Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reliving Grad 2000

Today was the school's graduation, and it also marked a milestone for me: my graduation from high school was a decade ago. I remember so much about that day so clearly. I remember driving without my glasses for the only time ever because they had to be fixed. I remember arriving early and playing my trombone for the last time in band. I remember almost dropping a trophy because I had too many to hold. I remember the almost embarassment of repeatedly being called on stage, and the excitement of knowing that I won the major school life award by the lead-up to it. I remember my suit, and my date (who was stunning in a backless royal blue gown), and taking pictures, and all kinds of little details about the seating arrangement. I remember the sense of accomplishment and anticipation, and I remember calling one of my teachers by his first name. (Dude wore chino shorts and sandals to a grad. Wish I could have done that today.) Sometimes I have thought that the whole pomp and circumstance is kind of pointless, and then I remember how vivid that day is for me. It is a significant day, and it is important to help make it memorable. I did my part today, with a couple of toasts and well-timed roasts (for which I was amply and fittingly complimented, since one of the trophies I won ten years ago was the public speaking award), and I am genuinely proud to have taught these students. As they have pointed out, I'm in much the same situation as they are: not sure what's coming next and going along on the journey until I figure it out. It's been a fun ten years, and I'm definitely not at all where I thought I would be, but I'm happy with where I am and where I'm heading. Oh, the places you'll go, indeed.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review: Toy Story 3

One of my family's Christmas holiday traditions was to go to a movie over the holidays, often on the afternoon of Christmas Eve after a hard morning of last-minute shopping. Some faded into memory - Zathura - while others have become some of my favourites, even if only in nostalgia - Space Jam, Muppet Christmas Carol, The Incredibles. But the one that I remember experiencing the most clearly was in 1995: Toy Story. Here was an audacious movie in a new format directly following the hit string of Classic Disney films Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King which became one of the most influential movies of a generation. The film essentially kickstarted the computer animation industry; it gave Pixar the traction to create several of the most memorable films of the last fifteen years (by my estimation, six or seven of ten in the top thirty in that time period - a mighty accomplishment); it energized the retro toy craze just in time for E-bay; and it contributed two unforgettable characters - Woody and Buzz Lightyear - to the collective pop culture vernacular. Toy Story 2, the 1999 sequel, was incredibly even more popular than its predecessor, and was actually a better movie. It validated computer animated movies, which had had a rough few years (remember Antz?), and it changed the way that studios thought about animated sequels, since it had originally been cast as a direct-to-video film. So, with these two films in its rear view mirror, Toy Story 3 was released after eleven years of waiting. It had a lot to live up to, but it is arguably the best film in the series, and a great conclusion to what could be considered one of the best movie trilogies ever, animated or not.
Toy Story 3, after an unexpected and entertaining onset, continues to its primary plot: Andy's toys are existentially concerned about their present and future, and all the more so since he is finally going to college. (A side note: this plot line makes the film instantly relatable to people who have grown up with it, since the timeline roughly corresponds to real life. But I digress.) The toys, as before, are taken out of their element, have to stick together and undergo several close calls as they try to get past their obstacles and get back to Andy. The basic plot has not changed since the first film, but somehow the filmmakers keep it fresh and original. This time, the challenge is surviving Sunnyside Day Care, a facility with an attractive appearance but a seemingly sinister underbelly. One way things stay fresh is with new characters, to go along with the old gang. Lotso Huggin' Bear and Ken are the best of the newcomers, and it is still amazing to me how there manages to be so much character development in an animated film. The film keeps the same tongue-in-cheek tone as its predecessors, as it features many sly nods to other movies, as well as jokes intended for the older audience along with its madcap cartoon antics. It is, in short, the culmination of the franchise, with everything that has been featured this far and more.
There are few films that can be considered "family" entertainment that can be enjoyed by all members of a family. The humor is either too sophmoric or too elementary or too obscure or too unfunny for someone. I think what makes Toy Story 3 (and the franchise and most Pixar movies) work so well is that it navigates that tension better than almost any other movie. It takes itself seriously enough to have some thematic significance along the way, but it is light enough to allow for slapstick laughs. It is innocent without being naive, sophisticated without being mature, and transcendent without being preachy. Perhaps the only negative part of the movie is knowing that this is the last major film for the crew (though Pixar has promised future short films featuring the characters), and that the journey is over. The good part is that it can be relived over and over again, which I intend to do with my kids someday. After all, good toys never die; they just get put away until someone is ready to play with them again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Longest Day

