Stockholm Syndrome

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A sermon I preached this morning on Revelation 13:1-4:

Stockholm Syndrome - Revelation 13:1-4 by happinessforblessing

So many "um"s!

Your 2010 MLB All-Stars (In a Perfect Universe)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Every year, I do my best to present what the MLB All-Star rosters should look like. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Miguel Olivo, Rockies

Brian McCann, Braves

First Base
Albert Pujols, Cardinals

Prince Fielder, Brewers
Joey Votto, Reds
Adrian Gonzalez, Padres

Second Base
Chase Utley, Phillies

Martin Prado, Braves
Kelly Johnson, Diamondbacks

Third Base
Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals

David Wright, Mets

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies

Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

Marlon Byrd, Cubs
Andres Torres, Giants
Josh Willingham, Nationals

Andre Ethier, Dodgers
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals
Michael Bourn, Astros

Roy Halladay, Phillies
Josh Johnson, Marlins
Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
Tim Lincecum, Giants
Matt Cain, Giants

Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers
Luke Gregerson, Padres
Sean Marshall, Cubs
Brian Wilson, Giants
Tyler Clippard, Nationals
Carlos Marmol, Cubs
Heath Bell, Padres


Joe Mauer, Twins

Victor Martinez, Red Sox

First Base
Justin Morneau, Twins

Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Daric Barton, Athletics

Second Base
Robinson Cano, Yankees

Orlando Hudson, Twins

Third Base
Evan Longoria, Rays

Adrian Beltre, Red Sox

Derek Jeter, Yankees

Alex Gonzalez, Blue Jays

Alex Rios, White Sox
Carl Crawford, Rays
Magglio Ordonez, Tigers

Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Nick Markakis, Orioles
David DeJesus, Royals

Designated Hitter
Vladimir Guerrero

Francisco Liriano, Twins
Cliff Lee, Mariners
Jon Lester, Red Sox
Ricky Romero, Blue Jays
Jered Weaver, Angels
Phil Hughes, Yankees
Justin Verlander, Tigers

Joel Zumaya, Tigers
Matt Thornton, White Sox
Darren Oliver, Rangers
Joba Chamberlain, Yankees
Grant Balfour, Rays
Frank Francisco, Rangers
Rafael Soriano, Rays

A Renouncement Announcement

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I posted this a couple of weeks ago (right before the Rangers vs. Cubs series in Arlington) on a message board where a couple of friends could see. I now offer it up to you.

Let's talk about Milton Bradley, shall we?

You will all remember that he spent the 2008 season in a Rangers uniform. He had a great season. He got a well-deserved invite to the All-Star Game. He was even well-behaved, something that has been attributed to Ron Washington's superior clubhouse mojo, or some other spectacular lie like that. (Separate rant: I want Wash out as manager. He has the in-game management skills of celery, to borrow a quote from Dave Barry. The thing that's got him holding on is that he is a players' manager. Players just love playing for the guy, which is worth something I guess, but not really a whole lot when he orders his leadoff man who has an OBP of .420 to sacrifice bunt IN THE FIFTH INNING. Anyway, I blame Milton Bradley that he's still around. He behaved here, then continued to act a fool when he left. So of course that's got to be Washington's influence, and so now he can do a line of coke if he wants and still hold on to his job, despite the fact that he is literally losing us games out there. Okay, separate rant over, at least for now.)

Anyway, that 2008 season was nice (at least for Bradley; it's pretty sad that the one thing people remember about the 2008 Rangers season happened during All-Star Weekend), but for whatever reason, Bradley walked. I'm not complaining about that; we got Tanner Scheppers with his compensation pick. What's important in this story is that Bradley went and signed with the team we begin a series against tonight: The Chicago Cubs.

If you know me, you know that I have a history with this team. I wrote a post last time the Cubs were in town trying to explain my sports bigamy. Well, a funny thing happened when Uncle Milton landed in Chicago: he turned back into himself. In an interview he gave after arriving in Seattle, Bradley attributed his behavior problems to the city of Chicago, which is of course laughable. Maybe, though, this is closer to the truth than it seems.

