Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review: Get Smart

When I was young, I watched reruns of the 60s spy satire spoof Get Smart almost everyday. I remember being really excited when a new Get Smart series aired in 1995, but it lasted only 7 episodes, and it was not very good. So when the casting for the movie version of Get Smart was announced in 2007, I was excited to hear about Steve Carell and Alan Arkin signing on to the project. But then I heard about the choice of director: Peter Segal, whose previous credits included several insipid Adam Sandler comedies, Tommy Boy, and The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. I was quickly disinterested in the mess that would likely result from his direction, and had no interest in seeing a comedy that I really enjoyed be massacred on screen. But after a few months, I decided that it might be worth seeing just to see what they did with the idea, so we finally watched it yesterday. Despite a few unfortunate scatological references, an incredibly predictable script, four or five ridiculous action sequences, and some cheesy cross-promotional gimmicks (ie. including Madonna's new song "4 Minutes" in a Warner Bros. movie at the same time that her label, a Warner Bros. imprint, was heavily promoting her new disc), Get Smart proved to be a thoroughly mediocre movie: not good enough to watch again, but with enough funny parts that I did not regret watching it.
Part of the problem in making a revisioning of an existing property is creating something new while honouring the old. Though the movie's script was incredibly predictable (especially the big "twist"), I was pleasantly surprised at how faithful the movie was to the original series. This was likely due to the fact that series creator Buck Henry was employed as a consultant ont the movie. Most of the recurring jokes from the original series were featured in the movie: the cone of silence, the shoe phone, "the old "...." trick, "would you believe...", "Sorry about that, Chief", "missed it by that much", Agent 13, Hymie...I was quite impressed at how much the movie deliberately included parts of the show, despite the fact that they were inconsequential to the plot of the movie.
I also appreciated that they dedicated the movie to Don Adams - the original Agent 86, Maxwell Smart - and Edward Platt, the original Chief. (An aside: Adams also performed the voice of Inspector Gadget, a cartoon that lasted 86 episodes and ended in 1986 - a truly odd coincidence. But I digress.) That brings me to the performances, which were surprisingly true to the original series. Alan Arkin - who might be one of my favourite profaners in film after his "swordfish" line (and his performance in Little Miss Sunshine) - brings the spirit of Platt's character back in the Chief, and Anne Hathaway was the right choice to channel Barbara Feldon, the original Agent 99. But the movie is really about Maxwell Smart, and how well Steve Carell could bring the character to life. Rather than playing Smart as a doofus like Adams, Carell brings an intelligence and self-awareness to Smart that makes the character interesting. Though he occasionally lapses into "Michael Scott" mode (I kept thinking of Scott's screenplay for "Agent Michael Scarn" in The Office), he honours Adams' vision of the character while bringing some new life into Smart.
The final question I had before watching the movie was how the translation of a TV show that was based in the tension of the Cold War would be brought into the current market. I was pleasantly surprised that, rather than tying the plot into anti-terrorism and 9/11, that they honoured the idea of these agencies having a history in the Cold War, and that they did not try to replicate the setting of the original series.
Despite my fears ahead of watching the movie, Get Smart was a pleasantly mediocre comedy that was surprisingly faithful to the original series. I enjoyed the movie, though I am not sure I would ever need to watch it again; if I really want to Get Smart, I will start rewatching the 138 episodes of the original series, or the 1989 cast reunion in the TV movie Get Smart, Again. This movie version was good, but it "missed it by that much".

Friday, February 27, 2009

C'est cheese

Here's a sign that I'm married: there are nine types of cheese in my refrigerator. Nine. Mozzarella, cheddar, feta, Monterey Jack, gouda, gruyere, ricotta, parmesan (the real stuff), and brie. This is not a complaint; it's an observation. When I lived on my own, I kept one type on hand: cheddar. I guess that's the difference between living like a student and living on a salary - I can actually afford to eat better quality food now. But it also shows the influence of my wife, who is more of a kitchenista - she only eats good quality food, and she puts a lot of effort into cooking and baking. For me, preparing food and eating is an exercise in which I need to maximize my utility - to get the most flavour in the least amount of time. Like university courses, I found that there was a point at which my enjoyment of food did not increase regardless of how much my effort in cooking increased, so that was my ceiling. Now that I have to cook less often, and my kitchen resources have gotten better, I can get more enjoyment even with more effort, so I cook more complex dishes. It also helps that there is someone else there to appreciate my work. She still does far more work in the kitchen than I do, though, so I guess I found a better way to maximize my enjoyment. I just get to clean up afterward. And that is how cheese made me think about how marriage has changed me.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Prince of pop...culture

"Here is the entire history of rock music, recounted in one paragraph: rock music did not exist until the release of Meet the Beatles in January 1964. From that time until 1970, the Beatles were simultaneously the most artistically gifted and commercially successful rock artists on the planet. Then they broke up. And at that point, rock split into two opposing ideologies; there were now two kinds of music. The prime directive of the first kind of rock was to be meaningful and important; the prime directive of the second was to entertain people and move product. The first category comprises elements (Springsteen, punk rock, early U2, Chris Carrabba, etc.) that followed a template built by Dylan in the 1960s. The second category comprises things (Elton John, disco, everything the Stones did post-Some Girls, Michael Jackson et al.) that followed the path KISS chose in 1973. This era includes two exceptions, which are Led Zeppelin and Prince; everything else fits into either category A or category B. And that is the entire history of rock music, completely condensed into one paragraph."

