Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Category: review

Review: Mutluluk (Bliss)

BlissI devoted a lot of my time and limited brain power to this post. It’s been hard. Very, very hard.

I could write a hundred posts on this film. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating (too much). I could open it up and keep on analyzing it for years. I could talk about how I walked away from it a different person from who I was when I sat down to watch it.

I could look at it from a cinematic point of view and tell you about the ridiculously great acting and shots and score. Or I could look at it from an artistic point of view and tell you about the symbolism as each character chooses (or is chosen) to break free from whatever they break free from. Or I could look at it from an emotional point of view and tell you how the story woos, seduces and beds your soul, all the while both destroying and enlivening it.

But I can’t tell you any of that. I can’t give you a cookie here. To tell you about this film will dishonor it. I cannot tell anything but this: Watch it!

Get up, right now, and go to the nearest video store. Rent this movie. You’ll thank me. I promise.

Don’t [think/read/watch] this!

Okay, so I’m cruising around the net and I come across this video (I tried to embed it but it didn’t take…)

I thought to myself, ‘Ah! Mohler! I’ve heard of him. He’s a Southern Baptist and he did that Together For The Gospel thing I’ve heard good things about, so I’ll watch this video!’

Watch it if you want, but it’s a very painful hour long. I made it about 15 minutes before I had to turn it off.

It’s a panel discussion, which sounds cool. All eyes are up front. What deep issue are they talking about? What encouraging truth are they opening their minds and mouths to grant to us?

Brian McLaren is serpentine child of the devil and going to hell (35:49). He’s written a book that’s disgusting and laughably silly (13:42).

Now, I’ve heard of this McLaren guy before. I don’t really know anything about him (other than that he’s very, very baaaaad). So when I come across a video like this my first reaction is, ‘Wow. I need to read this book they’re ripping apart!’

I had heard of the book. I think Driscoll said bad things about it. So I bought it. Don’t tell anyone, but it seems like a decent book (go check it out). It’s a novel, and the worst criticism I could come up with (and I tried really hard to criticize it) was that the characters were two-dimensional and I was pretty sure the author wrote himself as the sly Jamaican (but who wouldn’t want to be a sly Jamaican, really?)

It was so decent, I thought, that I couldn’t understand why there was such a to-do about it. So I checked out the video again.

It turns out, the video is about ‘A New Kind Of Christianity.’ I, unfortunately, bought ‘A New Kind Of Christian.’ Tee hee. Oops. Wrong book. So I actually don’t know a thing about the book they are criticizing (yet).

So I guess I shouldn’t really be saying anything. I guess the book they are talking about could very well be just as evil as they say it is. And maybe it is worth filling an hour over.

Now, I understand that people feel the need to debate. Of course! Why not? If a famous guy writes a book and you disagree with it, you ought to talk about that. But why do we need to be such jerks about it? Why fill a church for a hour to talk about it? And, most importantly, why oh why can’t you actually deal with his claims instead of calling him liberal and post-modern and all the other buzzwords that we associate with ‘bad?’ When McLaren calls the Flood genocide (15:39), why can’t you explain that it wasn’t (if it wasn’t)? When you say that his book is against the Bible (33:25) can you tell me how it is against the Bible? Or maybe I should just take your word for it.

I like book reviews. I go by them all the time. But I can’t go by this one because I feel like they are spending most of their time mocking the book (and its writer/readers) instead of deconstructing it. It was as if they were hired to judge a new piece of technology and, instead of talking about the in and outs of it, they just called it stupid with different adjectives for an hour.

But, again, I haven’t read the thing (nor have I finished the video. An hour of criticism takes a lot out of you). So I shouldn’t be saying anything at all, should I?

Of course, most people (like me) who criticize the Emergent Conversation haven’t read any books written by people who are actually part of that conversation. Most people (like me) have just listened to Mohler and Driscoll and come to accept what they think about the movement. Does anyone else find this a little dishonest?

It reminds me about when I was in KLBC and I attacked The Prayer of Jabez without reading it. Sorry Bruce, I shouldn’t have done that. And McLaren, I’ll read your stuff before I say anything bad about you. And even after I read it, I’ll try to be nice.

