Thursday, January 29, 2009

On the Allephorical Nature of Quantum of Solace

Several years ago I coined the term "allephorical" to describe a scene in Michael Bay's The Island, in which a hero and villain get increasingly tangled up in ropes and barbs while hanging from a ceiling trying to kill each other. An allephor is mushy combination of allegory and metaphor, usually denoting the interconnectedness of two seemingly opposing elements. Those who have seen Quantum of Solace will have no difficulty guess what my favorite scene was, nor why I was laughing inappropriately and responding to the query of "what's so funny?" with (in my best Mac McGarry voice), "It's allephorical!"

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oberon-Media Rip Off (and Response)

Shame on Yahoo! for partnering with these crooks.

I wanted to buy the game Boggle! on Yahoo! and their page said I could buy it for $19.95 or I could buy a monthly subscription for 9.95 (minimum two months) and get a game a month.

I took the second option, in essence getting two games for the price of one.

But when I went to cancel, Yahoo! said I had to contact their "partner" Oberon-Media. Oberon-Media gives no cancellation information on their "help" page and replied to a request for cancellation by saying that if I wanted to pay full price for the second game they would cancel my subscription. I e-mailed them back directly and said that was not the terms of my original agreement (I kept the letter) and got no response. A Google search shows that many others at different game sites have received the same "refuse to let you cancel" non-service in conjunction with stone-walling and non-responses.

A crooked outfit is a crooked outfit, and that's fine, I have to go through my credit card company I assume to stop charges. What steams me is Yahoo! lending their names to this outfit. I'm sure I'm not the only one who didn't do due diligence on Oberon-Media because he figured Yahoo! wouldn't host them on their site if they were not legit.
**See comments for a response from Oberon-Media.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Movie Prayers -- In Which We Serve (1942)

Let us pray.
O eternal Lord God, who alone spreads out the heavens and rules the raging of the sea, who has compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end, be pleased to receive into thy almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us thy servants and the Fleet in which we serve . Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that we may be a safeguard to our most gracious sovereign lord, King George and his dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions. That the inhabitants of our island may in peace and quietness serve thee our God; and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labor; and with a thankful remembrance of thy mercies, to praise and glorify thy holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer is taken from the Book of Common Prayer.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Academy Award Nominations 2008

The Academy Award nominees for 2008-09 were announced this morning.

I'm neither an industry insider nor one with insider access, so I don't have any inside scoop. A preliminary look at the nominees suggests to me that the one trend I see is the tendency of the awards to be used to acknowlege career milestones rather than judge best performances or films of a year. The other is that, judging from what I read in entertainment reporting, popularity within the industry continues to have some affect on the process. (I believe the largest chunk of the voters are the actors, and so think of it as athletes voting for the all-star team or hall[s]-of-fame.)

Certainly the elevation of Benjamin Button feels a bit like an elevation of David Fincher to canonical status, and the nomination of Frost/Nixon confirms that Ron Howard is sort of a young Clint Eastwood (apparently has vast resources of good will within the community).

There is a lot of awards creep fatigue these days, and the emphasis on Benjamin Button in the awards may also be the Academy's way of saying they aren't going to be pushed into a corner by the momentum of Slumdog Millionaire or a way to make it look like there is more drama or uncertainty about the results than there really is.

Mickey Rourke and Kate Winslet appear to be heavy favorites for acting awards, and for the latter one senses that she is at the point in her career where people believe she ought to have an Oscar and start looking for something to give her one for. Not that I necessarily disagree with that estimation of her talent or body of work--but such motivations are the seeds of "what were they thinking?" comments years later. Of the former, I can't really complain about his nomination, but one does feel bad for Richard Jenkins, who I think really deserves it.

It feels, similarly, that Heath Ledger has already been given the award, doesn't it?

I don't have a lot invested in the Oscars, so its hard for me to manufacture serious umbrage or disappointment at any of the categories. I bummed that At The Death Hosue Door did not receive a nod in the Best Documentary category, but the inclusion of Man on Wire and Encounters at the Edge of the World points to a reminder that in many of these categories marketing and distribution plays a heavier role than critical judgments about the films themselves. I mean, you can't like it if you can't see it.

