Movie Review: DamNation

Damnation opens with one mind-boggling stat. The are currently 75,000 dams in the United States over three feet high. That’s one dam per day since Thomas Jefferson was in office. The film is a story of the history of dams and then moves to ask the question have some of them outlived their usefulness?

Here’s what I was expecting from the film – a far left cry from the wilderness that we should remove all dams and return the United States to her ‘natural state’. That dams represented all that was evil in the world and man’s encroachment upon nature. That the energy and flood control that dams provide were overstated and these long-haired hippies just wanted to bring industrial America to her knees.

Here’s what I got…pretty much none of that.

Directors Ben Knight (who also narrates the film) and Travis Rummel give an incredibly fair film about the issue and do so with some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen.

Ben states in the opening of the films that dams played a pivotal role in the resurrection of the American economy but like all technology, it was pushed to far. As DamNation rolls through how national parks were flooded and many early dams failed under poor designs, it is also records how American policy often contradicted its practice of damming every river in sight.

As Congress passed endangered species acts and conservation laws to protect national parks, the Army Corp of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation were still building dams at an incredible pace. In 1995, things finally came to head and a major movement to remove obsolete dams began in earnest. President Clinton appointed Dan Beard as his man to lead the Bureau of Reclamation. Beard proved to be instrumental in removing dams that were blocking salmon from spawning upstream.

DamNation insists that are many more dams that are obsolete and they have the stats to back it up. An obsolete dam is one that consumes more energy than it produces or could be easily replaced by wind farms. As our modes of transporting goods has improved with highways, railways, and air cargo, the need for a dam and lock system on many of our rivers is now completely unnecessary.

What’s really at stake in all of this? Knight and Rummel present a nuanced, articulate case that it’s more than just a bunch of hippies longing for a return to the natural order of things. It’s about the survival of Native American cultures who for centuries centered their cultures around the spawning sockeye. It’s about allowing these fish to spawn and create enough fish to feed the world. It’s about making sure that our ancestors will be able to enjoy these rivers. It’s about making sure nature’s way of replacing sediment on our coasts is allowed to run its course instead of blocking it all behind dams.

The film acknowledges the counter argument to all of this. The dams provide flood control to America’s watersheds, they minimize the effect of drought seasons, and they create waterways for recreation and commerce. DamNation is quick to note – it’s not that all dams are bad or need to be removed but to continue to fight for the lives of every dam in the country is short-sighted at best, suicidal to the species at worst.

There is a larger cost involved in maintaining all these dams – destroying cultures, natural parks, fish populations, coastlines, and beautiful venues for generations to come.

The film captivated me. It dares to ask what role do we as humans have in nature? Our history shows us to be destructive but isn’t it possible to one day be a redemptive force? Could this plan of destroying obsolete dams work to bringing back the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest?

They present a compelling argument and they present it very well. The cinematography is gorgeous. We get period photos showing the landscape impact that dams have had. We get interviews and candid conversations from both sides of the issue. The filmmakers stay mostly in the Pacific Northwest and even get themselves in a little trouble doing the research for the film.

One of the more provocative segments of the film is the story of Glen Canyon. In 1956, approval was given to dam the canyon to create Lake Powell. A group of archeologists and river runners set off into the canyon before the work was started to document more than 250 culturally significant sites to Native American history as well as the over 125 side canyons that the new lake would destroy. Katie Lee, a folk singer/Hollywood starlet/activist was one of those runners. Katie tells her story with photos and videos that they took on that journey. She was in her 30’s, posed nude in the canyon to illustrate that mankind was once again destroying Eden and as she talks about it today at age 95 it is hard to imagine that she has lost any of her spunk, fire, or grit.

Katie’s words of ‘destroying Eden’ struck a chord with me. I’m ashamed when I think about how little attention Christ-followers give the environment. I realize I am speaking in generalities and that’s always a dangerous proposition but it can’t be denied that environmental issues tend to get a back seat to other issues of morality.

While I do believe that a human life is more valuable than a fish’s, I’d be just as quick to point out that this doesn’t mean that the fish has no value. God created this fragile planet and put humanity responsible for care of it. If we take care of her, she’ll take care of us. God put this relationship as core to our existence just as he put the man/woman relationship as core. We are stewards of His creation and that charge I believe consistently is undervalued by many of us.

In DamNation, we get a beautiful film that elevates an issue that humanity could play a redemptive role in instead of destroyer.

And I don’t think that makes me a long-haired hippie. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

You can read more of my reviews at The Reviews.

