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To cap off our anniversary trip, my wife and I watched Dumb and Dumber To. And boy was it ever. Dumb, that is. There were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments (this depends, of course, upon your tolerance for toilet humor), but in my opinion it fell far short of the original. Which is not very far to fall at all, I guess.

Either that, or I’ve grown since the original came out twenty years ago (hint: I was twenty-five then, and I guess what I think is funny has changed). Don’t get me wrong: being a guy, fart jokes can still be funny, but a lot of what was passed off as humor in this movie was cringe-inducing. For instance, the name (spoiler warning) of Kathleen Turner’s character is Frida.

Frida Felcher <--warning unless you know, don't look that up on Urban Dictionary. Trust me on this.

Beyond that, the story was by-and-large a retread of the original:

Road trip? Check.

Homicidal companion? Check.

Girl in peril? Check?

I could go on.

Point being this: unless you're feeling uber nostalgic for the original, don't bother. There aren't even any memorable lines like "So you're saying there's a chance?" here.

Dumb and Dumber To is rated PG-13 for crude humor and language. In my view, it’s time for Harry and Lloyd to fade into the sunset.

At the outset let me just say that I’m glad I didn’t pay good money to see A Good Day to Die Hard in theatres. Yes, I know it came out a year ago. I just had a free preview weekend of HBO courtesy of DirecTV, and it was on.

So I queued up the DVR to record it. Thinking, “You know, Live Free or Die Hard was cheesy, but I kinda liked it. How bad can this one be?”

The answer is so, so bad. Clichés, deus ex machina, etc. Near as I can figure the plot had something to do with bad blood between Evil Papa Smurf and Russian Alec Baldwin (his Russian doppelganger). Throw in a surly kid named Jack–who don’t know jack–and Bruce Willis acting like he wishes he were in a Geritol commercial with Wilford Brimley, and you’ve got the movie. Seriously, Willis looked like he needed a healthy dose of prune juice.

Don’t get me started on the ridiculous set pieces. Like a car chase involving a conveniently placed trailer? Whither credibility? At least with say James Bond there’s a willing suspension of disbelief (especially the Blonde Bond films). But here? They only thing that could’ve made this film worse is Shia LeBouef. Or maybe that’s better? MAYBE THEN WE’D KNOW NOT TO, YOU KNOW, TAKE IT SERIOUSLY.

Yes, that I think–other than the absurdities (quick car ride to Chernobyl from Moscow, anyone? It’s 12 hours away!)–was the film’s greatest sin:

It took itself too seriously. It wasn’t fun. The one liners fell flat. And there wasn’t one single “Yippee-kai-ai!” in the whole sordid mess.

And that, my friends, is just one McClane too far.

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Shawn Smucker co-wrote a great book, Refuse to Drown. It’s the story of a dad coming to grips with an awful choice, faith, and family in the midst of a terrible tragedy. The title, Refuse to Drown, is a metaphor about how that man, Tim Kreider, faced the circumstances which threatened to sink him: he refused to drown. He would not washed overboard, or swamped by the tides of life. His is a story of hope in the midst of terrible times. And this book is well worth yours. Because if Mr. Kreider–like Noah, Joseph, Jeremiah before him–can trust God through the hard times so can we all.

As it says in the Scriptures, “weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” And God is our morning–our perpetual morning. Especially when it’s dark, and we don’t understand. He will be the eye of our hurricane if we let Him. It’s a paradox I don’t understand, but surrender seems to be the only antidote to a life spiraling out of control. The more we try to control, the more things slip out of our hands. Kreider learned, in the most heart-wrenching way possible–that there were indeed things he couldn’t control. He couldn’t bargain his way out.

His only recourse was surrender.

He could well have surrendered to:

Drink

Sex

Drugs

But he chose to, despite his lack of understanding, and his inability to control (and protect), surrender to Christ. Let that be a lesson to us: surrender is the answer, but it’s all about Who we surrender to. We may cede our rights to all manner of things (some of which are listed above), but while those things medicate they don’t give us the one thing we’re all looking for:

LIFE.

Only God can do that–give us life.

———————

As I mentioned above, Shawn Smucker co-wrote this book with Mr. Kreider. I’ve read a number of his books, and I felt his deft touch on every page bringing the words of Kreider’s journal to life. There’s a vibrancy, a potency, and immediacy to the narrative as it unfolds. I as a reader felt as if I was there–down in the valleys, and back out again. This book will break, and re-make, your heart in the best way possible.

And all while pointing you to the Giver of Life. Which is why, in the post title above, I said this is not a book review. Because, ultimately, refusing to drown isn’t so much a book, as it is a way of life.

Get your copy: Refuse to Drown on Amazon You won’t be sorry.

[SPOILER WARNING. SERIOUSLY. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN OBLIVIOUS, ER, OBLIVION, STARRING THOMAS CRUISE MAPOTHER III BACK AWAY FROM THE INTERNET NOW. Thank-you.]

I know, I know. Oblivious… I’m sorry, Oblivion came out almost a year ago. But it’s new to me. As in I’ve only just seen it. The reasons for this are many, but come down to: $. And my movie $ were spent elsewhere last year. (And I didn’t even think of seeing M. Night Shyamalamdingdong’s After Birth).