All in all, not the worst year of screw ups as far as nominations go, but nothing that I'm really excited enough about to actually watch. Predictions are as follows. (W)=Will win; (S)=Should win (by which I mean, of course, of these nominees, not necessarily that it is the best of the year).

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role


Meryl Streep for Doubt (2008/I)

(W)(S) Kate Winslet for The Reader (2008)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role


Viola Davis for Doubt (2008/I)

Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler (2008)

I confess in this category, I don't really feel a strong sense that any "should" win, so I give the (S) to Cruz as a sort of career achievement tiebreak.

Best Achievement in Directing

(I don't really have much of a feeling between these five who "should" win. I suppose if I have a vote I'd choose Van Sant, both for getting the damn film made, selecting material, and as a career nod, with bonus points for doing Paranoid Park in the same year.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Entertainment Weekly Rant

Our friends over at Entertainment Weekly love to make lists. They are fun to make and (sometimes) fun to read, but they do have the drawback of often making those who create them look like, well, idiots.

Case in point. I learned that a lack of a nomination in the category of Best Actress for Renee Falconetti's portrayal of the eponymous heroine in Carl Thedor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc constituted the 69th worst Oscar snub in history.

There are, I suppose, a variety of ways one can evaluate Falconetti's performance and not look like a fool. One might reasonably argue that some of the credit goes to Dreyer for the recognition of talent and for coercing the role out of her. (One of my current objections to so many critics awards is that absent some witnessing of the process, it is very difficult from the final product alone to discern the contributions of, say, actor from director from screenwriter.)

One could just as easily, without looking like a fool, insist that Falconetti's turn as Joan is one of the most iconic film performances of all time, belonging on a plane above awards, entering into the cultural and artistic collective memory as a sort of touchstone moment around which histories are written.

Here's what one can't do without looking like an idiot. One can't look at The Passion of Joan of Arc and say, "You know, in the annals of great performances, I gotta say Falconnetti's Joan ranks six ahead of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and four behind Alan Rickman's turn as Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard movie."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"G" is for Great

One of the stereotypes of critics is that repeated or more frequent connoisseurship makes them more jaded, harsher. I noted once that in the first five years I wrote movie reviews, I used the word "masterpiece" exactly once.

But I'm not a music critic, nor do I listen to music as often as some of my friends. So, by the stereotypical logic, I ought to be a bit less critical in my judgments--willing to give a nod to songs of a quality that I might poke holes in were they films.

The flip side of such an argument, though, is that it seems in music, even more than film, people want to get there first, be the discoverer, lead the backlash against that which is popular.

In my alphabetical trek through my I-tunes, then, I decided to take the 50 songs beginning with the letter "G" and apply to them one, (it turns out not quite so) simple judgment: which, if any, would I unreservedly call "great"?

A quick scan gave me one definite "yes" and an additional two "probably"s, as well as a hand full of "maybe"s.

A more considered response, then, yielded the following results, in order not necessarily of my liking them, but in the strength of my belief that they are great songs:

1) "Gimme Shelter" -- The Rolling Stones
Here's the thing, I'm not now nor have I ever been anything more than a lukewarm Stones fan. By any reasonable standard that I can think of, however, "Gimme Shelter" qualifies as great. Longevity, popularity, acclaim, replayability (i.e. standing up to repeated listenings without making you sick of it). There may be some who imitate Jack Black and try to lead a backlash against it for its association with movie soundtracks, but really, so what? That it fits so well in a movie soundtrack is in part due to its iconic quality, its capability of expressing a mood and evoking a time. The lyrics, while not complex, are meaningful, and I do like the shift from "war" to "love" in the final chorus.

