Friday, August 30, 2019

Shazam!

Regular readers will know this family is rather into superhero movies. So, Husband and I were keen to check out Shazam! This one fits into the DC universe and is a fun addition to the collection. It has no connection to any others (that I could ascertain), so works well as a stand alone (unlike any offerings in the Marvel universe).

It starts in 1974 where a young boy, Thad Sivana, is magically transported to a cave where a final remaining wizard is charged with containing the captured seven deadly sins. He has to find someone who is pure in heart and strong in spirit, a champion to inherit his job. Thad is deemed unworthy and sent back to earth. Fast forward to present day and Thad is still searching for ways to get back into the wizard’s lair, to gain the power of the sins that he glimpsed while there.

Meanwhile, 14 year old Billy Batson, is a child of the state, in care since he lost his mother at a fair when a young boy. He has been searching for her ever since. After yet another failed placement, he is placed in a foster home with a lovely couple and 5 other foster children, ranging from about 5 to 17 years old. There is another boy there Freddy with a leg disability, who soon becomes a good friend.

The wizard brings Billy to him and tells him that as he is in his final days, he must choose someone. He needed a “a truly good person, strong in spirit, pure in heart”, but concludes that after years of searching, there is no one like that and Billy is all he has.

With the magic word Shazam, Billy is given the powers of the six superheros whose first letters make the name: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. He is now transformed into a powerful adult male (Zachary Levi, amusing for previous fans of Chuck).

Not surprisingly, quite a lot of fun ensues as Billy and Freddy figure out what Shazam can do. You can imagine what 14 year old boys get up to when given superpowers. Lots of testing skills and releasing YouTube videos, showing off and some mild abuse of power. He needs to decide if he is going to use his powers for the good of others or only for own benefit.

In time, it becomes clear that Thad has indeed harnessed the power of the seven deadly sins for himself, and becomes the arch villain that Shazam is going to need to face. The sins themselves were quite graphically scary, so that would be a warning for younger audiences.

The foster family is lovely, and the parents are caring, kind and involved. As they say: “we give them a place of love, if they want to call it a home, it’s up to them”. The siblings all learn to look out for each other, and Billy has to decide whether to invest in this family or keep searching for his mother. In time, Billy decides that “if a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a superhero”. There are some fun twists and turns along the way, all is all it’s another enjoyable superhero movie, with the overlay of teenage life across it. I probably prefer the recent Spider-Man (e.g. Homecoming, Far from Home) movies that combine teenagers and superheros, but it’s still pretty good.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Grandparenting with Grace

Grandparenting with Grace, Larry E. McCall

One of the privileges of reviewing books is reading outside of my current life stage. As a mother of teens and tweens, I’m unlikely to pick a grandparenting book off a shelf, but I have been richly blessed by this little offering by Larry E McCall.

If you are a grandparent, there are treasures to mine here as you consider your relationship with your grandchildren. He has suffused the book with grace, bringing grandparents back again and again to Christ and the gospel which calls us to live lives that honour God and to love our children and grandchildren faithfully:
“This is a guidebook—a book designed to serve grandparents by guiding them in how to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ministry of grandparenting. My objective in writing this book is to take the glorious truths of the gospel and apply them very specifically and practically to the ministry of grandparenting.”
It is succinct, clear, gospel focussed, loving and gentle, addressing numerous areas that Christian grandparents could be considering.

He challenges the current culture of “I’m too busy for time with grandkids” as well as the idea that once we get to a certain age we are entitled to more time to ourselves and not be so involved. He reminds grandparents that no matter how special they think their grandchild is, they are a sinner who needs saving: they need the gospel and they need prayer. Grandparents can have a key role in showing the love of God and his grace to their grandchildren.