- Chuck Klosterman, Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, 317.

After reading my third Klosterman book in the last two months, I think I have figured out why I like his writing so much: it's the kind of writing that I would love to be paid to do. Even the idea of this book - a collection of interviews, essays, and an excerpt from a novel he began writing - is something that I would love to do for a living. And from my writing over the past decade, I could almost have enough for a book like this. And considering that I stayed mainly in Saskatchewan, I am impressed with the number of interviews I have been able to conduct over the years; maybe someday I could reprint those articles in a collection. But I also love Klosterman's unique view of pop culture. Somehow he makes insights that give a new understanding of the world of entertainment and the real world, and I strive to have that same ability as I negotiate my journey through pop culture (as I posted after I read another Klosterman book). Plus, his work makes me think about serious dilemmas, such as this questinon: if given the option of being able to listen only to songs by Prince or to songs by Michael Jackson for the rest of my life, which of the two I would choose? "Thriller", "Billie Jean," and "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough", or "1999", "When Doves Cry", and "Raspberry Beret"? (The answer is Prince, by the way.) So that's partly why I enjoy Chuck Klosterman's writing - he's a kindred soul by doing something that I would love to do and already do in my life and writing. I just don't get paid for it or have a national audience. Yet.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The beginning of Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It was not until the latter part of my high school years that I knew what Lent was, and only a few years ago that I really began to understand its purpose. I knew how to give things up, but I did not follow through on what to do afterward. I initially slavishly abstained from certain foods or activities, but I did not honour the fast by taking the time I would have spent on those foods or activities to actually focus on God. Isaiah 58 is very clear that without action and attitude, a fast is meaningless. So this year I am fasting from television during Lent. I hope to spend that time that I would have put into TV (approximately 3-4 hours per week) either coming closer to God through reading the Word, reading other faith books, or through meeting with other believers. It would defeat the purpose to just spend the time on video games instead; I really want to meet God in this time. Maybe that means my blog posts will become more focussed on issues of faith; maybe it means they'll be less frequent; maybe it means that I'll call people more. I do not know what God has in store for me over the next six or so weeks, but I am looking forward to some changes this Lent. I think, though, that I will take the Western interpretation of the tradition and not fast on Sundays; after all, I need to keep up with Survivor: Tocantins somehow...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

2008: The Year In Movies

Now that the Oscars are done, I figured I should probably finally finish my year in review of movies of 2008. I doubt I will see any more movies from last year in theatres, which means a waiting period until I see the movies remaining on my list, and that I might as well do my ranking of last year's movies now, rather than later. So here it is.

2008 was a relatively poor year for movies. Every year has its stinkers, but 2008 was an overall disappoinment. I have only watched 17 movies that were released last year (compared with double that from 2007), and I have only a few more that I would like to see (Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Tropic Thunder, Australia, Revolutionary Road, Defiance, Valkyrie, U2 3D, and Expelled), but here's my thoughts on the movies that I saw in the last year. I'll start with my worst and work to my best.

The Stinkers - There were some truly terrible films this year. Here are the three I saw:
The Happening - Proof that Shyamalan should not direct, produce, and write at the same time, and that Mark Wahlberg needs a good director.
Indiana Jones 4 - Aliens? Really?
Prince Caspian - I can understand why Disney does not want to make more Narnia movies. This one lost all the charm of Lewis and replaced it with an adolescent pissing contest. Ugh.

The Mediocres - This is the largest category of films I saw. They're not horrible, but they're not really rewatchable.
Be Kind Rewind - Michel Gondry's newest film spent too much time trying to be funny and not enough time actually being funny. But it did give us the term "sweding".
Burn After Reading - The Coens' latest was a mess, but I suppose that was the point. This one may actually improve on repeated watchings, or it may continue to be baffling.
Iron Man - The superhero movie that wanted to be so much more but wasn't. Maybe I still give it too much credit.
Leatherheads - George Clooney's "screwball comedy" works at times,
Kung Fu Panda - It's amusing the first time. Probably less so the second.

The "Almost Theres" - These are the movies that fluctuate somewhere between good and really good. They have problems, but they also have moments of brilliance. On a scale of 5 stars, they would be between 3.5 and 4.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Button is a film that has gotten worse as I have thought about it more. It is entertaining, but my attitude is like Button's - just let it go by.
Passchendaele - A valiant effort to give Canada its war movie by Paul Gross. It's good, but not great.
W. - Oliver Stone's sympathetic portrayal of George W. Bush deserved more attention than it got. There were some really strong performances, the movie was well-written, and Josh Brolin was fantastic.

Honourable Mention: Man on Wire - the documentary on Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974, is captivating and enlightening. It's a film that is definitely worth watching.

The Favourites - There were only five films I saw in 2008 that were geniunely brilliant or that changed the way I saw the world. These are my top five, in no ranked order:

The Dark Knight - Ledger's performance created one of the all-time classic villains, and Nolan's twisted tale is gripping and morally arresting.
Gran Torino - Clint Eastwood's final acting performance might just be one of his best.
Slumdog Millionaire - Obviously.
Synecdoche, New York - Charlie Kaufman's debut is more mind-bending than any of his other films, and it just might be his best. I will have to see it again (several times) to fully understand it.
Wall-E - It manages to be a romance, a comedy, a sci-fi, and a cautionary tale with very few words. This was perhaps the most inspired film of the past year.

