On Memorial Day


“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!”

Every Memorial Day, I think back to my visit to Arlington National Cemetery – just standing there amongst the graves in reverent silence. It’s one of the most special experiences of my life. The graves seemed to go on forever – dotting the bright green landscape with pillars of white. To think that every one of those men had a family, a mother, a father, more than likely children and a wife.

America is great country, idea, and culture worth fighting, and if need be, dying for. One need only look at the hills of Arlington for proof of that. It is that noble American spirit that has also sent our fighting men and women to die for the liberation of other nations and peoples around the world.

If you find yourself ever doubting the truth of American nobility and greatness, please go visit Arlington. It really puts things into perspective and humbles the spirit. There are many Americans, especially the younger ones, who unfortunately have a poor outlook on this nation – and that’s really sad.

They don’t realize how good they have it, and just how many people have fought and died so they can live a life of peace, where the only daily struggle they have is what type of coffee they’ll have at Starbucks.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13

Remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on Memorial Day and every day. Their struggle has enabled us to live the American life they never will.


My Top 5 Movie Couples


It’s Valentine’s week and romance is in the air. At least a few couples are going to spend their Valentine’s Day curled up with their significant other, and take in a romantic movie.

I love a good romantic story. Not the “lovey-dovey” sort of romances from modern rom-coms, but the hard-scrabble kind – the kind that are believable and compelling. The kind in which the stars have some definite chemistry. Being in a relationship with someone, especially one that is real and lasts, can be difficult at times, and I like it when movies have that approach. Oh sure, I enjoy surface romances, especially fairy tales. But the most compelling to me are the ones that take a more realistic approach.

With that in mind, I thought about my top 5 favorite screen couples. It was difficult, as there are actually quite a few that good ones that fit my parameters. So I have three honorable mentions that I had to talk about before the actual top 5.

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Top 10 of 2016


Happy New Year!

2016 was a very interesting year in a lot of ways. Certainly it was a year of surprises. It was especially interesting in the realm of cinema. I enjoyed many films this past year, and making this top 10 list was a little difficult. There were a few I really had to think about leaving off the list.

Despite being a banner year for movies, I didn’t have a problem finding movies I didn’t care for. To start with, here’s my bottom five worst films of 2016. Most were sequels gone horribly, horrible wrong. Others were botched experiments with beloved material.

Bottom 5

Killing Joke Poster5. Batman: The Killing Joke
Warner Bros. Animation
Written by Brian Azzarello
Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
Directed by Sam Liu

I hesitated putting this in my bottom 5. It was great to finally see an adaptation of this seminal Batman story. Most of the animation was great. And it was so good to hear the definitive animated voices of Batman and the Joker (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively) take on this celebrated material.

What made this film a severe disappointment is the lack of respect for the story on the part of a production team lead by the great Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series). I expected so much more. Things were added that were not necessary, making the whole affair bloated and severely awkward in places. I think that the idea of adapting The Killing Joke was intimidating, and Timm and his crew felt like they had to overcompensate.

To read more about what I thought, check out my extended review.

cf7kkqeuuaeqame4. X-Men: Apocalypse
20th Century Fox
Written by Simon Kinberg
Based on characters appearing in Marvel Comics
Directed by Bryan Singer

The X-Men franchise has been through a real roller coaster of quality. After Days of Future Past, I thought the franchise was back on track. It was a fun and interesting movie, and it was clear that Bryan Singer was working very hard to get the franchise back on the right footing by rectifying the disparate timelines.

However, Apocalypse was a great, big nosedive back into the valley of mediocrity. Parts were enjoyable, but the whole thing just didn’t gel. Most of the characters didn’t age, despite there being a difference of two decades between this film and First Class. The titular villain was not as imposing or intimidating as he could have been. The comic version of Apocalypse (even the version from the animated series) was so much more threatening.

teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-water-posterjpg-652dfc_765w3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Paramount Pictures
Written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec
Based on characters created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
Directed by Dave Green

The reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise had a somewhat promising start. In spite of some peculiar story choices, the creative direction was intriguing. I enjoyed the real-world direction, as well as making the turtles all different in terms of stature and build. And the Shredder was given his best cinematic interpretation to date.

