Saturday, February 13, 2010
THE HAMSTERIAN APPROACH TO TEACHING COLLEGE LITERACY: AN EXPLORATION OF DIALOGUE CONCERNING ZOMBIE TEXTS
in a recent lesson concerning the basic elements of nonfiction texts, i used zombie movies as my platform to illustrate the structural dialogue found in main ideas and supporting details.
if we know that the topic of conversation is zombie movies, then, depending on the speaker, we may have various main idea sentences concerning that topic. for instance, my mother might think zombie movies are juvenile while my wife finds zombie movies disgusting. likewise, my more conservative christian friends might label zombie movies as pathways of demonic manifestation, while some more liberal theologians might consider zombie movies the perfect cinematic illumination of sin and hell on earth. each speaker possibly possesses a unique relationship to the topic, and thereby exists a plethora of potential main idea statements.
the main idea statement i shared with my classes concerning this topic was rather frank: i freaking love zombie movies!
at this point, once a main idea statement has been fully established, a conversation of sorts begins between speakers and listeners, writers and readers. as i state my claim on the value (or not) of zombie movies, my conversational partner (or reader) will now have one burning question that shapes the next stage of our dialogue or, in my classroom, the remainder of our academic text. and that question is simply: why?
"you say you freaking love or hate zombie movies? you say they are juvenile or disgusting? you say they are demonic or theologically curious? okay, i hear you saying that, but why?"
at this point the main idea must be supported by details: major details that support the main idea sentence and minor details that back up the major details. put together, we have a colorful conversation or text on our hands. here's the example i gave my students, complete with transitional expressions to indicate new major supporing details:
I freaking love zombie movies! For one thing, they're fun. Zombie movies are often not heavy dramas. Secondly, they're smart. Zombie movies offer opportunities for good social and political commentary. Finally, they're us! Zombie movies are about dead people, and all of us will eventually die one day, and who doesn't like to think about that?
a few of my students pointed out that i contradicted myself in the support of my first two major details. i begin by saying that zombie movies are not heavy dramas, but then i say that zombie films possibly offer good social and political commentary. what gives? are they one or the other? are they allegorical texts or are they no-brain laughfests? and the answer to all of these queries is simply, yes.
take, for instance, the little number i have brought for review today, Boy Eats Girl. very fun zombie flick. pretty light-hearted. bloody enough to earn it's R-rating. chock full of cannibalistic and slapstick humor to relax any college professor at the end of a long week. not to mention, the lead girl wheels in on a crowd of zombies with a tractor and then proceeds to fertilize the yard with mutilated corpse bits, leaving bottom trunks and legs standing while torsos scatter like sprinkler water over the front lawn. in another great scene, the film's antagonist bad-girl steals a scooter from an elderly woman, leaving granny as lunch for the zombies while she peels off on granny's vespa. yeah, i had a total blast with this one.
at the same time, Boy Eats Girl explores the awkwardness of puberty and the initial cravings of newly budded sexual appetite. set in a irish prepatory high school, the sudden outbreak of zombified cannibalism works as a metaphor for religiously suppressed, though raging hormones. we initally recognize the metaphor as nathan's mother (who, bless her heart, is responsible for turning nathan into a zombie via a botched voodoo reanimation ritual) speaks to nathan about his new condition: "nathan, i know what you're feeling. you're body is going through changes. you have new hungers and desires that you've never felt before." mom knows that nathan is a flesh-eating zombie, but nathan does not realize it yet, and he rejects her seeming approach to the birds-and-the-bees as a topic far too awkward for the breakfast table. however, nathan finally realizes the full extent of his zombie cravings while being seduced by the film's antagonist bad-girl, who to this point has been a thorn in nathan's side. as she presses herself on nathan - an unknowing zombie who has not eaten in days - he looks into her offered cleavage and announces longingly, "flesh." wrongly supposing this breathy exclamation an acceptance of her propositions, the girl proceeds to kiss nathan, heightening his hunger even more, until he is forced to pry away from her and run to safety - his safety as much as hers.
Boy Eats Girl is a brilliant little coming-of-age flick that feels like some wicked blend of Mean Girls and Shaun of the Dead. personally, i think the genius of the film is that it successfully explored the awkward onslaught of teenage sexuality without dissolving into a sexed-out skin-flick. this rare ability to explore a sexual theme without creating a sexual overtone made this little b-grade independent number a refreshing anomaly to the teen-scream genre.
with that said, i give Boy Eats Girl three supporting details out of five. this is text-book zombie film material: totally fun, totally smart, and totally full of dead people eating living people. (and it's available as a netflix "watch instantly" option.) i would show this to my classes if i knew i could get away with it. but i can't. so i won't. thus i'm writing this to all of you.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
I'm gonna warn you ahead of time: there are going to be spoilers here. But everyone in America has seen this by now, so it shouldn't be a problem...
