Saturday, February 21, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2014

Once again, I must state that this list covers only those movies I've seen to date. I missed a lot of good movies this past year for a number of reasons. Whittling down to an arbitrary ten can also be difficult. And of course, your mileage may vary. But with the Oscars on Sunday, I thought I should get this up.

10. The Judge -- I debated this tenth slot, but ultimately thought I enjoyed this one enough to warrant it. Robert Downey Jr. is a slick city lawyer who has to defend his father, a big time country judge, on charges of vehicular manslaughter. It's a bit old-fashioned, but there are great performances from RDJ and Robert Duvall. Unfortunately, there's also way too much screen time given to a subplot with Vera Farmiga that doesn't really need to be there. The cast makes it a worthwhile viewing.

9. Noah -- The movie that sharply divided critics and moviegoers. If you're looking for a a strict Biblical account, this is not it. It takes a number of liberties (and yes, too many at times). And yet, I felt like even though Aronofsky drastically changed a number of facts, he absolutely nailed the themes of the story, and indeed of the entire Bible. I felt like this movie better understood and laid out the larger themes of damnation and redemption than any of the more overtly Christian movies released this year did. Yes, he invents absurd subplots, but it's all in service of those larger themes: the depravity of man and how there's no one righteous, the agony of hurting your children for the greater good, the power of forgiveness. I certainly don't think it was perfect and it's not for everybody, but taking it for what it is, I found it beautiful. No comparison to the terrible Left Behind remake.

8. Big Eyes -- You might be surprised to see this one make the list. I enjoyed it a lot. It's a fun movie. It's a true story and all, but it's fun. Tim Burton is almost back to form here. I'll watch Amy Adams in anything. While it's not as good as Ed Wood (it's from the same screenwriters), I found it enjoyable and one I wouldn't mind revisiting.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel -- Speaking of revisiting, we have the Grand Budapest Hotel. I'm a fan of Wes Anderson, and there are a lot of fun goings-on in this movie. I admire the use of different ratios and color schemes for the different time periods. And yet, I found I didn't love it as much as I expected to. The film was a bit more violent than previous Anderson films (but in a quirky Anderson way -- when Jeff Goldblum loses his fingers in a door, they are so clearly fake-looking plastic fingers). It wasn't as magical for me as Moonrise Kingdom, or as quietly charming as Darjeeling Limited, or as bold as Royal Tenanbaums. It's certainly not his worst movie, and there are many good things to say about it, but I remain a tad disappointed which is why it's so lo on the list.

6. Edge of Tomorrow -- The movie no one had any expectations for, and which is becoming something of a cult hit. There's a very vocal corner of the internet that is spreading the word about this movie as much as it can. People stayed away for two reasons: the marketing was confusing or not clear enough, or they hate Tom Cruise. The title is lame (and the DVD rebranding buries it), and you could write it off as Groundhog Day with aliens, but it's smart and engaging. As to avoiding anything with Cruise in it, at least you can watch him die over and over again! Besides, you don't see this movie for him, you see it for Emily Blunt. She is fantastic in this movie. She's had a good year in general with this and Into the Woods (and no love from the Academy for either). She makes the human elements work so well. I find the ending a teeny bit of a letdown, but it's a great ride anyway. If there were ever a movie that compared to playing a video game, this is it.

5. Boyhood -- Shot over twelve years, it's an indie experiment that mostly works. I find some of the sameness gets bland after awhile, but it's fun to track the years by the music, clothes and current events. I consider it the epitome of a great independent film. I don't think it's the best thing I ever saw or anything, but it's very much a Richard Linklater movie and if he never made another one, this would be a fine way to cap his career. Part of me is a little sad that we can't get a parallel film called Girlhood following the sister; that would have made the experiment even more fascinating. Basically, this movie is like a fictional, somewhat improvised version of Michael Apted's Up series.

4. Chef -- There are people who hate this movie. They think it's too cliche or that it's too obviously a statement about art. I'm not one of them; I had a blast. Jon Favreau returns to making a smaller movie after big studio films like Iron Man and Cowboys vs. Aliens. And in a way, this seems like her own personal statement about what happened with Iron Man 2. But beyond that reading, it's a simple movie about a father sharing his passion with his son and how the two of them build something great together. My only real criticism is how much amazing food is made in some scenes and never gets eaten. This movie has been called "food porn" and some of it made me really hungry. If you don't want a hot sandwich after watching this film, I think there's something wrong with you.

