Saturday, March 28, 2009

Your Movie Sucks

"The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement offers the prudent critic with a choice. He can say what he really thinks about the movie, or he can play it safe by writing that it's sure to be loved by lots of young girls. But I avoid saying anything that is sure to be loved by anybody. In this case, I am not a young girl, nor have I ever been, and so how would I know if one would like it? Of course, that's exactly the objection I get in e-mails from young readers, who complain that no one like me can possibly like a movie like this. They are correct. I have spent a long time, starting at birth and continuing until this very moment, evolving into the kind of person who could not possibly like a movie like this, and I like to think the effort was not in vain. So to girls who think they might like this movie, I say: Enjoy! Movies are for fun, among other things, and if you love The Princess Diaries 2, then I am happy for you, because I value the movies too much to want anyone to have a bad time at one."

- Roger Ebert, Your Movie Sucks, 228-229

I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about how I watch movies, and my development from a poor movie watcher to the state I am in today. I still have a lot of gaps in my repertoire, but I am actively working to solve those gaps (I finally watched Citizen Kane and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly this week), and I don't think having those gaps invalidates my place as a cinephile. I know far better now how to evaluate movies and how to tell if a movie is good or not; the new level that I have developed is how to tell about whether a critic is good or not. I am aware that some readers, who often remain anonymous, do not agree with my criticisms - for example, the person who commented on my review of Watchmen that "I guess that's the job of the critic, to break down someone's work and point out all the flaws they think existed." That is a very cynical view of critics, and one that seemed to be written out of petty disagreement rather than objective thought; I am learning that the best critics act as a lens to help you understand what is there (or not there), and I am getting better at that task. Ebert is one of, if not the, best, and I was heartened to know that I had seen very few of the movies contained in this book (a dozen or so), that most of those came before I was enlightened in the ways of film, and I agreed with his assessment on all of the films in the book - they did suck. Though I might not always agree with him (or other major critics), I have a much greater appreciation for what they do and for the level at which they do that consistently. I have the bonus that I do not have to watch many bad movies - especially because I systematically avoid gross-out comedies, mindless action flicks, B-grade horrors, romantic comedies, and cheesy melodramas - and that I have developed that sense of impending screen craptitude. (The Happening and Indiana Jones were the only two stinkers I watched last year). I just now need to work on sorting out the mediocre movies - the ones that I watch with hopes that they will be better than I suspect they will be, or the ones that should have been better but were not. Despite this occasionally unfortunate sense of optimism, I have a well-developed sense of my tastes, including my guilty pleasures, and I am more confident now in what makes a movie work or not. And I can only hope that you, the readers, find my commentary helpful as you discover and develop your tastes; that's all any critic really wants - to help people find movies they love and avoid movies that are not worth watching.

Friday, March 27, 2009

2008: The Year in Music

My attitude toward composing my 2008 year-in-review piece for music reflects my attitude toward music in 2008: namely, apathy. 2008 was a weak year for music; there were a couple of standout discs, some that grew on me, and a lot that stank up the place. I have tried, as I have gone along, to post mini-reviews for most of the albums I have listened to, so here is my year-end top ten list as it stands right now. Three months late. I'm sure some of it will change, but these are the ten discs that have made a lasting impression on me; they are in not in ranked order, though some are more significant than others. Enjoy.

Anberlin – New Surrender - Anberlin just keeps getting better and better. This disc is one of my favourite to drive to.
City and Colour – Bring Me Your Love - Dallas just keeps getting better.
Coldplay – Viva La Vida… - If I had to pick one from this list as my favourite from the year, this would be it. Coldplay pushed their boundaries and produced a fantastic album (and soon thereafter a serviceable follow-up EP, Prospekt’s March). Copeland – You Are My Sunshine - I can't get over Aaron Marsh's falsetto.
Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs - It's a little more eclectic and varied than their previous efforts, and I really liked it.
Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple - The hip-hop entry on this year's list. I really liked how the duo dug more into the past and grooved up a 60s psychedelic vibe. I think it's better than their debut disc - it's tighter, more unified, and more musically balanced.
Jon Foreman – Fall, Winter, Spring + Summer - Foreman's 4-EP project shows that he is a great songwriter and performer.
Sigur Ros – With A Buzz… - This is a disc of dichotomy: anthemic yet complex, soaring and crashing, mellow and energetic; it's one of the most interesting albums I have heard in a long time.
Thrice – Alchemy Index Vol. 2 - This is as close to country as this year's list comes. Thrice explored a lot of new sonic territory, and the earthy flavour of the second half of their experimental EP project was very satisfying.
Underoath – Lost In Sound of Separation - They just keep coming. This disc goes back to their very hard natures, and it's very good.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Media "projects"

