Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Guilty Pleasure 4: Big Trouble in Little China

In 1986 the world just wasn't quite ready for Jack Burton. "Big Trouble in Little China" didn't exactly set records at the box office during it's theatrical run, so like many people, I didn't see the film until it became a regular part of the cable TV rotation a year later. Even then it just seemed like a weird action movie. But as the years have moved on, it is clear that this action / adventure kung-fu ghost story monster movie was ahead of it's time.

Director John Carpenter was most associated with horror movies, having directed films like "Christine," "The Fog," "The Thing," and the film that redefined horror for a generation "Halloween." So Big Trouble was a bit of a departure for him. Ultimately, the film is a comedy, but that was lost on most audiences in 86.

The story centers on Jack Burton, a tough-talking truck driver played by Kurt Russell. On a visit to San Francisco's Chinatown, Burton gets caught up in a strange battle between the forces of good and evil when the fiance of his friend Wang is kidnapped by the immortal LoPan and his three henchmen, the Storms. Along the way they encounter kung-fu battles, sorcerers and monsters.

Jack Burton is the ultimate non-hero. Though the lead in the movie, he is clueless to absolutely everything that is going on around him. He thinks he's John Wayne, but he reminds me more of Link Hogthrob, hapless captain from "The Muppet Show" sketch "Pigs in Space."

The story gets more ridiculous with every passing minute. Less than 15 minutes in we have kung-fu fighting street gangs and are well on our way to encountering 7-foot tall ghosts, a guy who shoots blue lightning from his hands, giant underground bugs, and a drooling hairy monster. By the film's climax we've progressed to a floating head with 20 eyes. In a way, Jack represents the audience when he reacts to this strange creature with, "My God no...please...what is that...don't tell me." Yet, everyone around Jack completely buys in to everything that's going on.

"Big Trouble in Little China" has to be one of the most bizarre mainstream movies of the 80's. A mix of action, comedy and hocus pocus that, as long as you don't take it too seriously, is more fun than a six demon bag.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Guilty Pleasure 3: Kung Pow! Enter the Fist

In 1966, Woody Allen took a James Bond style Japanese movie and re-recorded the soundtrack to create the comedy "What's Up Tiger Lily." As technology advanced, it was only a matter of time before someone took the next step, not just re-dubbing, but actually using digital technology to insert new actors into an old film. That's exactly what writer, director, and star Steve Oedekerk did with 2002's "Kung Pow! Enter the Fist."

Much of the footage for Kung Pow is taken from a 1977 Hong Kong martial arts film called "Tiger and Crane Fist." Oedekerk plays a wandering warrior called "The Chosen One" who must train in order to fight the evil warlord Master Pain, who early in the film decides to change his name to "Betty." In many instances, Oedekerk's head is digitally placed over that of actor Jimmy Wang Yu, star of the original film.

Digital technology is employed in several other bits as well, including a Matrix-style fight sequence with a cow. Since this film, Oedekerk directed the animated film "Barnyard," famous for it's male cows with udders (read my previous blog post on that here). The man is clearly obsessed with all things bovine.

All of the film's dialogue is dubbed over the original voices, both from the original Hong Kong film as well as Oedekerk's new footage. One of the extra bonuses of the DVD is the "What They were Actually Saying" audio track. So we're able to hear that in the final film Oedekerk's dubbed voice says a line like, "...and that day I vowed to find the man who killed my family. Can you help me?" was actually spoken on the set as, "My favorite pie is lemon meringue, can you serve it?" Oedekerk also performs almost all of the new voices himself.

Every time I watch this movie my wife walks in, shakes her head, and says, "Are you watching this dumb movie again?" You men out there be warned, your wife will hate this movie. Don't even try to watch it with her. Have her go to another room and watch "The Notebook" or something, she'll thank you.