After seeing AVATAR last weekend, I've been running a kind of unofficial survey amongst the people that I know. It's really simple - I just ask what that person thought of the movie, being careful not to betray my own bias. Here's what I found: a good 75% of the time, the person's response is something like, "The visuals were amazing, but the story wasn't so great." Now, if you'll permit me to vent a little, here's a blanket statement for you: a movie that has a weak story cannot, no matter how pretty it is, be a good movie. It can't. If it has a bad story, then it's a bad movie. Story is still king, no matter if James Cameron is the writer or not, no matter if it's gorgeous or not.
I will give the film some credit, however (snarky credit, of course). Cameron does something in this movie that I've never seen anywhere, in any movie. He turns the concept of character development on its head, and his characters actually regress so blatantly that it has to be intentional on Cameron's part. These characters go from complex, interesting people that we may actually care about a couple of hours from now, to simple, illogical caricatures that we neither mourn nor celebrate with. Let's be a little specific.
Sigourney Weaver's character of Dr. Grace Augustine begins the film as the genius curmudgeon who resents a jarhead like Jake being assigned to her mission. She provides the counter-balance to Jake's bullheadedness and serves as the voice of reason to her superiors. As the movie progresses, though, Grace (who's not graceful at all, ha!) becomes increasingly irrelevant and serves no purpose other than to fawn over the Na'vi children. Science goes out the window right along with Grace's quirky smoking ritual. It's the same deal with Joel Moore's Norm Spellman who enters the movie as a brilliant scientist who is initially jealous of Jake's success with the Na'vi (which would have been an interesting plot device, but they chucked it after 5 minutes), but regresses into a gun-toting madman who throws himself in front of bullets. Isn't he a scientific genius? The best way for him to help was with a machine gun? Really? There wasn't some way to combine the Na'vi's knowledge of the science of Pandora with Norm's brilliance? Nope. Machine guns.
Even Jake, who has the most interesting character trait of all - the paraplegic who suddenly finds himself with legs - regresses into a faux William Wallace, spouting motivational gibberish from a mountaintop. Seriously, we couldn't explore this idea about how it felt for him to have legs again for, like, ten minutes? He runs around one time and it's old for him? Sidenote: what happened to the other avatars? The beginning establishes that there are a bunch of them. Where did they go?
And the evil Colonel Miles Quaritch, who begins the film as a reasonable military man who seems to understand the ins and out of in-theater operation, becomes a babbling idiot, whose military tactics make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Like, I don't know, maybe drop the bomb from really high up so that you didn't crash into trees and whatnot? Also, out of nowhere, he regresses into a crazed maniac who wants nothing else but to kill the blue folks. The mission doesn't matter to him anymore, he only wants be an exterminator. It doesn't make sense. The guy is career military; he makes a living in situations like this.
The best example of this idea of character regression, though, is Pandora itself (hey, Cameron makes it a character - why can't I?). The first third of the movie is concerned with this idea of the living planet in which everything is connected through a kind of neural network. Sidenote: Sigourney's monologue about the neural connections between the trees provoked out-loud laughing from both Janna and me. Totally ridiculous on a Mega Shark level. Then, later, when Jake is doing the William Wallace thing, he has to send everybody flying out to the other tribes? Why can't they just plug into the network and summon the others? Isn't that the point? And isn't it a rather large planet? It should have taken weeks to get all those warriors there, right? This is another example of the limitation of Cameron's writing - he can't close the deal. In the end, it's all just an action flick and darn the details. Continuing with Pandora, what's the deal with the body switching ritual? They just had this particular dance/chant/whatever ready to go in case they needed to switch bodies? Does this kind of thing happen regularly?
Here's why Cameron is no Tolkien (not that anyone is claiming that he is, of course). In films like THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, there is an internal consistency, an internal logic, to the created world. In AVATAR, there is none. Why do the floating mountains have waterfalls? Where does the water come from? Why does Eywa choose to wait three-quarters of the way through the battle to send the animals in? Why does Michelle Rodriguez suddenly care about the Smurfs? Are the screenwriters of DANCES WITH WOLVES and POCAHONTAS going to sue for plagiarism? And the big question: don't they know that the evil capitalists are just gonna come back with bigger guns and bigger bombs?
Anyway, I'll say it again. A movie with a weak story is a weak movie. It gets some points for being extraordinarily beautiful, but that's it. AVATAR gets 2 Resident Evil dobermans out of 5 (you go watch the Resident Evil movies and tell me that the dogs aren't exactly the same as the ones in AVATAR. Go on.). By the way, I reserve the right to upgrade this in the future if the sequels are better... and I hope they are.