Out of the Shadows took everything that was promising as sucked the life out of it. It had fun moments, especially the introduction of series villains Bebop and Rocksteady, but the film eventually spun out of control. The turtles didn’t really fight that much. Shredder was neutered of all his intrigue. But the worst aspect was Krang; it’s a little too fantastical for the real-world tone they were presumably trying to achieve (I never really liked that portion of the TMNT mythos anyway).

idr-poster-new2. Independence Day: Resurgence
20th Century Fox
Written by Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt
Based on a story by Devlin, Emmerich, Wright and Woods
and characters created by Devlin and Emmerich
Directed by Roland Emmerich

Independence Day had a lot going for it in 1996. The film evoked that War of the Worlds type of epic scope and wonderment (ironically better that Steven Spielberg actually did), and put a new spin on it. The destruction seemed real and genuinely terrifying, because it was done practically and with a tiny degree of restraint.

Fast-forward 20 years and director Roland Emmerich hasn’t really had a decent film since (with the exception of The Patriot). The film’s have either been mindless destruction to the nth degree (2012) or stupid, insulting actioners (White House Down). And unfortunately, he’s now come full-circle and infected his only winning franchise with his modern sensibilities.

I suppose there’s a threshold of wanton destruction that my suspension of disbelief cannot take. The aliens bringing a ship 3,000 miles long is just too much for me to comprehend and made it seem laughable at times. I just didn’t find myself caring about any of the city destruction scenes, or the characters for that matter. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Sela Ward was directed to play the president as Hillary Clinton. That annoying, condescending tone of voice was a dead giveaway.

Ghostbusters Poster1. Ghostbusters
Columbia Pictures
Written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig
Based on the 1984 film written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Directed by Paul Feig

This film takes the cake on awfulness for 2016. It’s an odd reboot that should have been a sequel. It’s like Paul Feig wanted it both ways: do his own thing but still rely heavily on what has come before, even to the point of bringing back the logo and typeface). It doesn’t work that way.

While the idea of an all-female ghostbusting team is interesting, this was a blatant pander to modern feminism – which cheapens the film and the characters. All the men in this film were stupid, weak, evil, inept, or all of the above. It’s annoying and silly – more like revenge against a perceived portrayal of women in cinema. Never mind that there have been strong female characters throughout movie history that never had to act like men to be respected.

For more reasons why this film is the worst of 2016, check out my detailed review.

Top 10

Now that the disappointments are out of the way, here are my top 10 favorite movies of 2016.

SONY-HLOS-01_27x40_062416.indd10. The Hollars
Sony Pictures Classics
Written by James C. Strouse
Directed by John Krasinski

The Hollars has been unfortunately glossed over by many critics and audiences, which is a shame because it was such a great film. The Office‘s John Krasinski not only starred but also directed, and proved himself to be just as capable a director as he is an actor. The comedy was good (very Office-esque awkwardness), but it was the emotion that kept me involved. It felt real between characters and in quiet moments, courtesy of a strong ensemble cast.

The Hollar family brought up a lot of issues that many families go through: guilt, resentment, regret. But the film touches on how, despite all this, families stick together and support one another. It’s also a reflection on how everyone looks to their closest relationships for assurance about life.

For more details about this great family dramedy, take a look at my review.

Ben-Hur Poster9. Ben-Hur
Paramount Pictures / MGM
Written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley
Based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

It’s not really fair to say whether or not this version of Ben-Hur is better than the 1959 film. They are very different films made at different times for different tastes.

I loved the grittier, dirtier (and at times bloodier) approach to the material in this film. It seemed like a lived-in world. The dirt and sand were as much characters as the people. The chariot race was exciting, with some amazing camera angles and breathtaking visuals. Most importantly, the spiritual backbone of the narrative had been retained. It is a tale of revenge and forgiveness literally set in the midst of Jesus’ ministry on earth.

Take a look at my review of this epic retelling of this classic tale.

Zootopia_Poster8. Zootopia
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston
Based on a story by Bush, Johnston, Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Josie Trinidad, Jim Reardon and Jennifer Lee
Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first film of 2016 was fun and clever, and had a lot to to say thematically, though they might have been a bit too on-the-muzzle sometimes. The film definitely spoke about judging people based on stereotypes, and for the most part, it’s an interesting analogy.

The animation and production design are gorgeous! The animals have little animal quirks that add to the realism, such as Judy Hopps’ quivering nose. And the city of Zootopia itself is quite a place – with its different sectors to accommodate the environmental preferences of the residents. It would be a fun place to explore, and I hope Disney builds it in one of their theme parks.

Check out my detailed review for more thoughts.

risen_poster7. Risen
Columbia Pictures
Written by Kevin Reynolds and Peter Aiello
Based on a story by Aiello
Directed by Kevin Reynolds

Risen was one of the most inspired retellings of the Crucifixion and Resurrection in years. The brilliant conceit is instantly engaging: the story is told from the perspective of a Roman Tribune who is charged with investigating the missing body of Christ.