Review: Blood – The Last Vampire


When I first heard about Twilight, I have to admit I was a little excited. I didn’t know anything about the story, of course, I just knew it involved vampires. I’ve always thought that the vampire myth had a lot of potential in it, but I had never seen any work (film, novel or otherwise [except maybe for one RPG I used to play]) come close to unlocking it. I thought (stupidly) that Twilight might have done that.

NOPE!

I was horribly disappointed (of course), not only because the book (and film) delivered nearly nothing good, but also because they spawned an army of vampire-media that seemed even worse. I was about to give up on my hopes of finding anything vampire-related that was worth the myth it built itself on.

And then I found Blood – The Last Vampire. The title sounds a little corny (I’m sure it sounds much cooler in Japanese), but the film blew my mind.

It’s quite short – just over an hour. But in that hour the full greatness of the vampire myth was unpacked. No, not really unpacked. More like, the lid creaked open a crack and let a tiny bit of quality out, giving pleasure and a deep longing for some.

Saya is the last vampire, though she is never called that in the film (Which is a good thing. The best way to destroy a vampire film is to use the word vampire). She works for the American government and hunts human-devouring demons in Japan. The audience gets to see one of her missions, in which she infiltrates an American high school in Japan and hunts down a couple of demons that have been spotted there.

What makes Blood so good?
First, Saya is just about the deepest vampire character I’ve ever come across. In every other film vampires are portrayed as sexy, playful beings who are full of adolescent pettiness. That portrayal, though, makes no sense when you think about it. Even though Edward, for example, is trapped in a teenage body, he is not a teenager. He’s, what, a hundred and fifty years old? Does it really make sense for a hundred-year-old guy to be attracted to a teenager? What are they going to talk about? Boy bands? Heck, it would be hard for him to have the patience to deal with immature 50-year-olds. Sorry girls, but Edward is just about the dumbest vampire I’ve ever seen.
Saya pulls of the centuries-old vampire in a teenage body perfectly. She is not playful. She is not sexy. She is frustrated, unsympathetic and perma-pissed. Just as a vampire should be. You can see her frustration and annoyance with the children she is pretending to fit in with. She’s a real vampire.
Another great thing about Blood is the depth of the world its set in. Even though we only get to hang out with Saya for an hour, we can tell that there is a lot beneath the surface with her and her world. So many things are alluded to that are never fully answered. I’m not going to go into details, for spoiler’s sake, but the setting is deep. And that’s an amazing achievement when you consider how short the film is.
Just like Princess Mononoke, Blood does not resolve. And the manner in which it refuses to resolve is achingly well played. You leave the film begging for a sequel (on a related note, there is a series [Blood+] which is inspired by the movie. Never seen it though, so no comment).
One of my favorite aspects is Saya herself. She is simply not your average heroine. It’s very hard to love her. You get the impression that she’s a very evil person and she’s not sexy or fun like most heroines tend to be. She’s complicated and intense. She’s merciless and hates pretty much everyone (I think), but she’s fighting for the right side (I think). Like Princess Mononoke (and the Bible), it’s not a classic Good vs. Evil fight. Its something deeper.

Of course, one good question to ask is why do I like the fact that Saya is (really) a bad person? Because the heart of the vampire myth is evil. Vampires cannot be sexy and fun because they are evil. And evil can never be (permanently) sexy or fun. Evil must always give way to frustration and monotony. Which is why the Interview With The Vampire series works so well. You may think it would be fun to be immortal and strong. But the evil you need to take on in order to become that way kills any goodness that you might have gained.

So forget Edward. Saya is the real deal. And while she will never fall in love with a cute boy or giggle or anything like that, she will faithfully portray the vampire myth, as depressing as it is. And it’s better that way. We see the horror of personal evil clearer that way.

No Longer Just A Game

I just finished Speaker for the Dead.

