Jan 14 2018

The New New Hope for Star Wars – Why the current trilogy is worthy of The New Hope trilogy but The Phantom Menace still isn’t


In 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope hit cinemas and started the successful Star Wars film franchise. Sixteen years later writer-director George Lucas, who also wrote and directed A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) numbered IV, V, and VI had the advantage of better special effects technology, but The Phantom Menace, numbered I is by far the worst of the Star Wars films. After that one standing in line for the midnight show didn’t seem like an imperative anymore.  The shine was off the star for me and II and III did little to restore the shine. Then 2015’s The Force Awakens gave back the shine and 2017’s The Last Jedi brought back the whole vibe that made the New Hope trilogy so great. (To avoid confusion I don’t want to use “first trilogy.”) Continue reading

Nov 11 2017

Lady Bird. Senior year. The struggle is real for mother and daughter alike.


I was lucky enough to see Ladybird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig at the Paramount during the Austin Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. If you get a chance to see this, go.

Coming of age is a universally awkward, confusing, embarrassing and harrowing experience for teens and for their parents. Sometimes characters in stories that everybody has experienced in one way or another get lost in the meta-ness of the story. Not here. This is Christine’s and Marion’s story. Gerwig, Ronan, and Metcalf speak them into being with such true voices that I felt like an aunt standing on the sidelines watching a family drama unfold. I know them. I love them. I’m laughing at them and with them. These are unique people and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to address the angst and agony or the hopes and dreams floating around a girl’s senior year.

High school senior Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is trying to figure out who she is, so much so that she changes her name to Lady Bird. She is determined to escape the mundane town she’s lived in all her life. Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is trying really hard to help with practical, realistic advice but also fighting to retain a little protective control over her daughter for just a little bit longer. Marion and husband and father Larry (Tracy Letts) are also facing financial pressures that play into Christine’s college decision. Letting go is harder for Marion than for Larry.  Surrounded by drama Larry just wants to support the two women he loves and make the fighting stop so he can read.

The writing is so funny, but continuously genuine and believable. The pace is quick in the first half of the film, the way a senior year rushes by. The second half, though still funny, takes some serious turns and slows down a bit, letting us experience the growing tensions and the confusing second-guessing that happens as graduation approaches.

I’m happy to see Lady Bird is doing so well in the “specialty” or “art” house theaters. The script, the acting, and the directing are ridiculously great. I really loved it. This is Gerwig’s first time directing. At the interview after the movie she is just as real and approachable as her characters. I hope she tells lots more stories. And, at some point I hope Gerwig lets us revisit this family. I seriously need to hang out with the Macphersons again.

Oct 1 2017

Fear is scary. As scary as It


It felt like Stand By Me meets The Goonies with the scare ramped up. Stephen King knows how to write round kid characters who come off as appropriately immature and inexperienced, yet complex, thinking people. The director and actors communicated the members of the “Loser’s Club” as human beings experiencing fear, grief, and anger in a way that made their stories matter. Each one is dealing with situations that make them feel vulnerable and powerless. And these feelings are in the heart of fear whether or not that fear culminates in a confrontation with Pennywise the scary clown.

Pennywise is creepy, no doubt, and I think if I were afraid of clowns this movie might have been scarier to me. According to an article in The Smithsonian, Dickens is responsible for the sinister clown character, though his was more tragic than frightening. The fact that John Wayne Gacy was a clown cemented the the killer clown persona in the public imagination. That clown doll in Poltergeist gave rise to the evil clown trope in film. For those not suffering from coulrophobia, here’s Variety‘s pictorial list of the 20 Creepiest Clowns.

I found fear itself to be the most compellingly scary part of the movie. Flight, fight, or freeze are the typical responses to fear. Each member of the “Loser’s Club” responds in some combination of these. Bill and Beverly have faced bigger tragedies in their lives that diminish Pennywise’s capacity to frighten them merely by being a scary clown. They are the fighters. Richie is smart and funny and big on self-preservation. Stan is a skeptic. He has to be convinced any of this is real, and once he’s convinced, like Richie, he’s a runner. Eddie’s mom has turned him into a hypochondriac. He freezes. Then runs.  Ben, the poet and scholar of the club, manages his fear through understanding. He researches the history and tries to understand the facts.  Mike wants answers too. Encounters with Pennywise and Henry Bowers, the bully who torments “The Losers” brings Mike into the club. While Ben and Mike’s first choice might be to run, the more they learn the greater they feel a responsibility to fight.

The mystery surrounding Pennywise’s motives and powers heightens their fear. When something we can understand comes after us, that’s scary, but finding oneself in the crosshairs of something we cannot comprehend is terrifying. The way that Pennywise knows each of their fears and plays on them, the way he predicts their responses and lays individual traps for each of them is a big part of the what makes Pennywise so frightening. Pennywise strategically isolates each of them from the group and then confronts them with their greatest fear. Pennywise feeds on their fear but also uses fear like a net to ensnare his victims.

Pennywise tries to separate and isolate them, but love and loyalty draws them together and saves their lives. “Fear not” might be one of the most powerful messages in Jesus’ teaching. “Love your friends” is another. Life is less scary when you aren’t alone. Fear is less powerful when somebody is holding your hand and watching your back.

Movies like It are lots more fun when you aren’t watching them alone. I recommend seeing It in the theater. Maybe you’ll get lucky and sit near someone like me who involuntarily startles at cheap jump scares. A lot of critics didn’t like the jump scares but it’s part of the fun of the horror genre as far as I’m concerned.


Jul 19 2017

Documentaries Abstract: the art of design & The Defiant Ones offer insights on how people create


I’ve been watching the Netflix series Abstract: the Art of Design and the HBO series, The Defiant Ones. Abstract features interviews with different kinds of designers: an illustrator, an architect, a graphic designer, etc. The Defiant Ones is about the careers and collaboration of hip hop artist Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine. There are 8 episodes of Abstract on Netflix. The Defiant Ones is a four-part series on HBO.

An observation that artists from both series make is that art captures moments in the human condition that are familiar and common. We see a painting or photograph, hear songs, read and watch stories that remind us of something in our experiences. Artists take the elements of design for their particular mediums and use them to capture moments and tell stories in fresh ways.

Every art form has it’s own set of elements. The language of music is rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form, and dynamics. Pop music tells familiar stories in new and authentic ways. A live musical performance, and certainly music video, incorporates visual elements as well as sound to convey message. Writers use narrative devices and style techniques to arrange words on a page. Filmmakers add visual language and sound to narrative. Realistic art and photography work with visual elements like shape, color, shadow, arrangement, texture, weight, etc. to tell a story.

With abstract design and instrumental music the story is less obvious. Sometimes an image evokes a memory through shape, color, size, tone. Basic shapes and color reference icons that relate to common experience. And yet what we see may represent but does not duplicate a tangible thing. Illustrator Christoph Niemann, who is featured in the first episode of Abstract says, “My goal is speak visuals the way a pianist speaks piano.”

Both series explore what is involved in the creative process.  These were my take-aways:

Message: Photographer Platon believes that “What’s important is the story, the message.” As a graphic designer Paula Scher emphasizes simplicity,  finding “the essential that opens you to the core idea or emotion.”

Inspiration.  Niemann echoes an idea that Stephen King talks about in On Writing. Professional artists cannot expect to only work when feeling inspired. Niemann believes “feeling good in the process turns out lower quality work.” Paula Scher counters that she needs to be in “a state of play” to create anything. When inspiration does show up Dr. Dre will stay in the studio for days “because that train doesn’t come along all the time.”

Process. Schier says that tools should never take precedence over the work.  Photon prepares for a photoshoot by asking “What can I learn from this person? What questions about the human condition can this person communicate?” He uses the same set and camera for every portrait. Niemann uses Lego blocks to help abstract shapes. Each artist figures out what works for them and usually sticks with that.

Editing. “I need to be a much more ruthless editor and a much more careless artist,” says Niemann.  Another quote about editing I love is in the 2000 film,  Finding Forrester. Sean Connery say, “You write the first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head.” Artists can be so critical of themselves. Sometimes someone else needs to help the artist sort out what is and isn’t worth putting out into the world.

Careers and Experience. Jimmy Iovine’s story about becoming a producer illustrates the process of gaining experience. He kept showing up, paying attention, asking questions, and working out of his comfort zone. Being well-known or well-paid as an artist is usually part talent, part hard work, and part luck. Almost every artist has a serendipity story that accounts for gaining the opportunity to be famous. The creative process and the satisfaction of making something is the motivating force. With more than 40 years of experience, Schier still asks “What can I make next?”

Control. Artists don’t always have creative control. Artists who are creating for others must understand the message that other people want to convey in order to capture it in a piece. Paula Scher did that famous 1976 Boston album cover, but thought it was “dumb.” However, it was what the band wanted and they were happy with it. Whether she liked it or not, it’s become an iconic piece. On the other hand, Jimmy Iovine says of managing artists, “They have the talent, give them the keys and let them drive.”

