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

Jul 20 2014

RIP James Garner and thanks for The Notebook


NotebookR.I.P. James Garner. I loved him as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but he won my heart as Duke in The Notebook. Duke is the epitome of the faithful husband. Garner’s nuanced performance makes profound lines that could have come across as maudlin or trite completely relatable.

The film begins at a nursing home as the elderly Duke reads a story from a notebook to an elderly woman patient. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Allie doesn’t know Duke is her husband and has no memory of their life together. The love story that Duke reads sometimes seems vaguely familiar to her. As Duke reads the film flashes back to the action in the story.

SPOIILER ALERT: (Do yourself a favor and see The Notebook. Even if you are a guy. Not only the acting really fine, the directing and cinematography is amazing. The repetitive use of water and birds as motifs is masterful. And the romance is far deeper than your average Rom Com. It’s about the stuff that happens after happily ever after that defines real love.) Continue reading

Jul 4 2014

Movie Clips to celebrate the 4th of July


President Whitmore – Bill Pullman – Independence Day “Right to Live”

Stacker Pentecost – Idris Elba – Pacific Rim “United”


William Wallace – Mel Gibson – Braveheart – “Freedom”


Coach Boone – Denzel Washington Remember the Titans “Gettysburg”


V – Hugo Weaving – V for Vendetta “Revolutionary Speech”

Jun 29 2014

X Men: Days of Future Past



X-Men: Days of Future Past  has some continuity problems, but I enjoyed it. Good fight scenes. Good character development. Great casting.  The X-Men saga deals with themes like good and evil, control and power, and intentions and consequences. Days of Future Past provides a 20/20 hindsight on how these themes have played out in earlier X-Men movies. There was a lot going on in the plot that may be lost on those who haven’t seen at least some of the previous X-Men movies.

Time travel movies like this usually hinge on the idea that certain events drive change in history. A perfect storm of creativity, innovation, discovery, and technology bring about leaps in learning, communication, and industry such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age. Perfect storms of ambition, animosity, and greed, along with natural disasters, have historically pushed nations, and at times the entire world, into war or economic depression. Days of Future Past brings us to that culminating moment in X-world when the government, reacting to the perceived threat they present, build big robots and send them out to kill all the mutants. Continue reading

May 31 2014

Searching for Sugarman encourages creativity


Searching for Sugarman is a story about one unique man, Rodriguez, but it is an encouragement for the rest of the observers and interpreters among us, the writers with a thousand posts and sixty followers, the musicians posting amazing songs with a couple of likes on Soundcloud, the artists whose gallery wall is Facebook, the creatives who work day jobs and create because they need to and want to even if they never get a check or an audience. Poets and philosophers write because they have something to say. not because they have something to gain. They have already gained, or they are in the process of gaining, some elusive but personally important thing that is the impetus for creating. When we cast our bread upon the water we have no idea when and how it might return. For Rodriguez it comes floating back nearly thirty years later. Continue reading

May 18 2014

Why Godzilla almost did it for me



I guess I like my monsters served with a little cheese and humor.

First the good stuff. Five cities were wrecked in fine style by well-imagined, well-executed prehistoric beasts. Lots of things blew up. There were some awesome clash of the scaly titans scenes near the end. Godzilla had wonderful sound effects, good graphics, and an exciting 3-D visual experience that made this a fun monster movie.

When I voiced my disappointment with the characters and plot the outcry from my family was, “What did you expect!?” Ok, ok, I get it. I know what Godzilla is supposed to be, but most world-threatened-by-____________(aliens, monsters, nature-gone-wild, military-experiments-gone bad, etc.) films  include some sort of clear, on-going conflict between major human players.

Godzilla was sort of the anti-Pacific Rim, last summer’s soap-meets-monsters blockbuster. Where Pacific Rim went too far, Godzilla didn’t give me enough. Nice round characters with clear goals and motives perform their roles earnestly and seriously. This is probably what you’d want in real life, but I felt like the film needed some human antagonists.