Most people who don't follow the Cubs very closely think that Bradley's problems began after that game when he threw the ball into the stands after miscounting how many outs there were. (Sorry for the crappy video quality in the link, blame MLB's outdated policies on sharing video) The fact is, his problems came long before that. You see, what I wasn't fully aware of was the reputation of the Bleacher Bums at Wrigley Field. Sure, I knew they were bad. Put a bunch of drunks out in the sun and crude stuff is going to happen. What I didn't know was all of the racist stuff that went down, even against Cubs players themselves. When I read that article (seriously, click on the link) last April, I was blindsided. It was like the air was let out of my little balloon. Do you realize that Torii Hunter has the Cubs on his no-trade list because of that nonsense? I told myself that the article referenced isolated incidences, and I moved on. However, I found myself caring a little less about the team. I probably wouldn't have even noticed, but being a fan of two teams you start to realize that one team's wins and losses mean more than the others. Not a huge deal, but I wasn't exactly switching between FSN and WGN on Sunday afternoons like I used to. Yet, I hung on to my Official Cubs Fan Card (I don't actually have one of those). Then, this happened. It probably wouldn't be a big deal in my mind, because after all, it was just one guy throwing a beer - there's an idiot in every crowd. But when I got home and watched the game back, I realized something - the rest of the fans cheered after that happened. Not cool. So I did what any good fan would do - I tried to put it out of my mind.

It's not the team, it's the fanbase. But you know what? We're all cheering for laundry out there. The second Vladimir Guerrero put a Rangers uniform on, I was in love. I hate Mark Teixeira now. It's not just about the players. Our love for team transcends players, and if the rest of the fans really really suck, I think you eventually have to give up.

Besides, isn't it true that being a fan isn't just about rationality? I mean sure, hate the Yankees and the Red Sox because of who they are, but I didn't root for the Cubs because I wanted to root for a team that hasn't won a title in 100 years, it's because there's an emotional attachment there. But that attachment for me is gone. If I flip over to WGN and see the Cubs playing, I get excited because there's Wrigley Field and the 7th inning stretch is awesome, but I don't really care that much whether or not they lose, and you can't rationalize yourself into caring.

So, I'm making it official. It's a breakup. I am renouncing my fanship of the Chicago Cubs. It's actually been this way for a while, I just haven't been able to admit it. I still think Wrigley Field is the greatest venue in all of sports. It's just the drunks in the bleachers that I'm renouncing. I'll still keep my Wrigley Field poster on my wall, and I'll still jump at every chance to go visit. If I had to do it again, I'd still name my dog Wrigley. Lots of other things will stay with me, too, like my affinity for the late, great Harry Caray and my fanship of individual players, like Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. And you know what? If the Cubs were to go to the World Series and they played someone besides the Rangers, I'd probably still cheer for them, just not the same way. Oh, and one more thing: I'll always hate the Brewers and the Astros. That will never change.

Fox News

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"You're criticizing me for not living up to your tagline. And you dismiss any criticism as further evidence of how the rest of the media persecute you. You like to pretend, Bernie Goldberg and Fox News, that the relentless conservative activism of Fox News is the equivalent of the disorganized liberal influence you find on ABC, NBC, and CBS. You may be able to detect a liberal pathogen in their bloodstream, however faint, but Fox News is such a crazy overreaction to that perceived threat. You're like an autoimmune disorder. I'm not saying the virus doesn't exist in some small quantity, but you're producing way too many antibodies. Fox News, you are the lupus of news." - Jon Stewart

Master of the Sea

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A sermon I preached on March 21, 2010 on Mark 4:35-41:

Master of the Sea - Mark 4:35-41 by happinessforblessing

Sorry for the poor quality. This is a recording of a recording and will have to do for now. Feedback (both positive and negative) welcomed and encouraged!

Best Picture Review #10: The Blind Side

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

This concludes my review of all the movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. Click here to view my final ranking.

If I had to sum up my criticism of The Blind Side in one word, it would be this: Caricature. Everything is overdone. Teachers at Michael Oher's teachers dismiss him for no apparent reason, save for one brave soul who dares to do her job. Leigh Anne Tuohy's rich lunch buddies have zero depth. Their racism stops just short of being rally-worthy. The football coach is horribly portrayed as a gutless idiot. Sandra Bullock's Southern accent is atrocious. There's a comically bad recruiting montage, complete with juvenile-level acting from actual college coaches. (By the way, why is Nick Saban shown recruiting Oher to Alabama? He was actually head coach of the Miami Dolphins at the time.) There's a scene (shown in all the previews and on the late night shows) where Mrs. Tuohy interrupts practice to inspire Michael to pretend the quarterback is her and he is to protect him as he would her. The scene is praised because it captures the psyche of the Southern woman so well. It does, but are we really supposed to believe that Michael is so dense that this is what inspires him to play great football?