I try to keep up with a lot of media as it's being released. It takes a lot less time and effort to watch/listen to media as they become available. But I tend to view media from the past in a different way: as "projects." Rather than seeing individual pieces or works, I will feel the need to embark on a project to familiarize myself with the canon of an artist. It may have started with watching TV shows as torrents, but it has spread to the way I listen to music and watch films. For television, it often focusses on shows that I have wanted to watch, but just never took the time to. At the top of my list right now are Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Maybe I just saw these projects as too big, and that's why I have not watched these shows yet; but they're on my list. In films, I often define my projects by director, though occasionally by actor. I was on a Kubrick kick last year; lately, I have continued on my AFI Top 100 project (a two to three year enterprise), as well as finishing off the Coen brothers' filmography (only 5 more to go!), Wes Anderson's movies (just need to see Bottle Rocket) and going through Christian Bale's movies. I think my next project might be Michael Mann or Peter Weir. In music, I tend to listen to an artist's discography to get a sense of their development and their identity. In the last year or so, this has included Muse, The National, Sigur Ros, mewithoutYou, Death Cab for Cutie, Iron & Wine, the White Stripes, and Pedro the Lion. I average about one every two months, and these artists are often added to my regular rotation after the end of the project (though not all - I'm still not interested in the Arcade Fire, for example.) These projects are often inspired by the release of a new album, but they are occasionally the product of an extended period of ignorance (or apathy). I'm partway through investigating the Beach Boys right now, and I have a couple of other projects on the horizon, including The Decemberists, the Tragically Hip, and Dave Matthews Band. I guess this drive is due to my need to continue to expand my horizons and have something new in my media input, and although it can be daunting at times, I really like the way I work deliberately at the media I take in.

Writing in my sleep

It seems that when my brain is not overly preoccupied with teaching that my subconscious overcompensates by writing movies that come out in my dreams. This week I had two very vivid dreams, both of which could easily become treatments for scripts. The first was a romantic comedy entitled "Ship of Fools", starring Paul Rudd and Kate Hudson. Rudd's character John (whose eyes I occasionally saw through - apparently my subconscious gets me and Paul confused) was on a cruise with his wife, and he met his ex-girlfriend onboard. She didn't know he was married, and through a comic scene of miscommunication, did not pick up on the fact. Her dad is a bigwig on the cruise, and he needs a tax write-off within the time of the cruise for some reason. His daughter Carrie (Kate Hudson) decides that a wedding would be a great write-off, and convinces John to get married on the cruise, unbeknownst to his unsuspecting wife. Somehow, the fact that they're in international waters makes this possible, and a comedy of errors ensues, including a hilarious ballroom dancing sequence and some almost-disasters over dinner. In the end it all works out, and all parties are happy...somehow. Apparently, you can write these kind of movies in your sleep. Then last night, I dreamed a psychological thriller/horror about a serial killer who kidnapped girls from the Salvation Army. I don't know why it was the Saliann...maybe because my sister once worked there? Somehow, we all ended up in this creepy house at the bottom of a gully, where the girls were being held, and there were people chasing me with lead pipes all over this crazy house. I managed to get out, climb up the cliff, fill a truck with explosives, and launch it down into the house to kill the serial killer. But I woke up before the explosion and the happy ending. So I dreamed the plots for movies in genres I rarely watch in my sleep. Maybe I'll write a gross-out comedy this week...I'm coming for you Judd!