There are a few bits of crude humor I could do without, but most of the movie is silly fun. Some of the jokes have me laughing uncontrollably no matter how many times I've seen them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ray Comfort Slams Children's Ministry

From time to time I'll listen to the Way of the Master radio program streaming over the internet as I work on other things. It's kind of odd because I really don't care for the program very much. The Way of the Master is famous for being the ministry that former "Growing Pains" star Kirk Cameron is the face of. Ray Comfort is the gentleman with the New Zealand accent that you often see with Cameron, and Todd Friel is the host of the radio program. Evangelism is the main focus of the ministry. Comfort is especially known as being a proponent of open-air evangelism. While the radio program does devote some time to evangelism, much of the broadcast tends to center on being a Christian watchdog. In other words, pointing out everything that's wrong with everyone else's ministry. In general, I find this kind of stuff to be counterproductive to the cause of Christ, and that's why I don't really care for the program.

Now that I've said all that, I'm going to do pretty much the same thing and point out a problem I have with a statement that was made on the program. As someone who works in children's ministry, this statement caught me completely off guard and I felt it was important to offer it up for discussion.

During hour 1 of the March 20, 2008 program (hear it for yourself here) Ray Comfort and Todd Friel called a man named Mickey at the request of a family member. Mickey is not a believer and, for the record, was expecting the call. Through the course of the conversation, it is revealed that Mickey actually grew up in a Baptist church and accepted Jesus at the age of six, but has since stopped believing in Christ. This eventually led to the following quote from Mr. Comfort:

"So God has given light to every man, you're without excuse, Mickey. What you've got to do is surrender and say, "Judge, I fling myself upon your mercy." Say that to God. And then God can forgive your sins because Jesus took your punishment. That's what you're supposed to learn when you're at a Baptist church. It's something you seem to have missed out on. Probably because you gave your heart to Jesus when you were six years old and had no understanding of what sin was."

As I'm sure you've figured out, it's that last sentence I'm having trouble with. What exactly is Ray Comfort saying? Is Mr. Comfort actually suggesting that children have no understanding of sin, or even worse, that they can't truly be saved at a young age because of it? In my experience, I've found the exact opposite to be true. I think children have a far better understanding of sin than most adults do. I mean, when my kids do something wrong they know it. I don't need to tell them and they don't need to tell me. I can see it in their eyes. I can see it in their posture. As we grow older we learn to make excuses, we learn to justify our sin.

You've probably heard the famous passage in Matthew 18:

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

I think part of what Christ is pointing out here is that understanding of sin that children have. The folks at WOTM are big on their belief that people come to Christ when they understand their sin and their need for a savior. And you know what, they're right about that, but to suggest that kids don't have that understanding is ridiculous. The Jan/Feb premiere issue of K! Magazine has fantastic article by my friend Alan Root that explores a similar issue, whether or not kids can understand the concept of being "born again." Alan sums up the article with the following:

"The point is kids can understand the basics of our faith better than adults can. Why? They don't have our baggage. They arrive fresh and full of trust, with a curiosity that is satisfied with God's short answers."

I hope and pray that Mr. Comfort simply mis-spoke. I must admit, I'm having a hard time giving him the benefit of the doubt. I'm curious to hear some thoughts from my children's ministry friends on this one.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guilty Pleasure 2: Supergirl

In 1978, director Richard Donner unleashed on the world what I believe is his finest moment as a filmmaker, "Superman." 30 years later it is still possibly the greatest comic book movie ever made. "Superman II" arrived in 1980, and despite behind the scenes turmoil, including being partially directed by Donner and partially directed by Richard Lester, the end result was still a great follow-up. By 1983, however, the series was pretty much box office kryptonite after the disastrous "Superman III." But producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had one more trick up their sleeve, a spin off film...1984's "Supergirl."

It seems that Kal-El wasn't the only survivor of the planet Krypton. In fact, quite a few Krptonians, including Superman's cousin Kara, are livin' la vida loca in Argo City, which exists in "Inner Space." What keeps the lights running in this place is a glowing croquet ball called the Omegahedron. When it goes missing, it's up to Kara to get it back. She follows it to Earth where it's snatched up by a wanna-be sorceress, Selina. When Kara isn't flying around looking for the thing, she's disguised as a mild-mannered student named Linda Lee (continuing the tradition of double L names in Superman) at an all-girls school in a small Illinois town where they apparently love Howard Jones music and eating at Popeye's Fried Chicken.

