Quick Review: The Hobbit–The Battle of the Five Armies

December 24, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

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If you’re planning to see The Hobbit during the holidays, here are some suggestions for enjoying the film, particularly if you have read and loved the book.

(BTW, just so you’ll know, I began reading Tolkien when I was 15 years old and have lost count of the number of times I’ve read The Hobbit and LOTR.)

1. Enjoy “The Hobbit” on its own terms and resist the temptation to make comparisons. Books and movies are apples and oranges–totally different mediums. A movie can never be totally faithful in reproducing a novel. Novels are much richer in detail and even the best film adaptations are only able to hit the highlights of the book (case in point, “To Kill a Mockingbird”).

2. Understand that some “additions” are market driven (e.g. the Tauriel-Kili love story, the inclusion of Legolas, etc.) to appeal to fans of the LOTR films and certain demographics (female filmgoers). I learned this when I was writing my second novel (Mercy Killer) and was encouraged to have a strong female lead character because so many readers are women.

3. Keep in mind that other “additions” are actually extrapolations from Tolkien’s vast mythology. For example, the events at Dol Guldur, where Gandalf & Co. drive out Sauron are referred to in The Hobbit and LOTR. The filmmakers just expanded on what Tolkien wrote.

4. As for the “bloated” nature of the whole series, chalk that up to the need to have “The Hobbit” films measure up to the standard of the LOTR films. One could argue that Peter Jackson would have done better with two films rather than three, but what’s done is done.

I could go on, but my main advice would be to just go and enjoy the movie. I had a good time and found it to be a fun, well-acted, film.

That’s not to say that I thought everything was great.

The actual battle goes on for roughly the same amount of time as World War II. (However, the length of the battle sequence did allow me a much needed bathroom break without missing any important plot points.)

And there were some serious eye-rolling moments when Legolas repeatedly defies the laws of physics. (I know elves are agile and all, but come on!)

But over all, the film was a satisfying, fun time. And it neatly segues into the first LOTR film. So, soon you’ll be able to watch all 6 films in sequence in an 18+ hour marathon. (Won’t that be fun!)

So if you’re looking for something fun to do with the family this Christmas/New Year’s week, check out “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” and enjoy the experience.

(But don’t drink a large drink at the beginning of the film. And if you do, just wait till the battle starts. You’ll have plenty of time to make a restroom run without missing anything of importance.)

Out of five stars, I give it four.

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A Powerful Movie

December 10, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

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Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.

As a rule, I am not a fan of Christian or Bible-themed movies. I find that most of them tend to be preachy and agenda driven. The filmmakers set out to communicate a message, and often that message takes precedence over the quality of the storytelling. I know there are exceptions, but in my opinion they are few and far between. So I didn’t know what to expect when I received an invitation to a private screening of the new film, Cast the First Stone.

I was pleasantly surprised.

No, let me rephrase that.

I was blown away.

Cast the First Stone is a documentary, set inside Louisiana’s Angola prison. It follows seventy-five inmates as they rehearse for a production of the Passion play. When I watched the trailer, I assumed the movie was simply the life of Christ as dramatized by the inmates.

It was much, much more than that.

Cast the First Stone takes us inside one of the most notorious prisons in America and shows us men and women preparing to tell the greatest story ever told. In addition, it tells us their stories.

Cast the First Stone – A Powerful “Christian” Movie

I’ve been involved in prison ministry going on twenty years now. One thing that struck me early on was the realization that the men and women in our prisons are just that—men and women. They are not monsters. They are not raving lunatics. They are not “evil”—at least no more evil than I am.

They are people.

Granted, they are people who did bad things, sometimes horrible things. But they are people nonetheless. And they are behind bars paying for their crimes.

Cast the First Stone shows us those people as they rehearse their parts and scenes. And it shows us the impact of the teachings of Jesus Christ on these people in the world where they live—a harsh world where often the only freedom comes with death.

Bobby Wallace, “Jesus”

In addition to the rehearsals, the film takes an occasional detour with the actors, revealing little slices of prison life. In one scene, Bobby Wallace, who portrays Jesus, visits patients in the prison hospital and prays with them. He confesses that he doesn’t feel particularly confident doing this.

Another slice of prison life comes in the middle of a rehearsal when the correctional officer calls count. The rehearsal stops; the inmates line up; the officer counts the inmates; and the rehearsal resumes.

When the women actors are bussed in from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (fifty miles away), we see them shackled and cuffed. The ladies refer to the handcuffs as their “platinum jewelry.”

