Weekend Links: Week 9, 2009

Saturday, February 28, 2009

This is my first installment of Weekend Links. It's pretty simple: I'll provide one link for each of the categories below. The categories will probably be fluid for the next couple of weeks until I figure out what's going to work best for me. Enjoy!

My sister-in-law Rachel has a great blog that chronicles the adventures of those three crazy boys I call my nephews. This week, she made a plea for help purchasing Bibles for their children's class at the church plant they're a part of in Burleson.

The Internet
Roger Ebert, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers, was especially put off by the level of snark exhibited by viewers of this year's Academy Awards show. His response sums up what I've been trying to articulate in my head for quite some time.

In light of Alex Rodriguez's recent steroid confession, Rick Reilly reassesses past MVP awards now considered tainted and awards them to the rightful winners.

The March issue of Vanity Fair includes a behind-the-scenes look of how The Godfather movie came to be. The story of how Marlon Brando was cast is particularly fascinating.

U2's 12th studio album, No Line on the Horizon, drops Tuesday. It's currently streaming on their Myspace page.

The Amazon Kindle 2 was released this week. Jodi got hers in the mail today and I have to say, it's pretty sweet.

Tickets for the AFI International Film Festival go on sale on Wednesday. Anybody want to go to a movie or two?

Politics/World News
The Internet's best site, The Big Picture, let me know once again how ignorant I am of what's going on in the world. The feature is about the conflict in Congo, which has been raging for over 15 years. The pictures are poignant, and the stories are even more touching. #33 is the saddest thing I've heard in quite a while.

Music videos are often an exercise in ridiculousness. The folks at Funny or Die have started a series where they redub old music videos with a literal "translation" of what's going on on-screen. On the internet, it's rare to find such a great idea executed so well.

Movie Trailer of the Week
Explicit Ills has all the makings of a powerful message about poverty in contemporary America. It opens on March 6, and I will be in line to see it.

What the Future Holds

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Some things you can look forward to in this space:

  • A weekly collection of links that I'll post on the weekend. A clever name is coming - if you have suggestions, let me know.
  • I'll soon be asking for some input on a special project I'm working on. Be watching for that sometime after I get my laptop back (it's in the shop).
  • A preview of the 2009 baseball season.
  • Another weekly feature: Listmania!
  • An upcoming opinionated piece about a somewhat controversial topic - consider yourself teased.
I'll be implementing all of this stuff soon, so stay tuned!

Best Picture 2009: Who Should Win?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Over the past several days, I've been providing you with my own personal reviews of all of this year's Best Picture nominees. They are ranked below. These are preferences, not predictions, and you can click on the name of each film to read its review.

I believe that Slumdog Millionaire is far and away the best film out of the five nominees. Milk and Frost/Nixon were both very compelling, but suffered from structural flaws. I can't help but think that there were other more worthy nominees than The Reader or Benjamin Button. I find it interesting that each story is told through flashbacks. This is certainly not a new literary device, but I wonder if we might see more movies in the coming months utilizing them as a response.

Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
The Reader
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Picture Review #5: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Technically speaking, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is quite an accomplishment. It is first and foremost a film about visual effects. The job that the special effects people did with Brad Pitt is nothing short of amazing. I am usually very critical of CGI; many a movie experience has been ruined for me because I can't get over, for example, how corny the Hulk looks when he's jumping across the desert. In this case, I was blown away. The line between actor and animation is even more blurred than it was before this film. I have to believe that the groundbreaking nature of Button is what got it nominated for so many awards, because I don't think the rest of it was that great.

The story was compelling enough - except that it wasn't about anything. Screenwriter Eric Roth adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, which is to say that he took the idea of a man aging backwards and his name and went in the complete opposite direction. The story is a comedy, while the movie tries desperately to be a serious drama. Roth could have examined Benjamin's condition in so many compelling ways, but instead settles for an awkward love story and a silly gimmick with a hummingbird. Much has been made of the similarity between Button and Roth's other major screenwriting accomplishment, Forrest Gump. I have included the following humorous video to highlight that fact:

I really wanted to like this film, but it started to drag about an hour of the way through. It was simply too long. However, I am giving it a positive rating because of the quality of the special effects work. 3/5 stars.