The book was a breath of fresh air. It’s been a long time since I’ve read something both so amazingly enjoyable and so profound. I know that I’m not supposed to feel this way, but it was definitely better than Ender’s Game. The simple prose toyed with my emotions the entire time. You’d be surprised how saddened I was over the fight of the main character with one of his longest friends.

And the depth was great. It is one of those books that changes you a bit once you’re done. Here’s my favorite line:

How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all, when we thought that we were only made of dust.

That came to me at a great time. I’ve always leaned toward a Reformed view of things so I tend to have a pretty negative view on the human condition, what with the soul-cancer of sin and all. But here I’m reminded of that awful and wonderful truth: Though I am dust, the flesh of God dwells in me. Though I am sick the creative power that told the story of the unmade universe into being is part of me.

And if that doesn’t brighten your day, I don’t know what will!

If you’ve never read a science fiction, go grab Ender’s Game and take the series to the end. You’ll be glad you did.

Review: The Golden Compass (novel)

Initial thought: He should have stuck with the original title: The Northern Lights.

Do you remember the movie? Probably not. There was nothing really memorable about it. It’s just as well, though. The book was everything the film was not.
C.S. Lewis suggested that if a children’s book is only good or useful in childhood, it’s not useful even then. I wish more children’s authors thought about that before they wrote. We’d have less Spongebob and Capt. Underpants stories, and I think the world would be a better place.
But The Golden Compass (like other great children’s books like Narina and The Hobbit) is great when you’re 13 or 30.
I know what a lot of you are thinking right now: Hold on, the book is anti-God. It can’t be good.
Admittedly, I’ve only read the first book in the series of three. And I know about the interview where the author claims he wanted write an atheistic version of Narnia. But The Golden Compass is no more anti-God than any other secular novel. Maybe that will play out later in the series. If it does, I’ll judge it then. But as a stand-alone novel, The Golden Compass is great.
Most children’s books have boring characters, despite their many eccentricities. I get the impression that authors think if a character is odd, he must be good. That’s just dumb, though. Spongebob is both the oddest and the most boring character I’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting.
The characters in The Golden Compass are real. The adults are fully adults – interesting and adult-like. The children are fully children – equally interesting and child-like. And that is what makes the story great. Even if most of the story was drab (which is isn’t) and if the world it was set in was shallow (it isn’t) the characters and their depth would be able to carry the book on their own. I especially loved a deeply complicated character interaction at the end of the novel, which I won’t get into because I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll just say this: my jaw literally dropped. Yay for deep characters.

I’ve been told to boycott this series because of its anti-religious message. I wish Christians wouldn’t boycott the things that seem to attack it. That’s not the way Jesus did things. When the rulers of the Temple attacked Jesus did he boycott the Temple? Naw, he stormed it! He engaged it! He wrestled and turned it upside-down. Because that was the only way to prove that he himself was greater than it. So don’t listen to people who tell you to boycott. Engage the series that Christians are afraid to engage. Because if you don’t, not only are you missing out of a quality piece of work, but you’re also letting anti-Jesus messages (if there really are these things in this series) go unchallenged.

Review: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke
Most people discount animations. It’s too bad, because some of the best films out there are animations. You should give them a chance.
One of our favorite animations is the Japanese film, Princess Mononoke. It was written by Hayao Miyazaki, who also made Ponyo, which I’ve mentioned here before.
I’ve heard it said that Princess Mononoke was Hayao Miyazaki’s best. And it’s easy to see why. The film blew my mind.
A remote village in feudal Japan is attacked by a massive boar demon. The last prince of the village, Ashitaka, manages to save the village and kill the creature. Unfortunately, he is cursed for doing it. The curse will surely kill him, the elders say. But there is a faint hope if he abandons his people and sets out on a quest to the strange lands in the west. The story is all about his quest and the war he becomes entangled in while trying to find a cure.
Princess Mononoke stands out among films for a ton of reasons. One is the way the film starts off looking like one of those epic battles between good and evil. But as it goes on, you see that it’s not that at all. The hero is good, yes. But not perfectly. The bad guys are, well, just on the other side, really. One of the themes is the constant battle between Man and Nature. In every story Nature is always the good guy and Man is the bad guy. Not so in Princess Mononoke. Both are good to their own. Both are bad to each other. Both are real.
Stories with this realistic view of good and evil really resonate with me. I think that’s because in real life there are very few (if any) pure Good vs. Evil situations. Look through the Bible, even, and you’ll see that every hero is a little bad and every villain is a little good. Life is complicated, and so are our conflicts.
Another great aspect is how completely character-driven the story is. Like with any decent story, I find myself caring about the characters’ goals, not because I actually want those goals realized, but because I’ve fallen in love with the characters and want them to get what they want. Heck, I find myself wanting some of the ‘bad guys’ to get their goals, because they are so real and sympathetic, that I love them, too.