So, there you have it. I hope that one or two of the movies I have yet to see can squeak their way into the top 8 or so, but I think these top 5 are pretty set. Any thoughts?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

I'll get it out of the way to start: Slumdog Millionaire was one of the best pictures of last year, if not the best, and it deserves the critical acclaim it has received, including the Oscar love. It was up against four pretty "meh" movies, but it was rightfully named the best film of the year. Despite all of the meaningless controversy surrounding the film, it has received the attention it earned by creating a fantastic fairytale of a movie. Now onto the rest of the review...
Slumdog Millionaire is a great achievement of a film and it features a dizzying array of images, sounds, colours, and cultures. It is a technically beautiful film - the cinematography, editing, sound, and art direction are breathtaking throughout the film. But I am convinced that the primary reason the movie succeeds is because of the direction of Danny Boyle. Boyle has mastered many different styles - science fiction, psychological thriller, children's romp, heist flick - and he always manages to infuse his own frenetic style into the realitiess of the genre. He has brought together some conventions of Indian film with the expectations of western film, and his influence is apparent throughout the film. This includes some of the technical choices, such as scenes of running, frenzied camera movement, long zooming in and out shots, and quick cuts. But it is also apparent in the nature of the themes and moral issues of the film: examining the way in which different characters respond to similar moral dilemmas; the presence of apparently amoral characters who determine the destiny of others in the story; and a protagonist whose nature is brought into question throughout the film. I do think it would be interesting to perform a more indepth examination of Boyle's films from a moral perspective sometime - but I digress.
I found the combination of Western culture - in the form of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" - and Eastern life - in the form of slum life in Mumbai - to be very intriguing. Boyle's cuts between the three parts of the narrative enhance the sense of difference between Jamal Malik's upbringing and his stint on the show, but the Millionaire segments themselves set the film apart from the west, where Millionaire is long gone into the realm of daytime TV. I don't think the embracing of a show that has now virtually exited western pop culture is meant as a denigration of India, though; rather, I think the film invites the viewer to share that common experience and to show that different cultural touchstones have significance in different ways across the world. I would not be surprised to see there be some discussion of the American version of Millionaire returning to Prime Time as a result of this film, which would be an interesting twist on cultural assimilation.
There are many other aspects of the film that I could discuss, but suffice to say that Slumdog Millionaire is a landmark film, a technically amazing production, and one of the best and most memorable movies of 2008.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Final Oscar picks

After a month of debating, here are my final picks for tonight's Oscars. Let's see if I can correctly predict Best Picture this time.

Best Picture: Slumdog, hands down.

Best Director: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire.

Best Actor: I've been torn between Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn. I think it goes to Rourke.

Best Actress: Kate Winslet in The Reader.

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger gets it.

Best Supporting Actress: I've debated between Amy Adams and Penelope Cruz. Although I thought it might go to Adams, I now think Cruz will win.

Best Animated Feature: Wall-E.

Best Original Screenplay: This is where Milk gets its Oscar, with Dustin Lance Black winning the award.

Best Adapted Screenplay: I think that Simon Beaufoy will win for Slumdog Millionaire.

Those are the big 9; here are my picks for the other categories.

Best Documentary: Man on Wire
Best Foreign Film: The Class (France)

Art Direction: Benjamin Button
Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Costume Design: Benjamin Button
Film Editing: The Dark Knight
Make-up: Benjamin Button
Original Score: Wall-E
Original Song: Slumdog Millionaire
Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: Wall-E
Visual Effects: The Dark Knight

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Weird science

Today is our school's science fair. Rows of projects with folding boards and bubble letters and half-finished bacteria growths and awkward students trying to explain themselves to even more awkward parents who are trying to pretend interested in what their kids are saying. I remember having to participate in the science fair for four years when I was in elementary school, and considering how much I disliked them, it's a wonder that I wanted to be a scientist for a little while. I think it was mainly due to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and also because I liked sounding smart in telling people I wanted to be a "biogeneticist". It's strange how much I remember about my projects. In Grade 4, I was ahead of my class, so they asked me to put a project in the fair; my dad and I made a papier maché volcano that lit up, and I had a few volcano facts. Wow. The next year, a partner and I worked on a project entitled "What are the different types of cancer?" Our project consisted of interviewing another student's mother (she was an oncologist) and some encyclopedia research. We got a 63, which is probably as low as our teacher could give us without turning us off of science for the rest of our lives. In Grade 6, I worked alone on "How did the dinosaurs become extinct?"; apparently, I was not too enthralled by the scientific method and chose to do research instead. I worked really hard on it (as I remember), and I got a 66 - so much for motivating me to love science. My projects in middle school were actually experiments because we were not allowed to do research projects any more, and I actually think they were kind of cool. One year, we tested the durability of different fabrics in washing machines; in the other year, we built boxes out of different materials (glass, wood, and steel) and measured how well they kept temperature in different times of freezing. Although I had little patience for the actual measuring and taking time to experiment, I did enjoy presenting them at the fair and at the regional fair that almost the entire class attended as participants, but it was more as an experience than being excited about science. I suppose it really took me until university to realize how little I liked science. I took all of the sciences in high school out of moderate interest and boredom, combined with the fact that it was easy for me to get really good marks, but when my world was opened up to the humanities in university, there was no going back. Why would I pay to take really difficult classes that I did not enjoy when I could take fun classes that were easier for me? I had made the shift, and I am now far from a science guy. Last year, I had to teach Science 9 for a week, and even basic chemistry was difficult for me to remember. I think it's because science is a mindset that I have left far behind; I'm just not interested in it. I keep knowledge of the current events of science, but I'll leave the technical stuff to people who take the time to know it. I still love reading science fiction books (most recently John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes, but I read them as literature and stay away from the uber-geek technical-type of SF. Maybe I've just become too "post-modern" (though can you be post-modern if you self-identify that way?) to be scientific, but it's just not my thing. Maybe next year we can have a "social science" fair instead...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who watches the Watchmen?

