Thursday, July 30, 2015

Inside Out Review

It's been a while since Pixar has truly come out of the gate swinging. The last classic I can remember is Toy Story 3.

Since that sequel capped off a trilogy of excellent films about childhood and growing up, the studio has mostly been resting on its laurels. Yes, Monster's University was a fun movie with a good message, but it wasn't a classic, and was all but ignored by everybody. Brave was a disappointment, and the less said about the Cars franchise and all it's spin-offs the better.

Inside Out is the first film from director Pete Docter since Up came out to rattle the animation world with it's whimsical adventuring spirit and surprising depth. The best part is that it hardly feels like any time at all since his last masterpiece was unleashed on us.

This is a movie about emotions. Do they really control us, or are they just another part of who we are? In the process the film also tackles adolescence, growing up, alienation, loneliness, parents, friendship, and family. What we get is a movie that hits with the same hammer of depth Up did, only from a different angle.

The story stars preteen Riley as she moves to a new city with her parents and must relearn to adjust in a world she thought she once understood. In the tale we see the point of view from her emotions who are just as confused as she is. In the process both Riley and the emotions get in over their heads and must reexamine what it is to really be happy.

While just about every Pixar original is a classic (or at least excellent), this one ranks up there with them at their best just as Up, WALL*E, and the Toy Story trilogy do. I utterly and unequivocally recommend this film to anyone and everyone, but there are some points I want to make first.

I've seen more than a few comments question if this film denies Free Will. Let me put those worries to rest. It does not.

In the film, Riley's emotions are born from her and how she reacts to situations. The emotions put forth ideas, but it is up to Riley to ultimately decide to take them. Several moments in the film a specific emotion is drawn to do things by Riley's own actions and decisions but never fully understands why that is-- this becomes the catalyst to the main plot-line of learning about the world and how hard it can be to find your place. At the same time it is about the search for true Joy. Not just the emotion (though she is a crucial character), but the key of persevering through suffering and achieving that which we treasure above all.

Of course, I'm trying very hard not to spoil this movie for anyone who has not seen it and might stumble upon this review. That said, this is one of the best films Pixar has ever made. Definitely go see it.

On the other hand, the short before the movie entitled Lava is not one of Pixar's best. It's serviceable, but a bit too reliant on a lame pun and saccharine lyrics to stand up to the best shorts.

Still, the movie is next to flawless. Pixar might be the best maker of movies (animated or not) around today. Here's hoping they can put away the sequel obsession (after The Incredibles 2, of course!) and keep making movies of this caliber. We all win in a situation like that.

Inside Out is the best film of the year so far, and should be seen by anyone looking for a good time at the movies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Muppets - New Trailer

This is the first peek at the pilot for the new "Muppets" TV show. Now, I am a fan of the Muppets in general, but I'm not quite sold on this show. Mostly because I'm so sick and tired of the single camera sitcom format (which Gonzo handily skewers here) and I don't like the more PG-13 language in the dialogue (The Muppets have always had jokes for older audiences, but they were never this blatant), but otherwise it is a funny and clever promo.

Unfortunately, it looks like it might be airing the same time as "The Flash" this season which means I'll probably end up missing it. Strange that for the first time in like a decade I'm watching more television shows than ever, handful they made be, and they still all center their airings on two days of the week.

Oh well. Here's hoping it's good!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Best Pixar movies

I recently came back from seeing Inside Out (review coming eventually) and felt like re-evaluating what I would consider the top Pixar films. I've been a fan of this studio since watching the original Toy Story in theater with my grandmother and cousins back when it came out and have been impressed with the way they continue to improve with each new movie idea (their originals, in other words) and have turned me into one of their biggest fans. Pixar is one of the best.

Now, it isn't all roses. I really dislike the Cars movies, and am pretty forcefully against the sequel onslaught they'll be delivering on us (Incredibles 2? YES. Toy Story 4 and Finding Dory? NO.) very soon. But when they are allowed to be themselves and make a truly original movie, they always seem to put out something incredible. Something always worth seeing. Even when they stumble like with Brave, it still has enough wrinkles to prove interesting enough to sit through.

