Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Aughts: Influences

For the past couple of months, I have been thinking that it is time to start putting together my "top of the decade" lists. This is the decade in which I have had the most access to media, and in which I have most directly interacted with material in pop culture. I cannot say that my lists are anywhere near complete - I've missed 25 films I wanted to see in 2009 alone - but I have been thinking about the kinds of lists I wanted to include here. Some will be predictable - favourite artists, albums, movies, tv shows of the past decade - and some will be embarassing - movies, tv shows I've missed. But I'm enjoying the process, and I hope that you also enjoy it. I thought I would start with a set of lists: my top media influences over the past decade. Some of the influences here will call back to material released before 2000, but I thought it would be interesting to start with the artists who have most shaped my existence over the past decade. And although their works may appear on future favourite lists, it should not be assumed that my top five songwriter influences are necessarily my top five songwriters, for example. The members within the lists are given in no particular order, and I have included short descriptions for each. Enjoy.

Coens - It's not so much that their movies this decade were great - there were two negligible comedies, one other that didn't quite work, and I still have not yet seen A Serious Man - but that I experienced the totality of their work within the past decade.
P.T. Anderson - There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love alone are enough to put him on this list, especially when combined with 1999's Magnolia. PTA has made me think more about human nature than almost any other artist in just these three movies.
Wes Anderson - From Royal Tenenbaums to this year's Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson's quirky musings on family and duty and goals are interesting in both the immediate context and the bigger picture. Anderson is a master at setting deep characters with a shallow context.
Charlie Kaufman - Kaufman's mind-bending scripts question the very nature of reality and art, and all of those less meaningful human enterprises like love, faith, and hope along the way.
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The only non-director in my top 5, Hoffman is a master at choosing roles that allow him to explore in depth how a person will react to a given situation.

Bill Simmons - ESPN's The Sports Guy is admittedly shallow, and focusses mainly on sports I don't really watch, like baseball and basketball, but he is one of the most entertaining sports and pop culture guys out there. Plus, he helped introduce me indirectly to the next two people on the list.
Chuck Klosterman - I have been a latecomer to Klosterman's work, only discovering it in the past year, but I have devoured it eagerly (I read his latest collection of essays in the past day). He has a unique way of viewing the meaning in pop culture, and of bringing it into a discussion about the nature of human reality.
Malcolm Gladwell - Like Klosterman, I am a relative newcomer to Gladwell's work, but it has nonetheless had an impact on me. Gladwell's ability to analyze social trends and apply them to an abstract construct is very interesting, and it has made me think about the world in a new way (much like Steven Levitt's Freakonomics).
Donald Miller - Even before Blue Like Jazz, I had unknowingly dialed into Miller's honest and hilarious admissions of self-shortcomings; at times, my writing reflects his, and his books continue to make me think about why I do what I do.
Rob Bell - From Velvet Elvis to Nooma videos to the many theological criticisms of his work, I do not think there is a more polarizing figure in contemporary Evangelical thought, simultaneously igniting passion in some readers while offending others beyond belief. At least he's a part of the conversation, and a thought-provoking one at that.

U2 - As if this wasn't obvious. Before the decade began, my knowledge of U2 was the "Best of 1980-1990 and B-Sides" disc. Then I discovered their work from the 90s, and I knew there was something there. They have, of course, continued to produce new material and to further engage the critical and creative parts of my mind.
Andrew Schwab - The frontman of Project 86 is a thought-provoking songwriter, poet, adn author. His journey through the last decade is chronicled in his songs, and they continually speak to me.
Dustin Kensrue - Between his solo work and the ever-evolving work of Thrice, Kensrue is metaphorical, poetic, and at times prophetic.
Jon Foreman - Between Switchfoot and his solo and side projects, Foreman has ruminated on the nature of his existence on eight separate albums in the decade, and he still has not figured it out. I suppose that's a good thing for me, because his questions make me think.
Johnny Cash - Although Cash died in 2003, I have spent a significant amount of time since then investigating his back catalog and looking at his life. His death made his impact on my life all the meaningful, and he deserves to be on this list just for the song and video for "Hurt".

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Morality of Survivor

Russell Hantz was one of the biggest scoundrels in the 19 seasons of Survivor. He lied, cheated, stole, sabotaged, and manipulated his way to the top three, where he lost to Natalie, a Southern belle who smiled her way through most of the game and claimed her presence in the top trio as a moral victory. It was one of the worst travesties in Survivor history, along with Boston Rob losing All-Stars to Amber; Russell played one of the best games ever on Survivor, and was never in a position in which he did not control the game for more than a few hours. But what I found very intersting about this whole season of Survivor is that Russell was cast as a "villain", which seemed to be primarily because he was unscrupulous in his methods of keeping control. He did not allow any moral or ethical expectations to govern his behaviour; at any point, his mind was on doing whatever it took to win. He took his case boldly to the jury, who denied him the prize seemingly based on his lack of ethics. On the other hand, the finalist who attempted to achieve some sort of moral redemption - Mick - was shut out of the voting, a clear indication that the jury felt that Mick's attempts to cast himself as a moral player were even more misguided than Russell's outright bravado. The winner - Natlie - positioned herself as a player who made the best decisions she could, but who tried to play as honest a game as she could, and her combination of gameplay and morality won her a million dollars, despite the fact that she was not in the running for one of the best three players of the season according to the fans' votes. So although there is no morality inherently present in the game, Russell lost because of the moral and ethical wrongs perceived by the members of the jury - an external construct of morality applied to the game. It could, of course, be argued that said morality is part of being human, and that it is more unnatural to shed a moral code, as Russell did, than to adhere to one, but it seems to be fallacious to enter into a game and to decide the game based on "rules" that exist outside the game - just not outside the contestants. Russell is pissed off, and I do not blame him - he is now arguably the best player not to win Survivor. But what will really be an interesting twist on this discussion of Survivor and morality is the upcoming "Heroes vs. Villains" season: 10 of the most altruistic contestants taking on 10 of the most devious. But the question, of course, is how the villains are decided, and whether it is true that there can be such a construct as a "villain" in Survivor; these are people who take a certain perspective to the game, and they are held in moral judgment for their actions. Russell will almost certainly come back as a "villain", as will some of the memorable participants from years past: Jerri, Jonny Fairplay, Ace; but the only facet that makes them villains is their willingness to abandon a moral code that arguably should not have applied in the first place. It's going to be a fun season.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Many Legends of Zelda