Collaboration: Tinker Hatfield the designer who collaborated with Michael Jordan for the Air Jordans line discusses factors like function, market, and the personality and style of the celebrity in designing a shoe. You have to know when collaboration is going to produce something great and when to walk away. Dr. Dre illustrates this point his choice to work with Eminem and in knowing when it was time to walk away from Death Row.

All these creators describe a combination of inspiration and process that leads to a finished work. There is an intangible experience that happens in the process of making. Even when there seems to be a definite plan, the act of making is often an act of discovering the work as it is in creating it.

Jun 29 2017

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table is another Netflix biopic worth a look


As a foodie and lover of New Orleans, the documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table was a great Netflix find. Oscar and Emmy nominated director Leslie Iwerks chronicles the life of Ella Brennan, owner of famed New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace. This documentary covers a lot of bases. It’s a clinic on success in the hospitality industry. It’s a feminist tale about women who excel and lead through dedication, confidence, and hard work. It’s a story about family relationships. It’s a revealing look at how cuisine evolves. It’s another powerful Katrina recovery story. It’s about starting over when life is a mess.

Told through a series of interviews and voice-over narration the documentary serves as an entertaining overview of Ella’s life. 18-year-old Ella Brennan started out working in her brother’s bar on Bourbon Street and became an international influence on cuisine and mentor to some great chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. So many of the sub-plots in Ella’s real life story could have been documentaries of their own.

My favorite thread running through this documentary was Ella Brennan’s self-education. She knew nothing about food when she got started. She read. She talked to people who knew. She traveled to places where popular cuisine was being developed. She tried out new ideas. She formed relationships with influencers and shared ideas. Success doesn’t seem to be about the fame or the money for her. Her motives appears to be that she wants to offer customers a great dining experience and nurture creativity and community among her employees. Ella Brennan, even an 91, seems to be genuinely interested in continuing to learn and grow. Anyone who wants to be successful in any field can learn from Ella’s example.

I loved the restoration cycle in her story as well. Brennan’s is a famous New Orleans restaurant. From the early 1950’s until 1974 Ella Brennan poured herself into making it one of the best restaurants in the world. Just as Ella was going through a painful divorce she was fired from the restaurant that bore her family’s name. She started over as a single mother in her 50’s with Commander’s Palace, which was far from a palace when she took it over. She built that into something even greater. It was heavily damaged by Katrina. Ella, then in her 70’s, was a driving force in rebuilding it with other family members. Eventually Brennan’s came back into the family and Ella walked back in after 40 years.

Where you stop telling a story determines its genre. So many people make tragedies of their own stories by setting themselves up for failure or quitting in defeat. Stop Ella’s story at being 18, uneducated, and a woman and you get a story about the path of least resistance. Stop Ella’s story at being fired and you get a story about failure and family villains. Stop at Katrina and you get a disaster story. Stop at the pinnacle of success and you get a shallow fable. It’s refreshing to watch a story in which someone’s attitude and choices tell a story about an abundant and successful life. The last scenes in the film show Ella, at 91 is still not through learning or telling her story.





Jun 2 2017

Life Itself


Life Itself a biographical documentary about Roger Ebert’s unique contributions and cultural significance. It’s also a hopeful look at the combination of choices and happenstance that make up any life. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) shoots the film, based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, in the end stages of Ebert’s battle with cancer. Responding to James questions, Ebert appears on camera, missing the bottom part of his jaw, typing his thoughts into a computer that speaks for him. Ebert’s wife Chaz, family members, and friends help tell his story.

Ebert, with fellow critic Gene Siskel made film criticism entertainment for the masses. I might not be teaching film today if it hadn’t been for their PBS series Sneak Previews and later, At the Movies. They give insightful, intelligent analysis of films. They were the ones who made me think about movies in the same way my English teacher taught me to think about books. This isn’t a dry, academic mental exercise. It’s exciting to understand the elements of film and to see how each filmmaker creates something unique using those elements. Siskel and Ebert helped make film accessible as an art form.

Out of college Roger was hired by the Chicago Sun Times and eventually became the film critic because the film critic quit. This became his life’s work. He received the only Pulitzer Prize ever issued for film criticism. Ebert continued writing on his blog to the very end of his life. It’s a treasure trove of years and years of his past film criticism. A group of  critics continue to post to Roger Ebert.com.

As much as Life Itself  is a tribute to Ebert, it’s also a contemplation on life itself, as the title states. Some opportunities in life happen through developing gifts and talents. Some are about attitude. Some involve being in the seemingly random right place at the right time. Some happen through willingness to change and grow, to take risks, and to embrace the good that comes out of the bad.

The film takes Ebert from his cocky twenties with skewed priorities to the gracious maturity that knows that love is the best legacy. Much of the film focuses on Ebert’s relationships, especially with his wife Chaz who he met at AA. Roger was 50 when he married Chaz and gained a family. They were married 20 years. Her influence helped him develop deeper friendships with others in his life.

Roger Ebert died before filming was complete. Near the end of the film Chaz talks about Roger’s last moments.  She tells about the family surrounding him, holding hands, and the room filling with incredible peace. It is such a familiar and real story.





Mar 25 2017

What I thought about The Shack


I saw The Shack a few weeks ago when it first came out. I didn’t write anything. I liked it. I didn’t love it. Subsequently there has been a barrage of criticism from fundamentalist Christians over it’s message. The film got a green splat on Rotten Tomatoes but an 85% approval rating from audiences. So what is one to make of this? In spite of some if its shortcomings as a film, the story struck an emotional chord with many people.

Mack, played by Sam Worthington, is a grieving father dealing with the disappearance and presumed murder of his young daughter. Understandably he’s asking the big question many people ask when something horrible happens: How could God let this happen? How do I go on after tragedy? Where is justice? His questions lead him back to last place she is known to have been, a shack in the Washington woods. There the Triune God meets him where he is. Continue reading

Feb 10 2017

La La Land: Conflicting Dreams


La La Land is about contrasts and choices. The film starts with lots of light, a bright color palate, and an energetic, upbeat a song and dance…hopes and dreams. The film ends in a dimly lit club, with bluesy jazz…regret and acceptance. The film communicates a contrast between the pure joy of developing a talent and engaging in art and the self-aggrandizing, greedy, prideful world that promotes and monetizes art. It juxtaposes homages to mid-20th century musicals with modern-day challenges of pursuing an artistic career in L.A. The story centers around relationship of an actress and a musician who meet and fall in love in L.A. and on the tension created as they try to balance their relationship with pursuing their separate career dreams. La La Land considers the difference between the romance of dreams pursued with the reality the dreams realized. Continue reading

Jan 17 2017

A Monster Calls is a tearful wonder


Feelings can seem like big, uncontrollable monsters. Especially for chlidren who have less experience and context with which to deal with traumatic events. In A Monster Calls a boy processes his mother’s fight with cancer and the changes that means to his life with the help of a large tree-like monster.

Conor is described as “not quite a boy and not quite a man.” He clings desperately to the hope that his mother will recover. He’s afraid of his distant and perfectionist grandmother. He’s afraid of being disappointed again by his father who has a new family in a new country. He’s afraid of the relentless bullies who make his life at school miserable. He’s afraid that his own conflicted feelings about his mom’s illness make him a bad person. No wonder he needs the strength of a monster to face everything he’s experiencing.

The cinematography creates a dreamlike, dark, and beautiful backdrop for Conor’s agony. There is this fantastic talking Yew tree creature in the middle of Conor’s brutal reality. Movies like this are a hard sell. It’s sad. The main character is younger than the maturity level it takes to really embrace the difficult themes. I compare the monster, and the film itself, to The Iron Giant. It’s visually appealing with a compelling story and a unique perspective that will probably draw a limited audience. Though it’s much more serious, I also see it as a sort of companion to Inside Out in that within it’s fantastical premise is an analysis of raw, authentic human emotion.

For me, the film is full of truth. Life is messy. Every character is flawed and hurt and angry and disappointed and loving all at once. These flawed people love each other and hurt each other at the same time. These are not perfect, selfless kind of heroes, but human and authentic, aching, vulnerable, selfish and miserable.  There is no hero or villain. There is no moment of victory. There is simply acceptance of the reality that is and realization that even in loss, love remains. 

Jan 6 2017

I keep seeing Arrival


Arrival is one of those movies I can’t stop thinking about. It offers a complex, intriguing, enjoyable entertainment experience. It’s well paced, very well acted, especially Amy Adams. To call it a time-travel sci-fi would do it an injustice. Based on The Story of Your Life, a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is emotionally, intellectually, and ethically challenging. The film explores the theory of linguistic relativity, time as a linear concept, precognition, cooperation among nations, and romantic and parental love and responsibility. Rather than merely juxtapose the subtleties of linguistics against the pragmatism of military might or pit the emotional/spiritual aspects of human existence against the rational/scientific, the message of Arrival seems to be that everything matters and the fusion of all these things is what makes humans, or cognizant beings from anywhere in any galaxy, self-aware.

