Category Archives: Film/DVD Review

A Year in Review, Part 1

Well, it’s well past the time when everyone is putting out their “Best of” lists for the year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the music, books, films and general entertainment that inspired or moved me this year.  These aren’t “Top 10” lists so much as just a list of what stuck out.  I’m going to give you two entries, with part two covering my overall “Thing of the Year”.  (Catchy, right?)  And so let’s jump right in to the other categories here…

Albums of the Year: This was the year I turned forty-two.  That’s significant musically, because a study was recently done using Spotify user data that showed that right at around age 42, the average person stops listening to new music and settles in to mostly listening to whatever was popular (or whatever they really liked) around the time they graduated high school.  So, if I was to follow that pattern, that means that I’d spend the rest of my days absorbed in the discographies of Petra, the Indigo Girls, and Pink Floyd. Maybe add in some Guns and/or Roses.

One could do worse, I suppose, but still, no thank you.  If you know me, you know that I actually cared about bucking this trend.  But then I spent the first quarter of the year listening through my entire music catalog, getting rid of what I no longer (or never) liked and rediscovering much that I did.  So I approached my 42nd birthday with almost no new albums for the year, save a couple by acts I’ve long loved, such as The Decemberists or Sufjan Stevens.  It wasn’t until around May that I was grabbed my first new music discovery of the year, and it’s one that’s stuck with me even until now.  So the album that stuck with me the most this year is…

Leon Bridges – Coming Home.   Leon Bridges is a 25-year old native of Ft. Worth who only started making music a couple of years ago.  In his debut album, he has resurrected a specific kind of old-school soul; the album has often been compared to Otis Redding or especially Sam Cooke.  And while it does sound like the music of that era, it is also somehow modern in its production.

What I love about this record, though, are the songs and lyrics themselves.  The standout track for me is “Lisa Sawyer”, the story of Leon’s mother, including her upbringing and her salvation.  It’s a beautiful song with Leon’s voice backed by saxophone and some great BGVs.  The phrasing of it is really unusual, but after you hear it a few times it just sticks with you.

This song isn’t the only one with allusions to faith.  “River” could be a worship song; “Shine” and “Flowers” also hint at a real and vibrant faith at the heart of this singer.  But every song on the album stands out–there’s no filler here, and whether he’s singing a love song or telling the story of how his grandparents met, the whole album is refreshing in its purity and vibe.  Give it a listen.

Another record that dominated my year was Gungor’s “One Wild Life: Soul” album, the first in a three-record project, set to be completed by summer 2016.  To be honest, Gungor lost me a little bit with “I Am Mountain”, their previous album.  It’s not that I need all of their stuff to be “worship”; it’s just that I had a hard time connecting with much of the music.  But boy have they rebounded with this one.

It seems to hit everything that Gungor does well at full steam.  Worshipful, God-focused tracks?  Check.  (“Vapor”)  Thought-provoking political or social challenges to the church? Check.  (“Us for Them”, “We Are Stronger”)  Cover song, improving on the original? Check. (“Land of the Living”).  There’s a lot of emotion here, including a gorgeous song written about the birth of the Gungor’s daughter, who has Down’s syndrome (“Light”) and a vulnerable track that seems to be Michael Gungor’s testimony (“You”).  Here’s hoping “One Wild Life: Spirit” releases, oh, tomorrow.

Other notable records this year include Mutemath’s “Vitals”, which is their best album since their first, Sufjan Stevens’ gorgeous and somber “Carrie & Lowell”, and Hillsong United’s underrated “Empires”.

Songs: Much of the year was dominated by the music they played at Antioch’s ICON this year, including mainstays like “No Longer Slaves”, “The Great I Am”, and “Great Are You Lord”, but a couple of other individual songs you probably haven’t heard need to be mentioned: go listen, right now, to “River” by Ibeya, who are French-Cuban twins, and “Na Na Na” by My Brothers and I.  Great tunes.

Live Music of the Year: I went to three concerts and a music festival this year.  A quick rundown:

  1. The Decemberists – O2 Academy, Leeds.  The Decemberists were in great form; I just didn’t love the set list compared with my first experience with them, at the same venue one tour earlier.  Their latest album is good but nothing from it particularly thrilled live.  The one highlight, and it’s a bit of cliche to say so, was the crowd-pleasing encore “Mariner’s Revenge Song”, essentially a sea shanty about being eaten by a whale along side your sworn enemy.  You know, one of those.  The only thing I hadn’t loved about my first time seeing them years ago was that they did not play that song–and in fact, the Leeds show was the only one on that tour that missed it–so seeing it live this time made up for it.
  2. The Avett Brothers – Red Rocks Amphitheater, Colorado.  Mixed feelings about this one, too.  My love for the Avett Brothers is well-documented on this website, and so I was thrilled to see them in this gorgeous and famous venue.  And the venue did not disappoint; Red Rocks is beautiful and the sound far better than you’d expect from such a huge, outdoor place.

The problem is that I was a bit spoiled by my first Avett Brothers       experience–in Manchester with a few hundred people.  The intimacy of that experience is impossible in America where they are far more popular, and an outdoor show with tens of thousands of people made it sometimes hard to engage.

The other problem was again with the set list.  The Avett Brothers perform three nights at Red Rocks every July; I’m not sure if this a yearly tradition, but on this particular night they did not repeat a track in three nights.  That means close to 70 different songs stretched over three nights.  That’s a remarkable feat, even for a band with as deep a catalog as these guys.  But of the three nights, I think we attended the weakest.  They’d already played all of Emotionalism the night before, and many of their best tracks were long gone.

That said, there were some highlights.  Opening with “Talk on Indolence” was exciting; I’d never heard “Salvation Song” live before, and that’s one of my favorites — I performed it at my 40th birthday party.  They brought out their father Jim for a couple of songs, including a gorgeous version of the old hymn “In the Garden.”  It was nice hearing some new songs.  So it wasn’t a bad night; it just didn’t compare to being ten feet away.

3. Sufjan Stevens – O2 Apollo in Manchester.  On the other hand, I had somewhat low expectations for this gig and was pleasantly blown away!  Don’t get me wrong, I love Sufjan; it’s just that the album he was touring, “Carrie and Lowell,” about the death of his mother, is very low key and melancholy, and I wasn’t entirely sure it would make for a fun evening out.  I had a neighbor who wanted to go and felt it was right to go with him to get to know him better; without that factor, I’m not sure the motivation would have been there.

But Sufjan was amazing.  But first, kudos to his opening act, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a son-mother team (he’s probably in his early 30s, she in her 60s) who play acoustic folk.  It was interesting and it worked.

The first part of the show sees Sufjan playing 10 of the 11 tracks on the new album.  I won’t try to describe the set, though it was amazing, because you can just go look it up on Youtube.  But the songs came across powerfully in the live setting.  Some he performed exactly as on the album.  Others were redone or remixed–“All of Me Wants All of You” a standout here–to great effect.  After that, he played a few classics, and then closed the pre-encore section with a fifteen minute version of the 3 minute closing track to “Carrie and Lowell”.  The walls of sound and light created were mesmerizing and unforgettable.

In May, the whole family went to the Big Church Day Out festival in south England.  When I saw the lineup, I knew I had to go, and we ended up bringing the whole family plus a Singaporean friend who had just gotten baptized the week before.  It’s a great festival, but they’ll be hard-pressed to top 2015’s line-up.  (And seeing 2016’s, it is good, but nowhere near as good.)  So who did we see?  I won’t share it all, but some highlights…

Day 1: Gungor: This was my first time to see the whole band play live, and it was epic.  They opened with the instrumental second half of “We Will Run”, a slow build that erupts into a wall of beauty.  They did fantastic versions of most of their biggest songs–“I Am Mountain”, “Beautiful Things”, “Dry Bones” and so on.  I was disappointed that they didn’t do much from Ghosts on the Earth, and I was intrigued by the new songs they premiered.  Sets at this festival run in the 40-50 minute range, which seems really short, and when they introduced their last song, I was disappointed to recognize the chords to what has to be one of the most covered songs ever — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Surely, I thought, there was room for something else from Ghosts or Beautiful Things.  But then Lisa Gungor started to sing, and by the last verse, I was tearing up.  Redeeming an overused song, this may be my definitive version.

needtobreathe: I wasn’t sure what to expect from these southern rockers, but their set delivered.  I like them, but they are fantastic live, and “Difference Maker”, “Wasteland” and “Multiplied” were all standouts.