There were positives. I don't mean to imply that there are not. While I do believe that Sandra Bullock's accent was over the top, she absolutely nailed the mannerisms of a Southern woman, as I noted above. Jae Head was absolutely great as the adoptive little brother SJ. The framing of the story was fine. Overall, though, TBS suffers from campiness.

It's really a shame, because the true story that lies behind the movie is inspiring and deserved better treatment. I heard many people, especially Christians (there are many references to "Christian duty" in the story, and Michael is placed in a Christian high school), lauding The Blind Side as a quality family-friendly movie. I hate the false barrier that many try to place between the "Christian world" and the "secular world," but if it exists, I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors when we try to sell mediocrity to secular society as quality. The main reason The Blind Side fails, in my opinion, is that there is virtually no ambiguity contained in the story. There is a tendency in the mainstream Christian movement to avoid shades of gray, and this is where our credibility is in question, because there is gray everywhere. 2.5/5

Best Picture Review #9: The Hurt Locker

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker is a rare war movie in that it doesn't seem to have an agenda. Its primary message, "War is a drug," is explicitly stated at the beginning and hammered home throughout the entire film.

I see this primarily as a good thing, by the way. Most recent war movies delve too heavily into the "Should we be there?" question, rather than acknowledging that we are there and dealing with the issues at hand. THL wastes no time. One of the bigger name actors in the movie is cast into the role of a soldier that dies in the first 10 minutes. I imagine that some people weren't fazed by this, but it rattled me. From that point on, it seemed that no character was guaranteed to make it to the end of the movie, making the already well-shot and focused bomb-defusing scenes even more tense. There are plenty of memorable scenes, the best one being at the end where the protagonist stands in the grocery store looking at a wall of cereal boxes. How is it possible that this world and the world the rest of the movie is set in are compatible?

I have seen the tight cinematography listed in reviews as the major strength of The Hurt Locker, but to me it is the cat-and-mouse game that is played between the bomb makers and the bomb defusers. Each bomb is more complex than the last, and the interesting thing is the Iraqis will stick around to see whether or not they win. This exploration of the tactical game is rare in war movies.

I think where THL goes awry, though, is when Sgt. James reaches his breaking point. It's hard enough to believe that a three-man explosives team like this exists in the first place, but I was willing to overlook this until James makes his bad decision, and then the whole thing fell apart as unbelievable to me. There is absolutely no way that there is no CO that he reports to. The only consequence of his action was that the affected party cursed at him a little. In the large scheme of things, this inexcusable scene bumps this movie down from an all-time Top 10 war movie to merely an above-average one. It's that big of a deal for me. 4/5

Best Picture Recap: Ranking the Nominees

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I haven't posted my reviews for The Hurt Locker or The Blind Side yet. I have seen them; I just need to write them up. They will be posted later tonight or tomorrow. I wanted to get my rankings up before the actual ceremony, though. This the order that I personally rank them, not a prediction.

1. Inglourious Basterds
2. Up
3. A Serious Man
4. Avatar
5. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
6. The Hurt Locker
7. An Education
8. Up in the Air
9. District 9
10. The Blind Side

Best Picture Review #8: A Serious Man

You should know this up front: I'm a sucker for well-done Biblical allusion. A Serious Man takes the story of Job and applies it to a Jewish man in 1967, and the result is a wonderfully deep tale that questions the role of God in our affairs.

Nothing is going right in the life of Physics professor Larry Gopnik's life. He uses pithy illustrations about cats to teach complicated physics problems, then gets frustrated with a student when he focuses on the illustration rather than the math behind it. When the Junior Rabbi uses a similar hokey analogy to try to explain why everything in his life is going bad, his frustration goes. Larry doesn't "understand the math" behind why Hashem isn't bailing him out of his situation. At one point, he is standing on his roof trying to get better reception on his aerial antenna (brilliant symbolism), when he notices his neighbor sunbathing naked. Sound familiar? There are at least a dozen other allusions, and none of them seem forced or extraneous.

The most poignant is Larry's feeble quest to speak with Rabbi Marshak, the oldest and wisest of the clergymen. Like Job, he is turned away. In A Serious Man, the protagonist can see into Rabbi Marshak's office and tell that he isn't busy, but he is told there is no time for him to be seen. Eventually, Larry's son Danny is the one that is allowed to go in and speak to him, and the Rabbi is surprisingly not as serious as you might think. (The title is also spoken in the film about another character, but it works on many levels.) Marshak finds meaning in a Jefferson Airplane song, but whether or not Danny appreciates the Rabbi's attention or interpretation is in question.