All in all, it is a film canon worth watching for anyone who enjoys stories. Kids or not, this is quality film-making worthy of all audiences.

Without further pause, my list:


1. Up

Probably my favorite movie of all time. Up has everything I enjoy in a good story.

Much has been said about the first ten minutes of the film, but not so much about the rest. What makes Up work so well is that it's about adventure in every aspect. The movie starts with the lives of Carl and Ellie, two young children, eager for the mysterious and wondrous world ahead of them as they grow from silly kids into responsible adults. The rest of the movie is about facing mortality and the end of the road, as well as learning that, despite life being one big adventure, there are important things you will miss if you don't pay attention. The adventure Carl goes on with Wilderness Explorer Russel, is both the journey of fatherhood he never got to take, and the journey of wild adventures he dreamed about having as a kid. Really, this movie is about young Carl at the beginning of the movie and elderly Carl at the end meeting again and remembering how to live. Carl remembers what it means to be alive again. It's one of my favorite films of all time for a reason and it's not just the dogs with funny voices.

Oh, yeah, there are talking dogs, a flying house, a mysterious bird, a villain that shows the emptiness of the life Carl wanted to have and never got to, and an ending that brings everything forward again. I don't think there are many legitimately better films than Up.

2. Inside Out

The most recent film, as of this writing, but it will easily rank with the best at the end of the day. I can say this since all top five entries here have never budged from being my favorite Pixar films since their releases and I have no doubt Pete Docter (Director of Up, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc.) has much more in this film I didn't notice on my first viewing. Both his other films had the same qualities that only improve the film on further viewings.

This is a film about growing up, about what makes us tick, about childhood, and about the future. It is wrapped in typical Pixar goodness like top notch character design and direction, dead-on dialogue and observational humor, and an emotional core that speaks on a universal level. It has everything Pixar at its best has always had. Over twenty years later from their first movie and they've still got it better than ever.

Unfortunately, it's too new for me to really dig into both to spoil and for what I missed, but I know that it will become a favorite in the future because it already is.


In a similar case to Up, it's the first part of the movie that gets most of the discussion but not what happens later. You see, it's both about the hero's journey for the title character and for a reflection on the world that allowed him to exist in the first place. WALL*E is the remnant of the world humanity left behind, including their hopes and dreams and potential, and it is only he that can restore the soul that they long abandoned for comfort and pleasure. It's also a love story that is as adorable as it is potent.

WALL*E is a movie that has everything great about Pixar with little of any faults. This movie had a ton of care put into it and it shows in every frame that Andrew Stanton directed.

Thankfully, this movie is well regarded and should hopefully go down as one of the all-time greats. It has earned the title.

4. The Incredibles

A superhero movie from before the superhero boom, The Incredibles is a clever look at both the importance of family, and the desperate search for purpose in a broken world. Mr. Incredible might be one of the best protagonists Pixar ever devised with both the inner struggle with justice and a sense of meaning, and his outer struggle with a world that doesn't want him, despite needing him and others like him.

This, of course, being directed by Brad Bird (the man behind The Iron Giant, and Ratatouille) means there is a lot here under the hood that begs watching. Noticing Syndrome's plan of destroying any sort of exceptional-ism with mediocrity and the struggles of superheroes to remain relevant in a world that doesn't want them, you begin to see a lot of subtle cues and nods in both the dialogue and the animation tics.

Though we are currently hip-deep in the (highly welcome) superhero boom, The Incredibles is still one of the best of its kind. Despite what I said before, I highly anticipate a sequel to this film, because it is well suited to it (unlike Finding Nemo, or Toy Story 3, which need no sequels) and Brad Bird is a master at characterization.