P.S. I also found a piece of paper on which I outlined a dream I had had several months ago. I don't remember the dream, but here's what I wrote down when I woke up: "Dream - Chris - Ky camp - reincarnation - creepy crawlys - changing - Ari scared me." I have no idea what it means, but it sounds kind of nuts.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I am not indie.

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life is a biographical account of music fandom written by Spin contributor John Sellers. He chronicles his history as a fan by discussing his primary musical pursuits in junior high (hair metal, Duran Duran), high school (early U2), college (Pavement), and young adulthood (Guided By Voices). The book's climax comes as Sellers negotiates his way through the final tour by Dayton, Ohio band and indie-favourite Guided By Voices. Although he writes about artists that are likely not familiar to many people, the overall sentiment of demonstrating what it means to be a fan of an artist and how music affects our lives is a common one, and it allows fans of most artists to identify with his journey. I found the chapter on U2 (entitled "Bad") to be particularly amusing, but I identified with many of his observations throughout the book. One of the ways the book made me think was in considering my attitude toward "indie" rock; Sellers defines indie as more of an attitude than a musical marker, and his conclusion is that artists can be "indie" even on a major label (he cites Radiohead as a prime example, circa 2004). The conclusion I have reached over the past several years is that I am not indie, I doubt I ever will be, and that I can still be choosy in my musical offerings despite not being indie; judging from my friends who are indie, I'm a long way from it. My experience has been that indie is more of a lifestyle than choice of music, and that the "indie" lifestyle is not who I am. The fact that I like some artists who are commercially successful (U2, Coldplay) does not negate my ability to deride other artists who are popular, nor does it define me. There's a certain level of commitment that is required of indie fans that exceeds rational limits, and I have neither the time nor the energy to devote to such pursuits. Plus, a lot of indie bands are not very good. Yeah, I said it. I have realized that most of the indie artists I have come to appreciate over the years have come through recommendation from one of my indie friends, or because they have reached a higher level of common awareness: The National, Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, Sigur Ros, Copeland, Juliana Theory, Deas Vail, Further Seems Forever, Mae, and Stavesacre, to name a few. I do find it difficult to categorize which "Christian" artists are "indie", as the differences exist even on one label. Take Tooth and Nail, for example: mewithoutYou, Project 86, and As Cities Burn are indie, but is Thousand Foot Krutch or Kutless? (Not that I would ever listen to those artists again...shudder.) "Indie" can be complex, but the fact remains that I'm not indie, I don't plan on becoming indie, and I like where I am: choosing the best of what I hear and finding out more about the artist, regardless of whether they are "indie" or not. If that means I fall behind on the "trendy" music and lose my "street cred", so be it: I'll leave that for these guys.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dentistry: The Next Generation

Today I went to the dentist for the first time since 2000 (maybe 2001 - either way, a long time). It's not that I was afraid to go, or that I hate the dentist; I just did not have a reason to go. I was also very transient, which made it more difficult, but I did not have recurring tooth pain until more recently. So I figured it was time to get a dentist, and I went to see Dr. Jimmy Kim (awesome name!). Dude, it was like walking into a spaceship! I remember dentist's offices being places with advanced technology, but it has gone into hyperdrive in the high-speed age! It's crazy in there - it's like walking into Star Trek! There's a scopey thing that's on a bendable neck so it can move around the room; a fancy computer system that shows pictures of teeth as soon as they're x-rayed; and a stand-up X-ray machine that seemed like it was straight out of Sick Bay. Then you've got this dentist using all of this crazy lingo, of which you understand only about a tenth, and it all sounds like stuff that Geordi would have said in a briefing with the senior staff. In conclusion, it was awesome. I just can't wait to see what equipment they'll bring out for the cleaning in a week and a half!

