John Wick is Running for His Life in the First Trailer for John Wick: Chapter 3

I may have poked fun at John Wick upon hearing its premise — lonely assassin comes out of retirement to avenge the death of his beloved puppy — but the truth is that it’s one of the best action movies in recent history. And the second John Wick movie expanded the franchise’s world considerably, offering a deeper look at the rarefied world of assassins that Wick tried to leave before getting pulled back in, with deadly consequences (for everyone else, of course).

John Wick: Chapter 2 ended with Wick — Keanu Reeves in a role he was born to play — on the run, a massive bounty on his head, after violating one of the cardinal rules of his deadly world. Based on the trailer above, Chapter 3 picks right up where Chapter 2 left off, with Wick trying to make it out of town while every other assassin and their brother is on his trail.

Honestly, this trailer has everything you could want: Wick looking grim and battered in a sharp suit (natch), a chase scene with sword-wielding motorcyclists (which immediately reminded me of The Villainess and Kill Bill), Wick taking out baddies while on horseback, Wick taking out baddies by throwing rifles at them, Wick taking out baddies with a book… basically, Wick taking out lots of baddies in lots of crazy, crazy ways.

John Wick: Chapter 3 arrives in theatres on May 17 and stars Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Jason Mantzoukas, Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane, and most exciting of all, Mark Dacascos. I’ve had a soft spot for Dacascos ever since Brotherhood of the Wolf and the criminally unknown Drive, so I’m really looking forward to his inevitable showdown with Reeves.

Review Round-Up: Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King

The Kid Who Would Be King - Joe Cornish

Immediately upon seeing the trailer for Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King before Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, my 10-year-old turned to me and said, in no uncertain terms, that he needed to see it. And I don’t blame him: The Kid Who Would Be King looked like a lot of fun, but it looked precisely like the sort of movie that I would’ve loved to see when I was his age.

So I hoped that Joe Cornish’s latest film — his first since 2011’s excellent Attack the Block — would be great, not for my sake, but for my children’s. I want my kids to have movies that they fall in love with and then look back on with fondness when they’re adults. Thankfully, if early reviews are any indication, then it looks like both my kids and I will find much to enjoy about The Kid Who Would Be King.

Germain Lussier, ​“The Kid Who Would Be King Is a Solid, Feel-Good Adventure Film”:

In addition to the action and comedy, The Kid Who Would Be King also really has a lot of strong, thematic lines going through it. It’s a film about friendship, loyalty, and trust. About the way the world has changed, and how now, more than ever, we need the next generation to step up and be the heroes we know they can be. Those sentiments add important layers to the film that give it a nice aftertaste. Even if the whole thing isn’t a total slam dunk, you know it’ll age well.

Leigh Monson, ​“Joe Cornish has made a film to inspire the next generation, and he succeeds with a magician’s flourish”:

I believe in the transformative power of stories. If you know my writing, this is a big ​“no duh” statement, since a lack of that belief would probably preclude my having gotten into this film criticism business in the first place. I love myths and legends and narratives of human perseverance because those are the stories that demonstrate the values and strengths of a culture, the best parts of ourselves that serve as examples to live and grow by. And it’s something of a relief and reaffirmation that Joe Cornish, the writer-director perhaps best known for the superb Attack the Block, is on the same wavelength, as that is the underlying ethos that drives his latest, The Kid Who Would Be King. Taking aim at a younger audience, Cornish has built a loving testament to the power of legends to build a better future, with a surprisingly mature understanding of how that message has a place now more than ever.

Kevin Jagernauth, ​“The Kid Who Would Be King Is An Inspiring, Instant Classic”:

It’s quite something to sit down for a press screening of a film that so resolutely announces that the time is over for the very middle-aged cynics taking notes. ​“A land is only as good as its leaders,” Alex and his alliance learn, with their journey leading them to finally believe that perhaps they can actually make a difference, and have the strength for the battles that lay ahead in their lives. ​“The Kid Who Would Be King” is a movie earnestly invested in the next generation, with Cornish and Pope’s camera making no mistake to capture the diversity of faces that will populate the future and strive to make the world a better place. An instant classic, ​“The Kid Who Would Be King” blows the dust off an old tale, and makes it invigorating and inspiring for viewers who will be forming their own round tables of world-changers for generations to come.