Best Picture Review #4: The Reader

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Depending on the point of view, The Reader is one of two movies. To some, it is a romantic tragedy. The love that Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) and Michael Berg (David Kross when young, Ralph Fiennes when old) share can never be, whether its because of their age disparity (the whole affair starts when Schmitz is 32-ish and Berg is 15) or because of Schmitz's unfortunate incarceration. To others, the story is an invitation to reevaluate the Holocaust from a different point of view. Because the audience identifies with Schmitz, the big reveal that she was a guard at Auschwitz almost forces the watcher to reconsider what he thinks about her role in that travesty.

The problem is that TR desperately wants to be both of those movies at once, but its not strong enough to bear the weight of it all. The film is about 30 minutes too long, and if you believe in The Reader: The Romantic Tragedy, it's the cumbersome court scenes in the middle that get in the way, while if The Reader: Holocaust Edition is more your cup of tea, the courtroom drama represents the crux on which the entire story hangs. I tend to subscribe to the latter line of thinking, and even though I believe some important questions were asked here (What do we make of the "I was just doing my job" defense, and what about people today that could say the same thing? Guantanomo, anyone?), I still thought the script was a little heavy-handed and in your face. Young Berg's impromptu visit to an abandoned concentration camp seemed gratuitous, to say the least, and I was a little insulted by the way his classmate was utilized to sway the audience's opinion.

Then, of course, there is the excessive level of sexuality. I was watching TR on my laptop, and for the first 30 minutes I was afraid that Jodi would walk in and think I was looking at porn. It's that ridiculous. I understand that the intense connection between the two leads had to be established, but after a period of time I found myself thinking variations of the following:

"Does Kate Winslet have to be naked the minute she walks in the door?"
"She hates clothes!"
"She sure takes a lot of baths for someone who's supposed to be poor in the 50's."

I probably wouldn't be so skeptical, but the only trailer I've ever seen for this film was one where the producers were clearly trying to draw people to the theater based on the sexual content involved.

Nevertheless, The Reader is a very beautiful movie. It is wonderfully acted by almost the entire cast (the lone exception being the aforementioned classmate), and the soundtrack is just about perfect. I am slowly becoming convinced of Kate Winslet's acting prowess. Because I was so taken by the production in this film, I am probably giving it about 1/2 a star too much. 3.5/5 stars.

Best Picture Review #3: Milk

Friday, February 20, 2009

I knew going in to watch Milk that it was a social film; a biopic about an individual who had accomplished something groundbreaking in civil rights, so I knew what to expect, and I got it. Milk feels like a movie you've seen before, but it does have its own unique qualities. Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black made several choices about the format of the film that both distinguishes Milk from other similar films and establishes its place among the pantheon of well-made movies about civil rights and liberties.

Some of these liberties work very well. The cinematography is excellent. Real footage from the 1970s is seamlessly blended into the story, and the camera's use of mirrors in pivotal situations is terrific. (If you've seen the film, think of the scene with the whistle. Brilliant.) I thought the portrayal of the secondary characters was also very well done. The political supporters that surrounded Harvey Milk had depth and were not merely portrayed as sheep, which would have been an easy thing to fall back on. Harvey's uneasy relationship with political rival and fellow supervisor Dan White was very humanizing to both characters, which made the final ambiguity of Milk hard to ignore. Finally, Sean Penn's performance is amazing. His portrayal of Harvey Milk made him come to life on the screen and made the story very believable and accessible.

On the other hand, the movie is not without its problems. Milk cannot decide which vehicle it will use to drive the story along. Harvey Milk's dictation of his will (only to be heard if he is assassinated) is the main device that keeps the action moving, but sometimes news broadcasts, subtitles, or even short musical montages provide the transitions. It's all very distracting and inconsistent. And why in the world was the news clip announcing his assassination included at the beginning? It seemed like a clever attempt at foreshadowing, but felt like a mistake.