This movie shows that given quality showmanship and experienced actors and director, Christian-themed films can be not only poignant but entertaining. The production value alone makes it better in style and substance than any of the most recent, “feel good” Christian fare.

For more details about this brilliant film, take a look at my detailed review.

floyd-norman-animated6. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life
Michael Fiore Films
Based on the book by Floyd Norman
Directed by Michael Fiore and Erik Sharkey

The film business is a rough life, particularly animation. And Floyd Norman has seen his share of the ups and downs. This documentary was a thoroughly enjoyable look at one of the unsung heroes of animation. I like documentaries quite a bit, but rarely do they ever appear in my Top 10 lists.

The film does what a great documentary should: reflect the personality of the subject matter in clever and engaging ways. With animated interstitials and clever gags, An Animated Life does just that. It’s also an honest portrayal – another hallmark of great documentary filmmaking. Norman’s charm lies in his easygoing nature and good humor. He’s a humble, affable guy that you would love to have conversations with.

doctor_strange_poster_new5. Doctor Strange
Marvel Studios
Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Based on characters appearing in Marvel Comics
Directed by Scott Derrickson

I like when the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes chances. It’s what makes coming to every filmic outing enjoyable. This film, based on a relatively unknown Marvel character, is visually and thematically very different from anything Marvel has done so far.

Mysticism has been introduced into the MCU with great care. Just like Thor’s world, director Scott Derrickson gave Doctor Strange a logic that makes it fit within the reality-based world they’ve created over many films. What surprised me most was how spiritual the movie was – dealing with real ethical dilemmas, the nature of evil, messing with the natural law, even knowing when to fight and what is worth fighting for.

moana-poster4. Moana
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Written by Jared Bush
Based on a story by John Musker, Ron Clements, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon and Aaron & Jordan Kandell
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

If I had to describe Moana in one word, it would have to be “beautiful” – one of the most beautiful animated features I have seen in a long time. Directed by Disney Animation vets John Musker and Ron Clements, Moana is a love letter to the natural beauty and exotic cultures of the South Pacific – filled with amazing visuals and stunning animation.

As with many other Disney features, there are a few memorable, catchy songs. I especially loved the ones that mixed the native languages of the island cultures. It gave the film an air of authenticity. Dwayne Johnson once again pours on the charisma as Maui, reluctantly helping out young Moana on her journey. As for Moana herself, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho fills the character with a sweet strength that is endearing.

rogueone_onesheeta3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Lucasfilm, Ltd.
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy
Based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta
and characters created by George Lucas
Directed by Gareth Edwards

One of the best Star Wars films to date. I enjoyed this one slightly more than The Force Awakens, but not by much. What edges it out is that it’s an original story that builds on what has come before, rather than a rehashing. It was the real-world cost of obtaining the Death Star plans. These weren’t powerful Force-wielders, but regular grunts on the ground fighting the Empire.

I enjoyed this film’s connection to A New Hope, which is meticulous and airtight. It also explained one of my biggest beefs with Episode IV (though it’s still one of my top films of all time): why would the designers of the Death Star create this weapon with such a fatal flaw? It was an inspired choice.

However, as an avid fan of the Star Wars franchise, I must say that I missed the opening crawl. The entire opening, titles and all, was awkwardly handled. I understand that they were trying to do something different, but they still kept to tradition in the end credits, as well as keeping “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” I hope that future “Star Wars Stories” retain the crawl. It’s one of the tropes that makes the franchise.

Civil War Poster2. Captain America: Civil War
Marvel Studios
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Based on characters appearing in Marvel Comics
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Captain America: Civil War is an awesome experience, jam-packed with what seems to be every Marvel geek’s fantasy. Cap, Black Widow, Iron Man, Black Panther, Spider-Man (SPIDER-MAN!!) – they’re all here. My mind constantly went back to my ten-year-old self, playing with superhero action figures and pitting them against each other.

Did it have the same dramatic weight and action polish as the perennially brilliant Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which Civil War directors Anthony and Joe Russo also helmed)? No. But it is still very powerful and entertaining, and now holds the number two spot for 2016, as well as my number three spot on my top Marvel movie list.

Some wonder why this wasn’t considered just another Avengers movie. The Captain America title is definitely apt, though. Cap is the central character, and the film’s scope lacks the epic quality of the two previous Avengers films directed by Joss Whedon – and that is no doubt by design. It is the emotional payoff of a rift that has been felt between Captain America and Iron Man since they first met in The Avengers.

