Happy Groundhog Day from Thimblerig the Groundhog!

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groundhog day

And if you haven’t taken the time to read Thimblerig the groundhog’s story, and how his scheming saved a bunch of animals from Noah’s flood, run now to Amazon and download the first book, Thimblerig’s Ark! Click on the cover for more info.

Coming soon, Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist

Thimblerig's Ark Cover Art

Woodlawn, War Room, and Unity

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Living in China has its benefits – great food, meeting new unique people almost daily, and easy proximity to other equally interesting Asian countries, to name a few things. But considering I am something of a cinephile, the one big negative is my inability to see new American movies unless they are among the 34 movies chosen by the Chinese censors to be screened here.

This unfortunate situation is compounded by the fact that I write film reviews of a very specific, narrow genre of film – the so-called “faith-based” film genre, and faith-based films never make China’s cut of 34 films (but they could… read here to see how). This means I never get to see the films I like to review until months after everyone has stopped talking about them, which doesn’t give me a lot of capital in the relevance market.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.20.50 PMAnd so, with that understanding, I set out to review War Room and Woodlawn, two of the bigger Christian-made film titles that have recently been released to the home viewing market.

These are an interesting pair of films, and their splash into the culture was also interesting, for similar but opposite reasons. First, War Room, a little, relatively inexpensive film made by the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) did what Christian films rarely do, and made a huge return on its initial investment (budget of $3M, current box office $72.1M) even though it scored poorly with critics (34% on Rotten Tomatoes). Then, two months later, Woodlawn, a big football movie by the Erwin brothers (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out) set in early 1970’s Birmingham did something Christian-made films never do, and premiered to several mostly positive secular critical reviews (currently 83% on Rotten Tomatoes with 12 reviews), even as it failed to earn back its budget of $25M.

photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/jdhancock

“I said right hand on green, Alex! Come on, pay attention!”

This intrigued me to no end. Not so much the story of War Room‘s success, as Alex and Stephen Kendrick are the closest thing Christian filmmaking has to a sure thing. The brothers could release a home video of their family playing Twister while dressed like Imperial stormtroopers, and the Big Christian Audience would still turn out in droves.

Actually, I’d probably watch that.

No, I was more interested that an openly Christian-made film replete with overt Christian themes and messages could be received positively by secular film critics, but be relatively ignored by the coveted Big Christian Audience. Especially when one considers that certain vocal members of the Big Christian Audience regularly blast secular critics as being biased against Christian-made films.

So, fickle Big Christian Audience, why didn’t you guys go out and see a film made for you that the critics actually liked? I don’t get you, and I can only imagine the frustration Christian filmmakers feel, trying to figure you out.

But I digress.

post_reviewsI was finally able to watch Woodlawn this past week with my kids, and for the most part, we enjoyed it. I could understand the critical response to the film, with Frank Scheck at The Hollywood Reporter writing that the brothers delivered “a feel-good, real-life inspirational story in a mostly engaging fashion.” And Joe Leydon at Variety, “the overall narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.” Even Tyler Smith – who, as the host of the More Than One Lesson podcast is a Christian reviewer who doesn’t give Christian films an easy pass  – wrote that with Woodlawn, the Erwin brothers had “thrown down the gauntlet for the Christian film industry.”

Of course, all the reviews also pointed out that the film was not perfect, and there were some problems (not the least of which was the tiresome “the government is persecuting Christians” subplot), but ultimately the critics judged Woodlawn on its merits as a film. And since the conclusions were mostly positive, I think we can all agree that that is real progress in the arena of faith-based filmmaking.

So kudos to the Erwins for the accomplishment, even if Woodlawn wasn’t the Christian blockbuster you were hoping it would be.

But when I went to write my review of the film, a funny thing happened. Being late to the game was a problem once again. But this time it was because for every critique or compliment I’d think about writing, I’d remember that I’d read that same thought – usually more eloquently expressed – in one of the reviews published last fall, when people were actually writing reviews of the film.

In short, I didn’t have anything new to say about Woodlawn. And I didn’t want to write a review when I didn’t have anything new to say. It was a good lesson for me to avoid reviews until I’ve seen the movie, even if I have to wait a few months. You got that, God’s Not Dead 2? You’ll probably have until the summer before I get around to you, unless you want to send me an advanced screener…

I was walking home from work, about to throw out the idea of writing about Woodlawn altogether, when something hit me. No, it wasn’t a bus or a bicycle, (although that is a real danger here in China) but rather it was a big plot point of the film, and a parallel from the film to the true story of the two sets of filmmaker brothers, the Erwins and the Kendricks. And I knew what I wanted to write about.