McCall emphasises that grandparents need to honour their grandchildren’s parents (both their own children and children-in-law). Ideally this will mean talking with them about the level of involvement everyone wants and how to be helpful and supportive of each other. It may mean some grandparents try to heal wounds that exist with their own children, apologising for past mistakes. It could mean grandparents invest more time in their relationships with their adult children:
“Don’t rush through your conversations with your child or child-in-law when you call, anxiously getting through the polite preliminaries so that you can talk to your grandchild.” 
“Are our adult children hearing words of encouragement from us as they continue their own journey of parenting?”
He encourages grandparents to be much more intentional: making their homes welcoming places for children, planning activities, following their lives and staying connected. Grandparents can reach out with meaningful conversations, affection, time and energy. They should consider what they are modelling: will their grandchildren conclude they care more about how their furniture is treated or that they are generous with their home and contents? Will they see that lots of money is spent on travel or that a lot is given away to people in need?

A detailed chapter helps grandparents consider how to pray for themselves: for their own hearts, understanding, wisdom, and perseverance; and to pray for their grandchildren and grandchildren’s parents. There are biblical suggestions to pray for salvation, heart change, character and godliness. There is great encouragement to pray with your grandchildren, whether in person or using technology.

Some time is spent considering various challenges of grandparenting. There are practical suggestions for when grandparents are long distances away, including planning trips and holidays, as well as using available technology. He challenges some grandparents to consider moving closer to grandchildren. Other challenges he addresses are divorce (of their parents or you as a grandparent), remarriage, adoption, having to care for your grandchildren, and defiant relationships.
“There is no reason to assume a standoffish posture toward newly gained grandchildren. God has not been standoffish with us, has he? He chose to move toward us, even when we were not moving toward him.”
All of these are dealt with biblically, wisely and sensitively. He even challenges to those not in these situations:
“If your own family has not experienced the situation of an absentee father or mother, is there a family in your community or church that could benefit from the involvement of a surrogate grandparent?”
McCall finishes with a challenge to grandparents to consider their legacy.
“As grandparents, we want to leave a legacy for our grandchildren—not just a legacy of money or things, but a legacy of faith, love, and dependence on Jesus.”
Focussing on Titus 2, he encourages grandfathers and grandmothers to be mature men and women of God:
“If we are going to leave a godly life-legacy for our grandchildren, we must continue to passionately pursue Christ and Christlikeness in daily life. Our lives will impact those of the coming generations. To some measure, our character, our priorities, and our perspectives on life and eternity will be reflected in them. May they see Christ in us!”
This is a book soaked in the truths of the gospel, and applied wisely and biblically to the situation of grandparenting. There is also an appendix for grandparents who are not sure they really understand the gospel, inviting a personal response.

Any warnings? Some grandparents will find this hard reading. You may regret mistakes you may have made. You may be struggling with estranged family relationships. There is wisdom within for those whose children are unbelievers and for those who are out of touch with their grandchildren, but overall it assumes you are in contact, and in a position to model faith to your grandchildren.

What if (like me) you are the parent in the middle of this grandparenting arrangement? Perhaps you are thinking “great – the perfect gift for my parents this year!” If you have a strong relationship and share your faith, consider giving it to them – they will probably be encouraged. But if you want to force them into your perception of what a grandparent ‘should’ be, perhaps reconsider your motive. I know some grieve the lack of involvement of their parents in their children’s lives (or conversely, their over-involvement), but this book would unlikely be the way to address it.

Who should read it? Christian grandparents (and grandparents-to-be) who want to foster strong relationships with their children and grandchildren that are founded on the gospel of Christ. Highly recommended.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This was first published on The Gospel Coalition Australia website.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Blinded by the Light

This new movie offering by Universal Pictures focusses on Javed Khan, a Pakistani teenager growing up in Luton, England in the 1980s. The family struggles to make ends meet: father Malik works at Vauxhill Motors (until they fire half the workforce) and mum Noor works long hours sewing. Javed (Viveik Kalra) knows the expectations upon him: get through school, get a good job, earn money and marry a nice Pakistani girl. But Luton is a hard place to live: unemployment is rife, and political and racial tensions overshadow their lives.

Making a wish on his birthday sums up his dreams: “make loads of money, kiss a girl, get out of this world”.

