Sunday, August 10, 2014

4 Things Every Rising Freshman Should Know

I can't believe I'm going to be a senior. When people say, "Oh my land, how does it feel to be almost done with school?" it is all I can do to keep from covering my ears and screaming as I run away. Just last week my parents were dropping me off at college for the first time and we were all crying.

First of all, I'm not done yet. I am going to enjoy every day that I have left of school! I am even living in a dorm as a senior...because I want to. When else in my lifetime am I going to have the opportunity to live on a floor with 50 other guys? Never. (Unless I go to prison, which is not part of my plans.)

Second, I remember when I was a freshman the rising seniors wrote notes on Facebook or on their blogs giving advice to the little kids at the bottom of the totem pole. Being young and slightly less mature, I thought, "The nerve of those stuck-up seniors! I can do this college thing all on my own without their advice!" Three years later, I stand corrected. I also have four things to say that I wish I could have told myself when I was starting school.

1. Don't be afraid to say "no." College is a place where commitments will pop up left and right. I guarantee that in your first month of school, you will be asked to sign up for clubs, try out for plays, audition for chapel bands, go to social gatherings, and help people you don't even know with their homework. It is so easy to get bogged down and not enjoy your college experience because you have no breathing room. "No" is a word that is hard to say but will ultimately be your ticket to survive and thrive at school. 

2. Don't be afraid to say "yes." In high school, I was in the play Cheaper by the Dozen. The father in the story is an expert in time management and is trying to get his large family to save time. At the end of the play, one of the kids says, "Dad, it's great that we're always saving time...but what are we saving time for in life?" That father says, "For doing what you love!" That always stuck with me. The reason you should say "no" at school is to make sure you have enough time to say "yes" to the things that you love, whether that's playing video games with your roommate, going on pick-a-dates, or getting ready for a world-class Airband act.

3. Post-it Notes are your friends. Worried that you will have trouble staying organized at college? Buy several different neon-colored Post-it Note pads and some fresh Sharpies and go to town. They are fun to stick all over your room, and you will feel great when you use those nice felt tip markers to cross homework off your to-do list. (If anyone from Post-it or Sharpie is reading this blog: I expect my share of profits for the free advertising!)

4. Never judge a professor before you have had him/her in class. I have had several experiences where students have made a professor sound like the Devil incarnate. I go into the class with horrible expectations...but usually, I end up loving that professor. Pretend classes are like movies; don't let anyone (even your best friend) spoil them for you. Sit on the front row with a smile on your face. The professor won't be able to do anything but think you are the best student he/she has ever had!

There you go! I will leave you with a picture of myself as a freshman. Yes, that is a Post-it Note on my head. Good luck and have fun!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Noah: A Flood of Opinions

is a difficult movie to write a review for, because the opinions are going to be different among filmmakers, conservative Christians, and culturally-attentive Christians. Each of these groups will have different conclusions about the movie. Because of this, I have decided to write three mini-reviews so you can see all sides. Truthfully, each of these reactions I felt on some level after watching the movie. Noah is not a movie you can come out of the theatre with definitive ideas about -- and I think that was Darren Aronofsky's intent.

First of all, I must make a note that the violence (and implied violence) pushes the PG-13 rating to its limits. Some of that violence involves women, children, and babies. I would not recommend this movie to anyone who is sensitive to violence. 

From a filmmaker:
Cinematically speaking, I give you permission to go into Noah with extremely high expectations. I guarantee that those expectations will be met and maybe even left behind in the dust. In my opinion, there has not been a Biblical story with this high of production quality since The Passion of the Christ. 

There is one big reason for this. Darren Aronofsky, unlike some filmmakers who tackle Biblical stories, is not afraid to branch out and make artistic choices with the camera. For example, there are a couple of beautiful time-lapse photography sequences that caused my sister and I to look at each other and go, "yes!" He visually creates this pre-flood world from the ground up. Christian filmmakers need to get out their notepads and write this lesson down: "Creativity is a good thing in movies!"

The scriptwriting deserves a shout-out, too. Any story about a handful of people building a boat and then living in that boat for a long period of time will need serious character development in order to succeed. The crazy thing about Noah is that it's not just about Noah. We see the journey of each character as they all struggle with leaving the old world behind and moving on to new beginnings. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson give us such a beautiful, deep look into their female characters that the movie could just as easily be called, Naameh and Ila. I guess that title doesn't roll off one's tongue like Noah...