I want to step aside and think about the son for a minute. I think that on one level, he is the key to the entire story. Larry is without a doubt the protagonist, but much of his final acceptance is based on his relationship with Danny. For that, I am very grateful for the way the Coen Brothers treated his part of the story. On the other hand, I absolutely hated the Bar Mitzvah scene. I read somewhere (can't find the link) that the idea of a kid being high at his own Bar Mitzvah was the original idea that the screenplay came from, but it seems like the script evolved enough that this scene came from a completely different movie. I thought it was wholly unnecessary, and so were Danny's friends that ride the bus with him. Maybe there's a way that they fit in that makes sense, but I've been thinking about this movie constantly for three days and it continues to bewilder me. In fact, I don't think I've been so internally conflicted about the quality of a movie before.

My conclusion (subject to change) is that A Serious Man is a brilliant movie that gets bogged down by a couple of extraneous plotlines, but it's still very much worth a viewing. The ending shot alone (a whirlwind, which some people claim whispers right before the credits roll) is worth the experience. 4.5/5

Best Picture Review #7: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I didn't want to give Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire a chance. From what I knew about the plot (a girl with a bad home life is redeemed by education), I had seen this movie before. I was partly right. There's not a whole lot in the story that differentiates it from the crowd of inspirational movies of the same ilk. There's a teacher who goes out of her way to give Precious individual attention, even though she's been left behind by the system. A social worker and a nurse fill the same roles, and because of them Precious gains the confidence she needs to take care of herself. Much of her motivation comes from her new child. It's the same old stuff. And you know what? It's a decent story. Why else would producers green light so many films with that same plot?

There are two things that make Precious stand out from all those other cookie cutter movies: the first is the way director Lee Daniels handles Precious' first person account. Daniels slips in between reality and fantasy throughout the narration and exposition of the film, to great effect. Even during the lowest moments of Precious' life (and boy, are they low), she is daydreaming about how it could be better. The dreams are vivid and somehow both far-fetched and realistic. What this allows Daniels to do is inject hope into an utterly hopeless situation without cheapening or watering down the story. I also appreciated the use of the handheld camera in certain situations to emphasize where Precious' focus was (although it tended to be distracting in parts).

The other distinctive feature of Precious is the realistic depiction of the moral ambiguity of the secondary characters. Daniels chooses not to paint the teacher and the social worker and the nurse as merely perfect selfless robots, but as normal people trapped in the system who happen to be performing extraordinary heroic acts on Precious' behalf. This ambiguity, personified especially by the performances of Paula Patton, Mariah Carey (yes, that Mariah Carey), and Lenny Kravitz (yes, that Lenny Kravitz) is what pushes Precious from good to great. 4.5/5

Best Picture Review #6: An Education

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To say that An Education is a coming of age story almost does it a disservice. Yes, it's primarily about a 16 year-old girl's education (both on the street and in the classroom), but director Lone Scherfig accomplishes so much more than that. Scherfig tells a compelling story about Jenny's ill-advised romance with a much older man, and along the way manages to slip in commentary about the role that education plays in a patriarchal society without being distracting or overbearing.

Mostly, though, the film does examine the education Jenny receives from David. Their on-screen romance is awkward at best, but I think that's what makes the film work. Jenny was never really in love with David himself, but with the idea of being liberated and whisked away to France while her man-friend does his Eddie Haskell routine with her normally overbearing father.

I really enjoyed the treatment that Scherfig gives to Jenny's character. As she gets more and more wrapped up in her "adult" life, Jenny's surroudings, costumes, hair, demeanor, and disposition transform as well. It is clear that this experience has changed her. Is it for the better? The film almost lets you make that decision for yourself, but the ambiguity is lost in the terrible ending.

An Education is based on a true story. The real Jenny, Lynn Barber, wrote a short memoir about it, which can be found here (major spoilers). The film remains very truthful to Barber's account, but the ending takes her conclusions and goes in a completely different direction. Consider the following statement from Barber (spoiler, highlight to read):

What did I get from Simon? An education - the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford - I could read a menu, I could recognise a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.

Why, then, does Jenny narrate that she'll act is if she'd never been to Paris? It seems as if the screenwriters are trying to insert a happy ending into a story that already has one, which to me killed all the emotional momentum the film had going for it. Still, up until that point An Education is a fantastic character study, and for that reason alone I recommend watching it. 4/5

Best Picture Review #5: Inglourious Basterds

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

At the end of Inglourious Basterds, one of the main characters looks at the screen and says, "This just might be my masterpiece." The implication, of course, is that the movie itself is Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece, an assertion that may actually be correct.