We also enter into the inmates’ personal pain. Patricia Williams, who plays Mary the mother of Jesus, tells about being incarcerated for embezzlement and how it has isolated her from her children, who now want nothing to do with her.

Justin Singleton, “Peter,” is serving life without parole. He shares how portraying Peter is part of his personal redemption from his past acts.

Patricia Williams – “Mary”

Although many of the actors are Christians, others are not. From the film’s website:

Amongst this extraordinary group of men and women are Christians and Muslims, believers and agnostics, those of deep faith and those with none at all. Yet, regardless of their background, the wisdom in the teachings [of Jesus] served to guide each of them on their own personal path of redemption.

Judas Iscariot is played by Levelle Toliver, a devout Muslim. (Toliver gives one of the most powerful performances in the movie.) Gary Tyler, the director, describes himself as “spiritual but not religious.”

Levelle Toliver – “Judas”

Although this may make some Christian audiences uncomfortable, I thought it was one of the most powerful aspects of the film. For one thing, it shows the power of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ impacting even those who have not, as of yet, professed faith in him. The diversity of opinion represented in no way dilutes the power of the message of Christ as demonstrated in the lives and actions of the inmates.

Cast the First Stone is not a “Christian” film; it was never intended to be.

Highest Common Denominator Media, which has done other  documentaries inside Angola, was invited to produce a film of the inmates’ Passion play. Instead, they decided to tell the stories of the actors in the play. In doing so, they allowed the power of the gospel to be displayed in a way it never would have been otherwise.

Sadly, the film is not yet available to general audiences. The producers are hoping for a theatrical release around Easter, 2015, but that isn’t a certainty. In the meantime, they are willing to set up special screenings to help build an audience. You can get more information on this from their website: http://castthefirststone-themovie.com/

I, for one, am going to try my best to build buzz for Cast the First Stone.

Whether or not it was intentional, it’s the best Christian movie I’ve ever seen, bar none.


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Why Blog about Suffering?

November 25, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

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Suffering is not a pleasant topic. So why am I blogging about it?

©Photographee_eu - Fotolia.com

Image credit: ©Photographee_eu – Fotolia.com

The short answer is that my pastor asked me to help him with an upcoming sermon series on suffering. In preparation for that, I’m going to be exploring my thoughts on the subject here on my blog. So for the next few months, I’ll try to post somewhat regularly on suffering and how we as Christians should understand and relate to it. I don’t expect that there will be any logical progression to these posts. Rather, they’ll mostly be reflections and musings.

I lay no claim to superior wisdom or understanding. In fact, the longer I live, the more I realize how little I know, especially about this subject. Yet, for some reason that I don’t fully understand, much of my writing over the years has dealt with suffering and pain.

I became a writer because of my own loss. My daughter, Michelle, died when she was only one week old. It remains one of the most difficult times in my life. Yet it also was, I believe, a watershed moment. As my wife and I passed through our grief and pain, I told myself that someday I would write a book about our experience. I never wrote that book, but our loss set me on the path to becoming a writer.

My novel Unseen (originally titled Blind Sight) focused on a pastor who had lost his wife and family in an automobile accident that he caused. In that novel, my character struggled deeply with God’s goodness in the midst of his pain. He asked the question that comes up so often. “How could a good God allow this to happen?” It’s a question I’ve asked a lot, too.

A few years later, I wrote  Mercy Killer (originally titled The Angel) looked at life, death, and suffering through the eyes of a police detective stricken with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). In that novel I explored the question of when or if it is acceptable to end one’s own life. As recent events in the news have shown, there are rarely easy or pat answers to such questions.

A few years later, my path crossed that of Terry Caffey, a man who lost his wife and two sons to murder and then learned that his sixteen-year-old daughter (my daughter’s good friend) was involved in the murder plot. Through a set of circumstances that are at least amazing and at most miraculous, I ended up helping Terry write a book about his loss and about how God helped him to forgive his daughter and the other three people who were involved in killing his family. That book, Terror by Night, was my second “watershed” moment. In the years since then, my writing projects have mostly been with and about people who have gone through serious tragedies and crises. I’m sure I’ll discuss some of those in the coming weeks.