5. Toy Story 3

This is the capstone to the franchise that started Pixar and gave us the current best movie studio in the world. Toy Story 3 is the final chapter in a surprisingly great trilogy of films that follow a very iconic set of characters as they come to terms with their purpose. This movie is mostly centered on Woody the cowboy, not as a flawed protagonist as the first two movies, but as the hero he was always striving to be just as Buzz Lightyear, the spaceman, had already come into his own by the second film. Woody and his friends are survivors simply hoping for rest after a rough bunch of years and the story that follows is both uproariously funny and profoundly touching in very unpredictable ways.

What helps it work so well is putting it in context with the rest of Pixar's work. The kids who first saw the groundbreaking original Toy Story back in 1995 are now adults who have left the childhood room of Andy behind for the grown up world. This movie reflects exactly that transition those original fans have had to go through when growing up and leaving things behind them. The theme of growing up and moving on is in this movie from something as simple as losing an important toy (and character) in a garage sale to something as ultimately important and crucial as death and salvation. For a movie about toys that is as funny as this, it might seem out of place, but not if you follow from what the first two movies set up.

Pixar capped off an excellent trilogy with this film and I sincerely hope the next Toy Story film is a spin off of some kind because we do not need a sequel to this. The ending here is as perfect as can be, and finishes off one of the best movie trilogies of all time.

6. Toy Story 2

I suppose I could repeat myself here, but why bother? Toy Story 2 does everything the first movie does, but does it better. More characters, deeper characterizations, and the first inkling of theme of fake immortality with real life and mortality that is delved into in the third movie. I don't think there isn't an adult in the world that doesn't get a bit of misty eyes during the scene where Jessie describes where she came from. And comparing it with what happens in the third movie really brings it out further.

It is hard to believe that this was only their third movie, but it was a sequel well worth being told. It also made Buzz Lightyear into more than just a counterpoint to Woody, but also made him a hero in his own right at the same time. Toy Story 2 was the first sign the Pixar was not a one trick pony.

7. Toy Story

And finally, we have the film that started it all. The animation might not seem as impressive nowadays compared to where computer animation is now, but the film itself certainly does. A buddy movie about a mismatched pair of toys, (one from the future and one from the past) the film deftly dives into the importance of imagination, being a kid, and remembering who you are as opposed to believing your own hype. For a first film, it's still a knock-out.

Pixar would go on to bigger and better things, like what I listed above, but this is still the benchmark that everything they do will be judged by. They are one of the best, and this movie will always remind people as to why.

8. Monsters, Inc.

The last movie I would consider a masterpiece, is their fourth movie and third original film idea, being Monsters, Inc.. Now, the reason I would say that is because this movie succeeds as probably one of the best examples of a buddy comedy I can think of, while staying highly original, and having a surprisingly emotional core. It isn't as out there or deep as the aforementioned movies, including Pete Docter's other films, but it is a movie where craft puts it over the top.

I wouldn't call it Pixar's best overall, but it deserves to be ranked near the top on the pure effort and quality the film shines with and how simply enjoyable it is to watch. This is the movie that made Pixar into a studio worth paying attention to as their first non-Toy Story movie to shine with a quality few others do.

Great Movies

9. Ratatouille

I know there are many people who would roast me alive for this, but while I've always liked this movie and have adored most of Brad Bird's other work, Ratatouille has never been a favorite. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the characters, the direction, and the themes, but they never registered with me nearly as well as anything above it on the list.

This is a good movie to pop in and enjoy, but it's never seen as much play as anything else above it or Mr. Bird's other animated work in my house. That said, I do understand the appeal. It just doesn't hit me very hard.

10. Finding Nemo

So while I realize this is one of Pixar's biggest successes (and I like it a lot!) it has never been a favorite. In my opinion, both the buddy comedy and emotional appeal of Monsters, Inc. were done better in that movie, the themes were not as gripping as the Toy Story movies, and the string of films they made after this one were just so far above it that it's hard to rank this high at the end of the day.

It's a movie I can easily watch when it comes on TV, but it's not one I go out of my way for. And don't get me started on the fact that it's getting an entirely unneeded sequel. Ugh.