I just finished reading Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen in anticipation for the upcoming movie based on the book. The 1986-1987 novel has received a lot of critical acclaim, including being named one of Time's Top 100 novels from 1923 to the present, and I agree with its recognition as a work of literary art. Moore has crafted a complex narrative that involves history, political science, psychology, literature (Blake, Shelley, the Bible, the classics), philosophy, sociology, and even pop culture (Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others). He intertwines the stories of six major characters - the heroes Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorshach, and the Comedian - along with a fictional comic narrative about a pirate captain that is used for parallelism with the primary story. His version of 1986 America - one in which the presence of these heroes allowed America to win the Vietnam War, Nixon to remain President, and the Cold War to continue escalating well into the 1980s - is bleak, though remarkably well-shaped and oddly prophetic in some ways. The novel is especially interesting when considering the perspective of readers at the time, as there was still the "threat" of the Soviets and the Cold War hovering over the populace. It is a novel that demonstrates the possibility of the graphic medium, and it arguably has not been matched in the twenty years since its publication. I think that it will be very interesting to see it adapted into a film, as I think it might have been better served as a 12-episode TV miniseries, but also because superhero movies are firmly entrenched in the mentality of the comic universe before Watchmen, with the exceptions of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Unbreakable, which demonstrated the kind of character depth and exploration that is possible in a superhero movie (Iron Man kind of tried, but it did not quite make it). Whether the cinematic version of Watchmen is able to explore the depths of the characters and narrative is yet to be seen; I am concerned that it will become little more than a fan-boy version, using the characters as little more than props for visual effects and violent titillation of teenage males. But we will see in just over two weeks whether the movie does what it should, or if it continues to perpetuate the culture of mediocrity that plagues the superhero genre. Watchmen the novel shows what can be done with the superhero motif, and perhaps the movie will inspire a reinvention of current hero culture - watch carefully, Heroes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

21 movies to watch for in '09

With the Academy Awards just a week away and the realization that 2008 was a poor year for film - especially in comparison to 2007 - it's time to look ahead to 2009.
It looks like the big trend is moving away from serious subjects and into escapist fare, whether animated children's tales, sci-fi shoot 'em ups, or parallel-world comedies. It will be interesting to see how movies reflect life over the next year. But in the meantime, here are twenty-one films that I will be keeping an eye on over the next ten months.

Watchmen (March 6) - Zack Snyder is certainly a visual director. We'll see if he can preserve the feel of the original graphic novel in this movie.

This Side of the Truth (March 20) - Ricky Gervais is always a little awkward, so it will be interesting to see how his Hollywood directorial debut about a man who tells the world's first lie does. It has an all-star cast of awkwardness, so Ricky won't be alone.

Monsters Vs. Aliens (March 27) - It looks like a lot of fun, and it's not a cartoon sequel.

The Soloist (April 24) - Joe Wright, who showed promise with Atonement, directs this story about a virtuoso musician who becomes schizophrenic and homeless. We'll also see what Robert Downey Jr. can do with a meaty role.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (May 1) - The cantankerous Canuck has always been one of my favourite superheroes, and I'm interested to see what they do with a full-length film of his origins.

Star Trek (May 8) - I'm a nerd.

The Brothers Bloom (May 15) - Director Rian Johnson's tale of a heist gone wrong could be very entertaining.

Up (May 29) - Pixar's next film is about a geriatric crank whose house floats with balloons. It sounds odd, but I'm sure they'll make it work.

Public Enemies (July 1) - Michael Mann's take on John Dillinger and the FBI, starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Awesome.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (July 17) - I'm not expecting great things after the rather tepid and bland nature of the previous two films, but Jim Broadbent joining the cast as Horace Slughorn is enough for me to see it.

500 Days of Summer (July 24) - This is a random choice, but it could be good - a story of a boy who tries to get a girl to fall in love with him by continually singing pop songs. What makes it more interesting is the director is music video director Marc Webb, who has worked with a lot of different artists (including Switchfoot and Relient K), and the movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Could be a nice break from the blockbusters.

District 9 (August 14) - A South African sci-fi that parallels Apartheid that could feature social commentary like SF should, and the first of three movies on this list to use the number "9".