I have to end this section with a quote from an esteemed scriptwriter, Jack Lugar. He said (and forgive me if I get this wrong, Jack): "There's a difference between a narrative and a documentary. A narrative is fiction and a documentary is fact." I think we need to apply some of Jack's wisdom to Noah. Yes, it is a movie based on real events, but movie-goers know how to read the language of a movie screen. They know that the movie screen is not a station that dispenses only the facts; if they wanted that, they could just watch the news. The movie screen is a venue where movie-goers can watch art and get new ideas about life. 

From a conservative Christian:
Not surprisingly, some liberties were taken from the original Biblical text of Noah's story. There are times when I felt like the script was borrowing from other Biblical texts, like the experiences of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Aronofsky denied pulling from other cultures' flood stories, such as "The Epic of Gilgamesh," but I found traces of these, too. 

Without going into great details and spoilers, there are two problems Biblically I would like to mention:

1) God is more distant in this movie than he is in the Bible story. For example, in Genesis 6:13, God speaks to Noah (presumably with a voice) and gives him the low-down on why a flood is coming and how to build the ark. In the movie, hearing from God is a more hazy happenstance for Noah. He gathers from a dream that something is amiss and then goes to consult his grandfather Methuselah for further counsel. (Methuselah, played by the wonderful Anthony Hopkins, kind of acts as a stand-in for God in this movie.) God is always referred to as "Creator" and is portrayed as a being "somewhere out there."

2) The character of Noah is different than the Sunday School cookie-cutter image we have in our heads. He isn't a ancient version of Santa Claus that rescues the animals in this movie. He struggles with depression, self-doubt, mixed signals from God, and drunkenness (see Genesis 9:21). He seems angry for most of the movie...but do you blame the guy? After re-reading Genesis 7 (the flood account), I can see why the filmmakers had to invent some of Noah's character. The text is all description; there is no dialogue. Genesis 7 reads more like a newspaper than a movie script. 

In the first twenty minutes of the movie, someone who is going into Noah with the expectation of a story that matches the Bible's account verbatim will be severely repulsed and disappointed. And rightly so. If this is what you want, do not go see Noah. 

From a culturally-attentive Christian:
This is the category into which I fall the most strongly; it is a combination of the two views above. I recognize the Christian "shortcomings" of this movie, but I will not let those get in the way of recognizing Noah as a high-quality opportunity to find truth and transcendence. 

Have I mentioned yet that I found transcendence while watching Noah? And not in the part of the story where most people would be impacted. I felt God speaking to me very strongly when the waters started pouring in and the crowds of people are trying to get inside the boat. God, that should be me clinging onto that rock. I have no righteousness on my own. Apart from Jesus, I'm just as lost as those people.

Jesus is never mentioned in the movie, and as I have already said, the Creator is a distant character. But Darren Aronofsky has made a movie that the secular world will have no problem watching and enjoying, and Noah opens a door wide open for spiritual conversations. This is the most redeeming aspect of the movie. I would easily be able to share the Gospel with someone after watching Noah with them.

The bottom line for the culturally-attentive Christian: Noah is not for everyone. But as Christians, are we going to see the potential in this film, or are we going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and go see the latest Transformers movie?

Food for thought. Or maybe I should say...water for thought.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love Letters from God

Here are three letters from God to you. Each letter represents how God has shown his love in the past, present, and future. Feel free to share them with friends who need encouragement!


My Child,

Here’s a riddle for you. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?

I’ll give you a hint – I have done all those things.

But I also created your inmost being; I knit you together in your mother’s womb. When you were a child, I loved you. And I taught you how to walk, taking you by the arms. You were a cutie, and you still are.

But like a sheep, you wandered astray. You disobeyed and did your own thing.

I know you’ve heard this verse a million times, but let me tell it to you again:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Remember how every good and perfect gift is from above? I have given you eternal life, and this life is in my Son.

Jesus was pierced for your transgressions, he was crushed for your sins; the punishment that brought you peace was upon him, and by his wounds you are healed. Our relationship is healed through my Son’s sacrifice.

Father God
(References: Psalm 139:13, John 15:13, John 3:16, Isaiah 40:12, Hosea 11:1-4, Isaiah 53:5-6)


My Child,

I’m sorry that you live in a fallen world of fear and worry. People are always asking things like…what are you going to do when you’re out on your own? Where will you live? Who will you marry?

Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more important than those things.

Take the birds of the air, for example; they don’t sow or reap or store away in barns, but I still feed them. You are valuable and precious to me.

I am your shepherd, and you lack nothing. I make you lie down in green pastures, I lead you beside quiet waters, and I am the one who refreshes your soul. The reason you don’t need to fear is because I am guiding you along the right paths for my name’s sake.