We had a great conversation tonight with a friend who we had not seen in almost a year. She just got back from Africa less than a week ago, and we obviously had some catching up to do. That's when it hit me: a lot has happened to us in the past year - big stuff, life-changing stuff. Since the end of the last school year, here's the outline of what's happened... We went to Taiwan for six weeks, after which we returned and hosted visiting with family and friends, and Ariann got passed over for a teaching job. I stepped onto our church leadership team and became Treasurer. We endured a rocky start to the school year, and things slowly got more uncertain until we received a 10% pay cut the week before Christmas holidays. We spent the rest of December processing that change and looking for international jobs, only to be rebuffed continually. The school went through more transition in January that made our lives difficult, and just as we started to come out of that, we found out that my cousin killed his father. We were blessed in March to be able to go back to SK and then to have Ari's mom visiting, and we were working through whether to stay or go. We felt called to stay, and then got letters in early April informing us that we would both be laid off. Meanwhile, our church decided to go without a budget and was still in the process of switching banks. In early May, the news about my layoff became public, and we had to deal with it. It then seemed that everything was lining up perfectly for me to take a job in Regina, which I did not get. And now, here we are, tired and exhausted, with no jobs or prospects for jobs. We are going to volun-work in San Francisco for the summer, so we have an immediate future, but neither of us have anything beyond that. It is to the point that it is almost exhausting just telling the story to our friends. This helped me realize why we have not called some people; it just feels like too much to tell and to catch up on. But what I also realized in our conversation tonight is how much God has worked in our lives in the past year, and how much of our testimony is of God's faithfulness despite all of the junk. And further recognizing that today was the longest day of the year made me think that perhaps things will begin to trail off for us now, much like the hours in the day trail off from now until December. We're certainly not done our story, but it is possibly through the climax and into the denouement. I suppose I have written this post partly to share our status, partly as a personal record, and partly as an apology and a way to catch up. We're here in Victoria for now, with a great church and community and no jobs as of mid-August, and we're actually starting to be excited for it. I think the longest day may be behind us, and that's truly invigorating.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stanley Cup reflections

I have been kind of quiet about the Stanley Cup playoffs since my picks went sideways after Round 2, but I figured I should break the silence and comment on the playoffs now that they're finished. Here are some of my thoughts:

- I'm not surprised that the Blackhawks won the Cup, but I am surprised at how quickly they did. I figured them to be a year or two away from winning it all. As long as they can keep their core together, they figure to be the favourite from the West for many years.

- Chicago's win (and Philly's run) again demonstrate that a rebuilding process can (and should) happen in two or three years. Other recent examples include Pittsburgh, Detroit (who never faltered, but still had to almost completely revamp their team after 2002), and Carolina.

- It doesn't seem like coincidence that this year's Finalists were last year's losing Conference Finalists. They got their reps in, so we really should not have been surprised to see those two teams in the Finals.

- Judging from recent successes, the template seems to be set for creating winners: two young emerging superstar forwards with great chemistry; an experienced forward or two who contribute timely goals; two workhorse defencemen; and timely goaltending. Just think about the post-lockout winners (and almost-winners), and some of the teams who are set up for perennial success largely due to their leading duos: Chicago (Toews and Kane); Philly (Richards and Carter); L.A. (Brown and Kopitar); Pittsburgh (Crosby and Malkin); Detroit (Datsyuk and Zetterberg); Vancouver (Sedins).

- The Leafs are still in big trouble for this season. They're doing well on the rear end, but after Kessel there is no one up front. Here's hoping for picking up a centre like Marleau to help him out, and that the team can get a strong draft choice or two next year.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Glee: Season One Review

Spoiler Alert! The intitial reactions are in, and the zeitgeist is palpable after the season finale of Glee last night. Entertainment Weekly, that great bastion of pop culture overreaction, has posted several different takes on the season finale and the season in general: an instant reaction; thoughts on what the show can improve next year; questions about how the baby issue was resolved; and a
a retrospective of the best 10 performances of the year.
After viewing the episode, I am left with mixed feelings. I think it was, perhaps, their best episode in the last half of the season, and certainly since the Madonna episode - arguably the distinctive point at which the show both gained and lost its way. The performances were inspired, simmering plot lines were wrapped up (however unsatisfactorily), and there was an epic Sue Sylvester tirade or two along the way. It seemed as if the show abdicated the need for moralizing and just got back to having fun for an hour. Here are some of my thoughts after the finale (and season 1).