In the past two weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the Legend of Zelda, one of Nintendo's most successful video game franchises. Nintendo has successfully duplicated its formula throughout the evolution of its systems, and the concept has introduced many now-familiar motifs into not only the video gaming world, but also the general pop cultural consciousness, despite the fact that Zelda's only other forays into the entertainment world have been manga, a memorable theme, an amusing but cheesy cartoon in the late 1980s, and streaming sitcom called The Legend of Neil (which I just discovered today). An aside: I'm not sure why no one has made (or even seemingly considered) transposing Zelda into a film medium; perhaps the costs are too prohibitive, or the general lack of success in translating video games into movies has discouraged producers, but it sure seems like it would be a sure thing. I have been reminiscing about the series lately, primarily because there is a new game for the DS (Spirit Tracks), as well as the fact that I have been playing through Minish Cap (a 2004 GBA entry). It is perhaps my favourite video game series, and I have not played a Zelda game I have not enjoyed. (I thought about trying to rank them, but I think it would be a fruitless pursuit - they're all so good!) I have a lot of good memories associated with playing Zelda games. I remember playing the original NES game with my dad as a young child (7-8 years old); I still have the maps that we graphed out as we looked through the dungeons. I remember playing Link to the Past for the first time, and spending months trying to discover all of its secrets while I was in elementary school. I remember that the first time my parents left me alone at home for the weekend that I went to a video store, rented the then brand-new Ocarina of Time, played it for something like 50 hours in a 2.5 day span, and still only got 1/3 of the way through the game. I remember being continually frustrated by Majora's Mask, the only title I have not finished within a month or two of starting; maybe that will be a project over the holidays. I remember finally buying a Gamecube on my internship in 2006 and playing through Wind Waker and Four Swords Adventures on weekends when I couldn't really think but had to do something. And I remember replaying most of these games repeatedly; it is surprising how much fun it is to go through these games again, even when I knew what to do and what would happen. I guess there is some joy in simply experiencing the games, whether for the first or fifth time. Zelda is like chili; it might not taste exactly the same each time, but you know it's going to be good. And yes, I'm a big dork.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Being sick sucks

There is almost nothing worse as a teacher than being sick; it's so much more work to be sick than to go in and teach. In the midst of your illness, you have to come up with activities that your class can do that you are not needed for and explain to someone else how you want them done. This often means not getting the full rest you need, since a significant portion of your time is spent working from home. Then, when you return, which is often not at 100% anyway, you have to spend time reviewing information and catching up on the time you've lost. It's no wonder that many teachers get sick during the breaks in the school year; we don't have time to get sick while school is in session. This is now my third extended illness in my internship and first three years of teaching. They have happened at different times - mid-October, late November, mid-December - but the circumstances are much the same, likely demonstrating that my body just needs some rest. In my first year, I missed an entire week due to some mystery illness that different doctors could not diagnose and tried to solve by prescribing several medications. I was back at work for a week before I was back to full capacity, and that included resting from everything else in my life. This time, my mystery illness has morphed from a cold-sinus-head thing to a throat thing to a generally icky and weak feeling. I'm not vomiting-sick, but I'm certainly not good enough to go back to work. It's one of those illnesses that a doctor would not know what to do with except to say to get rest and drink fluids. And although I have been trying to rest by watching some TV, much of time I have spent at home in the past three days has been focussed on preparing materials for a substitute. So the cycle continues, until I'm good enough to get back to work; even then, I'll probably take another week to get back to full speed. I hate being sick.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

13th Man heartbreak

The Riders experienced a new level of losing today. After dominating the highly favoured Alouettes for three quarters, they succumbed to pressure in the fourth and put the Als in place to win it, only two points behind. And then, with a miss on the game-winning field goal by Montreal's Damon Duval, the Riders took the worst penalty possible: too many men on the field. Duval did not miss the re-kick, and out of the jaws of victory came crushing defeat. I'm still stunned hours later. I don't remember many times when I've experienced such a devastating loss. I barely remember the Kings beating the Leafs in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals, and all of the other Leaf losses were not this disheartening. The Riders were blown out in the 1997 Grey Cup, and for most of my life have not been in position to win. Perhaps the only comparable feeling was in the 2003 Western Final, when Riders kicker Paul McCallum missed a 17-yard chip shot field goal that would have put the Riders in the Grey Cup. But to lose on the last play of the championship game by your own undoing is the worst way to lose possible. But I am still very proud of the Riders and what they accomplished this year: they established winning as a habit rather than a happenstance, and they were transformed into one of the top teams in the CFL. It is the beginning of a legacy, and they will want it even more next year. Until then, I can find some small solace in the cosmic irony that the "13th man" - a moniker attached to the overzealous Rider fans who have consistently caused problems for opponents all year - ended up being their undoing in a literal sense. Thanks for a great season, boys; you can finish the job next year.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Blasts from the past

I have had the good fortune in the last week to have had several unexpected re-acquaintances on Facebook. Not the "hey, I haven't talked to this person in a little while, and I'm glad I can keep in touch with them online" kind - the "where did this come from - I haven't talked to you since Grade 7" kind. It's really interesting reconnecting with people after so long; I had almost thought that in the internet age it was not possible for this kind of interaction to happen, but I was wrong. It has made me think about how we share memories, and how memories of people are formed in community; for some of these people, the last thing they heard of me was 7, or 10, or 15 years ago, and that perception of me then still influences how they see me now. The funny thing is that as much as sometimes I think I have changed, I know there's a lot to me that's the same, and it's very interesting to engage on a familiar level with people who aren't really familiar with "me", even though they know "me". The whole construction of "me" is really making me think particularly about my online identity and how people see me with their predispositions from the past. And I know this kind of deconstruction and self-analysis will continue in the next eight or so months leading up to my 10-year reunion, including the odd coincidence that the first graduation for a school at which I am employed at the time of graduation will be exactly ten years - to the day - after my own high school graduation. It's all making me very reflective, and it's a lot of fun to have these blasts from the past entering my present - just as I know will happen in my future with my students. "Hey, remember me?" That's when I'll be glad to have a near person-perfect memory.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Green is the colour

