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

AVATAR and the Theory of Character Regression



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.

BIRTHDAY FLYER - FEBRUARY 10, 2010

i write up these little birthday flyers every morning and post them on my office door. a little tip of the hat to an my great teacher and mentor, dr. beefboy wink. i sent today's flyer to john barber, and he greeted it with enthusiasm. i thought i'd share the love with all of you. today is a special day because i am truly a huge fan of roberta flack and the early metallica era of cliff burton. i'll be watching The Wolf Man tonight.



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

SATISFACTION: A GUEST REVIEW BY TIFFANI RIGGERS




"Satisfaction", starting Justine Bateman, Julia Roberts and Liam Neeson, among others, came out in 1988. Or as I like to call it "in the midst of my formative years." Because of that I remember it with great fondness and even use one of its lines fairly often ("where're the dips?" "all the dips are dancing") despite knowing that no one else has any idea what I'm talking about. Now that I have Netflix, I am able to relive these formative years with my grown up eyes and see if the movies stand the test of time.

Satisfaction is the story of a girl rock band, Mystery, who is hoping to spend the summer after high school graduation playing a gig at the beach. The band is made up of an odd collection of women (or stereotypes, as some might describe them) and a surprising amount of cowbell. And frankly, despite the presence of the cowbell and Justine Bateman's surprisingly low singing voice, the music isn't bad. Bateman, set up as the breakout star, plays the band's frontwoman who is also the high school valedictorian. Her best friend, the "slutty one" is played by Julia Roberts, who is as completely captivating and charming as she is in
Pretty Woman (which released two years later). The "hoodlum" and "druggie" are also represented in this mix of girls that are inexplicably friends despite having nothing in common except the neighborhood where they grew up, a love for rock and roll, and some decent harmonies. To add some comic elements, after losing their keyboardist they recruit a nerdy dude (from Shag!) to drive the van and tickle the electric ivories.

There is a ton of drama crammed into this story: dreams crushed, dreams realized, sex, drugs, the obligatory rock and roll, attack dogs, broken hearts, classism, and a bar fight. Seriously. I think the main problem with this story is just that - there is too much happening at the same time, too many characters and too many stories. And I think this is why Justine Bateman didn't become the breakout star: though her thread in the storyline was almost interesting (mostly because young Liam Neeson is wounded and beautiful and compelling) the other stories distract from it, and every time Julia Roberts is on stage she overshadows the rest of the crew. Other summer movies from around this time (Shag,
Summer School, and Dirty Dancing) manage to have one strong storyline and the side stories fit into it somehow. The side characters may fall in love, but the main point of the story continues. The side characters may grow as individuals, but the main character is the catalyst for the plot. Satisfaction, while a decent flick seems scattered and disjointed. I think you want to like this movie when you turn it on, but maybe it tries to hard to be all those other summer movies combined and never quite comes together around one important thing that the viewer can get behind (the way that Summer School made you want to rally around the summer class passing their exam, or the way that Dirty Dancing made you see how Baby and Johnny somehow fit and should be together).

Sentimentally, Satisfaction still rates 4 weirdly clanged cowbells out of 5 for me. But from a movie review standpoint, I have to be real with myself and you, and give it about 2 1/2 blue pills out of 5. If you like to see the stars before they were stars, or you like movies with music (like I do), then check it out. Otherwise, grab one of the other - better - movies mentioned above, pop some popcorn and enjoy some mindless summer fun sans Mystery.

Friday, January 29, 2010

RAGE, RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF DISSENT


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

INDEED, TODAY IS A PERFECT DAY FOR BANANAFISH


Jerome David Salinger
January 1, 1919 - January 27, 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

V for VENDETTA? CAN I GET YOUR NUMBER INSTEAD?

Instead of giving a full-length treatment of V FOR VENDETTA, one of my most recent Netflix treasures, I'll post this interview between Zach Galifinakis and Natalie Portman. I go back and forth on Portman. On the one hand, I can never forgive her for her involvement with the Star Wars saga: wooden acting, lame lines, culminating with the infamous "Hold you like me did next to the lakes of Naboo." I get shivers just thinking about it. On the other hand, she's really cute, and a Harvard grad, and lacks most of the Hollywood silliness. She tends toward more serious flicks, which I can appreciate.