Don’t worry about tomorrow! I am here with you right now. I will rejoice over you with gladness, I will quiet you with my love, and I will rejoice over you with singing. Come to me if you are weary and burdened, and let me give you rest.

Father God

(References: Matthew 6:25, Zephaniah 3:17, 1 John 4:18, Psalm 23:1-4,
Matthew 11:28)


My Child,

Here’s something you can take confidence in: you will see my goodness in the land of the living. The former things have taken place, and new things I declare to you.

I know the plans I have for you. They’re plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. You will dwell in my house all the days of your life. You will gaze on my beauty and seek me in my temple. In the day of trouble, I will keep you safe in my dwelling; I will hide you in the shelter of my sacred tent and set you high on a rock.

Because of Jesus, I will not deal with you according to your sins, and I will not repay you according to your iniquities. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is my steadfast love towards you; as far as the east is from the west, that’s how far away from you I have removed your sins!

The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.

But my steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear me.

Trust me – neither death nor life, angels nor demons, things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you from my love in Christ Jesus.

Sending all my love,
Father God

(References: Romans 8:38-9, Jeremiah 29:11, Isaiah 42:9, Psalm 27, Psalm 103)

© Keith Cantrell, 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

That's a Wrap, Sundance!

I got home from Park City at 3:00am yesterday, and my body is still on Mountain Time! I have been sleeping in until 11 or 12:30. I'd better get back on EST before my 8am class starts on Monday...

I wanted to finish writing about the films I saw at Sundance Film Festival so they don't escape my memory entirely. This is just as much for me as it is for any of you who happen to be interested :) 

Song One - Anne Hathaway's character is a world traveler, Franny, getting her PhD in anthropology, but she returns home when she finds out that her brother is in a coma. She is filled with regrets and decides to get to know her brother while he is asleep by embracing his music and visiting the musicians he loves. She falls in love with one such musician, James Forester. 

This is a very solid feature debut for writer/director Kate Barker-Froyland. She was poised and confident at the screening's Q&A. I did feel like the friendship between Franny and her brother was more interesting than the romance between Franny and James. Part of this is because Johnny Flynn isn't as strong of an actor as Anne Hathaway, and her performance sailed far above his. I guess that's not really his fault.

As a side note: music is a centerpiece of this story, and the musical score and live performances in Song One are fantastic. Accordions and Anne Hathaway in the same movie? Count me in! 

White Shadow – This is a top contender for the worst film I saw at Sundance. It is about how albinos are chopped up in central Africa by witch doctors because their body parts are believed to hold good luck. Alias is an albino that is running from the town witch doctor. I appreciated the concept, but the execution of the film gave me a headache.

It was filmed handheld on a DSLR camera. Since the movie has a lot of motion and chase scenes, it was unbearably shaky. The filmmakers could have benefited from a tripod and by zooming out the camera so we could see the “big picture” more often. I was in and out of consciousness for most of White Shadow until the story finally picked up in the last 20 minutes.

SepidehWhen it comes to documentaries, the crazier the concept is, the better. This is a movie about a young Iranian woman who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Pretty crazy, hugh? Sepideh was definitely my favorite international documentary.

The film is strung together by Sepideh narrating letters she has written in her diary to Einstein – who she believes will help her accomplish big dreams. The Iranian culture thinks women should be doing things besides gazing at the stars through a telescope, so she is met with opposition from her family.

Besides the narration of the letters, there are no interviews whatsoever. Director Berit Madsen tells the story by recording conversations between Sepideh and the other characters in the story. I am discovering more and more that this style (cinema vérité) is my favorite type of documentary. Oh, and one more thing…Sepideh has a happy ending!

Fishing Without NetsDirector Cutter Hodierne won the Jury Prize in 2012 for a best short film of the same title, and this year he was back with the feature film. This is a common story at Sundance (I will talk about Whiplash in a second). The basic premise is that a Somali man decides to join a band of pirates in order to provide for his family, who thinks he’s a fisherman.

At times the story is slow. Its strength is that the main character is so loveable. The audience sees that he has hardly anything in common with the other blood-thirsty pirates. As the movie continues, however, we watch him wrestle with his identity. I didn't come away with any strong feelings one way or another for Fishing Without Nets. For me, it was a good one-time see.

Land Ho! - It was so refreshing to sit in a movie where the audience was laughing the entire time. I was thankful that I made it into Land Ho! because I was one of the last three wait-list ticket holders to get in. Two ex brother-in-laws, Mitch and Colin, go on a trip to Iceland where they attend Reykjavik ice bars, trendy spas, and fancy restaurants. The two main characters are as different as night and day. Mitch is crass and smokes joints routinely. Colin is more mild-mannered and holds his tongue, but he is still eager to take advantage of all life has to offer. The two men are able to pick up the positive traits from each other, and they end up taking more away from the trip than just the picturesque Iceland landscapes. 