3. Gone Girl -- I had pretty low expectations, since this was one of those books that every other woman was reading for a year and a half and I couldn't see how it could be that good. The story itself is kind of pulpy and ridiculous. And yet I found that I enjoyed the movie thoroughly. Apart from a few minor points that I didn't think worked quite well, I was pleasantly surprised. Ben Affleck reminds us all that he actually can be a solid actor, and Rosamunde Pike gives a scene-chewing performance that steals the movie. The campaign to get Julianne Moore the Oscar this year might succeed and that would be unfortunate. There's nothing exactly subtle about Gone Girl, but Pike makes it work so well and I'd hate to see her lose. The supporting cast is strong as well. The slightly anti-Feminist themes tickled me as well. I don't really consider it "misogynistic" as some claim (there was a real debate about this when it came out), but I kind of love that just because the men aren't all great guys doesn't mean that women can't be completely insane. I think the movie preys well on our expectations, suppositions and prejudices.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The best of the comic book movies I saw this year. The shocking revelations that shook up the Marvel movie universe really worked for me, even retroactively fixing elements that had been bothering me. Chris Evans is so utterly convincing in how he plays Steve Rogers with a sturdy old-fashioned kind of conviction. There are a few too many twists, some plot threads that don't get enough attention, and a bit too much "because it looks cool" that takes away from the logic of the story, but it succeeds in entertaining without being completely mindless. I think it's one of the best Marvel movies yet, and when it was over I couldn't wait to see Captain America 3. Unfortunately, we've got another few films to go before that and I hope they don't kill the momentum.

1. Birdman -- I haven't liked Inarritu's previous movies so I didn't know what to think when this came out. I also generally dislike "magical realism" and there seems to be a bit of that here. And yet, I still consider it the best movie I saw all year. The whole cast is superb, and the fact that we can carry a bit of their outside lives into their characters makes it work even better. We know Michael Keaton as Batman; we know Edward Norton as a very involved sort of actor. Here Norton is almost parody of himself. Keaton puts so much into his performance. Some have criticized the movie as being just things we've seen before (the actor who wants to be taken seriously for his new project), but it's really not about the story but about how the story is told. The cinematography, with its long takes, is solid. And as someone who's worked in the theater, the craziness behind the scenes rang so true. I don't even care if the movie was making a big statement about critics and art and what not (it feels almost like a satire of Ratatouille in places); I just enjoyed it for what it was. There are a few extraneous pieces, but when it's focused on Michael Keaton it really works.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Somebody's Miracle

I've been getting into Liz Phair recently. I really dig this song.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marathon Monday

Living in the Boston area, you can't escape the Boston marathon. When that Marathon Monday in April rolls around, you best be prepared for streets to close down and wall-to-wall television coverage. And now, thanks to the recent bombing, for heightened excessive security and "Boston Strong" slogans everywhere. But that's not the marathon Monday I'm talking about. I don't have much use for marathons. For me, when Marathon Monday rolls around it's an annoyance. But my family likes the marathon, and my nephew was even born on a Marathon Monday, so I can't escape it. But marathons bore me to tears.

What I do love however is movie marathons. And tomorrow is going to be a movie marathon Monday for me, as the new Hobbit movie comes out and they will be screening all three that day. I've gone to a few movie marathons over the years. I saw the Dark Knight trilogy marathon (that was the night of the Aurora shooting). I even went to the Twilight marathon (and now I never have to see any of those films ever again).

I remember back when Return of the King came out there were Lord of the Rings marathons, but I wasn't able to go because it sold out in like an hour. Now, I have the opportunity to watch the three Hobbit movies together. And it's going to be fun.

There are few things I like better than movie marathons. I wish there were more of them in my area. I've always wanted to do a Star Trek movie marathon. Some nights at home I've done marathons. My sister and I did a Toy Story marathon, and a Lion King marathon, and a Rush Hour marathon. Back in the 1990s, for awhile the Disney Channel did "Triple Feature Friday" where they would air a marathon of movies either in the same series or related topically. I wish they'd bring that back. Of course, I wish they still aired movies without commercials.

I remember when I was a kid and the Sci-Fi Channel (back when it was called that) aired the Star Wars Trilogy all day. It was hosted by Carrie Fisher that year and I taped it because I wasn't home all day. The following year they did it again in letterbox format hosted by Billy Dee Williams. They're sister network USA used to do it pretty often as well after that. Nowadays, TNT is always running Lord of the Rings in a similar fashion.