Javed has written a diary since he was ten, and writes pages of poetry as well as song lyrics for his best friend Matt’s band. A new English class, with committed teacher Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), begins to open Javed to future opportunities of writing.

Struggling to balance his own dreams while meeting the expectations of his family, friend Roops puts two of Bruce Springsteen’s tapes into his hands, claiming “Bruce is a direct line to all that is shitty in this world”. Albums Born to Run and Darkness of the Edge of Town become two of the soundtracks that now help Javed to put words to all that he is feeling.

I loved these scenes. There are real highs and lows of emotion. In one, Javed is outside in the middle of a wind storm at night, pages of his poems floating through the sky, while the words of the songs are projected on buildings around him. As a love interest develops for classmate Eliza, there is a great serenade scene with a street group singing Thunder Road. Later he, Roops and Eliza, run through the streets of Luton singing Born to Run. This scene is so overdone and ridiculous, that it’s great fun (note: Husband thought it was just ridiculous.)

Many of you are aware that Husband and I are big Bruce fans. We saw him in concert five years ago and I have reviewed his recent biography. It was amusing to see how Javed changes as he follows Bruce. He dresses like him: white T-shirts with rolled sleeves, flannelette shirts and denim jackets. His language is infused with song lyrics. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it’s pretty funny. Even for those who are less familiar with Bruce or his music, chances are you will have heard these some of the tracks (eg Dancing in the Dark, Hungry Heart, The River, Blinded by the Light, The Promised Land, Cover Me)

There are external tensions throughout as we see the everyday racism shown to the Pakistani community. Little boys urinate in the mail slots of their homes, they regularly have to clean off graffiti, and personal safety is often under threat. A major clash occurs when a family wedding coincides with a day of Far Right protests.

Family tensions are also constant, it is a traditional home and all the money earnt is handed over to Malik daily, as Javed notes “In my house, no-one’s allowed opinions except my dad”. It would have been easy to make the father an overly extreme character, but there is depth to him as well, as he feels the burden to provide for his family, and weeps over the amount of work his wife has to do.

These are common themes in movies: the tensions between generations of a family, and the tensions of immigrant families working hard to provide for their children, but uncertain what to do with the more modern Westernised offspring that result. It was honest, sensitive and real.

The soundtrack, both the Springsteen songs and other 1980s artists (e.g. Pet Shop Boys, A-ha) are fantastic, and well placed in the story. The reality of life in Luton for immigrants is a little confronting. We can empathise with all members of the family as they struggle to find their way. It’s even based on a true story. I won’t give any more away for those who want to see it, but it’s a solid movie with a fun premise behind it. In the end, sometimes songs really can give you a soundtrack for your life.

I was a guest of Universal Pictures. This movie will be released on Oct 24.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Five Feet Apart

Five Feet Apart, Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis 

There is something about books that cover teen romance combined with major illness. They grab you in, draw out your emotional energy, and spit you out again hopefully more understanding and empathetic at the same time.

Stella has CF (cystic fibrosis), and has spent the last decade coming in and out of the same hospital, and is loved like one of the family by the medical staff. Over the years her Mum and Dad and sister Abby have already been by her side, and her sister’s drawings illustrate each hospital visit. However, things at home are complicated and this time she has come to hospital on her own. Delighted to learn fellow CF teen friend Poe is also in at this point, they reconnect quickly mainly via video chat as CF sufferers cannot get closer than 5 feet apart due to high risk of infection transfer.

At the same time, Will is in the same hospital. He also has CF, but combined with a deadly infection B. cepacia, which means he is no longer on the lung transplant list and only has a few years to live. His mother has made it her mission to find a cure and so has dragged him all over the world in hope. Will, however, is over the treatments and is counting down the days till he turns 18 and can refuse treatment.

As Will and Stella connect, neither is impressed with the other to start with. Stella thinks Will is arrogant and too risky. Will thinks Stella is too controlling and organised. But as they start to learn more about each other, the walls come down. Yet, how do people really connect, when they can never get closer than 5 feet from each other?