Helen Slater makes her movie debut as the title character, and she makes a good Supergirl. She was nominated for a Saturn award for her performance, but for all we know that could've been based primarily on the fact that she looked cute in a short red skirt and go-go boots. Seriously, her performance is good, but it's the veteran actors who ham it up. Faye Dunaway, Peter O'Toole, Mia Farrow...sure they don't have much to work with, but come on folks!

I've always had a problem with the sort of sci-fi / fantasy plot device they use here...there's some sort of magical object that spins and glows and we're all doomed if the good guys don't get it back. This is actually the same plot device they used last year for "Transformers." I suppose that film is not that different from "Supergirl." There you had a film that had a dumb story but was enjoyable because...well...who doesn't like giant robots fighting? "Supergirl" has the same basic dumb story, get the magic glowing thing, but is likable because...well...who doesn't like pretty blond superheroes, right?

There is a rumor floating around that Hollywood may have it's eye on making a new Supergirl film, but this one will always have a place in the "so bad it's good" file.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Guilty Pleasure 1: Flash Gordon

In 1980 it wasn't uncommon that I would spend a weekend at my grandparents' house along with two of my cousins who were close in age. My grandpa would often take the three of us to a movie during the weekend. We first saw "The Empire Strikes Back" on one of these weekends. Later that same year I looked forward to one of those weekends anticipating seeing "Flash Gordon." I got sick that weekend and ended up staying at home and being extremely jealous of my cousins who got to see the movie. It was many many years later that I finally got to see what would become a great cult classic of the 80's.

Of course, Flash is a character that dates back to the 1930's, but this version was pretty much a response to the success of "Star Wars," However, the two films couldn't be more different. Lucas' universe was lived in, it was worn. You won't find a speck of rust here, though. The general feel of Flash is actually much closer to "Barbarella" than "Star Wars."

The look of many of the ships and costumes are right out of the original Flash Gordon comics and serial films of the 30's. Other elements of the design seem like you're walking into a Yes album cover.

The acting is uneven to say the least. Flash is played by Sam Jones, who rumor has it was cast in the role because producer Dino De Laurentis' mother spotted him on an episode of "The Dating Game." Not exactly a promising start. Despite having an unknown in the lead, the film does boast some impressive supporting players including Topol as Dr. Zarkov, future James Bond Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, and Max Von Sydow perfectly cast as Ming the Merciless.

But the casting highlight has to be Brian Blessed in a completely over-the-top performance as the leader of the Hawkmen, Prince Vultan. He's a bizarre cartoon character come to life as he bounds around in his winged diaper.

The icing on the cake is the musical contribution of Queen. With it's extensive use of synthesizers, pounding bass lines, and frequent repeats of "FLASH! Aaaaah," well, let's just say it's a far cry from John Williams.

"Flash Gordon" was not received well upon its initial release. The shadow of "Star Wars" is hard to get away from. But Flash needs to be viewed much like the "Batman" TV series of the 60's. The film seems to be intentionally campy with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. For example when Zarkov and Prince Barin are blindfolded and chained in a dungeon, Barin delivers the best line of the movie…"Tell me more about this Houdini fellow." Simply put, it's meant to be ridiculous.

I've Just Seen a...really weird movie

There's something about being able to go to my friends and say, "I've just seen the most bizarre movie..." that I've always loved. I remember when I first saw "Napoleon Dynamite," a few days later a friend of mine asked what movies I'd seen recently and I had to say, "Man, I just saw the most bizarre movie." He then went and rented it and came back a week later saying, "That movie was really bizarre." So allow me to give an official "man I just saw the most bizarre movie" for "Across the Universe."