Even when the main antagonist is a monster it helps to have characters dealing with fear or guilt or displaying some hubris or ambition. The closest to conflict Godzilla came was a difference of opinion as to the best way to eradicate the monsters. Admiral Stenz was way too reasonable and professional. Dr. Serizawa (who, by-the-way, should have been close to 70 years old if his father was at Hiroshima) and Vivienne Graham made their recommendations and didn’t put up much of a fight. The young Brody family were all loving, brave and supportive.

The most interesting conflict played mostly off camera with backstory on Joe Brody. Introducing a conspiracy theory then killing off the theorist took away a lot of opportunities for entertainment and conflict. It might have been cheesier, but it would have been more entertaining for me to keep him around. Godzilla rushes through the coverup without giving the conspirators faces, except for Serizawa and Graham who are way too nice; a conspiracy theory needs a General Donald McClintock (Outbreak) or Albert Nimziki (Independence Day).  

Godzilla focuses almost exclusively on military response to the monster problem, which helped its length and focus, but I missed the disaster management piece that is usually part this type of movie. No Theirry Umutoni (World War Z) or Mike Roark (Volcano) to coordinate the response, no President Morgan Freeman agonizing over necessary sacrifices (Deep Impact). Last year’s World War Z used specific characters and scenarios to represent the conflicting complexities federal and local governments, the military, the press, hospitals, etc. might face in dealing with a mega-monstrous disaster. Godzilla included rushed scenes of nameless, faceless players. The best scene related to this was the baller bus driver on the Golden Gate.

The Mutos/Godzilla conflict reminded me of Jurassic Park. The part of the Velociraptors was played by the Mutos while Godzilla performed the T-Rex’s exterminator function. I did love the scene with the Mutos’ egg sac but, I didn’t find the Mutos as interesting as the Velociraptors. Godzilla himself was lots more fun but didn’t get as much screen time as the Mutos. I would have enjoyed seeing more of him.

Finally, having Godzilla tromping through San Francisco’s Chinatown made me long to have Hank Hill pop up and ask “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” Godzilla was originally imagined in Japan as a symbol of nuclear weapons and a metaphor for the United States so there was a certain irony in assigning the nuclear role to the Mutos. Whatever the thinking there, it didn’t matter much. It was still a bitching monster fight.

May 2 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel was just the story I wanted to be told



The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lovely, funny tale told as meta-narrative, a story about a story being told. It takes place in an almost real land in an almost historical setting. I’m always tempted to wear pajamas to Wes Anderson movies because he makes me feel like a kid who is about to hear a story. Even though his themes and tone are definitely for grown-ups, his story telling style demands the suspension of disbelief that makes hearing a yarn as a child so delightful.  It’s not realistic but the story is consistent to it’s own set of rules and the themes are accessible and universal. It was an enchanting hundred minutes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is populated with zany characters played by the usual suspects in an Anderson film: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, and newcomers to Anderson’s films: Ralph Fiennes, Saorise Ronan and Tony Revolori. The characters take themselves seriously in the midst of the surreal silliness of the plot. The deep sincerity of Gustave and Zero plays in stark contrast to the slapstick situations in which they find themselves. As concierge Gustave is the picture of solicitous perfection. Acting as mentor to young Zero, Gustave passes on his philosophy of service and his love for the grandeur of Grand Budapest Hotel.

One aspect of Gustave’s service is “taking care” of the needs of rich, elderly women who are guests of the hotel. His devotion to one such lady lands him in an inheritance battle with her children. Throw in a stolen art piece, greed and poverty, evil Nazi-ish cops, and romantic adventure  for Zero and oh, yes, a train; and the funny-sad-exciting-reflective story unfolds as told by Zero to the unnamed Author in 1968 whose book is being read on a bench by a teenage girl in present day. (Summarizing this requires several run-on sentences, so get over it grammar freaks.)