Inglourious Basterds [sic] (August 21) - Quentin Tarantino's self-described war film/spaghetti western has been long coming, and it should prove to be unique, if nothing else.

9 (September 9) - The tale of a group of rag dolls fighting for survival in a parallel universe. It sounds silly, but it looks amazing.

The Informant (September 18) - Matt Damon stars in Steven Soderbergh's version of a true story of a bipolar executive whistleblower from the early '90s. Despite the Ocean's Eleven trilogy, I have not given up on Soderbergh.

Ashecliffe (October 2) - Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up for a thriller about psychiatric hospital escapees in the 1950s. Sign me up.

A Serious Man (October 2, tentative) - The Coens' next film seems like it's more biographical, and it looks like it might stray from the path they have followed in the past few years. They always keep it interesting.

Where The Wild Things Are (October 16) - Spike Jonze and reality-twisting author Dave Eggers teamed up in this adaptation of the classic children's book. I don't know how it will become a movie, but with Jonze involved, it will be worth seeing.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (November 6) - Another director with a penchant for oddity taking on an animated children's tale - this time it's Wes Anderson. You just never know with Wes.

Nine (November 25) - A film adaptation of a Broadway musical by Rob Marshall (Chicago) that stars Daniel Day-Lewis, as well as several other noteworthy actors. Miramax is gunning for gold with this one.

The Road (TBA) - The film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's chilling post-apocalyptic thriller stars Viggo Mortensen and should be released sometime this year.

Friday, February 13, 2009

School dances

Today I am supervising the school dance. I have had the privilege of selecting the music, which is actually kind of difficult in a Christian school, but I also get to watch all the middle-schoolers dance awkwardly. This got me thinking about my school dances. I am not a dancer, but for some reason I went to dances - not all the time, but often enough. I guess I thought they might be fun, but they always ended up being this incredibly awkward experience. If the survival of the human race depended on middle school dances as a mating ritual, we would die off in one generation. But this is where it gets embarrassing: when I was in Grade 6, I went to a dance with a book. And not just any book - it was J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I said I wanted to be there for the good times, music, and food, and I sat by the deejay booth and read. The Hobbit!. And it's not like the music was that great, either - for some reason, I thought Oasis' Wonderwall was the pinnacle of pop songwriting. If I met my 11-year-old self now, I'd punch him in the pancreas. The sad part is that it didn't get much better through high school. In Grade 12, I had this great idea of videotaping the dance for a videojournalism project. And that was before the age of small digital cameras - I was lugging around a giant camera. How creepy is that? I never finished the product, but I'm sure I freaked out a bunch of people. I did improve though; I just learned not to dance. When I was in university and our Christian campus group had a dance, I was the deejay and I was much more at home. If I went to a function that featured a dance (ie. a wedding), I avoided the dance floor and had great conversations with people at tables on the outside edges of the room, often while mocking the deejay's poor taste in song selection and order. So there's hope for everyone, regardless of how geeky you were in Grade 6. The Hobbit.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Behind the camera

In the past month, I published my lists of actors and actresses that I would go to see a movie for. Now, I am attempting to accomplish a much more difficult task - to list the top ten directors I follow. It was a really difficult list to make, but here it is - as a top fifteen. I am aware of the lack of women on this list; I'm not sure if that means that I deliberately avoid female filmmakers, or just that I tend to not appreciate genres that females work in more commonly, but it is a fact that other than Sofia Coppola, I could not name a female director whose films I might want to see. So here's the list.

15. George Clooney - Clooney has only three films to his credit, but they showed a lot of talent and commitment to film. Current favourite: Good Night and Good Luck.
14. Jason Reitman - Reitman is poised to inherit the throne of indie quirky film master from Wes Anderson, but his first two films show a lot of promise for his future. Current favourite: Juno.
13. Christopher Guest - The master of the mockumentary has to receive a place on this list for pioneering a genre. Plus he makes hilarious movies. Current favourite: A Mighty Wind.
12. Baz Luhrmann - Baz is so odd that he demands my attention. And he is working on an adaptation of The Great Gatsby; just think of what he will do with colour in that film! Current favourite: Moulin Rouge!.
11. M. Night Shyamalan - Despite the fact that The Happening was a very very bad film and that his last three films have each been succeedingly worse, I still hold out hope for Shyamalan. But if the next one stinks, he might move off of this list. Current favourite: Unbreakable.
10. Alfonso Cuaron - The Mexican director first grabbed my attention with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - the only Potter film worth re-watching - and kept it with Children of Men. Current favourite: Children of Men.
9. David Cronenberg - The twisted Canadian's recent films have revived my interest in his work. Current favourite: The Fly.
8. Danny Boyle - Boyle specializes in morality tales and examining how people react in times of questionable intent. He is perhaps the only director whose current sci-fi movies are more than special effects barrages, and his films are always interesting. Current favourite: 28 Days Later.
7. Christopher Nolan - The mastermind behind Batman Begins and The Dark Knight finds a way to get inside the minds of his characters and to bring out the best in his actors. Current favourite: The Dark Knight.
6. Martin Scorsese - He's still making great movies and getting great performances from his actors, especially Leo. Current favourite: Raging Bull.
5. Guillermo del Toro - There is no one who can imagine a mythical creature like del Toro right now, and that makes me excited for The Hobbit. Current favourite: Pan's Labyrinth.
4. Charlie Kaufman - Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York received mixed reviews, but it showed that Kaufman can do more than write. Current favourite: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
3. Wes Anderson - No one does whimsical family films better than Wes. I'm looking forward to his foray into animation, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Current favourite: The Royal Tenenbaums
2. P.T. Anderson - He specializes in observing how people descend to the depths of depravity and how their lives affect those around them. His legacy may be similar to that of Stanley Kubrick if his early career is any indication. Current favourite: There Will Be Blood
1. Joel & Ethan Coen - I don't know how they manage to keep going so well after 25 years of making films, but they are the most interesting filmmakers around, and they have created some of the most unique characters and scenes I have ever seen in movies. Current favourites: The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review: Passchendaele