I'd been intrigued by this movie since I first heard about the project. The premise is simple...string a story together using classic Beatles songs. The end result is part "Moulin Rouge" (which is a good thing) and part "Rent" (which is a bad thing). The problem is this has been tried before and the end result has been known to cause seizures in lab rats. It was 1978 and the movie was called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," it is one of the worst movies ever made...and, of course, I highly recommend it. Picture this in your mind, but I accept no responsibility for any brain damage that may occur. Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees star as Sgt. Pepper's band. It seems that Mean Mr. Mustard has stolen some magical instruments from Heartland USA, so the boys go on journey to get them back. Along the way they encounter a bunch of strange characters all of whom seem to have a way with a Beatles song that will have you begging for William Shatner's version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Celebrity cameos are everywhere, including Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Steve Martin, and Earth Wind & Fire.

"Across the Universe" does not suffer from the extreme level of camp that oozes from "Sgt. Pepper's," but it is interesting to note that both films use similar gimmicks. For example, most of the characters in both films have names that come from Beatles lyrics. Peppers has Billy Shears, The Hendersons, Mr. Kite, and Mean Mr. Mustard while "Across the Universe" features Jude, Lucy, Jojo, Sadie, and Prudence. It actually becomes somewhat distracting. The character of Prudence in "Across the Universe" seems to serve no purpose to the story other than as an excuse to include the song "Dear Prudence" midway through the film.

Both films also feature a variety of bizarre cameos. In "Across the Universe" we have Bono showing up as the leader of some sort of psychedelic field trip called Dr. Robert (another name from a Beatles song), multiple versions of Salma Hayek show up during a strange rendition of "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and Eddie Izzard plays ringmaster to a cast of strange puppets in a truly awful rendition of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." At least the puppets were cool.

The music this time around is much better, but the "story" twists around more than the guys at Cirque Du Soleil just to include over 30 Beatles songs. The visuals are certainly eye catching, but for every sequence that had me saying, "wow that's cool," there was another one that had me shaking my head thinking, "that's really dumb."

"Across the Universe" is not complete squeeze cheez like it's 1978 counterpart, but I'm not sure I can give it a thumbs up review either. Actually, I think both of these Beatles musicals I would rank as guilty pleasures. Most movie fans probably have several films that they just can't resist watching for the 27th time on TBS, despite the fact that they are a far cry from "Citizen Kane." Sgt. Peppers is certainly in that category for me, and I have a feeling that Across will be joining it.

This has me thinking I should do a series of blogs on some other movies I would call guilty pleasures. Stay tuned. How 'bout you? What movies are some of your guilty pleasures?

Monday, March 10, 2008

NWCEC - Seattle

This weekend I was in Seattle at the North West Christian Education Conference (NWCEC). It was One Way Street's first time at the conference. I stayed busy with 3 classes, plus running our booth by myself.

Now I've taught at many conferences in the past, and often I've received some sort of goodie bag from the hosts. A few candy bars, couple cans of soda, a mug...stuff like that. Well I can honestly say this is the first time I ever received at sockeye salmon as a gift.

About 3000 people gathered at Overlake Christian Church. That's the church waaaaaaay off in the distance in the above photo. Believe it or not, this picture was taken at about the halfway spot in the parking lot. The parking lot is so big they have shuttle stops.

I got to see a lot of familiar faces in the world of children's ministry like Jana Alayra and Steven James, plus some new ones like New Zealanders The Lads. Their music is aimed at tweens. I couldn't resist picking up all three of their CD's.

Our good friends from Speed Stacks were just two booths down, which means I could hear the distinctive "cluck cluck cluck" of cups being stacked throughout the weekend. If I remember correctly, the young man in the red is the current world record holder for the cycle.

One of the best things about attending conferences is getting to meet new people. Most of the folks at this conference were from the Northwest, but there was a whole group that came over from Seoul, South Korea. This is me with Yi, Ki Doong, the leader of the group from N Friends. He said he hopes to have some puppet training in Korea some day. Perhaps we can get his group to come over to I-Fest sometime as well!