Movie Review: The Sixth Sense

Showing up on Netflix this month is this 1999 classic from M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan exploded on the scene with this film and followed it up with two solid offerings in Unbreakable and Signs. Things got dicey after that with The Village and Lady in the Water. Shyamalan never really captured the magic like he did with The Sixth Sense.

Just a little more history lesson before I get to the movie…

Bruce Willis delivered, at the time, what was thought to be his best acting performance ever and worthy of a Best Actor nomination. He didn’t get nominated. What made the snub even more obvious was how every one else connected to the movie DID get nominated – Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and Barry Mendel for Best Picture; Haley Joel Osment for Best Supporting Actor; Toni Collette for Best Supporting Actress; Shyamalan for Best Director and Best Screenplay. None of them won but it is just an honor to be nominated. This, by the way, is the background of the joking between Matt Damon and Bruce Willis in the movie Ocean’s 12.

As for The Sixth Sense, it is a slow-moving story of how child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is trying to help 9-year old boy Cole Sear who is having vivid hallucinations of dead people. Dr. Crowe had tried to help a young man with a similar problem early in his life and ended up being shot by the man. Crowe’s attempt to help Sear is both for the boy’s benefit as well as a cathartic process for himself as he feels like he failed to help the earlier child. Dr. Crowe suggests a different method with dealing with the hallucinations – helping the dead find closure in this life so they can move on to the next. This ends up being the key for young Cole Sear, played brilliantly by Haley Joel Osment. The film plods along with Cole helping the dead people that he sees. He solves a murder, helps another deliver a message to a loved one. Osment delivers an incredibly nuanced performance for a 9-year old.

Have I mentioned the film plods along a bit? Another word could be that it is very intentional. Some have argued that the ending only partially redeems the slow, methodical pace of the film. I don’t see it this way at all. Remember, every single item in the frame is put there on purpose by the director. At least – they should be there on purpose and with Shyamalan this is particularly true. Hitchcock would do the same thing – fill the frame with details, tell a story at a slow, methodical pace, then in the final act of the film all those details explode to life revealing their purpose. The gamble lies in whether the story that’s being told is deep enough to pull off the twist.

Hitchcock mastered this kind of film making. The Sixth Sense belongs in that club as well.

The interactions of Dr. Crowe with both his clients and his wife are crucial to the arch of the film. Willis captures the dilemma that all mental health professionals face – feeling their client’s pain, being just as frustrated with slow or even lack of progress. Willis captures this perfectly and the slow pace only adds to the intensity of both the feelings of despair of Sear as well as Dr. Crowe.

I can not – will not – spoil the ending. It is perhaps the most incredible, mind-blowing ending to any film. (Save of course, Darth Vader telling Luke he was his father.) The intensity of the film is heightened by Shyamalan’s refusal to use the traditional ‘jump music’ in the film. The scary scenes ambush you as a viewer – with no set up or build up.

The Sixth Sense really is one of those rare films that you must wait until the credits roll to form an opinion on it.

If you haven’t seen it – it’s definitely worth the watch.

Then you’ll watch it again.

You can read more of my thoughts about film and books on The Reviews.

Worshipping In The Dark

Sunday during the second service, right as our worship team was cranking up for the third song – something went “pop” and then everything went dark.

Like pitch dark.

Like couldn’t see my hand in front of my face kind of dark.

Somebody said in a fairly loud voice – “Now THAT’S WORSHIP!!!”

What we first thought was just a blown fuse ended up being an entire grid (or two) down. The entire city of Auburn – just to the south of us – was without power as well. We had a couple of exit lamps and those little emergency lights running.

I stood up, got a thumbs up from our incredible children’s workers telling me – all the kids were fine and there was no panic going on at all. So I taught. In the dark. By the light of my iPad.

After second service, I figured folks would know we didn’t have power and hardly anybody would show up. Boy was I wrong. We had a packed house and as I turned to Rick (our worship pastor), he was grinning.

“I got this” he said. “We’re gonna grab our acoustics guitar, a cajon, djembe – our keyboard player tracked down one of those kid pianos that has the single note keys on it. She’s going to play that. We’ll gather everybody close and just worship in the dark.”

And off third service went – in complete darkness. We sang, prayed. I taught. Had no idea on facial expressions or anything. There was no video, ProPresenter – nothing.

This morning my inbox had some of these gems:

“I was in tears yesterday at the simplicity of worship. Thank you for pushing us beyond our comfort zone.”