Tarantino's quirky fingerprints are all over IB, from the misspelled title (speculated to be accidental in this humorous post) to the film's complete (and obviously purposeful) lack of historical accuracy. These quirks are very off-putting to many, but as a QT apologist, I see the value in many of the oddball things he does. An example: In the very tense 21-minute opening scene, Colonel Hans Landa (superbly portrayed by Christoph Waltz, my pick for Best Actor) and Perrierr LaPadite are speaking in French (they are in France, after all) when Colonel Landa casually suggests that they switch to English. When watching it the first time, I inwardly groaned, thinking this was one of THOSE movies where the foreign characters speak English only so that American audiences won't complain about having to read subtitles. I should have known that this would end up being an important plot point, and it was. (Of course, it opens up a possible plot hole at the end; if you've seen the movie, think about the inserted scene in the theater.)

Overall, I think Tarantino uses his powers for good here. His over-the-top violent style actually seems quite perfect for the subject matter. Likewise, The double Mexican Standoff scene (another Tarantino trademark), while ridiculous, doesn't seem unnecessary and actually serves to move the plot along quite nicely while adding a layer of intrigue to the proceedings when the separate storylines start to intertwine.

This convergence of the seemingly very different stories is nothing short of masterful. The protagonists of each story never even meet, but they are kindred spirits in many ways. One, Shoshanna, is motivated by personal revenge, while the other, Lt. Aldo Raine, seems to be spurred on by a sense of justice (as well as a desire for scalps). Each faces significant obstacle to achieving their purpose, and while it may seem far-fetched that each has to go through Col. Landa to get there, the confrontations don't feel forced at all. In the end, both the effectiveness and futility of each character's actions are represented by the American Jews that stand on a balcony shooting at people who are dying in a theater fire anyway. In Tarantino's world, the final victory is both inevitable and completely dependent on the resolve of the major players. The resulting tension is profound.

I'm not sure that you could have planned for a greater irony than for this film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Holocaust and other World War II flicks are invariably highly favored by the Academy, and Inglourious Basterds is as close to a parody of the genre as you can get while remaining respectful. Even so, it never feels like a parody. It is indeed a masterpiece. 5/5

Best Picture Review #4: Up

Thursday, February 18, 2010

There's a cliché that the judges on American Idol love to overuse: "S/he could sing the phone book and it would still be good." Well, I'm going to use a modified version of it at least one more time: The people at Pixar could make a movie about the phone book and it would still be compelling. Up wasn't the first Pixar movie I went into expecting a train wreck - I didn't really think a movie about a fish swimming across the ocean to find his lost son would be that compelling - but once again, I find myself in awe.

If you think about it, every single one of the Pixar films has at least one memorable scene that advances the plot without using a single spoken word, and I think that's what makes their films distinctive. In Up, they have perfected the art. Consider the following scene (it's from the first act, so there's no spoilers here):

That's not even the only important scene to utilize this technique. The adult Ellie has no lines, yet she's an important character all the way to the end.

There's plenty to be said about the words that are spoken as well. The characters that you don't expect to talk are maybe the funniest, and they provide comic relief at all the right times. This device in lesser hands would have been a serious detriment to the overall feel of the movie, but directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson made sure that the silly elements didn't dominate.

Ultimately, Up is about how one man deals with grief, and while I'm typically skeptical of movies where everything is wrapped up neatly at the end, the storytelling here is so masterful that I don't think viewers should feel cheated. In fact, the inclusion of the stowaway and the relationship he develops with Carl makes it that much more believable, not to mention more relatable. Up is the first animated movie since Beauty and the Beast to be nominated for Best Picture, and the distinction is more than deserved. I can't think of another animated movie that's tried to do so much and succeeded. 5/5

Best Picture Review #3: District 9

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

First-time director Neill Blomkamp wants you to know that District 9 is an important movie. Nothing is more obvious in the first act of the film. If you didn't get the District 6 reference in the title, Blomkamp hits you over the head with repeated mentions of South Africa, then ups the ante by naming his protagonist van der Merwe (There's an entire genre of jokes in South Africa devoted to a bumbling idiot named van der Merwe - here's one example). The first 10 minutes skewers bureaucratic inadequacy and exposes human nature's xenophobic tendencies in no uncertain terms.