2) "Girlfriend is Better" (Live) -- The Talking Heads
Okay, as far as lyrics go, I have no idea what this song means--and I have tried to decipher it many times. I keep thinking of a line from Claude Chabrol describing Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux: "It's hard to put into words, but extremely easy to feel." The gamut of emotions that the song evokes in me--from excitement ("its always showtime, here at the edge of the stage"), to constraint ("down in the basement, we hear the sound of machines"), to hope ("nothing is lost, everything's free / I don't care how impossible it seems")--is greater than just about any that I can think of. I usually feel better after listening to the song, and the energy with which the band has in the live performance is positively infectious.

3) "God Give Me Strength" -- Elvis Costello
From The Grace of My Heart soundtrack, this song combines some beautiful poetry that is made more complex through vocal performance rather than merely just disseminated by it. The transition from "I want him to hurt" to "I want him..." perfectly encapsulates the mix of hurt and desire that is true of the character who sings the song in the film but is also universal. There is some weirdness created by the gender pronouns of the lyrics (a female sings it in the film), so make of it what you will.

4) "Go Insane" -- Lindsay Buckingham
"Two kinds of trouble in this world: Living. Dying." The main reason I'm on the fence with this one is because it always feels a little short to me.

So, that's four out of fifty, or just under ten percent. The following songs get honorable mention...meaning I had to consider whether I would call them great, even if I couldn't quite give the nod:

"Greatest Discovery" (Live) -- Elton John. Really builds to a transcended final verse, but I wonder how much is created by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and how much by the song. On odd numbered days, I'd probably put this song in the "great" category. I wrote this on an even numbered day.
"Goodbye Stranger" -- Supertramp. You know, I think Supertramp is a bit underrated. They are like the perpetual B+ student or 10-6 football team. A lot of "good" but missing some element that separates the elite.
"Grease" -- Frankie Valli. A bit short. But man, it's fun.
"Grace by Which I Stand" -- Keith Green. I think there is some CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) that I think is great, and maybe even a few songs by Green that I would put in that category. This one ultimately feels more like a patter sermon than a song.
"Greenback Dollar" -- The Kingston Trio. Folk, like CCM, is a category unto itself, and I understand some won't like any of it. So I try to compare it to others of its category rather than simply measure crossover appeal. Not quite "Tom Dooley," though, is it? Just a tiny bit too much repetition in the chorus for me to put it in the "great" column.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Left Behind as Evangelical Pornography

This paper that I wrote has been floating around the Internet for awhile, and it was recently deleted and then reposted at The Matthews House Project (due to a site redesign), so I decided I better put a direct link here and give a bit of provenance history.

I originally wrote the core of this paper for a session on Children's Literature at an academic conference (I think it saw SAMLA) in the mid 1990s. I got good responses to it, but life intervened, and I eventually submitted it to an academic journal (the title of which I recall but won't mention) focused on cultural studies. They asked me to revise the paper (which is usually a precursor to publication), and it was in response to their request that I added the sections with a bit more history of the terms "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" as well as the stuff on Sedgwick and "paranoid readings." Unfortunately, at the last moment, the paper was dropped from the special issue, and it went back in the drawer until a year or so later. At that time, I made an off hand reference to having written the paper at a discussion board for faith and the arts (in a thread about Little House on the Prairie, my contributions to which [the thread, not the show] have since been deleted). Another reader of that web site, Mike Leary, asked if he could read the paper, and he eventually passed it on to Zach Kincaid at The Matthews House Project. A number of people read it there and linked to it, but those links became inactive when MHP redesigned its website, and Zach is gradually reposting some of the cataloged content, including this essay.

For what it is worth, the phrase "evangelical pornography" was coined (as far as I know), by my wife, Cindy, who used it to describe Left Behind after having read Louise J. Kaplan's Female Perversions. Since that time, it's become chic to add "pornography" or "porn" to any number of genre titles, pretty much stripping it of its distinctive descriptive power, and I've even heard one or two people attribute the origin of this phrase to Os Guinness or Rick Warren. One or both of them may have used the phrase, though I couldn't find any reference to it by Guinness in print. A Google search of the term, will, I think, reinforce the timeline claims I've made here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Eagle Eye Rant

There are movies I like.
There are movies I dislike.
And then there are movies that just positively bewilder me.