That is, unity and the mindset of these Christian filmmakers.

imageBefore I get into that, let me go back to Woodlawn for a moment. You have to remember that this film is based on a true story, and the truth is where it derives most of its power. For example, when Sean Astin’s character shares the Gospel with the entire team, and the entire team responds to his call to choose Jesus, an event like that really happened. When, in the film, the team dedicates their season to Jesus – win or lose – that really happened. When, in the film, Woodlawn’s rival team also hears Hank’s message and chooses Jesus as well, that really happened. When, in the film, the two teams become one in Christ, even as they play each other in the championship game at Legion Field, that event really happened.

It’s really important to remember that while the Erwins had to take some creative licence on certain details for the sake of the film, the large events really happened. And that is powerful. Actually, that’s where the potential power in Christian-made films really lies – not in creating unrealistic Christian fairy tales where we show what we would like to see God do in the world, but films that show the world that God really does “show up,” and when He does, He does some pretty amazing things.

Even in the lives of our Christian filmmakers.

If you think about it, the story of the Erwin brothers and the Kendrick brothers could be the same as Woodlawn‘s pre-faith football teams. Two sets of filmmaking brothers, both trying to help establish Christian filmmaking as something to be taken seriously, both enjoying a reasonable amount of success, both trying to connect with the same broad, fickle demographic.

They could be bitter rivals.

Maybe they should be bitter rivals.

But they’re not.

And this is a testimony to the unifying nature of the Gospel.

wl1aRemember the climax of Woodlawn? The big championship match between Woodlawn and Banks, the historic game that brought huge crowds out to Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1974? The interesting thing is that in the film, the game wasn’t noteworthy because of who won or lost the game. It wasn’t noteworthy because it featured two of the best high school players in the nation. It wasn’t even noteworthy because of the record-breaking number of people who came out to see the game.

No, in Woodlawn, the game was noteworthy because of the way the unifying nature of the Gospel brought these two rival teams together. Certainly both teams wanted to win, but the film demonstrated that what really mattered was that both teams were playing in a way that demonstrated the power of God in their lives.

In the same way, of course both the Kendricks and the Erwins wanted their respective films to do well in the box office. In his video essay, “Woodlawn Keynote: This Is Our Time“,  Jon Erwin even talked about the need for Christian filmmakers to be thinking in terms of creating blockbusters with explicit Christian themes and messages, and it was obvious that he was hoping for Woodlawn to take off the way that War Room had.

But for reasons only marketing people might be able to definitively figure out, it didn’t happen. The Big Christian Audience that flocked to War Room and even God’s Not Dead largely stayed home when Woodlawn premiered, even though Woodlawn had all of the requisite beats for a faith-based film, was better received critically, and had many of the same Christian film movers and shakers behind it.

But here’s the cool part – days after Woodlawn was released, the Kendricks posted this on their facebook page:

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 2.50.59 PM

A couple of weeks later, Stephen Kendrick posted this picture on Facebook:

kendrick

The Kendricks were doing their part to let their audience know that Woodlawn was in their wheelhouse, acting as if the Erwins weren’t the competition, even if they were players on a different team.

Even if their films were competing for that same demographic.

The Kendricks were communicating that there was something bigger going on then winning bragging rights for box office success.

And then, as I researched the Erwins, I found that for every interview that mentioned the success of War Room in general or the Kendricks in particular, the Erwins responded in kind.

For example, in one interview Andy Erwin responded to a question that referenced War Room like this:

[We are] honored by those that have plowed the way like Stephen and Alex Kendrick … and so many others that have worked hard to prove there is an underserved market. Hollywood has taken notice and as one of us wins, we all win as Believers in the industry. War Room has done amazing and we are excited to be up next. God is on the move!

Certainly the argument could be made that these filmmakers don’t have a choice but to put on a publicly supportive face, that the circle of successful Christian filmmakers is so small that they have to get along, that even Hollywood filmmakers act like they get along because you never know who you’ll be working with (or for) in the future.