The Roughriders are going to the Grey Cup! For the second time in three years! This is completely uncharted territory for any fan born since 1976, the end of the last great Riders team. In the past three-plus decades, most of the team's success has come unexpectedly and without precedent or antecedent; in fact, most of the past three decades has been spent by Rider fans remembering Robo-kicker in the 1989 Grey Cup. But what is interesting about the team now is that success is not a strange idea; on the contrary, it is coming to be expected. For the first time I can remember, I have been confident from the beginning of the season that the Riders would make the Grey Cup, and that they were one of the best teams in the league. Even in 2007, there was not the same anticipation for victory - at least, until Winnipeg QB Kevin Glenn was injured before the big game; even then, the doomsayers in Saskatchewan still expected the worst. Despite the recent win, this current team is not really connected to that one: aside from the offensive line, most of the team's key positions have changed, including the entire receiving corps and starting quarterback. This team is young, but they play like veterans and they expect to win - and do not underestimate the power of the Canadian contingent on the team, who have dreamed of winning a Grey Cup since their peewee football days. It's mindboggling that this team is primarily under the age of 27, which may mean that this year is the beginning of a Rider dynasty, in which victory is expected rather than fortunate happenstance. I obviously hope that the Green and White win on Sunday, but I will understand if they don't, up against a veteran Montreal team. But should they lose, it will make the Riders even hungrier to win next year. Either way, the 97th Grey Cup is going to be a great game, and I am particularly excited about seeing the "Sea of Green" in Calgary. Go Riders!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My biggest musical gaps

I tend to try to be as complete as I can when I decide to investigate an artist. I will often listen to an entire discography to get a sense of the artist's strengths (and limitations), going back to debut albums and early EPs. If an artist captures my attention, I work at trying to assemble their entire catalogue - including rare or limited edition songs (at least digital versions). Unfortunately, there are far too many artists for me to follow fully, and I have some gaps in my collection. This is partially due to the fact that some of my years with my greatest buying power (2001-2004) were devoted to the Christian music scene...why oh why did I ever think Kutless was the pinnacle of music? But I digress. Of course, I am one of those silly antiquated people who like buying physical discs, and I don't agree with the practice of downloading music without paying for it. So here is my list for the day: the artists for whom I should own albums (or in some cases, more albums) and who I am rightfully embarassed not to. The constituents of my top category are especially egregious for a self-professed elitist such as myself, so without further adieu...

Category E: The hardcore hang-ons. Much of the music I listened to for the first half of the decade was hard rock and hardcore - "loud angry music". My tastes have diversified, which is why I own only one album each by As I Lay Dying and Killswitch Engage, despite the fact that I love what they do musically and lyrically.

Category D: The indie-rock latecomers. It has only been in the past five or so years that my tastes have begun to encompass more indie-alternative-rock, so each of these artists are sparsely represented in my collection.
The National - granted, I only discovered them in 2007 (along with the rest of the world), but their previous material is so good that I should own it (especially Alligator.
The Decemberists - another group I had let go under the radar until this year's The Hazards of Love. It's really a shame that I don't own The Crane Wife, one of the best albums of the decade.
Copeland - I own their most commercially successful album - 2005's In Motion, but they have three other studio albums and a collection of b-sides that I don't own.

Category C: The folk-pop troubadours. My dalliance with folk (or folk-pop) is even less short-lived than my affair with indie-alternative, but I should still own albums by these artists.
Feist - The Canadian songstress has only two albums, but they're both so good that I should own them.
Iron & Wine - Sam Beam has a great charm about his music. I don't know why I don't own any of it.
Sufjan Stevens - Sure, I own Illinois and The Avalanche, but that's only a start to experiencing his work.

Category B: The alternative all-stars. Bands with completely unique sounds that are completely missing from my music.
Sigur Ros - 2005's Takk was hopeful, mournful, reflective, and yearning; and 2008's With A Buzz... (English title) is perfectly poppy.
mewithoutYou - Aaron Weiss is weird, and I love it. Four albums, and I own none. I am the worse for this.
The White Stripes - Jack and Meg have been doing their thing for a decade now, and I still don't even own Elephant.

Category A: The unforgiveables. This is like not having watched The Godfather. Which I still haven't. Dang.
Beach Boys - I can't believe I don't own any Beach Boys. Not even a Greatest Hits. Neither do I own Smile. I'm ashamed.
Simon and Garfunkel - So many to choose from. Just not in my collection. Although I did own Graceland on tape for a while - that should count for something.
Bob Dylan - I have really grown to enjoy Bob's work. I just always pass on purchasing his albums, even when they're cheap. I don't really know why.

There you have it: proof that I cannot yet be a true elitist. Of course, all that I need to overcome this problem is time, money, and a liberal attitude toward copyright law. Too bad I'll have to work through this the hard way; but Christmas and my birthday are coming up soon...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reviews: Switchfoot and Relient K

As I have been listening to the most recent releases from Switchfoot (Hello Hurricane) and Relient K (Forget and Not Slow Down), it has struck me how similar the two bands really are. Consider the following facts:
Both bands have a similar career length and output in albums (Relient K has fewer albums, but more EPs). The primary song writers for each band (Jon Foreman and Matthew Thiessen respectively) are well-respected, and have each had some success with side projects. Both bands have a very devoted fanbase in the Christian music scene, but they have also had mainstream crossover success on a major label with a breakout album - Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown in 2003 and Relient K's mmhmm in 2004 - only to now again pursue distribution on a smaller label with more direct input. And both bands are operating at a high level several years after that breakthrough (the fourth album for each), though still not equalling its commercial or critical success. Let's break the new albums down more.