Eagle Eye is one of the latter. I can't even begin to figure out my response to it because I'm honestly baffled by what I am looking at. I haven't been this lost at the movies since I'm Not There.

Granted the Dylan biopic created a different kind of confusion. In Eagle Eye, I could follow the "plot" (such as it was) and identify the characters (such as they were), but I just had no idea what was going on.

I mean, I knew what was going on in the film--some group or person was using the electronic devices that surround us to create Rube Goldbergesque (both in their complexity and silly pointlessness) escapes for our characters.

What I didn't know is what was going on with the film. Was it just stupidly over the top in not caring about plausibility? Or was the ever increasing ridiculousness supposed to be part of the point that signaled to the audience...what? That there was no point? That it was a fable?

Watching this film is a bit like watching White House Press Secretary Dana Perino on The Daily Show. There's no there there. There's no message or point. The point is that she is there and the thing she is there to say is that she is there. You sort of know she doesn't believe half of what she says because...well because she can't possibly believe half of what she says. She's not drooling on herself or otherwise acting mentally retarded. Yet she has the professionally practiced poker-faced earnestness that never actually makes the wink literal. And then when all is said and done, you are still left to wonder what's the point of winking, anyway, as interpreting it as a wink means you have to either be oblivious to or careless about the fact that words and ideas (some of which are defended some of which are advocated) have real meaning and real consequences whether one always leaves oneself a trail of breadcrumbs to the "I was just being ironic" out or not.

Honestly, I don't feel dumber for having seen this movie...I feel...more...


Because as much as I like a good mindless action flick...when the chases and explosions and threats of child murder are wrapped around a shell of nothing, I start thinking maybe the theater ought to just bypass the exercise altogether and just hand patrons a ball of crack for their twenty dollars.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Gran Torino Rant

Gran Torino is a bad film, yes, but at least it has the decency to be an exquisitely bad film of the type you can enjoy if you can get your head in the right place, see it with a few buddies, and one-up one another in deriding plot holes and predicting developments. (Give your self one point if you correctly predicted Clint would say confession in the second half of the film, two if you correctly predicted it would be in the penultimate scene, and three if at the appropriate time you turned to the person you were sitting next to and said, "This would be a really good place for a montage.")

I said to my friend Peter (a.k.a. Smokey Burner) after the film--and it's imperative that you understand that I am absolutely, positively in earnest--that as bad as the film was, it would have been perfect with two small changes:

a) The addition of a Predator.
b) If the dog could talk (or at the minimum do a voice-over narration).

Before I explain, let me just say that I think it is Eastwood's presence that ultimately causes the film to implode. This is a shame, really, because if the film had starred Steven Seagal, Mark Wahlberg, or Vin Diesel, it could have gone straight to video as a Death Wish reboot without having to add all the Jesus imagery the only point of which seems to be to make you wonder if Gus Van Sant somehow decided to do a shot by shot remake of Unforgiven only to have a sly intern slip in pages of The Karate Kid to see if he would notice:

"What's it like to kill a man?"
"It's horrible; you take everything he ever has or will have. Now show me wax the car..."

(I got all three points for the quiz above, but I had one deducted for incorrectly guessing that when Eastwood gives the car to his Hmong mentee that the keys would be on his dog tags.)

But I digress.

The fixes.

Well, first the Predator, because if you are going to take the position that society has gone to hell and some sort of hunter needs to instinctively know who deserves to live and who deserves to get his face kicked in, he ought to at least have cool infra-red vision. Plus a Predator is relatively quick short hand for a film to just go ahead and announce that it is renouncing any claims to reality and just pandering to most basic instincts that attract us to genre pieces to begin with.

The dog takes a little more (but not much more) explaining. One of the things that hampers Eastwood is that the script calls on him to verbalize every response he has because it doesn't trust the audience to get even the most heavy-handed underlining. The opening scene is of his wife's funeral and he scowls at the grandkids and then (in case you didn't get it) their two parents (his kids) explain to each other why he is scowling at their kids. ("Did you see him scowling at your kid for wearing a Lion's jersey?" "Yeah, well your daughter is showing her belly button...") My personal favorite example of this ongoing expository dialogue is when Eastwood gets a phone call that begins, "Hi Dad, this is your number one son, Mitch..."