As the mockumentary structure advances the storyline, it becomes increasingly apparent that the audience is being set up for a huge bait-and-switch (minor spoilers ahead). Wikus van der Merwe's eventual victimization is fairly predictable, but the manner in which his rejection comes to be was a pleasant surprise to me. His somewhat Kafka-esque metamorphosis provides some of the more poignant and thought-provoking scenes of the film. The scene where Wikus' wife Tania calls him back - apparently after much deliberation; Blomkamp takes care to tell us plenty of time has passed - and accepts him despite his compromised state was a particularly touching scene.

However, the problem with that precise scene underscores the problem of the film of the whole - the story runs out of steam and starts to rely on action movie cliches. When watching the scene in question the first time, I was hung up on the idea that the phone call might be a trap set by fictional MNU to get a fix on the cell phone location. (Sorry to be so vague. If you've seen the movie, you understand that I'm trying to avoid spoiling too much.) In fact, MNU has not thought of this and is apparently resigned to spreading negative propaganda. The subsequent scenes resemble a capture the flag game that could have been in the Halo movie that Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were reportedly working on before moving on to District 9.

While the final act seems weak due to way too many last-second close calls, it could have been redeemed had the relationship between van der Merwe and Christopher Johnson been stronger. D9 tries to sell Wikus' final act as selfless and sacrificial, but given his repeated pleas to Johnson to "fix him," his transformation as a character rings false.

In light of this disappointing denouement, the promise of a cutting commentary on humanity that District 9 makes at the outset seems hollow. The effect is almost as if the two halves of the movie were written by two different people, which is entirely possible given the split screenwriting credit. I wrote this review once before deleting it and writing a more favorable review (it may not sound like it, but there's plenty to like here), but eventually I came back and rewrote the original one. I don't think it's overly harsh to be down on the movie as a whole because it doesn't live up to its own lofty expectations, especially when they're made so explicit as I outlined above. I look forward to a more experienced director remaking this movie in 20 years. A successful formula for the fictional future director living in my head would be to keep the first two-thirds of the story and then to take the ending in a completely different direction. Here's hoping. 3.5/5

Best Picture Review #2: Up in the Air

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This review contains minor spoilers. You've been warned.

Let's think about the standard components of a standard romantic comedy. Funny? Check. A girl teaches a guy to stop being selfish and open up to others? Check. Said guy realizes this important fact at the exact moment that he's about to achieve his life goal, resulting in him going silent, then bolting for the door and ignoring requests to stay, followed by a "running through the airport and getting to the gate just in time" scene so he can go see her? Oh yeah.

Up in the Air
is without a doubt a romantic comedy on the surface. Go snorkeling a little bit, though, and you'll find that there's so much more.

At its very core, UitA has a philosophical question for you - is having and cultivating relationships worth the trouble, or is having that much weight on your shoulders holding you back - personally or professionally? It's not a unique question for Hollywood - the content itself doesn't differentiate itself from, say, The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage, but the execution in answering that question sets it apart.

How so? For me, the scene that forces the issue is the one in Detroit. They're testing they're new technological way of firing people, which results in an odd set-up where Ryan (George Clooney) and Natalie (Anna Kendrick) are firing people from the next room. Ryan, a man who believes in keeping people at a distance, has been resisting the changes because he knows that helping someone "transition" requires a personal touch, but he hasn't noticed the tension until now. In the moment where a just-fired distraught employee walks past their conference room, Ryan gets it. I love it when the moment of realization in a character study is palpable like this. The director, Jason Reitman, also did Juno and Thank You for Smoking, and this is exactly what makes those movies great as well. In each of these three movies, you can see the main characters cognitively recognize how they're supposed to change, and here's the rub: they never do it right away. Isn't it like that in real life? It takes some time to change your actions even after you've changed your belief system.

Of course, what this does is set up a cheesy moment like the one I mentioned at the beginning, with the running through the airport and all. If you haven't seen the movie and you've read this far, I've already ruined it for you anyway, so I don't mind telling you that this actually happens. This is the struggle that I have with UitA: it was an amazing character study. All three characters did brilliantly. For the most part, the narrative structure was tight and purposeful. But it seemed like Reitman didn't know how to end it. The twist at the end was believable, but lazy. MAJOR SPOILER (highlight to read): Sure, the fact that Alex had a real family allowed her to say that line about Ryan being her escape from real life, but then why did she agree to go to the wedding? A better plot line would have been for her to have several other "escapes" that she encountered on the road. And let's not forget the gigantic elephant in the room: product placement. Call me a purist, but that was way too much. Overall, I really liked Up in the Air, but it suffered from some fatal flaws that make me wonder why it was nominated for Best Picture. 4/5

Best Picture Review #1: Avatar

Friday, February 5, 2010

I will be reviewing all of the Best Picture nominees in the days leading up to the Academy Awards on Sunday, March 7, just as I did last year. (You can find those reviews by clicking "Academy Awards" under "Labels" to the right.)

