nothing to do with religion itself. If that were true, then atheists would be the most peaceful people on earth, and the only group who can legitimately make that claim would be the Tibetan monks.

There is a difference between verbally ripping someone to shreds and physically killing someone, but how much? What is the difference between a young person who was so emotionally abused that they will spend most of their life trying to heal, and the young person who was shot in the leg?

Whether we like it or not, the presence of violence, or even the threat of it, gives us status. This is a highly tuned evolutionary premonition, and in the eyes of many Christians, it is the prevalence of our sinful nature. And yet, it abounds. Is there anything more absurd than listening to a Christian talk about grace while mocking someone who believes differently? How is that not violent? How is that not merely a religious excuse for status grabbing? The same is true of those reject religion, and yet attack, with great vitriol, those who disagree with them, and do so with condescension and laughter. Violence has nothing to do with religion. It has its own friends and its own kind of power, and in many ways, has its own group of worshippers, a group that spans across all races, genders, and systems of belief, and it is far more dangerous.


I'm back on the balcony. The police tape down below is gone. They say the woman is in critical condition. They think that she will live. It is unnerving to think about what happened, or how I felt when it did. I am hoping my sadness takes hold. Mostly though, I'm thinking about a Jewish rabbi who taught odd things, when he walked around Palestine at the turn of the Century. A rabbi who taught that servanthood was better than violence. That finishing last was more important than raising your status. Even at the end, when the Romans would kill him for speaking out, his disciples did not fully grasp it, and through the centuries, his followers haven't done a great job with it either. And that includes me.

Lowering our status is not something we can do naturally. It is something we must work at, something we must ask help for in doing. We want to matter. We want to be important and have people look up at us in admiration. And unlike most civilizations, because we live longer, the task is even more difficult. Even the best of us will resort to violence because it's easy and "feels" natural. Most of us will never physically attack another person, but we will lash out verbally to remind others that they stand below us. We will mock them until they squirrel away, their self-esteem torn apart, just so they know that we're 'higher' than they are, that we're better than they will ever be. We will rape the environment without thinking about, because 'that's the way things are', and our status as humans is greater than the other living creatures with whom we share this planet.

Despite all the evidence that stands against the silly rabbi and his silly ideas, I will hold on to the hope that there's a better way. That perhaps this Jew, who spoke in a time and place of war and bloodshed, offered us something better. Better than the dark high that violence gives us, better than the feeling we get when we establish our own importance.

No one likes to feel worthless or unimportant, but perhaps we've gone about this the wrong way. Instead of spending hours on the internet establishing why we're right, what if we volunteered at a shelter instead? Or perhaps volunteered with a neighbourhood charity, as opposed to creating endless documents about why our ideas about religion or science are better than those around us. For most of recorded history, humans have used violence to increase their status. Perhaps it is time to try something else.


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Movie Review: The Man in our Mirror

This Is It (2009)

Directed by Kenny Ortega

About halfway through the movie I started to feel it, a gentle tug that had become more insistent until I slowly became lost in a sea of memories and quiet sadness. For people of a certain age, Michael Jackson is synonymous with adolescence. For us, he was more than a pop star. He was the closest thing we had to a global celebrity, a living Truman before the internet revolution decreed that every celebrity's life would be lived (literally)under continual scrutiny. From the stories of his childhood abuse (his dad used to sit with a belt across his lap when the Jackson Five rehearsed, and if they made a mistake, he would whip them) to his culture changing stardom with Thriller, and from his move from icon to iconoclast to creepy Wacko, Michael Jackson was always a presence in our life.

That is, until the past decade. Somehow, we needed the absence. Needed the separation. But with the distance something happened. Somehow his decade long absence served to bury Jackson the pop star and raise him to something else altogether. This Is It was to be his comeback, and perhaps, final tour. And what a tour it might have been.

The movie is compiled footage from his concert preparation, and cut in a manner to be a concert, in effect, for the viewer. It's well done, although more interviews would've helped the narrative along. Despite that, Jackson's star power is never in question. With his translucent white skin and sunglasses balanced over a porcelain face of sharp mounds, he seems more a ghost than a fifty year old man. His voice is still crisp, and his conditioning is tremendous, as he dances and sings with every song. (Unlike, say, Brittney Spears or any number of current pop stars) His creative vision is astounding, and even from the half finished clips we see in the film, we know that This Is It would surely have been one of the greatest (and most expensive) shows of all time.