I’m not saying Oblivious, I’m sorry–Oblivion–is bad. It’s… entertaining. To a point. It’s entertaining in the ways the most Hollywood “high concept” pictures are entertaining these days.
In fact, I imagine the pitch going something like this:

Studio flunky #1: “We’ve got this great piece. High concept. Dystopian future. Like Hunger Games.  Only not.”

Studio Exec: “Tell me more. What do you mean like “Hunger Games?”

Studio flunky #2: “Well, it’s like Hunger Games in that it’s set in a Dystopian future. That’s what’s like. But you know what? Think more in terms of alien invasion. But not.”

Studio Exec looks perplexed, but give his best “Temba, his arms open” look and gesture: “Tell me more.”

Studio flunky #1: “Yeah, it’s dystopian like Hunger Games, but if you think more like Independence Day meets Michael Bay’s The Island you’d be closer to the mark.”

Studio flunky #2: “Yeah, that’s totally it! It’s Independence Day meets The Island! Cause we’ve got an alien invasion and clones!”

Studio Exec: “Clones? Where do the clones come in? And who’s it got? Who’s attached to star?”

Studio flunky #1: “Well, you know how ID4 had Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum? We think we need to mix it up like that, too…”

Studio flunky #2: “Yeah, instead of those guys, we’ll have Morgan Freeman and Tom Cruise!”

Studio flunkies #1 and #2 in unison: “And it’s a total misdirection! We start in media res, and make the audience think one thing–when it’s totally something else! Tom Cruise is a clone!”

Studio Exec: “Tell me something I didn’t know.”

Studio flunkies exchange a bemused look.

Studio flunky #1: “There’s of course a love interest, a resistance group on earth, and cool special effects. And a happy ending!”

Studio flunky #2: “We think it’s got legs. It’ll do boffo box office.”

Studio Exec: “Where do I sign?”

————–

I call the film Oblivious, because, #1 the studio heads have to be completely clueless when such hackneyed tropes get used over an over again; and #2, they count on us, the movie going populace, to be completely oblivious when they do so. The story really does borrow heavily from both The Island and ID4. There is an invasion, but it happens before the movie’s beginning. We think (are in fact told) that humanity won the war, but ruined the planet (when the the truth is we did not). This is totally telegraphed, and by the time the big twist drops, we know. I knew what was coming: Tom Cruise is a clone. Not only that, but like Bay’s before: there is no Island (in this case, Triton). We’ve seen it all before. We’ve seen it done better…

I wanted to like Oblivion. I really did. But the ending? Ugh. Total Hollywood! Not only do they blatantly steal the “blow up the alien mother ship” sequence from ID4, they take the sacrifice the Tom Cruise character makes, and take a dump all over it with a tacked-on, schmaltzy happy ending. A sacrifice is a sacrifice precisely because it costs somebody something.

But not, I guess, in Hollywood.

Where far too many folks are, you guessed it, oblivious. Or maybe I’m just cynical and jaded.

Nah.

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At the outset, let me just state that I loved The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Now let me tell you why:

The movie opens on Walter, alone, in his apartment, dressed for work, futzing around on social media. More specifically, he’s trying to work up the courage to send a “wink” to a coworker on eHarmony. He finally does, and… it doesn’t work. He can’t send the “wink.”

This begins one of the movie’s funnier subplots (it’s no spoiler to say that this involves Patton Oswalt, as he’s listed in the credits. You’ll just have to watch and find out how the whole eHarmony subplot is resolved). In fact, because I’m something of a literature nerd, this is but one instance of a Chekhov’s gun in the film. Chekhov’s gun, for the uninitiated, is a rule established by dramatist Anton Chekhov stating that one cannot introduce a gun in the first act that is not used later on.

There are numerous instances of this technique on display in Walter Mitty–none of which actually involve a gun. (If you see it, pay attention to: the aforementioned eHarmony subplot, a piano, a skateboard sequence, and a wallet). I bring this up because there is nothing wasted in this movie–the storytelling is tight, and focused. Within that framework, Ben Stiller has crafted a motion picture filled with great whimsy and flights of fancy. It is simultaneously grounded, and yet has its head in the clouds.

What a difference, say, from his 90’s era film, Reality Bites. In watching it, one gets the sense that, yes, reality can bite, but this is no reason to lose heart. In its opening sequence, in drab apartment, inside an even drabber building, that wistful tone is expertly portrayed: Walter is altogether too close to being a man who has lost heart. But it is upon arriving at work that day, when he learns of his company’s impending demise, that his journey begins. In storytelling terms, this is the inciting incident: the catalyst by which a character is forced to act. Walter’s is two-fold:

First, his company is reorganizing, and its next issue will be its last;

Second, a photographer with whom he has closely worked for sixteen years, has sent  negatives, stating that number 25 is his best work ever, and represents “the quintessence of life.”

Thing is, this negative is missing. Helping Walter track it down are his associate, Hernando, and a coworker named Cheryl.

Thus begins Walter’s journey. What begins as a quest for excellence becomes so much more. Walter thinks he is on a trip to find a photographer, but really he’s on a quest to get his heart back.

Isn’t that the same path we’re all on? We want to reclaim our hearts. We know there’s more to life, but have somehow lost it upon the way. On his way, Walter transitions from imaging himself to be a hero to actually being a hero.

He goes from existing to living, from surviving to thriving.

There are potholes on the way, the  temptation to lose heart arises again, but he digs deep, and gets the job done.

And if Walter can, so can I.

So can you.

So go see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. You’ll be glad you did.