Who Says You Can’t Go Home … To the House at Pooh Corner?

A fantastic new movie opened this past weekend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough: Disney’s Christopher Robin. Take a look at the trailer:

The film is essentially a spin-off from the classic stories by A.A. Milne. As you probably know, these stories were inspired by the imaginative games that his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, played with his stuffed animals. These stories were among my favorites as a kid, and I always sensed a special bond with the main character because we shared the same first name. It was lots of fun to read all twenty of the stories again about a year and a half ago, with my own son (then aged seven), and watch him enjoy them as thoroughly as I had. I’d add that the more recently you’ve read the classic stories, the more you’ll appreciate some of the references in the movie.

The “Christopher Robin” in the stories was of course a fictionalized version of the real-life boy. The film takes the fictional Christoper Robin (note that “Robin” is his surname, not a middle name) and shows what happened to him after the conclusion of the final classic story, when Christopher Robin must leave his animal friends behind in the Hundred Acre Wood.

[Warning: minor set-up plot spoilers, mostly fleshing out the trailer, ahead.]

Twenty years or so pass fairly quickly; we see him attend boarding school, fall in love, start a family, serve in World War II, and come home safely from that war to his wife and young daughter.

The heart of the story takes place in the late 1940s, with the daughter not much older than Christopher himself was when he left for boarding school. He’s now a workaholic who’s managed to claw his way up to middle management at a luggage company in London. He rarely makes it home for dinner with his family. The Hundred Acre Wood is long forgotten.

The key conflict arises when Christopher’s upper class twit of a boss informs him, on a Friday afternoon, that he must come in to work all weekend. The problem is, Christopher and his wife had longstanding plans to take their daughter on holiday in the country that weekend. He must choose … and he senses he doesn’t have any real option other than to stay.

Christopher’s wife seems unsurprised by his decision. She and the daughter (who had been very much looking forward to spending the weekend with her father, and is of course devastated by this turn of events) go to the cabin in the countryside by themselves.

As we watch Christopher trudge through a Saturday full of paperwork, we want to reach through the screen, shake him by the shoulders, and shout: “Look at yourself! What’s happened to you?”

We, of course, can’t physically reach Christopher. But a Bear of Very Little Brain might just be able to do it. Back in the Hundred Acre Wood, a crisis has arisen — and Winnie the Pooh (fantastically animated and voiced, by the way) thinks Christopher Robin is the only one who can solve it. He goes looking for his long lost friend, and through a miracle of fantasy stumbles upon a one-way portal to London.

The movie trailer implies that at this point, Christopher sort of drops everything and runs off to the Hundred Acre Wood to save the day. Without giving any spoilers … his transformation is more gradual. I thought the pacing of his change was realistic – and perfect. Along the way, we realize that the Silly Old Bear’s real mission isn’t to save his friends back in the Wood. It’s to save Christopher Robin – in more ways than one.

Kids will enjoy this movie a lot. My eight-and-a-half-year-old son certainly did, and so did the other kids at the theater. The CGI animals are a delight (I particularly enjoyed Eeyore).  It’s a fun story, and the collision of the animals with the outside world is especially so. Don’t be concerned by the PG rating; apart from the brief wartime scenes and explosions, which might frighten the youngest kids, there really isn’t anything inappropriate for older children. The rating seems due more to the nature of the story; some kids may need some “guidance” in understanding why Christopher Robin spends so much time at work and so little time with his family, or what the conflicts between his boss and the employees are all about.

And that gets us to something larger: as much as kids will enjoy this movie, it really isn’t a “kid movie.” The true target audience is middle-aged folks. Especially parents, and especially men. The struggle to balance professional responsibilities with family responsibilities is a tough one, especially for those of us who are self-employed and find it nearly impossible to completely disconnect.