Tiny spoilers ahead:
One of my favorite aspects of the film is how it refuses to resolve. Most popular movies have a very satisfying ending that ties up every loose end. The bad guys dies, the hero gets the girl, the annoying character get punished in some funny and satisfying way. No such resolution in Princess Mononoke. This annoys some people, of course. We are used to resolutions, which is funny, really, because we don’t have any in real life. Until you die, of course. So it seems to me that a story that doesn’t resolve mirrors real life better than a story that does. It makes it more raw. More real. Very tasty.
Spoilers over.

If you like rich stories with wild scenes and deep characters, this is a movie for you. If you like epic fantasy that breaks the mold of what epic fantasy usually is, this is a movie for you. Don’t mind that it’s a cartoon. It’s still epic. There’s nothing childish about it. In fact, I don’t think I’d let my kids watch it. It’s closer to 300 than it is to Scooby Doo.

To Drown

I don’t read much Christian fiction. Let’s face it, unless you read nothing else, you have to admit there is a severe gap between the quality of normal fiction and Christian fiction. Why? That’s another post.

But even though I don’t read much, I try to read a bit. A good friend suggested Ted Dekker’s Black, Red and White series. As far as Christian books go, it’s not bad.

It’s a shame I have to clarify like that but, what can you do?

Half of the series is an analogy in a fantasy setting.  Most analogies come across as cheesy and forced, but Dekker’s is not bad.  The one thing that really resonated with me what the analogy concerning how to follow Jesus.

Justin, the Jesus figure, dies by drowning in the book.  To follow him, he says that you need to go into the lake where he drowned, and pull in a big lungful of water.  The reader assumes, as the first convert enters the water, that he’ll find the water nice and refreshing and he’ll be able to breath it fine.

The reader is wrong.

When the protagonist takes in his lungful of air, it destroys him.  Pain explodes in his chest and he loses all buoyancy.  He sinks down into the dark, red lake.  He drowns.  He dies.  Game over.

Of course, he lives again.  But he actually died first.  Ouch!

This resonates because of the very high importance it places on following Jesus.  Following Jesus is not a prayer or an idea or a habit.  It’s a death and a rebirth.  It’s a game over followed by a restart.  It’s like getting hit with a Mack truck.  And no one is ever the same after encountering a Mack truck.

So thanks, Mr. Dekker, for the very nice salvation analogy.  I liked it.

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Incarnation of an Idea

If you’re ever going to see Avatar, please see it in 3D.  Seriously, 3D.  Don’t bother with the normal stuff.  Go for the gold.

I’ve been hearing a lot about the movie for a while.  With all the hype that was going around before it came out, you knew something special was coming.  Or, at least, you hoped something special was coming.

And I think something special did come.  I’m not one to be easily impressed with slick visuals.  I appreciate them, to be sure.  But they can’t carry a movie all by themselves, I think.  So I didn’t really enjoy films like G.I. Joe and Transformers 2.  But if there were ever any visuals that could have carried a movie all by themselves, it was the ones in Avatar.  I was going to try to explain how wild and immersive they were.  But I don’t think I can.  Suffice to say, at the end of the 3-hour flick, I was wanting more.

But I’ve been hearing a lot of complaint about the unoriginal story.  And it’s true that we’ve all heard the Avatar story before.  Imperial white guys show up in paradise.  White guys send in a spy to bring the natives down.  Spy realizes natives are cool and white guys suck.  Natives rally behind spy to kick out the white guys.  If you’ve seen Fern Gully, Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves, you already know the plot.  Original?  I guess not.

