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Archive for June 2012

A superior ‘Superbook’

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DVD Review: ‘Superbook.’ CBN.

CBN has redone the “Superbook” TV series after a quarter-century, and it’s way better. It still has a magic book zapping kids into Bible stories. But with computer-generated imagery, and better writing, it’s more realistic and fluid.

Joy flies through time in this wallpaper, available on the ‘Superbook’ website.

How much better? You can see for yourself. Every “Superbook” DVD has the new version, with its lifelike shading, believable dialogue and swooping camera movement. The DVD also has the “classic” version of the same story, with its stiff animation, crude sound and shallow writing.

The theme is the same: Chris Quantum and Joy Pepper stumble onto a problem or shortcoming; then “Superbook” opens up and teleports them into a Bible story. They meet Bible characters and see how the heroes dealt with similar problems. Then the book zaps them back to the present, and they gain new understandings of how to deal with their issues.

But Chris and Joy have a more contemporary makeover. They’re now middle-school kids, not preteens. He skateboards and plays guitar. she likes her cellphone and excels at trivia games. He’s less apt to throw tantrums. She’s more thoughtful and expressive, unlike the simpering earlier version who was always tee-heeing into her hand.

Gizmo the wind-up toy is remade into a full-size robot, though with the same chubby build and red-and-white color scheme. He also speaks with a little boy voice instead of a metallic monotone. And he’s apt to sprout rocket shoes or telescoping arms when they’re most needed.

Chris catches air on his skateboard in this wallpaper, available on the ‘Superbook’ website.

The video uses all the shadowing and texture mapping you’d expect from modern CGI, and the audio does music and thunderous effects equally well. Listen through headphones and hear how the sound moves as people walk.

One quibble: The new theme song, by sweet-voiced folksinger Debbie Scott. Her style may appeal to preteen girls, but boys? Doubtful.

To their credit, the “Superbook” makers don’t shy from some of the Bible’s tougher stories. One, “The Test,” retells the Bible story about God telling Abraham to sacrifice firstborn son Isaac on an altar. Another, “Roar,” retells the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. A study guide with each DVD helps you talk through each lesson with your own children.

Besides their more textured look, the videos hint at some decent research. The Abraham story shows the kids learning to use an abacus. In the Daniel episode, you get a glimpse of the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon. It has the blue-painted bricks and golden bulls and dragons that archaeologists think it did in the sixth century B.C.E.

The videos also do some interpretation, though. In the Bible, three mysterious men visited Abraham and announced his wife Sarah would bear a son. In “The Test,” one of Abraham’s visitors is Jesus. That dovetails comfortably with Christian theology, but of course it’s not specified in the Old Testament story.

Each episode ends with a pop song about the theme, with key scenes from the story as video fill. I say “fill” because after all, you just saw it all. Not sure it adds much to the DVD.

You can find more about the series on superbook.tv.  The site includes games, character rundowns, wallpaper-size pictures from the episodes, and a free 52-page devotional book for kids in .pdf format.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

June 28, 2012 at 3:02 am

Father and son: joined yet separated by their faith

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TV review: ‘My Reincarnation.’ 86 minutes. Airdate: 10 p.m. eastern time on PBS (check local listings).

Detachment is the route to nirvana, according to the Buddha. But in a western Buddhist family, it’s also a road into the generation gap.

My Reincarnation, kicking off the 21st year of PBS’ POV series, is a quiet yet classic look into the meaning of life and human nature, told through the story of a Tibetan Buddhist guru and his Italian-born son. In the process, it explores issues of destiny versus autonomy, heritage versus individual freedom.

Namkhai Norbu explains the meaning of the Purba (ritual knife) to his son, Yeshi. (Zohe Film Productions Inc.)

Director-cinematographer Jennifer Fox gives us an extraordinary, 30-year look at the life of Dzogchen Buddhist master Namkhai Norbu and his son Yeshi, living in Italy. Yeshi has the simultaneous fortune and misfortune to be the son of a revered teacher — a Rinpoche, believed to be a reincarnated master. Better (or worse), Namkhai comes to believe his son is his own reincarnated master and quietly tries to steer him into Buddhist practice.

As do many western sons, Yeshi resists and resents his father’s wishes for him. We see him starting in 1989, more interested in girls than gurus. He also resents how Namkhai flits to various seminars, charming large audiences, while holding his own son at arm’s length.

As Yeshi grows into manhood, he reaches his goals: He marries, has two children and becomes a businessman, often driving around Italy to this or that meeting. Yet the more he achieves, the less it means to him. He even finds himself reciting mantras to a CD as he drives.

He begins sharing his managerial knowledge with his father’s organization, which is experiencing growing pains. And perhaps he gains some understanding of Namkhai’s dilemmas. As he notes in the film: As an organization grows, it puts more distance between a guru and his followers.

Filmmaker Jennifer Fox (Zohe Film Productions Inc.)

Yeshi decides to visit the Tibetan monastery where his alleged previous self taught. He is overwhelmed by the greeting: the colors, the music, the rituals, the elderly followers who have been awaiting the Rinpoche’s return.

That seems to be the tipping point as Yeshi accepts the mantle of teacher. He becomes a close copy of his father, traveling constantly to minister to a growing following. Oddly, it doesn’t draw father and son closer: Namkhai doesn’t applaud Yeshi’s turn of vocation, and the two find little time in their busy schedules to spend together. Tibetan religion and tradition are better for Yeshi’s choice. Personal freedom and happiness, maybe not.

Is this good or bad? Happy or sad? To her credit, filmmaker Fox doesn’t indicate. She leaves the bottom line to us. That’s remarkable for someone who spent four years as Namkhai Norbu’s secretary.

Although My Reincarnation is an outstanding achievement — what sociologists would call a “longitudinal case study” — it leaves one chapter unwritten. What of Yeshi’s own two children? As he emulates his father, flitting around to minister to his followers, do they understand his sense of mission? Or do they feel neglected, abandoned, as he did?

And when they grow up, what will they choose? A life of Buddhist detachment? A western-style pursuit of rewards and relationships? Something else altogether? And will they feel manipulated if, like their dad, one or both are marked as reborn masters?

Jennifer Fox was right. My Reincarnation is not only about the difference in eastern and western values, but about the struggle between father and son. What is life for? Building and nurturing relationships? Or engineering the escape known as nirvana? Do we need to find ourselves or lose ourselves?

You can learn more with these links.

For more on the documentary, including pictures and a description of Dzogchen Buddhism, click the film’s website.

For more on the Norbus, including their schedules and local centers, click this link.

For more on the POV series — and apps to watch My Reincarnation on iPad and iPhone — click here.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

June 18, 2012 at 2:41 am

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