“This reminds me of Rich Mullins in concert!”

“What an honor to be at a church where worship is worship, not the show.”

“I’m not sure what exactly happened in service today – but it was good.”

At Creative Team meeting today, we were talking about the whys. As in – why did we get such a huge response given we had no power for 2 of our 3 services? Why didn’t it just crater and fall apart? What was it that people connected so deeply with it?

I don’t think there is a single answer to any of those but here’s my list.

I think it forced us to get quiet. With no eye-candy or video or any kind of noise, the room was really silent in some spaces. And it felt good. It created an atmosphere of anticipation and silence.

I think it revealed the real heart of our worship team. That it’s not about the lights, toys, microphones, or videos. When all of that was taken away, they just jumped in and found other ways to worship and invite the rest of us to join them. And that’s huge – to have a worship team that worships – not performs.

I think it showed the heart of our church. We love the Lord but don’t take ourselves too seriously. So when the power went out, nobody hit the panic button nor did anyone make a big deal about it ‘ruining’ the morning. In fact, just the opposite happened. We loved it. Just another memory of worship with each other.

I think it also showed us the heart of our God – who does this sort of thing everyday in the remotest of places around the globe. Where mud floors and thatch roofs are considered a luxury, he is pleased to ‘show up’ in these places. (I know that’s not theologically accurate…I’m trying to make a point here.)

He loves to meet us in our silent, dark places to prove once again that he is here.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

The much-anticipated, long-awaited sequel to The Avengers will not disappoint Marvel fans. It has all the one-liners and star-power you can imagine. It even introduces a few new faces into the Marvel canon that should play well with the rest of the crew.

The villain this time around is none Ultron, voiced by James Spader. Ultron is the result of Stark’s love of technology and pursuit of an even deeper AI. And it goes wrong – horribly wrong. The fact that every single person on the planet (and in the theater) can see this coming shouldn’t diminish the rest of the story.

Age of Ultron borderlines on being a bulky, bloated, stuffed to the gills, Michael Bay/Transformers look-alike film. The battle scenes are intense and full. We get slo-mo and 360 degree looks at the Hulk pulling apart robots. And they just keep going. On and on. How many different ways can Hawkeye shoot an exploding arrow?

So what keeps it from falling into this pit?

Read the rest of the review here on my other siteThe Reviews.

Hey Philly – Enjoy The Tebow Experience

As a Denver Bronco fan, I’d like to give Philly fans some helpful advice now that the evangelical equivalent of the Pope is playing for their team.

There is good news and bad news.

Let’s start with the good.

You won’t have to worry about him getting arrested at a club or beating his wife/girlfriend/live-in mother of his kids. You won’t have to worry about him getting into a car chase around Liberty Hall or being on the front page for a DUI. Nor will you have to read about him saying really stupid things on Twitter like “FREE Insert-latest-NFL-Player-who-has-been-arrested” or “I don’t understand our justice system that puts away guilty people instead of letting them go free.” You won’t read his name and the following words ever together: strip club, alimony, deadbeat dad, domestic violence, arrested, arraigned, grand jury, or indictment.

He’s not going badmouth the ownership or his teammates or the city. Even when you boo him – and let’s face it, we all know that you are going to boo him – he won’t flinch, he won’t whine, he won’t say or do anything in retaliation. He won’t throw a temper tantrum on the sidelines or otherwise act like a prima donna.

He’ll show up to practice everyday, work-out, stay late, show up early, sign your kids autographs, visit sick kids in the hospital…heck, he may even build a hospital for you.

So what exactly is there not to love?

There are a couple of things that you probably already know about but I’ll cover just in case you lived in a cave the last time Tebow was on a NFL roster.

He has a following. And they are legion. I have a relative who honestly believes that whoever has Tebow on their team is automatically God’s favorite team. I kid you not. She also thinks that the Jet’s organization is going to straight to the hot place because of how they treated him. I haven’t the heart to tell her that they were probably going straight there anyway for other reasons, but I digress.

Because he is the real deal, a bona-fide hero on the character side of the equation, God-fearers everywhere root for him. They buy his jersey with no fear of any team having to issue a refund or buy-back.

And Tebow buys into the hype.

He’s a great guy, high character but for all his goodness, his fatal flaw, his Achilles heel is his need/hunger/craving to be a NFL QB and his followers feed this beast inside him. Tight end? Fullback? Receiver? None of those were/are an option for the gifted, intelligent Heisman Winner. He wants to be a QB. And he won’t budge on that.