Bethel Music: My experiences with big worship bands who try to hit both a worship and a concert experience are mixed, but the presence of God was there, and as we sang “Forever” and a few other similar familiar Bethel tunes, I did not want to leave that place.  Ever.

Day 2: First we took the kids to the children’s tent for a morning service, where they were introduced to Audacious Kids worship, officially the first CD that my daughter truly engaged with.  I highly recommend it.  But that’s not what we were there for…

Christafari: Some people think it’s odd that Ira and I both so love this “gospel reggae” band, who are one of the top 10 touring reggae acts in the world.  But we do.  Their set was a mix of original material and reggae covers of popular worship tunes.  It leaned more heavily in the latter direction, and we prefer the former, but they are a tight and energetic band and they preach the gospel.  Good stuff.

Lecrae: My son Joshua is four.  For some reason, his tiny brain really locked into the song “Nuthin'” from Lecrae’s #1 album “Anomaly.”  He doesn’t have much interest in many songs, but occasionally one will just grab him for reasons unknown.  This was one.  So when Lecrae opened with this, he was mesmerized.  That guy on  the stage was singing Joshie’s song!  The girls had gone off to watch Christafari’s second set, but Joshua and I ran around the fields while Lecrae did his thing; Joshua even rode his first grown-up carnival ride (those swings that go around in a circle) while Lecrae rapped nearby.  A cool way to experience a great set.

I know this is long, so just a couple more thoughts:

Films of the Year: I used to see a lot of movies.  In England, that’s really expensive.  (I took my family of four to a film in Texas; the cost was just $2 more than a single adult ticket in Sheffield.)  Plus, with kids and a full life, I rarely have the time.  The result of this has been that I only really go to films in the cinema that are truly worth the effort and money–big movies with big sound and big effects.  Now, I hate blockbusters that just exist to explode pixels.  Looking at you, wretched Transformers movies.  Still, it is possible to make quality big movies.  I only saw what everyone else saw this year (at least in the cinema), but the ones that stood out…

  1. Inside Out – a sigh of relief as Pixar really nails it for the first time in a few films.
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a sigh of relief as JJ Abrams nails the right tone and creates new characters I actually want to see more of.  Saw this opening morning and it was euphoric.  (Keep in mind, I am a lifelong Star Wars fan who timed my vacation out of Uzbekistan to Europe in 1999 so I could see Phantom Menace in the theater.  I walked out of that one confused.)
  3. Jurassic World – the most fun dumb movie I saw all year.  Loved the end sequences with the Raptors.
  4. Avengers: Age of Ultron – okay, okay, so considering they deal with the crisis in a few days, it’s not exactly an “age” for Ultron, but despite the naysayers I enjoyed this more than the original.  Also just fun.
  5. The Martian – someone recently did the math and decided that $900 billion has been spent rescuing Matt Damon from various scenarios, which is just funny.  But of all the movies he’s been rescued in, this one’s the most entertaining.  It’s definitely funnier than Saving Private Ryan.

Book of the Year: Sheffield Libraries have a good system, are really convenient, and they try hard.  But they cannot hold a candle to the Waco Library system.  Waco-ans, I hope you guys know what you have there.  I have a pretty broad taste – biographies, fiction, books by comedians, Christian Living – I like a lot of it.  And Sheffield libraries has none of it.  Sure, if you want vampire romance novels or, to be fair, a broad range of travel guides, then these are great.  But Waco…Waco has everything.

So when we were in Waco for three weeks this summer, I dusted off the library card and we probably checked out 30-40 books during those three weeks.  The kids section is amazing – a range of fiction covering all ages and tastes, a huge number of books about other cultures or famous historical figures.  Nadia learned about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.  And I went through a stack of books I’d kept on a running list during our three years absence.  For many I got only a couple of chapters in before abandoning, but there was one that dominated my summer that still is with me today: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by the amazing Eric Metaxas.  This biography of the famed German theologian is gripping and thought-provoking.  Not only does it paint a picture of how one Christian stood for Christ in the face of evil and tyranny, and how he wrestled through the implications of his faith and the desire to destroy Hitler, but it also gives insight into how the average German citizen was slowly suckered into backing an evil regime, and what life was like for the many Germans who opposed what was happening but weren’t sure what to do.  Fantastic, and a must read.

Of course, I’ve already talked about the Wingfeather Saga in a previous entry.  And all of this was just a ramble of thoughts about the year, all leading up to part 2, to be posted in a few days.  My Thing of the Year–the work that dominated 2015 for me.  Get ready.  It’s an unexpected one…

 

Best of 2013: Best Cinema Moments

Alright, here we go again.  I don’t actually go to see new films that often in the cinema.  Having two kids and a full time job that largely happens in the evenings means that finding the time is challenging, and it’s so dang expensive here.  The nicest multiplex in the area costs £9 a ticket, and I just don’t feel good about spending that for movies.

So this is not in any way a “Best Films of 2013” list.  I haven’t seen many of the films that are going to win all the awards; many haven’t even come out here yet.  This is more a list of my own personal year in the cinema.  I cheated a little and counted a couple of the year’s big movies that I saw on DVD, so consider this my review of my year in new films.  Okay?

Biggest Disappointment: Gravity.  Yup, starting controversial right off the bat.  Don’t get me wrong–the cinematography and effects were stunning in IMAX 3D, the acting fantastic.  It just left no mark on me.  I expected more–I expected to be sucked in and to be holding my breath the entire film.  It was a fine film, but it just didn’t connect with me on any memorable level.  I know a film has hit something when I wake up the next day and think about it sometime within the first hour.  It was halfway through the next day before I remembered I’d seen it.

Best Loud, Explode-y Movie: Iron Man 3.  Okay, most summer blockbusters these days, and forgive me for sounding old, all kind of run together–explosions, fights, special effects, CGI.  I see less summer movies each year.  They often fail to impress.  But Iron Man 3 was highly, highly entertaining and continues the Marvel pictures trend of just generally being awesome.  It was superior to its two predecessors; the action sequences varied in tone and pace, with the final one being very, very clever (all the bits of the suit and multiple suits flying around).  It was hilariously funny in places (remember that one guard–“These people are weird”) and even a bit subversive.  Note its treatment of Iron Man’s most well-known nemesis from the comics, turning him into…Trevor.  Ultimately fluff, but very, very entertaining fluff.

Most Underrated: The Lone Ranger.  Ooh, controversial again.  Now, don’t get me wrong–this is by no means a great movie.  But it annoys me when films are proclaimed to be bombs before even critics have seen them or a paying audience has had a chance to decide for themselves.  People stay away because they’re being told by the media that everyone else is staying away.  So I saw it because I thought it looked fun.  And guess what?  It was fun!  It has its terrible moments–some of Johnny Depp’s Tonto antics are over the top (but not as many as you think), Helena Bonham Carter serves almost no purpose, some of the humour is out of place and it probably should have been cut by 20 minutes.  But it is far, far better than either the third or fourth Pirates movie, and maybe even the second.  Armie Hammer does a great job in the title role, and the final action sequence, when the William Tell Overture finally kicks in, was just crackers.  I had fun.  Empire Magazine, whose reviews I happen to like, agrees–their DVD review gave it a defiant four stars.