What makes Civil War one of 2016’s best is that it’s one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most ideologically and thematically heavy films. It doesn’t have a James Spader-voiced robot waxing philosophically; it’s definitely more subtle. There were two very big ideas at play. The first was a question of government regulation, and its effectiveness at preventing collateral damage. The larger idea, however, is a spiritual one, and it drove almost all the central combatants in this story.

Take a look at my in-depth review of Civil War for more insights.

13-hours-poster1. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Paramount Pictures
Written by Chuck Hogan
Based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff
Directed by Michael Bay

When given a good script that utilizes his strengths, Michael Bay is a very talented and competent filmmaker. He has influenced modern filmmaking in ways most of us aren’t even aware. I know that might be blasphemous for some film fans to even consider, but this movie proves it.

13 Hours is one of the best war movies I’ve seen, and it’s Bay’s best film by far. It had grit, heart, likable characters and a harrowing story that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The best thing about 13 Hours is that it’s fair. Bay just tells the story – no bias. He makes no bones that the whole situation was a tragedy, even going so far as showing the aftermath for the other side.

More than anything else, 13 Hours was a frustrating reminder of how those in power refuse to do the right thing for the sake of “optics” – political mumbo-jumbo for “how things look.” The Obama Administration underestimated the belligerent force in Libya and refused to help when things went terribly wrong because they didn’t want to admit that a coordinated terrorist attack was happening on their watch. The bureaucracy crippled the real heroes from doing the right thing and it cost lives. But the most frustrating thing is that the civilian leadership will never have to answer for what happened, and they will still blame it all on a silly video.

13 Hours gives the honor to those six men who fought a modern-day Alamo that most of the American populace will probably forget about in the years to come. Bay deserves all the credit in the world for making a spectacular re-creation of this event -and keep intact all the emotion, dramatic irony and righteous anger involved.

So what do you think of my list? Are there any you felt should have been on (or taken off)? And what movies are you looking forward to in 2017?

This Election Brought Me Closer to God

Voting Concept - Ballot Box With National Flag On Background - U

I don’t talk about politics that much here (usually only if a movie’s themes and ideas deal directly with it), but the election coming tomorrow has brought some pensive thoughts to my mind on more than one occasion.

The United States of America is the greatest country on earth, period. In terms of benefit to the world, literally billions of people are alive today because of ideas, products and military efforts that have come form America. And yes, we have also made mistakes. But we have learned from those mistakes and have become a better people and culture because of them.

There’s a lot to be proud of, and I must admit that a few years ago, I was a little too proud. I forgot that there was something higher that the American culture. This realization came over the course of many years, and it points to how God gradually worked in my life when it came to how I treated politics.

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IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN – 50 Years of Misplaced Sincerity


Halloween time is fun, but is mostly lost on me today. I enjoyed dressing up in costumes as a kid, but in the ensuing years, it seems that the more charming aspects of Halloween are being supplanted by the need to shock and disgust. The proliferation of scare mazes is a testament to this notion.

However, I take great delight in knowing that there are some pieces of Halloween entertainment that transcend such fads. For five decades, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has delighted television audiences with wit, heart, honesty and a touch of melancholy – things that flowed effortlessly from the pen of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

schulzmelendezAfter the critical and public triumph of A Charlie Brown Christmas (which was produced with very little budget and time) the previous December, and the similar success of Charlie Brown’s All Stars in early 1966, CBS came to producer Lee Mendelson and said they wanted another Peanuts special – and it had to be a hit like the last two. If it wasn’t, CBS would probably stop ordering Peanuts animated specials.

Luckily, Mendelson, Schulz and animation director Bill Melendez were up to the task. The creative trifecta took Schulz’s concept of Linus believing in the Great Pumpkin (originally introduced in the comic strip in 1959) and turned it into an animated narrative.

Suffice to say that when It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown first aired on October 27, 1966, it was a tremendous hit. After that, CBS no longer threatened to pull the Peanuts plug. The show has been airing on network TV each year ever since.


The art is outstanding. The bigger budget can definitely be felt. The night sky has hints of gray, blue and purple, giving the setting a magical, twilight feel. And the characters are beautifully rendered – their simple animation being part of the charm of the show. Also, introduced in this show for the first time in animation were two tropes of Peanuts that would extend into the decades: Charlie Brown’s attempt to kick Lucy’s football and Snoopy’s imaginative trips to shoot down the Red Baron as the World War I Flying Ace.

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-6-38-44-pmThe aforementioned Flying Ace sequence is one of the greatest pieces of storytelling animation, period. Bill Melendez takes the audience on a journey into Snoopy’s head – using sound effects and limited action.

