Monday, May 16, 2005

Critical Criticism

As mentioned, books were read and movies were watched during our week off. Just in case you were wondering, here's a recap:


Paul For Everyone: Romans Part 1: Okay, this may be cheating, since I finished 3/4 of the book before vacation started. But I just wanted to plug Tom Wright's For Everyone books, since this was my first foray into the series. As the name implies, these books are intended for laypersons; however, they still give the basic shape of Wright's theology and approach to the Scriptures. Wright has the ability to vigorously engage in dialogue at the highest levels of academia, yet he is still able to communicate directly, clearly and pastorally to those without the benefit of years of theological training. He writes both to the head and to the heart. This combination is, unfortunately, all too lacking in many discussions of the Scriptures. Of course, as a lay-level guide, the book does not address everything I'd like to see. So, after finishing Part Two, I guess it's time to take a crack at his big Romans commentary.

Leave It to Psmith: Why did I wait so long to discover P.G. Wodehouse? The delay was definitely my loss. Quite an enjoyable read, and I think I started to annoy Allison with my frequent chuckling. Plus, dash it all, I think I have subconciously imported a bunch of new slang. Apparently, my friend Paul has some Wodehouse on his bookshelf. Not for long! Mwah hah hah.

The DaVinci Code: If the two books above were the good, Dan Brown's blockbuster serves as both the bad and the ugly. Even though I already knew a fair amount about the book, I always like to read things first-hand. I will give Brown credit for being able to weave a story in a way that keeps you hooked until the very end. But after finishing the book, one looks back and wonders, "I read all 400+ pages for what?" The characters are pretty bland, although Brown adds "depth" by making one an albino and one a cripple, as well as by punctuating the book with smatterings of untranslated French and Latin. It falls well within the parameters for a "beach book" -- that is, a page-turner that makes few intellectual demands on the reader and is suitable for reading by the beach/pool/etc during vacation. Except, the "historical basis" for the book is presented as uncontested fact. I had to aggressively suppress the cognitive dissonance experienced during many of the presentations of "historical fact" throughout the book. Fortunately, the chapters averaged about 2-3 pages each, so I could quickly move along. (The Tektonics web site has a pretty good review of the book that addresses many of the related issues of historical scholarship and what not.)


The Alamo: Better-than-average tale of the defense of the ill-fated Spanish mission. Although the film seemed to lag in several places, the cast (particularly Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric and even Billy Bob Thornton) really shone throughout. Unlike some previous films about the Alamo, this version highlighted the bravery of the defenders while portraying them realistically as flawed (often deeply) men. This is notably seen when Davy Crockett secretly confesses that he had considered fleeing in the night -- but he realized that his stature among the men and his corresponding responsibility made that notion impossible to entertain. Similarly, many of the Mexicans are portrayed humanely (instead of as soul-less killers), with several of the generals attempting unsuccessfully to temper Santa Anna's megalomaniacal ambitions.

National Treasure: Mindless fun! Granted, much of the story is pretty far-fetched. But once your disbelief is suspended, it was pretty fun watching Nicholas Cage and pals steal the Declaration of Independence and try to decipher the treasure map hidden on the back. I still have some reservations about Cage as an action hero (actually, as a superstar in general), but not enough to ruin the movie. Although, between this and The DaVinci Code, I've had my fill of secret codes, treasure hunts and Knights Templar to last me for a loooong time.

Films ... From Books

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: This is a film that I had been both anxiously awaiting and nervously dreading for quite some time. On the one hand, the Hitchhiker's trilogy is a series of books I have enjoyed immensely. On the other hand, there's plenty of potential to mess it up. Then again, author Douglas Adams did work on the screenplay. Then again (again), he died before it was completed. Fortunately, the end product is quite an enjoyable movie. My biggest concern going into the film: much of the humor in the series comes out of the narrative, and narrators in films don't always work. But in this case, it worked out pretty well. Although the film made use of big budget effects, it still preserves the offbeat humor which permeates Adams' works, notably in the frequent references from the title guidebook.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: We opted not to see this film right when it was released, because we wanted to read the books first. After reading the first few books, we were afraid that the film wouldn't meet our expectations. It was very similar to Hitchhiker's, actually, since the Snicket books are heavily driven by the oft-bizarre narrations by the title character, the unseen chronicler of the miseries that have befallen the poor Baudelaire orphans. The film combines (roughly) the plots of the first three books, although not completely in sequence. Despite some of the changes, the film stays true to the spirit (depressed as it is) of the books. Snicket, voiced by Jude Law, provides some great instances of the trademark offbeat narration. Although the casting of the Baudelaires wasn't what I expected (Klaus shouldn't have been so thin!), Jim Carrey does a tremendous job as the evil Count Olaf. Hmm. A character who is a terribly bad actor. What a stretch! Actually, Carrey's performances as Olaf's disguised personae are hysterical. Overall, the film was a fun adaptation of a fun series of books, and the film was well-made (the visuals were very good, and the musical score did a great job of setting the tone -- dark yet whimsical).

Anyway, that's it from my end of the Critics' Corner. Allison read some books, too, including an enormous Tom Wolfe tome. But I'll let her share about that. Now that vacation is over, it will probably be quite a while before I unleash such a flurry of reviews within such a short time! Alas. (Although, I do hope to finally finish that Marva Dawn review. Eventually.)

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