In addition to the financial appreciations, Gustave does seem to have a certain attachment to these older ladies, perhaps because they hold to the manners and customs of the age that is quickly slipping away. Years later, as Zero tells the story to another guest, he says of Gustave, “I think his world had vanished long before he even entered it.” The first few decades of the twentieth century marked a slow death to an era of manners and pretenses. It was a time when fortunes were made and flaunted and a time when people dressed up for dinner. Gustave and Zero’s story takes place in a similar time. Formality is beginning to relax in their world too, but Gustave is having none of it. The Grand Budapest clings to its shabby formality as it slowly wears out over the decades between the 1930’s and 1968 when Zero tells the story to the author.

Ultimately my take-away was a mood of  nostalgia for the times when  I sat cross legged on the floor, entranced as someone read me a story, or, better yet, embellished one told from memory. I remember visualizing unfamiliar settings and characters with the license of imagination. What I saw in my head skewed a bit from what the authors intended or what might eventually appear on screen when the story was made into a movie. Anderson has a way of making me feel like I’m reading a book and seeing it in my head but getting to share his skew. Like imagination inception.


Mar 26 2014

Saving Mr. Banks makes me wish I could watch flashbacks of other people’s lives


Saving Mr. Banks is the story of Disney filmmakers collaboration with Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to make the film. Mrs. Travers, as she insists on being called, is brusque, annoying, and controlling. She has very definite ideas about how she wants the story told and, uncharacteristically, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, bends over backwards to meet her demands in order to get the film made. It is hard to imagine anyone less playful than Emma Thompson’s dour Mrs. Travers. Her vision for the film is as serious and unsentimental as she is while Disney is playful and positive. His aim is to provide joyful experiences for people at his theme park and in his films. Naturally their visions clash. Continue reading

Mar 19 2014

The giving and receiving of grace in Nebraska


Director Alexander Payne says he shot Nebraska in black and white because “this modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white.” Modest and austere is a good description of the settings and characters in Nebraska. The word I think of is “real.” It was so real that filming it in black and white actually helped distance me from the stark reality of aging portrayed in the film.

The film begins with Woody, an elderly man in early stages of dementia shuffling down the road with one of those “you may be a winner” promotional letters, determined to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Since he can’t drive anymore, he’s just going to walk. 76-year-old Bruce Dern plays Woody with authenticity and understatement. Woody isn’t a joke or a villain. He’s an average small-town retiree who is frequently grumpy, drinks too much, and has typical relationship issues with his wife and grown sons. Aging hasn’t made him this way, he’s always been this way. With aging the filters deteriorate so that we become more obviously the people we already are.

Woody’s practical, outspoken wife Kate, his successful son Ross, and non-so-successful son David are real human beings struggling to deal with the effect of aging on family dynamics. Woody’s irrational behavior and unsteady reasoning make it hard for Kate to live with him. She, in turn, keeps calling her sons for help with their dad, which is disruptive to their lives. Like so many families, this family is having to make some dreaded “decisions” about dad, who always before had the autonomy to decide things for himself. It’s a frustrating and painful time for any family whose lived through this. Watching Nebraska is like walking through it with friends or neighbors. The emotions and situations are absolutely spot on.

Younger son David, who is between jobs offers to take his dad to Lincoln in hopes that he’ll stop fixating on the letter once it’s clear he’s not a winner. He also sees it as an opportunity to spend some time with his dad. Their road trip involves a series of little episodes that are sometimes amusing and often frustrating for David. They spend a weekend in Woody’s hometown where old wounds and rivalries are rekindled. Thinking he actually won some sort of sweepstakes, Woody’s relative and old friends embrace Woody as a celebrity and possible benefactor. Kate and Ross join David and Woody for a family reunion and a revealing walk through Woody’s childhood home.

Throughout the movie David begins to understand and appreciate his father as a person rather than seeing him with all the labels attached. Alcoholic. Distant. Grumpy. Inconsiderate. Disappointment. Sucker. Inconvenience. Failure.

