Monday, July 24, 2017

Part-Time Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is too good a movie and to give anything a poor grade to, but man are there some things about the film I really didn't like. As the critic Walter Chaw in his review put it, "The bits of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk that are good are so good. The bits of it that are bad are just awful. I'm a Nolan fan." I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

I don't have any kind of grand take on the film, my thoughts are more scattered than usual so I'll just bullet point some of my favorite bits and some of my issue (WARNING: SPOILERS ahead)

Liked/Loved:

- Everything about the "air" story is excellent. It's well written, shot, and executed. I know it's vital to the way they wrote the film, but every time they cut back to the "Land" sequences, it was a huge let down for me.

- There's a shot near the end where Hardy's plane is cruising over Dunkirk out of gas and the camera has the plane in a medium shot with the beach and city behind it. It's an absolutely sublime image, and one of the relatively few moments in the film where I felt allowed to just be in awe. One of my favorite moments of any film in the last several years.

- The "sea" sequences are good. I like Rylance and appreciate him as the moral backbone, but his story did feel a bit obvious and telegraphed.

Disliked/Hated:

- The sound in this film is incredibly oppressive. I'm hoping it's just the theater's mix (let me know if you felt it too), but the bass NEVER stopped, never let up. It felt like the intense "THRONG" that was so popular in the slo-mo moments of INCEPTION played throughout the entirety of the film. I get it, I know what they were going for, but it didn't work for me. Just made me feel nauseous and cheap for injecting "tension" in scenes that are typically run of the mill for films (I've seen enough bombings).

- The "plug the holes" sequence in the bottom of the boat made me want to beat my head against the wall due to the characters acting so idiotically.That whole sequence in that beached boat often made no sense and was cut horribly IMO. There is a "audience can figure it out" sense to it, but it also just feels needlessly confusing and frustrating.

- I feel bad for Branagh who spends the whole movie standing in the same place and just looking up at the sky for Spielberg reaction shots and hoping for boats.

- I didn't care for the balance the film aims at between claustrophobia and comprehensiveness in telling the story of Dunkirk. I get making the Germans faceless to an extent, but with no idea about where they were on the perimeter, how long things were actually taking, the movie NEVER ends up feeling like 400,000 men evacuating. It felt like a couple thousand made it out on a fleet of 100 or so civilian boats with maybe 10 or so bombers strafing them every now and then.

- The accidental death turned into a hero war story falls into a weird zone where the film neither seems to be presenting it as positive "kid was really a hero", neutral "you make up your mind", or negative "this is what we gotta do in war for propaganda" - I'm kinda left wondering what the film is saying with it.

- I really disliked the Harry Styles casting. Not because he's a bad actor, not at all, but because it feels like horrible stunt casting (when it probably isn't). Styles isn't an actor, so when you see him, he sticks out, you constantly say, "Oh that's Harry Styles trying to blend in".

Conclusion: When I heard Nolan was doing a film about Dunkirk, my first reaction was confusion, "What is there to tell about that story that hasn't already been done?" The story is locked in location, features lots of waiting, and the drama is in transport, not really actual combat for the most part. I just didn't think there was much to do with it as a war film, beyond things that have already been done in other films.



I think my gut is proved right. Nolan is a master filmmaker so he crafts some incredible sequences and images here. There are some tense and moving moments as well as the war standards done pretty well: sacrifice, courage, and cowardice. In the end, It feels to me like Nolan recognizes there's not much to be said that hasn't already been said before (and better), o he turns to his craft to artificially heighten the experience. It ultimately hurts the film because it feels less like good storytelling and more like the insecure panic of a master creator trying to plead with the audience that he's made something important.


OVERALL GRADE: B

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Part-Time Review: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone


The Resurrection of Gavin Stone represents a "Faith" film genre that is showing signs of transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood. It continues to be held back by one-dimensional characters, black & white conflicts, & some cheesy dialogue, but it also takes advantage of a good premise to create some genuinely thoughtful and intelligent dramatic moments.

The central concept here is better than usual. Yes, a wayward soul learns of Jesus is still the center (that's the genre guys), but having him deceptively and selfishly swipe the role as Jesus in a church play is a more direct genre premise than previous faith films were. I think faith films tend to be more successful when they set their stories within the church world, rather than tell more generic stories that the church eventually barges into. One feels more organic, the other just comes off like an expensive "Jesus Juke."

The concept is better told here as well. There is clearly a maturation (production budget effect?) in the basic quality of the filmmaking: acting, camera work, editing, etc. Despite this maturation, like adolescence, the filmmakers still seem unaware that a stark contrast they make one of the thematic layers (Hollywood = bad vs Church = good) betrays their maturation. The way it plays out is too on the nose and can be too easily dismissed as caricaturing a whole segment of society.