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

THE PERILS OF FILM COLLECTING AND THE BEAUTIFUL AWKWARDNESS OF DANCING WITH JAMIE LEE CURTIS


besides watching too many films and reviewing too few films, i also collect me some films. well, i try to collect films. because of my loose allegiance to his holiness the dave ramsey, i do not buy as many films as i would like. and i never buy new or full-priced films. i only buy dvds off clearance racks in rental stores or from the "what's hot" rack at best buy. half priced books gets a portion of my monthly allowance, though i refuse to pay more than $5 for a vhs or a dvd.

oddly enough, i'm quite finicky with what i put in my film collection. at the moment, i'm working on a reputable collection of 80's comedies, children's animation, and classic slasher flicks. the latter category is the most fun to shop for, and probably because classic slashers are difficult to find.

for instance, i searched for the 1980 jamie lee curtis scream-queen classic, PROM NIGHT, for nearly two years before scoring a vhs copy at a half-priced bookstore in austin, texas. unfortunately, my vcr was broken, so i could only stare at the vhs box, sending pictures of the angry jamie lee cover to john and myles with my camera phone. finally, and surprisingly, i found a brand new dvd copy of PROM NIGHT at a record store in kansas city. to his holiness the ramsey's chagrin, i paid $10 for the disc, never thinking twice about it.

(have i mentioned lately how much i love the jamie lee curtis? probably not. might as well not start here. but, wow, jamie less curtis . . . . . . )

so after all that searching, all that waiting, all that tripping up of dave ramsey's gazelle intensity, i really wanted to love this film. i wanted this to be the best slasher film i had ever seen. i was even prepared, possibly fueled by the romanticism of a long hunt, to pronounce PROM NIGHT's triumph over HALLOWEEN (jamie lee's debut) and FRIDAY THE 13th (my slasher debut). i was prepared to do something that perverse, awarding PROM NIGHT all manner of hamsterian hyperboles and jamie lee gusheries. but i was not prepared for how badly this film sucks.

and this film hella sucks. it's not the worst film on the planet (THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK) or even the worst slasher film i've ever seen (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). PROM NIGHT is just a boring, poorly executed, overly obvious crime drama. each attempt to confuse the killer's identity by way of a creepy school janitor or rumors of a prisoner escape only solidifies the killer's identity. as one reviewer for RottenTomatoes says, "it's quite easy to figure out the killer's identity by simply keeping track of who is off screen a lot."

regardless, in every one of these horrible slasher flicks there is always the one golden 4-minute scene crammed into the dreadfully dull 90 minutes of worthless movie. in PROM NIGHT, the golden scene is jamie lee's prom queen dance with the prom king. fortunately, i've saved all of you the misery of sitting through PROM NIGHT by providing you, in the screen below, with the best 4 minutes of the whole mess. the awkwardness of this scene is delicious, and i'm only sad that the video quality linked below does not show the david brent lip biting intensity on jamie lee's face. she's really giving it here, and not very well.




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.

dear Lord, do not tell dave ramsey where my gazelle intensity has scampered off to.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Tale of Two Documentaries

"In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director."
--Alfred Hitchcock

"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."
--Wolf Koenig



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.
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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.

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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

THE TRIFECTA FAILS AS THE HAMSTER'S BRIDE PRAYS IN VAIN

the only way i can imagine following up myles' recent posts concerning two finer film slices, as well as the three back-to-back "Best Of '09" lists by each Hockey Masker, is with a review of unapologetic fluff.


my wife is a sucker for a good action flick, which she refers to as "bang-bang-shoot-em-ups." and, whether she would admit this to your face or not, "bang-bang-shoot-em-ups" are her absolute most favorite film genre. granted, she is nearly always disturbed by the inherent violence of action films, praying "Oh Jesus!" everytime anybody gets shot. likewise, the required foul language in action films surprises and disgusts latonya each time, as she crinkles her forehead and solemnly declares, "if they keep this up, i'm turning this off." she's a lady who suffers an odd paradox for her art, simultaneously hoping the best and the worst for everyone in these film: she understands that people gotta get banged-banged-and-shot-up in action flicks, but she just wants them to do it nicely.