David Ehrlich, ​“Attack the Block Director Joe Cornish Returns with a Fun Slice of Revisionist History”:

Joe Cornishs long-awaited and largely delightful follow-up to ​“Attack the Block” is a unicorn of a children’s fantasy movie: It’s imaginative, it’s heartfelt, and it never feels like it’s trying to sell you anything more than a measure of hope for the future. Cornish may bite off a bit more than he can chew by trying to reinvent Arthurian legend as an epic, ultra-contemporary adventure for the kids of Brexit-era Britain, but the guy hasn’t been able to direct anything in more than eight years, so it’s hard to fault him for an excess of pent-up ambition (especially not when the least effective parts of his movie involve a crazed Patrick Stewart running around in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt).

Contrary to the above critics, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a bit more lukewarm on the film, which he only gives a C+:

[Cornish] thumbs his nose at some of the tropes of modern-day pop myth (Harry Potter is a specific target), all while offering his own hodgepodge of swords-and-sorcery clichés and less-than-special effects. It’s a problem often faced by children’s entertainment, which has to address both its escapist fantasies and the realities and anxieties of its young audience. (Spielberg’s mastery of — and pointed subversion of — this formula remains the most imitated model.) Though it has a healthy sense of humor, The Kid Who Would Be King never nails the fantasy part (even its Excalibur looks cheap), and ends up with nothing to hang its more grownup ideas on.

More reviews can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, where it currently has an 87%. The Kid Who Would Be King arrives in American theatres on January 25.

Jackie Chan’s Coming to the Criterion Collection in “Ass-Kicking” 4K

The Criterion Collection just announced their titles for April, and right at the top of the list is Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2. While this isn’t the Collection’s first foray into Hong Kong action cinema — they’ve previously released editions of John Woo’s Hard Boiled and The Killer — it’s still a delightful surprise.

Chan’s status had been well-established before these two films, thanks to earlier ones like 1978’s Drunken Master, 1983’s Project A, and 1984’s Wheels on Meals. But the first two Police Story movies, released in 1985 and 1988, saw Chan’s signature blend of comedy, action, and death-defying stunts reach a whole new level of execution.

The first Police Story movie, in particular, is an absolute action classic, from its opening shanty town chaos to its ending mall fight (which culminates in one of Chan’s most dangerous and mind-blowing stunts). Or, as the Criterion Collection puts it:

The jaw-dropping set pieces fly fast and furious in Jackie Chan’s breathtakingly inventive martial-arts comedy, a smash hit that made him a worldwide icon of daredevil action spectacle. The director/star/one-man stunt machine plays Ka-Kui, a Hong Kong police inspector who goes rogue to bring down a drug kingpin and protect the case’s star witness (Chinese cinema legend Brigitte Lin) from retribution. Packed wall-to-wall with charmingly goofball slapstick and astoundingly acrobatic fight choreography — including an epic shopping-mall mêlée of flying fists and shattered glass — Police Story set a new standard for rock-’em-sock-’em mayhem that would influence a generation of filmmakers from Hong Kong to Hollywood.

And as for Police Story 2:

Jackie Chan followed up the massive success of Police Story with an even bigger box-office hit. Having been demoted to a lowly traffic cop for his, ahem, unorthodox policing methods, Chan’s go-it-alone officer Ka-Kui quits the force in protest. But it isn’t long before he’s back in action, racing the clock to stop a band of serial bombers and win back his much-put-upon girlfriend May (the phenomenal Maggie Cheung, reprising her star-making role). Boasting epic explosions, an awesomely 1980s electro soundtrack, and a showstopping finale — which turns an abandoned warehouse into a life-size pinball machine of cascading oil drums, collapsing scaffolds, and shooting fireworks — Police Story 2 confirmed Chan’s status as a performer of unparalleled grace and daring.