Lon Chaney Jr. (1906) – You know they’re remaking your Wolfman film. Yessir, they’ve got that Benicio Del Toro playing your part. From what I’ve read, they said you set a standard, your face was wolfish already, and they’ve decided to use as much stop action transformations as possible to take Benicio from man to wolf. They were right about one thing: you set a standard. And every werewolf from Michael Landon to Michael Sheen has tried to bridge the gap between man and beast as authentically as you. Cheers for evolving a story of de-evolution!
Roberta Flack (1937) – I’ve said it multiple times before, and I’ll say it multiple times again: you are the most underrated female soul artist in music history. And that’s saying a lot from someone who swears by Gladys Knight and the Pips’ Imagination. But I’ve spent several late nights sitting up in the near dark spinning your First Take, sometimes repeatedly. I’m not sure what happened back then, if you walked in at the wrong time, if someone else beat you to the press, or if the attention of the country was somewhere else in 1969, pushing First Take into the periphery of the nation’s ear-shot, but, whatever misfortune happened, that album was overlooked as the masterpiece that it is, and you were unfortunately moved into the alcove as a peripheral artist. Maybe so at the time, but not in my home. You are greatness. You are a voice and talent to celebrate. So here’s to you, Roberta Flack, on red carpet and loud speakers, moving from the alcove to the center at last.
Cliff Burton (1962) – Since I was 13 years old, I have evolved through several different musical stages. There was the all-metal phase in junior high, the grunge stage in the early 90s, followed by the strictly Christian music phase of later high school. In college I teetered somewhere between indie rock and the Indigo Girls, finishing out my major on my dad’s Cat Stevens and classic country vinyl collection. I’ve tampered with hip hop, swing, classical, folk, Americana, and silence for years. My ears have jostled my brains these past 20 years like cerebral maracas set to the rhythm of obfuscation; however, since the first time I heard “Battery” in 1990, me and my ears and my jangled cerebral cortex always land back solid on one unwavering musical truth: Metallica. And I’m of the school that believes the best music Metallica ever created was during the Cliff Burton days. The band is still amazing. Still worth following. Metallica is still the gospel of heavy metal truth. But you were the fury of Metallica, the gory fuzz on their bitter edges, and when you left us in ’86 so did their dissonance and their blood raw intensity. It’s been near balladry, wrapped in the rabble of James and Lars licking their bus crash blues, ever since Ride the Lightning. Listen, here’s to you Cliff Burton, and the greatness that was pre-Newsted Metallica. This new Robert Trujillo sounds promising, but you were brutal. Thanks for the whiplash, and the “Whiplash”. I’ve got Master of Puppets spinning this morning in your honor.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Friday, January 29, 2010
I decided, on a whim, to take Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States with me to Rwanda a few years ago, and spent the better part of an afternoon on Lake Kivu reading this strange tale that I had never heard before, one of socialists during World War One, of the pacifists during World War Two, of the Native Americans during the colonial period. Chapter after chapter spoke to me of subaltern histories that my traditional history books hadn't really told me of. And what made this book revolutionary was that it was written in 1981, long before it was vogue to tell 'alternate histories'. Whole worlds opened up for me, worlds not only of other histories, but of how to tell other stories, how to see other worlds with other hopes and other aspirations.
As far as intellectual elitists go, Zinn was one with the goods. He was around at Spelman College during the Civil Rights movment, sponsoring the SNCC group on campus, and mentoring a little known woman named Alice Walker. He was fired from Spelman in 1963 for protest involvment around the Vietnam War, when he moved up to Boston. One of the collaborators with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Zinn continued his activism right up until his death.
Though probably not as well known around the Popcorn Bag as Mr. Salinger, Howard Zinn was for me the model of an academic who spoke his heart. I go back and forth about this: on the one hand, as anyone who's been around the academy knows, the academy is a pretty safe place to throw stones from. Once you gain some critical mass, intellectually speaking, even the most obnoxious voices can get difficult to dislodge. The man was not without his detractors, calling him "revisionist" in the pejorative sense of the world. My response to that is that we read the worlds we learn to see, and Zinn was in the business of helping us see a totally different one.