11. Monsters University

This movie gets ragged on a lot for being an unnecessary sequel (even though it's a prequel), and while I agree it doesn't match the original film, it does offer a lot. The themes are quite strong, especially in this age of You Can Do Anything and participation trophies, about how there really are things you can't do but that's okay. Maybe your calling is just somewhere else. In this age of mindless self-esteem it was no wonder why this film got unfairly dumped on.

But it is no masterpiece. It's simply a fun college party movie for families that also manage to pack in some great themes and an ending that dovetails really well with the original movie. Of all their unnecessary sequels, this is the one the shouldn't get half the guff it gets.

Good Movies

12. Brave

This movie was pushed so hard when it came out that it's almost a tragedy that it isn't that great. Of course, it had many production problems, but the central issues are hard to ignore. The first is the plot being so totally cliched to the point that this feels more like a Disney film than a Pixar one. It's hard at times to remember that this was actually made by Pixar. The second is that the main character is really hard to like. She's very bratty and self-centered (of course, teenage girls can often be that way) but doesn't leave a lot of room for wanting to root for her because of it.

What works is that the main theme (that maybe your totally overbearing parents actually know what they're doing! Wow, who woulda thunk it?) is strong on a level Disney rarely is, especially nowadays, the animation can be pretty gorgeous and awe-inspiring at times with its use of fantastical and Scottish locales, and the comedy is typically funny Pixar that never misses a beat.

It's simply a good movie. Unfortunately, this is Pixar, and they're frequently much better than good.

13. A Bug’s Life

This is the most forgotten Pixar film for a reason. It has the pieces other Pixar films have of a great moral and story, but none of them are very fleshed out. What you get is an above average animated movie with no real identity. But given that it's only Pixar's second movie, that can be very understandable.

Unfortunately, it's just good. It doesn't even have the interesting themes or direction of Brave to pick up some slack. It just doesn't stack up to any of Pixar's other originals. But it isn't a bad film, at the very least.


14. Cars

It's Doc Hollywood with cars. So just go watch Doc Hollywood instead. Or better yet, watch just about any other Pixar movie. This movie has been made plenty of times before.

15. Cars 2

It's a spy movie spoof with cars. These Cars movies are so far below what Pixar is capable of that I cannot imagine why they are so successful at the end of the day. The fact that it will be a trilogy soon is just amazing as if it is anywhere near the level of the Toy Story trilogy. These films have nothing going for them that other Pixar movies (even the plain good ones) don't already do a hundred times better.

Other than the Cars movies (seriously, enough already) the worst I've found Pixar's films are decent. I'm hoping The Good Dinosaur coming out this holiday season is another home-run for the studio, but I am definitely NOT looking forward to Finding Dory. I liked Finding Nemo well enough, but there is nothing about it that called for a sequel whatsoever. Same with Toy Story 4. That series was capped off perfectly with Toy Story 3, there's nothing else to see here that they couldn't do in more of the (very good) shorts they're already doing. At least the Monsters, Inc. prequel added some new wrinkles to the dynamic and centered on Mike like the original centered on Sully and The Incredibles 2 will likely be typical Brad Bird goodness and continuing with the themes from the original. These films add to the originals. Finding Dory is like Toy Story 4-- something that really has no need to be made, but for some reason is. I honestly don't understand Pixar's sequel fascination. It's simply not needed.

As a whole though, I'd say Pixar is probably my favorite movie studio. They only climb higher with every new original, and if they could just stop with all the sequels (except another Incredibles film, I'm really okay with that) they would be even better off. They've certainly surpassed Disney, in my mind.

This post goes out to Pixar! To infinity, and beyond!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Reviewer Praise for "While You Were Dancing"

I have been a bit out of sorts recently, but just noticed this review for my novella, While You Were Dancing on I have to admit, I was always apprehensive about putting this out because I was afraid people would mistake it for a nihilistic dirge. That caused me a lot of strain in rewrites, but I'm glad the reviewer told the story for what it was and instantly got what my intention was. It's a relief to me when a story comes across to people.