Despite all this, Milk is a very well-made film and a timely commentary on the state of homosexual advances in society. One cannot ignore the parallels between the 1970s Proposition 6 and Proposition 8 of 2008. I'm sure opponents of that bill wish that it had been released before this year's election, but I think that would have cheapened the movie's value and made it seem like a big political commercial made just for 2008. As it is, Milk stands on its own, just like its namesake. 4.5/5 stars

Best Picture Review #2: Frost/Nixon

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What sets Frost/Nixon apart from other Nixon biopics is that it is sympathetic to the former president. That is not to say that it exonerates or panders to him. It doesn't. But the mere fact that Peter Morgan (writer) and Ron Howard (director) are willing to explore the "other" side of Nixon go a long way toward making this a great movie. Most films about the man will face comparisons to Oliver Stone's 1995 film, and F/N stands up to it because of its perspective. The protagonist is in many ways a foil to Nixon, and so it is in Frost's reflection that we are able to understand what drove the former president to make his landmark confession.

I was not a huge fan of the format of F/N. From the beginning, the story is told in documentary-style, which only underscores the talkative nature of the piece. The story is about an interview itself, so why burden the slow-moving plot even more with interjections from the characters explaining what is going on? In my mind, they were more interruptions that transitions. In fact, the first hour or so seemed like just a really good documentary, like the type you may see on the History Channel, just with better acting and a bigger budget.

The film picks up right about the time that Richard M. Nixon drunk-dials Frost in his hotel room. (No, really.) The moment is a result of the painstaking lengths Howard takes to establish the two main characters. They are the opposite of each other, yet they find common ground in their respective conundrums. At this point, I was able forgive F/N for dragging its feet, because the pay-off is well worth it. Nixon's ultimate confession and apology (er, statement of regret?) is one that people who lived through that era remember and history students know well, but it is seen through fresh eyes here because of the circumstances surrounding it. By knowing the interviewer, the interviewee's admission is much more poignant.

That poignancy could not have been displayed without the superior acting skills of Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (Frost). Their performances are augmented by a terrific supporting cast, especially that of Sam Rockwell (James Reston). While I don't totally agree with Ron Howard's choice regarding the overall style of the piece, I was glad for his presence. His fingerprints are all over this movie, and that's only a good thing for a handful of current Hollywood directors. Without his direction, this would not be one of the better biopics in recent memory. 4.5/5 stars.

Best Picture Review #1: Slumdog Millionaire

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It is now 5 days until the 81st Academy Awards are presented. Every day until then, I will review one of the films nominated for Best Picture. On Sunday, I'll do a recap and choose which of the nominees I believe is most deserving. There are possible spoilers here, but I've done my best not to ruin the film.

Slumdog Millionaire
is widely considered by the media, and more importantly, Nate Silver, to be the favorite to take home Best Picture on Sunday. I knew this going in, which is usually a bad thing for my enjoyment factor - if I expect good things from a flick, I am likely to be let down. My theology professor Randy Harris would say, "Low expectations, few disappointments." Yet despite my raised level of expectation, SM was a great joy to experience. In other words, I have very little negative to say about this movie.

Like its title, Slumdog Millionaire is a study in contrast. Protagonist Jamal Malik's slumdog-ishness is established in the presence of a Bollywood star and even in settings such as the Taj Mahal and (of course) the set of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" It is in the live broadcast of this game show that the fundamental question, "What can a slumdog possibly know?" is initially asked, and in the police station where Malik is interrogated that it is answered. (The answer is, "The answers.") The story is driven by the game show, but the background story of how Malik knows these answers is what makes this movie the great commentary that it is.

It would have been easy for any film tackling the subject of poverty and oppression in India to fall into pretentiousness and get preachy, and indeed many have done just that. SM, though, makes no pretense at all. It is predictable. If you don't know what the million dollar question will be by the midpoint of the film, you haven't watched many movies at all. In fact, the movie practically tells you from the beginning that yes, there will be a happy ending, but no, it won't be an easy journey. The beauty is that Boyle is able to balance this typical Hollywood/Bollywood formula with the dissonance that pervades the film. There is a prevailing attitude that slumdogs such as Jamal shouldn't know things, or for that matter, have a shot at romantic love. There are so many levels here (Jamal vs. his brother Salim, Jamal & Salim vs. the men that run the orphanage, etc. etc.), but I want to leave you to find some of them on your own.