Still, the film shows some self-awareness of the wealthy evangelical cultural bubble that's driving the making the film. They even mine some genuine laughs from it. I laughed pretty hard at a couple of the odd evangelical lingo they use draw attention to in this fish out of water story. In particular there's a good sequence where three church guys invite the main character over for some "fellowship" that felt genuine, relatable, and pretty funny.Yet at times the film is also mind-numbingly oblivious to how one-note the portrayal of the church can be. The self-aware jokes are kinda funny, but they never are allowed to have serious self-reflective bite. It reminds me of a nice teen who discovers and points out something funny about their cultural bubble, but then finishes by saying, "I didn't mean it, I was just kidding."

There are some genuinely thoughtful dramatic sequences here as well. I found the finale sequence surprisingly moving and the fact it featured a several themes culminating at the same time was very smartly done. However, I fear much of that will be ignored by the "unconverted" due to the continued reliance on one-dimensional.characters & the obvious need to re-affirm the absolute goodness of the cultural bubble that is producing the film.

That said, this film represents another hopeful step forward for this "faith" genre. We may yet see a few gems made from this film community...or like many in our current culture, we may just be seeing a prolonged hovering between adolescence and young adulthood.



OVERALL GRADE: B-


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Part-Time Review: Bill Nye Saves the World

I watched just two episodes of Bill Nye's new Netflix series BILL NYE SAVES THE WORLD and it's surprisingly much closer to an episode of Pat Robertson's 700 CLUB than the adult edu-tainment I was expecting.

The essential premise of the show is that Bill Nye is a scientist who employs the process of science to answer many of the pressing problems of our day. I watched the pilot episode on climate change and a later episode on the sexual spectrum.

Despite its claim, the show is not a scientific examination of the data. In fact, there is a surprising lack of actual science on display in the two episodes I viewed. Granted, this is not meant for an academic audience, but given the show's claims of saving the world through science, you'd think a large portion of the show would be given to overviews and presentations of science or by scientists.

Instead, the show is scientism married with philosophical naturalism and progressive politics. This isn't necessarily a problem, Nye can do whatever show he wants. The problem, and this is common of "popular" scientists, is when they are not even aware of how they hijack scientific findings with their philosophical and political views. This strikes me as no different than many Christian scientists who obliviously move beyond the data and erroneously extrapolate it into the "scientific" position that it most certainly is not.

The episode on climate change (I'm a believer in warming who believes we should take appropriate steps BTW) features a couple basic scientific principles that get extrapolated into large-scale explanations for the phenomenon. Additionally, anecdotal segments are presented (rising waters in Venice) alongside your standard panel of experts interview segment. It's a pretty bland and childish presentation (John Oliver probably does more educating in his main segments than this does).

A real problem for the show is the kinda smug "I can't believe we have to have this conversation" presentation that reminds me of the worst kind of religious presentations. The science is elementary, the jokes are awkward and bad, and the argumentation preaches only to the choir.

While the global warming episode presented a minimal amount of science, the sexual spectrum episode is nearly devoid of it - and is even contradicted later in the show. The opening segment, featuring Derek Muller of the Youtube channel Veritasium (which I love) as a correspondent, attempts to explain the spectrum of sexuality: biological sex, gender, attraction, and expression. The problem is, this is mostly just asserted without any serious explanation of the science behind it. The thrust of the argument is, "I'm a scientist, trust me." Whether he is correct or not, that's a decidedly unscientific way to go about it.

Whether I agree or disagree with his assertions is irrelevant, this is a travesty given the show's prideful boasts about being devoted to science. The implication is given that someone can be all over the place in each of these sexual categories, however the show later mocks those who believe in conversion therapy by having different ice cream flavors argue about which one is the right one; thus the show implies that people are BORN with particular natures that they can't change. If people can be on a spectrum and change throughout their life, doesn't conversion therapy (which I lean against generally) actually make sense under your presentation of the spectrum?

This isn't a science show and that's unfortunate because our culture could really use a well-presented and entertaining look at some of the science behind major cultural issues. Instead, Nye uses "science" as a way to promote his personal views and insulate them from criticism since the biggest direct and indirect response to critics on the show is, "you're a science denier."

I find this odd, since Nye has shown a willingness to engage other views before, but his show (even on his expert panel) is devoid of genuine opposing viewpoints, which is actually more representative of the scientific process. I guess science can't be seen as having opposing views?

Aside from the central premise not being true, it's a badly produced show with poor attempts at relevancy and humor. The live audience clapping along enthusiastically to punctuate points made by Nye makes the show feel closer to Bill Maher's humorous political show, except it lacks the actual humor part of that show. The young correspondents and updated "lab" and demonstrations feel less organic and more like strained attempts at feeling relevant to a young adult audience. This isn't a far cry from youth pastors wearing skinny jeans, employing fog machines, and peppering their sermons with Family Guy references.