Which leads me to the second bit of bad news…

He can’t pass the ball.

I’m serious.

He looks great in warm-up. He looks great in 7 on 7 drills.

But live action, real speed, precision route, small window, NFL football situations are a complete disaster. He throws it like the running back or wide receiver who is asked to throw the ball on those two, maybe three trick plays a year. You figure that the shock factor will leave the receiver on the other end so wide open that all he has to do is get it in the same zip code.

Remember Walter Payton throwing the football? Or for you hard-core Denver fans – Steve Sewell? That’s Tim Tebow.

On every play.

He is a Mack truck of a man and has the accuracy to prove it. He will finish the day 2/17, 1 TD, 1 INT and 67 yards rushing. And normally that enough for a win – which makes no sense what-so-ever, but it happens. He will make you shake your head, pull our your hair, scream at the TV, and kick your dog all at the same time.

He will increase your faith as you will pray to God in ways you never dreamed you would.

And the really good news?

All of this normally only lasts one or two seasons at the max.

You can thank me later. For now, enjoy the experience.

My Pirates 5 and Furious 7 Rant


A picture of Johnny Depp was released today by Jerry Bruckheimer with this caption –

“Captain Jack is back and we’re not letting him go.”

Well, maybe you should. I mean, seriously the last 2.5 Pirates movies have been…Lone Ranger-ish. And that’s not a compliment. In fact, they ought to count the Lone Ranger film in the Pirates franchise. Call it – Pirates: Masquerade As An Indian – err, I mean Native American.

Has Hollywood really gotten this desperate for stories?

Yes, I loved the original movie. It was creative and fresh. I even tolerated the first hour of the 2nd sequel. Then it sort of all went downhill from there. Even the adorable, sensational Penelope Cruz couldn’t rescue it.

Ever heard of leaving well enough alone?

I have the same feelings for the Furious Franchise. Thought the first movie was incredible. Okay, incredible may be a stretch but it was a fun, action-filled movie with great stunts. A guilty pleasure of sorts. But 6 more? Especially after the disaster they called Tokyo Drift.

I will grant you that the franchise gained a little bit more mo-jo when Duane “The Rock” Johnson showed up. (Which one was that? 4? 5? They all run together.)

So far the popular opinion is raving about Furious 7. After all, Jordana is back. All this proves is that if you give Hollywood enough chances to make the same movie eventually they will get it right. See Batman until Batman Begins.

This proof should give Spiderman fans hope. Then again, don’t hold your breath.

Of course there is the equally true 2nd degree of this law and that is they will try to make even more movies after a successful one and it will turn into another disaster. See Star Wars Prequels. See also the future of Batman.

Taken appears to be following in these same footsteps. Particularly if you include Taken On A Plane – aka Non-Stop and Taken In A Graveyard aka A Walk Among The Tombstones. That would bring the total number of Taken movies to 5. At the given body-count rate of the first 5 films, we will quickly have to move this franchise into outer space and introduce aliens or an alternate planet. Taken With Aliens could spur on a whole other round of sequels.

Or what about when Liam Neeson hits 80 – Taken On Dialysis.

Obviously I am alone in my principles on this as they keep making these movies and people keep going to see them.

Oh well…only have to wait until December 18th for the real movie magic to happen.

That’s right – Star Wars 7.

But that’s totally different.


Movie Review: Atari: Game Over

If you were a child of the ’80’s, there is no underestimating the importance of the Atari 2600. It saved us thousands of dollars in quarters as well as trips to the mall. How many sleepovers did we have protecting the earth on Missile Command? Or Yar’s Revenge? How many hours did you spend playing that stupid, impossible to win E.T. game? (Which I did beat it eventually, I’ll have you know.)

I’m convinced that Atari was the single most important invention of the ’70’s and ’80’s. Perhaps of the last 100 years as it changed computing and gaming FOREVER. And yet as influential as it was, it all came crashing down in the year 1983 due to the ridiculous hubris of the company to make a movie tie-in game named E.T. in 5 weeks instead of 5 months.

The result was an unmitigated disaster. The games tanked. The people revolted.

You can read the rest of the review here, on my other site called The Reviews.


Book Review: Agent 6


In terms of character arch and what each of the Leo Demidov/Child 44 books contribute, Agent 6 ends the series nicely. I will say at the outset that this particular book could have been two separate stories but more on that later.