Great as it is at home, nothing beats doing a marathon in a theater the way they were meant to be seen. To me, a movie marathon is a perfect first date. Kinda wish I had someone to go with to one. Anyway, I'm looking forward to marathon Monday tomorrow, the only Marathon Monday that I can get behind.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Meaning of Christmas According to Joel

Last night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Jimmy premiered a new Christmas song written with The Killers called "Joel the Lump of Coal". Normally I dislike new modern Christmas songs (I never ever ever want to hear "The Christmas Shoes" again). And it's a little frustrating that we are into the Christmas season so soon, but I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of the song.

In the tradition of "Frosty the Snowman", it's a song about a sentient object at Christmas time. but while the story involves Santa and the North Pole, I came away seeing Christological significance as well. Give a listen to the song below, and then I'll elucidate.


That was cute, right? Did you enjoy it? 

When I was in high school, I remember that someone in my sister's class once wrote a paper on how Frosty the Snowman is a Christ figure (particularly in the animated special). He gives his life to save a little girl, then is reborn and in the end he ascends to the sky (on Santa's sleigh). "And he waved goodbye saying, 'Don't you cry. I'll be back again someday.'" 

Similarly, I found Joel the Lump of Coal to represent Christ's mission on earth. He comes somewhat reluctantly but does the will of Santa (shadows of Gethsemane?) and in the end his presence makes the naughty boy aware of his sin, but Joel doesn't leave things that way. Joel knows he was sent for a purpose, and he tells the kid to put all his pain onto him. Like Jesus on the cross, Joel takes on the boy's sin on himself as it were, and in doing so he gives his life. But he is reborn as a brilliant diamond, and the boy is changed, now with great reward. Isn't that a beautiful representation of what Christ does? In a way, is that not what Christmas is all about?

I must say, I was rather moved by Joel the Lump of Coal. That's a song I wouldn't mind hearing on the radio, and I've already bought it on iTunes. I hope all your Christmases are filled with warm feelings and that those things that seem lousy turn out to bring you joy, and if you feel like an unloved lump of coal, find your purpose and shine bright.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Unthankful

Today is American Thanksgiving, the day Americans set aside to mythologize their history, put up with family, and train for Christmas shopping all under the guise of a day of thanks.

Being thankful and expressing that thanks is a wonderful thing. Having a day set aside to offer thanks is also a lovely idea. It's very easy to lose the spirit of the holiday. But it's just as easy to get caught up in "Christmas comes earlier and earlier! We're losing Thanksgiving!" or "WE'RE SUPPOSED TO BE GIVING THANKS!!"

In many churches on Sunday, I'm sure there were sermons preached of the story where Jesus heals ten lepers and one comes back to thank him. Jesus says, "Were there not ten cleansed?" and we are always told that the point of the story is to remember to be grateful for the things God did for you. And of course we should be. That's a good lesson, and there's nothing wrong with that. But something else Jesus said leapt out at me recently.

Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good for those who hate us. He told us to love people and treat them well, even (or especially?) if they use us, rob us and treat us like garbage. Why? Because that's what God does. Then he says, "For He is kind to the unthankful and evil." (Luke 6:35) If we are to be like God, it's worth remembering that God is kind to the unthankful.

What people tend to neglect in the leper story is that it's not about, or at least not JUST about, being thankful. What Jesus asks is not "where are the other nine guys?" What he actually asks is, "Was the only one to come back and thank me this foreigner?" The story was one of many where Jesus points to the faith and good nature of a Gentile that puts that of the Jews to shame. But does Jesus say something like, "Cursed be those who do not return to give thanks!" No. Like his father, he is kind to the unthankful.

Today and in this season, many Americans and many Christians will get so caught up in their own frustrations at others' perceived unthankfulness. Honestly, if I never hear another flaky Christian use the phrase "attitude of gratitude" it will be too soon. There's a danger in fostering a smugness about it. That tradition of going around the table and saying what you're thankful for really becomes a ploy to see who can play "holier than thou" since everyone is being judged on what they say and how thankful they sound. "What, you're not thankful for your family??" Maybe some are thankful and can't put it into words when they are on the spot. Or maybe they really do feel unthankful. Is that right? Maybe not. But instead of creating a passive-aggressive hostility where people feel the need to put on appearances, just be kind to the unthankful, as God is.

Yes, the idea of Black Friday and constant commercialism is frustrating. But instead of troubling our heads about "why can't these people be happy with what they have?" let's think kind things toward them. Instead of thinking ourselves superior with how we keep the spirit of thanksgiving, let's be in the spirit of God and be kind. It's weird that over time the notion of communal thanksgiving has so often become about individual thankfulness and at times about a kind of judgmental pride.