I covered its brilliance in depth last year when I reviewed The Peanuts Movie – as I felt those filmmakers didn’t really understand the concept based on their peculiar execution of it in their film.

My other favorite piece of animation in the show again stars Snoopy, and the piano virtuoso Schroeder. Snoopy’s disposition changes hilariously as Schroeder bounces from a bouncy march to a melancholic melody and back.

What makes this sequence special is not just the astonishing conveyance of emotion (without words, no less), but the little history lesson behind the tunes Schroeder plays. All of them are real songs from the WWI era. It was as if Schulz was teaching me things without even trying (and better than most of my schoolteachers).

Along with improved animation and design, the music to Great Pumpkin was a definite leap forward. Once again composed and performed by Vince Guaraldi and his cadre of geniuses, the music’s signature jazz feel is blended with other styles, like waltz. Guaraldi also gives the jazz a spooky tone, especially in the title sequence. I think this is my favorite music in any of the Peanuts specials.

The music and animation are examples of the simple sophistication of the Peanuts characters. This pseudo-intellectual popular entertainment has fascinated me since I was a child. Reading the comic strip with my grandmother and viewing the many TV specials and films, I learned a lot from Charles Schulz. Aside from large vocabulary words and interesting historic concepts, I learned about the realities of life, and how to deal with its problems.

Seeing children not that much older than myself at the time having existential discussions with themselves and each other was interesting. It invited me to ponder these heavy concepts myself. In fact, A Charlie Brown Christmas was one of my earliest introductions to the true meaning of the titular holiday, and is no doubt responsible for planting a seed in my soul, pointing me toward the Lord later in life.


“There are three things I have learned to never discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.” Linus

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is just as spiritually deep as A Charlie Brown Christmas – perhaps more so. It isn’t explicitly about Christianity, as the Christmas special was, however. Great Pumpkin is a much more broad discussion focusing on faith itself.

linus-great-pumpkinThough his personal faith was complex, I think what Charles Schulz was expressing in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, among many things, was an examination of blind faith. Linus has an unwavering belief in the Great Pumpkin – a Santa Claus-like figure who gives presents to good children on Halloween night – even though the magical gift-giving gourd eventually lets him down.

A closer examination reveals that Linus has no real reason why he believes, at least ones that are not present in the narrative. And when writing a letter to the Great Pumpkin, Linus asks to kept in the dark if it turns out the Great Pumpkin is indeed not real. The irony of this situation is glaring, as Linus, throughout both the strip and the animated specials, is the primary source of the franchise’s signature philosophical, historical and spiritual postulating.


Atheists and agnostics point to Linus’ blind faith as an indictment of belief, specifically Christian belief. But there is a misconception here because at no point in the Bible does God ask us to follow Him blindly.

“‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord…” Isaiah 1:18

Linus’ faith in the Great Pumpkin is not based on anything but the story he’s concocted in his own mind, as well as his own “sincerity.” The evidence for Christ’s existence is much more compelling, and comes from multiple sources over hundreds of years, including secular ones. In fact, there are many non-Christian accounts of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

LINUS AND SALLY MISTAKE SNOOPY FOR THE GREAT PUMPKINBut philosophically speaking, it is incredibly juvenile to compare God to the Great Pumpkin. The Great Pumpkin is a gift-giving entity that fulfills material wants and desires, and nothing more. Sincerity in one’s belief will be rewarded by earthly items – things that, as Jesus said, “moths and vermin will destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)

God fulfills spiritual needs – the eternal desires that every person was created to experience. And there is only one real gift God gives us: the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. God’s promise is objective and the same for everyone. The subjective assumptions of Linus’ beliefs are not as certain.

The sincerity of one’s beliefs means absolutely nothing in a world of objective truth. I could believe with all the sincerity in my soul that the sky is purple, and I could spend my time trying to convince everyone I know that the sky is purple. But my honest sincerity doesn’t make the sky any less blue that it objectively is.

There is an objective right and a wrong when it comes to belief. Linus’ faith is blind because he doesn’t desire evidence or ask questions about his line of thinking. God invites us to examine His story constantly – just like Jesus Himself invited Thomas to examine His hands and feet for the scars of crucifixion.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is not just an outstanding Halloween entertainment tradition. It is an interesting examination of belief and what blind faith leads to. It is true that we can’t be 100% sure of anything. But just because we are 99% sure, doesn’t mean we need to throw everything away. That’s what faith actually is. It’s trust – trust in God that is backed by evidence. And it is not the sincerity or power of your belief that saves you, it was His actions on the cross that did.

Originally posted on Reel World Theology.