Family relationships always have baggage. By the time a parent reaches the point where a child has to step in there might be forty or fifty years worth of baggage. Imagine unforgiven offense, patterns of hurtful behavior, personality flaws, painful memories stuck to the baggage like those vintage labels on suitcases. To a great extent we define ourselves and others by those labels. If we are willing to peel off the labels we’ve placed on others because of past experiences and see who is under there, we actually create margin for change to happen in those relationships.

Nebraska gently nudged me to reminder that healing comes with forgiveness. Perspective happens when we experience someone else’s story as a participant instead of a spectator. Nebraska reveals how simply walking through an experience with another person changes the relationship. The characters don’t experience big character arcs or life-changing epiphanies. In fact, none of the characters change that much from the beginning of the movie to the end, but how they see one another does. In this film I saw a picture of the giving and receiving of grace.






Mar 10 2014

The dark territory of True Detective



True to form the last episode of True Detective called Form and Void features the dark and grisly conclusion to a bleak, dark series about two homicide detectives unraveling a ritual murder in South Louisiana. Errol, the incestuous, Cary-Grant obsessed witch king makes an utterly creepy grindhouse villain. Previous episodes offer up a series of tantalizing possible suspects and co-conspirators, including Cohle himself. The Tuttles come off as redneck Illuminati with a long reach and powerful resources. The story ends with many of these loose ends still flapping, but Cohle and Hart’s journey resolves, and that’s the real heart of the story.

True Detective‘s mysterious King in Yellow references a Robert Chambers story about a play that elicits madness and despair in those who see it. The story Cohle and Hart live as they work their case contains enough bizarre evil to induce similar responses. Cohle’s philosophic nature and nihilistic outlook make him particularly vulnerable to emotional and spiritual damage. Hart’s proclivities run to the more standard tropes TV cops use to cope. He cheats on his wife, drinks too much, and is disconnected from his children. Hart ends up in a place something like despair in which he’s lost his family and left his job after exposure to yet another urban legend horror, the baby in the microwave.

Cohle and Hart’s determination to close the case appears to be part-destiny and part obsession. In spite of a serious rift between them, when Cohle shows Hart the horror inducing videotape of one the victims, he’s in. This tape is used to induce former cop Steve Geraci. While immediate exposure to the tape loosens his tongue, Steve does not seem permanently traumatized by his experience, displaying the same self-interest after they finish with him that he has before. He tells them Sheriff Childress is the one who closed the case. Interviews in previous episodes suggest that Errol might be a Childress and possibly an illegitimate child of one of the Tuttles.

After making arrangements to unveil their evidence should they not come out alive, Cohle and Hart follow their leads to Errol’s house. Earlier the episode treats us to scenes of Errol’s Psycho-Louisiana-style domestic bliss. Cohle and Hart’s journey lead them into the heart of Carcosa where the evil is as thick as hot, humid swamp air. Continue reading

Mar 6 2014

Reflections on Monument Men and the preservation of the creative arts


Monument Men is about a group of art scholars who are trying to chase down caches of art taken by the Nazis before it is destroyed. Though I thought the film itself dragged a bit in places, it raised the compelling question whether preserving civilization’s art during a war was worth spending lives and using resources. The film’s answer was a resounding “yes.”

Statements at the end of the film outlined art and architecture that was lost, not only to Nazi pillaging, but to bombing by both Allies and Axis forces. It made me think of the loss of literature during the Middle Ages. Invasions and the resulting battles all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East resulted in destruction of literature. Goths and Franks, Huns and Muslims, Vikings and Normans, and Christian Crusaders all contributed to the destruction of classical and Biblical literature. On top of that, scribes themselves sometimes made a call of scrape off writings and reuse the paper since paper was scarce and everything had to be painstakingly copied by hand. As lives crumbled and cities burned some scholars, many of them monks, predominantly Irish, decided that preserving art and literature was worth the effort. Many important texts of Western culture survived to be studied by the likes of Washington and Jefferson. Reading Euclid influenced Lincoln’s phrasing in his Gettysburg Address. To a great extent centuries of scholars studied the same collection of literature known as the Western Canon.