The only criticism I have been able to come up with (and I have tried) is based on a plot device. In order to make the story work, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" was broadcast in real time, meaning the "Phone A Friend" lifeline could have been severely abused. Also, it is my understanding that in real life the show is taped. If that really bothers you, I understand, but it doesn't really affect my enjoyment of the movie.

I've been speaking solely of plot elements and storytelling devices, but to neglect SM's production value would be a crime. The editing is tight, the cinematography is beautiful, and the score is beyond excellent. The story is basically told in 3 stages of Malik's life, so that means the 3 main characters, Jamal, Salim, and Jamal's love interest, Latika, are each portrayed by 3 actors. All 9 do a wonderful job, especially Dev Patel (older Jamal), Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (younger Jamal), and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar (middle Latika). Overall, I believe storytelling is its greatest strength, which should speak volumes. The story of 2 Indias is one that is not told often enough, and it is told masterfully here. 5/5 stars.

Caedmon's Call

You may have guessed from reading the subheader that I am a Caedmon's Call fan, and you would be right. I love the complexity that they bring to the table, both lyrically and musically. I could go on about exactly why they're my all-time favorite music group, but I don't think we've really been acquainted long enough for me to show you the level of my nerdiness on this matter. Maybe in a few dozen posts or so.

Anyway, the point of letting you in on this part of my life is to tell you that in November, Jodi and I went to go see Caedmon's. I was content just having the tickets, but when we got in, she grabbed my hand and led me up to the second row, front and center. I don't have to tell you that this was a memorable experience for me. They played several of my favorite songs, though not all of them, and some that I think are okay. One of those was "Hold the Light." For some reason, it really resonated with me. Again, (and I really don't mean to beat a dead horse) I was feeling down about my recent lack of a real job, and the lyrics really opened my eyes. Now it is among my favorites.

Today I found a video of the song at that exact concert we were at, so I couldn't not share it:

Finding The Invisible Church

Monday, February 16, 2009

Before today, it had been a long time since I waited on the table at church. We moved several months ago and have just now settled on a church to attend regularly. Before that, we actually changed churches and then moved from Abilene just 6 months later. It wasn't until Jodi's uncle pulled me aside as we entered service today and asked me to help that I realized this fact. I actually got nervous, despite having performed this function dozens of times in various places. I think part of it is that I have never really paid much attention to the logistics of communion here, so I was afraid of getting up at the wrong time or committing some other crazy faux pas.

Mostly, though, I believe it was because I was thrilled to be put in a position of service once again. I majored in ministry, and it's been a frustration of mine that I have not been able to use my degree vocationally since. In many ways I have been fighting for the right to serve, and to be given without asking the opportunity to do what many consider a minor service humbled me in a somewhat ironic and incredibly beautiful way.

When the time came, I stood in the back of the "auditorium" (it's really more of a soundstage), trays in hand, waiting for my signal to walk down the aisle. We were watching a video from the Pioneer Bible Translators (one of our families is headed to Africa), and I was struck by a scene that showed two people from very different cultures sharing in the Lord's Supper. It reminded me of what those in the theology business like to call "The Invisible Church." This concept is actually somewhat controversial in Churches of Christ (but what isn't?), and what it means for our discussion is that whenever we take part in Communion, we do it with all believers across time and space. In my mind, that is what makes the traditions that we have so important. I was reminded that whether or not I am able to make ministry a vocation, I will always be able to serve. Perhaps more importantly, I will always be a part of The Invisible Church. I have spent a lot of time recently questioning myself, and this simple incident was the calm in the storm that I needed.


Let's keep this introduction short: I've blogged before; I'm starting up again. I hope that this blog becomes a part of my routine, and I think for that to happen the format must be fluid. Sometimes all I'll post is a collection of links, and sometimes I may write a long, well thought-out post. More than likely, I'll post something short on most days - which reminds me, I was going to keep this brief. To start off on a good foot, I'll go ahead and double post today. Stand by.

P.S. - Please excuse the mess that is the current design. I'll be working on that bit by bit.

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