When twelve spaceships land at various locations all over the world linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tapped to interpret the language of the aliens for the American government. She and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) interact with the the aliens they call Hepatoids to help the military try to determine whether the aliens’ intentions are hostile. This is happening all over the world as other countries are attempting communication as well, some coming to different conclusions due to their interpretation of alien language. The problem is that the alien language is ambiguous. Typically, world forces refuse to share data. It is division among humans and refusal to communicate that ultimately endangers the world.

SPOILER ALERT – See Arrival before you read further. Continue reading

Dec 28 2016

Manchester by the Sea: muddling through tragedy


I don’t usually recommend tear-jerkers because there is enough tragedy to deal with in real life, but Manchester By the Sea is so honest, so real, and so captivating that I think it’s worth the vicarious pain. The performances alone are worth seeing. It’s depiction of grief is profoundly genuine. And it considers three really important questions: Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? Is not moving on from our heartbreaks selfish? Are there wounds that just won’t heal?

Lee Chandler must confront all his ghosts when he returns home to deal with his older brother’s death and make provisions for his nephew. Lee is a withdrawn janitor with painful past while his nephew Patrick is a self-centered teen hockey player with two girlfriends and a terrible rock band. The back and forth between Lee and his nephew offers moments of dark humor that pain frequently creates. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges give fantastic, truthful performances. Really, everyone playing the main characters gave spot on performances that made the film feel so real.

Lee’s story unfolds in a series of flashbacks and conversations with people from his small Massachusetts hometown. Most of them either can’t understand how he hasn’t moved on from the past or can’t stop judging him for what happened in the past. We’ve all known people who seem to take a long time to recover from grief and/or guilt, and some that never seem to. I don’t want to give this movie away, so, even with the spoiler alert, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Manchester By the Sea is full of real people muddling through life’s hard experiences. The story builds to that expected character arc and abruptly ends mid-muddle. Because that’s the way real-life stories are. We don’t all resolve at the same time. Not every experience comes with closure. This story isn’t about closure, it’s about love. In spite of their imperfect processing of devastating events, these characters love each other.

Back to the questions. Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? I was personally affected by this movie because I think I rush this process. This movie made me pause and ask whether people like Lee hide from people like me. I realized that I can’t possible know what it takes to get over something I haven’t experienced. Nor can I know what it’s like to be someone other than myself getting over something I have experienced. So, thanks, author and director Kenneth Lonergan, for the instructive parable. I might never tell anyone to “get over it” again. At least about anything important.

Is refusing to move on selfish? Lee’s pain isolates him from people who care about him. Lee’s pain prevents him from having the relationship with his nephew that his nephew needs from him. Lee knows this but, I think for him, moving on feels selfish. For Lee to move on minimizes the loss he’s experienced and the guilt he feels he owes. Holding onto it makes it remain important. Lee doesn’t know how to process the importance of what happened in the past without allowing it to define him in the present and future.

Are there wounds that just won’t heal? Well, Frodo had to leave Middle Earth to get relief. Maybe Lee can’t survive in Manchester, at least as he is now. The film seems to build a false expectation that all this misery might be be miraculously lifted by letting go, opening up, changing attitudes, or doing something else. But the ending suggests that resolution is not that simple.

One would hope that our relationships with God define us more than the core memories and climactic experiences in our life stories. Nevertheless we all walk around with unresolved pieces of our stories. Faith is not an instant cure for heartbreak or recovery. Forgiveness does not always result in an instant lifting of guilt feelings. God applies His healing balm to our open wounds, over time, often through relationships with others, and later, to our scars. But sometimes our wounds close very slowly, and trying to put a timeline on closure only pours salt on the wound. Manchester By the Sea reminded me that love is patient and kind. We contribute to healing not by trying to “fix” each other or to rush whatever we are processing to resolution, but by loving each other in the unresolved middle of our muddles.

Nov 7 2016

Citizenfour and Snowden two perspectives on the same story


We live our lives. We make phone calls, we take pictures, we text. We write emails. How much of all this information about is collected and categorized? Who sees it? What do they do with it? Does any of this make us vulnerable? Is it possible to have any secrets anymore? If we don’t have privacy, do we care?

Citizenfour and Snowden provide different perspectives on an ongoing event. Both films focus on Edward Snowden and his discovery and revelations to the press regarding the National Security Administrations program which indiscriminately gathered data through cyberspying. Both raise the issue of Snowden’s exile in Moscow and the governments’ continuing desire to prosecute him. Both infer the same basic question: How much does our government know about each of us and what might they do with the information? Is security worth privacy? Is privacy a right? Should privacy be sacrificed for the sake of security? Should Snowden be prosecuted for whistle blowing?Does knowledge of our secrets make us more vulnerable than the threat of terrorism does?

Citizenfour is a documentary directed by Laura Poitras, one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked the documents. In it Snowden explains what led up to his decision, consequences of that decision and his motives. Poitras recorded many of the events while they occurred. While working for the NSA as a computer contractor Edward Snowden discovered that the government is gathering data about private American citizens. After much soul searching Snowden felt the American people had a right to know so he became a whistleblower. This film primarily takes place in a hotel in Hong Kong where Snowden turns over documents to American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote for The Guardian, a British newspaper, and Laura Poitras.

Snowden is a more personal, fictionalized reenactment of the events directed by Oliver Stone This film tells the story of Snowden’s career with the CIA and later as a contractor to the NSA as well as focusing much more on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Snowden is the hero in both films, though he comes across as deflecting fame and focused on what he considers serious breaches of faith with the American people by its government. The scenes in the hotel room in this film were the most riveting.

The government’s position on this is that the Espionage Act makes Snowden a spy, not a whistleblower, and should be prosecuted. Snowden is currently hiding out in Russia. The Obama administration has prosecuted a lot of whistleblowers and Snowden knew that before he talked. Hillary Clinton has indicated she would prosecute and Trump called Snowden a “bad guy” and hinted that execution was on the table. Third party candidates Johnson and Stein seem amenable to pardoning Snowden. I doubt whether privacy is even a minor campaign issue. In fact polls conducted in 2015 show a majority of Americans agree with the government. Polls conducted in other parts of the world show that a majority of the world support Snowden. Support among Millennials (at least those who know who Snowden is) both here and abroad, is much higher. Perhaps this is because they are digital natives who conduct much more of their affairs online and do not like the idea of the government invading their privacy.

We all do many things to feel safe. We sometimes sacrifice freedom for security. We sometimes make choices for those around us without ever telling them what dangers we’ve avoided on their behalf. Think of all the safeguards we place on our children. Consider the conflict that occurs when our children reach a certain level of personal autonomy and yet we are still intercepting and filtering their communication. Up until a certain point we are within our rights to do so but this does not necessarily translate into consent.

When we are ones making a safety decision for someone else it makes perfect sense to us. We don’t see such actions as violations, but as protection. But when we are ones that decisions like this are being made for, without our knowledge or consent, we feel violated. Is security worth liberty? Does motivation to protect change the fact that what we’ve written in private could someday be made public? Could the day come when this information is used for purposes beyond the scope of national security?

Honestly CitizenFour raised my concerns for my privacy more, as a documentary, that’s what it was supposed to do. Snowden helped me understand the sacrifices Edward Snowden made trying to do what he considered the right thing and to feel empathy for him, and that’s what a fictional story is supposed to do. Of the two films, I liked Citizenfour more. I have been meaning to write about these two films for awhile but I procrastinated. Now, as I think about the election and the many issues facing our country, I wonder if liberty and privacy should be among them. They are for me.

Jul 6 2016

Swiss Army Man : What did I just see?


Swiss Army Man is weird the way a dream is weird. Things happen and they are tied together but not necessarily in the traditional story-telling sense. It makes sense that since Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, credited as “The Daniels,” direct music videos the storytelling feels like a series of visual impressions that express the sound, whether the sound is music or dialog. The cinematography is really good.

Psychological angst is juxtaposed against scatological humor. Amidst the running fart joke and awkward explanations of sexual attraction and masturbation is a profound examination of despair and isolation. The theme goes beyond the average person stuck on an island. Dano’s Hank is no Chuck Noland (Castaway). Hank is marooned on an island in the Pacific having spent most of his life marooned in his own awkward loneliness.

Often in a story the protagonist in need is provided with a mentor who teaches wisdom and skills, and who provides equipment. Hank is sent Manny, a corpse who washes up on shore. Manny’s body proves useful for Hank’s survival in so many ways, including handy-dandy survival flatulence, Hank compares him to a Swiss army knife. Hank is the one who has to figure out how to use Manny, though. He also has to explain life to Manny who remembers nothing. Manny’s questions and Hank’s responses reveal Hank’s issues.