It would be very easy to pigeon-hole Avatar as a movie that is heavy on special effects with a story that seems to be borrowed from other well-known works. I did that very thing with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button last year. While that description would not necessarily be untrue for Avatar, I don't think it's fair.

First, let's talk about special effects, which almost seems like a misnomer. Effects implies that something was added in post-production, and nothing could be further from the truth here. According the The New Yorker (link NSFW - language), Avatar is "the first big-budget action blockbuster [shot] in 3-D." James Cameron wrote the script in 1994, but the technology wasn't good enough to actually shoot the idea. It wasn't until he saw Gollum on screen in one of the LOTR movies that he was convinced that the technology was ready, and even then he basically had to invent his own camera to accomplish what he did.

The result is absolutely breathtaking. Cameron is quoted as saying (back in early 2007!), "Ideally at the end of the day the audience has no idea which they're looking at," and in my opinion, he accomplished just that. There were only a couple of instances in the entire 162 minutes that didn't ring true to me, but those were very easily overlooked. (An example would be at about 2:56 of this video, where one Avatar pushes another and it just doesn't look quite right - understand that I'm really nitpicking here.) Have I said enough about the technical achievement yet? If you haven't seen it, go watch it in 3-D at the theater while you still can. This will probably be the first movie that's done an injustice by putting it on Blu-ray.

The vast majority of the criticisms I've heard about Avatar concern the story. Let me summarize them for you: it's not completely original. A simple internet search led me to comparisons of Dances with Wolves, Delgo, Dune, FernGully, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, and many, many others. While it is true that Avatar and several of these movies share common archetypes, I don't think that this really diminishes the story arc at all. Cameron's screenplay challenges militarism and ethnocentricism (among many other topics), and since we apparently aren't getting the message, I'm okay with stories that attempt to engage these topics in a fresh way. If anything, the message is a little heavy-handed. Note to Mr. Cameron: Using the phrase "shock and awe" is the opposite of subtlety.

My quibbles with Avatar concern more of the same problems that affect other Hollywood blockbusters: too many shallow characters (especially Col. Quaritch and Trudy), cheesy one-liners, monologues given by the bad guys before they die, and plot twists that exist solely to justify more explosions. In a regular action flick, it's easy to overlook these flaws, but not in this case, at least not for me. Avatar aspires to be included among the Pantheon of Great Movies, and while I certainly agree that it will go down in history as a hugely influential work, it falls short of being an all-time great. 4.5/5.

The Book of Eli

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Warning! This post contains major spoilers for "The Book of Eli." I strongly recommend that you see the movie before reading this.

The Book of Eli is, for lack of a better term, prophetic. I hedge my bets a little because this interview leads me to believe that perhaps I'm drawing more meaning from the movie than perhaps the filmmakers are themselves. Still, I believe that God can speak through people despite their intentions. Even if you can't go there with me, I think you'll agree that there are "lessons" to be found in the ordinary.

Depending on your viewpoint, the message of TBoE is either really good or really terrible news. This wasn't evident to me immediately, but upon further reflection I have come to this conclusion. I believe this is true for other works in the same genre. Perhaps the most famous entry in the Apocalyptic tradition, Revelation, contains an extensive passage that explicitly backs up this claim. In Chapter 18, Babylon, the symbol of excess wealth (among many other things) falls, and the people who have built their lives on the sandy ground of materialism weep for it. In the very next chapter, the multitude who have been calling for its destruction celebrate the one who destroyed it. Two groups of people witnessed the crumbling of an empire and had completely different reactions to it.

So it is in TBoE. When asked about the difference between the world they live in versus the one before "The Flash," the titular character observes: "People had more than they needed...we threw away things people kill each other for now." This is the thought of a man who is not invested in the culture of STUFF. In fact, this is the thought of a man who is truly on a mission from God. Contrast his attitude with that of Carnegie. The entire infrastructure of the world has collapsed. Roads and bridges are no more, cannibalism and "hijacking" is commonplace, and even the currency system has been replaced by bartering. Yet Carnegie is a man who is so in love with capitalizing on capitalism that he hoards what is probably the most precious resource in the world (water) and uses his coercive power to gain more power. He exploits the weaknesses of others. Optimistically, we would call him an opportunist. Either way, you have to admit that he is smart. And because he is smart, he knows that one surefire way to control people is through religion.