Criterion is releasing both films in a single collector’s set that’ll also include the following:

  • New 4K digital restorations of Police Story and Police Story 2
  • Alternate 5.1 surround and English-dubbed soundtracks for both films
  • Hong Kong-release version of Police Story 2, presented in a high-definition digital transfer for the first time
  • New programs on Chan’s screen persona and action-filmmaking techniques featuring author and New York Asian Film Festival cofounder Grady Hendrix
  • Archival interviews with Chan and actor and stuntman Benny Lai
  • Television program from 1964 detailing the rigors of Peking-opera training, akin to the education that Chan received as a child
  • Chan stunt reel
  • Trailers
  • New English subtitle translations
  • An essay by critic Nick Pinkerton

Criterion’s Police Story/Police Story 2 set will be released on April 30 (click here to preorder).

For an in-depth analysis of Chan’s inimitable blend of action and comedy, I highly recommend watching Tony Zhou’s excellent breakdown, which features several scenes from the Police Story movies.

On a more serious note, The New Republic has reviewed Chan’s recently released memoir, and reflects on the pain and suffering that Chan experienced and had to internalize in order to become the action icon that he is today. (Sample excerpt: ​“He is rich beyond his wildest dreams, but is unable to shed the poor young man he once was, a person desperate for work and afraid of the abyss that could open up at his feet at any moment. His poverty is a wound that never quite heals.”)

If nothing else, it’s a sobering reminder that a flawed human being exists behind the stunts and filmmaking that have thrilled countless millions around the world.

Netflix’s 7 Days Out and the Nobility of a Job Well Done

Cassini Retirement
An artist’s rendition of Cassini burning up in Saturn’s atmosphere

Based on a friend’s recommendation, we recently began watching Netflix’s 7 Days Out, a fascinating and very entertaining docuseries that chronicles the seven days leading up to several monumental events, including the Westminster Dog Show, the reopening of Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park restaurant, and the Kentucky Derby.

My favorite episode so far has been the third one, which follows various NASA personnel as they prepare for the end of the Cassini mission, which culminated with the Cassini probe burning up in Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, 2017 after two decades of exploration.

For starters, the episode is a simple, unassuming reminder of the beauty of science and exploration, specifically space exploration. While the episode doesn’t delve too much into the specific science of Cassinis mission or the data that it collected about Saturn and its moons, it’s hard not to experience a sense of wonder about our solar system as well as a sense of thankfulness for those dedicating their lives to unlocking its secrets.

Of course, it helps when the people being interviewed about the mission are passionate about what they’re doing. Time and again, the episode’s interviewees talk about being part of something bigger than themselves, and their role in NASA’s ongoing mission, with a sense of wonder and even gratitude. They talk about their responsibilities as scientists, both to Earth and their discoveries. (For example, the reason Cassini was sent to burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere was to prevent it from contaminating any of the ringed planet’s possibly life-supporting moons.)

The episode also focuses on several women involved in the mission, including lead scientist Linda Spilker and operations manager Julie Webster, who talk about what it’s like to be women scientists, and how exciting it is to see more women entering science and engineering.

Finally, the thing that hit me hardest about the episode was how much it revealed the beauty of taking pride in one’s work and enjoying a job done well to the very end. In the episode’s most powerful moment, many of those involved in Cassinis construction and mission gather before dawn to witness its final moments. As Cassini enters Saturn’s atmosphere, there’s a bittersweet mix of emotions: pride in all that the probe had accomplished and discovered, sorrow at its passing, and even a bit of a thrill when Cassini proves tougher than expected and lasts a few more seconds before burning up.

You can watch NASA’s own footage of Cassinis finale below. The probe’s last moments begin around the 53:00 mark, and the following minutes, as the crew counts down the probe’s final movements and signals, actually become quite suspenseful. You know how it’s going to end, but you’re on the edge of your seat, nonetheless.

If you’ve ever smiled at footage of NASA engineers celebrating, say, landing a spacecraft on Mars — or if you just need/​want to see some proof that humans can actually accomplish great things (which, given how crappy things seem these days, I don’t blame you) — then I can’t recommend this episode enough. It’s as inspiring as it is entertaining.

Mads Mikkelsen Goes on a Rampage of Revenge in Netflix’s Polar

Stop me if you heard this one before: a hitman grows tired of his violent ways and retires to a quiet, little corner of the world, only to be betrayed by his former comrades and drawn back into his old, bloody lifestyle. It’s a tired movie cliché… and I will never not watch it.