You know tragedy will strike at some point, but you can’t always see which way it comes from. We learn Stella has come to believe she has to survive for others. Will starts to realise just how dangerous his infection could be. Both grapple with the realities of facing death, major medical treatments and complicated family and friendships.

There are lots of similarities to The Fault in Our Stars. It doesn’t shy away from medical realities. It touches nerves, is funny as well as highly emotional, and sits with you for a while after. Highly recommended for teens about age 14 and up.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Any Ordinary Day

Any Ordinary Day, Leigh Sales

How do people live when tragedy strikes? How do you go on when in the midst of one normal day, things change forever? This is the story Leigh Sales wanted to address in this book, and she has done an excellent, insightful job. She opens with her own story of one day drastically changed, when she had a uterine rupture with her second pregnancy putting both her and her baby’s life in danger. This springboards into a reflection and investigation into how people cope and change when they have faced a major event.

Sales is a long-standing experienced journalist and perhaps this is why she has been able to interview so many people. Included in her list are:

  • Louisa Hope, survivor of the Lindt Cafe hostage crisis who also has multiple sclerosis.
  • Michael Spence, Sydney University Vice-Chancellor whose wife died four weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving him with five young children.
  • Walter Mikac, who wife and two daughters were killed at Port Arthur.
  • James Scott, who survived 43 days lost in the Himalayas and then become the centre of a publicity storm.
  • Stuart Diver, the only survivor of the Thredbo landslide, who has since also lost his second wife to cancer.
  • There are others too whose names we might not recall as readily or know at all, but have suffered their own private griefs and shocks.

What is highly valuable is some of her analysis along the way. She interviews past Prime Minister John Howard, who over his 11 years in office was the voice that consoled a nation through Port Arthur, the Thredbo landslide, 9/11 and the Bali bombings. She talks to coroners, police officers and priests and gives helpful comments on the legal profession, police force and those who help others, how they can be helpful or harmful to those grieving and suffering trauma.

She also considers how journalists help or hinder these tragedies, all in the name of reporting what the public want to know about it. She acknowledges there’s always a tension between landing the scoop and treating people with dignity. She is strikingly honest about her own failings and shame in this area, noting that many were due to a lack of empathy:
“There is an unfortunate collision between two forces. Maximum public curiosity and therefore maximum media harassment coincide with the peak vulnerability of the people involved.”
What I found interesting was that three of the people she interviewed have a strong personal Christian faith. I appreciated Sales’ honesty about her struggle with this, almost a sigh when people told her, yet an openness to try to understand how personal faith affected people: “Michael Spence is an extremely intelligent, accomplished, insightful person. If he finds value in Christianity then surely there are lessons for me to draw from that.” Later she comments,
“Religion is an extraordinary helpful tool at times of grief and loss because it offers both an explanation for the inexplicable and a supportive community…For me it has been equally heartening to meet many people who’ve had the courage the face the worst that life can throw at them without faith.”
She makes astute observations along the way about how people are drawn to hear about other’s people tragic circumstances but do everything they can do avoid their own. How people think they could never survive what others have had to go through. How many people can’t stand being that close to people who have suffered as they have no idea what to do or say, and so avoid it altogether.

Most people’s reflections acknowledge that there has been growth through whatever they faced, whether personal change, or a greater sense of purpose or meaning, or seeing communities change for the better as a result. While she does refer to some people who have really struggled with tragedy, it is clear they are not the main focus of her research. In the end, many people reach similar conclusions:
“That in pain, there’s also joy. You can’t be in the presence of just one though, that life is good, or life is bad, or life is sad. There’s all these things. And there are so many good people in the world, actually, so much kindness,. It’s everywhere.” 
“‘Somehow we need to be aware that we’re mortal, that this time is finite,’ she says. “It’s knowing this is all going to end, so let’s make it matter.’” 
“The random distribution of misfortune is perhaps the only thing in life that is fair. No amount of money, fame, power or beauty can save you from tragedy, illness or death if they’re coming for your family. I have a heaping plate of things in life that aren’t fair – nice parents, a peaceful country, a good brain, sound health and caring friends. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of that.”
It’s an engrossing read. Sales has done an excellent job with confronting but also uplifting subject matter, providing analysis and research while keeping a very personal and caring touch over it all.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Juliet, Naked


Husband and I both enjoyed this movie about living with the consequences of your choices, yet still trying to make the future better.