And, yes, sometimes work does have to “win,” particularly if we have a known busy season. Hay really does have to be made while the sun shines. The harvest does have to be brought in when it can be brought in. And it’s not just farming. My father ran a retail clothing store when I was a kid; between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, we rarely saw him. That was tough on all of us, but we always knew things would slow down and we’d get Dad back. My own family has come to understand the same thing about public opinion research consulting; September and October can be a blur, but things quiet down after the first-Tuesday-after-the-first-Monday in November.

The problem is when work becomes something we habitually choose to immerse ourselves in, to the detriment of family, and to the point where we can’t say “no.” Work often provides tangible rewards and (especially) recognition more immediately than spending time with family does. That can become alluring. It can also ruin what’s most truly rewarding about life. Sometimes, what we really need is some time away in the Hundred Acre Wood.

I was surprised at the depth of emotions this movie stirred in me, and how thoroughly it stirred them. From conversations I’ve had with others, I know I’m far from alone. Don’t be afraid to take a handkerchief, and don’t be afraid to use it. I walked out of the theater feeling emotionally spent — but in a deeply satisfying way.  The story had taken me to a place which, like Christopher Robin, I had forgotten even existed: that enchanted place on the top of the Forest (and in my heart) where a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

I hope the story takes you there as well.


Ultimate Star Wars

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the original Star Wars movie. I was only eight at the time, but still clearly remember the awe of watching it in the theater. I can’t possibly be this old!

Anyway, to mark the movie’s anniversary, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is putting on a special event: they are performing the movie’s musical score, while the movie itself plays on an enormous screen. There are two showings; one was last night, and the other is tonight at 8pm. While driving to Chicago last month, I happened to notice a billboard advertising it. Once I got home, I jumped on the internet to get more details — and then bought a pair of tickets for last night’s showing.

All I can say is: if you’re reading this and you’re anywhere near Kalamazoo, you should try to get tickets for tonight’s show. If that’s not an option, then I highly recommend you keep your eyes open for a similar performance in your own town. It was worth every penny of the price of admission (we got $50 tickets, which were neither the least nor the most expensive), and worth every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour round trip drive.

I took my 15 year old son, who is a big fan of the Star Wars franchise. Each year, we try to arrange at least one special outing for each of the kids to do alone with me; it might be a trip to Detroit for a Tigers game, a day trip to Chicago (easier when we were living in Illinois), a trip to the zoo, or so on. He agreed that this would be an excellent choice for this year’s “thing.”

We arrived quite early, which gave us time to explore Western Michigan University; the performance was being held at Miller Concert Hall, on campus. We walked all over, and got something to eat before the show. We took our seats shortly after the doors opened at 7:30, so we were able to watch and listen as the orchestra warmed up.

Our seats were in the third row, toward the left. This put us a bit closer to the screen than I would’ve liked, but on the plus side we were very close to the orchestra. From the opening notes, I knew that having to crane my neck a little was going to be but a minor inconvenience; the music was so fantastic, it blew me away.

I don’t know any other way to describe it. If you’re like me, you’ve probably lost count of the number of times you’ve seen this movie. You can probably say half or more of the dialogue along with the actors. (I had a friend who could even do all of the “radio chatter” for the final assault on the Death Star.) You know every twist of the plot. But having a live symphony orchestra perform the Oscar-winning score? That made it almost a new movie. It certainly made for an unforgettable experience.


One thing in particular that I’ll never forget: this is the first movie I’ve ever attended in which not a single person left once the credits began rolling. At first, probably out of habit, a couple of people started to stand up. But nobody walked out. Everyone remained riveted on the orchestra, until the very last note. And then every person jumped to his or her feet, giving a thunderous ovation. My son and I looked at each other, and I mouthed a “Wow!” He commented, “That was so good!”

At last night’s show, the symphony director announced that they are planning to put on similar live shows for the other two films in the original Star Wars trilogy. I’m not exactly sure about the timing; they might be planning to do one per year. I just hope they’re not going to wait for the 40th anniversary of each film before putting on those performances. But either way, I plan to be among the first to buy tickets.

And I bet every other person who was there last night plans to do the same.