Mostly though, it isn't Michael the performer that holds you. It is the force of the memories dancing along inside you when he sings Thriller and Man in the Mirror, the soft, childish platitudes he mutters to his crew that strangely fill you with hope, and the love his dancers and fellow musicians genuinely hold for him.

It's easy to be cynical about Michael Jackson, easy to call him Wacko Jacko or a creep, but for four decades he lived in front of us, startling us and disappointing us, and yet, always creating those moments. Moments we recall twenty years later that remind us who we were back then, and in so doing, help us see what we have become.

More than his musical and creative genius, his dominance of pop culture was the result of his ability to help us look in the mirror and to do so not with cynicism, but hope. Michael Jackson was not a saint, nor was he just another celebrity sinner. He was, in a strange way, the perfect reflection of our ideals and failures, an adult of great charity and a child who never grew up. And in that, he was just like us.

***** (Out of five) For the memories
***1/2(Out of five) For the film

Copyright 2010 Stephen Burns

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

UPDATE: Where Can I Find Original Thinkers; Fantasy Frustration

I'm looking for an original thought.

I'm looking for someone who will not simply parrot their supposed group, be it Christians or Atheists or scientists or liberals or conservatives or whoever. Trolling for original thought on the internet, the super highway of information, is like looking for the proverbial needle. The past week I've spent, on average, five or six hours a day trolling sites through various social media capillaries, and the amount of intellectual "high-fives" going on at these supposed intelligent sites is enough to make me vomit in my mouth. It's been unbelievably depressing.

Coming from a heavily churched background, as I do, it has always been easy to say that there are a fair number of parrots in religion. What I'm learning is that there are a fair number of parrots, period and it doesn't matter where they lie on the political spectrum. You can feel the scars and taint of rejection as people bend over backward to congratulate themselves and each other on their shared viewpoints, feverishly trying to hold on to a fragile community with their own fragile psyche. Now, I understand the psychology behind it, and don't necessarily bemoan it, except for the vitriol at people who would dare think differently. People who would even attempt to shatter their precious group think with an idea outside the box. Again, this is not just true of conservatives and people who are religious. (As liberals often accuse.) I've been to a number of liberal sites where I was raked in the comments section (not on this site), simply for offering an alternative idea. There was no debate, just name calling.

Which leads me to my next question. Within the medium of high end technology, is it even possible to have a debate, or does the internet, with its speed and anonymity, impart a natural ruthlessness in the way we address issues? Food for thought, because as we saw in the last presidential election, our future will ultimately be decided on the internet. Is it possible we can find a way to have intelligent discourse without resorting to grade school name calling? It's a dream, I know, and it probably won't happen. But can we at least get rid of this ridiculous notion that conservatives are dumb and liberals are smart, or that only conservatives are religious. Conservatives are religious about institutionalized religions, but people can be zealous or religious about anything, including science, the environment, or even the dismantling of organized religion. What I'd love to find are people/web sites that promote original thought, to the point where you're not sure what they will say about an issue, merely that it will be well thought out and not simply the agenda of yet another organized group.


What is it with fantasy writers? When it's done well, fantasy provides a terrific experience for its reader. So why then, do so many fantasy writers insist on ignoring the basic rules of genre writing? They switch characters so frequently you can't get involved, or they insist on adding yet another viewpoint or character late in the story that you know nothing about. The beauty of good fantasy is that it allows you to dig in. When done well, a la Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind, the result is millions of books sold. And yet, so many insist on making the world and its characters so complex we can't follow them and lose interest. This has happened in the Guy Gavriel Kay novel I've been reading. Tonight, about 170 pages in, the work became unintelligible with new characters and quick viewpoint shifts, and I was forced to put it down. Again. Sigh. At least now I understand why the Jordan estate chose Brandon Sanderson to complete Jordan's series. His novels are both readable and enjoyable for people who like to read OUTSIDE the fantasy realm.


A final word about the sudden increase in popularity to this site, as I've learned to tap into the veins of social media coursing through the internet. I will not be a parrot. Now you may think that I already spend my days wanting another cracker, or that I'm a typical liberal Christian, or a typical "fake" conservative, or whatever. For all the new traffic, I don't give a crap what people in my "groups" think or don't think, and so much as I'm able to provide you with something to think about, something that might make your daily load a bit lighter, regardless of where the idea comes from; or, as a commentary to our culture, I will write exactly as I believe. As far as I'm concerned, God gave us all will and breath, and while we need him, we also need to stop moping about like we have no choices in our life.