Most Ridiculous Moment: I saw Man of Steel on DVD.  It was okay.  The tone was all over the place.  Some of it worked for me, some of it didn’t.  It was more science fiction-y than expected with more fight scenes than character development.  I liked the way flashbacks were structured in, as well as Russell Crowe’s characters multiple appearances after he is dead.  But there is one moment that made me laugh out loud when it wasn’t supposed to.  General Zod has come to earth and announced that earth better turn over Superman or they’ll be in trouble.  Superman has to decide whether to turn himself in or not.  He goes into a church and speaks to a priest while deciding whether to save mankind by giving himself up.  If the metaphor wasn’t obvious enough, there’s this shot:

Superman

Yes, that’s Superman thinking about it, with a medium close-up on his face, and the background behind him a huge stained-glass image of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsename.  It was so much the opposite of subtle that I name it most ridiculous moment of the year.

Biggest Cry: Saving Mr. Banks Fine, I’ll be vulnerable.  It hasn’t been an easy year, and I’m prone to crying at random times set off by random things.  Joshie has been watching Wall-E a lot and the moment where “Thus Spake Zarathustra” kicks in and the Captain stands on his feet makes me tear up almost every time.  But in the cinema, I found myself bawling for no clear reason two or three times in this tale of how Walt Disney convinced P.L. Travers to grant the rights to Mary Poppins.  I felt like I was crying for broken humanity and for the possibilities of a redeemed humanity.  Or maybe I was just tired.  But when they get Ms. Travers to dance to Poppins closing number…my tear ducts opened and didn’t shut for awhile.  Luckily, I was the only person in the Showroom that day.

Biggest Surprise: Monsters University.  As you know, I’m a huge Pixar fan, but  their last two films before this, Cars 2 and Brave, had somewhat tarnished their reputation.  Cars 2 was a fun James Bond parody but not much more, and Brave was beautiful with a somewhat cliched story.  Monsters, Inc. was never one of my favourite Pixar films, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about its arguably unnecessary sequel, which is not much more than an Animal House for Kids.  To my surprise, I found it hilarious and had such a good time watching it that I look forward to seeing it again.  The jokes and story just worked for me.

My Favourite Picture of the Year: No big surprise if you know me, but of what I’ve seen thus far, my favourite movie is Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.  Filmed in his house with a bunch of his actor friends during his two week break between filming Avengers and editing Avengers, Much Ado is modernised Shakespeare the way it should be done.  Granted, it was a setup for me–my favourite writer-director directing actors from all his previous works in one of Shakespeare’s funniest, lightest works.  I saw it at the Showroom and smiled through the whole thing.  It’s the only film this year I felt inclined to buy and re-watch, and I’m even nerdy enough that I plan to watch it with commentary soon.  Be forewarned: it is PG-13 for some unnecessary sexual content (no nudity, but two scenes of uncomfortable implication), but if you skip those two scenes, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching Shakespeare.  And Fred and Wesley, together again!

Lastly, some quick acting awards, again reminding you that this is just for films I’ve seen:

Best Actress: Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing–how she is being overlooked in awards season is something I can’t quite grasp–most of the cast is good but she is superb as Beatrice.

Best Actor: Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips–I’ve never been a huge Tom Hanks fan one way or the other, but the last five minutes of this movie, where Hanks’ rescued captain goes into shock, is some of the most powerful acting I’ve ever seen.

Best Supporting-Actor: Tom Hiddleston in Thor 2.  Okay, I’m sure there are loads more serious performances I could put here.  But without Hiddleston, Thor 2 doesn’t work.  His Loki, 75% villain, 25% hero, is the most interesting character Marvel currently has going, and he has never been better than in Thor 2.

I’ve got nothing for Supporting Actress.  Just haven’t seen enough.  Sorry.

Well, that’s it for today.  Stay tuned for the next in my Best of 2013 series.

You Should Watch Some Old Movies

You should watch some old movies.

You should.  We tend to stereotype the old black and whites as being too old-fashioned to relate to, with overdramatic acting, cheesy effects, melodramatic stories, and just boring and inferior to modern day cinema.  Sometimes, that stereotype seems true.

But Hollywood was then just as it is now–capable of churning out loads of failures, utter garbage, at the same time as making films that can be watched over and over again, and stick with you.

Ah, but you say, I’ve tried old movies, and didn’t like them.  Well, maybe you didn’t see the right ones.  So here’s a list of old films I think just about anyone can enjoy or appreciate.  You should go track them down.  Now.

COMEDY

The General (1927)–The General is a silent classic by Buster Keaton, one of the three greatest and most famous of the comedians of that era, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  Charlie Chaplin may be the more famous, but most critics now consider Keaton to be superior, and I agree.

Chaplin’s films are often filmed with a stationary camera, with Chaplin doing his routines, playing out his story, in front of it, as if we are just watching a recorded version of a stage show.  But Keaton tapped into all the tricks of the new film technologies, and his camera moves.  Chaplin is often overly sentimental; Keaton tends to avoid that, and the result is that some things are just funnier–witness the treatment of his dream girl in the second half of The General, as she is thrown around, squashed under piles of barrels, sat upon, etc.

Keaton was also more acrobatic, and there are several moments in The General that make me genuinely laugh.  But if you don’t believe me yet, consider this: I showed this film to a group of American teenagers who didn’t want to watch a silent film at all, and they laughed.  That’s saying something.  (Not sure what…but something.)

The General is based on a real incident from the Civil War, in which some Union troops went undercover to steal a Confederate train engine (The General).  In the film, Keaton is the train’s engineer, and when his train is stolen with his dream girl inside, he gives chase to rescue his train and his woman.  Eventually the chase heads the other direction, as he steals the engine back and the Union soldiers chase him.  Their adventures on the tracks lead to numerous sight gags and stunts, with much of the humour built around the accidental ways in which Keaton manages to get himself out of being killed.

Duck Soup (1933)–Just six years later we’re in full talking-film mode, and this is probably the Marx Brothers masterpiece.  It is lean and quick, unlike some of their other classics that feel overly bloated by songs and musical performances.  All four brothers are here–Groucho, as the President of the land of Freedonia, Harpo and Chico as spies, and Zeppo…doing whatever it is Zeppo did.

The main three brothers play to their strengths, with Groucho firing off one-liners left and right, Harpo playing the silent trickster to the fullness, and Chico ever the snide one with the Italian accent.  There are classic moments all over the place, the highlights including the lemonade stand sequence and the Harpo/Groucho mirror standoff, a bit that would be imitated and recreated for years to come, but not likely done better than here, where Groucho’s residence has been invaded by spies Chico and Harpo, both dressed like him in an effort to throw others off of what’s happening.  A mirror smashes, and the result is this:

A classic.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942): Now this is a gutsy movie.  A satire, a screwball comedy against Nazism made in part by Jewish actors, including star Jack Benny, right in the middle of World War II.  The plot concerns a group of actors in Poland who end up using their skills to help track a Germany spy, but what transpires is a sort of madcap, comical, 40s Mission Impossible, with characters going undercover, mistaken identities, and so on.  Mel Brooks later remade it, but it didn’t need it (and the remake adds nothing.)

This film is really different from the previous two on the list.  Whereas The General uses the plot to set up clever sight gags and dead-panning from Keaton, and Duck Soup uses a loose plot the just set the Marx Brothers loose in chaos, the humour in this film is entirely situational.  The laughs come from the tensions of the situation, and are plot driven, which was not how many of the earlier comedies worked.  This is screen comedy separating a bit from its vaudeville roots and instead embracing what the Broadway stage plays did well.

A really clever film, including one moment on an airplane right at the end that caused both me and Ira to lose it completely.  And remember, when you have nothing to say in an awkward moment: So, they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt?