Some quotes I enjoyed:

"Yet, at the same time, the confused, detached mood and technicality of the work furthered the environment that Two Tone was living in: a society where people detached themselves from each other, a world full of darkness and pain. Appropriately, much of the story happens while it is raining, which adds to the dreary atmosphere. Through specific details, Cowan opens up this world for the reader."

"Much of the story is told by way of Two Tone’s own thoughts and reflections, and in these reflections, the reader comes upon prominent themes of the story, one being loneliness. Two Tone experiences incredible loneliness and separation from others, noting that most nights, he was “left sitting and waiting for an idea of what (he) should do.” While sitting alone in his apartment, Two Tone thinks about dancing, and reflects that he has a purpose greater than merely going about his daily work—yet he could not fulfill his entire purpose by himself."

"In our society, which is continually filled with chaos, sin, darkness, and suffering, the message of hope is important and necessary. While You Were Dancing was difficult for me to follow because of the complicated arrangement of scenes and the lack of character exposition, but it was very intriguing and beautiful in its message of redemption. Two Tone’s loneliness calls out to the reader, encouraging the reader to hold close to others. This book made me ask myself: When life gets rough, is it easier to go through everything alone, or with another? Further reflection on Two Tone’s character and the story shows that it is always best to join with another in times of trial. Furthermore, this story illuminates the darkness of society with hope; it reminds the reader that hope is always to be present and cultivated in the lives of Christians, since Christ has conquered all: “Sunrise was coming soon, and with it the rain would finally break. Everything would be different.""

I do apologize if the text was a bit rough for readers, but I do hope they manage to get as much out of my novella as Mrs. Hauge did.

Many thanks to Catholic Fiction for this charitable review!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Choking on the Silence: "Exit the Dragon" by Urge Overkill

Mistake, be careful what you take
You've got so much at stake
It's stronger than you know
Beware the overdose

In the USA
You'll never find the time for slackin'
Never gonna make it today
Until you find you exit the dragon

Look inside, inside my soul
There's a catchy song, a catchy song
It's coming through the radio
There's a certain song, a certain song

Stuck inside my soul
It's a catchy song, it's number one
Too bad you had overdosed
- The Mistake

There's much to criticize and love about rock 'n roll music. It can be fun, catchy, and really make you want to move. It can also really tear you apart and turn you onto things that can ruin your life. It's a very polarizing genre for different people, especially those that have seen the dark side a lot of rock bands proselytize about as if it is what you should aspire for.

I grew up in a house that was all about rebellion and doing what you want all the time as many rock bands preached, and continue to preach, in an increasingly nihilistic fashion. As a result of all the things I've gone through, there is a lot of rock music I can't listen to anymore. I can't listen to outright lies like I used to.

But there was one band that stuck with me through this whole period after I had already hit rock bottom and began to grasp for the real light. This would be the band I'm writing this post about-- Urge Overkill.

Urge Overkill started as a parody band, more or less. An indie band that mocked the cliches of the rock n roll superstar with very goofy and ironic songs about nothing. As a kid, I thought it cute enough, but that stuff doesn't age so well.

Then they got a major label deal and released the album Saturation, which explored new territory for them. Instead of silly lyrics and jokes songs, they wrote real rock n roll music with lyrics far sharper than you would expect. One of my favorites is the song "Positive Bleeding", essentially a critique of the empty headed rock n roll lifestyle of endless hedonism obsession with individuality over community and independence for killing yourself over possibly granting the idea that some of the "rules" might actually be valid. This is not something you hear from rock bands, especially anymore.

Here is the official music video followed by the lyrics:

Hey! Look around today.
Everything don't need to be the same.
Feel. I'm feelin' lonely people.
People just like me who go it alone.
I guess I'm gonna go it alone.

Now I live my life remote controllin' my destiny
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
I can bleed when I want to bleed.
So come on, come on.
You can bleed when you want to bleed.
Want to bleed.


Hey! Look around today.
Everything don't need to be the same.
Feel. Feelin' lonely people.
People just like me who go it alone.
Cause, baby, I'm a rolling stone.