The odd friendship between Hank and Manny works not because one is a great mentor but because they are both confused and fragile yet become connected and interdependent. Manny helps Hank escape his island, physically and psychologically. The characters are well drawn and well acted. The character development is strong. The psychological and psychic healing that takes place in the story doesn’t play out as expected.

The story’s resolution is unpredictable and not left open to interpretation. In that sense Manny is no Richard Parker (Life of Pi). I felt like the movie was leading up to a more ambiguous ending, but it was kind of refreshing for a film to simply commit to something that everyone won’t necessarily like or even get and say “this is our movie and this is how it ends. Deal. Smile.”  It’s not the sort of movie everyone will like, but I was entertained and engaged watching it and that might be the thing that tips the scales it its favor.

Jan 4 2016

Star Wars The Force Awakens was everything it needed to be


It’s taken me awhile to process Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I walked out of the theater satisfied. It was just what I wanted from the new Star Wars movie. As far as I’m concerned the mantle passes to this one from A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and Empire Strikes Back. The stars of these previous films were even brought back to signal this.

Now that Disney owns Star Wars I don’t expect too many surprises, or mistakes. J.J. Abrams did a great job with this one but won’t direct the next. Disney’s hired Rian Johnson (Looper) to take the helm as director and writer. We will be delivered competent, satisfying, risk-free, well-told stories in subsequent films. Disney serves up a carefully developed formula for successful storytelling and I will drink it. Hopefully at Maz Kanata’s Takodana bar, which needs to be the next thing Disney puts in one of their theme park.

Maz Kanata is my favorite new character by far. Maz is an enigma. She’s a space pirate who runs a bar and is an arms dealer but philosophizes like Yoda who she physically resembles. The force is strong in her but so is practicality and humor. More, please.

The new crew of young characters, Rey, Finn, and Poe are fresh takes on the archetypes represented in previous films rather simple remixes of successors. Rey bears some similarities to A New Hope Luke. She is an orphan in need of a mentor on a desert planet. It is obvious she is the next great hope for the Resistance and we expect that with the proper mentor she will learn to use the force and face down the Dark Side.

Neither Finn nor Poe imitate Han, but both exhibit some of his sensibilities. Finn is definitely the skeptic while Poe is the cocky, talented pilot. We don’t get backstories on these two yet, but their abilities tell us there is more to them. Finn is definitely force sensitive. Nobody picks up a lightsaber and goes at it with a Darth Vader wannabe the way Finn does without being pretty strong in the Force. Will we be treated to scene in an upcoming film in which Mace Windu delivers the lines “Finn, I am your father?”

In this film Poe also fulfills Leia’s function in New Hope as he explains and interprets the mission of the Resistance for newcomers Rey and Finn. One thing I’m wondering about is whether Poe has the force or is just a fantastic pilot. Luke didn’t become the best X-wing pilot in the galaxy without using the force, but Han was amazing without it. I’d like to see some sort of buddy sub-plot involving these two. Like Luke and Han, neither of them is mere sidekick material.

My response to the Dark Side is a little conflicted. I want to be fair to this generation of villains but Darth Vader is a tough act to follow. Through A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and most of Empire Strikes Back Vader is a mysterious, helmeted figure who can speak into people’s minds. The mask, the breathing and James Earl Jones’ deep rattly voice contributed to the terror for me. Unlike the creepy, calculating Palpatine, Vader is reactive and emotional which makes him more terrifying. Supreme Leader Snoke struck me as another Palpatine and Kylo Ren comes off as more unbalanced than menancing. Vader was both. 

There are three whole films explaining how Darth Vader became Darth Vader and a few lines of exposition about how the son of Hans Solo and Princess Leia could wind up taking Vader lessons. Then he’s unmasked and seemingly dispensed with in the first movie. That might be the only really surprising part of the movie. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him but I’m not sure Kylo has enough Force in him to “come back more powerful than you can imagine.” I guess I’ll find out because I will definitely be one of the millions in line for the next one. 


Dec 25 2015

Mostly messed up Christmas scenes


Here are a few messed up Christmas scenes because when you try too hard to have a perfect Christmas or when you lose sight of the point of Christmas, it’s easy to feel…

overscheduled…How the Grinch Stole Christmas The Grinch’s Schedule

technically challenged…National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Installing Christmas lights.

disillusioned…A Christmas Story. Ralphie visits Santa.

disappointed…Elf Department store Santa.

impatient…Love Actually Store gift wrap.

cynical…The Ref General family dysfunction.

crazy…Home Alone 2 Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.

imperfect…The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Church play gone wrong…or right

But at the heart of Christmas is this beautiful message of hope and redemption, peace and love…A Charlie Brown Christmas. Linus Christmas Speech.

Have a joyful, crazy, glorious Christmas!

Nov 23 2015

Boxing cats, pride and the observer effect


I was doing some research for the Film and Lit class that I teach and discovered that one of the earliest recordings is a cat video, or cat film to be more precise. Recorded at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Studio with Edison’s strip kinetograph camera, Boxing Cats, made in 1894, is the first cat video. This made me extremely happy. I will admit it. Cat videos make me smile. I’ve been thinking about why.

One researcher suggests that people watch cat videos for emotional uplift, in other words, pet therapy with out the litter box. Another researcher suggests that because cats don’t care or acknowledge that they are being recorded but people who watch them feel that they are constantly being observed,  the observers enjoy the experience of watching something unencumbered by scrutiny. The researchers inference is that we don’t like the idea being watched ourselves but we like the idea of watching something or someone who doesn’t know they are being watched. Maybe people post candid video and watch reality tv, because, as Hitchcock suggested with Rear Window we are voyeurs at heart with cinema satisfying that need to watch other people’s lives. Years after Hitchcock, but at the very beginning of reality television, The Truman Show suggests that audiences have grown tired of the neatness of contrived stories and want to observe someone who doesn’t know he is being watched. Maybe someone should try shooting some scenes from Rear Window or Truman Show with cats. I would watch that.

I’m a little bit obsessed with the observer effect, not only as a theory in quantum physics but also in philosophy and psychology. The idea is that the act of observing a behavior changes the behavior. In physics this generally applies to measurement and the effect of the instruments used to measure on  particles, but in psychology it has to do with the expectations of the observer and with the awareness of the subject that he or she is being observed. Does knowing you are being watched changes what you do?

With some training a dog’s behavior is predictable, at least when humans are watching. The observer has a definite effect on the subject. Not so much with cats. Unlike dogs, cats normally won’t perform on cue. In the Boxing Cats film the cats wear shoulder harnesses to hold on the gloves and there’s a human ref there to keep them in the ring. The cats themselves seem pretty intent on their little sparring match. I suspect this is something they did for sport without the gloves. The fact the the film is only 22 seconds long may have to do with resources and technology. All the films were very short. But it keeping the cats in the ring might have been a factor.

So why do I like cat videos? After spending years with cats, I think they are aware of being observed but they just don’t care whether anyone is watching or not. In fact, if cats engage affectionately with humans it’s because they choose to engage. Dogs either can be trained to respond as expected or love the attention so much they can’t help themselves. This difference in response makes cats endearing to some people and infuriating to others. Cats give off the vibe that they have autonomy and can exercise control over their environment rather than letting their environment control them. Cat videos either portray cats winning at life in this way or portray what happens when the environment betrays them and mayhem occurs. Observing that mayhem is somehow satisfying and funny and endearing to me. It’s like discovering someone unapproachable is actually a real human being underneath the facade of pride and control.

Oct 9 2015

The Martian is a work movie set on Mars


CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS. Some of my friends who saw The Martian voiced the complaint that there was not enough emotional connection between characters in the film. Mark Watney is single. His parents are never shown. There are no flashbacks scenes to Mark’s life on earth, no love interest, nothing to help the audience see what Mark is missing back home and who is missing him. When the action moves from Mark on Mars it is focused on his crew mates and what is happening among NASA personnel scrambling to work the problem back on earth. Gravity already came at the “lost in space” scenario from the emotional/spiritual perspective, so I found this practical approach a refreshing counterweight. For me, The Martian is a work movie about decision-making and problem-solving. 

The Martian is basically about a guy at work. Stuff goes wrong. He figures out how to fix it. The guy happens to work on Mars. I think part of the reason I liked The Martian is that it vindicates those of us who talk to ourselves while we work. It wouldn’t have been much of a movie if Mark didn’t talk to himself and have a good sense of humor. The Martian is no Office Space in space, though. As a movie that explores a professional work environment it offers a more generous perspective.

Matt Damon’s Mark is mostly concerned with problem-solving and remaining calm, patient, and focused. He looks at his situation and states “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” The science is explained clearly but is not insultingly dumbed down. “If I want water I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.” This article is a good framework for understanding some of the real NASA technologies that appear in the film. Mark uses the technology available to him to survive. He also uses duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape. Mark’s innovative use of the technology available and his attitude are what make him a great film hero.