But for the sake of argument, and because I typically like to think the best of people, I’m going to imagine that this display of unity between the Kendricks and the Erwins is not typical Hollywood flattery and apple polishing. Rather, these men are striving to live Jesus’ call for his followers to be unified (John 17:20-23), for the ultimate goal that the world would know Him.

401_401_5And their story inspires me, even as I try to live out my faith. This display of unity in the face of a variety of wins and losses (both box office and critical response) inspires me to do my part to seek unity within the family of God where I am. And it makes me ask; do I look at the work of fellow Christians and see competition to be beaten, or do I see their success as my success, and their failure as my failure, because we’re brothers and sisters in Christ on a common mission in life?

And to put an even sharper point on the question for me, do I even see this when I look at the fickle Big Christian Audience, and all of the people who attempt to service that audience with films, with music, with books, even with the Christian kitsch and tschokies?

What about the Christians who hold different political beliefs than me?

What about the Christians who are in different denominations than me?

What about the Christians who are different races than me?

Do I even champion unity with these people, for the sake of the Gospel?

Do I?

Ouch.

Back to Woodlawn and War Room, neither film is perfect, and to be perfectly frank, neither film is my kind of film. In fact, if I were a “brother” from either family, I would want take these films in much different directions. But while I may not be an Erwin or a Kendrick, I am glad to know that these men are still my brothers in the family of God, and I appreciate that they’ve taught me something important about my faith in the way they live their lives.

In an interview with gospelherald.com about Woodlawn, Jon Erwin said:

Woodlawn is a story about one team making a decision to love God and love each other. What if what we see now began to multiply and what if everyone made the decision to love God and love each other – what difference would that make in America today? If we lived out the sentence that Jesus said 2,000 years ago – “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love each other as yourself.”

Amen, Jon.

Amen.

The Parable of the Director and the Screenwriter

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Jesus told this parable:

hollywood-signTwo people went to Hollywood to get involved in the entertainment industry.

One was a film director from Georgia who felt called to make Christian movies, and the other was a screenwriter from Jersey whose ambition was to become the next Quentin Tarantino. The two wound up living in adjoining apartments in the Valley where they would pass each other every day, but they never spoke.

The director from Georgia, who had come to Hollywood because he was so bothered by the stream of morally bankrupt movies and programs being produced there, was offended by the lifestyles he encountered in L.A. and angered by the way industry people so often made fun of religion. Emboldened by the culture war messages he would read online, he decided to turn his energies to creating a Christian alternative to Hollywood.

One afternoon he sat in church and prayed, “God, I’m so glad I’m not like the other people I see out here – the godless actors, hedonistic directors, vile comics – or even like that liberal screenwriter who lives next door, people who don’t know you and who are trying to destroy traditional American family values. I’m in church every Sunday, attend Bible study twice a week, fast and pray regularly, and give money to conservative politicians. I will play an important part in saving the culture, and I’m so glad you sent me here to stand in the gap.”

At that same moment, the screenwriter from Jersey – after working for hours at Alfred Coffee trying to break a new script idea – was wandering the streets. She missed her family, was agonizing over the less talented writers who sold scripts while her career was going nowhere, regretted that clingy guy she’d brought home the night before, and was worried that she’d started drinking too much.

When she found herself standing across the street from the church, a small part of her felt like she should go in, but she just couldn’t. There was too much baggage.

Instead, she sat on a bench and broke down into sobs, crying out, “God, what’s the point of all this? What am I even doing here? If you’re out there, please give me a break. I just really need a break… I’m so sorry… for everything…”

And Jesus said, “I tell you that the screenwriter, rather than the director, was justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Inspired by Luke 18:9-14 and this article about the Golden Globes.

 

The 2015 Movieguide Awards Nominations

If you were too busy soaking in the Oscar Nomination awards to notice, you might have missed the Movieguide award nominations, which were announced on January 11 at the Universal Hotel in Los Angeles by Movieguide founder, Dr. Ted Baehr.

The 24th Annual Faith & Values Awards Gala and Report to the Entertainment Industry will be held on Friday, February 5 at the Universal Hotel in Los Angeles, and it is sure to be a star-studded affair – at least for those who love the “faith-and-family” genre of filmmaking.

(Feb. 6, 2014 - Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America)

Duck Dynasty wins in 2014… (Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America)

Movieguide is an “international family guide to movies and entertainment”, and the awards show exists to help celebrate that aspect of the entertainment industry. That means that these awards aren’t necessarily for the best films of the year (no The Revenant or Mad Max to be found here), but for those films that exhibit the best in “family friendly” qualities.