also, even more than action flicks, latonya's a sucker for john travolta. but, even more than john travolta, she's a total sucker for denzel. and still more than denzel, she's a wicked sucker for an action flick pitching john travolta against denzel. for latonya stephanie still, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 should have been the trifecta of lazy sunday film watching. she even gleefully plopped back on her movie pillow as if this trifecta marked her birthday twice in a single year.

regretfully, PELHAM 123 did not deliver the trifecta it promised. there were bangs, so latonya prayed her reverential "Oh Jesus!" and travolta tried his best to cuss like nick nolte in a samuel l. jackson costume, so her forehead cringed. but the film lacked the most vital element of action flicks: tension. even with time running out and hostages dying and denzel running four-minute-miles in loafers and the gorgeous john turturro screaming his adam's apple off in the background, PELHAM 123 was a total flatline. i've felt more suspense waiting to see if all my microwave popcorn actually popped.

i think we both agreed that THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 deserves 2 travolta neck tats out of 5. roger ebert said it best in the opening line of his review: "There's nothing much wrong with Tony Scott's 'The Taking of Pelham 123' except that there's not much really right about it." save this for your next bout of flu or mono or dysentery. this is a great film for when you don't have time or energy for a film.

* * *

speaking of denzel, i would like to add that our very own guest reviewer, tiffani riggers, wrote a humdinger of a review for THE BOOK OF ELI on her personal page. the lady knows her way around a good film. i'm anxious to publish more by her in the weeks to come.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Top Five of 2009, Barber Style.


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?

THE OTHER TOP FIVE OF 2009


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.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
--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

THE HAMSTER'S TOP 5 OF 2009


you can imagine the chagrin befalling my hamsterian realization that the list of films i did not see in 2009 appeared more impressive than the list of films i actually did see. still, i took in some winners. total winners. winner winner chicken dinners. and i would like to present our Hockey Mask readership a few lists of the best and worst films of the hamster's year, as well as links to the reviews i wrote for each listed title. (in the case of I LOVE YOU, MAN, the link goes to a great review by myles - a review so nice i left it to the master himself.) enjoy.

* * *

THE HAMSTER'S TOP FIVE, IN ORDER OF PREFERENCE:

1. ZOMBIELAND - possibly the best zombie flick ever. tough to say because i'm so enthusiastically new to the genre, but i now gauge romero against ZOMBIELAND as opposed to the other way around - if that says anything.
2. THE HANGOVER - my new favorite comedy, after ANCHORMAN and maybe even MEAN GIRLS. the latter is still in judiciary conference.
3. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT- the most heartfelt horror film i have ever seen. saw this twice in the theaters and now own it. this is great. and i disagree with all the gorehounds of the genre who declare the original as superior: this film is brutally beautiful. shucks, i need a review on this one.
4. STAR TREK - this film won me with it's ability to tell a huge history in such a cohesive voice. no small feat. not much of a trekkie, but this was greatness on every level.
5. THE WRESTLER - gut-wrenching. honest. and the redemptive return of two stars with the best still ahead. i loved this film. loved it. probably deserves the number 4 spot, but oh well. it's gorgeous.

* * *

THE RUNNERS-UP - NOT IN ORDER, AND NOT QUITE TOP FIVE MATERIAL:

- I LOVE YOU, MAN (mpm-w)
- INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

* * *

THE ABSOLUTE WORST FILMS OF 2009:

- TERMINATOR: SALVATION - this film should have never been made.
- THE COLLECTOR - this film was pitiful. no heart. no brains. no purpose. this film is the reasons the horror genre gets such a bad rep.
- THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON - pretty scenes. nice acting. cute concept. but painfully awful. excruciatingly long. ridiculously dramatic. and totally unbelievable. plus, what's with the humanitarian plug at the end? stupid. the only redeemable element of this entire film was Taraji P. Henson's performance, which, of course, was never mentioned alongside the title. i would have accepted a 3 hour film that simply followed Miss Henson around acting like benjamin's mom rather than this piece of bull-turd.