Mark’s co-workers  leave Mars quickly due to a storm, but there’s some disagreement as to whether this is the best course of action. Commander Lewis calls it. When Mark goes down they don’t have a chance to physically confirm his death but trust the monitor readings and take off. This is one of many executive decisions the film explores. I suspect people in charge second-guess themselves more than most of us non-executive types know. Certainly Commander Lewis struggles with her decision once she discovers Mark is alive. When the crew discovers that they may be Mark’s only hope, they respond quickly and unanimously.

The conflict among the NASA bosses is more complicated. Nick, played by Sean Bean, and Vincent, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, are each concerned with specific aspects of the mission that is within his charge. Nick, who is in charge of the mission and supervises the astronauts, advocates for making the attempt to save Mark. Vincent, who is a scientist, is concerned about the probabilities of success and the possible effect failure might have on future missions, and thinks that the risk of rescue is too high. Teddy, played by Jeff Daniels, as final decision maker has to consider what is best for the organization in terms of politics, costs and publicity. Disagreement does not require a villain. Vincent and Teddy are not cast as true villains although neither comes off as particularly compassionate. They do care what happens to Mark. They are torn by their responsibilities and loyalties to NASA as a program and to Mark as a human being. Nick is clear in his position to place human life over other concerns and is willing to stick his professional neck out to see Mark rescued. What nobody knows is whether Nick would feel the same way were he in Teddy’s position or what Teddy might do if he had Nick’s job. This conflict provides the relationship drama, but in a professional setting the emotions are more subtly expressed.

We all have to depend on other people. Mark would not have been rescued had Nick not made his decision and the crew not made theirs. Sometimes those decisions cost something, Mark expresses the belief that human beings who will help when there is trouble outnumber the ones who don’t care. His trust in this idea motivates him to keep working each problem instead of giving up and letting himself die. Mark expressed understanding about why his crew left. Objectively, he even recognized what the guys at NASA had to consider in making decisions and understood his rescue in the grand scheme of the organization. Under extreme circumstances Mark retained optimism and trust.

The music was fine but I did keep hearing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in my head the whole time and really think it should have been the credits song. I also sort of wish Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver) had been somewhere in the cast because how many characters have names that become adjectives synonymous with on-the-fly innovation. Mark and company MacGyvered that mission.

Sep 7 2015

Elliot and Angela’s identity crises in Mr. Robot


Mr. RobotMr. Robot offers about as unreliable a narrator as you can find. Early in the season Elliot seems part Robin Hood hero, part tech wizard on a mission to take down EvilCorp as a member of F Society. His occasional departures from reality seem attributable to his drug habit. But as the season progresses it becomes clear that Elliot is suffering from some sort of mental disorder. Dissociative identity disorder, aka multiple personalities, according to the show’s creator, Sam Esmail.  

Late in the season the audience discovers that Mr. Robot isn’t real. Whatever happened in Elliot’s childhood to trigger this disorder, he doesn’t feel like himself and can’t fulfill his role as avenging hero, the purpose that defines him, unless he is able to interact with this other ego. 

Throughout the course of the season Elliot alternately rejects and searches for Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot tells him “You’re losing it kid. I’m only supposed to be your prophet. You’re supposed to be my god.” Elliot is too confused and damaged to be able to assume control of his own identity all the time.

Early in he season Elliot argues with Mr. Robot when Elliot refuses to participate in something that will result in deaths, and Mr. Robot tells him that “This is war. People will die.” There are some things Elliot can’t see himself doing but believes need to be done, so Elliot needs Mr. Robot in order to carry them out. Elliot doesn’t want to be god of his own identity. When he awakens to street celebrations after three days in Tyrell’s SUV Elliot is unable to remember “saving the world” from Evil Corp. And so he finds them. Not only Mr. Robot, but his mother, and his younger self who tells him that he will never be free of them, and at this point Elliot seems resigned to that.

Most of the story takes place from Elliot’s perspective, and the audience eventually realizes that his perspective is not reality. At about this point some story lines diverge so that we see Angela’s viewpoint, and the point of view here does not seem clouded by the unreliable narrator, but in a more traditional sense Angela seems uncertain of who she is as well. She waffles a lot. She doesn’t seem to be able to fully commit to a course of action or position. Initially Angela struggles between her desire for EvilCorp to pay for her mother’s death and her own climb up the corporate ladder at AllSafe. Her resolve against EvilCorp grows until she understands the effect going after EvilCorp will have on AllSafe. Then she decides to confront EvilCorp exec Colby, who she holds responsible for her mother’s death. He ends up hiring her to work in the very corporation she tried to take down.

After Colby’s suicide and F Society’s hack, Price’s blatant hubris seems to appall Angela, but then she does exactly what Price tells her to do. Angela needs money so she may simply be accepting the defeated view that personal survival is steeped in moral compromise and necessary alliances with evil. But there is a suggestion at the end of the last show that another Angela is emerging. Perhaps she is experiencing something akin to a spiritual or moral rather than a mental break. At the very least she seems to feel the temptation to draw her identity from this more aggressive, hard-edged Angela.

The people who seem to know who they are and what they are about are Elliot’s sister Darlene and Phillip Price, the head of EvilCorp. While F Society’s attack wreaks havoc on the average technology-dependent business and its own executive commits suicide, EvilCorp’s head honcho Phillip Price throws a party and declares EvilCorp untouchable. He is utterly convinced of his own power. He seems to interpret the reluctance in others to take charge or declare certainty as his right to dominate them. And on top of all that, we discover that Whiterose, leader of the Dark Army, who seemed to be an F Society ally, and Price are collaborators, implying that the same people who always make the rules are still making them in spite of F Society’s attempted financial revolution.

Darlene knows what she wants to do and why. She has a plan and a goal.  The hack takes down the financial conglomerate. After using an animal shelter incinerator to burn evidence, F Society releases the dogs scheduled to be destroyed and turns them out in to the street to fend for themselves. What will those dancing in the street do tomorrow? With her goal realized Darlene seems to feel anticlimactic emptiness. A big question this season leaves hanging is what will people do with freedom, and who is really free?


Aug 12 2015

Mr. Holmes and the unreliable narrator in all of us


Mr. Holmes isn’t your typical summer movie. It’s a unique take on the character of Sherlock Holmes. Ian McKellen owned this role and was a joy to watch. In 1947 Sherlock Holmes is in his nineties, tended by a prickly cook (Laura Linney) and her perceptive young son. Holmes’ memory is fading and he’s trying to remember the particulars of a long ago mystery involving a glass harmonium. It was his last case. The case that caused him to retire. And now we cannot remember why.

Watson has died. Everyone associated with the case is gone. As Holmes tries to recount the case to the boy, it comes back in bits and pieces. Holmes has just returned from Japan where he’s gone to obtain some alternative herbs to help with the memory loss. His herbalist, another player whose part is uncertain.

Holmes’ medical doctor tries to get him to accept his condition and make care arrangements for himself. For someone for whom old age is a scant few decades away, parts of this film hurt to watch. In one scene Holmes’ doctor has him make a mark in his notebook every time he forgets something. Some pages are full. It’s devastating. Everyone who faces old age dreads this possibility.

Director Bill Condon keeps the pace slow and deliberate, yet the film moves as it switches between flashbacks to the younger Holmes working the 30-year-old case and the old recluse relating the tale to his young protégé Roger. When he feels up to it Holmes instructs Roger in his hobby, beekeeping, and in his trade, deductive reasoning. Roger helps Holmes sift through his letters and regrets.

The film made me think about the concept of the unreliable narrator. Holmes’ famed logic and attention to detail is now a jumbled mix of images and ideas. He is uncertain whether what he remembers is what actually happened. Filling in the gaps requires more induction than deduction. It turns out that Watson’s recounting of the tale takes extensive literary license, written for entertainment rather than accuracy. So Watson is also an unreliable narrator to Holmes’ life. Yet, given Holmes state of mind, we cannot be sure whether of Watson’s version is entirely wrong just because Holmes dismisses it.

All stories come down to the perceptions of those who tell them. Two people can witness the same event and tell very different stories. Perhaps we are all unreliable narrators relaying our stories as we remember the details, informed by our own perceptions and infused with the emotional tones we experienced at the time and how we feel about it now in retrospect. In the end it is the intentions of the storytellers and the need for reconciliation that reframes Holmes’ last case to help him find peace in the final chapter of his life.

God is the only one who knows our whole stories from beginning to end and what they mean. We live the stories we perceive, the ones others interpret based on their perceptions of the evidence, and the one that really is. It may only be on the other side that he know our own real stories and we may not even recognize some of the stories we’ve lived.