I won't go all the way and say that I agree with Zinn on everything; his Marxism gets obnoxious; he was devoutly materialist in many of his writings. And on that, he and I must part ways. But what I celebrated about Zinn's work was the manner in which he, as one of the ivory tower, turned his work not into an internal conversation with the academy, but as a vehicle for re-thinking the world. That world he helped rethink is poorer for his passing.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
chad pollock was on again about my needing to read salinger. he was in a tizzy about it. as usual, we had been hitting the yantai pijui pretty hard, and all things become greatly exaggerated in the chinese lamplight of more pijui. so whether it was chad that was angrily on about it or whether it was me melodramatically filtering chad, we'll never actually know. but i do know that i hauled myself to the foreign teacher's library the next day and checked out a blood red copy of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. and i know that, on the way home from the library, i bought a pack of qing liu cigarettes and a bottle of brandy at a kiosk, and when i sat down to read that evening i was already half drunk by page one.
i read the whole book in one sitting over the course of 19 chinese cigarettes, a bottle of brandy and a large yantai pijui. somehow, it only seems right that my experiment in reading under the influence would be holden caulfield's biography. and it worked. and even when i read the book again later that week, i remembered every detail to a tee - an intoxicated feat i've never quite accomplished since, even though i've tried several times.
but this is what i remember most about that night. i remember coming to the part in the book when holden sees the graffiti on the walls of his sister's school, and this pains him. and i remember holding my cigarette in my right hand, even though the ashtray was to the left of my chair. and i remember a large humming sound seeping into my room, as if from the very floors and not through a crack in the door or windows or walls. the hum rose from the ground up towards me, and as i looked across the room everything simultaneously shrank and jutted away from me, as if my chair had been suddenly sucked backward, my eyeballs torpedoed in reverse.
the entire episode lasted for about 20 seconds, long enough for my entire body to break into a sweat and for my cigarette to burn a hole in the carpet. i also remember thinking, as i recanted all doctrine of time, "is this what it's like to go crazy?" i was also a bit disappointed to that angels did not show themselves, but we can never custom order our episodes ahead of time. they grab us by lottery, and we know we win if we come out remembering our names.
i have told very few people this story. it's not the kind of story that you tell. like maud casey said about writers discussing their rare glimpses into invisible worlds, "it's not something you should talk too much about because it might disappear altogether, and because you start sounding like an asshole." some things you just gotta sit on and let fester between you and those walls that held the structure of secrecy.
but this is the thing i've never been able to let go of, and it's this right here. sometimes, in really dramatic romance stories, they talk of magical kisses containing fireworks or sparks or chemical explosions in the bottom of each lip locker's feet. and i sometimes wonder if such a moment, one of my great romantic surges, happened between me and salinger that night, crested down by a rising hum, sipping a bottle of chinese brandy while my ceiling bulb briskly retreated through the roof. i'll never actually know, but i think of that moment everytime i think of salinger. it would be an understatement to say he's haunted me.
if salinger is a hero to be celebrated, it is not because of the four books he published as much as for the people he created. had salinger been God, the whole world would be one giant manhattan, and every word ever spoken would sizzle on a breath of vermouth and olives. thank God salinger wasn't God, but he was close. the world and the people salinger created were real, and we feared them as much as we silently longed for their honesty and courage. i've spent more than one full night sipping my way through salinger's work, and i've more than once shivered at my revulsion and envy of his characters.
like everything else salinger ever did - his books, his seclusion, his secrets, my slip of momentary dimentia - he has now forced this event upon us as well. ascending the elevator. dripping and salty from the shore. laying down on his pillow. kinder and gentler than even his stories. like all things, he has forced his quiet exit upon us, and he didn't even bother to whisper "excuse me" as he left the room. defiance was always his style.
and despite all our other plans, salinger proclaimed this day a perfect day for remembering, and a perfect day for letting go. i suppose i can oblige him this one thing. God bless you, j.d.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
So, in lieu of my analysis of the deep philosophical waters of V FOR VENDETTA, check this, this, this, or especially this out. Frankly, I found the parallels between 1984 and V pretty intriguing, especially when you consider that John Hurt plays Winston Smith (the hero of 1984) and the chief villan of V, a very "Big-Brother"-esque kind of character. And then, watch go watch this.
Apologies for having to go watch it elsewhere; I'm not tech-savvy enough to embed the video here.
NOTE BENE: With this post, we have the most productive month EVER for this site, logging 16 posts this month. Go celebrate or something.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
PROM NIGHT gets 2 uber-serious leslie neilsen's out of 5. after two years of searching clearance racks, bargain bins, thrift stores and garage sales, i expected (or hoped for) way more than this film delivered. but we live and we learn. we grow alongside our film collections. and though our collections reflect some weak moment in our financial history, we do not reflect our collections. i, for one, am exceedingly glad for this truth, as my PROM NIGHT dvd now sits alongside a copy of FIREPROOF.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
"Every cut is a lie. It’s never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth."
Thanks to the miracle that is Netflix, I've had the pleasure of viewing two beautiful, but starkly different, documentaries in the past few days. One is a picture of brutality and hubris, the other a celebration of beauty and humility.
I don't remember how I found out about THE COVE. But I do remember that when I heard about it I quickly added it to my Netflix queue, and then hit that all-important "Move to Position #1" button. On Saturday afternoon, I popped it in the laptop and became engrossed by the thermal camera images of dolphins being slaughtered that accompany the opening credits.