Annie (Rose Byrne) is the museum curator of the sleepy seaside town of Sandcliffe, England. For fifteen years, she has been living with boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). They decided early on not to have kids, and Annie now regrets it, but they are both set in their decision. In fact, as she acknowledges early on, much of the issue is that Duncan is in love with another man. Not in any romantic way, but as a super intense fan of once mildly famous singer Tucker Crowe. He runs a website where 200 sad, middle-aged men gather together to debate various parts of his music and speculate on where he is, since Tucker has not been seen in public for over 20 years.

Opening the mail one day, Annie discovers someone has sent Duncan ‘Juliet, Naked’, that is, his seminal album but a pre-recorded version prior to the final release. It’s a dreary collection of his work, but Duncan thinks it’s brilliant. Frustrated by his lack of ability to find anything to criticise with Crowe, she posts a critique of it on Duncan’s website. To her great surprise, Tucker himself (Ethan Hawke) gets in touch to commend her on her review.

This kicks off an email exchange where they get to know each other and compare the realities of their current lives. While Annie laments her choices resulting in the lack of children, Tucker is facing his own past with four ex-partners and five children. As he notes, when you stuff up the first two decades of your adult life, it gets messy for the rest of it, and there is a lot you are trying to make up for. These exchanges are lovely: they are honest, candid and funny.

For those that want some content indicators: there are a fair number of f words, and a shot of batteries being removed from a vibrator. Duncan ended up being adulterous, and Annie’s sister Ros was a reasonably aggressive lesbian, who kept misreading women’s interest in her.

I won’t give away anymore, but we found ourselves reflecting that both Tucker and Annie were very realistic characters and we liked them. They were honest about their lives, their choices and where they lead them, yet also optimistic about change and positive about the potential future. Neither were over-the-top characters, not overly dramatic.

It’s an enjoyable film containing both humour and heartfelt reality.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Invisible and Invincible

Invisible and Invincible, Cecily Anne Paterson

These two very good books for younger teen/tween girls deal realistically with some tough issues that kids can face.

Jazmine is 13 and likes to remain hidden. It’s easy when you try hard enough, avoiding contact with people and never allowing yourself to feel. She can remove her hearing aid and just switch off. She’s moved house with her mum numerous times over the four years since her father’s death. She doesn’t have any real friends at school, so has drifted into the attention of bully Shalini and her friends, who she tries to appease.

Everything comes to a head when Shalini convinces them all to wreck the drama classroom and Jazmine is on the brink of suspension. However, drama teacher Miss Fraser intervenes and convinces Jazmine to be her helper for the upcoming drama production. One proviso is that she has to write down her feelings in a private journal. For the first time in years, Jazmine starts to analyse what she is thinking and how she feels and acts.

As the weeks unfold, Jazmine discovers she loves being involved in the play, she experiments with some gardening at home, and starts to ask questions about what happened to her father. However, she continues to think she is worthless and has nothing to offer and is stunned when some nicer students including Gabby and Liam, extend overtures of friendship towards her.

It is really a story of a girl learning to find her own voice and be OK with who she is. The themes are quite developed, with the bullying being quite intense at points, as well as the desire she feels for one boy. She also has to face what happened to her father.

The sequel Invincible returns us to Jazmine’s Year 8 world. I probably liked this one even more. Jazmine is balancing friends and their eccentricities, a boyfriend who is making her feel uncomfortable, and lots of nightmares when she tries to sleep. She escapes in the school holidays to her grandmother’s house, and finds it a place of solace with a woman she loves, respects and listens to. But family is never simple and an accident means Jazmine has to step up and care for others.