The big prizes of this awards show are the coveted Epiphany Prizes. Past winners of this prize (given for film and television) are an eclectic group of films, including God’s Not Dead, Les Miserables, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Fireproof. The Epiphany Prizes are $100,000 prizes that are awarded annually to the movie and television program that resulted in a “great increase in man’s love or understanding of God,” although I’m not really sure who makes that call – after all, it’s really not clear who votes for these awards.

The long-short of it is – this is one of thew few places where faith based films and television typically get any recognition, although the awards recognize secular films as well.

And because everyone is awards-show crazy right now, here are the nominees for the 24th Annual Movieguide Faith & Values Awards, and you may do with them what you will:

The $100,000 Epiphany Prize to the Most Inspiring Movie of 2015,

The 33

Brooklyn

Captive

Do You Believe

Manny

War Room

Woodlawn

The $100,000 Epiphany Prize to the Most Inspiring TV Program of 2015:

A.D.: The Bible Continues

Ancient Roads from Christ to Constantine

Blue Bloods: Hold Outs

Chicago Fire: Forgiving, Relentless, Unconditional

Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors

Saints & Strangers

The Bradley Foundation Faith & Freedom Award:

Cinderella

The Good Dinosaur

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Joy

Max

McFarland, USA.

Woman in Gold

The Best Movie for Families:

Cinderella

The Good Dinosaur

Home

Inside Out

Max

Paddington

The Peanuts Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

War Room

The Best Movie for Mature Audiences:

The 33

Ant-Man

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Furious 7

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Joy

Jurassic World

The Martian

McFarland, USA.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

The Most Inspiring Performance for Movies:

Antonio Banderas, The 33

Kate Mara, Captive

Ted McGinley, Do You Believe

Juliet Stevenson, The Letters

Karen Abercrombie, War Room

Sean Astin and Jon Voight, Woodlawn

The Most Inspiring Performance for Television:

Emmett J Scanlan, Joe Dixon, and Juan Pablo Di Pace, A.D.: The Bible Continues

Gordon Clapp, Chicago Fire: Forgiving, Relentless, Unconditional

Alyvia Alyn Lind, Gerald McRaney, and Jennifer Nettles, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors

Vincent Kartheiser, Saints & Strangers

I would say see you on February 5, but I’m not sure if this show is able to be viewed. If you know where one could watch the Movieguide awards, let me know and I’ll add it!

Hollywood Finally Notices Success of Christian Films

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Hollywood has finally noticed the success of Christian films such as last fall’s War Room and 2014’s God’s Not Dead!

Los Angeles, California – Alex Boese of the Spaghetti Harvest Media Marketing Group (SHMMG) of San Bernardino, California announced at a press conference on Monday that his company has decided to take a page from the faith-based handbook. This year, SHMMG will begin encouraging studios to release secular film advertisements with relevant Bible verses.

A Hollywood po

A big Hollywood power lunch meeting from the 1950’s.

“At a recent big Hollywood power lunch meeting at Soho House,” Mr. Boese said, “I convinced some of the town’s biggest players that using the Bible is the best way to attract the elusive faith-based audience, a key rising demographic that has proven to have very deep pockets when they feel they are being serviced.”

Mr. Boese went on to explain that “faith-based” films (also known as “faith and family” films, “family-based and faith-building” films, “faith, family & family, faith” films, and “building family and faith in the faith and family building” films) have gained popularity over the past few years, in large part thanks to the grass roots social media marketing efforts of the small independent studios which produce them.

A key way these studios have utilized social media is by producing images showing key verses from the Bible and a logo of the film that can be easily shared from Christian film fan to Christian film fan. Often the images will also show stills from the films to help drive the Bible verse point home.

“If we want to attract that F&F audience, we have to play by their rules,” Mr. Boese commented. “If that means using the Bible to sell tickets, then so be it. After all, if the Bible is good enough for Christians as a marketing tool, then it’s good enough for us.”

Mr. Boese’s comments were briefly interrupted as a man started shouting about cheapening Scripture by using it to sell products, but he was quickly ushered out by SHMMG employees. The incident was quickly forgotten by those in attendance. [note to editor: consider redacting this paragraph]

Mr. Boese ended his presentation by revealing several different advertisement mockups that SHMMG had developed. He announced that these Bible advertisements would be likely soon begin showing up on each respective film’s social media feeds, pending approval of each film’s marketing department.