DRAMA

Citizen Kane (1941) Okay, so I’m not going to win any points for originality here, but there is a reason that this is largely considered the greatest American film ever made.  The film tells the story of a reporter interviewing people who crossed paths with recently deceased newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (a very thinly disguised version of real newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) in an attempt to discover what Kane meant by his last word: “Rosebud.”  But the film becomes even more fascinating when one learns the story of the two men most concerned with its making–the young genius Orson Welles, who would himself later go on a Kane-like path of self-destruction, and Hearst, who opposed the film strongly enough that he attempted to buy and destroy every copy.  Many editions of the DVD come with a really good documentary about these two men, and it is worth watching before viewing the film, in order to understand how scathing, how brazen Welles was being.

Thank God he didn’t.

Not only is it helpful to understand that, but you also have to understand that many of the cinematic tricks Kane pulls in this film–the angles, the transitions (like the one going in from the rain through the roof of  the club into the interview with Kane’s ex), the mirror shots, etc–are tricks he and his crew came up with.  They weren’t done in cinema before that, not to that degree.  And in that sense, Kane is groundbreaking.

It is also extraordinarily acted, not least by Welles himself in the titular role, a role requiring the then-24 year old to play a 19 year old Kane and a 60-something year old Kane.  Biting, emotional, clever, innovative, and insightful, Kane is a masterpiece, one to be studied over and over again.

(One extra note I like: I really appreciate the story structure.  You basically see the entire story in the first 10 minutes through the newsreel.  And the same time, you learn very little.  The rest of the movie, interview by interview, flashback by flashback, reveals that same story from different angles.)

Casablanca (1942): Another stereotype.  Whereas Citizen Kane is in some ways an art film, not one you pop in for entertainment but one you soak in and chew over, Casablanca is the ultimate Hollywood movie.  In my opinion, the film’s greatest strength is its script–tight plotting, extremely witty, and full of classic lines (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”  “Round up the usual suspects!”  “This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  What’s ironic is that the script was thrown together, pages being constantly re-written during filming,  plot turns and character arcs added and modified and taken away left and right.  That usually doesn’t work.  It shouldn’t  work.  But with Casablanca it works brilliantly.

The star of the show, of course, is Humphrey Bogart as bar owner Rick, playing his emotions close to the vest for most of the film, as cool as a cucumber.  (When a Nazi commander is trying to intimidate Rick by showing him the complete dossier the Nazis have on Rick’s life, Rick glances at it, unimpressed, and says, “Are my eyes really brown?”)  But the vast cast of supporting characters is also excellent, from the great Peter Lorre playing that creepy Peter Lorre stereotype, Claude Rains as charmingly corrupt Inspector Renault, down to subsidiary characters like Karl the barkeep.

Its story is pure melodrama–a love triangle set in Casablanca, Morocco during a time in the war when people went there to escape to America and often got stuck. And at times the melodrama plays a little cheesy to modern eyes.  But there is intricacy here–part of the fun is watching the side characters and what happens with them.  There is thriller-like tension, wartime dramatics, a spy story in the first 20 minutes, lots of jokes (if you pay attention) and a somewhat surprising ending.  My favourite scene is probably the battle of National Anthems that takes place in Rick’s bar between some German soldiers singing a Third Reich hymn and political leader Victor Laszlo leading the orchestra in French anthem Le Marseille.  A cracking good piece of old-time Hollywood at its best.

HOW ABOUT A MUSICAL?

Singing in the Rain (1952)–Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds star in this musical comedy.  Everyone knows the title song and can probably even picture Gene in his raincoat and galoshes strolling down the street singing that melody.  But if that’s as much as you know, you’re missing out.

The film is actually a comedic look at the awkward transition Hollywood went through in going from silent films to “talkies.”  Gene Kelly plays a silent film hero who hates the (admittedly obnoxious and villainous) woman who he is always in love with on the silver screen, Lina Lomont.  When talking pictures become popular (the film they watch at the party in which a professor demonstrates talking pictures is an exaggerated parody of a real film), the studio decides to make their most popular screen duo film a talking picture.  The only problem: Lina’s voice is awful.

Much of the detail in plot about that transition from silent to talking is quite close to how it really went for some studios, but the film knows how to draw comedy out of that.  There are also some brilliant musical numbers–“Make ‘Em Laugh” is a highlight alongside the title song–and as usual for Hollywood and Broadway musicals, most of the good numbers are stacked in the first half, while the second veers into some weird places, not quite plot-related, to pad the film out a bit.  But all in all, definitely worth a viewing.

AND MAYBE SOMETHING NOT IN ENGLISH?

Le Grande Illusion (1937) — Le Grande Illusion is one of two main masterpieces by French director Jean Renoir, son of the famous painter.  It tells the story of a group of French soldiers taken as prisoners of war during the WWI, their friendships, escape attempts, and coping mechanisms for surviving a bleak situation.  Though it comes from the 30s, it feels much more modern to me, both in performance and cinematography.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Spielberg had studied the movie, for some of the shots and close-ups on faces remind of me of Spielberg’s style.

It’s a film that mixes humour and tension in surprising ways, with a stronger sense of characterisation than most films of that era.  Some of the characters may be broad archetypes, but the performances make them real (including one from the great and tragic Erich von Stroheim)–from the stodgy but honourable commander to the comic relief soldier, the good-looking hero, and so on.  And one can’t talk about the film without questioning what the title refers to. What is the big illusion?  Is it the line between borders, as the last shot suggests?  Is it the class lines humanity draws between itself, a theme that runs through the film?  There are many options.

All in all, Le Grande Illusion  is not only one of my favourite films of the 30s and 40s, but is also one of my top foreign language pictures of all time.

HONOURABLE MENTION FOR AN AUTEUR

Billy Wilder: That almost wraps up this entry on old movies, begun a year and a half ago, but before I wrap I want to suggest a director to check out, and that is Billy Wilder.  (If you want to go foreign, try some Kurosawa.)  Billy Wilder had a long career in Hollywood, and though his films, even the comedies, tend to be a bit acerbic, he is definitely worth a try.  One of my favourite things about the films I’ve seen by him is that every one of them tend to build to a very simple climax and end with a killer closing line.  (“Well, nobody’s perfect.”  “Shut up and deal.”  “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”)

I’ve seen five Wilders (off the top of my head), and I can say this: skip Witness for the Prosecution, which left a bad taste in my mouth.  Head straight for the American Film Institute’s number one comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon must dress as women in an all-girl traveling jazz band in order to hide from the mafia, who want to kill them for witnessing a crime, only to be distracted by the presence of Marilyn Monroe as the band’s singer.

If you like that, and are also interested in Hollywood history, check out Sunset Boulevard, a dark tragi-comedy about a washed-up silent film star trying to keep her fame to the point of murder.  Look for a cameo by Buster Keaton and a supporting role by von Stroheim.  The Apartment is also pretty good, despite its dark subject matter.  One of the more influential directors of the last 75 years, you should definitely know some Billy Wilder.

Pick something on the list that sounds interesting!  Watch an old movie!  And comment below on anything I missed–what’s your favourite old film?

Who’s Watching “The Watchmen”? Hopefully Not You.

So…been awhile since I’ve posted anything.  That whole “moving across the ocean and trying to find a home for your family” thing has me preoccupied from really absorbing anything new to write about.  I still owe you posts on Tony Hillerman and The Office at some point, and I suppose I could whip up something about “No Line on the Horizon,” the new U2 album.  (And, as I’ve mentioned everywhere else, I now live in a city on U2’s tour.  And I have four tickets.  Hee hee.)

But today I’m going to write about “The Watchmen.”  I debated even posting this.  In a way, it might not be worth it, and it puts out some information about me personally that I’m not proud of or that might put me in a bad light.