The U.S. has a well-developed sense of their military history in their history of film. Most major conflicts have had a cinematic treatment, and many of those films rank among the most memorable in American film. Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, M*A*S*H...the list could go on. Canada, on the other hand, does not have a military fixation, and we have had no cinematic record of our military conquest...until now. Paul Gross' movie Passchendaele was released in October, and with the DVD release one week ago, is poised to become (for now) the definitive Canadian military film; of course, it is currently the only Canadian military film (at least in the mass market). Thankfully, it proved that is worthy of that honour.
Passchendaele is, as one might expect of a Canadian film about war, more about the home front than the battlefield. The story focusses on three primary characters: Sgt. Michael Dunne, a Vimy Ridge veteran who suffers from shellshock; Sarah Mann, the nurse who brings him back to health and serves as primary love interest; and David Mann, Sarah's younger brother who initially cannot fight in the war because of asthma. The lives of the three intertwine somewhat predictably on the home front and at war, but the interplay between them and the supporting characters is interesting enough to keep the attention of the viewer through the middle of the film, which does drag somewhat as it explores life on the home front through the experiences of the three. It is a love story as well as a war film, so I suppose it's to be expected that Michael and Sarah would spend time at Dunne's valley-set homestead - a "passion dale", if you will. But the film keeps momentum, and it continues to propel toward the titular battle. The Battle at Passchendaele is the culmination of the film, and it is very well-filmed. Gross and company reportedly paid much attention to detail, and it shows in the film. The result is a captivating re-enactment of a very difficult battle.
This film represents a moral victory for Canadians not only in representing the Battle of Passchendaele, but also in that it is very well-done artistically. The film is rightfully nominated for six Genies (awards for Canadian films), including four technical awards, Best Picture, and Best Actor. This film was Paul Gross' pet project, and I, for one, am glad that it made it. I only hope that this inspires more Canadians to tell stories of our history.

Monday, February 09, 2009

2008: The Year in...Songs!

The Grammy Awards are kind of a joke, and everybody knows it. Some of the ways in which they give awards are just strange and archaic, and most major artists get to win in at least one of the categories in which they are nominated because there are so many awards. But, occasionally, they get something right; in this case, that was naming Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" as "Song of the Year". Regardless of whether the song is entirely original, or derivative of a song of Joe Satriani's, it was one of the few inspired songs released in 2008. So I got thinking about which songs were my most memorable of 2008 - the soundtrack for the year. I'm still working on my year in review, but I thought that in the meantime that I would give you my list of songs that defined this past year for me.

January - "Anyone Else But You", Michael Cera and Ellen Page (Juno soundtrack) - I saw Juno in January. 'Nuff said.
February - "1,2,3,4", Feist (The Reminder) - We had an unseasonably warm month, and the time seemed right for care-free pop after Ariann left her job at Smitty's.
March - "Going On", Gnarls Barkley (The Odd Couple) - I needed to push through the month, and I needed the reminding from Cee-Lo.
April - "Come All You Weary", Thrice (The Alchemy Index Volume 4: Earth) - I pushed through my final month in Caronport, and although I was tired, I sought comfort in God.
May - "Bixby Canyon Bridge" + "I Will Possess Your Heart", Death Cab for Cutie (Narrow Stairs) - I remember playing this sequence of songs many times driving around Moose Jaw, and its build, valley, and pop crescendo remind me of the
June - "Life in Technicolor", Coldplay (Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends) - Coldplay's album-opening instrumental seemed to bring the world around me to life, especially because the decision to move to Victoria came the day after this album released.
July - "Viva La Vida", Coldplay, (Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends) - With all of the travelling we did over the summer, we needed a great car song. "Viva La Vida" was that song.
August - "Squalor Victoria", The National (Boxer)- Not so much because of song content, but because we moved to Victoria.
September - "Haight St.", Anberlin (New Surrender) - The song is about escaping to a place of fun and joy, and we had to try hard to do that in the midst of a long September.
October - "Mr. November", The National (Alligator) - The National's dedication of this song to Obama brought it to my attention, but I identified with the narrator's struggle to not let others down - particularly my students and myself.
November - "Chin Up", Copeland (You Are My Sunshine) - Copeland's melancholy encouragement was uplifting in a very busy month, and their musical timbre matched the greyishness of Victoria.
December - "Gobbledigook," Sigur Ros (Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust) - And to conclude, a refreshingly and unadulteratedly upbeat tune. Perhaps my excitement at having two snow days and Christmas holidays was in play here.