Excellent Holy Week Viewing

Holy Week is now upon us. These are the final days of Lent, during which we prepare for the great paschal mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The best preparation, of course, is to attend the sacred liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and (finally) Easter. Prayer, and traditional devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, are also essential. However, as you make your preparation for Easter, there are a few television programs that I also highly recommend.

The first is Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. No, it’s not for the faint-hearted; it’s one of the bloodiest movies I’ve ever seen. But none of that blood, or violence, is gratuitous. It all really happened (and was probably even worse in real life). I’ve seen it a number of times now, and get something new out of it every time. It’s impossible to watch this film and not come away with a profound sense of sorrow for your sins, and for a renewed appreciation for what it cost to redeem us from our sins.

In addition to the usual sources (such as Netflix and Amazon), a couple of different cable networks will be showing it several times this week (all times Eastern).

TBN will be showing it on:

  • Monday at 1am
  • Wednesday at 5pm
  • Holy Thursday at 10pm
  • Good Friday at 4:30pm

UP network will be showing it on:

  • Good Friday at 11pm
  • Holy Saturday at 9pm

A few years back, the History Channel put together a fascinating documentary called The Real Face of Jesus? It’s a scientific investigation of the Shroud of Turin, which is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus. A team of graphic experts uses 3D software to bring the image on the shroud to life. It’s a really remarkable undertaking, which shows how faith can work together with science and technology to give us a better understanding of who Jesus is. History Channel is airing it on Holy Saturday (March 26th) at 10am. Or, you can watch it on YouTube:

My final video recommendation might seem a bit odd: The Star of Bethlehem. Yes, the primary focus is on the Christmas star which the Magi followed. But the scientific, astrological investigation goes far beyond that. Rick Larson realized that modern software allows us to plug in any geographical location, along with any date in human history, and produce an accurate map of how the various stars and constellations were aligned on that particular day. Larson shows the peculiar alignment and motions of stars around the time of Christ’s birth, and why the Magi would have interpreted these signs the way they did.

Larson then “fast forwards” to the original Good Friday. He explains how he identified Good Friday, shows what the stars and constellations looked like on that day (including the eclipse recorded in the Gospels), and makes some fascinating observations about how these “signs in the heavens” connect with what was playing out on Calvary. I came away from it with a much deeper appreciation not only for the events of Christmas, but also for the events of Good Friday. Again, this is a really excellent example of science working together with faith to deepen our understanding of Christ’s life and death.

The video is available at Amazon, on Netflix, or you can stream it on YouTube:

Lord of the Flies for One Night

I recently got the chance to catch up on a couple of interesting movies: The Purge (2013), and its sequel, The Purge: Anarchy (2014). Both are set several years in the future, and share a common premise: Every year, for one twelve-hour period from 7pm to 7am, all crime — including murder — is legal. This twelve-hour period is called The Purge. It was instituted by “The New Founding Fathers of America” (NFFA), when the country was “reborn” after a complete economic and social collapse. mv5bmje2odmxmtk1nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdeznjezmte-_v1_uy1200_cr6406301200_al_

As you might imagine, both movies are rated R and are very violent. These are not appropriate for kids. I’d add that both contain a fair amount of profanity, but minimal sensuality (one make-out scene, and a threatened rape or two).

If you do choose to watch these films, I’d recommend watching the sequel first. It gives a much broader picture of the annual Purge, showing all the chaos in the streets that you’d expect. The first movie (which I’d recommend watching second) focuses on a single upper-class family that suffers a home invasion during the annual Purge. Many viewers were disappointed with the first movie, because they thought they were going to be getting something more like the sequel. The nice thing about waiting for Netflix is that you can watch them in any order you want! BTW, the second movie contains no spoilers about the first, and none of the characters carry over. There’s nothing you’ll be “missing” in the second one, the way you usually would if you skipped an initial installment of a series. In fact, I’d argue that you’ll enjoy the first movie more if you’ve already seen The Purge: Anarchy. You’ll have a better sense for what the annual Purge is about, so you’ll appreciate it when it comes home for one family.