P.S. I was glad that I have no cavities, but just a couple of oddities in my mouth: a wisdom tooth that never grew in, a primary tooth still hanging on for dear life, and some sensitivity from biting too hard on the left side of my mouth. Go dental hygiene.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Killer Bunnies

Just over a year ago, we were introduced to a game called Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot. The game started in 2002, but the complete set of cards has only been available for the last year or so. We quickly came to appreciate the game's quirky sense of humour, random pop culture references (particularly for sci-fi fans), and the unique play system of the card game. We decided to purchase the game - along with its nine expansions - using a portion of our wedding money, and we have not been disappointed with it. We have since bought another "expansion" - Kinder Bunnies, which can be integrated into the full game or played on its own with younger players - and the starting set for a new expandable hybrid card/board game, Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter. If all the cards for Magic Carrot are put together, there are over 830 cards in total in the deck (not including the very rare special decks, which add another 40 cards to the set), so the game is different every time. It is fun to collect bunnies and use weapons to kill them, and it is also fun to collect carrots and to have a chance to win the game; it is partially the element of chance that makes the game as replayable as it is. It is also fun because there are so many different cards to play and different combinations that they can react in, which is a lot of fun for people like us who enjoy rules and permutations of solutions and such. It takes us between 90 and 120 minutes to play a full game, but it is incredibly addictive, and once you start, it's hard to stop. For example, we just spent nine of the past 25 hours playing Killer Bunnies. And I'd still play it again tomorrow. If you haven't tried it yet, find someone to play it with if you like these kind of games. In the meantime, I'm glad I have a built-in partner, ready to play, and that we have a two-week break right now...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Life Cinematic

I watched Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou last night, and I really enjoyed it. The way that Anderson brings his characters and settings to life and brings forth the themes of relationship and redemption in the film is on par with his other films, and the film features some great performances from Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Cate Blanchett. But what was really interesting for me was that this was the second time I had watched this movie: the first was about four years ago when it first came out. I did not enjoy it much then; it was the first Anderson movie I had seen, and I think that I did not understand it because of my lack of understanding of his films. But I now realize how much I have changed in the past few years; not only do I have more of a critical framework with which to view films, but I have moved on from some of my more puritanical leanings. I also remember not wanting to watch this film because there were scenes with a topless woman and there was some colourful language; it now seems foreign to me that at one point that the presence of those two features would have been enough to keep me from viewing a film. I am a much more aware and able film-watcher now, and I am beginning to have a more respectable basis for evaluating films that I watch - or re-watch, as the case may be.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The nature of allegory in The Shack

"There are times when you choose to believe something that would normally be considered absolutely irrational. It doesn't mean that it is actually irrational, but it surely is not rational. Perhaps there is suprarationality: reason beyond the normal definitions of fact or data-based logic; something that only makes sense if you can see a bigger picture of reality. Maybe that is where faith fits in."
- William P. Young, The Shack, 67.

William P. Young's The Shack is one of those Christian buzz books right now, and in spite of the overblown comparisons by Eugene Peterson (it will not have the same effect on culture as Pilgrim's Progress did for Bunyan's culture), I decided to read it in the interests of knowing what it is about and how to handle it. I was pleasantly surprised by the book, which presents a unique allegorical way of thinking about God. I would not recommend it as a theological text, but it is an interesting read for people who have traditionally put God in a box. It made me think about some of the ways in which I relate to God, and it is the kind of text to which I expect to return in the future, as I can see that it might have emotional or spiritual significance in various life contexts. But The Shack did make me think about the nature of allegory.
Allegorical texts always have a certain risk to them: will they will be appropriately subtle and crafted; or will they be limited by cultural expectations and concerns? There is always the possibility of this dichotomy in using allegory: Tolkien deliberately avoided using allegory because he wanted to infuse his texts with deeper significance, and he thought that allegory removed that possibility; Lewis used allegory because he thought it allowed him to reach those deeper truths. Some allegories have really spoken to me: C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, which contains parts of allegory; John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and Hannah Hurnard's Hinds' Feet on High Places. These texts communicate a truth through the allegory in a meaningful and transcendent way. But some allegories, like Bruce Wilkinson's The Dream Giver, come off as heavy-handed and nearly unbearable because they are limited by their application and scope. (I do know people who really appreciate Wilkinson's work, but it is as creative as a dull knife is sharp). I think that current allegories often fill more of an emotional needs for me, with primary examples being books like The Shack and Hinds' Feet; works like Pilgrim's Progress tend to fill more of an intellectual need for me, often in addition to an emotional/spiritual need. The Shack, at first read, is not a life-changing text for me, though I do acknowledge that there is a certain transcendent quality to it that might allow it to serve that purpose in some peoples' lives. And that is the ultimate nature of a good allegory, to me: sometimes they hit you, and sometimes they pass you by, but it is still possible to recognize that they could have that effect on people, as long as they don't engage on an entirely emotive level. If you choose to visit The Shack, bring a willingness to engage in the text emotionally and intellectually; then you will read it as an experience and an allegory.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Review: Watchmen