So that's a summary of my soundtrack for the year. Are there any songs that meant a lot to you this year?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Killing yourself to live

"What is frightening on this particular morning is the realization that the only way I can intellectually organize the women I have loved is by thinking about the members of KISS. Has it really come to this? Have I become so reliant on popular culture that it's the only way I can understand anything?...It is no accident that I can see every woman I've ever cared about through KISS, the one rock band I have cared about more than any other. Sadly, this is my savant-like skill. It's like the way a carpenter can look at a pile of wood and see a bookshelf...I did not have to try to find a way to compare these women to KISS; it just seemed obvious. That notion had never occurred to me before this morning, but the moment it did, the entire backstory was already in place. Every blank was complete....And you know what? This is love. This is why we love things."

- Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself To Live, 214, 216-217.

Some books require a careful eye and a lot of reflection as you read through them; Chuck Klosterman's books are best read as a singular experience. I read through Klosterman's diary of his three-week road trip across America to chronicle the deaths of famous rock stars in just over three hours, and it was the only way to read it. Klosterman's journey includes, along with visiting the death sites of around a dozen rock deaths, reflections on his love life, random encounters, and a lot of musings about pop culture. When he wrote the passage about comparing the women in his life to members of KISS, I really realized why I identify with Chuck Klosterman: pop culture is often my lens for understanding life. For most of my teenage years, I viewed life through the filter of Seinfeld and the Simpsons. I often understand my friends through comparing them to fictional universes like Seinfeld or Arrested Development or Star Trek. I think about American politics in terms of U2 discs (a post that has been brewing since Obama's inauguration). I use movies and music and television as parables that help me understand my relationship with God. And this blog is full of examples of times when I have understood something about life because of the culture I have taken in. My two favourite examples are when I realized that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were representative of the moral virtues, and when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire helped me understand the way in which I was experiencing grief over two friends' deaths. There was a time in which I was ashamed at the extent to which I did this, but I have realized that there is something special about the way that my mind works and how I am able to make these connections. It bolsters my life and my faith, rather than taking away from it, and people like Chuck Klosterman help me to realize that.

Friday, February 06, 2009

This is your brain on music

As listeners, there is every reason to believe that some of our brain states will match those of the musicians we are listening to. In what is a recurring theme of your brain on music, even those of us who lack explicit training in music theory and performance have musical brains, and are expert listeners.

Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain On Music, 211.


As I have read through Levitin's explanation of how the brain functions in areas of music, I have learned about how emotion, memory, and neural processes function in the brain and how those are affected by music. Most of the book's contents went right past me (a lot of scientific jargon), but it has made me think about why I like the music that I do, and why my tastes have developed as they have. Here's my story.
When I was 14 (the age at which most people's brains start reacting to music, according to Levitin), I was just starting to listen to music on my own. For my high school years, I listened primarily to popular music; I was big on countdowns and knowing all the songs on the radio, even if I did not like them. The first CD I ever bought was a collection of Simpsons songs. I was excited about compilation discs and Top 40. (I feel awkward just admitting this.) When I was 16, I started to choose artists that I liked more specifically: Creed, Collective Soul, The Tea Party, Foo Fighters - the "Big Shiny Tunes" kind of music. When I was 18, I was exposed to all kinds of new music after working at the student paper and I had income (thanks to student loans!), so I started expanding my repertoire rapidly - perhaps a little too much so. I tried almost everything - punk, hip-hop, metal, pop rock - and because I found a lot of albums used, I bought a lot of music to try it out. (I see the folly in this now, but I did not then.) I was a musical omnivore, and I took in almost everything I could; at the time, it was all in the Christian market, but I'm talking about genre, not lyrical/missional content. I started developing some favourites, but I was not very choosy. Things started to change when I was 21, and torrenting software allowed for easy access to new music. I could experience an album before buying it! I started to mellow out and listen to more relaxed music (folk especially), and I also realized the influence of community on my musical tastes; as my community changed, so did my listening. Over the next few years, I continued to expand my horizons while refining my tastes, and I was able to start squeezing out some of the music that was hanging on from my past. This process became much more concrete when we moved to the coast last June, as I excised over 100 discs from my collection. I had paid on average $5 per disc (extremely low, but due to bargain sales), but I just needed to get rid of that music that I no longer liked and in many cases had never liked, but kept in hopes that I might like it someday to justify my expenditures of time and money. That brings me to the present. I own around 500 CDs (I haven't counted lately), with another 100 or so collections of B-sides, rare tracks, and live albums on my computer. I have around three weeks' worth of music on iTunes without repeating a track. I purchased fewer CDs in 2008 than in any year since I was 16 (only one per month), and although I listened to an average of a CD a week, I have the desire to purchase few other discs. My tastes are still varied, but I am much more easily able to identify new music that I will like and bring into my collection and to identify music that will only have a temporary appeal for me. I think that it has only been in the last year that I have moved from "enthusiast" to "elitist" (as I have posted before), and since I have less time overall to devote to music I am glad to be spending the time I do have on better music. So I still do not know exactly how the neurons are firing and connecting in my brain, or why I like what I like, but I am better at knowing what I like, and I listen to less poor music. That is my brain on music.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Review: Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood might just be the hardest working man in American film. He is now 78, and has kept a pace of releasing a film a year - either as actor, director, or sometimes both - for a half-century. But they are not just films - these are strong films, with strong characters, performances, and themes that of significance. What is perhaps most amazing is the level of critical and commercial acclaim that Eastwood has maintained over the past five years; it is a shame that Gran Torino has not received the critical attention it deserves, because it belongs with Eastwood's best.
Gran Torino is a film about life and death, America and the world, age and youth, friendship and community, faith and religion, and sin and redemption. It is a simple story of a racist Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) who, through a unique series of events, befriends his Hmong neighbours and defends them against a local gang. But it is really a story of friendship between Kowalski and Thao, a fatherless Hmong teenager who learns from Kowalski's example.
The film is poignant, but not flawless. Some of the performances are more wooden (the priest in particular), and there are times when the film drags on a bit by straying from the main conflict. But the key to this film is Eastwood, whose unflinchingly raw portrayal of Kowalski is simultaneously unsettling and endearing. He is like that neighbour or grandpa that is stuck in his ways and refuses to change, but who also has a soft side. The way in which Kowalski grows and changes as a person through his relationships with Sue and Thao is compelling, and we grow to like him in spite of the initially off-putting impression caused by his caustic treatment of others. Kowalski reminded me a lot of my own grandfather, and I cannot imagine that I am alone in that reaction.
There are two additional ways to look at this film in its cultural context that add a layer of intrigue to the film. One is the way in which Eastwood manipulates the expectations of his character to follow his established stereotype; Walt is not be an unfamiliar character in Eastwood's canon, but the way in which he responds to the world around him is different from how Dirty Harry would have reacted. Eastwood even brings this comparison deliberately in the film, as Kowalski delivers lines that begin sounding like characters from Eastwood's past, but end on a different note.
The other intriguing angle is the juxtaposition of a film that prominently features a classic American car - a '72 Gran Torino - in current-day Detroit with the collapse of the auto industry in America. The mint-condition car - and Eastwood himself - serve as visual reminders of America's past meeting with its present. They are anachronisms, but they are also fully part of their world. Clint is like that Gran Torino; seeing him in action reminds us of all of the good memories of him from the past, and helps us to relive those memories. It is sad that this will likely be his last film as an actor, but it is a fitting one, and it has been great to watch Eastwood - like the titular car - still going after all of these years.