Jul 17 2015

5 random movies I liked on Netflix this week


Short Term 12 
is about a “short term” care facility for teens who can’t be at home but who, for whatever reasons, don’t fit into any long-term care models. Two twenty-something counselors, Grace and Mason, both former at-risk teens themselves, work through their own relationship challenges as they try to make unconscionable situations bearable for the teens in their care, some who have been in “short term” limbo for years. Brie Larson’s Grace is a wounded healer in every sense. Unresolved issues in her past come rushing to the surface as she herself in Jayden troubled girl she tries to help. It’s the little moments with each of the kids that makes the film so good. The film’s humor and honest emotional responses keep it from being the typical maudlin “inspirational” drama. Writer-director Destin Daniel Crettion shows, instead of preaches, compassion, empathy, and restoration. While the film reveals something so broken in our society, rather than focusing on all the issues associated with the problem, it offers a glimpse of a few starfish thrown back into the sea.


The Babadook‘s brand of horror is psychological deconstruction rather than a gory dismemberment. Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) was widowed by a car accident on the way to the maternity ward. Six years later her child, Sam, is a scary little kid she can’t understand or seem to help. Sam knows it’s there, that monster in the closet or under the bed, creeping out from the dark cracks in the house. It’s real and it has a firm hold on his perceptions. Amelia’s torment over her inability to rescue her son grips her as tightly as her growing realization that the Babadook is real. Writer-director Jennifer Kent uses image upon fractured image – a bizarre picture book, a series of strange film clips on the television, murky flashbacks to the accident- to lead the audience into questioning the reliability of Amelia’s point of view, and thus what we’ve seen through her eyes. Just as I felt after watching Pan’s Labyrinth, The Babadook left me questioning whether I’d just seen a horror movie,  a psychological thriller, or some combination of reality and metaphor.

In a World centers around the voice-over industry. Lake Bell wrote, directed, and stars in this funny, satirical look at competition and self-worth. Carol (Bell) is a voice coach whose competitive, egotistical father is a top dog in the voice-over world. Carol is a little uncomfortable with herself. She doesn’t want to be defined by family and colleagues who are considered more talented and successful but in many ways she’s let them define her. Though Carol wants more in her career she’s seen what unbridled hubris does to relationships so she is deliberately non-competitive and also a little naive. When Carol wins a coveted gig her relationships suffer. This is a thoughtful film about how professionals respond to one other’s success in a competitive marketplace.

From Time to Time, directed by Jullian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), is ghost story, murder mystery, and period piece set in two different time periods. I watched it because Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville are in it and because it’s based on one of the books in the Lucy M. Boston “Green Knowe” series I read and loved in elementary school. Near the end of World War 2 13-year old Tolly, played by Alex Etel (Millions), is sent to live with his father’s mother, Mrs. Oldknow (Maggie Smith) while his own mother desperately tries to get information about his father who is missing in action. Mrs. Oldknow is peculiar and a little distant, but believes him when he tells her he’s seen ghosts. Alex becomes involved in a 17th century mystery with the help of ghosts of children who lived and died at Green Knowe, the name of the house. More than anything else From Time to Time is about relationships.

In director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an independent cameraman who films gruesome crime and accident scenes and sells them to local news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who operates with the philosophy of “if it bleed, it leads.” Bloom gleefully applies everything he’s learned from internet self-help success videos, he’s obsessed with them, to nightcrawling.  Is Bloom devoid of moral reasoning or simply willing to cross any moral boundary to achieve his goals? Nina comes across at first as merely ambitious, but it seems that the boundaries she’s already crossed makes it easier for her make the compromises Bloom demands of her if he going to keep feeding her ratings-boosting gore. Rather than playing Lou as a easily-to-peg sociopath, Nightcrawler lets the audience observe and decide. He’s so bizarre and creepy that, like the scenes he films and sells, it’s hard to look away. In a strange way this makes the audience is complicit in the very practices the film seems to indict. It’s worth watching for Gyllenhaal’s performance alone.



Jul 12 2015

Inside Out: Emotional Intelligence made easy (at least to understand)


CONTAINS SPOILERS: Pixar’s Inside Out is about what goes on in our heads when we respond emotionally to experiences. Writer/directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen tell a familiar story to which anyone can relate in a way that offers insights and causes personal introspection beyond anything we might expect from an animated “kid’s” movie. I’ve never seen a story told in exactly this way. It’s refreshing.

Mostly set inside 11-year old Riley’s brain, the animated film deals with the stress brought on by change and the conflict we experience when we try to respond the way we think we are supposed to respond rather than expressing our authentic emotions. Five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, are characters in Inside Out who help her process the experience of moving.

Inside Out suggests that we not categorize our emotions as “good” and “bad.” The story is told from the point of view of Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, who understands that Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) can help us avoid danger, and Anger (Lewis Black) can inspire positive change but cannot see that Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith (The Office) has a purpose. Joy believed there was something wrong if Riley’s dominant emotion was not always joy.

The crisis in Inside Out is that Riley’s perspectives and identity are threatened by the toll taken both by stressing over this big change in her life and by hiding her true feelings about it because she does not want to disappoint her parents. Action in the film switches between scenes depicting the effects of Riley’s crisis on her emotions, her memories, and her identity, and scenes of Riley interacting in her new environment. The animation inside Riley’s brain is richly colored and complex while the scenes outside are simpler, with more muted tones.

While the way the brain works in the film doesn’t jive completely with brain research and psychology, it does a good job of showing the connections between emotions, identity, and memory. The different ways in which Riley gains identity: family, friends, sports, goofball, and honesty are represented as her Islands of Personality, while her memories are represented by balls colored by different emotions. The memories that define her perspective and outlook are represented as “core memories.”

Memory science indicates the way we process and retain memories is somewhat messier, but the idea that we reframe memories is borne out by research. Turns out the observer effect applies to our memories. Every time we remember something we change the memory a bit. As we mature our brains develop the ability to engage in abstract thinking, which allows us to process our experiences in a more nuanced way.  We come to recognize and acknowledge the mixed emotions that come with the complexities of human experiences.

Sadness is the heroine of the film. She displays empathy and authenticity. Her healing message is that grieving loss is a valid emotional response. Listening and validating another’s feelings, and “mourning with those who mourn” is powerful and helpful. Because Riley does not give herself permission to say “I am sad, I am hurting. I need comfort,” her Islands of Personality begin to collapse under the tension of trying to feel what she thinks her parents want her to feel and the need to express her authentic feelings about her struggle with moving. Riley acts out until she is able to acknowledge her sadness.

Self-awareness and truthful, authentic responses that come out of that self-awareness are important to emotional health and maturity, and to spiritual maturity. If our identities are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, we know that the “islands” of grace and hope cannot collapse. This understanding allows joy to mix into the other emotions we experience, but many of us Christians feel we must put on a happy face all the time because we think it’s what God expects, or that this mask of happiness will attract others to faith. Jesus would never have promised and provided a Comforter if we weren’t going to need one. He would never have let himself be called “Man of Sorrows” if God expected unfettered joy. Honest emotional responses help us to develop empathy for others because we, like our High Priest, are able to be touched with “the feelings of infirmities” that we all experience. To everything there is a season and when it’s time to weep, we will be emotionally and spiritually healthier if we let sadness take the lead.



Jun 7 2015

What I learned watching Netflix last week: Relationships are Hard and Forgiveness is Essential


This week on Netflix I watched Chef, Drinking Buddies, Detachment, and The Judge. Though very different in plot, character, and tone, they shared a couple of common themes: 1. relationships are hard and 2. forgiveness is essential.

Chef is a comedy about a divorced chef played by writer/director Jon Favreau, who is trying to rediscover his creative mojo with support from his son played by Emjay Anthony, friendly ex-wife Sofia Vergara and faithful sou chef John Leguizamo. Chef Carl Casper seeks personal satisfaction and creative expression through his career at the expense of time with his son. Events conspire to change that and he rediscovers who he is as a chef as he reconnects with his family and re-prioritizes relationships. Carl even get’s a second chance in some of the most adversarial relationships in his life.

My takeaways: Forgiveness is a reset. When both parties are amenable, forgiveness can move any relationship into mutually beneficial, mutually transformational experience. Flow, self-actualization, personal fulfillment – whatever you want to call that sense of completeness and happiness we all hope to find in life – involves satisfying relationships not just professional success.

Drinking Buddies is a comedy that explores the line between friendship and romantic involvement, fear of commitment, and honesty in relationships. All of these themes play out as an undercurrent to the action and the dialog, which, in a refreshingly naturalistic approach taken by director/writer Joe Swanberg, was all improvised by the cast who were given the general story arc. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake M. Johnson) are co-workers in a Chicago craft brewery. Each is in a relationship with someone else. Luke has been in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick) for six years and considers Kate a buddy. Kate is in a less serious relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston). A weekend at a lake cottage confirm that Luke and Kate have much more in common while Jill finds herself attracted to Kate. The four individually grapple with serious questions: What do I owe someone in a relationship? What do I owe myself? What constitutes cheating? Do like-minded people necessarily make the best partners?