Switchfoot, Hello Hurricane: The seventh studio release from the San Diego quintet finds the group in a familiar yet foreign position. Their deal with Columbia expired with 2006's commerically disappointing Oh, Gravity!, and they have spent three years figuring out the next step. In the meantime, lead singer Jon Foreman recorded and released four introspective EPs centred around the seasons, as well as a side project called Fiction Family with Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, and the band gathered itself for a new chapter. Hello Hurricane seemed that it would be the proof of who Switchfoot is, and whether they were on the downside of their career or not. The album does clearly present the identity of the band, but its limitations are also clear. Switchfoot, without a huge change in their lives, is what it will be; fortunately, it is mostly for the better and not the worse. In true 'Foot fashion, the album gravitates between uptempo pop-rock tracks ("Needle and Haystack Life", "Hello Hurricane"), hard-edged rock tracks (lead single "Mess of Me", "Free", "Bullet Soul", "The Sound") and reflective slower ballads ("Always", "Enough To Let Me Go"). It is a balance that is immediately familiar to fans of the band, as it has been reflected on their last six albums, but there does seem to be a renewed sense of identity in this album: when Foreman emphatically declares that "this is the sound" (ironically, perhaps, as a follow-up to 2005's Nothing Is Sound)), he seems to believe it. I do see a parallel to Bono's encouragements for the listener to meet him in the sound on No Line on the Horizon, and judging from Switchfoot's history (referencing Rattle and Hum in "Gone"), it may be an intentional nod to their musical aspirations. There are a few songs here with gravitas (particularly "Always", "Bullet Soul" - which features some almost-screams from Foreman - and "Enough To Let Me Go"), and the songs all fit easily into the Switchfoot canon while still maintaining an identity as an album. Hello Hurricane is a worthy addition to Switchfoot's work, and a good album; it's not great, but it does not need to be - it is what it is, and maybe Foreman's best work can now be featured elsewhere.

Relient K, Forget and Not Slow Down: The upstart pop-punkers have now become older and wiser, and they are settling into musical middle age well. In the past decade, Thiessen and company have moved from comic teen angst ("My Girlfriend") and comic goofiness ("I'm Lion-O") through the loss and gain of love to this album: a occasionally silly, sometimes somber reflection on life in the midst of living. It is one of the band's most well-paced albums, with instrumental intros and outros serving as spaces between several tracks, and it seems that they have "grown up" as a band. It should be no surprise that the band members are mostly now in their late twenties, and their lives are settling down; so their music seems to have settled into a comfortable pattern. They are not stale by any means; they are simply confident in who they are and what they are doing, much like their real-life friends in Switchfoot. This new album includes much of the same kind of uptempo music and wordplay as former efforts, with some standout tracks ("I Don't Need A Soul" and "Therapy"). It is a solid addition to RK's collection, and a fun and meaningful album. Like Switchfoot, RK is at a point in their career when they are consistently producing music at a high level, and sometimes it can be difficult to find the value in that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coens: the collaborators

The Coens are known for their use of certain actors in their films over and over again. Many actors have risen to prominence simply through their involvement with the Coens. Here are my favourite Coen collaborators:

5. Jon Polito (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There): Polito has become the epitome of the greasy gruff-voiced little man. He comes and goes in small roles, but he is always memorable. When the Coens allow him to run the show in Miller's Crossing, he demands attention. One of the best cameo experts out there.
Best role: Johnny Caspar, Miller's Crossing

4. Frances McDormand (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, Burn After Reading): Joel's wife has proven repeatedly that she can do drama and comedy. She has some of the best facial expressions of any working actress, and she is very versatile.
Best role: Marge Gunderson, Fargo

3. Steve Buscemi (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Paris je t'aime): Buscemi owes his career to the Coens; without them, he may not have been part of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs...and then he'd be just another "hey it's that guy!" guys. He looks like someone you might meet on the street, but whose neuroses should keep you away. He is still a comic genius - even when he's not allowed to say anything.
Best role: Carl Showalter, Fargo

2. John Goodman (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?): The thundering Goodman is a powerful presence, and he commands attention when he appears in a film. Sobchak is still one of the greatest characters not only in a Coen film, but in comedy in general in recent memory. No one can take charge of a room - and a movie - like Goodman. I'm looking forward to their next collaboration.
Best role: Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski

1. John Turturro (Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?): Turturro's ability to blend in and simultaneously create unique characters is mesmerizing. He tends to err on the side of the neurotic, but then a character like Jesus Quintana comes out of nowhere. And I can even forgive him for his involvement in Transformers, as long as it helps him afford to keep making movies with the Coens.
Best role: Barton Fink, Barton Fink

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Review: The Men Who Stare At Goats

The idea seems absurd: that the U.S. Military used paranormal research to develop psychic spies near the end of the Cold War. But the viewer is warned that "more of this is true than you would believe", setting up the tension that occasionally awkwardly presents itself in this war-farce-comedy-drama.
Rookie director Grant Heslov's adaptation of journalist Jon Ronson's book about the U.S. Army's foray into psychic research is certainly far-fetched: the idea that a developed nation would seek to create "Jedi warrior monks" who could phase through walls, psychically find war criminals, and telekinetically kill goats is ridiculous, but it's just believable enough to be true. Heslov plays on this tension at the fringes of human ability and consciousness throughout the film, as the revelations of the activities of the "New Earth Army" become stranger and yet paradoxically more believable.
The cast has been one of the selling points in advertising, and is certainly the one of the strengths of the film. George Clooney deadpans his way through explaining his psychic powers; Jeff Bridges channels his inner hippie and imagines what The Dude might have been like if he had gone to Iraq; Kevin Spacey sneers and menaces his way under an unfortunate mustache in an underused role; and Ewan MacGregor is unfortunately underused as the protagonist reporter, Bob Wilton. It's not entirely MacGregor's fault, though; Heslov uses a tried and tired device, a reporter who discovers bit by bit that this department of the army exists.
The story is slightly disjointed, switching from a narrative in 2003 Iraq to flashbacks that tell the story of the New Earth Army from its inception in 1980. "Project Jedi" begins hopefully enough by ex-Vietnam Vet Bill Django (Bridges), a convert to new age philosophy, and experiences some early success with top psychic Lyn Cassady (Clooney). Unfortunately, Django's vision of a peaceful force intended to prevent war is soon manipulated by an opportunistic officer named Larry Hooper (Spacey), and the lament and final conflict of the film are set. As expected, the stories of all of these characters again intersect in the film's final act, which also demonstrates the intersection of the fantastical and real.
The film works best when it is firmly tongue-in-cheek, particularly in the early flashback sequences. There are several hilarious moments, and Clooney's deadpan and Bridges' overaccepting of the premise are necessary to the success of these flashbacks. But these moments are bookended by uncomfortable brushes with reality: kidnappers in Iraq; rival American security companies competing for Iraqi dollars using guerilla tactics; examples of musical psychological torture used in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It is clear that Heslov is trying to bring the point to the viewer about what happens when "psychic" become "psychological", but the tension does not always do justice to the current reality. This is not Good Morning Vietnam or Full Metal Jacket; the real is not quite real enough here, and not treated with the same respect as it is in those films. Some of the laughs in Goats are more nervous than hilarious. It may have worked more effectively to not bring the story into the "present" (ie. Iraq); but a simple narrative may also not have worked (like Charlie Wilson's War). Heslov's attempt to have a satirical examination of war, with an awareness of social conscience, does not always work, but it does also make its point.
With that all said, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a very funny movie, and it does have a sense of purpose. It asks questions about themes of belief, faith, identity, and meaning, and it never gets too preachy or uncomfortable. Perhaps that sense of discomfort is supposed to be there, and that is where the movie finds its success; but perhaps, like its titular animals, we are not quite sure what to think and we should just follow the herd. The movie is both too ironic and not ironic enough, and I think in that tension it just might find its success.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