So, why was the annual Purge instituted? The NFFA argue that it’s an effective means of channeling criminal tendencies. Everyone gets an annual outlet for their pent-up rage. Everyone gets to “purge” that rage, if they so choose. Furthermore, it’s said to control crime because so many troublemakers — especially the urban poor — go out in the streets and kill each other off once a year. As an additional benefit, unemployment has plummeted to virtually nothing, because the Purge kills off so much of the “excess population.” The well-to-do are able to afford security measures that effectively isolate themselves from the chaos in the streets. The impoverished and the unemployed, especially those who live in big cities, are left to fend for themselves.

These movies are dark and disturbing. They’re also thought-provoking. But before I share those thoughts, let’s get a few gripes out of the way:

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A Modest Proposal

The next time you buy or rent a DVD, check the “special features.” Along with the Director’s commentary and deleted scenes, it’s often possible to select an alternate language to hear the movie in. Spanish. French. Portuguese. Italian. Whatever. It must not be too terribly difficult or disc-space-consuming to include an alternate audio track, because so many DVD movies now include that feature.

So, here’s my question and proposal: Why not include the cleaned-up version of the dialogue that is used for television broadcasts of the same movie? It could be another language option, alongside Spanish and French or whatever else. And for any movie that’s been cleaned-up with dubbing for television, that audio already exists. It shouldn’t be hard to do. Yet, in all the movies we’ve rented from Netflix, I’ve never seen a disc that offers this option.

I’m not talking about the “bad scenes” that are cut for television; I know some Christian groups have tried to produce and sell or rent versions of movies that cut these objectionable scenes, and have been sued. That’s not so critical for me; if I know there’s a bad scene in a movie, I can skip through it, mute it, or make my kids face away. But I can’t press the mute button every time Bruce Willis says the F-word. Sure, “melon farmer” is a silly substitute. But I’d rather my kids hear that than the original words.

What prompted this thought was recently renting Rain Man. It’s a wonderful movie, with absolutely superb acting from Tom Cruise and (especially) Dustin Hoffman. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of a movie with a better-acted lead than what Hoffman did in Rain Man. And the story itself, with Cruise growing to appreciate his brother for who he is, is powerful and moving. I really wanted to have the whole family watch it.

But it was rated R, and because I hadn’t seen it in many years I couldn’t remember exactly why. I knew there was at least one sex scene, but if that was the only problem…well, I could skip through that. But I had to know where it was, so I sat down to preview the movie by myself.

I found the sex scene, and it was pretty mild. Really mild, in fact, by Hollywood standards. The much larger problem was Tom Cruise’s mouth: the profanity never stopped flowing. The longer I watched, the more dismayed I grew. I loved the story and Hoffman’s acting as much as I remembered, but I knew I couldn’t share this film with the Yeoman Farm Children. If it’d just been that one sex scene, I easily could’ve skipped it. But the foul language was far too pervasive.

And you know what’s most frustrating? How completely unnecessary the rough language is. Yes, it fits Cruise’s character as a rough and profane guy who thinks only about himself. But an actor as good as Cruise could sell that role without dropping F-bombs.

In a similar vein, the first time I saw Coming to America was on an airplane. I was delighted. What a wonderful romantic comedy, I thought. And Eddie Murphy played such a refreshingly clean role! And then I rented it at home, and saw everything that’d been cut out. The language and short clips they’d cut weren’t just crude. They were totally unnecessary for the story — I’d loved it just as I’d seen it. The rough language and innuendo ruined it for me.

So, getting back to my proposal, why not offer cleaned-up dialogue as an alternate DVD audio track? If the film producers think it’s important not to exclude potential customers whose primary language is not English, why not show the same attention and concern to those of us who’d like to watch a movie with our kids and without all the four letter words?

Food, Inc.

Last night, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I finally made the time to sit down and watch Food, Inc. It’s an outstanding documentary film about modern industrial agriculture, where it came from, the strategies it uses to sustain itself, and what the rest of us can do to supply alternatives. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend you do so. Put it in your Netflix queue, rent it at your local video store, or buy it from Amazon. Just watch it.