1. Vocal Adrenaline: While setting up a rival for New Directions was welcome and needed, it didn't seem necessary to make them so unattainably unmatchable. Also, what's up with that 40-year-old woman in the group?

2. Rachel's mom: The whole storyline with Rachel meeting her mom was intriguing, but I think ultimately superfluous to the main thrust of the season. It could have waited, except that they needed to introduce it so that they could resolve...

3. The baby: After the writers (unwisely?) decided to write Terri out of the show, they needed an out for Quinn's baby, and Shelby Corcoran was the only real option. It made sense, even if it wasn't satisfying, but it still seemed forced and a bit of hamfisted writing.

4. The moralizing: Whereas the first half of the season (mostly) made its points subtly and deftly, the latter half began to show the problems of moral grandstanding. We need a lesson on disabilities! We need a take on teen sexuality! Here's the baby issue again! It was a little too much, and it does a disservice to the show to feature it so heavily.

5. The supporting characters: While I understand that a cast with as many principal members as this wll struggle in featuring everyone, it seemed that the second half lost its way in bringing out the background characters. Artie and Tina got somewhat superficial screentime, Emma was all but gone, and many of the richer back-sceners were nearly entirely eliminated. It was nice to see Santana being featured more, but there weren't enough funny background moments.

6. The plot: I'm not sure if there was too much plot for 9 episodes, or if they tried to cram too much music into those episodes, but something didn't work. Although the finale did tie up some loose ends - if only superficially - I hope that they either scale back on what's happening or, at the very least, feature certain storylines that run over several episodes. On a show that has an audience like this, a lot of nuance can be featured, and I hope the writers learn that soon (especially regarding Kurt's character). Friday Night Lights is the perfect example of how this works, and I hope Glee learns the lesson before they go the way of Heroes.

7. The music: The Madonna episode mostly worked, and episodes in which an idea (eg. home, dream) was featured were okay, but the music needs to be more organic rather than forced; the theme episodes don't entirely work. I think there can be some more balance between the theatrical-type numbers and the scaled-back numbers; they just need to take that back a notch too. For example, the episode "Theatricality" featured five numbers: two big numbers and three scaled-back ones; it was just too much for one episode. Of course, the music is what is propelling the show forward and selling albums, so I suspect that there will continue to be a lot of music in Season 2.

Overall, I enjoyed most of the season. Despite the issues of pacing and forcing plot and music in the second half, there were enough highlights to keep the show interesting. I am interested to see what happens with the show now that it has been renewed not only for a second, but also a third, season; perhaps Ryan Murphy can now back off from fighting for popularity and focus on creating a show with the nuance and flippant buoyancy with which it began. And that's what happened on...Glee!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Off the Record with U2

U2 is arguably the most influential rock artist of the past three decades (challengers to that title: Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Nirvana, with maybe a couple of hip-hop artists on the outside); after all, they've even been "Glee-ified" (a not unsuccessful version of "One" that got better with repeated listens). But even as much as an artist's influence can be measured by the musicians who come after them and cite them as meaningful, it is more eye-opening to understand how the artists see themselves and their influences in the chronology of rock. In the past month, I have watched two interesting pieces that have discussed these ideas of influences and legacy. One was an episode of HBO's "Off the Record" in which Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame) interviewed Bono and Edge for an hour, discussing their music and taking questions from the audience. The most fascinating segment was when Stewart spent ten minutes pulling out albums to ellicit short thoughts from the two. The artists included were Patti Smith, the Ramones, Bowie, Dylan...the list went on and on, and it was fascinating to hear Bono and the Edge reminiscing about these albums that shaped them in their teen years. The other interesting investigation into the past came in Davis Guggenheim's 2009 documentary It Might Get Loud, which sought to look at a recent history of the electric guitar through the eyes of three of its practitioners who have different styles and generations: Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White. It was very interesting to see the three guitarists not only telling their stories, but also interacting with one another and trying one another's riffs. The mutual respect among the trio was palpable, and the glee with which they experienced one another's songs was infectious. For any fan of their bands, or even of rock music in general, Loud is a must-see.

And here's a surprisingly enjoyable acoustic cover of "With or Without You" by We Are The Fallen (better known as those guys who used to be in Evanescence with that Irish chick from American Idol), which includes a short interview that discusses how they have been influenced by U2.

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