Saturday, February 13, 2010


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.


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", 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.