If I’ve learned anything from life, it is that suffering is inevitable and inescapable. Everybody suffers to one degree or another. Everyone experiences tragedy. The only variables are how often, how long, and how severe. And yet, at least in my experience, there is reason for hope. God is touched by our grief and longs to heal us.
As I said, I have far more questions than I do answers. But I hope you’ll go on this journey with me and hold my hand as we walk dark paths together in search of God’s light.

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An Author’s Ice Bucket Challenge

August 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

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mercy-killer-front-smWhen I wrote my mystery/thriller, “Mercy Killer,” I wanted my lead character to be struggling with a debilitating illness. Ultimately, I decided that he should be someone with ALS. As I researched about ALS and wrote the novel, I was deeply impressed by the courage of those who face this horrible disease and also that of their caregivers.

In light of the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, I am going to donate 100% of my royalties for the rest of 2014 to ALS research. So, if you purchase a copy (paperback or ebook) of “Mercy Killer,” you will not only get to read a great story, you’ll also learn a little bit about ALS. And you’ll also be helping to find a cure.

Here’s a link to the book’s listing on Amazon: Mercy Killer

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The Root Cause of Writer’s Block

August 4, 2014 by · 5 Comments 

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As someone who wrestles daily with writer’s block, I have come to a conclusion. It may or may not be profound, and it may not be true of everybody. But it is definitely true of me.

My writer’s block (or creative block) manifests itself in many different ways, but I believe that there is one root cause: fear.

Here’s an example, not from writing but from my other love, art. Last year, I completed a pastel portrait of my twin DanielNathan2nephews, Nathan and Daniel. They were eight or nine years old when I began working on the painting.

They’ll begin their sophomore year in college later this month.

It took me ten years to complete a 15″ x 22″ pastel painting. Good grief! Michaelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in only a little over four years!

Why did it take me so long?

First, I didn’t think the likenesses were quite perfect. Second, I was afraid that if I continued working on the portrait, I’d only mess it up worse. And so I put the painting away and forgot about it. I was so afraid of ruining the portrait, that I hid it away rather than face the fear of failure.

As I look at my own struggles with writer’s block, I see fear.

Fear that my writing isn’t any good.

Fear that editors and publishers won’t like it.

fear word in wood typeFear that readers will hate it.

Fear that I won’t be able to sell it.

Fear that I won’t be able to top my last book.

Fear that I’ll mess up what I’ve already done.

Fear of failure.

Fear of success. (What if I get too much writing work and I can’t stand the pressure?)

I run away from what I fear.

When I do that with my writing, it’s called writer’s block.

And writer’s block is nothing less than creative paralysis.

Join the discussion: Do you agree that the root cause of writer’s block is fear? Why or why not? What other causes would you point to.


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Overcoming Writer’s Block

July 28, 2014 by · 6 Comments 

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Writer's blockHi, I’m Jim and I’m a full-time freelance writer.

I’ve been writing since the mid ’90s, and writing professionally since 2000. I have written nine books, fiction and nonfiction, and all but one have been published by major publishing houses.

I have a confession to make.

I struggle with crippling writer’s block. In fact, I fight the battle against writer’s block every single day. Most days, when I think about getting started on my writing projects for the day, I get cold chills. We’ve all heard the cliche about the blocked writer staring at a blank page (or screen) for hours.

I don’t do that. As a rule, I don’t even get that far.

You see, if I stared at a blank screen, it would be obvious that I need to write. Instead, I dress up my writer’s block by trying to appear productive.

I check e-mail obsessively, because I never know when someone might write me, wanting me to help them write a book, or a proposal, or whatever.

I visit Facebook (just to check on important writing matters, you know).

I read blog posts on my Feedly reader so that I can stay up with all my writing friends and on current issues.

I check several news sites because it’s important to stay up on world events. There might be a book out there, just waiting to be written.

If I’m not careful, I soon find myself in an endless loop, circling from website to website to website, feeling incredibly busy, but not getting anything accomplished.

So why am I telling you this?

Struggling with writer’s block (or creative block for you musicians and artists), is an annoying and frustrating problem for anyone, no matter where you are in your professional development.

But for someone who is a full-time freelancer, it is far more than an annoyance.

For the full time freelancer, writer’s block can be a career killer. It can be devastating.

In my ongoing battle against writer’s block, I’m going to be writing down some observations, techniques, helpful hints, books, and whatever else I’m finding that helps.

Because I know one thing for sure. I’m not the only artist who suffers from creative block. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share some things that will help. If nothing else, at least I’ll be writing.

Join the discussion: What about you? Do you suffer from writer’s block? What do you do to defeat it?

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