I live my life with no control in my destiny.
Yeah yeah. Yeah yeah.
I can bleed when I want to bleed.
So come on. Come on.
You can bleed when you want to bleed.
Yeah yeah, come on.
Everybody bleed when they want to bleed.
Come on and bleed!

Yeah yeah. Yeah yeah.
I can bleed when I want to bleed.
Come on. Come on.
You can bleed when you want to bleed.
Yeah yeah. Come on.
Everybody bleed when they want to bleed.
Cause I can bleed when I want to bleed.
You can bleed when you want to bleed.

The album itself is not only great as a rock n roll album, but for showing those cliches as the empty-headed dead ends that they really are. This is a genre that frequently brags about suicide like it's heroic, so a song like "Positive Bleeding" needed to be written. But the album is full of songs just as clever with just as good titles. Saturation is still considered their best album, but it's not the album I'm writing about here.

See, what happened was that Saturation was a big hit and the band started heavily indulging in the very things they decried and rejected with the album. Especially their drummer who got in hard into heroin. What ended up happening is a bunch of very important realizations. The first was that this stuff wasn't very funny, your life is a gift that can't be wasted for such empty gratification. The band name Urge Overkill was once a joke about overdosing on indulgence, but it took a whole new tone when the band had actually done it.

What happened was an encounter with the important things in life. Mortality, purity, honesty, and purpose, were what the band grabbed hard onto. They recorded the album, Exit the Dragon (meaning removing a heroin needle from your arm) which ended up being outright rejected by the rock crowd and radio for being a rejection of everything they trumpeted.

Despite being an incredibly good rock n roll album, Exit the Dragon confronts hard truths about drugs, hedonism, mindless sex, alienation, spiritual decay, and a search for something more.

For instance, this was the first single, "The Break":

I need a break and I need one clean
Things are never what they seem
What seems close is so far away
You keep runnin' out of words to say

But I keep on singing anyway
'Cause I'm never goin' back there
No I'm never goin' back there
Folks don't really talk much about it anymore

'Cause it's a place with no way in it, it's a road to no way out
I'm asleep when I'm awake, can't get a break
And I'm falling out, I'm falling down again
And I'm calling out, I'm calling out to you
Yes, I'm falling out, I'm falling down again

'Cause it's a place with no way in it, it's a road to no way out
Everything ends in a heart ache, can't get a break
And I'm falling out, I'm falling down again
And I'm calling out, I'm calling out for you
Yes, I'm falling out, I'm falling down again
And I'm calling out, I'm calling out for you

No one calls much anymore
That's okay 'cause I don't use the phone
It feels better on your own
But don't get wasted every day alone

And I'm never goin' back there
I don't care, I don't want to talk much anymore

'Cause it's a place with no way in it, it's a road to no way out
Everything ends in a heart ache, can't get a break
And I'm falling out, I'm falling down again
And I'm calling out, I'm calling out for you
Yes, I'm falling out, I'm falling down again
And I'm calling out, I'm calling out for you

There's a very clear and obvious message there, but it didn't seem like it was a message people wanted to hear from a rock band.

"Need Some Air" tackles alienation and the feeling of losing yourself to despair, "Honesty Files" pleads out for any sort of realism, "This Is No Place" is about waking up in wrong place (in more ways than one), "Monopoly" is about, of course, treating life as a game, and "View of the Rain" is about confronting the silence of the world and asking it for truth and something more. Then there are songs like "Last Night/Tomorrow" about the endless cycle of hedonism.

Last, but in no way least, "And You'll Say" is perhaps the definitive statement of the album taking on the direct shallowness of casual relationships for not being near deep enough for the average person:

And you will say
If it makes you happy, I'll just walk away
If it makes you lonely, I'll stay
We're living this, why should we run away?
But we won't get that far

And you will say, you never loved me anyway
And you could leave but that's not what I want
And you can have what's yours
And I'll just take what's mine, 'cause it's easier to lie

What'll keep us alive?
What'll keep us high?
What'll keep us happy?