If I've made a lot of comparisons to religion it's because the show reminded me of all the worst parts of Christianity's attempts to respond to cultural issues through "science" and "relevancy"; it's over-produced, awkwardly forced, and ideologically insulated. In other words, it's just poorly produced propaganda.

Grade: D

FWIW - I've been a pretty big fan of Nye for most of my life

Thursday, April 6, 2017

WrestleMania 33 Review


I never thought I'd attend WrestleMania. For the uninitiated, WrestleMania is the largest wrestling event of the year and one of the top 5 most valuable sports brands, right alongside events like the World Cup and the college football playoffs. WrestleMania has grown from an ambitious (but still limited) beginning in Madison Square Garden to an entire weekend of events drawing crowds over 70,000 strong from all over the world. I never saw myself attending this mega-event because, truth be told, I don't really like going to big live events. 

I don't like going to live event like concerts or major sporting events because I've never understood why I should voluntarily pay a premium to heap hundreds of inconveniences upon myself just to hear a piece of music or watch a sports game that I could get at better quality in my own home. When WrestleMania came to Orlando in 2008, I thought hard about going before deciding to pass on the experience. Unfortunately, I missed out on one of the best WrestleMania's of all-time (there's been 33 in total now) and one of the most emotional and memorable retirement matches in all of wrestling history. I immediately regretted missing the chance to be there for that moment and began to realize what truly separates WrestleMania from stop #53 of a band's world tour; you're watching a story unfold on a giant canvas for the first and only time. I swore I wouldn't miss out the next time they came to Orlando.

A week or so after tickets became available for WrestleMania in Orlando last September, I purchased the cheapest two tickets I could find (my friend, Layne Herdt, and I ended up sitting just two rows from the very top). Since wrestling is pre-determined there is no "fantasy wrestling" leagues like in football and baseball. In its place is what is known as "fantasy booking", which consists of fans passionately laying out how they think the event should take place. Honestly, this is half the fun of being a wrestling fan. From the moment the tickets were purchased until the matches actually began, Layne and I discussed and debated who would fight who, who should fight who, what match would/should open the show, what would close the show, what surprises would be in store...in other words, what stories would be told? 

This is how close to the top of the stadium were were
I'm happy to report that WrestleMania 33 did not disappoint in telling a number of great stories. The setting was epic, the largest and most memorable staging for a live event I've ever seen. The amount of time and effort put into the ring setup, the entrance area featuring a giant globe and a faux steel roller coaster, the giant entrance ramp, the lighting packages all around the stadium, and the abundant and always surprising pyrotechnics (they went off like 20 feet behind us!) were overwhelming. 

A panoramic view of the setup

Layne and I arrived at Camping World Stadium around 2:30pm, paid $50(!) to park in an official lot, and queued up for the opening at 3:30. Walking around the stadium is a people watchers dream as the crowd was incredibly diverse drawing from all parts of societies and walks of life. Nearly everyone was wearing the shirt of their favorite wrestler and lots of people were out in full costume as well. At one point before the show started, a "fight" broke out between people dressed in costume as Ultimate Warrior, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kalisto, and Ric Flair. The impromptu match was, of course, greeted with loud cheers by wrestling fans. 

The show itself was incredibly fun and entertaining. In fact, the single biggest problem was that it was probably a little too entertaining. At 7 hours long (including a 2 hour "preshow"), it was an experience that left me exhausted and my vocal chords nearly shot. I've always felt that a perfect wrestling show is a lot like eating a perfectly balanced meal. You can get full just by eating McDonald's hamburgers, but that's more an experience in filling your stomach than really savoring and enjoying a well prepared meal. A great wrestling show will whet your appetite with tasty and colorful appetizers, blow you away with the substance and flavor of a perfectly grilled steak, and polish off your appetite with a sweet and delicate desert. In other words, you need variety, you need different textures and tastes, and you need to stop when everyone is full. You can't just eat steak, you need other things to balance it out. You also can't replace a steak with something like pork tenderloin, which is great - just not steak, without there being a bit of a disappointment.

The closest thing to a perfect steak was the Goldberg vs. Lesnar match
The two biggest drawbacks of a show that was an overall smashing success, was that the meal was just so heavy with entrees and none of them were a perfect steak. Sure, we got a lot of great pork tenderloins (AJ vs. Shane, 4 way ladder match, Goldberg vs Lesnar), but none of them were true steaks (you getting the idea that I like steak?). I will remember many of the matches, but none of them will be in my top 10 all-time WrestleMania matches. For my liking, I'd trade a few B+ and A- matches for a single A+ any day. 