THE COVE is a film that details a small group of activists, people culled from various professions and walks of life, that see the wholesale and needless extermination of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Led by Rick O'Barry (the guy who trained Flipper, and has since renounced dolphin captivity), this team is comprised of deep sea divers, special effects wizards, and ex-military who put their freedom and lives on the line to accomplish their mission. Their mission was to simply document what has been going on in Taiji. And what, exactly, has been going on? The fishermen in Taiji have a cove that is located along dolphin migration patterns. They herd dolphins by the hundreds into this cove, where trainers from all over the world select dolphins to be bought and transported to their various dolphinariums and aquariums. This process is viewable by anyone from the street. What happens next is that the dolphins that aren't selected are herded into a secret cove that isn't visible from the street. These dolphins are killed. All of them. Male, female, children. Their meat is harvested and sold. Approximately 25,000 dolphins a year are killed in Taiji.
This is the time for a disclaimer. I am a carnivore through and through. While not a hunter, I have no reservations about responsible hunting. Many of my friends are hunters, and they bring me meat from the deer or elk or fish or whatever. I am not a member of PETA or Greenpeace. This is not an issue of responsible hunting - it's people making money off of the brutalization of another species for profit, with no regard to the environmental or health impact.
If we were talking simply about an issue of hunting dolphins because, culturally, they are a desired food, there wouldn't be that big of a deal. It would still be sad, but daddy's gotta eat. The main problem here is that almost no one eats dolphin meat. In fact, (and I'll try not to spoil the movie for you) eating dolphin meat is terribly dangerous to your health. What O'Barry and the team discover goes way beyond an animal cruelty issue (although it most certainly is that, as well) and extends into a health crisis. Watch the movie.
It's hard to give a rating out of five to a movie like this. I understand that there is one point of view being portrayed here. I also understand that this movie is made with a strong agenda. Still, if it can soften the heart of this carnivore, it must be effective. 5 Private Spaces out of 5.
From uber-serious to uber-awesome. Here's the plot for IT MIGHT GET LOUD: put The Edge, Jimmy Page, and Jack White in a room together and let them talk about guitars. Fantasticality ensues.
I wish, wish, wish that I had seen this in the theater. I've got a decent enough TV, but I really wish that I had heard this on big surround-sound, thx speakers. The movie tracks these three guys from their youth to the time that they fell in love with guitars.
There is a great little segment on how they each got their first electric guitar, and it's absolutely precious to watch these guys talk about the instrument like it was a child. The Edge talks about his first electric guitar in the same way that I talk about Sam being born. Speaking of The Edge, my favorite scene in the movie is a short little snippet in which he is listening to the original four-track demos of Where the Streets Have No Name. In the background, you can here Bono counting. And The Edge, listening intently and obviously remembering this time, this time before everything got so huge, before U2 became really gigantic, he almost gets emotional. Almost, but not quite.
What I really loved about this movie was the three men, who represent three generations of rock and roll, all demonstrate an incredible amount of mutual respect and humility. It would be easy for Jimmy Freaking Page to not take Jack White seriously, but he watches and listens, and dang it if he isn't learning a thing or two. And Jack White, the poster child for irreverence, watches Page and The Edge with an awe that is remarkable. The Edge is steady throughout, serving as a kind of bridge between the generations.
The only complaint I have is that I would have loved to have seen more of them playing together. At the very end, they all play The Band's "The Weight" together - The Edge and Jack White trade off singing the verses (Page makes a comment about how he can't sing at all). It's pretty great. That four minutes is worth the price of admission.
IT MIGHT GET LOUD gets 4 Claudettes out of 5 - it loses one because I wasn't satisfied in the end. But then, that's what rock and roll is all about, isn't it?
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Friday, January 15, 2010
This was the best year in a long time for movies (for me anyway, the Academy may disagree). It was a wonderful year for blockbusters and for little films. In fact, my top five list has some of both. Without further ado, here's the list, 5 to 1.
THE TOP 5
5. UP - It's not my all-time favorite Pixar film - that honor still goes to WALL-E, but it's a darn good follow-up. The scenes between Carl and Russell are beyond lovely. A kids movie that espouses the importance of family at the same time it's giving us talking dogs and flying houses... I loved it.
4. AWAY WE GO - I already reviewed this here, but a quick recap. This is a movie that has really funny funnies and really sad sads. It's completely ridiculous and you still by in for the journey. And the two leads are just great.
3. ZOMBIELAND - The one movie to end up on all three of our lists. This one had so much blasted joy in it, so much zombie-killing joy. If any film ever threatened knocking FRIDAY THE 13TH off its perch as our golden calf around here, it would be this one. I didn't see this movie until a couple of weeks ago, and from the opening five minutes, I knew it would end up on this list.