So let me start by saying: Don’t go see this movie.  Seriously.  Don’t.  I mean, I did.  And I probably shouldn’t have.  But I did.  And I’m telling you not to.  It earns its ‘R’ (or in the UK ’18’) rating on every level–language, sex, and violence, in ascending order of badness.  Not to mention that the worldview underlying the film, practically promoted in it, is nihilism, the belief that there is no meaning and every value is ultimately baseless.  So: encouraging and joyful?  Not so much.

So why did I go?  Well, I couldn’t bring myself to resist.  I had kind of been waiting for this movie for 18 years.  

The Watchmen film is based on a graphic novel, which is basically like a deeper, grown-up, more solidly put-together comic book, by Alan Moore, the bizarre dark pagan genius of the comic book world.  He’s also responsible for the anarchistic “V for Vendetta”, among other things, but “Watchmen” is considered his masterpiece.  When Time Magazine put out its “Best 100 books of the Past 75 Years” list, Watchmen” was the only comic book on the list.  

I encountered it in the late 80s at Comics Outpost, Barre, Vermont’s finest (and only) comic book store.  I went through a two year or so comic book obsession.  And I wanted to buy the Watchmen book, which reprinted all 12 issues of the mini-series.  And the dude wouldn’t let me.  He knew my mom and knew we had standards, and though I was 16 and old enough to buy it technically, he wanted her permission.  He showed her the dark stuff–the attempted rape, some of the extreme violence–and she, much to my chagrin, but wisely, said no.

So I borrowed it from my friend and never told her.

And I didn’t get it.  I mean, I thought I basically followed the story, but I didn’t really.

Sometime between then and now, I bought it.  I don’t remember when.  I have probably read it through about four times, and each time, I understand it more and more.  Though I in every way disagree with its philosophy, I have come to love aspects of it, appreciate its complexity and the genius behind the writing.

So, Hollywood scooped this up and has tried to make a movie about it for fifteen or so years.  Various directors–many of them the cream of the current crop–took passes at it and gave up.  It was largely thought to be unfilmable.  Not helpful is the fact that Alan Moore angrily disavows any of the attempts to make movies of his work.  (Sometimes he is right.  Sometimes he’s just a jerk.)  It’s structure is so dense and tightly woven that to do it justice would require either a complete rewrite or a really long movie.  Studios for a long time tried the rewrite idea.  And all their attempts ruined the story.  It’s also against Hollywood wisdom to make a “superhero” movie that’s not PG-13, and The Watchmen could not possibly be told well and still make that PG-13 cut.  So, the movie floundered and floundered.

Then Zach Snyder came along.  He directed two movies I haven’t seen, but the one that put him on the map was 300, another comic book adaptation.  That got him Watchmen, and he was brazen enough to try and make the whole comic book almost just as it was.  Many of the shots in the movie are just frames from the comic book, which was illustrated in a more cinematic fashion than comic books usually are.

So when the trailers came out, and they looked amazing, I knew I wouldn’t really be able to keep myself from seeing it.  I mean, I knew it would be R rated, but I also knew the whole story and would know when to walk out or turn my eyes.

If you don’t know the story, here’s a synapsis: The bulk of the plot takes place in an alternate 1980s America, in which Richard Nixon has somehow earned a fourth term as US President, and full-out nuclear war between the USA and USSR seems imminent.  America is in extreme moral collapse.  The streets are dark and violent.

A man is murdered, and that man is revealed to have formerly been called “The Comedian”, part of a troupe of normal human beings who decided to dress in costumes and stop crime.  Instead of superheroes (because they don’t have powers), they have been called vigilantes, and throughout the book we see bits of their history.  There have been actually two phases of vigilante groups, one in the 4os, and one in the 60s.  The Comedian was the only one to be part of both, though he also did work for the government (even secretly killing two reporters named Woodward and Bernstien.)  

The group from the 40s, “The Minutemen”, fell apart when some of them were murdered, and one went insane.  

The 60s group came into existence after an accident at a science facility caused one man to actually gain intense and incredible abilities.  This group, “The Watchmen,” was made up of the film’s main characters, but vigilantism was soon outlawed and they have all since gone in different directions in life.  The Watchmen consist of the aforementioned Comedian, Nite Owl II–now a pudgy, lonely guy remembering his glory days while living in New York, Dr. Manhattan (the scientist from the accident), Ozymandias (the world’s smartest man–and note the reference to the poem), Silk Spectre II, who lives with Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach, who never takes off his inkblot mask and represents the worldview of moral absolutism.  

Throughout the movie we learn the past of most of these characters and how it ties to the Comedian’s murder.  We follow Rorschach as he investigates that murder with other odd things happening in the lives of the other Watchmen.  He, along with primarily Nite Owl, soon uncover a conspiracy with millions of lives in the balance.

So there is the plot.  Loosely.  It took me several paragraphs to describe in almost no detail; that should give you a hint of how complex it is.  And one of the challenging things about this story, philosophically, is the last section: a character does something quite horrible, destroying millions of lives, that results in something very positive and fruitful for the planet.  I don’t want to give anything away, but one of the messages seems to be that the ends justify the means.  

But I wonder if that’s really that hard to disprove.  I wonder if Alan Moore would even see it that way after 9/11.  You remember that right after 9/11, everyone was promising peace and harmony.  I remember the lead singer of a popular rock band at that time pledging to never be angry or hateful again.  And SNL said they would lay off the President.  And magazines declared dead the age of irony.  Something horrible happened–9/11–and people thought peace and change would come out of it.

But the human heart is wicked, and we return to our old ways without a change in that heart.  The Watchmen ends shortly after this huge crime has produced such great fruit.  But I think if Moore were honest with what he saw in the world, he would have to say that that fruit would be short-lived.

Anyway, how does the movie compare with the comic?  Well, much has been made about the change in the ending.  Basically, Snyder has completely changed the horrible thing that the one character does to bear good fruit on the earth.  Completely.  I think he probably did because he considered that thing difficult to film; if it wasn’t done right, it would look horribly silly.    And a lot of people complained about this change.  I even read one critic who compared to changing the ending of Hamlet, which is bit silly but makes its point, and after all, this is sort of the Hamlet of comic books.

As for me, I thought the new version of the ending actually worked really well…in theory.  More on that below.

Structurally, the script is nearly perfect.  The film runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, and another 30 or so is going to be added to the DVD release.  I hope they return the characters of the newspaper vendor and the people around him to the movie; I have a feeling that’s a lot of what got cut.  But what’s on screen works really well.  The story unfolds just as it should, and everything looks amazing visually.

The performances are mostly great.  Especially good are Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian.  Haley nails both the masked and unmasked phases of his character, and Morgan just embodies the moral blankness of the Comedian.  The actor playing Nite Owl II was a lot better than I expected, and Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is also very strong.  The actress playing Silk Spectre II was…meh.  Not that great.  And I still don’t know what to think of the guy playing Ozymandias.  It’s a key part, and I liked him in the beginning but felt something big was missing in the 3rd act.

But I had some major problems with this movie.

First of all, The Watchmen comic book is already really violent and disturbing, but it seems Zach Snyder was just determined to make it doubly so.  Everything was exaggerated.  For example, there is a scene where Ozymandias is attacked by a shooter at his workplace.  In the comic, his assistant graphically takes a bullet and then Ozymandias wacks the assailant over the head, knocking him over.  In the movie, Ozymandias is in a meeting with several oil industry giants, and in slow motion we see bullets piercing their brains and other body parts, and then Ozy beats the guy to a pulp.  So much more graphic.  Another example: when we learn Rorschach’s history, we see some pretty disturbing stuff, including the story of a murdered girl and two dogs wrestling over a leg bone.  Gross.  But for some reason, Snyder added some things in the film to make Rorschach’s revenge 10 times more graphic.  It really bugged me.

Likewise with the sexual content.  It’s in the book, but Snyder felt the need to make it ten times longer and more explicit for reasons I can’t fathom.  I’ve even seen non-Christians bothered by this.