I remember...

I remember cutting out poppies from red, green, and black construction paper in primary school. I remember hearing the Last Post every year and feeling the notes seep into my soul. I remember asking the teacher organizing the service if I could be one of the emcees when I was in Grade 11 simply because I wanted to be a part of the culture of honour in Remembrance Day. It is perhaps one of the most meaningful observations on the calendar for me, and it disturbs me more and more each year how much November 11 is encroached upon by the crass commercialism of Christmas and the tatters of Halloween. It is not just a day off; it is a day for reflection, and solemnity, and honouring those who have made it possible for us to live as we do. I remember being assigned to do the Remembrance Day service in my first year of teaching; I was incredibly nervous. I was not sure how to do it well, and the staff was full of teachers near retirement; why me? I guided my class through it, and I was relieved when one of the last-year teachers came to me and said, "Well done, Turner." I remember being offended that my school did not do a Remembrance Day program last year; I did not find out in time to change it. So this year I have again taken on the task of planning the service. It is a new challenge in a K-12 school to make it meaningful for as many people as possible. Our service will be traditional, but appropriate; something to build on for next year, I suppose. The most important part is that we will remember, together.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

C'est L'Halloween

I realized something strange today, besides the fact that I still somehow have a very good working memory of topics I have blogged about in the past five and a half years - often I can pinpoint a post to within a month of when I wrote it - but I digress. In my years of blogging, I have not written about Hallowe'en at all. It took me off guard at first to think that I hadn't, but then when I thought about it I realized how little Halloween (I will bypass the now-superfluous apostrophe) has meant to me. I enjoyed it as a child - although my choice of dressing up as Herb Tarlek from WKRP in Cincinnati in Grade 4 still makes me shake my head - but it was not a huge deal in my family or my general existence. I remember that in Grade 10 I had a girlfriend at a friend's Halloween party: our "relationship" started the day before Halloween and consisted of us holding hands and me stealing glances at her low-cut witch costume; I ended it a week later when I realized I didn't want a girlfriend, and she moved onto the next band geek for whom she had the hots. True story. It is perhaps ironic that someone like me who loves dressing up and keeps a "tickle trunk" for school spirit days does not like Halloween, but I think it's the same sort of aversion I have to "holidays" like Valentine's Day: they are crassly commercial, and the expectation to be creative is more of a deterrent than an inspiration for me. I think part of the problem is that I always think of the best costume ideas right after Halloween, and then I forget them before the next year. One of these years I'll make the A-Team happen; I love it when a costume comes together! I also think that I am so repulsed by so much of what happens on Halloween from a spiritual perspective that I cannot help but lack in enthusiasm for the event itself. It has become a celebration of dark and evil; some would argue it has always been such, but it seems to be worse now than when I was a kid. It was witches and ghouls and black cats then; now it's demons and death and makeup imitating suicide head wounds. It makes the time between Thanksgiving and the end of the month horrible for arachnophobes and people who are sensitive to dark images; but lately, even I have become more sensitive to the growth in general disregard for common decency with this so-called "celebration." I won't go so far as to say that it's not Christian to observe Halloween; I just think that it is becoming increasingly difficult to observe it in a way that does not threaten the integrity of one's faith. Thankfully, it all goes away pretty quickly after the 31st, because stores slash the prices on candy to start marketing Christmas goodies on November 1. And I will be getting my candy directly from the retailer again this year - perhaps my only lasting Halloween tradition.

Friday, October 30, 2009

In a little while...

We had some friends who stayed here last night after being in Vancouver the previous night to see U2 at BC Place. I was happy for them - as I am for anyone who has the chance to see them in concert - but I could not help feeling a little twinge of sorrow mingled with regret that I could not go to see them, especially when they were only a ferry-ride away. My lament intensified when I viewed the set list and realized that they played an encore of "Ultraviolet"-"With or Without You"-"Moment of Surrender", and that they included a few songs from Achtung Baby in the concert. I was glad to hear that these friends were fans of the band (and not just people that liked how they sounded on the radio), and that they could really value the experience. But talking to them made me think about how meaningful of an experience going to a U2 concert can be - there is something almost transcendent about it. We, the initiated, can talk about when we saw them - which tour, which location, which songs stuck out that night, something memorable that Bono did; and though we always want to share that experience with others, we are slightly jealous when they go and we don't. But it never leaves you, and I knew when I saw them that anytime they were on tour that I would want to see them again, and I would always be able to relive that night in April 2005. On the concert night (Wednesday the 28th), it was exactly four-and-a-half years since I made the trip to Vancouver to see the Vertigo tour, but I could still remember almost everything about it. I guess there's always next time to see U2 again, or the concert DVD in a few months. In a little while...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thoughts after the BC Teachers' Institute