My takeaways: Part of the work in any relationships is accepting that everyone and every relationship is complex, fluid, and flawed. Alcohol definitely enables the flawed aspects. Part of the work in a romantic relationship is being willing to commit not only physically but emotionally to that one other person.

Detachment is a drama starring Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who is a perceptive and gifted communicator but instead chooses to stay aloof and uninvolved. As much as Henry’s personal baggage compels him to remain detached, his compassion and passion for troubled young people wins out. Detachment is set in a big-city school populated by frustrated teachers and administrators (played by a really great cast including Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner) caught in big-city education bureaucracy and politics. Many care but can’t understand the apathy and animosity of their students. My one problem with this film, perhaps the one that earned it that green splat on Rotten Tomatoes, is that it takes the opposite approach from Drinking Buddies and is heavy on telling rather than showing. That said, teachers sometimes have to tell because students don’t always see the subtext. Besides some of Henry’s rants are incredibly perceptive and well expressed. Detachment is sad and dark and offers no easy answers.

My takeaway: Baggage is unavoidable and no excuse to withdraw. Sometimes the relationships that are the most trouble are the ones that carry the most opportunity for personal growth and tangible grace. Open up.

The Judge is a courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer and Robert Duvall as his estranged father Judge Joseph Palmer. Hank is a successful lawyer in Chicago who doesn’t believe he can ever atone for his past failures or earn his father’s approval. Now he must defend his father in court. Directed by David Dobkin, this film is packed with relationship dysfunction and difficulties: How do grown children deal with a parent who might be losing mental function? How do families explain complex situations to a mentally challenged member? How does forgiveness keep working when the consequences are life-changing and on-going?

My takeaway: Stop trying to atone, ask for forgiveness when needed and forgive when asked. Accept where the relationship is right now, even when it’s tense, without burning bridges or laying down ultimatums. Give relationships space to heal and grow. Keep showing up.




Jun 4 2015

Game of Thrones’ religious zealots and freedom lovers


AryaI’ve got a few musings on Game of Thrones. I noticed a couple of parallel themes concerning religious zealots and freedom. I have no idea whether this was intentional by the show’s creators or simply a projection of themes I’ve been pondering personally, but here are my thoughts:

Cersei possesses some of the qualities I find most reprehensible. She grasps for power, wealth and position. She manipulates, lies, and betrays to get her way and cover herself. Trying to use the Faith Militants to get at the Tyrells backfired. Now she’s locked in her own dungeon by the Sparrows, religious zealots who worship the Seven, until she confesses her sins. I’m not sure Game of Thrones could have done anything that would make me root for Cersei Lannister, but I find religious enforcers just as reprehensible as everything Cersei represents. Cersei is resisting and I’m pulling for her.

Forced confession and repentance is not confession and repentance at all. Making people comply to religious rules and bow to religious authority is not redemptive.

Melisandre takes compliance a step further.  She serves the Lord of Light that her religion teaches is the one true god. She uses sex as conversion therapy, has visions at the most convenient times, and, when those coercions fail, sacrifices those who won’t convert in a big bonfire. She’s convinced Stannis that he is the reincarnation of one of her religion’s legendary heroes and that her religious practices are responsible for his victories. She is now trying to convince Stannis that offering his daughter as the next human sacrifice is the only way to assure his next victory. I don’t know whether Melisandre is scarier as a true believer or a master manipulator. Is Stannis finally going to wake up?

The message “convert or die” is a sure sign that dark forces are at work no matter what the messenger calls the god.

Arya Stark goes to sleep whispering the names of heinous people who have hurt her and her family. The litany of names reinforces her hatred for the people on her list and her determination to see them pay. We pull for her. We want her to get revenge. But now she’s come to the House of Black and White, this strange cult that worships the many-faced god, a conglomeration of all the other gods worshipped in the GofT universe. They focus on the god of death in each of these other religions. They seem to believe that assassination is an act of mercy carried out as dispassionate religious ritual. Part of Arya’s training is that she deny her identity so she can learn to change her face and lie. Not all in, Arya hid her sword Needle in the rocks instead of disposing of it as she was told. Are the names fading? Is Arya the acolyte actually going to drink the kool-aid? I hope not.

If you are going to make a litany of the names of your enemies, maybe it’s more constructive to make it a prayer of goodwill for them. Forgiveness is freedom.

Tyrion and Daenerys had a heart-to-heart about compromise. Daenerys has been conflicted about how to implement her ideals as ruler. She’s rightly uncomfortable with the idea that she might be endorsing violence by allowing it. She’s already compromised and resorted to killing to establish her power. Now she’s got an advisor in Tyrion who is telling her she’s wise to continue on this course “for the greater good.” The alternative is to become the High Sparrow. This is an alliance that has some legs. Can’t wait to see what comes next for Tyrion and Daenerys.

Sometimes the cost of leading free people is to leave room for them to choose evil with the hope of leading them to choose good. It’s a tough and messy course.

Jon Snow, now leader of the Night’s Watch, allies with the Wildings to fight the White Walker invasion. He’s not out for power or to change their way of life. He’s offering a mutually beneficial alternative to all of them becoming wights, the GofT version of zombie servants of the Walkers. Could the head Walker, aka The Night King, be the long lost Benjen Stark from Season 1? Is Jon Snow’s demise going to the Ned Stark shocker for Season 5? I hope not. My theory is that Jon’s mother is a Targaryen and that Jon and Daenerys are the match that can win the game. If that doesn’t pan out my money’s on the Direwolves.

“Give me liberty of give me death” takes on a whole new meaning when being free means living on the other side of the wall.

Ask the Maester is great source of explanation for all things Gof T. Check it out.

May 25 2015

5 Things that make a great war movie


Memorial Day is a great day for a good war flick. What makes a good war movie?

saving private ryan1.  A sacrificial hero. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. A good war flick communicates the loyalty and loss that going to war requires. A good war flick takes the hero on a journey that involves loss of innocence, growth of character, acquisitions of skills, and development of trusting relationships with other soldiers.  Capt. John Miller, a 30-year old married English teacher from Pennsylvania leads his company through Omaha Beach and into France in search on one man he’s been ordered to find. Miller is the picture of intelligent integrity and responsibility as he leads men he’s grown to care about into harm’s way on a mission he’s not completely behind.

Real soldiers say the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is an accurate picture of the chaos and horror of a real battle. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan has all the elements of a great war flick, a great sacrificial hero, a worthy cause on both an epic and personal scale, a great ensemble cast, and carefully crafted and researched battle scenes.

black hawk down2. Research. It may sound nerdy but a well-researched war movie brings history alive. Authentic replicas of costumes and weapons, settings that mimic the real thing, re-enactments of specific details, dialog that voices that particular time period go a long way toward giving the audience a glimpse into what it was like to be there. There are times when keeping the story on track or developing a strong character arc requires altering or leaving out historical details, but those decisions should be deliberate choices that serve the story rather than the result of sloppy research.

Black Hawk Down depicts the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 which occurred during the American intervention in Somalia. In polls of soldiers who actually fought and military historians, Black Hawk Down is frequently chosen as a film that is historically accurate. According to Dan Ryan, a soldier who served there “the uniforms were right, the way the soldiers talked and acted was right, the weapons were right.” A realistic portrayal of war often relies on realistic depictions of the responses and interactions of the soldiers involved.

band-of-brothers3. A group of soldiers. The bonding and loss that takes place between fellow warriors creates unique relationships. The obvious representative film for this is Band of of Brothers, a collaboration production between Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This HBO series premiered in 2001 and follows two lieutenants from training camp in Georgia to the end of the war in the European theater.

The series not only depicts the war effort but some of the simple practical aggravations that war brings involving everything from supplies and communication to strained relationships and military .

A highlight of the 10-part series are brief interviews with actual veterans of Easy Company.  It’s worth a Memorial Day marathon.

war film glory4. Inspiring Heroism. The protagonist soldier who understands why he at war and heroically supports that noble cause at great personal sacrifice can really inspire.

Brotherhood, courage, loyalty, and  overcoming prejudice are big themes that inspire in Glory, a 1989 Civil War film directed by Edward Zwick. Matthew Broderick plays Col. Robert Shaw, an idealistic white Union commander of a newly-formed black regiment who must learn to lead. Denzel Washington’s Private Trip has a powerful character arc as he overcomes his own anger and prejudice. Ideas like heroism and nobility can come off as corny, but Glory avoids corniness this by simply telling the stories of strong characters who grow as human beings through the experience of fighting together.

When the audience can get behind the reasons for the war being fought on screen it’s much easier to focus on the heroic and noble aspects of war. Glory doesn’t glorify war but it does glorify the heroic and noble character that serving in war sometimes inspires in imperfect people.

apocalypse now5. Battle scenes. Most war movies involve at least one epic battle. Soldiers protect one another. They fight. They lose friends on the battlefield. They kill. The sometimes they get to use cool equipment. Sometimes they have to get innovative with the equipment they have. Stuff blows up.