In the end, I realize it's a bit of a first-world problem to complain you've gotten too much of a good thing. Still, when you've seen 33 of these shows and you're watching for 7 hours, you've got to find reasons to discriminate between them. I'd give the overall show a B+ and rank it at #6 all-time right behind the likes of 21, 24, 17, 20, and 19. I'm glad I didn't make the same mistake for this event as I did for WrestleMania 24, I'm so thankful I got to go and experience this event, and even more thankful I got to do it alongside one of my best friends Layne Herdt. Layne rated the show an "A" and summed up his experience by saying:
I had no idea what to expect seeing a WrestleMania in person. I have to say it exceeded all of my expectations. The spectacle itself was at times magnificent and unlike past years, there were no awful matches. I'm so glad I had the chance to experience this in person and will remember this forever."


WrestleMania 33 Overall Rating: B+
Below is a rating for each match, my quick thoughts on it, and some video I took of the event.

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KICKOFF SHOW (5-7pm)

Kickoff Match: Austin Aries vs. Neville (W) for the Cruiserweight Championship
Grade: B+
Thoughts: The best technical wrestling match of the evening and a heck of a first match for the crowd. Both guys gave it their all and the crowd really got into it. Glad to see Neville win and I think we all would like to see this feud continue.
Austin Aries vs Neville

Kickoff Match: Andre the Giant Battle Royal (Winner: Mojo Rawley)
Grade: C+
Thoughts: The ending with Gronkowski and Mojo Rawley (no, I'm not hyped Mojo) was a nice bit of business for the highlight reels and Sportscenter, but it was a bit sad to see Big Show and Strowman (who never showed up again during the night!) tossed out of the ring so early in this match. I like the concept of this match and how it gives many performers the chance to be on the show and the fans a chance to see them, but the prize of the trophy and a faux push feels condescending. Layne and I both felt throwing more NXT and free agents in there with a shot at a contract for main roster would make it more interesting and if a main roster guy wins, he gets an IC or US title shot. I think this could become a great staple of the Mania preshow that fans look forward to, if they just add some stakes beyond that trophy.
Strowman entering the ring

Kickoff Match: Baron Corbin vs. Dean Ambrose (W) for the Intercontinental Championshop
Grade: B-
Thoughts: This is a great example of the show being filled with a few too many entrees and not enough appetizers. At any other event this would a lead-up match to the main event, deserving a main spot in the show. Seeing the intercontinental title holder who was a previous WWE champion just months ago relegated to the preshow was underwhelming. I'm not sure how WWE alleviates this problem going forward as the the two brands are packed with top talent and there just isn't enough room on a single show to showcase them all appropriately without hurting the show itself. The match itself was alright with both performers going hard, just not really clicking with the crowd.



MAIN SHOW (7pm - 12:15am)

Match 1: AJ Styles (W) vs Shane McMahon
Grade: A-
Thoughts: AJ Styles is the one wrestler on the WWE roster most likely to give a true five star classic match and his pairing with Shane McMahon really felt underwhelming and a betrayal of that possibility. Despite the pairing, the match was well laid out and well performed; about as good a match as we all could have hoped for. Everyone in the stadium was fresh, excited for the start of the show, and the match kept everyone engaged the entire time. Sure, Shane did his familiar spots (excepting a daredevil dive off of something tall), but it's a brand new one that was spot of the night for me - Styles' 450 splash into a hell's gate that was countered into a Styles clash. I'll never forget it, one of the most memorable sequences I've ever seen. 


Match 2: Chris Jericho vs. Kevin Owens (W) for the U.S. Championship
Grade: B+
Thoughts: Layne and I both agreed that this match had the best potential for being the overall best match of the night; mixing storytelling with athleticism. The story for this match was over six months in the making and was the most entertaining storyline on RAW week after week, including this all-time great wrestling moment in February. The match itself was very good and included some great back and forth sequences, and even a wonderful "finger of Kevin" save that I'll never, "eeeeeeeeeeeevvvver" forget. Unfortunately, this match was hurt by going on second in the night, right after the high flying opener. This match needed to go on later and be given a bit of breathing room to see its true potential reached.


Match 3: Bayley (W) vs. Nia Jax vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks for the RAW Women's Championship
Grade: B+
Thoughts: The first half of this match was booked perfectly and had every indication of stealing the show, as the women's title match did last year at WrestleMania. However, a botch of a turnbuckle spot by Charlotte lead to a rather anti-climactic pin of Sasha Banks that led the entire stadium (who didn't see the botched spot up close) to confusion. Layne and I even wondered if she got hurt or Bayley missed a save opportunity. Further, the pin of Charlotte by Bayley felt a little anti-climactic as well due to the botched turnbuckle and kinda marred an incredible (up 'til then) performance by the women. This match played much better on television than it did in the stadium.


Match 4: The Hardyz (W) vs. Cesaro/Sheamus vs. Gallows/Anderson vs. Enzo/Cass for the RAW Tag Team Championship
Grade: A-
Thoughts: The surprise announcement of the Hardyz was easily the biggest pop of the night and I was screaming right along with everyone else. This was my first chance to witness a ladder match in person and while it felt like a great match (it was), I never realized how much multi-person ladder matches are helped by camera editing that allows you to focus on particular spots and lose track of other wrestlers. Watching the match with a constant overview perspective you get being there live does detract a little from the intricate booking and sequencing that went into this performance. Although the actual ladder match was great (but not all-time), the surprise announcement and entry of the Hardyz culminating in their victory made this a classic WrestleMania moment.