One of the reasons I have been incommunicado for the last half of the month is that I spent most of that time preparing for, attending, and recovering from an intensive four-day conference at the BC Legislative Assembly (though the building, in true egotistical British Columbian fashion, is named the Parliament Buildings). I, along with just over a dozen other teachers, had the chance to see a bit of what happens "behind the scenes" of the political engine; of course, I might argue that the veneer was never truly lifted by the politicians, but it was refreshing to see some of them squirm in a roomful of social studies teachers. The conference included sessions on the role of the Lieutenant-Governor, the Speaker of the House, how legislation is written and comes into effect, the role of cabinet, the electoral system, the media, party politics, the judicial system, backbencher MLAs, and watching Question Period. Although I am no less cynical about partisan politics than I was a week ago - I am arguably more so now - I was impressed with the level of discourse that we had with the power players, and that many of the MLAs made themselves available to us to talk. It was refreshing to be reminded of the human side of all of the debates, and to have the experience firsthand. I am certainly still not sold on the greatness of parliamentary democracy, particularly after repeatedly hearing the mantra "it's not always great, but it's the best we've got" from various civil servants, but it was great to get to know more about our system of government, fatally flawed though it may be. Plus I got some awesome food and beverages all week - go government spending on me!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

It seems obvious that an animated film with a title like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs does not fully take itself seriously; the surprise in Meatballs is how some deeper themes are evident, and how much fun it is along the way.
The story takes place in the town of Swallow Falls, a small hamlet in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean whose central economic livelihood, sardines, have fallen on hard times. The protagonist of this absurdist tale is the luckless inventor Flint Lockwood, who has been known for such hapless creations as spray-on shoes and a monkey thought translator. Lockwood's primary motivation seems to be to prove himself to his working-class father as well as to himself. Lockwood improbably creates an incredibly useful invention, the FLDSMDFR (an acronym played to much amusement), that is able to convert water molecules into food. An initial test goes awry, and the machine is launched into the atmosphere, setting the stage for the ridiculous events to come.
The plot thickens with a host of characters with different motivations. Lockwood is using his newfound fame to impress his dad and the new weather girl in town, Sam Sparks. Flint's father is unsure of his son's success and whether he is being responsible with his invention. The opportunistic mayor capitalizes on Lockwood's invention as a way to save the town by converting the town's economy to food tourism, and in the process causes the FLDSMDFR to start going haywire with disastrous results. Sure, the sequence of cataclysmic events which prolong the final solution to the problem are increasingly ridiculous, but they're fun. Throw in some comic relief from supporting characters, romantic tension between Flint and Sam, a self-searching inquiry by Flint, and some comedically placed food droppings, and that's the recipe for this movie.
The voice acting is also one of the more positive parts of the movie, as it contributes to, rather than distracting from, the action. Among the principal voices are accomplished comedians like Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Bruce Campbell, who play the voice to the character rather than to their celebrity. And any movie that features the voice of Mr. T is okay by me.
Meatballs is simple in theme and presentation; after all, it is a children's movie. But that does not mean that it is meaningless. The movie discusses issues like self-image, self-worth, loyalty, friendship, purpose in life, ethical decisions, and the role of the media. As expected of a movie of this type, it is accomplished at both a simplistic level for children, but the plot contains surprising complexity in some of its themes. When combined with the outrageous plot, the result is a ridiculous movie that is meaningful for all ages, as well as endearing, funny and visually creative. The forecast for this movie is fun!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: Zombieland

Vampires may be the hot trend right now, but zombies are comedy goldmines. In the spirit of films such as romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead, indie mockumentary American Zombie, and social satire Fido comes the newest entry from rookie director Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland, a tongue-in-cheek coming-of-age road trip movie with cannibalistic violent antagonists.
The movie follows the escapades of an obsessive-compulsive college student known as "Columbus" (based on his home town), and how he survives the unnamed virus that has turned the population into ravenous bloodthirsty freaks. He meets up with accomplished Zombie killer Tallahassee, and a troublesome pair of sister grifters who cause the boys no end of frustrated. Together, they form a sort of family and make their way through Zombieland, killing as many undead as they can in as many creative ways as possible as they go, informally competing for "Zombie Kill of the Week".
Zombieland succeeds largely because of the strength of the directing and writing. Newcomer Fleischer gives the perfect tone to the film; it's never too serious, but it takes itself seriously enough. He supplies visuals appropriate to the tone of the script, starting with the memorable opening credits. It should be no surprise that the writing is a strength, as the writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, are most famous for their egregiously over-the-top experiments in reality TV show parody, the two seasons of the Joe Schmo Show and the William Shatner mini-series Invasion Iowa.
The movie is incredibly pop-culturally savvy, to its strength, as reflective of the protagonist, Columbus. As Columbus, Newcomer Jesse Eisenberg is doing his best to channel the social awkwardness of Michael Cera, and his slavish devotion to rules for survival is both comedic and practical. Woody Harrelson is infectiously gleeful in his his gap-toothed joy of dispatching the undead, and the smoky Emma Stone and sunshiney Abigail Breslin fill their supporting roles well. And there is that cameo that steals the show...
Despite the satiric and light-hearted tone of Zombieland, it is not without its significance. Although zombies have traditionally been used as a metaphor for commercialism to varying levels of success, Zombieland presents a fresh take on the idea and contributes to the overall themes of the zombie genre without becoming hackneyed and hammish. Plus, the zombies are as convincing as any in recent memory, and certainly as disturbing.
Zombieland is one of the most fun movies to come out this year. It is laugh-out-loud funny, and it is a must-see, especially for zombie fans. It is sure to become a pop-culture classic in the vein of Juno or Napoleon Dynamite, complete with quotable dialogue. Go see it if you can handle it, and remember: "It's time to nut up or shut up."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mini-reviews: Muse, Thrice, Crowder, Mika

September was a busy month for CD releases for me, and here are some of my takes on the new albums I've listening to over the past month.