But, depending on the story being repeated, unoriginality is not always a bad thing.

There is something about this story that allows it to endure being reborn in many avatars (hehe, pun).  There is paradise. It’s always a natural paradise, eh?  You rarely see a technological paradise.  I guess that resonates with us better.  There are evil, yet powerful people who threaten paradise.  And paradise is forced to fight for its survival.  And, in the end, paradise is proved stronger, at least in some ways.

The story is great.  The story needs repeating!  It needs repeating simply because we haven’t understood it yet.  And we can all agree that we don’t understand it because every new version of the story still casts us as the bad guys!  We’re always the ones trying to piss on paradise.  And we don’t just do that in the movies, do we?  We hate Parker Selfridge for hurting the Na’vi, but we become him through our own avatars (more puns?) of corporations who are messing up the world like Walmart and unjust wars like…well…figure that one out for yourself.  Granted the places that wars and Walmart mess up aren’t actually paradise.  But they could have been.  Heck, the whole planet could have been.

Avatar was the slickest re-telling of that ancient, holy story that I’ve seen.  And we obviously still need to hear that story.  Maybe, once we’ve stopped raping the nations we can put the story away and legitimately criticize constant re-tellings.  But today is not that day.

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The Sound of Fiddles

I heard that Chaim Topol was playing Tevye in A Fiddler on the Roof at Canon Theatre in Toronto. So, naturally, I bought tickets immediately. And, aside from the balloon-busting fact that Topol had taken ill and would be replaced by Harvey Fierstein (that raspy guy from Mulan, ID4 and Mrs. Doubtfire), it was really good.

Harvey brought a side of Tevye to life that I hadn’t seen before. I appreciated it, even though the poor guy couldn’t sing. Tevye suddenly seemed wittier.

But the music. Wow, the music! The whole key to this play is the music. It was incredible. I could listen to that soundtrack again and again.

But who makes the music? Not the flashy actors on the stage, primarily. Oh, they lend their amazing voices, of course. But the music is not really theirs. They add to it. But they are not the substance.

The substance is hiding beneath the stage in their dimly-lit cave. The orchestra. Those mysterious magic workers who seem to shun the spotlight.

It made me think about how much of the great things in life are really brought to us through people and means that are not showy. The best movies come from great staff, not famous actors. The greatest cars are not made by the models who promote them, but by the hard-working builders. The great and mighty Big Mac is not put together by Ronald McDonald, but by the tireless burger-flippers.

Yay for the people behind the scenes. We need you.

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Revisiting the Wasteland

The nice thing about good poetry (or any other media) is that even if you don’t completely get it your first time, you can try again and get a little more every time you read it.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
and I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

We cannot peak about the roots and branches under the ground, because all we can see are the broken images and senses that the sun beats down on. Our view is hindered. We know only about the land of the living. And the land of the dead, beneath the red rock (a grave-maker?) is hidden and fearful. The shadow under this rock is different from the shadow at morning (youth) or from the shadow in the evening (old age).

How many poets have written about death? How many times have men and women of genius and insight been terrified by the handful of dust that awaits them?

But, I wonder, why do we look at the shadow?

Why do I look at the shadow striding behind me in the morning? Why do I gaze at it when it’s in front of me (though it is right before my eyes) in the evening? Why would I not, rather, look at the sun?

My shadow (the badge of mortality) is a small thing. It is not a part of me though it is related to me.

I cannot pretend to know exactly what happens under the red rock. I’ve never seen anything more than this heap of broken images, where the sun beats. But I find myself convinced that the sun somehow beats even under the red rock, though I’m not equipped to see it now. The shadow is a scary thing for me, true. But I don’t have that final fear Eliot is trying to express. I think that’s because I’m trying to look at the sun rather than my deepening shadow of morality.

It’s interesting, I think, that this poem was written years before Eliot converted to Christianity. I wonder what it would have said if he had written it after?

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