The helicopter battle scene in Apocalypse Now is one of the most epic in film. Target after target is destroyed. Machines, trees, and soldiers flash in confused cacophony to a score of Wagner’s Ride the Valkyries. The audience can practically smell the Napalm and it doesn’t smell glorious.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about Vietnam isn’t an “inspiring” war film about a noble cause. The psychological toll of this controversial war unfolds in the development and degradation of the main characters, Willard, Kurtz, and Kilgore, played by Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall.

In a film in which there is conflict over whether that war should have been fought at all, the tone is often dark, cynical, or fatalistic. Films about wars like Vietnam often focus on the horrific aspects of war. Sometimes the worthy cause a war film communicates is avoiding war altogether.





Feb 8 2015

Birdman, Creativity, and Meta narrative film


Birdman leaves a lot open to individual interpretation and its ending has spawned multiple theories. SPOILERS in the link! It may require multiple viewings to solidify those theories. I think I need to see it again to decide.

Riggin, the aging star of superhero films is trying to make a comeback with a stage play by his personal muse Raymond Carver. He wants to create something great and is willing to sacrifice everything to make this play work. His relationship with his family is strained and his professional colleagues question his artistic decisions. Throughout the film he interacts with his superhero persona, Birdman who props up his sagging ego. Shot as one continuous take to reflect Riggin’s stream of consciousness throughout the story, Birdman takes the point of view of an unreliable narrator who may be delusional or may be possessed of supernatural powers. The film may or may not offer visual cues to help the audience distinguish reality from fantasy, if any of it is fantasy.

How it begins provides a more definitive perspective. Raymond Carver’s quote begins the film:

“And did you get what you wanted from this life?”
“I did.” “And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

This film raises some questions about the nature of creativity, ego, and recognition. What do human beings hope to get out of creativity? While creativity is a means of expression it is also a means of communication, how others respond  to what we’ve created matters, even when we pretend it doesn’t. Do we interpret how others receive and accept what we communicate through our creations as how they receive and accept us. Do we evaluate the worth of our creations by the responses of others, especially our creative peers and educated critics of our arts? How is the creation itself affected when the creator’s motives for making something becomes approval and adulation?

Birdman explores these questions but offers no definitive answers. Riggins struggles with what playing Birdman has made him in his own mind and in the eyes of the public. While it hasn’t gained him the respect or acclaim he craves, it did make him popular and beloved among audiences. Audience response is especially critical for performance artists. Without an audience there is no performance. And yet what is popular with an audience may not be popular with critics. Riggin wants so much to be respected for his art by his peers but being Birdman places him on a lower tier in the eyes of peers and critics.

Interestingly much of the critical commentary garnered by the film itself reflects this theme. The film is up for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, best supporting actress, screenplay, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. It’s already won awards in some of these categories. Director/Screenwriter Iñárritu is getting lots of well-deserved attention. Lubezki’s unique and challenging cinematography is mentioned in just about every review.  The acclaim former Batman star Michael Keaton has received for his performance is exactly what his character Riggin wants. It will be interesting to see what the Academy does with Birdman. Though his isn’t the only Oscar-worthy performance, I do think Michael Keaton deserves the Oscar for this. 

Does this strange parallel make Birdman a meta-meta-narrative? Films like Birdman, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento and quite a few more, mostly produced in this century, represent a shift in film narrative. Stories are deliberately complex and non-linear.

Works and artists that represent innovation or transcendence, or those that mark transition from one era to the next, Beethoven and Impressionist art for example are the ones students study for generations to come. The rest are merely representative of a period or genre, albeit, some very good representations. These works are popular because they satisfy audience expectations and meet their aesthetic needs. Innovative works require more work from the audience and may even challenge existing aesthetics.

The audience must make a greater mental investment and may need multiple viewings to get what’s happening. The audience must not only suspend disbelief but also to surrender modern certainties for post-modern conceptualizations. And yet viewers of these films understand that they are watching a very deliberately crafted film that contains breadcrumbs from the creators of the film intended to lead both to discovering meaning but also to individual interpretation and theorizing. 

There’s no shame in going to the movie and enjoy a simple, emotionally satisfying narrative or just watch stuff blow up. There’s no shame in producing, directing, or acting in such a film. Perhaps the end of Birdman has something to do with embracing being part of creating higher art and being part of offering an audience a simple satisfying story or an inspiring hero even when it’s not considered high art.

Dec 24 2014

The Hobbit as prequel: my take on Desolation of Smaug


Trying to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit felt stretched “like butter scraped over too much bread.” While I really enjoyed the first two Hobbit movies, those two movies represented about 300 pages of the book while Desolation of Smaug covers the last 50. The dragon scenes were the best part. The Battle of the Five Armies took up most of the story and felt like they had been done – and better – in Lord of the Rings. It also could be that I am just too much of a Tolkien nerd for Desolation of Smaug to work for me. Continue reading

Oct 12 2014

Looking at Gone Girl through a Johari Window



Gone Girl reminded me of the Johari window. JohariWindowThe idea is that there are four panes in every relationship that adjust in size through the course of the relationship. As we get to know someone the open pane grows. The hidden pane shrinks as that person chooses to disclose things about himself. Over time spent together we gain insights into that person and earn the right to speak share our insights about him so that through knowing us his hidden pane gets smaller. One would expect that the open pane would grow very large in a marriage relationship.

Applying this model to Nick and Amy Dunne’s relationship is disturbing because Amy’s hidden and unknown panes are so large. Everything Amy thinks she knows about herself is informed by something in her hidden window. According to most psychologists sociopaths know that they are sociopaths. They are very good at hiding this from other people and often come off as charming. They are also great manipulators. Amy carefully controls what Nick thinks is her open self. She also uses her relationship with him to manipulate him both through what he’s revealed to her through the open pane in his relationship with her and through what she knows about him that he doesn’t know about himself. Rather than using that information to enhance and heal their relationship, Amy uses it to manipulate Nick into taking the fall for her murder.

Nick illustrates that we don’t have to be sociopaths to seek to manipulate others’ views of who we want them to think we are. Nick tries to control his open and hidden windows with Amy because of his affair, but next to Amy, Nick is a rank amateur at manipulation. He’s not really built for it anyway. Giving him a twin sister is an interesting choice because twins tend to have an empathetic connection that lets them into one another’s blind and hidden selves. Margo may not know the details but she senses when Nick is not open and honest with her, and the more open Nick is with her the greater clarity he seems to have. To a great extent this empathy is the key to successfully tracking Amy’s moves. Continue reading

Oct 5 2014

Destiny, chance, and choice in the motifs in Forrest Gump


gump shoes“I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it’s both,” Forrest tells Jenny as he stands over her grave. Forrest Gump begins and ends with the feather caught on the breeze. Yet this seemingly random feather lands at Forrest’s feet and he picks it up.

It lands there as he waits for the bus that will reunite him with Jenny twenty-something years after their first meeting. He picks it up and puts it in his Curious George book, the book his mother read to him when he was little. Later it falls out of the book at another bus stop and is carried away by another breeze. (Notice how many films begin and end with bookend scenes like this.) 

A motif is a repeated image, symbol, object, or word in a film that points to a theme. When something is repeated several times in a film it usually is important. Forrest Gump has a number of motifs including the feather and the chocolates that point to the themes of destiny, chance, and choice.  Continue reading

Sep 13 2014

Reflections on Forrest Gump: Forrest knows what love is


Forrest Gump says “I’m not a smart man but I know what love is.” And he does. He loves his Momma, Bubba, Lt. Dan, and, most of all, Jenny.

Forrest shows his love for his mother by remembering and respecting what she teaches him. Mrs. Gump equips Forrest with an outlook that marks the way he processes the things that happen to him throughout his life. It is Forrest’s acceptance of whatever comes out of the “box of chocolates” that allows him to become a participant in historic events without questioning whether he belongs there. He accepts himself and believes he has something to offer because His mother instilled worth and confidence in him. He values other people in the way Mrs. Gump teaches him to value himself.

Forrest rushes into the Vietnam jungle to save his friend Bubba and ends up saving four other men. Forrest honors Bubba by following through with the plans they made to go into the shrimping business even though Bubba is dead. So deep is Forrest’s connection to his friend that he shares his fortune with Bubba’s family even though he doesn’t know them well and they think he’s stupid. Continue reading

Jul 31 2014

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is so good. Go see it.


Watching Boyhood is a reminder that all our lives are a series of seemingly insignificant vignettes that both reveal and shape who we are. Boyhood follows an episodic narrative style. It is driven by character and theme rather than plot. Shot over a 12-year period, scenes play out like a series of snapshots that communicate the mood and tone of what is happening each year.

It’s no accident that photography plays an important role in the film. Boyhood is like watching time-lapse photography. The audience sees Patricia Arquette’s hairstyles and weight fluctuate as she ages 12 years in a little under three hours. Ethan Hawke’s face develops lines. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up before our very eyes. Continue reading