Monthly Archives: November 2016

Fantastic Beasts! A Review!

fantastic-beasts-big-posterIt’s here! It’s here! Fantastic Beasts is here! But does it hold up to the exceptional standards of creativity Potter fans crave?

Yes and no.

As a die-hard Harry Potter Fan, my hopes were high with this prequel series. My overall takeaway is that Fantastic Beasts is a good—not great—film that sets up sequential films and plot lines nicely.

As it is difficult to speak about this film without giving away spoilers, I will share the non-spoiling bits first, and then alert those of you who haven’t seen it yet before launching into specific plot points.

NON SPOILER REVIEW

Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1920’s New York and, boy, does that come across well. I love the grunge and the cramped spaces and the hard times mingled with a sense of possibility. The look-and-feel of the film pulls you in from the start. You want to soak up the period atmosphere and all that comes with it. It really is a shame that the camera moves so quickly; you barely get to see any of the detail in each shot. For example, the opening montage of newspapers flies by so fast you can barely read the headlines—and you may even get nauseous in the attempt. Even so, my imagination was pricked by what I caught, and I grew even more curious about what the Wizarding world in America had in store.

The film follows the path of Newt Scamander, an English ex-Hogwarts student who arrives via steamship with a mysterious suitcase containing a wide collection of magical creatures. Almost immediately, chaos ensues, beginning with the escape of the wily niffler which, as we learn from Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class in the Harry books, is attracted to shiny, valuable objects. The audience giggled along with the niffler’s antics, watching it stuff the contents of a bank safe into its little pouch. I approve of the niffler design, a distinction I take seriously being married to a character designer. I likewise approve of many of the other creatures in design, though their CG animation often seemed forced and cheap. You’d think after all of the disastrous Star Wars prequels that Hollywood would have learned not to forgo props and puppets in lieu of pure CG, but alas. Many of the interactions with the fantastic beasts looked off, lacking in texture and weight, a shiny creature juxtaposed with the gritty city background. When the actors “touched” the creatures, it simply failed to look at all real. It’s like watching TV dramas where people hand each other coffee cups that are clearly empty: we knew the Fantastic Beasts actors weren’t really holding anything, let alone funky bird snake things.

To speak generally of the story, I most appreciated the suspense created; I definitely needed to find out what and/or who the mysterious “Obscurus” was. Many of the characters, especially Newt and Graves, had a mystique that drew me in. That said, many of the other characters could have been better developed, particularly Tina, Queenie, and Jacob. Like many of the later, original Harry Potter films, subtlety of character, plot, and what I will call “world establishing” is lost to action sequences and flashy special effects. This is a shame, as anyone who enjoys the books knows that it is the characters who drive the story, not the flash-bang magic they produce. I would have liked very much to know more about all of the characters in Fantastic Beasts, find out what motivates or frightens them, see them struggle to work together, and be in on their inside jokes. These are the nuanced choices filmmakers can make (though they rarely do these days) that mean the difference between a World War II flick and Casablanca. Hopefully the next films in the series will do more to establish character motivation and stimulate audience empathy.

SPOILER CONTENT: DO NOT CONTINUE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM OR READ THE HARRY BOOKS!

Ok, so for viewers who have already seen the film, let’s get into the nitty gritty.

My absolute favorite thing about this movie is the concept of the Obscurus. This is because, or so I deduce, it is a subtle allusion to Albus Dumbledore’s back story and the tragedy that eclipsed his childhood. As the story goes, Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana was driven insane by muggle boys who taunted her, leaving her unable to control her immense magical power. Dumbledore’s brief friendship with Gallert Grindelwald ended in a disagreement about Ariana, and their ensuing duel resulted in Ariana’s death. Fantastic Beasts names Ariana’s condition and describes it as a kind of possession by a creature called an Obscurus, known affect children forced to subdue their magical powers instead of learn to control them. To use this source of power as a motivation for the Grindelwald character was brilliant. It ties in the Dumbledore/Grindelwald history to this budding American story with nuance and intrigue.

As strong as that plot device was, however, the film suffered from many missed opportunities. For starters, I had hoped there would be elements of the American magical world that were, well, more American. The totalitarian structure of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) simply mimicked the Ministry of Magic. There could have been more of an emphasis on individual liberties and identities, or even a “screw you” attitude among American wizards that, for better or worse, would make an American wizard feel like an American. There could also have been different spells used or more discussion of the American wizarding education and the way it influences the culture. In other words, an extension of the wizarding world into other other countries could be fascinating, but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy. That said, it would take a lot for that to happen with me.

Another small criticism involves the use of the memory charm at the end. It made no sense. For one thing, movie fans and book fans alike remember that the charm works on wizards just as well as muggles, so why aren’t the local wizards forgetting everything? Second, is it only working on people who get wet in the “obliviating” rain? If so, that causes many problems, as most New Yorkers would have been indoors. Third, why does Newt have this potion in his pocket and why can that bird thing release it perfectly to enchant the rain? Too deus ex machina for me. Surely we can come up with something better.