“This is a new day of partnership between Hollywood and the faith-and-family-based community,” Mr. Boese said confidently. “And by the way, using the Bible this way should help us to sell a LOT more tickets.”

Time will tell, Mr. Boese. Time will tell.

For more information, read this article.

onlinelogomaker-010516-1942

 

Can a Christian Film Play in China?

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Last fall, filmmaker Jon Erwin (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn) issued a video challenge to the church to embrace filmmaking as the new Roman Road – a new way to reach the world with the Gospel. The video was well-made, and hit on many important issues for Christians to consider as we move ahead with our attempts to impact culture with our cinematic art. You can watch the video below, and pay attention to Erwin’s arguments at 1:54.

 

One of the questions this video raises, “Can a Christian film play in China?” grabbed me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve lived in China for the past four years, and while here I’ve enjoyed several Hollywood blockbusters on the big screen. Second, I’ve learned about the incredibly stringent guidelines that China places on the western films it allows to be shown in domestic cinemas.

Bottom line? A Christian blockbuster, as Erwin proposes, would have an incredibly difficult time showing up on a Chinese screen for a multitude of reasons. And considering that China is set to be the biggest film market by 2020, this is something that Christian filmmakers need to be considering as we become more and more serious about the films we are producing.

Which brings me to the point of this blog post. Considering China’s enormous untapped film market, and considering that Christians typically want their films to be a positive force in the world for the sake of the Gospel, what can filmmakers of faith do to try and ensure that their film stands at least a chance, however small, of being seen on Chinese screens?

I have three ideas, and unfortunately, none of them are easy.

1. We need to create true blockbusters.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Here’s where Erwin and I agree. Christian filmmakers, producers, investors, all need to be purposeful about creating real, true blockbusters, and this is not an enterprise to enter lightly. China typically only accepts blockbusters in the list of 34 foreign films that they permit to be shown each year, and the foreign movies that have done well in China share the following qualities of a blockbuster: they are four-quadrant, they have lots of big action set pieces (films aren’t typically dubbed into Mandarin, so the action has to keep the audience’s attention), they star big name actors and/or directors, they are parts of successful franchises, they have eye-popping SFX, and…

well… muscle cars and giant fighting robots are always a plus.

The typical small Christian-made dramas will not make a dent in things in China when produced as foreign-made films. In fact, they would never get chosen.

And so, we do need to attempt our own blockbusters, if we want our films to play onscreen in China.

Of course, the argument could be made that attempting a Christian-made blockbuster could very easily lead to our own Christian version of Battlefield Earth (one of the most horrid films ever made, in John Travolta’s attempt to make a Scientology blockbuster), but if done well, it could be also be pretty amazing.

If done well.

2) We Need To Take the “Christian” out of “Christian Blockbuster”.

Yeah, I know. This would be a deal-breaker to many Christian investors. I can hear the rich Christian businessman now: “What’s the use in dropping millions into a picture that won’t have a Gospel message?”

1-20My response to that question would be simple: Romans 1:20.

God reveals Himself in the artistry of creation. Why can’t we attempt to reveal Him in the artistry of our creation, too? There may be a time for being obvious, but as Jesus proved in his parables, there is also a time for just telling good stories and trusting God to do the rest, to make the audience work for their dinner – as Andrew Stanton said about storytelling.

For a film made by Christians to be big in China, the message would need to be shifted from preachy to artistry, or it would it would never be accepted. Christian filmmakers need to become more skilled in the use of imagery to convey our messages: metaphor, imagination, beauty, awe, wonder… these are aspects of artistry that are consistently missing from our films. Learning how to use these tools could not only make the films agreeable to the censors in China, but possibly to the unchurched in America as well.

Can you imagine a non-didactic film made by Christians that people around the world wanted to see because of the excellent storytelling and artistry? In fact, I posit that if we were to do this well, trying to make a film that would play in China could actually help save Christian filmmaking from itself.

[Just a note: Noah and Exodus, two very mainstream Hollywood Bible epics, weren’t accepted as one of the 34 foreign films allowed in China during the year they were produced. And these were big movies with big names made by big studios. But they didn’t stand a chance. Why? Because they were too biblical.]