Repeat after me. No sheep allowed.

You deserve better.

And if I start sounding like someone more interested in popularity than original thought, send me a "slap" email.

The new movie review should be up tomorrow, and no, I'm not sure what I'm watching yet. Probably something recent.

Thanks, everyone. Have a good night and we'll chat soon.


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Update: TV Review, Shame & Novel Reboot

I suppose in writing about the relationship between sex and religion and porn, I overestimated the response. I assumed I would be awash in comments. In some ways, it was a good reminder of just how effectively we have bathed our sexuality in a culture of shame. The truth is that even for those who have grown and shared the experiences mentioned in my article, offering an opinion on religion and porn means exposure and vulnerability of a kind that most people are not willing to risk. The reason for that is that is simple. We've learned what happens when we open ourselves up, especially when it comes to ideas about sexuality. Faith should not be about perfection or the pursuit of perfection, but the shared journey of fallible individuals working together to understand what life is and what it means. The "Christian" publishing industry certainly doesn't help. As a young writer, I was informed by the Christian publishing houses, the ones to whom I was sending my work, that there was to be no sex in the novel unless the characters were married. The beliefs of the characters did not matter. I still remember questioning one of the editors, who merely shrugged and said the publishing houses were worried about the sixty five year old Christian lady walking into a Christian bookstore and discovering 'sex' in one of the books. I struggled with her answer. I remember asking her if she was comfortable with the fact that basically, Christian writers would be held back from writing real characters, from writing something real, because of one person?

I ended up writing a novel called Ravin, about a stripper who is abducted by the leader of Venezuelan cult, and whose only chance for survival lies with her sister, a snobbish lawyer with whom she hasn't spoken in five years. A number of the editors liked it, but they had no idea where to put it on the shelf. It was my last attempt at "Christian" fiction, a real learning experience regarding the shame that sex still holds in religion. Unless you want to publish a book about the merits of abstinence, you're certainly not going to find anything helpful about sex on the shelves of religious bookstores. Their inventory is driven by the single, unhappy, self-righteous customer. And since they don't do enough business to ignore the loudmouths, they have the last word over the needs and wants of the majority.

Speaking of which, the same is true in many churches across the continent. I've seen it so many times that it has become cliché. One small contingent of highly self policed, egocentric moralists, controlling large populations within a religious community. This is not unlike high school, where the popular clique is usually the one that is the hardest to please and have the most money. For a church to function properly, these groups must be smashed. A strong pastor can do it. Most of the time however, it requires the strength and guts of the congregation to ignore these willful power mongers whose goals lie outside faith and are only concerned with power. What we need are more people willing to speak about their experiences, including their sexual ones, and face down the moralists who think shame is somehow related to following Jesus. Do not let others dictate your guilt. Normally, the power mongers have the advantage because they are less concerned with being fair and more interested in retaining power. Just remember, these people are found in every organization in the world. They are not particular to religion, but are attracted there by the possibility of power and control. The more we learn to stand up to them, the more we'll be able to grow the types of communities that not only make a difference in our lives, but in the lives of those around us.


I didn't want to do an entire review on it, seeing as how I'll be doing a movie review in the next couple of days, but last night we(Bethany and I) watched the first installment of an 8 part mini-series last night for The Pillars of the Earth. This has long been one of my favourite novels, and the mini-series adaptation (at least the first part) was excellent. The production is well done and the cast is terrific. The Pillars of the Earth was the result of a decade long study of castles and cathedrals by author Ken Follett. It details the story of a faithful monk who desires to build a cathedral to God's glory, and the mason who feels the same calling. Majestically written, it is a wonderfully told and tremendously uplifting. It seems as if the mini-series is doing it justice.


I was listening to one of Brandon Sanderson's writing podcasts last week, and he was discussing what to do with a story when you have to revamp it. I enjoy the Sanderson podcasts, as he writes Epic Fantasy, the genre I am currently attempting to break through in. At any rate, he mentioned that sometimes it helps to start by writing the ending when you're stuck, so that's what I'm going to do tomorrow, as I've been stuck on 130,000 words for the past three weeks. Wish me luck.

The new movie review will be up in a couple of days. As always, feel free to comment or write.