The film is at its best in discussing corn, and how elements of corn (and/or soybeans) have found their way into nearly every corner of the supermarket. I would’ve liked more detail about the ways in which federal agriculture policy subsidizes corn production, but the bottom line is that corn comes to the market below its real cost. Chemical and food companies have found countless ways to break this artificially cheap commodity apart into component pieces and reassemble them into the dizzying array of ingredients you see listed on package labels — and these “processed to death,” calorie-laden products end up cheaper than more wholesome alternatives. Ever wondered why a package of Twinkies is less expensive than a bunch of carrots? Even though the former is among the most highly engineered and chemical-intensive products in the supermarket and the latter is just several roots yanked out of the ground and rinsed off?

The sections about confinement agriculture, feedlots, and factory meat processing are eye-opening. The narrative was especially powerful in drawing a line between the inhumane ways in which animals are treated to the dehumanizing ways in which agricultural workers are treated. Everything — animal and human— is simply another element of industrial production.

One of the film’s bigger “lightbulb moments” for me was the degree to which the fast food industry has shaped the way food is produced for all markets. McDonald’s, Burger King, and the rest are enormous customers who want their products to taste exactly the same every time. They thus have enormous power to dictate the standardization of beef, pork, chicken, and potato production. And because those products need to be cheap enough for the Dollar Menu, growers need all kinds of “efficiencies” (i.e. feedlots and other animal concentration camps) to reduce their own costs.
The sections showing Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia are by far the best in the film. Salatin’s books (in particular You Can Farm and Pastured Poultry Profits) greatly inspired us as we were starting out, and it was even more inspiring to see his farm in living color. Salatin has put together a real, workable model of how wholesome food can be produced profitably. It’s no wonder that people drive a hundred miles to fill their freezers with Salatin’s meat. Although we are not attempting to run a pastured poultry enterprise, his production techniques have provided our family with outstanding chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.
I could’ve done without the long section with a grieving mother who is now a “food safety activist” seeking to enact legislation named after her son, who died from a e coli infected meat. Although I certainly empathize with her grief, and cannot imagine the pain she has had to endure, I really don’t think additional regulations and inspections of mammoth industrial food facilities are the answer; as the film itself shows later, the very agencies charged with creating and enforcing regulations are frequently headed and staffed by former executives and lobbyists from the industrial food companies themselves. In political science, we call this revolving door phenomenon “regulatory capture.” In the case of industrial agriculture, it results because the only people with enough experience and expertise to understand the industry are those with extensive ties to the industry itself.
The film’s biggest shortcoming, in my mind, is that it doesn’t do enough to connect the dots between “food safety legislation” and regulatory capture. My sense is that the former is useless — or even counterproductive — unless something is first done about the latter. And given the complexity of the industry, I’m not sure anything can be done about it. The result is a regulatory environment designed by and for the protection of agricultural conglomerates, but too byzantine and expensive for small producers to understand or abide by. The entirely foreseen and intended outcome is even less competition from farmers like Joel Salatin. Want to be able to sell your meat to local restaurants, which would provide a very nice and stable customer base for any farmer? You’ll need to have your animals butchered at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. Good luck finding one of those anywhere near your farm. And, by the time you transport your animals there and go back to pick up the meat, good luck turning a profit. And don’t even think about starting your own small dairy or cheesemaking operation until you’re ready to spend a fortune building something that abides by state regulations. Then, have fun with the inspectors showing up to pick through your property whenever they feel like it. I realize that some of these measures are essential for large producers, but there ought to be more exemptions for small entrepreneurs.
The bottom line, though, is that this is a very important documentary. I apologize that it took me over two years to see and review it here. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend that you do so.

Life After People

Suppose the sun came up tomorrow morning…but no one was here to see it rise? That’s the fascinating question that a new show on the History Channel, “Life After People,” takes two hours (1:28 if you skip the commercials) to explore.