It was only a few weeks ago that I finally read through Alan Moore's acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen and posted my comments here in anticipation of the release of the film. Despite my relative lack of experience with the source material, I still formed expectations and had some hopes for the film that had often been considered unfilmable. And after watching the movie, I'm not convinced that it should have been made as a movie; on the other hand, I think this might be the best possible film adaptation that Watchmen could have received. Allow me to explain.
Director Zack Snyder, who is not a "visionary" despite what the advertising states, is very faithful to the graphic novel. (An aside: the only working director I would consider "visionary" is P.T. Anderson, and there are no more than five all-time "visionary" directors, so let's retire that word, please.) He slavishly replicates the look of the comic, with a majority of scenes of the film as exact translations from the book. Snyder has worked very hard to maintain (on the surface) the look and feel of the novel, and he accomplishes this task with a high level of accuracy. It seems that where the reviews are divided is in whether this is a positive or negative decision; some reviewers claim that this adherence to the novel makes the film more meaningful, while some believe that it is a detriment to making Watchmen into a "film." dcornelius - one of the most avid and intelligent cinephiles I know - believes that the latter is true; I am not convinced that I agree with him, but neither am I sure if I disagree. What I find interesting is that I know the parts I appreciated least about the film were the parts in which Snyder deviated the most from the text.
Watchmen is a visual film, and Snyder has created a compelling spectacle for his audience. But it is also an unfortunately visceral film because of Snyder's direction, and it is the excess in the scenes of graphic violence and sexuality that pander to the male post-adolescent crowd that the film loses its subtlety and atmosphere. For example, in the novel, the vigilante hero Rorshach's creation story culminates in setting a criminal's house on fire with the criminal inside; in the film, Snyder has Rorshach bludgeon the man with a meat cleaver repeatedly...on screen. This lack of subtlety is emblematic of Snyder's approach.
One of the great appeals of the novel is all of the almost unnoticeable touches - visual, verbal, literary - that are peppered throughout the text. Snyder includes some of the original touches while adding some of his own: using Apple's "1984" commercial or having the Tears for Fears song "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" in the background while showing a powerful hero are two of the more memorable new inclusions. Snyder also incorporates music into his film, and uses it well, if predictably. It feels as if Snyder is trying to put his own spin on things, but not actually change anything, and in doing so may have missed out on some of the deeper levels of the text and characters. I think I would need to watch it again to decide.
I appreciate what Snyder has done with Watchmen, but I think it might have been better off in the hands of past rumoured directors Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass, or Terry Gilliam. Aside from some excessive violence and sexuality, it is an accurate adaptation of the novel on a superficial level. Perhaps that is the most significant problem with the film - it's not great or revolutionary; it's adequate and perhaps above average. Maybe Snyder wasn't the man to direct it; maybe it should not have been made in the first place; maybe this is the best it could be. I appreciated parts of the movie, and was frustrated by parts, and I am perhaps more apathetic toward this movie than any other comic movie, save Iron Man. Snyder, to alter Shelley, might say, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and yawn."