I finished both thinking Paterson has done an excellent job of portraying the variety of feelings and emotions of young women, and the challenges of friendships, boyfriends and complex family relationships. For that reason, I was a little surprised Jazmine was only 13. I felt the story would still have worked for a girl up to 15 or 16. As such, it’s good solid reading for girls aged about 11-14, though younger more na├»ve ones might want to wait a little longer to read it. Miss 12/13 really enjoyed them when she read them. Miss (almost) 12 also liked them, but wasn't as keen on the boyfriend parts. I enjoyed them myself, and there were sections that brought a tear to my eye. Paterson is Australian and so it reads very naturally for our context. The places referred to all smaller towns and regions on the east coast, and the books reflect people, life-styles and a school system many of us are familiar with. Recommended.

(I see too there is now a third in this series – Being Jazmine)

Friday, August 2, 2019

Instant Family

All five of us enjoyed and were challenged by this movie about fostering. Ellie (Rose Byrne) and Pete (Mark Wahlberg) are very happily married in their forties, and have a business flipping houses. When they show a house with five bedrooms to their family to look at, a random comment that they would never need such a large house because they are never going to have kids gets them thinking. Why don’t they have kids? Seems the years have gone by, it was never the right time and then after a while they stopped talking about it.

Pete makes a joking comment that perhaps they should just adopt a five-year-old so it would seem like they started having kids earlier than they did. This prompts Ellie to do an online search and she ends up on a fostering website, struck by the number of children needing homes. Pete is drawn in as well, and they end up in foster care classes.

So, the movie ends up with two main groups of people – the first being the adults in the foster care class and their instructors. These are a diverse group of people, from all walks and stages of life, wanting to care for foster kids for various reasons. The two instructors, Karen and Sharon, are great. They are honest, wise and willing to laugh. They walk beside these families through all their ups and downs, and support and encourage them along the way.

Then we are introduced to the kids. There is a fostering fair, where prospective parents and kids needing families can meet each other. Pete can’t stand seeing all the teenagers being ignored, though Ellie is very hesitant to talk to them because in her mind teenagers are trouble. They are rebuked by Lizzy, a fifteen-year-old, who tells them not to worry, but go and look at the little kids and forget about them.

They are intrigued and on inquiring discover than Lizzy has two younger siblings Juan and Lita, whom she has raised since their mother went to jail for drug use. They decide to proceed and bring all three children into their home.

Not surprisingly, it is hard, awkward and emotional. Ellie and Pete can’t quite believe the chaos that has hit them. There are temper tantrums for Lita, Juan is terrified of ever getting in trouble, and Lizzy is distant and reticent. When it gets really hard, they have an honest conversation about whether they can back out. Yet there are also moments of real joy. Connections are forged, trust is earnt and love is growing.

It seemed to touch on many of the big issues of fostering. This includes raising kids who are a different ethnicity to yourself. Pete wonders if there is a problem with a white couple taking on three Latino kids. As Karen says to him: “We have every colour of kid in the system, and every colour of parent”. Their extended families raise major concerns, wondering if they are “rolling the dice with the offspring of criminals or drug addicts”. There is the perception about foster parents: “everyone thinks we’re saints”. There are the emotional challenges of being in a system where family reunification is the priority. This is set in the US, where they have a more ‘fostering to adoption’ process, which is the not the case as much here in Australia.

As for content? There is a fair amount of swearing, which I still don’t like hearing with my kids, but each assures me nothing we are willing to watch at home will beat what they hear at school. There are references to ‘dick pics’ and naked selfies, and there is a particular unpleasant predatory janitor in a very minor role (who is beaten up by Pete and Ellie).

It’s a lovely story. It’s honest about the challenges, and excited about the potential of fostering. We have numerous friends who foster and our kids are becoming more aware of it. While no two-hour movie can do justice to the complexities of the real thing, it’s still a good thing for us all to have a little bit more insight into some of the challenges and joys.