Unfortunately there are several scenes in which there is nobody around to serve as author (or interpreter) surrogate and tell us what his glowers mean, so Eastwood has to do it himself, either by looking in the mirror and/or talking to himself--"What the hell are you doing here?" or muttering under his breath to nobody in particular. In what I guess is the pivotal scene of the film, Eastwood watches a neighbor woman get out of her car and spill her groceries as a group of teenagers laugh and walk by her on the sidewalk. "Will you look at that!" he grumbles and starts to get up from his chair. Before he can, though, he notices his young, Hmong neighbor walk across the street and say, "Here let me help you." Eastwood then looks at the dog and says, "Well whaddaya know?"

Smokey Burner turned to me at that point and said, "The film couldn't just show us him watching that exchange and trust us to figure it out?" But my response was, heck, in for a penny, in for a pound. It would have been much more satisfying if either Eastwood (or the dog) added, "Hmmm, after witnessing this, I begin to wonder if perhaps I've/you've misjudged my Hmong neighbor. Maybe with the gruff but ultimately loving mentoring of the sort of cantankerous old person who is drainingly bitter and racist in real life but irascibly charming and just non-PC in the movies, he might actually bloom into a noble enough character that he's potentially worth saving from becoming the sort of misogynist punk that I'm/you're berating him for not being in the first place."

At the very least, such an exchange would indicate that the film was fully embracing self-parody rather than just flirting with it in a way that Eastwood's character would only call "weak-assed." Granted, people who haven't seen a lot of magical realism might not know what to make of a talking dog, but if they had just made the dog's bits voice-overs a la Look Who's Talking, Homeward Bound, or To Kill a Mockingbird (if, you know, Scout had been a dog), I think Gran Torino would have worked perfectly as a living fable rather than a drama. It may even have been guaranteed one Oscar.

Assuming, of course, that they could have gotten Morgan Freeman to play the dog.


P.S. The film ends with Toad driving the Gran Torino by the lake. If there remains any doubt about how many plot holes the film has or just how cynical a bastard I really am, I confess the one thing I most desperately wanted to see at that moment was the car full of black guys that harassed him earlier in film drive up along side and one of the passengers pull a gun and say, "Give me the keys, wuss--you're Hmongy buddies can't save you anymore!"

Movie Prayers--The Station Agent (2003)

"God, thank you for letting us sit here and enjoy this meal. Please watch over everybody. Please let my dad heal, because he's driving me fucking crazy....Anybody else you want to mention?"



Thursday, January 08, 2009

Doug Cummings on 2008

I read a fair number of film reviews, but I can probably count on one hand the number of critics whose judgments and reviews I respect as highly as my own. I love Doug's writing; I think his write-ups are an object lesson in the difference between sensitively and perceptively responding to a film and merely spouting an opinion about it.

I'm also encouraged by the number of films on his list that I haven't yet seen. It gives me hope that 2008 wasn't as bad as I thought--just that a couple of films escaped me for the time being. (I narrowly missed Birdsong and Hunger at TIFF and Take Out at the local theater.

Doug's list and my own shared one film in the top 10, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, and one film on our favorite discoveries, Taxi to the Dark Side.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Movie Prayers--Virgin Spring (1960)

Our Blessed Jesus, Father, Son. You alone are the Living Bread that from Heaven came. Make me worthy to receive the Bread of Thy Body and save my souls form a worldly death. Amen.
You see it, God. You see it. The innocent child's death, and my revenge. You allowed it. I don't understand You. I don't understand You. Yet, I still ask Your forgiveness. I know no other way to make peace with myself than with my own hands. I don't know any other way to live. I promise You, on the dead body of my only child, I promise You that to cleanse my sins, here I shall build a church. On this spot. Of mortar and stone...And with these, my hands.