3) We Need To Find Partners

Having said there is no place for the small dramas, another way to get the opportunity to tell our stories in China is by partnering in co-productions with Chinese companies. Any film producer who is truly interested in learning how to take advantage of the growing Chinese market should be in Hong Kong and/or the Mainland forging alliances and friendships with filmmakers, producers, and investors. The good thing about these sorts of films is that they can be smaller, which might help take care of the problem that making blockbusters is the only solution. Such films might not get the same financial returns, but they stand a better chance of actually being made, and would have the added benefit of getting the filmmaker’s feet in the door.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.59.51 PM

British actor Joseph Fiennes (R) and Chinese actor Dou Xiao attend the press conference of the movie “The Last Race” in Tianjin, north China, June 24, 2015.

A perfect example of this can be seen in an upcoming film, The Last Race, an unofficial sequel to the Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire. The film, which is due to be released this year, tells the true story of Eric Liddell (played by Joseph Fiennes of the upcoming Risen), the Olympic runner who went to China as a missionary after the 1924 Olympics and who died in a Japanese internment camp in 1945.

The Last Race was written and directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Shin, produced by Canadian Michael Parker, and distributed by Hong Kong powerhouse Alibaba Pictures Group (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). It’s hard to say how much the film will bring out Liddell’s faith story, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.
So, what do you say, Christians filmmakers, producers, writers, investors? Are you serious about making films that can have a worldwide impact or are you just satisfied to see your name on a marquee at the local cineplex after your church rented the space for the night?
Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 4.15.35 PMAre you willing to undertake the hard work, step out of your area of comfort, and for many of you – risk everything to try? Yes, you may fail. Unless your name is Spielberg or Cruise, you probably will fail. After all, as Erwin says in the video quoting an unnamed filmmaker, “If we knew how to make hit films that’s all we’d make,” and so even making the attempt is a gamble of epic proportions.
But this sounds like what filmmakers all around the world do every day.
So why not go for it?

The Tale of Little the Chicken and the Birds from Far Away

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Once upon a time, in the Doah of Shenan, there lived a Chicken named Little. This chicken had a nice life, enjoying all the bounty of being a chicken in the glorious, lush Doah of Shenan, where the water ran cool and clean, and no miserable clouds of gloom ever darkened the skies.

On the day that our story starts, Little the chicken was sitting at home watching Fox News. I cannot tell you why a chicken would watch a news broadcast by a network of foxes, but for whatever reason, she did. In fact, all of Little the chicken’s domesticated avian friends watched Fox News every day, listening with baited breath as the foxes told them what was going on in the world – that it was a fearful time for all birds of the Doah of Shenan, because of the dangers posed by those birds who lived in far off lands.

“Those birds are terrible,” Little thought, watching another broadcast, where that handsome Fox News reporter, Sly Fox, was talking about how the far off birds wanted to take over all of the Doah of Shenan, that the far off birds could not be trusted.

Just then, Little the chicken’s little chick arrived home from bird school, which was held every day at the head of the river. “Hello, little chick!” Little the chicken said. “How was school today?”

“It was great!” the little chick responded, chucking his school bag onto the floor and opening up the refrigerator. “We learned about the birds from far off lands!”

067_ChickenLittleLittle the chicken’s head snapped up. “You learned what?”

“About the birds from far off lands,” the little chick said, his head inside the refrigerator as he looked for something to eat. “Teacher taught us about their chicken scratch.”

“Teacher taught you what?” Little the chicken glanced over at the television. Sly Fox was smiling as a graphic appeared over his head. The graphic said, “Far Off Birds Want To Eat Your Children!”

“She showed us how the birds from far off lands write things,” the little chick said, finally grabbing a bag of sour cream and onion feed and plopping down on the sofa. “It’s a lot different than our chicken scratch.”

This was too much for Little the chicken to process. Here she was, watching Sly Fox tell her that the birds from far off lands wanted to eat her children, and at the same time, the teacher at the head of the river was telling her children how those same barbaric birds scratched in the dirt?

“Did she make you scratch it?” Little asked, her voice shaking.

“Well, she said we could if we wanted to,” the little chick answered, his beak filled with feed.

“And did you?” Little asked.

“I dunno,” little chick said, surprised by his mother’s response. “I guess I did.”

Little the chicken’s heart froze in her chest. Her own little chick, the pride and joy of her nest, had been forced by the teacher to scratch words from far off birds in the dirt? Images of Sly Fox and his broadcasts swirled through her head, fearful images of birds from far off lands, coming to take her nest, her feed, her children. If only it were something simple like a falling sky, she could run and tell the king, and the king would solve the problem.