Match 5: John Cena/Nicki Bella (W) vs. Miz/Maryse
Grade: B-
Thoughts: An entertaining match designed to give Cena and Miz something to do while also allowing Cena/Bella a great WrestleMania. It didn't overstay its welcome and both Cena and Miz make it passable by their charisma alone.


Match 6: Seth Rollins (W) vs. HHH
Grade: B
Thoughts: After full engagement for five matches already, the crowd was really tired for this match and the plodding nature of the first 2/3rds of it didn't help. Still, as they entered the final act of the match we were back in it and cheering on a beautiful Phoenix splash, Stephanie table bump, and Rollins victory. I wish this match would have been about 10 minutes shorter, as it could've told the same story without losing anything in particular.


Match 7: Randy Orton (W) vs. Bray Wyatt for the WWE Championship
Grade: C-
Thoughts: This wasn't as bad live as it was when I watched it back on TV. First, Wyatt's firefly entrance is just incredible to witness first hand, especially in a setting as large as Camping World Stadium. It was easily the most fun entrance of the night. Second, although he is not a bad wrestler, I just can't stand Orton. His matches always seem to just plod on and he never seems to care all the way through to the end. Third, the idea of Wyatt trying to creep Orton out by projecting odd things on the mat is interesting and might have worked, if Orton actually sold it. It never really helped Wyatt and just made the whole thing silly and cheesy. Orton going over here for his 13th (!) title win also felt like the wrong decision. This is easily the worst part of the entire show.


Match 8: Brock Lesnar (W) vs. Bill Goldberg for the Universal Championship
Grade: A
Thoughts: Say what you will about both men, but you cannot deny how BIG this matchup felt. It is the closest thing the WWE has to giving off the feel you get before a Tyson boxing match or a McGregor UFC match; it just feels big time. The entire buildup beginning with their Survivor Series squash has been strong and gave the match an aura of mystery: can Goldberg go longer than 30 sec? What if they stink like at WM20? Both men delivered a match with four minutes of power and intensity that had the crowd and me in the palm of their hands. It completed their story perfectly without anything lacking or anything extraneous. It's short, but its the closest thing to a complete masterpiece that WM33 produced. (BTW - that Lesnar leap frog over a Goldberg spear had me jump for joy in the stands)


Match 9: Natalya vs. Carmella vs. Becky Lynch vs. Alexa Bliss vs. Mickie James vs. Naomi (W) for the Smackdown Women's Championship
Grade: B-
Thoughts: They were short on time and inherited an exhausted crowd, but this group of women provided a nice change of pace before the highly anticipated final matchup between Undertaker and Roman Reigns. Nothing too special to note here except the double sharpshooter, but it was nice for Naomi to get the moment to shine before the downer of a sendoff.


Match 10: Roman Reigns (W) vs. The Undertaker
Grade: B
Thoughts: From a storytelling perspective, this match succeeded. The Undertaker is old and on his last legs and the young golden boy (who fans, like me, love to hate) is going to put him down for his own good. Two key dramatic notes stood out to me: Undertaker doing his classic sit-up only to succumb to pain and fall back down and Undertaker leaving all of his ring gear behind as he exited the match. Both served to tell the story that Roman Reigns has inherited the spot once held by Undertaker and both are non-wrestling moments. From an athletic wrestling perspective, this match was shaky. Although game and trying, Undertaker was just not able to physically accomplish what the match called for, going long stretches of needing rest. One botched reversal of a tombstone was particularly painful to watch. Still, the story was told and on that note, it was exactly what it needed to be.
"Thank You Taker" chants as Undertaker stands in the ring after his defeat
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VIDEO: The sights and sounds from WrestleMania 33

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MATCH RANKINGS
12. Wyatt vs. Orton
11. Andre the Giant Battle Royal
10. Smackdown Women's Title Match
9. Cena/Bella vs. Miz/Maryse
8. HHH vs. Rollins
7. Reigns vs. Undertaker
6. Raw Women's Title Match
5. Aries vs. Neville
4. Jericho vs. KO
3. Tag Team Ladder Match
2. AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon
1. Goldberg vs. Lesnar

Friday, March 17, 2017

Top 100 Songs: 10-1



10. "Make My Life a Prayer to You" by Keith Green (1978) - Prev. #39
- Keith Green has written many memorable Christian songs and I think this is his best. The quality that makes this song so special is it's ability capture the often contradictory emotions of striving to live devoted to Christ. Faith in Christ is joyful, but it's never perfectly embodied in this life; there are struggles and failures that always seem to weigh down genuine faith. Green's emotive performance and stream of consciousness lyrics speaks powerfully and directly to my own faith experience.
Make my life a prayer to you
I wanna do what you want me to
No empty words and no white lies
No token prayers no compromise 
Well I wanna thank you now
For being patient with me
Oh it's so hard to see
When my eyes are on me
I guess I'll have to trust
And just believe what you say
Oh you're coming again
Coming to take me away

9. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) -Prev. #88
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of Garland and Armstrong's classic tune manages to exceed both in my book (and my list too!). I find the song's opening evokes the melancholy longing of Garland's tune without having to deal with the cultural trappings of that 1940's film ballad. In a something of a contradiction, I can't explain it, despite the core of the song being quite melancholic it's also quite mirthful to me. Is mirthful melancholy possible? Is that a thing? If so, I think it's the kind of thing I gravitate to in art quite often.

8. "I Saw Her Standing There" by The Beatles (1963) - Prev. #5
"One, Two, Three, FAH!" is how "I Saw Her Standing There" begins and for the next 2 minutes and 56 seconds it is a rocket that just never slows down. I can think of few other pieces of popular music with this much energy from beginning to end. An energy that puts a smile on your face (just as much as "I Want to Hold Your Hand") and forces you to get up and dance. Other songs make you want to dance and sing, this song makes you UPSET if you don't get up and dance. That's the kind of song it is.

To me, this song embodies everything that made the Beatles the most popular band on earth in 1963. It's not just a pop song, it's a pop song that really does rock. Listen to this song and tell me that guitar, the bass, and the drums aren't doing a lot of great work here; filling out the song and beckoning you to move to their sound. The vocals are great, the harmonies are great, and there are a few moments, like the scream halfway through and the incredible bridge, that kick this song into another level.

The song doesn't have the depth of "Strawberry Fields Forever", the heartbreak of "For No One", or the nostalgia of "In My Life", but it contains one of the most potent ingredients of life, the sheer JOY of infatuation. The early Beatles songs were great at bringing that joy to the listener, but "I Saw Her Standing There" pumps it directly into the veins. To package that emotion and feeling in this rocket of a song, is why it's their best to me and why if I could only have one Beatles song, it would be this one.
"I Saw Her Standing There" by The Beatles

7. "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King (1961) - Prev. #6
I will make this commentary short as the greatness of this song doesn't really need a lot of explanation. This is a beautifully simple song about how we can go through the toughest of times as long as we stand by each other. The song is accompanied by a very simple but effective arrangement that features an incredibly memorable repeating bass line that once it enters your head, won't leave for a couple of days.

I can't hear this song without thinking of two things, 1) The film Stand by Me and 2) The music video set to this song that was on the Lion King VHS I had growing up.

Here is a great alternative version of "Stand By Me" featuring different street performers from all over the globe.
Alternative Version: "Stand By Me" from Playing for Change

"Stand By Me" by Ben E. King


6. "About Today (Live)" by The National (2004) - Prev. #9
There are two ways in which I am impacted by this song. The first way is through the film Warrior that came out in 2010. I remember watching the film (which was my #1 film of 2010 BTW) and hearing this song play during the incredibly powerful final scene (which I didn't link to, in case you haven't seen the film yet). The final scene in Warrior moved me deeply. It was a wake up call for me to become a "warrior" of Christ-like love. No matter how strong I was, it was ultimately love that disarmed even the bitterest of enemies.  Like all great music in films, the song was immediately imprinted on that final scene for me. I cannot listen to this song without thinking of the scene. That's one reason this song makes it to this top ten.

The second impact of this song is in the lyrics and the delivery. The lyrics tell the very basic story of two lovers who are drifting apart and slipping away. 
Today you were far away
and I didn't ask you why
What could I say
I was far away
You just walked away
and I just watched you
What could I say
How close am I to losing you
Tonight you just close your eyes
and I just watch you slip away
How close am I to losing you
Hey, are you awake
Yeah I'm right here
Well can I ask you about today
I love that the singer takes action to awaken his lover and ask her "about today". The song is so simple that it can be easy to miss just how well it magnifies the importance of the little decisions that enable us to drift away and apart from each other. It's an incredibly touching song that is filled out perfectly by a very passive, but supportive accompaniment. The opening guitar riff sounds for a moment as if it will launch off into the direction of a U2 song, but when the acoustic picking comes in, it becomes its own thing.

"About Today" by The National

5. "Son of Man" by Phil Collins (1999) - Prev. #3
 Have you ever received a message from someone in the most unlikely of ways or from a source that surprised you? Perhaps it was a Facebook message from your grandparent, or a letter in the mail from your old boss, or maybe even a phone call out of the blue from someone you knew in High School?