American education over the last century formed a common cultural canon. A liberal education meant students were exposed to roughly the same set of pieces. With the ability to digitize, massive amounts of literature, arts, music is being preserved for the next generation. The question is whether the next generation will find it relevant and worth looking at it, much less sacrificing to save it. Through education and culture there does still seem to be a collection of literature, art, music, and film that provides a sort of post-modern canon, a collection of works experienced by most of us. With the variety of schooling options and subcultures, along with the trend toward personalization, over time, as a culture, we may have fewer and fewer pieces in common. I suspect each of us will form a personal canon based on individual values. Continue reading

Feb 13 2014

10 romantic movie scenes and why I love them


Karl and Ellie from Up
What I love about it: The wedding is just the beginning of the love story.

Jerry and Dorothy from
What I love about it: Making mistakes doesn’t make it “too late” to mend love.

Robbie and Julia from The Wedding Singer
What I love about it: Love is about taking care of the other person.

Jamie and Aurelia from Love Actually
What I love about it: Love makes being together feels so much more right than being apart.

Jack and Rose from Titantic
What I love about it: Trust is a huge part of the decision to love.

Noah and Allie from The Notebook
What I love about it: Love keeps promises even when it might not matter.

Harry and Sally from When Harry Met Sally
What I love about it: Love makes dear those strange little quirks that annoy everybody else.

Lloyd and Diane from Say Anything
What I love about it: Love sometimes involves waiting and holding up heavy things for the other person.

Beauty and the Beast
What I love about it: Love involves risk, vulnerability, and accepting imperfection in another.

Aragorn and Arwen from The Lord of the Rings
What I love about it: Receiving what another must sacrifice is as much a part of love as making sacrifices.


Jan 28 2014

Sherlock unmasked


Season 3 begins with Sherlock and John Watson absorbing big changes in their lives. John finds out his best friend isn’t dead, gets married, finds out he’s going to be a father, and get his old job back. Death, birth, marriage, and career change are major life events. Watson has strong adaptability, perceptiveness, and relationship skills so its no surprise he’s handling it like a Hobbit.

Sherlock is dealing with change as well. His best friend is getting married; he’s picking up his life after a lengthy absence; he’s still dealing with life or death mysteries; and, oh yes, he lied to his best friend and nearly everyone else he knows. He let them think he was dead for two years and must now deal with the effects of that deception on all his relationships, even on Molly and Mycroft, who were in on the deception. In one way Sherlock’s return from the dead simply adds to his public mystique, but the press is focused on “how he did it,” an indication that his controlled image is unraveling further. Sherlock seems to be shedding some of his mystique in order to adjust to change, not only in his circumstances, but in himself. Continue reading

Jan 19 2014

Captain Phillips comes down to character


Captain Phillips was intense. The pacing, the acting, and the story were all compelling and emotionally draining. It kept my attention from beginning to end. The conflict between Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi’s Muse provide a strong framework for the narrative. Tom Hanks seemed so comfortable in Phillips’ skin that he was able to put me there as well. Abdi’s performance gave Muse a humanity and even humor, that provided a multi-dimensional shadow to Hanks’ Phillips. Continue reading

Jan 12 2014

The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a journey


SPOILER ALERT. Inside Llewyn Davis begins and ends with the same scene outside a folk venue in 1960’s Greenwich Village. A flashback then picks up Llewyn who, while leaving his friends’ apartment after a night on their couch, accidentally lets out their orange tabby. Finding he’s locked himself and the cat out of the apartment Llewyn picks up the cat and continues his journey.

The audience is filled in on what’s happened up to this point, the event that has put Llewyn on this particular journey. He’s grieving the loss of his friend and music partner Mike and trying to restart his career as a solo folk artist. He sleeps on couches, has no winter coat, struggles with bitterness and tries to maintain what he considers his artistic integrity.