2. FANBOYS - I think I'm the only person that saw FANBOYS. Really. I've asked lots of actual Star Wars Fanboys, and no one has seen it. Come on, people! Seriously, what's the hang up? Just because it's a movie about four nerds breaking into the Lucas Ranch to steal an early print of Episode 1, does that mean it can't be funny? This is the closest thing we've had to a John Hughes movie since Watts was smooching Keith. And Kristen Bell wears the Princess Leia outfit. Come on.
1. THE HURT LOCKER - Will it win Best Picture this year? Maybe not. It's got a lot working against it - it came out early, it's got no Clooney-factor, etc. That doesn't make it any less powerful or compelling. It's not a movie about the Iraq War, it's a movie about people who are in the Iraq War. Please see this before Oscar season.
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS:
STAR TREK - As a life-long Trekkie, I was a little worried about the reboot. But after walking out of the theater, I couldn't have been happier with it. The brilliantosity factor comes in JJ Abrams ability too change all the rules without breaking any. This is a long-running franchise and it can go wherever it wants, without being beholden to history. Brilliantosity at its finest.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG - Go watch it with your daughter. Heck, go watch it without your daughter. It's really good.
CORALINE - In a year filled with great animated fare, this one ranks up there with the Disney/Pixar stuff. Creepy, shoot, downright scary in places, this is more Tim Burton than Walt Disney. We own it...
FANTASTIC MR. FOX - Again, the kiddie stuff shined this year. Wes Anderson is still Wes Anderson.
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER - This one is as remarkable for its structural innovation as for its story. Plus, Gordon-Leavitt outshines Zooey in it, and that's saying something
MEGA SHARK VS GIANT OCTOPUS - Yep.
THE MOST DISAPPOINTING MOVIES OF 2009
WATCHMEN - Meh. It was ok. And ok it not good enough for WATCHMEN.
FRIDAY THE 13TH - Why couldn't JJ Abrams do this one too?
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE - Again, ok. Disappointingly so. Why invent scene for a movie that you had to cut so much from?
Following the Hamster's lead, I'll dish out my top 5s in a few categories for 2009:
TOP FIVE FILMS IN THE THEATRE of 2009:
1) ZOMBIELAND--I didn't care for it as much the first time around, but with the guest cameos, the clever titles, and the role Woody Harrelson was born to play, this was unquestionably the winner.
2) THE WRESTLER--this comes in a close second, for a whole host of reasons. I've never cared for Mickey Rourke that much, but this film hits a home-run, if only because it's one of those rare films which has a vision of the world, and then unrelentingly plows forward toward the inevitable conclusion. I sat stunned after it finished. Technically, this was "2008" film, but I saw it in 2009 in the theater, so whatever. It was incredible.
3) I LOVE YOU, MAN--saw this one three weeks before the wedding with Matt Moser, and totally identified with this film. It's so true, and while the Hangover may have more laughs, this was a more likeable film than The Hangover. Paul Rudd can't compete with Zach Galifinakis for the comedic genius, but he's still pretty freaking funny.
4) INGLORIOUS BASTERDS--saw this for a second time the other night at Matt's, and upon a second watching, I like it better. It's a return of Tarrantino to story-telling, apart from the crap he's dished out for the last few films, and an excellent commentary on what is art, and how life and art implicate one another.
5) UP--I teared up a couple of times during an animated film. That alone gets it a mention. I hate the phrase "family friendly", but it fits. I should own this one.
--Avatar--visually stunning, but the plot left a lot lacking.
--Star Trek--I'm a sucker for reboots. I love what Nolan has done with the Batman franchise, for example, and word has it, the same is in store for Spiderman.
--The Hangover--Zach Galifanakis.
--Julie and Julia--I heart Amy Adams, and Meryl Streep--how can you not love Meryl?
TOP FIVE RENTALS OF 2009:
1) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN--what Kevin said. This was subtle, and the kind of monster movie that is not restricted to a sub-genre.
2) THE KING OF KONG--can a documentary about video games get me jumping up and down? This one did. Sarah does not get it; I love her anyway.
3) MURDERBALL--another beautiful documentary that I alternately laughed and teared up while watching.
4) ATONEMENT--this film has me thinking about what narration is and does in completely different ways. I still haven't figured out how to write about this movie.
5) JESUS CHRIST, VAMPIRE HUNTER--plot: Jesus comes to rid the world of a vampire horde who is stealing all of Montreal's lesbians. Need I say more? It's really smart, and laden with Scriptural references, and surprisingly, Jesus comes off pretty great.
FIVE I DIDN'T SEE IN THE THEATERE BUT AM CHOMPING AT THE BIT TO SEE:
1) THE ROAD--once again, Waco stays true to form and keeps an apocalyptic film destined for an Oscar nomination out of the theaters.