Again, overall, the film holds up well, and can entertain anyone from wizarding newbies to raving fanatics like me with its lovely visuals, suspense, and occasional jokes. That said, being entertained is not the same as being moved, and I think the film could have done the latter with a bit more polish and exposition and fewer flash-bang action sequences. Hopefully, though, this first film will serve as a platform for great things to come. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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Setting the Thanksgiving Mood

I turned to Josh the other day to see him staring into space. “What are you thinking about?” I asked.

“I’m having a hard time getting into a Thanksgiving mood.”

It’s no wonder. What with his work deadlines, the impending arrival of the Sauerpatch Kid, the painfully divided state of our nation, among other things, our minds have been stretched these last few weeks. I also just typed in “Why Be Thankful” to Google. It froze.

But come on people! Being thankful is one of the healthiest choices you can make for yourself. Yes, I said ‘choice.’ Thankfulness is a practice, an attitude to assume, to put on like clothing. In Shawn Achor‘s book, The Happiness Advantage, one of his top recommendations is to write down three things for which we are grateful every day for 21 days, the theory being that 21 days is enough to solidify a habit. The three things do not need to be profound, but the do need to be different every day. They can range from “I am thankful for my spouse” to “I am thankful for the feeling of a cup of hot tea close to my body on a chilly morning.” Whatever floats your thankful boat.

But if your health is not enough incentive to adjust your attitude this Thanksgiving, here are three other things that might help.

  1. Listen to Bing.

2. Step up your game with your Thanksgiving menu this year. Nothing like some kitchen creativity to warm the soul. These are Edible Nashville recommendations this year, but I suggest you poke around the website as there are TONS more where those came from.

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3. Meditate on This: 

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go. Washington

 

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In Search of Silver Linings

I saw (and laughed and cried at) this telling “article” on election day:

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Over a week later, the cloud of tension still looms over America. Though some are relieved, believing that this is the better outcome, others are horrified, foreseeing the doom of many freedoms. Many, if not most, have felt for a long time like they had no good option at all and little hope for the future. But for better or worse, democracy has taken its course, and we are left to pray that there is something…anything… good about it, besides the cop-out reply, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Now, over a week later, is the answer to whether there are silver linings still ‘no’?

This blog is about creativity. I firmly believe we have only scratched the creative capacity each of us house. In that spirit, I challenge us all to think creatively about our mindsets moving forward as a nation.

Kicking this off, I do see a silver lining or two. To be clear, I have neither love for Donald Trump nor defense for his demonstrated racism, sexism, or any of the other backwards and damaging rhetoric he regularly spews. I pray fervently that hands he inspired to violence are stayed and that the weight of responsibility falling on his shoulders frightens him into a more cautious approach to legislation than his campaign threatened.

Even so, looking beyond the man and the single office he will occupy, I see (at least*) two reasons to hope, and with your patience, I hope you can see them to.

  1. We have the opportunity to affirm the best things about our government structure. My brow furrowed many times this past week as I saw, via social media, people on both sides predicting what would happen with Trump as president. Many of these comments showed a profound lack of understanding of how our government works. More tragically, these comments ignored the marvelous design of our constitution to limit power of any one branch or individual. A system with checks and balances, division of powers between branches, and a bicameral legislature were built into our American experiment precisely for the purpose of preventing tyranny. Indeed, these features of our constitution continue to make me proud to be an American (even today), and are likely the primary reasons for why our experiment has lasted as long as it has. If you, therefore, are anxious about the threat of tyranny, whether you feel it with Trump or from some other source, take heart! There are, and always have been, structures in place to prevent a lot of what we fear. Is the system perfect? FAR from it. But we can take solace that our constitution has gotten us as far as it has, and we should cherish the constitutional structures that protect our inalienable rights, because we know that individuals won’t. When a president wants to bypass congressional protocol with executive orders, we should be prepared to vigorously question those decisions. When Congress wants to entrust authority to unelected bureaucrats, we should take serious issue. When the Supreme Court decides on issues constitutionally left to the states’ jurisdiction, we should object. Limiting government’s reach is the reason for our longevity and the hope for the future. As John Adams once said, we are a country of laws, not men; this should be exceedingly comforting and empowering to the average citizen, provided we can protect those laws and their authority over all Americans, especially those in power. We have an opportunity and the incentive today to reclaim and reaffirm our Constitution, and I pray we do.
  2. We have the opportunity to look beyond our institutions for our wellbeing. As painfully divided as America has become ideologically, an overarching theme to this election season has been the feeling that the institutions have failed us. Reasons for why they failed us differ greatly between left and right and everyone in between, but many of us can unite in a growing distrust of the powers at play. Ladies and Gentlemen, this crumbling institutional trust might feel like the end of all things, but it is in fact excellent news. If necessity is the mother of invention, then we can expect great things from our dire circumstances. The same nation that brought the world the airplane, the light bulb, and the M&M can certainly continue striving for new and better ideas. If we necessity calls to look outside of our institutions to solve our problems, then we can hope to find solutions to social and economic challenges within our own spheres that achieve progress beyond our greatest hopes for government. After all, why should we act like flies hitting a window, believing always that we will make it through? That is the definition of insanity, after all. If America wants change, then lets ride this wave of motivation to make it happen ourselves. We can improve our schools, our medical care, issues of social justice, our poverty levels, among any number of challenges, through our own ingenuity and scaling our solutions accordingly. We do not, and should not, wait for federal institutions to do it for us.