The Coens do love their mythology. O Brother Where Art Thou was a retelling of the Odyssey. A Serious Man was their take on the Book of Job.  “It’s never new. It never gets old. It’s a folk song,” Every story is a journey. And every journey is different. That’s what the Coens do. They take an archetypical pattern and make it individual to every single character they create. So many of the stories they tell involve some sort of journey, whether physical or internal. While the plot was loose, my take on Inside Lleweyn Davis is that it is yet another journey. 

Llewyn is a former merchant marine, several of the songs in the film refer to journeys, and specifically to the sea. We find out late in the film that the cat’s name is Ulysses (Roman name for Odysseus). At one point in the film Llewyn stands in front of a movie poster of The Incredible Journey, a movie about the long trek of two dogs and cat finding their way home. I read one review that compared Llewyn’s journey to that of Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Plausable. 

Llewyn has lost his singing partner Mike to suicide. He discovers he has a child he’s never seen. He has another about to be aborted. He is facing a crossroads in which he must choose to continue his dream of being a folk musician or move back into the more lucrative career of merchant marine. His father is dying. He keeps pushing the wrong buttons in his relationships with family and friends.  Llewyn’s quest takes him around the Village, to his family in Queens, and on a road trip with an aging jazz musician and his beatnik poet driver. Throughout this trek he continually carries and loses the cat.

Apparently the Coens added the cat after they’d written the movie. Whether its meant as a symbol or narrative device, the cat does hold this loose episodic narrative together. The Coens tend to trust their audience enough to leave some things up to interpretation.  Does the cat represent Llewyn’s psyche? Is it his shadow? Is it the herald of change? Does it represent his fleeting music career? Is it there to reveal that the heart beating inside this melancholy, irritable, self-absorbed character is larger than it appears? At some point during the film it seemed all these things. 

Llewyn’s story is like a folk song. A bleak journey of a suffering regretful man. So many of the songs in the movie are about loss. Songs like Fare Thee Well, Five Hundred Miles, and The Last Thing on My Mind are about lost love. Hang me o hang me is also about loss.  In the song, Queen Jane, a woman dies in childbirth. And so the film ends before Llewyn’s journey leads him to any sort of resolution. Llewyn sits beaten in the alley outside the venue listening to the future of folk singing inside. It’s left to each member of the audience to conclude whether he abandons the folk scene for the open sea or continues to plug away at his craft. Either way, I hope he got himself a cat.



Dec 25 2013

A Christmas Story in Movie Quotes


“Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” – A Charlie Brown Christmas

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at it’s zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters decend upon us.” A Christmas Story

“That’s another thing… Buddy you should know that your father… he’s on the naughty list.” – Elf

“Cause I’m a karate man! And a karate man bruises on the inside! They don’t show their weakness.” – Trading Places

“Well, I’m, uh, more the ‘I-don’t-mind-pushing-my-best-friend-into-but-I’m-scared-stiff-when-I-get-anywhere-close-to-it-myselfing’ kind.” – White Christmas

“You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it. – The Ref

“But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path! You don’t want to be conned or duped. Have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked! You don’t want to be taken for a ride. Railroaded!” – The Polar Express

“Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here” – Christmas Vacation

“They’re kind of the same thing. If you won’t use your heart, who cares if it gets broken? If you just keep it to yourself, maybe it’ll be like my rollerblades. When you do decide to try it, it won’t be any good. You should take a chance. Got nothing to lose.” – Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

“Just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it!” – The Nightmare Before Christmas

“Look Doris, someday you’re going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.” – Miracle on 34th Street

“The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of *ten* Grinches, plus two!” – How the Grinch Stole Christmas

“The Jews taught me this great word: Schmuck. I was a schmuck, and now I’m not a schmuck! – Scrooged

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” It’s a Wonderful Life

“It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” – Love Actually

“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” – A Christmas Carol (2009)

“Hey, unto you a Child is born! It’s Jesus. And He’s in the barn. Go on! Go on up!” – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

“If this is their idea of Christmas, I *gotta* be here for New Year’s.” – Die Hard