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Report cards

Report cards were due today, so I took an extra six to eight hours over the past few days to compile grades and write comments. The whole process is mostly painless at the secondary level, especially if grades are kept up-to-date and class sizes are low (which both are in my case). This is my seventh time doing report cards, and I'm consistently glad that I'm not a primary teacher and that I do not have to deal with all of the hoohah that they have to write about. They are still tiring and take effort to complete, but what I find funny is how ambivalent I am toward the whole process. I understand that report cards are important for communicating progress to students and parents and for establishing where a student is on a (mostly) standardized scale, they are rarely revelatory or unexpected. If a student actually thinks about what they have done, they should know the level at which they are functioning. I also do not understand, at a secondary level, being worried about report cards, likely because I never had to worry about them myself. I enjoyed receiving them to be able to measure my progress, but I do not remember once being apprehensive about showing my report card to my parents. I probably should have been a couple of times in middle school, but I just did not place importance on the subjects in which I did not do well (art, for example). It is in times like these that I begin to realize how much of an exception I was to the rule in high school; I was disappointed if I had a grade under 90 - it only happened a handful of times, and only in English and Social Studies classes with strong teachers - so I never had to be worried about my grades. I am still not worried about them - and I recently received validation of my teaching abilities from the grades on a standardized test, for which the letter grades the students earned did not change from my evaluation of coursework - but since students and parents DO worry about them, I am glad that they will be distributed on the last day of classes before spring break. Then the people that take them seriously have a couple of weeks to cool down.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

No Line: Track by track

I'm now on my third listening of the new U2 album No Line on the Horizon, so I thought that before I post an official review that I would chronicle my early thoughts, track by track.

"No Line on the Horizon" - It's a strong opener, though not a great single. Bono's voice is very gravelly, almost like the Boss, and it suits him well. Immediate shades of Achtung Baby, including a bass line that is a little too reminiscent of "Until the End of the World".

"Magnificent" - Synth-driven pop meets the classic U2 arena rocker. This might be the best song on the album, and it shows all four members in their element: a great bass groove, transcendent lyrics, Edge's guitar lick, and competent drumming. It reminds me of "Gloria", and it might be the most worshipful song the band has ever written.

"Moment of Surrender" - A gospel-style track that shows that Bono has been listening to a lot of Al Green. The spiritual imagery continues, but it is not unwarranted. This is a more reflective song, and it paces the album well.

"Unknown Caller" - Another slower-style song that sounds like it could have come from The Joshua Tree, in the style of "Where the Streets Have No Name". It fits well, and I think it will grow on me.

"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" - The likely second single and arguably the "poppiest" song on the album. Bono uses his falsetto well, and this will be a great song in concert. It's the song most like their last album.

"Get On Your Boots" - A psychedelic groove rocker that comes out of left field. Bono is at his best here - the man knows how to make love to a microphone. It's a great break from the rest of the album, and it's a great song.

"Stand Up Comedy" - Edge pulls off a classic rock riff here. The song bogs down somewhat in the bridge before it comes back to the primary riff that allows Bono to keep pontificating. It's the rawest track on the album, and the most political.

"FEZ - Being Born" - A diversion into a sonic landscape that sounds like Zooropa or Passengers leads into an extended instrumental and vocal experiment. It's more like three songs, rather than one. It is a great ride, though.

"White As Snow" - A folky track that uses "O Come O Come Emmanuel" as inspiration. Bono's lyrics are poetic and meaningful, and very much like Ecclesiastes.

"Breathe" - It feels like Bono is channelling late Beatles here, and it works very well. This is another song that will work well in concert - soaring vocals, a driving bass line, and Edge methodically controlling the tempo. It is their realization of who they are - "I've found a place I can finally breathe", and it is a new U2 classic.

"Cedars of Lebanon" - This could be a Leonard Cohen song - a morose, almost spoken-word meditation that ends abruptly. I don't know what the band was thinking here, but it ends on a note like "Mothers of the Disappeared" or "Wake Up Dead Man" more than "Yahweh" or "40". It's somber and reflective, rather than triumphant and celebratory. Bono has said that he took a third person perspective in this song, which is not usual for U2 - they spend so much time developing the second persona that a third is unnecessary - and it is an atypical closer for the band. Perhaps this sums up their current state in life - thinking of the heaviness of life. It's an intriguing end to the album.

So that's the track by track early analysis. My overall review will come soon. Any thoughts on the new album?

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