Kindness is beyond "niceness". "Kind" is from the same roots as "kin" or "kindred". To be kind means to treat someone like family, as one of your own because you are of the same sort. A day of national thanksgiving then is about how all Americans should be grateful for the things they have that bind them and the God that looks out for them. Jesus says that those who love their enemies will be sons of the Most High. God's kindness toward the unthankful means he extends blessings to those who were not his sons as if they were. I'm certainly not saying that we don't need Jesus because we're all God's children or any sort of empty "brotherhood of man" philosophy. But God extends the same goodness he gives his children to those who are not, that they might want to come and be adopted or return to the father they abandoned. And we should have the same attitude. It's easy to talk about an "attitude of gratitude", but beyond that I'd love to see people have an attitude of family toward those we might think don't deserve it. We should not harp on things like, "After all that I do for you, this is the thanks I get?!" For who are we? Are we not dust, but for the grace of God?

On this day of all days, I'd rather not think about the thankful. I want to extend grace to the unthankful and have the mind of Christ. What am I thankful for this Thanksgiving day? I am thankful that my God, the only God, gives rain on the just and the unjust.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Happy Feet

This post has nothing to do with that terrible penguin movie that inexplicably won an Oscar.

Last night, I was watching ABC and they were running Shark Tank in a special time slot because ABC has cancelled Selfie. That in itself makes me mad, because Selfie was shaping up to be a good show and I hope there are more episodes. But that's a topic for another day.

About halfway through the episode, the guy comes into the tank with his slipper company, Happy Feet. Now, I found this hilarious because during the commercial break I had literally just put on my Happy Feet slippers. If you've not heard of them or seen them, they're big comfy slippers sometimes designed to look like animals or silly things, and sometimes to look like cartoonishly large sneakers. They used to have a kiosk at the mall every year, and that's where I got mine. They've been doing most of their business online.

Anyway, I thought that little synchronicity was funny. If you're looking for Christmas presents (what's wrong with you? It isn't even Thanksgiving yet!), and you think you might give someone some slippers, why not check out the website? They've got a nice memory foam sole that, when they're new, is like walking on a cloud. I think they're more durable than standard slippers too; mine have lasted years. And I'm not shilling for the company or anything, I just genuinely like them. So if your in the market for some kooky slippers, or like walking on something soft and squishy all day, maybe you're in the market for a pair.

And now for no reason, I'm going to leave you with this video, because when I hear the phrase "Happy Feet", this is the first thing I think of.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I assure you this is real...

Years ago, music was sold on large vinyl discs we called records. My parents, like many of our parents, collected many of these records over the years. Over time, as cassette tapes and CDs overtook the music market, my parents' record collection was relegated to an alcove in an attic room. It sat there for years mostly not being touched. When I got older, I inherited this room as my bedroom, but it still contained many traces of my father's things, including these records. So when we were forced to move a few years ago, I took my own record collection (some kids' stuff from my '80s childhood, and some I've gathered at yard sales, book sales, or bought new) with me, and as I cleaned out my "closet" alcove, I took all my parents' records as well.

My father was a pastor and my mother a kindergarten teacher. Think about Christian twenty-somethings in the '70s and '80s and maybe you can imagine the kind of albums I found there. Some John Denver, some Disney, some children's songs, and a lot of '70s Christian music from artists you've probably never heard of today, like Lamb.

I was searching for a particular record today and I stumbled on one of theirs that I had never seen before and I just had to laugh at in disbelief. I'm sure it was my mother's, and I find it hilarious that it even exists. It's a Christan workout album. Now, that in itself isn't too surprising. The trend of exercise programs geared to Christian women continued well into the 1990s. Integrity Music had their own line of videos cashing in on the step aerobics craze. So while the notion of exercise to Christian music is not foreign to me, what I found today still feels like a joke. But as the heading says, I assure you it's real. Behold:
Xian varFirmbeliever.jpg

How can I possibly take that seriously? How does that not sound like something Ned Flanders would have in a Simpsons episode? Firm Believer? Anyway, I had a laugh at that, and thought some of you might as well. There's just something absurd about a pun like that which I can't take seriously. If you've ever stumbled across something like this on the internet and thought "that must be Photoshopped", I can assure you I have held it in my hands and it is entirely real. I don't think I'll ever be able to hear the term "firm believer" again without snickering.

Wow.