But this was worse.

Her baby, her little chick, had been forced to scratch in the dirt like a foreign bird.

Like the birds that wanted to destroy the Doah of Shenan.

“I have to do something,” Little said. “I have to stop this.”

“Do we have any BBQ feed?” little chick asked, licking the bottom of the bag of sour cream feed, oblivious to his mother’s concern.

And Sly Fox, inexplicably, stopped in the middle of his broadcast, and grinned.

—-

fox-chicken“We have to go tell Fox News!”

Little the chicken had gathered her closest friends together to tell them about the teacher at the head of the river, and they were all acluck.

Lucy the goose, Lucky the duck, and Tom the turkey all stood around the feed trough with Little the chicken, wide-eyed at the news that little chick had been forced to scratch like the foreign birds.

“I heard that she told them that if they didn’t scratch, they’d be sent to the butcher!” Lucy was saying. “And that the butcher works for the birds from far away!”

“My ducklings told me that she always talked about the birds from far away,” said Lucky. “And when she did, she had a longing look in her eyes, like she wanted to be one of them!”

“This is all a part of their plan,” Tom said, his eyes shifting nervously as he spoke. Was a bird from far away behind that tree? Behind that bush? “They want to get at our younglings, and then they’ll take us all over, for sure!”

Little the chicken felt more certain than ever that Fox News needed to find out about this, and then – once they did – the world would be made right. But Fox News was in the big city, and she was a simple country chicken. How could she ever stop this injustice? Who was she?

Little looked up at the sky, and just then, as if providence were at work, the clouds parted and a beam of light shone down on Little the chicken, bathing her in sunbeams and light.

And Little knew what she needed to do.

“Big Bird has spoken,” she said. “I’ll write about it on BeakBook!”

The other birds nodded, amazed that one of them had considered this way of getting out the word. Big Bird had definitely revealed this to Little.

“And we’ll share it!” Tom the turkey said. “We’ll stop this teacher or may all our feathers be plucked out and we wind up as Thanksgiving dinner!”

And Little the chicken scampered away from her friends, heading home, to her BeakBook account, and to her destiny.

To stop the birds from far away from eating her children.

To be continued…

Thimblerig’s Spoilerific Thoughts on Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

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Star_Wars_Episode_VII_The_Force_AwakensI never thought being in Kazakhstan could give me a pop culture advantage. In this case, I was able to enjoy a most surreal experience: seeing Star Wars Episode 7 in English in a cinema in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a full day before most people in the United States. And it was a treat to be sitting in the audience with my 12 year old daughter and my 14 year old son, a multi-generational viewing experience that I’d not had before with a Star Wars movie.

After the lights came up, and the credits were rolling, I desperately wanted to write four words on my social media. Four small words that would have been the spoiler of spoilers. I actually laughed, thinking about how many friends I would lose with that little stunt.

And so I didn’t do it. I resisted the dark side.

Because I like my friends.

That, and I didn’t want to wake up some night with a lightsaber buried in my chest.

But be warned. Now, that I’m home, writing on my blog, I will write those four words. Not now, but very soon.  So, if you have not seen Star Wars Episode 7 yet, and you are trying to steer clear of spoilers, then steer way clear of this review. Because it will be chock-full of spoilers.

***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***

Having gotten that out of the way, I’ll start my review with four other small words, not spoiler words, but important words nonetheless.

Star Wars is back.

If the prequels showed us anything, they showed us that it was easy to lose sight of the feel and the energy of the original trilogy. It was easy to set out to make original trilogy prequels, but to make something else altogether. While each prequel episode had something redeeming, there was quite a bit more that sent them spiraling off into space.

The prequels were not terrible movies in and of themselves, but they were terrible Star Wars movies.

But now? Star Wars is back.

J.J. Abrams brought it back.

Yes, with this film, Abrams managed to restore several of the things that made the original trilogy great.

Star Wars is about people

harrison-ford-han-solo-xlargeEpisode 7 works because it is a movie that is primarily about people, not trade federation blockades or secret clone armies. Yes, big events are playing out in this film, but they are the backdrop, not the focus. People are what matter in this film, and not just the good guys – both sides. Not only do the people matter, but they also act like real people. They relate. They argue. They emote. They struggle. They risk everything for each other, and for bigger things. They live, and they die.