This is not a family movie by any means, but it learns from the classics. You could say this movie is Secondhand Lions meets Plains, Trains, and Automobiles meets The Bucket List. Unfortunately, sometimes it dips into the territory of The Hangover. If you enjoy bawdy/raunchy comedies, this is probably the most worthwhile one you will ever be able to find. 

Son of God - Technically I didn't get to see this entire movie because I had to run off to another screening, but I was impressed with what I saw. This was a sneak preview of the Christian film that will be coming out in movie theaters this year. It has the same cast from the hit History Channel series The Bible, so if you have seen that you will kind of know what to expect. The production quality is extremely high, as usual. In my opinion, sometimes the "epic-ness" gets in the way of the story's heart.  Jesus' lines often sound like Aragorn in the climax of Return of the King

I would like to see Son of God in theaters so I can finish it (even though I know the ending of the story). I am thankful someone is continuing to tell the story of Jesus at a high production quality - it has been 10 years since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ came out.

Viktoria - A 2.5 hour Bulgarian film about a girl whose life parallels the rise and fall of communism in Bulgaria. Viktoria is named the Baby of the Decade when she is born without a belly button. She has always had a cold relationship with her mother, and the two women must decide where they stand with each other when there is a political collapse and Viktoria is removed from her pedestal. 

The audience's relationship with Viktoria begins when she is in the womb. The mothers and fathers at the screening were probably more comfortable with the pregnancy and maternal issues of the film than me. We see all aspects of what a mother goes through when she is taking care of a newborn, including breastfeeding. I almost left the screening but decided to stay. The nudity has been my biggest hesitation in deciding how I feel about the film, so I cannot recommend Viktoria for this reason. 

There is no denying that the director of Viktoria, Maya Vitkova, is a cinematic artist. Her visual style reminds me of Terrance Malick. Colors (especially red) represent strong elements of the film. The framing makes you feel like you are walking through an art gallery. I am pretty sure it was made with real film, as evidenced by the natural scratches projected on the screen. My favorite part of the film, though, was how at least 50 percent of it was communicated without dialogue. I think the sound could have been turned off and I still would have understood the story. 

You have to give a film credit that can keep your attention for 2.5 hours. I had plans to leave the screening early and see another movie, but as I sat in the back of the movie theater I was so transfixed on the screen that my wristwatch lost the battle.

Alive Inside - The reason this documentary was #1 on my list of films I wanted to see was because of this clip that went viral in 2011:

For me, what made Alive Inside a magical and unforgettable documentary was watching the how seemingly brain-dead patients lit up when they heard songs from their era. It made me want go out, find a patient with Alzheimer's, and try the procedure out for myself. This was obviously the response from the other people at the screening, because they jumped up afterwards to offer help and suggestions to advance the cause. In my opinion, the technical quality of the film was mediocre - there were jump cuts and out-of-focus shots. Alive Inside charmed the audience instead if "wowing" them with slick camerawork. I guess that's why it won Audience Choice Award instead of the Grand Jury Prize.

Rich Hill - I would use the word "portrait" to describe this film instead of "documentary." The filmmaker takes the viewer into the small town of Rich Hill, Missouri to follow the lives of three boys over the course of a year. This has potential to be a very boring documentary, but I felt so nostalgic and appreciative for the window into these young lives that I could have kept watching Rich Hill for another two hours. The boys opened up to the audience and I really cared about them by the time the credits rolled. I think it would be amazing for the filmmakers to follow these boys into adulthood and extend their project into a lifelong portrait. After sitting on the fence between this film and The Overnighters, I have decided that I agree with the jury and Rich Hill is my favorite documentary.

Whiplash - I was disappointed with the selection of narrative films I had seen at the festival until I watched Whiplash, in which a student is willing to sacrifice everything to become the best drummer. His foul-mouthed and borderline-abusive instructor is played by J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man, Juno), who did a fantastic job at being detestable. At the end of the day, though, all the credit goes to the young director Damien Chazelle, who makes the drums come alive through camera angles and ultra-precise edits that match the music.

As a young filmmaker, it inspires me to think that Damien won best short at Sundance last year. He didn't miss a beat (pun intended) in turning it into a feature film and won Grand Jury Dramatic Prize this year. His story makes me want to dust off my video camera and get rollin'. 

Thank you all so much for coming along with me on this adventure!

My final verdict
Favorite dramatic film - Whiplash
Favorite documentary - Rich Hill