* * *

THE HAMSTER'S TOP FIVE RENTALS OF 2009:

- LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - i wish this had been a 2009 film. it would have easily made #1. this is honestly one of the best films i've ever seen. unfortunately, it's categorized as a vampire/horror flick when, clearly, it's a romance. and it's lovely.
- KNOCKED-UP - even better than the sum of its recommendations. this was deliciously funny, and, surprisingly, one of the most touching films of the year. eat your heart out, della reese.
- THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS - quirky. socially awkward. devastating exploitation of one man's midlife crises and another man who's a total crises. i greatly enjoyed this film. and i cannot recommend it highly enough.
- THE HAMILTONS - this film proves that horror flicks can be artistic. this is a difficult film to digest, but there's a beauty here that supercedes the violence. and the ending twists like a corkscrew to the jugular. honestly, one of my favorite films of the year.
- REVOLUTIONARY ROAD - there is nothing wrong with this film. this is cinematic beauty from frame first to frame last. and the acting here is flawless.

* * *

2010 is off to a great start, but the competition from '09 is pretty fierce. here's to the year ahead: a hamsterian blessing on all your viewings.

Monday, January 11, 2010

THE CITY OF GOD AND THE CITIES OF GODS

The three authors of this thing are compiling their "Best of 2009" lists, but I keep wondering how it is that the best movies I find to watch are from some other year. Netflix remains of the best things we've ever invested in, bringing in buckets of films that I would never have thought to watch before. I go back and forth on the cultural capacities of Waco, but with regards to film, there's a lot to be desired. Needless to say, my guest room is the best theatre in town 85% of the time.




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

EATING OUR WAY TO HEAVEN

For years, I've been told that BABETTE'S FEAST was one of those must-watch films, and so, like film-lemming that I am, I put it on the Netflix queue and gave it a shot. With the new semester starting tomorrow, I'd love to say that our collective film-watching time won't go into decline, but who's to say? With that, I'm trying to get in some real heavies at the end of Christmas break, including CITY OF GOD, which Paste magazine rated the best movie of the decade, and, by all accounts a real downer.
**

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

WRESTLING EXTREMES AND BREAKING MIRRORS: THE HAMSTER EARNS HIS OMATICAYA STRIPES


AVATAR is film enough to deserve two reviews, if not more. personally, i would enjoy reading full reviews from the other two Hockey Maskers, as well as those trusted guest reviewers who have helped boost our nielsen ratings in the past few months. there's loads to say about this film. and since we can't order a big round of drinks to chat this one up over pints, Hockey Mask Inc. is a fine platform in lieu.

whether or not we all agree on the visual, narrative, character, and subtextual aspects of AVATAR, none of us can deny the enormity of this film. i've heard several men of my father's generation, including my pops, equate their AVATAR viewing experience with that of seeing STAR WARS in 1977: in both cases audiences left the theater shaking their heads, saying, "movies will never be the same again." i did not attend STAR WARS in 1977. (actually, i was in the audience but in the womb - my dad said i kicked and squirmed in utero the entire film and then popped out squawking and screaming like a tusken raider the very next day; i had a jedi calling to attend, it would appear). however, after seeing AVATAR today in IMAX 3D, i might understand the awe that ushered audiences from the cinema in 1977.

let me begin by declaring that, in my opinion, AVATAR deserves 5 kitty cat earlobes out of 5. and i award all five lobes to the entirety of the film, not just the visuals. granted, this probably says more about me as viewer than it does about the actual film. fine. i'm okay with that. in fact, that's exactly what i've been thinking about since i left the theater today, particularly in light of so much criticism concerning the shallowness of cameron's storyline and the paper-thin quality of his characters. these things never crossed my mind during the film. for nearly 3 hours, i was in that story and on that planet. i hated the humans. i loved the na'vi. i felt queasy on the heights. i prayed under that Tree of Souls. and, as shallow as this might sound, i bought into every bit of it as if i'd hooked my pony tail up to the film and leapt with it off a floating mountain.

i totally agree with sean cathey - AVATAR is why we go to the theater - but i disagree that the archetypes steal from the experience. perhaps the enormity of the human's militant greed and the na'vi's uber-pantheism feels a bit extreme, but i believe this is another reason we go to the theater or engage art: to wrestle extremes.