2) UP IN THE AIR--on everyone's top 10 list, but I reference the reasons for #1.
3) THE HURT LOCKER--I feel like I'm getting repetitive.
4) A SERIOUS MAN--I do love the Cohen Brothers.
5) CRAZY HEART--Jeff Bridges in a much-talked about Oscar buzz role.
and, last but not least....THREE DOGS OF 2009:
1) TERMINATOR: SALVATION--all of the explosions, none of the plot nuances of the other Terminators.
2) GI JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA--I am so glad I only paid a dollar at the Red Box for this turd blossom.
3) WOLVERINE--I can't really talk about this. Too soon.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Monday, January 11, 2010
CITY OF GOD is a film that will stay with me for months. Saying that this is the story of a Rio De Janerio slum, and the rise of two rival gangs is a really reductionist version of the plot. This is a story less about the leaders of the gangs, Knockout Ned and Little Ze, and more about a slum--the slum itself is the living, breathing, bleeding, heaving main character, vomiting up bodies and breathing out tragedy. Set in the outskirts of Rio, this winner of over 60 awards across the globe documents the ways in which one slum draws together two men by circumstance, and with them, a whole society which must hold sway under their violence. Bands of children roam the street fully armed, letting childhood rules of justice find full expression in guns. Drugs are water; death is bread; blood is religion.
The title of the film calls for me another City of God, the massive work by Augustine. In this work, Augustine beautifully lays out what he takes to be the central problem of human society: misdirected love. What we love, he says, we love imperfectly, so much so that human societies are necessarily made of competition and struggle, of inequity and death. What we love, we love in disproportion, and absolutely--we love the temporal, the sensual, and the gaudy, out of proportion. It's not that food or drink or sex is bad, but when they are loved absolutely, they become self-totalizing idols and impose death upon us, impelling us to sacrifice everything for pleasure or to rot our bones for power.
The tragedy of the slum is that it is of human making, a corral for the homeless to keep them out of the pristine Rio. And as such, for a time, it exists in perfect balance. There is no crime or robbery or rape, but only because behind the peace lurks Little Ze, the overlord who conducts his drug trafficking in absolute power, with petty crime an interference to his trade. When Ze's power trips across the line from the material to the human, from possessing a monopoly on drugs to possessing the power of life and death, a spark is ignited which consumes everything. Augustine watches as the banal ability to do things (power) swells, spilling over as people become things, and things become expendable.
Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund's film narrates this kind of society in heart-wrending detail, such that even those who recognize the temporality of power or the fleeting gravitas of the gun cannot ultimately escape what they have made. The City of God has become an all-consuming deity which opens its mouth and calls back into itself all that which seeks to escape, a god from our own hands and fashioned by our own desires. In the end, what redemption is there is marginal; the hero remains in the City, content to photograph its gasping, teeming, eternal life.
Five child thieves out of five. Kevin, I need to change my links at the side of the page.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
For the first hour of the film, I wasn't convinced that this movie deserved any of the hype accorded to it. A fairly minimalist film, set in 19th century Denmark, in a small village on the coast, BABETTE tells the tale of a woman sent to board with two sisters, elderly daughters of a beloved departed village minister. The daughters, because of their belief in the austere religious life, had each pursued the path of devotion over against one rooted in temporal pleasures, of beauty and the arts. Thankfully, director Gabriel Axel had the good sense to not resort to the ridiculous religious stereotypes these kinds of setups usually engender. Exhibit A: most of Stephen King's books where the minister is a meglomaniacal puritan.
By contrast, the daughters and the rest of their friends (fellow congregants of the late minister), band together for purity's sake, seeking the kingdom of God, purifying the flesh for the sake of the soul. Enter Babette, a refugee chef from France, sent by one of the daughters' long-lost suitors. Babette is taken in by the kindly, aged sisters, where all is well for a time, until Babette receives news she's won 10,000 francs, prompting fears that Babette will leave them and return to France. Babette's assumed departure coinsides with the 100th birthday of the sisters' father, which Babette--as a thank you for their kindness--asks to cater. Over Christmas, one of my wife's brothers cooked a meal like the one displayed here, and in that eating, food becomes less nourishment than art form, less time than pure event.
The crux comes when the congregation, gathering to celebrate the minister's life, is faced with a dilemna: the meal promises to be lush, lavish, and extravagant, while their salvation is tied to austerity and piety--the lust of the eyes against the love of the immaterial; the sensuality of the stomach against the love of God. What is to be done?
In Catholic theology, which drenches this film, the sacramental life is that which proclaims that material realities can in fact be experiences of God's grace, that we are visibly transformed through the partaking of the physical good gifts of God. As such, there need be no competition between physical and temporal pursuits, for the love of God transforms the physical pursuits in a way that one can do all manner of things toward God, loving God in and through them. Conversely, physical pleasure reaches a limit it cannot rightly transgress without being made perfect by the spiritual, such that normal activities, when undertaken in the love of God and for the sake of God, find the perfection they were always meant for.