Each book is a symbol for the Soviet regime in which it takes place. Child 44 (the first in the series) represented the harsh, oppressive, gritty, ruthless years of Stalin. The Secret Speech finds Leo (and the Soviet Union by extension) confused and conflicted in what to do with their harsh, shameful past and a desire to move forward differently but ill-equipped to do so – much like the Khrushchev years. Agent 6 is set during the Brezhnev years which were marked with ill-conceived wars with countries like Afghanistan, a crumbling economy, and communism in a general state of disrepair being led by people who refuse to see this and continue to make ridiculous self-destructive decisions in spite of the facts. True to form, Leo Demidov embodies these same realities.

The previous two books relied on equal parts mystery and thriller. Agent 6 plays heavy with politics and character development. Smith gets lost in the politics and propaganda of both sides, expertly weaving in key historical dates into the narrative and delivers a cutting critique of both free market capitalism and communism. In so doing, Smith reveals it’s the darkness of the human soul that ruins the world, not so much a particular system. There is something inanely wrong with humanity.

The rest of the review is on my other site – The Reviews.

Returning Homes

Left right after church last Sunday and headed to Birmingham via an overnight stop in Little Rock. My dad was having some surgery, and I wanted/needed to be down there. Flying into Birmingham was going to cost me a small child so the decision was to drive.

The short version of the trip is this – surgery went great. Dad is recovering nicely. He is now home. Personally, I can’t stand hospitals. Too much waiting, too much time to just sit. But I loved this time with Dad and Mary – my wonderful stepmother.

The longer version is this trip was some sort of a ‘returning homes’ trip. I drove through Little Rock – both coming and going – where Cayden was born and we spent close to 5 years. On the way there, I had the honor to spend the night with the Sudduth’s.

Scott and Beckie have been long-time friends and when we lived there, you never missed an opportunity to have dinner at their house. Never. It was an experience. Besides that, they were great friends. The long drive didn’t seem as long when Beckie met me in the driveway and gave me one of those ‘mom’ hugs. As I put my bag in the guest room, I noticed Scott had the steaks ready to grill, complete with a mushroom sauce that smelled like it was directly from Italy. A night with the Sudduths is a taste of heaven. Both in the company and the food.

The next morning was an early breakfast with Jim Mark Ingram. Jim Mark was an elder at where we served. We are both gone from that church, but Jim Mark is…well…Jim Mark is one of those guys that I’m not sure anything bad can be said about him. He’s always had a heart for kids and teenagers as evidenced by his years of support of Young Life, student ministry, Boy Scouts, and whatever other youth organization you can think of. It was a great time of catching up on our families.

In Birmingham, I got to grab some time with my favorite cousin ever – Connie. I was in love with Connie from age 7 to 13. She was beautiful, funny, southern, and smart. I was devastated when I found we were related. If we were living in Arkansas, maybe that sort of thing would have been tolerated, but in the high society circles of Alabama – we have standards. I still love Connie but I think my girls love her and her daughter more. She’s got goats, cows, bees, and whatever else kind of animal on their farm just north of Birmingham.

On the way back home, I swung back by Little Rock and grabbed lunch with one of my closest friends – Bruce. Over the most incredible ribs ever (The Whole Hog), we caught up on family, raising daughters, and faith.

In each of the instances, I’m struck how the conversations were so easy, so deep, so fast. Each relationship seeming to just pick up where we had last left it. Even after years of radio silence, there was this level of trust and vulnerability that didn’t seem to fade.

There is a love that is deeper than mere sentiment… Rich Mullins

After growing up in the military, moving around every 18 months and having lived in 6 different places as an adult, I have a different understanding of home than most. I don’t have ‘a place’ that I can drive up to and say – “This is my home!!” But what I do have are these relationships.

And that’s enough. More than enough.


Book Review: The Martian

BY Andy Weir

Imagine Robinson Crusoe on Mars. And add in that it takes 265 days to get there if anything goes wrong. Then imagine being left for dead by your crew and you have to figure out how to survive until the next mission arrives – some 460 plus days away.

And that’s the first two pages of the book.

Weir weaves a story full of both suspense and humor centering upon the main character of Mark Whatney. Whatney is the rare breed of botanist and engineer who finds himself in the most impossible of situations where everything – the very air around him – is set up to kill him.

While the story covers close to three years of time, it is well paced and packed full of the details that puts the science in science-fiction. I am sure botanist engineers everywhere will come to see this book as a vindication of their vocation. Both of them.

Read the rest of the review here – on my other site The Reviews.