sure, i sometimes enjoy a believable set of characters and conditions. john hughes is fun for such relations. the duck man? i get him. i think i knew that guy in high school. john bender? i only wish i had been that punk rock once in my life. uncle buck? hell, i'd give anything for an uncle that made snow shovel sized pancakes! sometimes it's fun to shake hands with a screen name that looks and feels and sounds similar to ourselves, but eventually i want to make room for archetypes, for mythology, for extremes, even (or especially) at the cost of my own notions of reality. such archetypes and extremes force us to leave the mirrored reflections of who we are in order to stare down the possibility of who we are becoming, where we are going, what might happen if we don't break that God-damned mirror quickly. could AVATAR offer such a prophetic vision? it depends on the gullibility of the viewer, i suppose.

perhaps it's the horror fan in me that feels safe embracing archetypal extremes. or perhaps its the closet fundamentalist buried deep in my southern baptist roots that readily grants bullets in the battle between black and white, between paper-thin humans and the overly pristine na'vi. whatever the case, john cameron suckered me into AVATAR and i never quibbled one bit with surrendering to him every emotion. this is precisely why i bought my ticket in the first place. such a surrender is exactly what i hoped for when i walked into the theater. i am gullible like that. i want to be ravaged a la STAR WARS ' 77 by that oversized theater screen. i want to walk out with broader territories and more extreme notions of a plausible reality somewhere.

shucks, i might even love trees more today than i did yesterday.

Friday, January 8, 2010

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THERE'S NOONE LEFT TO EAT

sean cathey recently said something brilliant about the gluttonous pleasure of going to the theater during the morning. i liked his suggestion so much, i decided to try it for myself. and what better film to begin a new habit of morning theater goings than a dark and sinister vampire flick? a little coffee, a bite of lunch, and then two hours in a dark theater. yessir, this certainly feels like a day off, and this film made my day off feel like a freaking holiday.

DAYBREAKERS is proof that stephanie meyer has not totally staked all the heart out of vampire lore, at least not yet anyway. when one adds up the recent triumphs in vampire cinema - 2007's graphic novel adaptation, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT; the 2008 swedish masterpiece LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, based on the blindingly brilliant novel by john ajvide lindqvist (thank you again, kelly riad); and then this new undead gem - it becomes quite apparent that vampire lore is only getting better.

the DAYBREAKERS premise is simple but brilliant. it's 2019. the majority of the earth's population are vampires and the primary food source - which is harvested, marketed, and hunted by the military and major corporations - is humankind. however, the food supply is running low. the human population is depleting, which means that the major blood supply corporations are in danger of going bankrupt. this is where star vampire hematologist ethan hawke steps into the picture. his job is to create a blood substitute, a processed alternative to human blood that will sustain vampires past the extinction of humanity. however, ethan hawke is neither stoked about being a vampire or about prospering the vampire race. luckily for him, he runs into a group of renegade human beings who offer him a chance to mass produce a cure for vampirism instead an alternative food source. of course, this opportunity undermines the greater interest of big blood supply corporations, namely ethan hawke's boss, and this conflict of interests - between curing vampires or feeding them profitably fake blood - is where the plot thickens, congeals, and splatters all over the screen.

there's more i want to say about this, and maybe i'll work some of that into the ded-gum comments section, but for now the wife and i got some tickets to see AVATAR in IMAX. and as much as may have liked this little number, i ain't missing my engagement to write about the last one. overall, i give DAYBREAKERS 4 hamsterian gasps that ethan hawke didn't screw this one up out of 5. shucks, the wife is pushing me out the door and to the show. and all this time i thought i was the one excited about the blue folks

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

BEYONCE DONE GONE AND GOT THE FEAR OF GOD IN HER FINGERNAILS!!!


okay, seriously, how could the hamster NOT see this film?

sure, i tried to play it cool for months. i turned my nose up at the theater poster, secretly wanting to sneak in an unnoticed afternoon matinee. i've pointed and jested at the blockbuster window decal, hoping the wife would suggest the film so i wouldn't have to. and when friends have asked me about that new "beyonce cat fight flick" i've always scoffed and said, "what? do you think i like bad movies?"

finally, the wife and i had a quiet sunday after our travels this past weekend. so we made a pot of coffee in the afternoon and searched the watch-instantly options on netflix (genius). i wanted something funny. she wanted something suspenseful. (it's a wonder we keep this ship afloat.) so i'm looking for something comically thrilling, and then i see the OBSESSED poster.