Again, my hope in writing this post is that it challenges our doom and gloom mindset, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum. There is still hope, and I invite you to be creative about finding it and sharing it with others.

 

*I used this space to speak of temporal reasons to hope. Ask any Sunday School student for the other, infinitely more effective answer to our problems. Ephesians 2, people.

 

 

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Butterflies, Granola, and Seriously Strong Women

screenshot202016-11-032021-12-32My latest article in Edible Nashville is out at last! Once again I had the delight of writing the “food hero” piece for the issue, this time covering the marvelous women who make up the Blue Monarch recovery center.

Blue Monarch ladies1.jpg

granola-portraitThis center welcomes women who have been trapped in cycles of addiction and abuse to a beautiful farmhouse in Middle Tennessee where they can recuperate with their children. As part of their recuperation, the ladies are invited to work in the onsite industrial kitchen where they make…wait for it…granola! It is through this granola business that these women gain substantive work skills and honest paychecks which amount to, for many of them, completely novel experiences.

As it usually goes with these projects, I collected WAY more information and stories and photos than I could fit into a short article. I often leave these projects feeling like there is so much more I could have done to create awareness for the seriously wonderful work being done. In that spirit, I wanted to share with you the stories of two of the women who had been through the Blue Monarch recovery programming. Their testimonies speak to the radical transformation possible for people who otherwise feel trapped and helpless.

One of the amazing things about these stories is how ready these ladies were to tell them. Their histories are not pretty, to say the least. Their pain is prominent, but they’ve come so far and they take their memories in stride. They have seen how powerful their stories are in inspiring others; they don’t hold back from the messy details. When I arrived, they greeted me warmly with big smiles and immediately launched into stories of rape and overdoses. Those juxtaposed smiles startled me at first, but made much more sense when they got to their happy endings. If you had come that far, you’d be smiling too.

So here are the stories of Brandy and Donaree excerpted from an earlier draft. Enjoy.

“Looking at the stunning Blue Monarch campus, it is hard to imagine a better place to recover. Any visitor would be thrilled merely to relax on that porch. But for residents, Blue Monarch is nothing short of a miracle. Many arrive at Blue Monarch after living in cars or in homes plagued with abuse. Some of them were given the choice of Blue Monarch or a jail cell. Understandably, newcomers often burst into tears at the sight of the beautiful yellow home full of spacious rooms where they can care for their children in safety and rest—a luxury many of them never fathomed.

donaree-masters-1The Blue Monarch difference is especially evident in the ladies’ testimonies. Donaree Masters, a graduate who now runs the granola kitchen, was raised in an alcoholic home where she suffered physical and sexual abuse. In her mid-thirties, she began a twenty-year meth addiction that ended with her arrest. By the grace of God, she says, Blue Monarch accepted her into the program in 2013. Looking at her now, radiant and smiling, the very picture of health, you would never recognize the woman from her mugshot. “Even if I had never had my addiction,” she shares, “I could not be in a better spot than I am in now. The beauty of what happens here, seeing these women growing and learning—being here is a dream come true.”

brandy-granola-prepBrandy Wilson, a current resident soon to graduate, similarly beams with hope and wellness in spite of a childhood riddled with drugs and abuse. Removed by the state from her drug-infested home, Brandy spent her adolescence moving between thirteen different foster parents, some of whom molested her. When she turned eighteen, she moved in with her biological mother and together they would regularly get high on pills. This new ‘normal’ came to a traumatizing halt when Brandy returned from an errand to find her mother dead from an overdose in her car. Adding to her grief, Brandy’s continued drug use lead to many months in prison and losing custody of her daughter. Facing additional jail time after a broken house arrest, Brandy pleaded with the judge for help, for some alternative to falling back into the same patterns. Miraculously, the judge remembered Blue Monarch and allowed her to apply in lieu of further prison. Brandy, who was pregnant at the time, gave birth to her second daughter at Blue Monarch, and made enough progress to regain custody of her elder daughter while in the program. Brandy has since completed her GED, won scholarships to attend a local community college, and been baptized together with her seven-year-old.”

 

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I Am We, a poem.

I am we,
a walking duo,
living Russian dolls, one tucked within.
My little alien within,
growing like a snowball rolling,
rolling, rolling down the hill
while we watch over,
surprised when we shouldn’t be
by nature’s most natural, corporeal pattern-making.

No one ever told me
what it’s like to be we.
Perhaps they had no words for it.
or perhaps they take nature in stride,
whereas I lived cozy in abstraction.
Now in the midst,
I recall a storm on my river,
when we looked out and saw a cyclone,
drawing water and air into itself,
building, spinning power and vitality and character.
To think,
it didn’t exist moments before.

It says of all us
we are ‘knit together in our mothers’ wombs.”
That’s me: the womb host,
the knitting place.
My blood the threads, my nourishment the needles,
but His the hands, wondrously working,
as always.
As He says, “Behold, something new.”

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