Consider this upcoming Netflix original film, Polar, which is based on the Victor Santos comic and stars Mads Mikkelsen as The Black Kaiser, aka, the world’s greatest assassin. Yes, I feel like I’ve seen everything in the above trailer before, but I don’t really care. You’ve got Mikkelsen basically doing what looks like a John Wick-type role, but with an eyepatch. I’m all in.

Polar starts streaming on Netflix on January 25. Via

Bowery Electric’s Lushlife Turns 20, Gets Reissued

Bowery Electric
Bowery Electric’s Lawrence Chandler and Martha Schwendener circa 2000

Back in the late ​‘90s and early ​‘00s, many musicians began blending hip-hop beats into their music, following the success of trip-hop artists like Massive Attack and Portishead. There was the folktronica of Beth Orton’s Trailer Park and Central Reservation, the soulful breakbeats on Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded, and even Craig Armstrong’s blend of trip-hop rhythms and modern classical on The Space Between Us.

All of the aforementioned albums still hold up really well, but one album from that era that I still listen to on a regular basis is Bowery Electric’s Lushlife. Originally released in 2000 by Beggars Banquet, the album found the duo of Lawrence Chandler and Martha Schwendener working with a hazy blend of swirling guitars, sweeping strings, and downtempo beats that proves quite intoxicating still to this day — particularly on songs like ​“Floating World,” the title track, and ​“Psalms of Survival.”

Lushlife was the group’s final album, however. Following its release, Chandler and Schwendener went on to other collaborations and solo projects, and in Schwendener’s case, art criticism for The New York Times. But on February 1, Beggars Banquet will celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary by releasing a remastered version on both vinyl and digital.

Bowery Electric’s other recordings, including 1996’s Beat, are available via their Bandcamp page.

Thousands of Published Works Are Now in the Public Domain

Safety Last by Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Harold Lloyd’s death-defying Safety Last! can now be watched for free by anyone, anywhere.

Copyright law here in America is pretty much a mess, especially with regards to when copyrights end and works enter the public domain. You might think, as I did, that published works are entering the public domain all the time as their copyrights expire, but that’s not necessarily the case.

In 1998, Congress added a 20-year extension to copyrights. This meant that thousands of published works from 1923, which should’ve become available in 1999, only became available as of January 1, 2019, aka ​“Public Domain Day.” These works include:

Many of these works are becoming available via sites like HathiTrust, Project Gutenberg, and The Internet Archive. In addition to movies, books, and musical pieces, over 1.5 million academic papers published before 1923 can now be downloaded. (Prior to January 1, many of these papers were likely locked away behind paywalls.)

It’s easy to get excited about all of this; indeed, this archiving of older works and making them freely available to everyone around the world is a perfect realization of the internet’s promise and power. However, Duke Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, which is a great resource for all things copyright-related, makes a sobering point:

Unfortunately, the fact that works from 1923 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. Many of these works are lost entirely or literally disintegrating (as with old films and recordings), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For the works that have survived, however, their long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.

The Center’s breakdown of Public Domain Day 2019 offers a lot of excellent background info as to why January 1, 2019 is such a big deal, and how we got in this copyright mess in the first place.

They also point out that if original copyright laws were still intact, published works from as recently as 1990 might now be in the public domain alongside A Wrinkle in Time, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. No, ​“Blowin’ in the Wind,” and ​“Surfin’ Safari.”

Caroline Haskins has posted a guide to finding, accessing, and downloading all of these newly public works. Via

I Don’t Understand a Word in This Stephen Chow Trailer, But It Still Makes Me Smile

Here in the States, Stephen Chow may not be as well-known as Jackie Chan or Jet Li, but overseas, the man’s movies are huge successes, financially and critically. 2001’s Shaolin Soccer (aka, the greatest kung fu sports movie of all time) won ​“Best Director” and ​“Best Actor” at the 2002 Hong Kong awards; 2007’s CJ7 became Malaysia’s highest grossing film of all time; several of his films are on the list of all-time highest grossing films in China; and 2016’s The Mermaid broke numerous Asian box office records.