Ironically, the one place where the violence could have been more drawn out was the ending.  Part of what makes the ending work in the comic book is that you really see, and really feel, the destruction.  And you know the character responsible also makes himself feel it.  It’s vivid.  In the movie, it happens very fast without a lot of visuals, and the impact of what he has done is lost.  It needs to be there.  (Also missing: his reaction to what he has done.  Instead we get another bloody fight.)

So anyway, there it is: I processed my thoughts.  I should not have seen this movie.  I did not realize how explicit Snyder decided to go.  He did a masterful job, for the most part, at pulling off a resonant and complex story about human nature, the ways in which we hold on to or forgive our pasts, and the darkness in modern living.  He lightened up the nihilism of the book while exaggerating the violence and sexuality. 

All in all, a very well done film with some flaws, the biggest being that there was nothing good, pure, beautiful or holy to set my mind on.

So let that be a warning.  Or something.

Pixar: The Art of Story and the Best Studio Out There

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” –G.K. Chesterton

“The shortest distance between truth and a human being is story.”–Anthony De Mello

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In my previous entry about Sports Night, I talked about how the most important draw in a film, television, or novel is story.  These quotes sum up to me the importance of story in our lives.  I fully believe that Jesus was very intentional when used stories (parables) as one of His main ways of getting His point across.  You can tell me a moral or message in simple words, and I may agree and not be changed, but teach me that moral or message through a well-told story, connect with my emotions, and it has a much greater chance of becoming part of me.

Unfortunately, the “Dream Factory” of Hollywood is, for the most part, I believe, ruining the Story.  

There are several ways this is happening.  The same old stories are recycled over and over again.  Stories are told with more flash and less substance, and since the early 90s, Hollywood has been all about the opening weekend, while most films that tell a strong original story tend to be indies without big names or big opening weekend dollars, films that therefore fall by the wayside.  (It didn’t used to be this way.  I remember in 1985 when “Back to the Future” played for an entire year at my town’s movie theater.)

Everything is geared towards the quick result, the quick dollar, the easy laugh.  What will a 14 year old boy enjoy?  

The biggest issue to me is that Hollywood, for the most part, seems stuck on a small handful of themes, themes that get retold and repackaged again and again, though they are not in any way the only themes out there (nor are they all necessarily true.)

Some examples: There’s a million movies along the lines of “it’s okay to be different/don’t judge a book by his cover/accept yourself as you are/sometimes the most unlikely, uncool person turns out to be a hero”.  Closely related to that is the “unlikely person/group overcomes great odds to defeat something that appears much more powerful” story.  This is a very American theme–the loner individualist that overcomes and triumphs.  (And the loner can sometimes be a group–as in “Remember the Titans”, when the whole town is racist except for the newly enlightened football team.)  

Here’s another that makes me especially nauseous: “Romantic love is the only thing that brings real happiness, and can in fact overcome anything.”  Excuse me while I go spill my lunch.

Or another: “White/rich people are hopeless and pathetic, and need to be saved by encounters by wisened/mystical/more lively ethnic people (see The Green Mile, The Visitor, and many others.)  This was has always struck me as slightly racist–notice that white people are always the center of these stories, and the usually-black-but-sometimes-other-ethnicity person that “saves” the white hero usually ends up dead or something.

Okay, enough rambling.  Here’s my point: the original idea in Hollywood is something we just don’t see very often anymore.  Even indie studios have mixed bags.  But there is one studio, I believe, that is forging the way in telling new stories that can be used to teach, stories that will be classics for decades to come: Pixar.

Pixar.  Yup, a cartoon studio.  I have friends who dismiss Pixar films for that very reason; they don’t like cartoons.  They don’t like talking animals or anthropomorphic anythings, and they therefore miss the heart and meaning behind the stories Pixar is telling us.  

But Pixar films are not like other modern-day studio cartoons.  Their main competitor in the computer-animated movie department would be Dreamworks Animation–the studio behind Shrek.  And Shrek 2.  And Shrek 3.  And Madagascar.  And Madagascar 2…you get the idea.  These are films full of movie star voiceovers, pop culture references (Shrek, with its Matrix and Riverdance jokes, is already looking a little dated), and satirical-yet-formulaic storylines.  

Pixar, however, is different.  For Pixar, story comes first–if a movie star’s voice isn’t necessary, it isn’t used.  You won’t find pop culture jokes in Pixar films.  But you will find original ideas.  You will find themes that usually only get explored in small budget indie films.  You will find truth.  You will find beauty.

(The other thing you will find, I might add, is what is apparently the best place to work in Hollywood.  Watch any of the numerous docs on life at Pixar and you’ll see a vibrant place of community and creativity.  At the risk of sounding like I’m idolizing Pixar, it looks a bit like how a church office should be.)

Let me illustrate.  Pixar started off making short computer-animated films as experiments in the mid-80s, their first short released in 1984.  The little independent theater in central Vermont used to show these “animation festivals” every year, and one year in high school I attended and saw not only the first very Simpsons cartoons ever made, but also Pixar’s fourth work, Tin Toy.  It is the first of the bunch that I feel is truly successful, with the climax of the movie–what happens when the toy finally escapes the slobbering baby by hiding under the couch–packing a really big laugh.

In 1995, they released the first ever full-length computer-animated film, Toy Story, followed three years later by A Bug’s Life, which is a children’s version of The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa.  (No, it really is.  Think about it.)  Toy Story 2 followed, and was a vast improvement on the 1st.  Monsters, Inc. came next, and was a truly clever idea executed mostly pretty well.  

But it’s after this film that Pixar truly hits its stride, and they haven’t released anything short of a classic since then.  These five films that I’d like to discuss (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E) are works of heart, tackling such heavy and diverse themes as parental abandonment, the temptation of marital infidelity when the routine of life becomes too much, the need to slow down in life and not let modernity crush what truly matters, and the question of what makes an artist an artist.  They both celebrate what is good in modern society, and heavily criticize that which really needs criticism.

Nemo is the last Pixar film that is truly a children’s movie.  That’s not to say kids won’t like any of the others; I just don’t believe any of the others are primarily geared towards children.  Most of you have probably seen it, so I won’t say much here, except to say three things:

1. The animators rose to the challenge of animating when most of the film takes place underwater.  They resisted the temptation to over animate the water, and created an environment that seems very real.  The use of color is also remarkable.

2. While the story is a strong one–the beginning haunting, and the central themes of letting your children grow up, not raising kids fearfully, and the separation theme–the thing I walked away with is how funny this movie is.  I think it is Pixar’s funniest movie, largely because of the character of Dory.  But every actor carries their weight, and who could forget the seagulls?

3. It is here that Pixar begins its somewhat odd tradition of releasing trailers for their movies that show a scene that is not actually in the movie, and a scene that doesn’t really work or make you want to see the movie.  It’s a bit strange.

Next came The Incredibles.  For this, Pixar brought in Brad Bird to direct.  Bird, a former Simpsons writer, had previously directed the animated film The Iron Giant, a minor classic, and it was clear that he was able to tell a story that had appeal for children and adult sensibilities.  And he knocks this one out of the park.

Most of you are familiar with this movie as well–it is a story of a nuclear family of superheroes who live in a time when superhero–ing has been outlawed.  It borrows from The Watchmen, Fantastic Four, and other superhero lore.  But this is the only PG-rated Pixar movie and it carries with it some truly adult themes that become clearer on multiple viewings.

The center of The Incredibles is one idea: Mid-life crisis.

Mr. Incredible specifically is facing a life stuck in a job he does not believe in, with two kids who struggle in life, and a wife who struggles in her own ways.  The superpowers that brought them together–the sense of adventure and power–is something they have to hide, and so the fun is gone from marriage.  Mr. Incredible sneaks out nights to meet and old friend and listen to police blotters in hopes of finding some adventure.  He lives in the past.  Then, with the arrival of Mirage comes the temptation to escape his dull life and be involved in something that seems exciting to him–but at the cost of his family.  Mirage represents the temptations of both escape and adultery, and her name is well-chosen.  