I won't spoil the ending, because it really was a wonderful half-hour, subtle and delicate in the execution. Too often, these kinds of films wind up becoming ham-handed morality tales or preaching exhibitions against religion, but I loved that the central message is that the enjoyment of the goodness of creation is not opposed to the love of God, but in fact, enables it. Good food, good film, good friends do not detract us from the love of God, but in fact create the conditions under which communion of the soul with God can happen.
4 Turtle soups out of 5. I take one bowl back for general pacing of the film (which left me watching this solo while my wife snoozed), but I'll be darned if soliloquies in the last 15 minutes on mercy and truth won't stay with me for days to come.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Friday, January 8, 2010
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
one day i would like to be "well read." i would like to walk into libraries and have librarians ask me for recommendations. i would like to complete an entire crossword puzzle or "non-sequitor" comic strip without calling in reinforcements. label it pride (which it is) but my life is ridiculously short, my brain is shrinking with every B-flick film, and there is only so much time and energy to know and read what i hope to know and read.
Monday, January 4, 2010
I woke up early on Saturday morning to see the first showing of the day of Avatar. Why so early? I love movies in the morning. There is no better way to convince your mind that you have a day off from work than to start the day off with an indulgence. Some people start with three fingers of bourbon, but those people end up in jail a lot, too. Plus, I do my best thinking in the morning, which is probably why I turned a critical eye to this movie from the start. It’s kinda sad, actually. The last movie that I enjoyed with that 5 year-old boy-style raging enthusiasm was LOTR. Avatar is similar to LOTR in many ways. James Cameron, with the creation of the planet Pandora and its inhabitants, has fashioned a richly beautiful platform from which to tell a story. Unlike LOTR, Avatar’s story is mostly devoid of substance and delivers a watered down message that is perhaps not worth the effort.
The main character, paraplegic marine Jake Scully, has been chosen to be part of a corporate and military joint project on another planet where, through the wonder of fictional technology, his mind will embody a being that is made from both human and alien DNA. I love geeks! He can then live in this body as he would live in his own skin, but for only short periods of time. Oh, and his legs work now. He is soon enough bounding around the forest with his new alien friends learning their customs and proving himself worthy of their acceptance.
Pandora and the Na’vi, the intelligent species that inhabit the planet, are Cameron’s greatest creation. This world is unlike anything ever seen before… with the exception of everything James Cameron saw while thousands of feet deep in the ocean filming his documentary “Aliens of the Deep”. The influence of that experience in this movie is very obvious. With Pandora, Cameron seems transfixed by the wonder of bioluminescence, as he has given almost all of the plants and creatures this mesmerizing quality that is common to ultra deep-sea life. I can’t help but think of the recent popularity of LED backlit computer screens right now. Huh. Cameron frames thrilling action scenes in the context of this world perfectly. There are moments such as when Jake Scully is attempting to capture a dragon-like creature that will serve as a private plane/ BFF (just go watch the movie), where all elements of good movie making are put together seamlessly and the result leaves you shaking your head not knowing whether to get up and cheer or vomit.
The story is basic good v. evil. Humans, with the exception of 5 people, are evil. They are spilling their pollution, mining for resources and exterminating whoever stands in their way, that is, after reasonable negotiations of course. Then there are the Na’vi. The Na’vi are good. They embody our ideals of love and selflessness and this is how we relate to them. They live in a utopian society, and their only perceivable desire is to follow their own traditions and protect their perfect world. How could we have a problem with that? Cameron unnecessarily spends a lot of time and dialogue spinning spiritual vagaries into the Na’vi persona. This made me scrunch my forehead together and down toward my nose, and my nose up with my bottom lip turned upward. Yeah. I’m confused too. Ultimately, the aliens in this movie where too, er, alien for me to relate to. Too perfect is a problem for me. The Na’vi lack the flaws inherent to humans. Although someone who possesses my ideals can inspire me, I can only connect to those who have similar struggles as I do. I suppose this is the role Jake Scully was supposed to fill. But his transition from “once a Marine, always a Marine” to superhero of the Na’vi was almost imperceptible. He grew a beard. Must have been a rough patch he was going through. Equally troubling, Cameron invokes our memories of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror. It’s a cheap trick to rope in some emotional buy-in.
Despite all of its flaws, Avatar is a good movie. It’s an example of why we go to the theater to see a movie, as opposed to waiting for it to arrive in our mailbox. The story may not be that compelling, yet somehow it grabs you by the brain stem and injects $500 million dollars worth of seizure-inducing exhilaration for the better part of 3 hours. Pass the lithium, please.