Suffice to say, there’s a pretty good chance that his next film, The New King of Comedy, will be a huge success, as well.

A teaser trailer appeared this week, and despite lacking subtitles, several things are obvious from it. First, Chow’s brand of nonsensical mo lei tau comedy transcends language; I chuckled at several points, even while not understanding a single word. Second, the cast appears to include some Chow regulars, like Kai Man Tin. And third, the movie’s plot seems to involve the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a film cast and crew who, among other things, may be making a Snow White-type movie. (But with Stephen Chow writing and directing the film, all bets are off.)

According to Birth. Movies. Death., The New King of Comedy will be released for the Chinese New Year, which begins on February 5. Given the massive global success of Chow’s films and Hollywood’s growing recognition of Asian audiences (due in part to the recent success of Crazy Rich Asians), then hopefully an American release isn’t out of the question.

Podcast: Unpacking Anime’s Thematic and Spiritual Depth

The latest episode of the Postmodern Realities podcast features yours truly discussing animé: how I first discovered animé and became a fan of it, popular titles and influential directors, the diversity that exists within animé, and even how animé depicts Christianity. It was a lot of fun to do, so thanks to Melanie Cogdill for the invitation.

Fun/​awkward personal note: After we finished recording, I was suddenly struck with anxiety that I’d mispronounced ​“Studio Ghibli” throughout the entire thing. (But I didn’t. Whew.)

This appearance is a follow-up of sorts to a 2014 article that I wrote for the Christian Research Journal in which I discussed animé’s origins and growth in popularity, as well as several titles that might be of particular interest for Christians.

Doctor Who’s Latest Season Felt Less Epic Than Previous Seasons

Jodie Whittaker, The Thirteenth Doctor
Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor

I’ve made no secret of my enjoyment of the latest Doctor Who season. Compared to the prickly, unpleasant curmudgeon that was Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor has been quite delightful. But one thing I noticed about Doctor Whos latest season is its considerably lower stakes compared to those of previous seasons.

Over the Christmas holiday, I (finally) introduced my kids to Doctor Who. I went back and forth on where to start them off at, and ultimately decided on season five, which was the first for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. I’ve always liked Smith’s take on the Doctor: a surprisingly nuanced blend of goofy, youthful, world weary, and haunted. Season premier ​“The Eleventh Hour” is a delightful introduction to the character, with his meeting the young Amelia Pond and all. And finally, season five contains some truly wonderful episodes: the aforementioned ​“The Eleventh Hour,” ​“Amy’s Choice,” ​“Vincent and the Doctor,” and ​“The Lodger.”

But once we started watching, one thing I immediately noticed about season five (when compared to the latest season) was its epic arc and culmination. Questions surrounding the crack in Amelia’s wall and the Pandorica’s existence loom over nearly every episode. This leads to a season climax featuring the near-total erasure of the universe because of the exploding TARDIS, and the Doctor sacrificing himself to restore reality. Furthermore, it set up threads to be explored in the sixth season, namely the existence of the Silence and its threat to the Doctor and his companions.

Compared to all that, Doctor Whos most recent season — that’d be the eleventh, if you’re keeping track — felt considerably smaller in scope. To be sure, there was some foreshadowing (e.g., the Remnants’ ominous statements to the Doctor in ​“The Ghost Monument”), but overall, the stakes felt much lower throughout the season.

There was no epic confrontation, no epic final stand for the forces of good. While season finale ​“The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” brought back the Stenza villain from ​“The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” he was far from the big bad of older seasons. Indeed, while the finale was a nice end for the season, it did feel rather muted overall, especially for an episode featuring aliens that can manipulate reality with their psychic powers.

None of this is necessarily bad, but it was different than previous Doctor Who seasons. It certainly doesn’t diminish the season’s high points, specifically historical and political episodes like ​“Rosa” and ​“Demons of the Punjab” or ​“Kerblam!“ ​‘s cheeky satire of Amazon and consumer excess. And of course, the Doctor and her three companions are all delightful in their own right, and I look forward to seeing more of their adventures. (I’m particularly fond of Graham. He experiences the most development of all of the main protagonists and also delivers the season’s most powerful moment in ​“Rosa.”)