 Mr. Incredible gives in to the former temptation but never the latter.  However, it all turns out to be a trap, one his family ultimately must rescue him from.  In the end, Mr. Incredible is able to fulfill the dreams of his youth not by escaping his family, but by modifying the dreams and drawing his family into them.

Next came Cars, a film I think is highly underrated, possibly because it seems too simple a premise and slow a movie upon one viewing.  But there is great beauty in this movie, and since part of its message involves slowing down in life, it is ironic that the beauty is often missed by people who find the film too slow. (And when was the last time you saw a movie that told you to slow down and embrace older, simpler values?)

Cars’ initial trailer was awful–nothing in it explains the story or makes you want to know anything more.  A strange advertising strategy if it is one–lower expectations for your movie and then surprise everyone.  

Anyway, Cars takes place in a world where everything is a vehicle.  A famous race car on his way to a title-clinching race gets lost and ends up in a run-down, nearly-dead town on the old Route 66.  He gets stuck there and learns lessons about friendship and loyalty, but also about the parts of America that are dying, parts that are beautiful and unique and are being passed over as we more and more embrace the homogenized interstate lifestyle, where everything’s a strip mall and all the towns look the same and feature the same things.  

This is a message that resonates with me.  I grew up in a state that prides itself on its small town ethos and locally run businesses, with frequent angry battles against the Wal-Marts and McDonalds of this world (seriously–we have the only state capital without a McDonalds in the city limits.)  And while I don’t agree with everything about the line of thinking here, I appreciate the value and beauty that has gone unspoiled because people resisted.

The town in Cars is based on real towns and buildings along the old Route 66–a highway that spanned much of the south and the west but has become rundown and in some places dead because of bypasses interstates built, like I-40.  (The movie mentions this one specifically.)  The writers and creators of the film traveled Route 66 and met with people who live there, scraping by, and listened to their stories.  (My wife and I got to drive a bit of Route 66 last year while on vacation, and found it fascinating.)

I appreciate this movie and find it entertaining and inspiring, and the animation of the landscapes are just gorgeous–they look real.  It makes me a little nervous, however, that Pixar is working on a sequel for 2011, as I don’t think it necessarily warrants more story. 

Cars was accompanied by another wordless short entitled “One-Man Band”, which may be one of my favorite things ever.

Next came Ratatouille, another entry in the Pixar canon that convinces me that they’re not aiming at making children’s movies.  There’s nothing that loud or flashy here, and the movie is longer than the average cartoon.  As you know, it tells the tale of a rat who loves to cook fine cuisine, and his adventures in a Parisian restaurant as he guides an untalented chef into a career as a head cook.  

This may be my favorite Pixar film.  The animation, though not as groundbreaking as the previous three, is gorgeous–the streets of Paris look amazing.  The story, to me, resonates as it explores the questions of what makes an artist, and what is the artist’s responsibility to his own calling versus his responsibility to his audience.  Art vs. commerce.

The animators took a risk, and one that I believe pays off–instead of making the rats cute or overly cartoonish, they stuck pretty close to real rats.  There are scenes of hoards of rats running around restaurants and food, and they make you squirm.  The foley artist definitely did his job on that end as well.  But it pays off because it makes everything seem a little more realistic, which causes the tensions of the story to be heightened.  

One thing I have to point out: Peter O’Toole’s voice performance as the critic is brilliant, and the monologue he delivers of the review he has written almost makes me cry.  I also have this special affection in my heart to movies whose climax boils down not to a chase or large revelation, but the question of what will happen at a very simple or commonplace moment.  (About Schmidt is an example–the climax is “What will Schmidt say when he finally gets the microphone at his daughter’s wedding?”  “A Mighty Wind” is another–the climax being “What will happen at the break at the end of this song?”)  The climax here comes at the moment when the critic finally gets his first bite of the dinner prepared for him.  A climax boiled down to a single bite.  And what happens when he does is one of my favorite moments in any movie ever–an image that always makes me smile.

In 2008, Pixar released a very bold movie, Wall-E.  It is bold for several reasons.  First, it is the first Pixar film that could be construed as directly political or “preachy.”  I find it to be neither, but since one of its subject matters is our treatment of the environment, and specifically a large corporation’s treatment of the environment, people can read things into it.  

It is also bold because there is virtually no dialogue.  The first third of the movie is almost wordless, and there are later stretches without anything but robot noises.  It is also, I believe, the first Pixar full-length film to mix in live-action footage, in both the videos from Fred Willard’s BnL President and scenes from the old version of Hello, Dolly.

It is their first science-fiction film, and it fits in nicely with much “prophetic” style 70s sci-fi, films that addressed specific current social ills.  It presents a pretty bleak view of humanity.  The human race lives entirely on one large space ship and devolved to the point that they don’t use their legs anymore, not to mention the rest of their bodies or even their brains, spending all their time in chairs with video screens, not even noticing the ship around them.  The film hones in on two of those humans, who encounter Wall-E upon his arrival on their ship, and we see their gradual awakening.

This prophetic warning about humanity is, to me, entirely plausible, especially the laziness/obesity warning.  It’s a bit scary, and one we could all do well to pay attention to. Don’t become too addicted to entertainment and comfort.  Get out there.  Open your eyes. Do something.  Don’t allow yourself to become so de-humanized that robots seem more human than you do.

Pixar’s next film looks like it may continue this streak–the movie “Up” about an old man and a young boy who travel in the old man’s balloon-carried house to South America.  That will be followed by Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, a fact which makes me a bit nervous.  In addition, Brad Bird, who directed both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, is working on Pixar’s first ever live-action film, 1906, about the San Francisco earthquake.

Thank you, Pixar, for making movies that make me think and that I will have no qualms about showing my children.  Thank you for putting story above financial consideration and star power.  Thank you for your originality, for not falling into the traps of Hollywood and keeping your child-like joy as you work.  I hope your streak will continue!

Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night


The cast of ABC's Sports Night
When I originally conceived of this blog, I knew I would make this post.  Again, the vision here is for me to tell you about things that get me excited and stirred up, especially in the arts.  And as I have been rewatching this series recently on DVD, I knew it would be on this blog.  What I didn’t know is that I would, by the time I sat down to write, develop a love/hate relationship with this series, instead of just a…um…love relationship.

In the world of film and television, I don’t typically follow actors.  There are certainly actors I like, but rarely is a specific performer’s presence enough to draw me to a work.  There are three things I pay attention to far more than I do acting–the writing, the directing, and the story.  

Story is maybe the most important.  I can’t define what kind of stories I’m drawn to–I love all sorts of stories.  I believe that story is one of the main ways that my generation and those younger than me learn.  Tell us something factually, and we may not learn or embrace it.  Tell us in a good story, and the point creeps in the back door and we grow.  If there is a truly intriguing story being told, it doesn’t matter to me if I’ve never heard of anyone associated with it–or even if it’s in English.  My all-time favorite television show (which I’m sure will get an entry come January), Lost, is a good example–I knew not a single actor and didn’t care much for the creator’s previous work when that was introduced.  But before the pilot was aired, I read an interview with one of the show’s writers, and what he said (some of which never actually played out in the show the way he hinted) grabbed me enough that I watched the show and haven’t missed a minute since.

Director is maybe the least important.  There are certain directors I like a lot, but if their new project is empty, or inappropriate, I can skip it without a second thought.