"we could watch the beyonce cat-fight flick?" (stated in question.)

"sure," she said. have i publicly praised my wife's freaking awesomeness lately? she be good.

as a side note, the stills are big beyonce fans. we own her entire solo career, even a few of her extended singles with unreleased tracks. and we both agree that SASHA FIERCE, though aptly titled, takes the backseat to B-DAY. and while most of my friends laugh at my love for beyonce, the stills are convinced that the woman is an unstoppable force, and every new beyonce video is the best video janet jackson never made.

so, yes, when beyonce tackles a cinematic chance to back up her vocal and lyrical prowess with some fierce acting, me and my house jump to witness the slaughter.

(just a side note: i'm concerned for beyonce. that girl is going to go baldheaded before she's 40. you cannot put that much relaxer and color in your hair over and over and expect to keep those locks. just ask salt-n-pepa - eventually your scalp fights back. your follicles throw up their hands. your hair burns off. i mean, God forbid, a scrawny white dude with receding lines would tell one of the most beautiful women in the world how to do her hair but, Lord girl, give it a rest! please! i mean, sure, most of it is probably a weave, but i still lose sleep sometimes.

i digress.)

let's jump straight to the verdict here: OBSESSED is no HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, and it's certainly not as frightening and intense as FATAL ATTRACTION; nevertheless, OBSESSED is very energetic and fun, and beyonce delivers exactly what every man fears most -the fear of God in perfectly manicured nails.

you know the story: dude has top-tier job. new temp joins the team. she's smoking. he notices. she notices that he notices. she likes his notice. he exercises all manner of supernatural restraint as she rubs it all in his face. he fails to tell his wife because, well, she's beyonce and she's got the Old Testament in her fingernails. then the normal kitten-and-bitch chase reverses on the temp's flipped gears and she's a case. so beyonce has to break out the nails and chip one on ol' girl's forehead. then the shit blows up real big, and i started apologizing to latonya for crap i've never done.

i love these cinematic cautionary tales for men. if we won't listen to scripture and dr. phil and tiger woods, maybe we'll finally listen to beyonce or glenn close or dawn o'keefe. and we should. if the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, they're first vindicated through the hands of the mother. and sometimes she's not as merciful as the Divine covenant.

on top of the fun-though-predictable storyline and the vengeful morality play, the entire cast here was top notch. idris elba's acting was flawless: the man simply had to pretend he was not aroused. of course, he was sharing scenes with beyonce and ali larter, two women he can't have in real life, and thus the battle on his face was the real deal. and i've loved ali larter since the first FINAL DESTINATION. she's a great thriller actress, but i think she could really be more than a scream queen if given ample opportunity.

all in all, i give OBSESSED 4 difficult to see black men in a dark room out of 5. this is a great film for a lazy sunday afternoon. and, if i do say so myself, it's a perfect date flick. this is the kind of film that puts appropriate power back in the woman's hands and bent in the man's knees.

young men, watch and learn, because i guarantee good ladies know this stuff instinctively.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

An Ignorant Review by an Ignorant Guy

Much has been made of this new flick, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. It's historical, see? Some of Disney's most iconic (and by that I mean marketable) characters are the princesses, and the princesses tend to have one major thing in common - the color of their skin. With the exception of Jasmine (the Arab lovely from ALADDIN), they're all whiteys. And no, Mulan is not a princess. She does kick serious heiney, but she's no princess. Nope, almost all of the cadre of cartoon chicks are caucasian. So, when Disney announced that they were making a new movie with an African-American princess, it got interesting. There were various cries of 'hooray' and 'hallelujah', and 'it's about time'! There were criticisms too - when first announced, our heroine was not Tiana, but Maddy, and a chambermaid to boot. Which seems like the kind of thing a bunch of old white guys in a board room would come up with. After some protestations, changes were made. Maddy became Tiana, and the chambermaid became an aspiring restaurant owner.

As an ignorant white dude who's always been an ignorant white dude, I tried to put myself in the position of an African-American lady who has grown up watching these Disney princess movies and walking through the toy store down the princess aisle and seeing only white faces (cause Jasmine almost never gets toy love). I tried to imagine what it's like to be told as a little girl that the most beautiful women are Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella. And you know what I realized? I realized that I can't imagine it. I have no idea. At the end of the day, I'm still an ignorant white guy.