Having said all that, Katherine Cross has a point when she laments the Thirteenth Doctor’s lack of internal conflict, writing ​“Whitaker’s Doctor needs doubt, she needs an inner life, and she needs to be truly tested. That struggle is the stuff that moral reasoning is made of — and it’s what made past Doctors, for their many flaws, relatable.”

Conflict, especially of the internal kind, makes for a good drama, and the fifth season, for all of Smith’s bowties, fezzes, and twirling around, is replete with the Doctor’s internal conflict… hence, good drama (along with all of Steven Moffat’s usual fantastical elements). And Doctor Whos new showrunner Chris Chibnall should know a thing or two about conflict and drama; he created the excellent Broadchurch, one of the most powerful and affecting dramas I’ve seen in a long time.

While discussing this one night, my wife and I both agreed that while we like the new Doctor and her friends, the plotting of a season like number five is more interesting and entertaining overall. I certainly don’t want to see Doctor Who go all grimdark or have the Doctor go through an ​“Oncoming Storm” phase; Doctor Who shouldn’t simply copy what worked well in past seasons (I was a little disappointed by yet another Dalek popping up in the New Year’s special). Regeneration, after all, is at the heart of the series: new forms, new faces, new stories, and all that.

But I would like to see the Thirteenth Doctor’s optimistic, altruistic, ​“can do” attitude get challenged and run through the wringer a bit more. I just wish I didn’t have to wait until 2020 to see if that happens or not.

There Can Be so Much More to Christian Music

Gaelic Psalm Singing
Gaelic Psalm singing on the Isle of Lewis

Larry Norman once famously asked, ​“Why should the devil have all the good music?” It might be a bit snarky to ask the opposite of that — ​“Why should the Church have all the bad music?” — but for us Christians who think that a) music (and art in general) should be creative, challenging, insightful, passionate, honest, and beautiful, and b) that the Church should be at the forefront of creating such material, that question has been one we’ve asked time and again.

In ages past, the Church was a (if not the) major patron of art and artists, and its doctrines were the inspiration for some of the greatest art (including music, paintings, sculpture, and architecture) the world has ever seen. However, the modern Church — and specifically, the Protestant Church (aka, my particular tribe) — has all but abandoned that role, opting instead to churn out music, etc., that is less art and more kitsch.

I suspect there are many reasons for this, but a major reason has been the Church’s decision to treat music (along with books, movies, etc.) as evangelical tools almost to the exclusion of anything else. Music becomes less a vehicle through which one can explore human nature and experience the divine, and more a tool for spreading the Good News, getting people to attend church (and entertaining them while they’re there), converting the unbelieving, and uplifting the converted.

Of course, older Christian art certainly had an evangelistic aspect to it. In cultures and ages with low literacy rates, for example, the Church’s art was very much a tool for educating and catechizing the masses. Even the architectural forms of the soaring Gothic cathedrals were intended to communicate theological and philosophical ideas. Such art was also intended to give people a sense of something greater than themselves, to give them a sense of the supernatural. But in our extremely consumer-driven modern society, in which everything is commodified and individual preferences are treated as supreme, much of that numinous, transcendent sense has been lost.

As such, it’s easy to become jaded about Christian music. For years, my friends and I would mock much of the Christian music we heard as being perennially outdated, behind the times, and emotionally shallow and manipulative. To our ears, ​“contemporary Christian music” sounded like a bad carbon copy of whatever happened to be popular in the mainstream five years earlier, only further watered down with cheesy production and lame ​“cheerleading for Jesus” lyrics intended to be ​“positive and encouraging” for the Sunday morning crowd.

In his inimitable manner, Andy Whitman called such music ​“Infomercials for Christ” and described it as ​“riddled with cliches, prone to drab loss/​cross and grace/​face rhymes, and safe as milk.” And in a brilliant article for GQ titled ​“What Would Jesus Do?,” Walter Kirn dismissed what he called ​“ark culture,” i.e., ​“the upshot of some dumb decision that… the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music… and instead of all that head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale.”

So imagine my surprise and delight when I came across a recent Quietus article titled ​“Why There’s More To Christian Music Than Tepid Praise Songs.” In it, author Mark Brend explores music that is obviously Christian but that also exists way outside the safe, comfortable forms that Christian music so often takes.