Writers fall pretty close to story in importance.  A good writer, to me, is one who can do several things at once.  He (or she) can draw characters that I relate to and want to see more of.  He can tell a compelling story, one whose story points aren’t obvious from a mile away, and even though it may be some of what we’ve all seen before, a good writer manages to bring a freshness to old storylines or themes.  But the big one–the one I’m the most a sucker for–is the writer who can do something original with language.  My favorite writers in film and television all do this.  They bring an original voice, like Joss Whedon, whose first show (let’s not mention the name right now…) invented whole new ways of talking–really, there are scholarly essays about that very thing.  Or, they bring a since of rhythm and history.  Amy Sherman-Palladino’s work on Gilmore Girls is a good example of this.  This is a show you are not allowed to knock until you’ve given it a fair shot.  Sure, it’s about a mother and daughter and their relationships and blah blah blah, but her scripts were a good 20 pages longer than scripts for other hour-longs, and full of literary and cultural references that kept my head working as I watched.

Which brings us to Aaron Sorkin.  He worked as a playwright and screenwriter first, penning films like A Few Good Men.  Then he moved over onto TV for awhile, creating and penning three TV series–Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  I discovered, as most people did, The West Wing first, and was struck by its wit, passion, and desire to show goodness in its characters.  I felt smarter watching that show, even when I didn’t agree with it–and to feel smarter watching TV is a rare thing indeed.

All 3 of Sorkin’s TV ventures have the same basic premise and theme–we watch people who work in the public eye, getting a behind-the-scenes look into their lives and especially their work.  TWW took place behind the scenes at the White House, Studio 60 (by far the worst of the three) at an SNL-style sketch comedy show, and Sports Night at a Sports Center style TV broadcast.  The styles overlap, with deep emotion contrasted with humorous moments and a lot of movement–it was Sorkin’s shows that developed what is now known, in TV, as the “walk and talk”, featuring characters talking rapidly about something as they walk down hallways.  (I love this, by the way.)

Thematically, they cover overlapping areas–politics, morality, sexual politics, creativity–but are all built on one basic idea–all three of Sorkin’s shows are full of characters who love their work, and are basically very good people, trying to do a good thing and contribute to society.  That can be inspiring, if not, at times, heavy-handed and a bit deceptive, as all three of these shows subscribe to a very optimistic humanism (even though God does enter into all three shows).  Sorkin believes–this may be his biggest core belief, at least the basic core belief of these three shows–that good people trying their best will be the main thing that changes the world for the better.  A quote from Margaret Mead pops up, I believe, more than once in the Sorkin world: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

While I have to strongly disagree with this man-centered sentiment, it is deeply refreshing to me to see a show where the characters actually wrestle with their choices, trying to make moral decisions and make a difference in the world.  Not many other television shows in history fit that description, and I doubt any have been so consistently inspiring.

Let’s talk about Sports Night (heretofore referred to as SN so I don’t have to keep switching to italics.)  It aired in the late 90s on ABC for two ratings-challenged seasons.  Critics loved it.  It concerns the nighttime sports show “CSC” at a fictional network.  Numerous well-known (in television, at least) actors got their big break here.  The main characters are the two anchors, Dan (the amazing Josh Charles, recognizable from Dead Poets Society and what happened to this guy?) and Casey (Peter Krause, better known for Six Feet Under, and now…well, shudder), their producer Dana (Felicity Huffman of…well, shudder), her assistant Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), the new guy Jeremy (Joshua Malina, who also played Will on TWW), and everyone’s boss, Isaac (played by Robert Guillaume, he of Benson and Rafiki fame.)

It’s on this show that Sorkin develops his television voice.  This was mistakenly billed as a sitcom, and though does have its share of Sorkin-humor, the forced laugh track is painful, and the show should be approached more as a short drama–22 minutes in the world of these characters and the issues they face.

If you’re going to give this a try, you should really start with Disc 1.  And maybe stop there.  (More on that later.)  The first handful of episodes are genius both in style and content.  You can hear Sorkin starting to develop his rhythm–short lines, repetition of short lines, new short lines, leading to long lines.  And the stories are almost all moving.

In the pilot, newly-divorced Casey is frustrated with his job, especially at the constant reports of rich athletes getting busted for drugs or spouse abuse.  He has a young son, and he’s worried that his son’s heroes are all going to be thugs.  An incident with a South African man, one who was beaten and abused under Apartheid, running a marathon brings Casey some hope.

The second episode concerns Dan’s refusal to apologize for a magazine interview in which he implies that he is open to the legalization of marijuana, and the episode builds to a deeply emotional climax.

Episode 3 focuses on Jeremy’s first on-the-field assignment, to do a piece on a hunting and fishing show, and his monologue to Dana and Isaac about the trip is probably the main reason I am personally opposed to most hunting.  I’m not sure even that anyone can discuss the issue with me until they’ve seen the episode, or at least the monologue, which starts a few minutes in this clip:

Episode 4’s storyline is split between a comic plot about the illegality of singing “Happy Birthday” in public (it’s copyrighted material), and a look at the possible romantic tension between Dana and Casey, a story that becomes a main focus of the show later in the season.

Episode 5 & 6 are a two-parter that really present a moral quagmire, as something traumatic happens to Natalie when doing a pre-interview with a controversial football star.  Questions of journalistic integrity and responsibility are brought to light, especially examining the question “How does a news organization handle it when the news is happening to one of their own family?”

Episode 7 is the first weak one, although it has its moments.  It is built around the device of Jeremy writing a letter to his deaf sister, a device that doesn’t quite work out.  I also find the ending to this episode offensive personally.

Episode 8, the last one on the disc, is about a news broadcast where nothing seems to go right.

Anyway, these are a great set of episodes, and as I rewatch the show’s first season, I realize that, in my opinion, it never quite tops itself after these eight, the show getting a little bogged down in romantic twists and turns from this point on.  The writing, and the way Sorkin uses the characters to wrestle with different ideas, inspired me to even develop my own show (more as an exercise than anything else), which I called Home Base and some of you have read episodes of.

So I can highly recommend you watch Disc 1 of Sports Night.  Now onto the “hate” part of the “love/hate relationship.”  I have never felt compelled to own SN, and in rewatching these episodes there are a couple of reasons why you won’t find it on my shelf, next to the four Sorkin seasons of The West Wing that I own.  One is the aforementioned shift in focus to romantic subplots.  The other, I think, is that as Sorkin figures out that he can write with rhythm, he begins to rely on the rhythms that he is developing a little too heavily.

We just finished watching Disc 2, and after each episode, Ira and I would find ourselves kind of making fun of the way he talked.  Let’s say you and I are having a conversation, and I want to tell you that SN has a rhythm.  In Sports Night world, our conversation would go like this, most of it spoken very quickly.:

Me: Hey, did you ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

You: Did I ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

Me: Yes.  (slower) Did you ever notice how Sports Night has a rhythm?

You: Huh.

Me: Huh, what?

You: Did I ever notice?

Me: Yes.

You: That Sports Night has a rhythm.

Me: Yes.

You: I guess you did.

Me: I did what?

You: Notice.

Me: That Sports Night has a rhythm?  I did.

You: Well, I don’t know that I ever noticed.

Me: You didn’t notice?

You: I didn’t notice.  I have never noticed this rhythm.

Me: Oh, there’s a rhythm.

You: There’s a rhythm?

Me: There’s a rhythm.  You know how I know?

You: How do you know?

Me: I know because…Sports Night has a rhythm.

You: Well I never noticed.

Me: You didn’t notice.

You : I didn’t.  Except…

Me: Except?

You: I didn’t notice, except that I totally noticed!

And so on…Some of these episodes feel like that conversation happens for about eighteen minutes, and then there are four minutes of emotional plot to explain how Dan really notices the sense of rhythm because of something that happened to his mother when he was eight.  Or something…

So that’s my complaint.  By the time he got around to The West Wing, Sorkin had definitely stopped writing rhythm for rhythm’s sake and was using his style to further the story instead of being cutesy.

But that complaint aside, Sports Night, especially that first disc, is a breath of fresh air, and you should check it out.

You should check it out?

You should.