And you will say, you never loved me anyway
And you could leave but that's not what I want
And you can have what's yours
And I'll just take what's mine, 'cause it's easier to lie

And you will say
Would it make you happy, if we could just run away?
I can always picture your smile
But if you leave your conscience undone
A smile can get you far

And you will say, you never loved me anyway
And you could leave, but that's not what I want
And you can have what's yours
And I'll just take what's mine, 'cause it's easier

And you will say, you never loved me anyway
And you could leave, but that's not what I want
And you can have what's yours
And I'll just take what's mine, 'cause it's easier
'Cause it's easier to lie

Every song has lyrics that go a bit deeper than the surface. But the impressive part is the music never strays from the rock n roll aesthetic of big guitars, smooth bass, and catchy drum beat, while it flows through 70s rock stylings, 80s indie, 90s alternative, acoustic rock, bouncing pop, and frightening, yet beautiful, feedback loops that haunt randomly throughout the album before showing up in the last song to end it off. The album ends as suddenly as it starts-- in mid-beat. Because that is our lives, we come in and go out without any warning, but it is what we do in between that matters most.

As you can tell, I put a lot of thought into this album over the years. Now, I don't know how much of this the bad actually intended, but I do know drug addiction is what broke them up after this album came out and lead them getting away from the spotlight. (They since reformed with a new drummer, and have become a more serious band, which is a very nice thing to see. I wish them much artistic success.)

But the entire album is full of similar attempts at understanding rock bottom and clawing out of it. For instance, let's contrast the very first lyrics of the album (from the song, "Jaywalkin'", about cutting through life the wrong way) and the final eight-minute epic (from the song "Digital Black Epilogue", about the death of singer, Selena, and placing it in the context of mortality and the fact that eventually our time will be up) which could not be further from each other:

I'm the evil that's in this world
I'm the evil in you
I'm the evil that's in this world
There's too much evil, it's true

I can walk with kings
I can walk with queens
I can walk for dreams
I can walk with angels
I would talk but that's not true

Contrasted with:

I can hear, I can hear a voice singing
And it's singing something holy
When I'm feeling a warning
Take a breath and sing it slowly

Yes, can you hear, can you feel it?
Gonna take a breath and sing it slowly
Sing it out, sing it out, sing it out
Gonna take a breath and sing it out slowly

It's an album I liked a lot when I was a pretty awful hedonist and didn't know it, but the album hits a lot harder when you've been through the ringer and you've hit the bottom and have found the light to guide you back out and to fix your broken pieces.

Exit the Dragon is an album that has stuck with me, and will probably always be one of my favorites for attempting to find the way out of a deep pit without reveling in it like a fool, despairing about it like a defeatist, or ignoring it and trudging further into the darkness like many rock bands continue to do today.

If you consider yourself a fan of rock or pop music, and are looking for an album with a lot more to it than you might think, I recommend Exit the Dragon highly. It's fairly easy to find for cheap even if the record company had no faith in it (the album isn't even on iTunes, even though their lesser indie efforts are) and radio ignored it, the album still has a lot to offer.

Mindless hedonism will never leave us, but that doesn't mean we can't fight it tooth and nail just as we were meant to.

Take a walk upside yourself
Get to know the person behind the face
Is it someone you can really love?
Is it somebody who looks down from above?
With a view of the rain.

- View of the Rain

Friday, July 3, 2015

Top 10 Most Influential Books

I got this from C.S. Lewis via Happy Catholic and just knew I had to do one of these of my own. Of course this is a list of influential and not favorites, so I'll try to keep them separate as best I can.

1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It is hard to underestimate just how much this book affected me both as a kid and as an adult. My favorite stories have always been of pure adventure, facing the unknown, and coming back alive. But Tolkien was the first to both emphasize both the importance of the journey and the importance of coming home. As I grew older and began understanding more about the spiritual battles around us, I caught a whole dimension to this story that I never saw before. It has hit me from every angle of my life and there will probably never be a book more influential to me.

2. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

I heard a lot as a kid before I hit depression in high school (where we, incidentally, stopped reading books) and the one book I could still go back to now, is this book by S.E. Hinton. You see, though it was thrown in the YA genre, it was written by a fifteen year old teenage girl who merely wanted to write a story. Which means she isn't writing down to her audience or pandering to them like 99% of the genre is known to do. It also tells a tale of how your station in life does not determine who you are--only you can do that.

3. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

This book hit me hard. It was the first book on philosophy that felt like it was written for backwards thinking idiots like me. Everything made sense, the world looked clear, and for the first time in my life I understood in my head exactly why I believed the things I did as I was coming into the faith. I don't read much non-fiction due to catching up on all the fiction I missed (thank you, nihilist literary world, for shielding me from actual good books while you celebrate your meaninglessness as you kill the novel) but this is the first one that hit home. If it was up to me, this would be required reading for every philosophy class. It would scare a lot of people, and rightfully so.

4. Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

I think a lot about the end of society. Not the end of the world so much, but reflecting on T.S. Eliot's theory that the world will end with a whimper. This is the book that nails almost exactly how I think the western world will end and is, in fact, currently ending. Apathy, denial of the Truth, selfishness and greed, anger and vitriol directed at fellow men, and the death of true spiritual humanism, which we are swimming in now will lead to an end not too far from this. But Love-- true Love, and not feelings, will be what saves us from out self-destruction. If we let it in.

5. Phantastes by George MacDonald

This was the first real fairy tale I read after becoming a Catholic and it hit my imagination hard. The world, both seen and unseen, can be so beautiful, dangerous, and enthralling, that it leaves you with pure wonder for this world we live in. George MacDonald wrote a real classic here.

6. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

As I said before, fiction is the type of book that tends to affect me the most deeply, and this is the C.S. Lewis book that did it for me. It's also eerie in how true to life the story actually is, but what makes it work is the contrast of good and evil. It's really hard to make pure good not only interesting, but wondrous like it is in the real world, and show evil as how dull and stupid it is while still keeping the story enthralling. But this might be the best book to show both. It has influenced my writing probably more than any other book for it.

7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

This is the first horror book in a lot of ways, but I think a lot of people just see it as an entertaining romp and nothing more. Heck, the monster portrayed in every piece of media is nothing like the one in the book! This is a book that stares emptiness and nihilism in the face and literally screams at its banal promises and empty way of living, while throwing in an enthralling story of a man who destroys his own life by trying spit in the face of God. The reason this book has lasted so long is because it will always be relevant. Even after Western Civilization falls, this book will show why it happened.

8. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

I think I might just list Mr. Chesterton's entire body of work here. This spiritual history of the world is fascinating, educational, logical, and striking all at the same time. There is a pattern to history that is pretty obvious to all those who look. There is also one event over all others that significantly changed the world in every way. If I ever taught a history course this would be one of the books we would read. My only disappointment is how I had to go out of my way to learn by Mr. Chesterton's work because our empty shell of a society has decided to ignore his work instead of actually dealing with it.

9. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I'm not much of a reader of mysteries. Once you figure it out, it pretty much kills any interest I have in thinking of the story after finishing it, or re-reading it years later. Agatha Christie is one of the exceptions to this, but this book is probably the best mystery I've ever read. The book deals with human nature in such a direct way that touches on mortality, morality, redemption, and damnation, that at some point it becomes more about how it will all end as opposed to who actually did it. I still think about this book from time to time and it affects my thoughts on the right way to live more than I would have figured a mystery novel ever would.

10. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I suppose this should be higher, but it took me a long time to finally sit down and read this epic. And it hit me hard. The importance of hope, the wondrous adventure, the desperate struggle against evil, the decisions we make that affect us all, this book has everything. While it has deeply influenced the way I see adventure and the world of writing, it is still too new to put it higher. But make no mistake, it is incredible.

And that's my list. Maybe it isn't all that different from my favorite books list, but it is a distinction. I still think about all ten of these books on a regular basis and probably always will.

It's the truth underlying the statement that gets me every single time.