Brend’s article begins with a discussion of the Salm worship albums: ​“This is not art music, or concert music, or performance music, but the sound of a congregation of Christian believers singing to God. The music is motivated by the faith, and cannot be separated from it.” Interestingly, this primal and very obviously Christian form of music — in which an entire church congregation sings together, unaccompanied, from the book of Psalms (and in Gaelic no less) — has garnered praise from secular corners. Brend considers why:

So what’s the appeal? Authenticity is an over-used concept devalued almost to the point of meaninglessness. But in the Salm albums you hear conviction, commitment — a sense that people really believe what they’re singing. It is not music made to impress, or make money, or attract attention. It is not a product, nor even really a performance. It overwhelms. In this respect it bears some comparison to early African-American gospel: music so intense, raw and powerful that it compels an audience that might not share the faith that drives it.

Later in his article, Brend makes this very astute and poignant observation:

Taken on its own terms, the Christian faith is a deep mystery going to the heart of the human connection with the divine. It follows, then, that you’d expect it to inspire art of depth and challenges, rather than bland mediocrity.

Thankfully, there are artists who observe the ​“deep mystery” of the Christian faith and are inspired it. Brend mentions several of them: The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, who blend an aesthetic inspired by Orthodox Christianity with folk and industrial music; The Trees Community, a ​‘70s Christian commune that recorded truly otherworldly psychedelic worship music; and even a Norwegian folk jazz outfit called That’s Why.

There are others, as well: Wovenhand, Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, Jay Tholen, The Violet Burning, Soul-Junk, Joy Electric, Starflyer 59, Over the Rhine, The Innocence Mission, Ecovillage, and Paavoharju, to name but a few. These artists exist outside the usual Christian music circles and yet, in spite of that outsider status — or perhaps more accurately, because of said outsider status — they’ve made inroads where more obviously Christian music has not. And more importantly, they eschew the safety that Christian music often embraces, opting to write as much about pain, suffering, sorrow, failure, and doubt as they do about more ​“positive and encouraging” topics. And in some cases, they simply and unashamedly embrace Christianity’s weirdness and otherworldliness.

Back in 2006, J.L. Aronson released Danielson: A Family Movie, a fascinating and inspiring documentary about Daniel Smith (the man behind the Danielson, Danielson Famile, and Tri-Danielson projects). Sprinkled between scenes of Smith working hard in his studio and discussing music and faith with producer Steve Albini are interviews with non-Christian fans who express surprise, amusement, fascination, and even consternation with Smith’s open Christianity even as they express love and admiration for his music. No doubt, many of these fans were drawn to the strangeness and quirkiness of Smith’s music, but I can’t help but wonder how many of them were drawn in — even, perhaps, against their natural inclinations — by Smith’s conviction and passion, whereas musicians located more safely in the Christian mainstream would’ve meant little to them.

Artists like those mentioned above, and the art they create, aren’t necessarily safe or uplifting: they challenge as much as they thrill, disturb as much as they comfort. And within Christian circles, such artists often seem to be viewed with suspicion, if not condemnation. I once played Wovenhand’s ​“To Make a Ring” in a church discussion group and more concern was expressed regarding the song’s dark, brooding sound than there was discussion of David Eugene Edwards’ reverent lyrics (e.g., ​“Judgement will not be avoided by your unbelief/​By your lack of fear/​Nor by your prayers to any little idol here/​He owns all those cattle/​He owns all these hills”).

Brend closes his Quietus article with this insight:

The church always generates its own music, usually influenced by the prevailing forms it hears wherever it plants roots. Perhaps, then, it’s not so surprising that much contemporary Christian music sounds insipid, reflecting as it does secular music from slap bang in the middle of the road. But it isn’t all like that. There’s the Salm albums. There’s the Indian church in Devon. There must be so much more.

Rest assured, there is, indeed, so much more. Early on in his article, Brend asks “[I]s there more Christian music hiding in the fringes of culture, deserving of renewed attention because of the faith it expresses, not in spite of it?” The answer, which I hope is obvious by now, is yes.