The song “Son of Man” by Phil Collins became one of those unlikely messages in the summer of 2001. Even crazier, I immediately felt as though the messenger was none other than God himself! I’m going to give you a second to let that sink in…I know…you are now starting to rethink everything I’ve ever written right? Perhaps you are hoping that I had told you this on the front page of my site in hopes that you could spot the crazy before you devoted your time right? Allow me to fill in some of the details for you in hopes that you haven’t already written me off as one step away from shaving my head and joining a monastery.

In the summer of 2001 I had just graduated high school and was awaiting my big move to Tallahassee in order to begin attending Florida State University. Along with all the external changes going on, I was also going through a lot of inner turmoil as well. For several years prior I was apathetic toward God, Christ, and spiritual things in general. Although I might have called myself an atheist, I essentially believed that spirituality was unimportant, irrelevant, and confused.  I say “confused” because I had many questions about God that I felt no one was able to answer. Those feelings began to change in my senior year of high school as I began to ponder two important questions, “What was the purpose of life?” and “What is a good life?”
I graduated from Rockledge High School in May 2001

I tried answering those questions as best as I could, but I found it an impossible task unless I turned to the existence of God. Admittedly, I was not intellectually mature enough to properly explore every reasonable response; yet, in my intellectual and spiritual struggle to answer these questions I kept coming back to the necessity of God. I didn’t know God, I’d never experienced him or heard from him, and I still had a lot of confusing questions that needed answering. Still, I slowly began to open up to the possibility of God and began to offer up prayers to test and see if he really existed. 

It was in this context that I felt God answer me through the song “Son of Man”. I remember the moment so vividly; I was mowing our lawn on a hot summer day listening to the Tarzan soundtrack on my CD Walkman. I had heard the song many times before, but when it came on this time, I was immediately stopped in my tracks for some reason. I didn’t hear an audible voice speak to me, but I immediately sensed something that seemed to say, “Listen to these words, they are for you.” This came completely out of the blue (I might've been thinking about roller coasters or something) and was the first time I had ever experienced anything like it.   Here are the lyrics of the song, with my thoughts in the parenthesis…

Verse 1 :
Oh, the power to be strong
And the wisdom to be wise
All these things will come to you in time
On this journey that you're making
There'll be answers that you'll seek
And it's you who'll climb the mountain
It's you who'll reach the peak
(I was so impatient for answers, this was comforting and felt like God telling me I was on the right path)

Chorus:

Son of man, look to the sky
Lift your spirit, set it free
Some day you'll walk tall with pride
Son of man, a man in time you'll be
(Although the lyrics are somewhat generic, I felt strongly this was confirmation that my pivot towards God was a correct ‘look to the sky’)

Verse 2:
Though there's no one there to guide you
No one to take your hand, but with faith and understanding
You will journey from boy to man
(WOW, I felt like there was no one who could answer my questions and this seemed like acknowledgment of that. The answer the song suggests is faith and understanding. It couldn’t have been more spot on!)

Verse 3:
In learning you will teach
And in teaching you will learn
You'll find your place beside the ones you love
Oh, and all the things you dreamed of
The visions that you saw
Well, the time is drawing near now
It's yours to claim it all
(Even then, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher of some kind. Looking back at the first two lines here are incredibly accurate of how I have come to understanding in my faith.)
Does this mean that I believe with 100% certainty that God spoke to me through this song? No, I don’t think that. It is possible that is was just a perfect storm of coincidences. I'm fine if someone wants to believe that. What I find more interesting, more important, is that in the middle of mowing the lawn, with about as distracted a mind as one could have, I sensed that this song was a message from God to me. It could've been a coincidence, just a false pattern from a pattern recognizing animal. I didn’t immediately fall to the ground and accept God. No, it was like some kind of immediately personal moment that held me for the few minutes the song lasted. After the song ended, I continued on mowing the lawn and just pondered what the song might mean, and if I was crazy for what I was feeling.
Hanging out with friends before class at Rockledge High School

It wasn’t until several months later and after another incident of answered prayer (which I will get to explain in my #1 song) that I would eventually become a believer in God and a follower of Christ. Over the years since that incidence, I find that what I felt in that specific moment and the song's lyrics themselves have only been confirmed and that’s why if I were given only 5 songs in my life, this would be one. I would encourage anyone reading this blog to open themselves up to hear from God. My journey began with feeble prayers to a God that I wasn't even convinced existed, yours can start there as well.
“We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe…We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some subtle turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the Saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the Saints, we go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.” –Frederick Buechner
"Son of Man" by Phil Collins


4. "Hurt" by Johnny Cash (2003) - Prev. #26
- My appreciation and admiration for this song has only grown since its release. The equally powerful video accompanying the song achingly portrays a man taking stock of his celebrity life as he nears death. Given five songs to live on, I'd want this penetrating and sobering acoustic gem from Cash.

3. "One" by U2 (1992) - Prev. #21
- Like "Hurt", my love for this song has considerably grown over the last 5 years: the soaring and reflective vocals, the considerate and complex take on love/diversity/unity, and the incredible guitar backing. It's so good.