I regret not posting on this sooner; it first aired last weekend, and it aired a few times this week. The last scheduled broadcast is this afternoon at 5pm Eastern — and I’d highly recommend you set your VCR or DVR to catch it. (For my many readers who don’t have cable/satellite or even television…it’s available at Apple’s iTunes store for $3.99. Just follow that link and do a search on “Life After People”.)

The program assumes that something instantly wipes out every human being; we never learn what it was, but we don’t see any bodies. It’s kind of like the Final Judgment came at 6:59am, we were all taken to Heaven or Hell with our bodies, and God decided to let the solar system continue doing its thing for awhile. The program opens in rather disturbing fashion, with an alarm clock going off at 7am — and no one is there to turn it off. Everything inside the house is imaculate and orderly…and then we see the family dog trotting around trying to figure out where everyone has gone.

And it was right there that I decided this would be too intense for our kids. The first casualties of our absense will be millions and millions of dogs. Many will be trapped in houses and starve to death. Most of those that get out will discover they’ve been bred with traits humans desired…but which are severe handicaps for surviving in the wild.

We go hour by hour, then skip to days and weeks, methodically looking at which things will shut down and break down — and when the wildlife will start to return to cities. (The computer-generated graphics aren’t Hollywood Blockbuster quality, but believable enough.)

There is only a passing reference to farmland being easily reclaimed within a year of our absence, and I find that very believable based on what we’ve seen fields do when allowed to sit for even a few months. And how quickly farmhouses crumble when abandonded. What is completely skipped is any discussion of farm animals, and how many millions of head of livestock will perish in their confinement “farms.” What will happen to the unmilked cows? What will the concentration camp egg factory will look like ten days after the people are gone? Because if you think dogs have been bred with some unnatural traits, the livestock are even worse. Easily 99.9% of turkeys will die within days; they are so oversized, they can’t even mount each other to mate, let alone find enough food to sustain their girth. Some breeds of chicken and duck (like the ones on our farm which still have enough instinct to brood their young) will do reasonably well, but most will be easy pickings for coyotees. Most sheep are far too stupid to know what to do without us, but I’d put my money on Icelandics (assuming they could migrate a bit further south, where there is more winter forage) and the Gulf Coast Natives still being around decades from now. (There are other fairly self-sufficient breeds of sheep and goats, but these are the ones I know most about.)

As years passed on the program, and infrastructure after infrastructure crumbled, I was struck by something: What an amazing creature man is. How completely different we are from animals. We have so thoroughly re-made our environment to serve our needs and build a flurishing civilization…and without us around to maintain it, it crumbles into dust. There is nothing “accidential” about us or what we’ve achieved. As we’ve explained to our kids: dogs and cats have fur, birds have wings, and fish have scales and gills. Human beings don’t have any of those things. But what we do have is far greater: an intellect and a free will, which allows us to manufacture clothing and houses that keep us as warm as any animal, build airplanes that fly farther and higher than any bird, and design ships that let us cross the sea.

But the most fascinating questions are raised toward the end, thousands of years in the future, when there is no sign (save, possibly, the Great Wall of China) that we were ever here. Some talking head comes on to philosophize (I’m paraphrasing): “What if intelligent life never re-evoloves? What if humans were just an accident, and there’s never another creature that can gaze on the stars and wonder.”

I couldn’t help thinking: What a sad and impoverished understanding of humanity this guy has. Despite all the letters he probably has after his name, he can’t (or won’t) acknowledge what it is that makes human beings unique on this earth: our immortal souls, which are spiritual and therefore couldn’t possibly have a material source. Spiritual souls cannot evolve within material beings; they can only have their origin in what is higher than ourselves, and higher than the material order. In short, they must have their origin in our Creator. And therefore human beings must be here for a purpose which is higher than satisfying our bodily appetites and building these enormous buildings which will eventually crumble under their own weight.

I could go on and on about various segments of the program that were particularly fascinating, but will leave that to your own discovery. Suffice it to say that this is the sort of “brain food” that the History Channel does best, and I highly recommend it.