But in order to find it, you must be willing to venture beyond the Christian music industry and eschew the safe, familiar trends and topics that have unfortunately defined that industry for several decades now. You must be willing to ignore the temptation to simply settle for whatever sounds might be useful tools for outreach and little more. (That stuff isn’t art, it’s propaganda.) But if you do so, the music that you’ll hear can be sublime.

Craft CMS in 2019

Craftcms Logo

2018 was a pretty significant year for Craft CMS, what with the release of Craft 3 and all. But it’s good to see that the developers are resting on their laurels. In a blog post from a few weeks ago, Brandon Kelly reflected on 2018’s accomplishments, but more importantly, listed several goals for future development, including support for unit testing and improved accessibility.

But the item that really piqued my curiosity was this:

Content modeling & author experience. Craft has raised the bar on what sort of content challenges an off-the-shelf CMS can handle, with element types, Matrix fields, and flexible relationships. It’s time to raise the bar even higher.

Craft’s Matrix fieldtype is incredibly powerful, and one of Craft’s killer features. I use it all the time here on Opus to build out complex entry layouts. But I’m excited to see how, exactly, Craft will improve the author experience.

Personally, I’d love to see Craft adopt something similar to Statamic’s Bard fieldtype or Ghost’s Koenig editor, i.e., a WYSIWYG editor with the ability to insert content blocks inline that be sorted and reordered within the text. Such an editor would make it even easier for authors like myself to create complex, flexible, content-rich layouts while offering an even more elegant writing experience.

In any case, 2019 looks to be just as exciting for Craft as 2018 was, and that’s saying something.

Stranger Things Returns on July 4, 2019

Just as folks were preparing to ring in the new year, Netflix dropped the release date for season three of Stranger Things. We’ll be able to rejoin Mike, Eleven, Steve, Hopper, and the rest of the Hawkins gang on July 4, 2019. The teaser above contains some cryptic phrases — e.g., ​“When blue and yellow meet in the west” — that will no doubt be analyzed to death by the nerdwebz.

Some other season three tidbits: season three won’t put Will Byers through the ringer yet again; David Harbour (Hopper) has said the series is aiming for four or five seasons; producer Shawn Levy described season three as ​“cinematically… our biggest season yet”; Cary Elwes and Jake Busey have joined the cast as the ​“slick and sleazy” mayor of Hawkins and a journalist for the local newspaper, respectively; and there’ll be more of Lucas’ nosy little sister, Erica.

Designing Websites Like It’s 1998

Andy Clarke hops in a time machine and designs a website using modern web development methods — if by ​“modern,” you mean 1998. I used all of the methods he mentions (e.g., framesets, nested tables, spacer GIFs), and so reading this article made me smile and cringe at the same time. I especially liked how he made framesets sound awesome, and that bit about spacer GIFs being ​“perfect for performant website development” was a nice touch.

There was a point in time where I thought I’d be nesting tables ​til the end of my days. When I stop to think about the methods I used to use, and the methods that are available to me now (e.g., flexbox and CSS grid, powerful frameworks, webfonts), it’s amazing how far web development has come. But Clarke ends his article with a note of caution:

CSS Custom Properties, feature and media queries, filters, pseudo-elements, and SVG; the list of advances in HTML, CSS, and other technologies goes on. So does our understanding of how best to use them by separating content, structure, presentation, and behaviour. As 2018 draws to a close, we’re certain we know how to design and develop products and websites better than we did at the end of 1998.

Strange as it might seem looking back, in 1998 we were also certain our techniques and technologies were the best for the job. That’s why it’s dangerous to believe with absolute certainty that the frameworks and tools we increasingly rely on today — tools like Bootstrap, Bower, and Brunch, Grunt, Gulp, Node, Require, React, and Sass — will be any more relevant in the future than <font> elements, frames, layout tables, and spacer images are today.

This is one thing that I love most about web development: as far as we’ve come, there’s still always something new just around the bend, be it a new specification, some new framework or technology, or something else entirely, that can radically change the field. While it can be frustrating and painful to update and evolve — I shudder to think at how many of my table-based layouts are still out there in the wild, waiting to be converted to something less 1998-ish — it does keep things interesting.