2. "Shout (Parts 1 and 2)" by The Isley Brothers (1959) - Prev. #12
I'm surprised that this song came in at #2, as I don't know if I expected it to even crack the top 10. Yet, this perennial wedding classic is unrivaled in its genre. This song represents the pinnacle of a genre that has numerous entries on this list - the song that is pure fun. More so than "Happy" or "Shut Up and Dance", nothing brightens my mood or entices me to dance than this song. Apart from this song, there is only one other song I wouldn't want to part with more.

1. "Amazing Grace" by Various Artists (1779) - Prev. #1
"God, if you are real, then please reach out and grab me. Show me that you are real," was the simple prayer I whispered into the empty air my first night at Florida State University. I offered the prayer, despite being a declared atheist, while on the verge of slipping into the same depression that destroyed my nominal Christian faith in high school. Alone in my room, I voiced my desperate cry to God. 

The next day, while walking through the student union, a hand reached out and grabbed my shoulder. It was a member of Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship inviting me to their big barbecue event that night. I smiled, always a shy person, signed their email list and made my way back home. Hours later, I began to suspect that this invitation might be an answer to my prayer the night before; could God "reach out and grab me" through this member of Chi Alpha? In one of my first real acts of faith, I trusted that this was an invitation from God, visited the barbecue, and experienced the presence of God for the first time in my life. Within a week of my whispered prayer, I decided to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior, to aspire to know God more fully, and to serve him in any way He desired.
A picture of me arriving to my dorm room (Osceola Hall) in August of 2001. It was this night that I prayed for God to reveal himself to me and "reach out and grab me". It was due to his amazing grace that he answered, and I am where I am today.

As I sit here typing the story of how God "reached out and grabbed me" I remain amazed that the whole thing ever happened. One might be able to get a meeting with a local mayor, a congressman might be even harder. A state governor is nearly impossible to meet and one doesn't even consider meeting a President or a King. I wasn't just requesting a meeting with God (the creator of all things, alpha and omega, one and only...yeah...that guy), I was also asking him to do something for me. If HE truly existed and HE truly was the transcendent, omniscient, omnipresent, and sovereign Lord, then who was I to make a request of God?

I was an immature 18 year-old who had in the year previous declared himself an atheist. I was a teenager who willingly indulged in activities and thoughts I knew to be contrary to what God wanted (or in Christian parlance, I was a sinner). I was a teenager who had been given nearly every advantage (all my physical needs met, all my wants met, great parents, plenty of friends, and a wealth of life experience), yet squandered it. Here I was, wrecked and reaching out to a God I didn't even know if he existed. Sure, I'd had moments in the months prior that seemed to point towards God (one of them is detailed in under song #5), but that was months ago, and it was still uncertain if that was just a coincidence. Why would God answer a feeble and desperate cry from a young and immature sinner that wasn't even sure if he existed?

Because God is love, that's why (1 John 4:8). It was by the grace of God that he answered my prayer that night. 
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

We all of us have gone astray from God. We all of us have turned and lost our way (Isaiah 53:6). No other song than "Amazing Grace" better embodies the one thing that transformed my life and the lives of billions all over the world; the grace of God. Grace opens its ear to desperate and feeble cries, it turns its eye upon the sick and the hurting, and it welcomes and embraces the prodigal. Grace warns us through God's prophets and through his commands. Grace sent the Son of God in humanly form to heal and to teach. Grace willingly crawled upon a wooden cross to be crucified and buried in order to make a way for us to return to God. Grace now offers Christ's Spirit to those willing to confess and believe. How amazing is the grace of God! 


T'was Grace that taught...
my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear...
the hour I first believed. 

Through many dangers, toils and snares...
we have already come.
T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far...
and Grace will lead us home.

As I've updated my top songs list, I still cannot think of one song I'd prefer over this one. It seems that the right song has a way of bypassing our natural defenses and striking us right to our cores, our very souls. This is a song that does that for me. If I was only allowed to have one song for the rest of my life, or for another million lifetimes, then I can think of no better song to have.



Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

p.s. If forced to pick a version of the song, I would have to say that I most enjoy Angela McCluskey's. It's a slow and powerfully emotional rendition. I especially like the very simple (most renditions get too flowery) piano accompaniment. One of the great surprises of the song is that it can be given a very a soulful treatment like McCluskey's or it can be played fast and joyous like THIS version by Mumford and Sons and still retain it's power. For the grace of God seems to invoke gratitude that sends one to their knees, but also gratitude that impels one to dance! Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the instrumental version on the bagpipes is also extremely powerful.

"Amazing Grace" by John Newton

The Lord has promised good to me...
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be...
as long as life endures. 

When we've been here ten thousand years...
bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise...
then when we've first begun.

Feel free to share your thoughts!
 

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