Final Recommendation: Gran Torino is a difficult film to watch, but it is worth watching. Eastwood's performance and direction are unmistakeably genuine and meaningful, and the film serves as a parable for modern America and humanity.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The meaning of mastery

I read recently that scientists who study the brain have concluded that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert in something - music, sports, whatever. That's twenty hours a week (or three hours a day) for ten years. I suppose that's why a Ph.D. takes five years of full-time study, or teachers are told that they will not have mastery of teaching until five years in the classroom, or why bands often release their best work several albums into their career - it takes that long to become a master of what you are doing. There is irony, of course, that a Master's degree does not feature enough time to become a master, except in how to study. With this guideline in mind, I started to wonder what areas I might be anywhere close to being an expert in. I must be close to that much time spent writing in the past ten years, if schoolwork, blogging, student press, and internet reviews are all counted, though I would not consider myself a "master writer" - perhaps master of my own style and translating it into different forms. I have spent six summers in camp ministry, which for waking hours ends up around 5000 total hours; it is not enough to be considered an expert, and my sample size is still small (three camps, all in Saskatchewan), but at least I am on my way. I spend time on "pop culture", including movies, music, and TV, but I don't know that I would approach mastery there. Perhaps the area in which I am most inclined to self-identify as an expert is in ministry to twixters (18-25 year olds), particularly on campus. I spent close to forty hours a week for several years in university working with IVCF, and when that is combined with time in church, camp, and personal ministry, I think I have enough experience to being approaching expertise. I suppose it should not be surprising that that is the topic I would choose to write a book on (and hopefully will in the next few years), and one of the areas I will spend time in during my life. For now, I am working my way toward becoming a teacher with mastery; it will take another three-and-a-half years or so, but it's coming. And maybe I'll be able to call myself a "master writer" by then too.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Cardinal sins in SB XLIII

I watched the Super Bowl for the 14th consecutive year tonight; my first SB was when I was in grade 9, watching the Cowboys beat the Steelers in SB XXX. Although I was very disappointed that the Steelers won over the Cardinals, tonight's game was one of the most exciting that I have watched, up there with XXXIV (Rams over Titans in 2000) and last year's game when the Giants upset the undefeated Patriots. Santonio Holmes' game-winning catch was one of the most memorable plays I've seen - along with the Helmet Catch, John Elway's TD flip over the Falcons, and the Titans' Kevin Dyson stretching for the endzone and missing tying the Rams by a yard or so. But I think I would still put my favourite Super Bowl yet as XXXVI, in 2002. Not only did Adam Vinatieri kick a last-second field goal to beat the heavily-favoured Rams, but that was the year that U2 performed at half-time, singing "MLK" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" to honour the lives lost in 9/11. Bruce Springsteen had a lot of energy tonight, and it was nice to see the E-Street Band there with him, but they have nothing on Bono racing around the heart at midfield. Still, I'd put tonight's game in the top three Super Bowls I have seen. And my favourite commercials by far were NBC's spots for Heroes; of course John Elway is one of them.

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