So I changed strategies. I decided to just watch the dang movie through my own ignorant eyes and the eyes of my six-year-old white daughter. And here's the deal: it's a really good movie. Beyond all of the racial and societal issues, it's a great flick to watch with your kid. It's got scary bad guys and great music and awesome animation and talking alligators and fireflies and a fat guy and good writing and, well, you get the idea.

The basic story line is about a girl who has grown up poor in New Orleans and wants to realize the dream of her father - to own a restaurant. Tiana is an amazing cook and a hard worker. She's saved up her pennies and dimes to buy her own place. And just when her dream is about to come true, the bad stuff starts happening. There's bad dude called The Shadow Man who meddles in dark forces. Folks get turned into frogs (naturally). And it all turns out pretty well in the end. The music is excellent - Randy Newman meets N'awlins jazz. It's a sondtrack worth buying.

Now, you'll hear me complain from time to time that I don't get to see many grown-up movies at the theater these days, but after a film like this, I should be raving about how I get to see so many kids' movies. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG gets 5 Evangelines out of 5.

And you know my favorite part? Laney didn't even mention that Tiana was black. She just talked about how pretty she was.

POUR ME A PINT - ALE OR COFFEE - AND SET ME IN A WINDOW SEAT: I MIGHT BE HERE AWHILE


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.

(i've been working on the same flannery o'connor biography since august, shooting it down and chasing it with shots of malcolm gladwell and gulps of this new stephen king, by gods i am. and page by page i've been bragging on myself, as if each chapter were a new leg on a treacherous mountain climb. geek pride is the worst pride.)

with that said, there are a few prior knowledge schemas that possibly could have helped me enjoy SHERLOCK HOLMES way more than i did. a few things i wish i had known walking into the film include:

- a better grasp on sir arthur conan doyle's stories and holmes' character,
- a deeper and wider appreciation of guy ritchie's work (which i've never stomached for some reason),
- why the blokes in parliament wear those white wigs,
- a general sense of british culture that stretches beyond fish-n-chips, "bloody hell" and "fuckin' wanker." i ain't so mod savvy, even though some of my best friends in china were brits. we just learned to drink lager more efficiently.

still, the dullard i am carried in enough sense to enjoy SHERLOCK HOLMES greatly. i knew a few things going in:

- the robert downey jr. is making quite the comeback - hurrah for him,
- i like that they included sherlock holmes' martial arts background,
- i dig the sights of small nerdy types beating the queen's english out of bloody huge blokes,
- i love any film that begins dark, pans out in dark, and ends in dark,
- fountain pens and sinister journal sketches turn me on,
- the wife and i lived three years on Holmes Road in kansas city,
- if rachel mcadams served me nasty tea, i'd drink 12 cups of it.

with this brief and quite unliterary knowledge under my belt, the wife and i walked into an afternoon showing of SHERLOCK HOLMES, and i walked out a knocked-kneed sweaty mess.

point blank: i loved this film. i loved this film on nearly every level that i could love a film. great visuals. flawless acting. fantastic storyline. a battle between science and black magic. tons of gunpowder. loads of fist fights. mcadams taking and delivering punches. shabby and dodgy scenery. murder and resurrection. chemicals and odors. acrobatic escapism. an english bulldog pudged in for comic relief. classic holmes' uncanny deductive reasoning. mcadams in purple. the whole film was electric and exhausting.

on the whole, i give SHERLOCK HOLMES 4 crotch pillows out of 5. the film looked good. it felt good. it made me tired. and, after all that, i drove home from the theater hungry to read. and, honestly, that's my actual desire: not for brilliance as much as for hours and days hunched over black coffee/fine ale and good stories. over science. over reasoning. over the magic of transferred wisdom. over words. yes, i can buy that last little bit there.

in fact, i have some stories about some brits i once knew in china. like that one day when chad, simon and i bought a bundle of yantai pijiu in the market and lit up a pack of qi lui cigarettes on my balcony . . . . .

Monday, January 4, 2010

TILL I TURN BLUE: A GUEST REVIEW BY SEAN CATHEY



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.