Oh, boy, do they die.

But I’ll get to that.

Star Wars is about risk

In this new/old universe that J.J. Abrams has given us there is risk. Risk that someone may not make it out alive. Risk that someone may run away from their destiny. Risk that the darkness is much too powerful, and that the light side will never be able to defeat it. Even risk that the bad guy might fall to the light.

In this new film, everything can be questioned, the outcomes are not a given, and power is found in the strangest of places.

Star Wars is about fun

finn-new-star-wars-teaser3-xlargeThe movie also brings back the fun. We loved the original trilogy because they were fun rides they didn’t get bogged down in bureaucratic proceedings, or endless scenes of people sitting in chairs talking about things. The movies were about people in motion, taking us along with them as they lived on the brink of disaster. Episode 7 is a fun ride from start to finish. People do talk about things, but usually while taking deep breaths after just escaping one catastrophe, and right before plummeting into another.

And it’s not just roller-coaster fun, it’s also laugh-out-loud fun. This is a movie that is brimming with wit and humor. Not in a silly way (ala Threepio in Attack of the Clones), but in a real way. People say the kinds of things that people might really say in an attempt to blow off steam, or reacting to the madness around them, and you can’t help but laugh.

Finn and BB8’s interaction on the Falcon…

Rey and the stormtrooper in the interrogation room…

When the two stormtroopers come around the corner as Kylo Ren is destroying the interrogation room…

Finn suggesting to Han that they use the force, and Han’s reaction…

Han using Chewie’s crossbow for the first time…

And on and on…

Star Wars is about the mysteries of the universe

ew_21-xlargeSpecifically, the force – and the nature of the force. The prequels got all bogged down trying to make the force into a science. Episode 7 turns it back into a mystery. In this movie, the force is something that is unknown but not unknowable, and we get to see a new generation start to learn about it.

And there’s nary a mention of a single midi-chlorian, thank the Maker.

Ultimately, I walked out of the cinema feeling like I had just read a love letter. A love letter written by J.J. Abrams to all of us who loved the original trilogy. This was the movie we wanted the prequels to be, and then some.

Given, just like the films in the original trilogy, this is not a perfect film. The dialogue might be light years ahead of both trilogies, but it is still sometimes a bit corny. And in his attempt to make an homage to the original trilogy, Abrams veered dangerously close to just plain copying some pretty big ideas, situations, characters, and settings.

But it worked. Even with the flaws, the movie worked in spades.

All of that said, here are some bite-sized spoilerly thoughts:

share_1200x627There is no creature resembling Jar Jar in this film.

I now have some new favorite images of the Millennium Falcon, which still kicks butt.

X-Wing fighters are cool once again, especially when being flown by Poe Dameron.

Apparently, stormtroopers are now trained to duel with swords, and by extension, light sabers.

J.J. Abrams kept the sex out of Star Wars.

Kylo Ren is not nearly menacing enough, even with the heinous act he commits, but he has potential to grow into something pretty menacing.

Enough with the doomsday devices with kill-switches, already. An homage is great, but again with the one weak spot on the big space station? Please, no more.

Han Solo said “I have a bad feeling about this”, but Admiral Ackbar did not say, “It’s a trap.”

What happened to Wedge Antilles?

Teasing Luke before running the credits definitely answered the question of why he wasn’t in the trailer or the poster, and it’s because he’s really not in this movie. In fact, if this had been a Marvel movie, the scene with Luke would have been an end-credits scene – a tease about what was to come.

But the film worked. On all different levels, for this lifelong Star Wars fan, it worked. I am fully re-invested in the franchise, and will be there on opening night for Episode 8, if I am able.

And oh – I almost forgot. The four small words I really, really wanted to post on social media as soon as the lights came up? The spoiler of spoilers? The “I am your father” moment of this film?

Abrams killed Han Solo.

And while I may never forgive Abrams for doing this, I do have to admit that it was the perfect death for the old scoundrel – dying trying to save his son from the dark side, and then Chewie’s chilling reaction?

A tear-inducing moment the likes of which we haven’t had since Nicholas Meyer killed Spock.

hqdefaultBut one point that I feel I should point out – in this case, Han most definitely did not shoot first.

 

 

 

 

 

Give the gift of the groundhog this Christmas!

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Thimblerig's Ark Cover Art

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