We Christians don't like to admit that this is true. We're not under anybody's control but our own, we say. (Church of Christ-ers have a particular independent spirit due, in no small part, to the autonomy of our congregations.) But if we're honest with ourselves, how often do we use religion as a means of control over others, both within and without the Church?

There's so much more I want to talk about in regards to this movie - the symbolism of the blind man being the one that "sees" the best and the weak shaming the strong, the fact that Eli's ultimate destination is nicknamed "The Rock," the moral ambiguity of Eli ignoring the women getting raped so he can complete his mission, the subtle and not-so-subtle references the director makes to other post-apocalyptic and dystopic works, and so on. This post was originally a lot longer and rambled more, if that's possible. But ultimately, I cut it down because I want to discuss this question with you. Whose side are we on? When our infrastructure crumbles, are we going to be rejoicing because we have been faithful to the Word of God, or are we going to be devastated because we've used the Word of God as a false pretense to wield power over others?

The 2006 Rose Bowl, Part 2 - Alabama Gets Overhyped

Thursday, January 7, 2010

National Championship Game. Texas is in it. So is another undefeated school, a media darling. Texas' quarterback has already had a career that few could dream of, yet he was snubbed for the Heisman again this year. This time, the winner is the running back for the team they're about to play in the title game. The teams have no common opponents, yet most of the populace and even more of the pundits are going with the traditional power. After all, the Big 12 is weak, and Texas struggled against Texas A&M of all teams, only beating them by 10 or 11 points. Don't forget that they can't run the ball.

Listen, I know it's not the 2005 Longhorns that are going to take the field tonight against Alabama, but it sure has that feel. I remember the hype surrounding the Trojans before the game was even played. Mark May, Kirk Herbstreit, and Colin Cowherd were just some ESPN employees who were crowning USC as one of the best college football teams of all time. It turns out that they weren't even the best team that year. This time around, it's not so much Alabama getting the love as it is the SEC. For the past few years, we've heard so much about how great the SEC is that people simply state as fact that they're the best conference, hands down. I don't buy it, and I really don't see how it's relevant. The Big 12 is not playing the SEC tonight. Texas is playing Alabama.

Another reason you can't just assume tonight's game will be a walkover for the Tide: you cannot use the transitive property in sports. People try to do it in college football more than any other sport because when two teams from different conferences get together, there's almost no common opponents. This doesn't happen in real leagues where the league sets the schedule. The problem is, comparing Alabama's win over Florida to Texas' win over Nebraska, for example, is insane. Just the same way, you can't go back in the season and compare Texas' 34-24 win over Texas Tech to Alabama's 34-24 win over Virginia Tech. The reason is that there are way too many variables to consider. People like to use the phrase "comparing apples to oranges" a lot, but I think that analogy was originally used about college football teams. If it wasn't, it should have been.

Finally, the coaching. Alabama folks will tell you that Nick Saban is a great football coach. They may be right. He does a great job of getting his boys ready to play from week to week. The problem is, the National Championship Game is played over a month after the last bit of action. Saban has won a title before, so he can't be terrible at this, but it's not like he's great at it either. In 10 bowl games, his record is 4-6 overall and 1-1 at Alabama, including that embarassment last year against Utah. Mack Brown is 11-5 overall and 8-3 while at Texas. The point is, Mack can coach 'em up when he has a month to prepare for a team, while Saban's ability to do so is questionable at best. Let's not forget that the players in this game are kids. That's the number one thing people overlook when talking about college football, in my opinion. Professionals don't care what the media says; they just line up and play. College kids are affected. When a team is discounted, they tend to play inspired, while teams that have already been crowned tend to play with a sense of entitlement. (By the way, I think that's what happened in the Big 12 Championship Game. Another circumstantial part of the game that people fail to consider when comparing apples and oranges) In 2006, Mack Brown said the following in his press conference the day of the game: "I would like to thank all of the members of the media. I don’t even have to make a pep talk.” He could probably say the same thing today, and I think that's reason enough for Alabama to be scared.

ATTN: Bono Haters

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lots of people love to hate Bono, the lead singer of U2. A lot of it has to do with his perceived vapid self-importance.

I disagree with this viewpoint. I've been paying attention to Bono's guest columns with the New York Times, and they have been intelligent, articulate, and relevant. Here's a list of his Top 10 something or others of the next decade. (I didn't say he could stay on topic.)

There's not a comment page on the NYT website (probably a good thing), so I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

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