Muse - The Resistance: The British prog-rock-meets-symphonic-Armageddon trio are back with their fifth release, picking up where 2006's Black Holes and Revelations left off. The Resistance is full of the sort of anthemic, fist-pumping, anti-authority choruses for which Muse has come to be known, especially the Queen-esque "United States of Eurasia". But Bellamy and company have balanced their grandeur with a softer side, and several of the songs on this album focus on love and personal relationship. The Resistance is a worthy addition to the Muse catalog, especially the final three tracks that form the "Exogenesis" symphony. I am concerned that if they continue with this level of bombast that they will become a self-parody; I am heartened, however, to know that Matt Bellamy is aware of this issue and is working through it. The Resistance is a must-own for Muse fans, a must-listen for rock fans (especially of Queen), and they are still the number one band I want to see live.

Thrice - Beggars: Thrice has progressed significantly over the years: they started out as a post-hardcore punk/thrash outfit, then progressed into more melodically-based hard rock, then into ambient and alternative-country on their experimental set of elemental EPs, The Alchemy Index. Beggars is the product of that progression, and it is a worthy successor to the band's previous efforts. The album follows the style of the latter half of the Index, taking its style more from the guitar-riff-driven rock of Earth rather than the screaming guitar chords of early Thrice. Guitarist Teppei Teranishi is allowed more freedom to elaborate on his work than in previous efforts, and Dustin Kensrue's lyrics are getting better all the time. Their intensity is not subject to their style; this may be their most intense effort yet, though it is also their least heavy record to date. Beggars shows that there's a lot of life left in this band, and that they have a lot left to say; it's a mature record, and it's a sign that they are moving in the right direction.

David Crowder Band - Church Music: I tend not to like "church music", but Crowder is one of the few contemporary worship artists whose work I follow closely. He is so creative and inventive with his music, and he pushes the boundaries of the "worship" genre (argh). The simplistic yet enigmatic title has become a staple of Crowder's work, and judging by this album, it is meant ironically; this album is primarily an electronic dance "rave", and it seems far from the image conjured from the phrase "church music". The album does feature a few songs that are more in keeping with the contemporary worship mode that will become standards in many evangelical churches, but even those tunes are still creative enough to engage the listener and not succumb to the dreaded "A-G-C" chord format of most contemporary adult-pop-worship. I know that there are many people who may be turned off of DCB by this album, but I really enjoy it, and I think it's among the group's best work.

Mika - The Boy Who Knew Too Much: Mika was a fresh voice when his debut album produced several of the biggest pop hits of 2007; he was energetic, fun, and likeable, and I enjoyed his album perhaps more than anything else released that year. The question was whether he and his music would mature, or whether he would try to duplicate the success of Life in Cartoon Motion. On his second album, the 80s-influenced British-Lebanese pop star again channels artists like Freddie Mercury, George Michael, and David Bowie in his poppy self-searching ditties, but he does not exactly copy his first album. There are the upbeat songs, but the majority of the album has a more reflective, and at times, somber, tone; even the title reflects a different sensibility toward life. His musicianship is still not in question; the uses many of the same styles of pop hooks, and his unmistakeable falsetto emerges at key moments, even if it is less danceable than Cartoon Motion. It seems like this album is more mature, and it shows growth from the first album, and it may, in the long run, be a better album; it is hard to tell this early into listening to the new one. It may, ultimately, be an exercise in futility to compare his two efforts; they show different sides of Mika's personality and life, and they seem to work together well. The Boy Who Knew Too Much is a strong album on its own, and it is a welcome addition to the Mika catalog; I suspect that most people think they know fairly quickly if they like Mika or not, but I think this album may give skeptics second thoughts.

Monday, September 28, 2009

CoenFest: Ranking the films

As I made my way through the Coens' filmography, I was quite surprised to discover that it includes more comedies than dramas, especially if you include two of the films as "tragicomedies"; after all, Fargo and Barton Fink are more comedic than they are dramatic. Of course, there are more comedies that don't work than dramas, and even the bad films are not that bad. Here then, is my list of Coen films from worst to first, according to rewatchability factor:

13. The Ladykillers - The Coens' take on a classic black comedy had some of the parts together, but it just didn't work as a whole - and Tom Hanks insufferably purring his way through his role didn't help. Rewatchability level: almost nil.
12. Intolerable Cruelty - The Coens did not want to direct this movie, which they wrote and described as one of their most mainstream efforts, about a divorce lawyer and a golddigger. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones work some magic - particularly in Clooney's speech at the lawyers' conference - but it's not enough to overcome a mediocre and predictable outcome. Rewatchability level: one scene on Youtube.
11. Burn After Reading - The Coens' CIA-spoof is notable for three things: bringing in John Malkovich; seeing Brad Pitt get shot in the head; and J.K. Simmons' two tirades on the stupidity of the whole enterprise. I liked it a bit more the second time, but... Rewatchability level: Maybe once.
10. Blood Simple - A simple yet complex debut film in which Abby, the protagonist, gets caught up in an unexpected turn of agendas and double-crossings. The really interesting part of this film is how it prefigures many of the themes and images of No Country For Old Men, which was written twenty years later. Rewatchability level: Medium, particularly in conjunction with No Country.
9. The Hudsucker Proxy - Perhaps the Coens' most family-oriented film about a luckless sap (Tim Robbins) who happens to invent the hula hoop and revolutionize a company trying to tank, headed by Sidney J. Mussberger, the nefarious interim CEO (Paul Newman). It hearkens back to the Jimmy Stewart-Frank Capra era of filmmaking, and it works well. Rewatchability level: as a family film, several times.
8. The Man Who Wasn't There - A direct attempt at film noir (as opposed to other indirect attempts), right down to the black and white film and use of narration. Billy Bob Thornton makes the show as the life-numbed protagonist, and Tony Shalhoub steals every scene he is in as the sneaky high-life lawyer. Rewatchability level: Medium - mainly because even though it's brilliant, it's kind of depressing, and it's hard to take.
7. Raising Arizona - A cop and a petty criminal steal a baby with disastrous consequences and many belly laughs. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter are hilarious in these early roles, and the whole slapstick madcap movie works. Rewatchability level: High, especially the chase scene with the Huggies.
6. Miller's Crossing - A 1930s Chicago gangster movie with a requisite number of twists, turns, and ethnic slurs. Gabriel Byrne is the emotionally stone-cold Tom, an Irish self-made man, and the film unfolds beautifully. Rewatchability level: High, particularly for the haunting soundtrack.
5. Barton Fink - An example of the understated genius of the Coens, as the titular writer (John Turturro) navigates his way through moving to Hollywood to write a picture for a major studio. Perhaps the first example of a movie that seems to directly reflect the Coens' lives, it works because Fink's unassuming nature comes up against the roaring studio executive (Michael Lerner) and the buddy-buddy simplicity of a new mysterious neighbour (John Goodman). Pure genius. Rewatchability: High, if not only for one of the all-time great Coen lines: "I'll show you the life of the mind!"
4. O Brother Where Art Thou? - Part bluegrass concert, part literary epic, part depression film - this one has it all and more. Rewatchability level: Very high.
3. Fargo - The blackest of the Coen black humour and almost the funniest. And c'mon: woodchipper! Rewatchability level: Very high!
2. No Country For Old Men - This film is bound to be one of the greatest pieces of American cinema of the past fifty years, along with its lauded release-mate, There Will Be Blood. It's a chilling vision of a stark reality, and it deserves every accolade it receives. Rewatchability level: very very high; it's bleak, but it's brilliant, and Anton Chigurh (admittedly not the Coens' creation, but certainly their vision helped create him) is one of the most chilling movie villains of all time.
1. The Big Lebowski - Sometimes there's a man who seems to embody an era - that man is the Dude. And the Dude abides. I'm glad he's out there taking it easy for all us sinners. Easily the best dialogue, cast of characters, and film homage of any Coen film; it also has the best use of profanity by far. Rewatchability level: I could easily watch this movie twice a year for the rest of my life and still not see it enough. No Country may be a better film, but if forced to choose between the two, I'd pick Lebowski almost every time. So let's drink a White Russian in honour of the Dude and the best Coen brothers movie yet.

Tomorrow: Favourite actors to appear in multiple Coen films.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

CoenFest 2009

In anticipation of the release A Serious Man, I have finally finished watching through all of the Coen brothers' movies with my recent viewing of Miller's Crossing. Their movie catalog is easily my number one choice to the question "If you could watch films by only one director for the rest of your life, who would you choose?"(I know technically they're two people, but you get the point). There are no others like the Coens in terms of not only executing artistic vision (directing, writing, and editing their films), but also in variety (comedy, thriller, tragedy, period pieces, slapstick, even romantic comedy) and proclivity (14 films in 26 years). There is no end to the discussion that one can have in analysis of their films, which is why I am proclaiming this week to be CoenFest 2009 at Life of Turner. Over the next week, I will be posting thoughts on the Coen's filmography - best comedies/dramas, best characters, most underrated films, etc. So welcome to CoenFest 2009!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Which year of films do you pick?

This is a question that has come up recently in my head, but also on Entertainment Weekly's website. I'm throwing it out there, and I may even try to turn it into a Facebook meme. Here's the question: You have the choice to take a movie catalog from any given calendar year with you on a deserted island. You can have all of the movies released in that year in North America, but no others. Which year do you pick? It's a tough call. EW answers were silly, like 1977 (Star Wars...ugh) and 1984. I think the trick is to pick a year in which there were enough great films as well as enough silly fun films. Here are my top 3:

3. 1967: In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Wait Until Dark, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, The Jungle Book.
2. 1999: Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Fight Club, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Galaxy Quest, Office Space, and Dogma for comic relief.
1. 2007: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood (the clinchers right there), Hot Fuzz, Eastern Promises, Darjeeling Limited, Into the Wild, Once, Rescue Dawn.

Possible twists on this question:
A. For whichever year you take, you have to watch the top 10 grossing movies at least as often as you watch your favourites. Do your selections change?
B. Choose any two- (or three, or four, or five, etc.) year period.
C. Choose a decade.

What are your years?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tips for garage sales

I love garage sales - both as a buyer and a seller. There's something about the entire enterprise that is just fun, and a great garage sale find has even more prestige than a thrift store find. But after hosting another garage sale this weekend, I figured it was time to publish my list of tips for buyers and sellers at garage sales. Enjoy.

1. Don't drive by slowly. Either speed by, or stop and browse for a moment. Don't try for the best of both worlds.
2. Don't insult the seller. Just because you're not willing to pay does not mean that the seller should lower his price beyond what is reasonable.
3. Show up at the advertised time; maybe 10 minutes earlier if you really want an item. Sellers are not setting up early.
4. Bring change with you. Don't come with a $50 first thing in the morning for a $2 item!
5. Make your decision and go. You're thinking too much about your purchase unless it's over $20. If you want it, just buy it and clear out.

1. It's not a garbage sale. Yes, one man's junk can be another man's treasure, but don't just put out your broken and unsellable junk - that's no one's treasure.
2. Be willing to haggle. Nothing is more frustrating than a seller who won't budge.
3. Don't have a sale unless you have around $200 of priced merchandise at the beginning of the day. It's really not worth it unless you can make $100.
4. Enjoy yourself and make chit-chat with the buyers. Grumpy sellers can make a great garage sale day miserable.
5. Run your garage sale past 1 pm. A weird quirk of Victoria garage sales is that they all shut down right after lunch. It's a morning pastime - very odd.

Post-script: my best find at a garage sale to date may be the huge box of Fisher Price Construx I got for $4 several years ago. That said, if I finally find an Atari 2600 with games, I'll have a new champion.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Reviews: Skillet - Awake and Collective Soul - Collective Soul

John Cooper and Ed Roland have been two of my favourite songwriters since I was a teenager. They, and their bands Skillet and Collective Soul, respectively, have been a part of my musical consciousness since it awakened in 1996. I remember rocking out to "Precious Declaration" on Big Shiny Tunes 2, and letting the sounds of "Your Love Keeps Me Alive" and "More Faithful" permeate my being in times of trouble. I have seen both bands live several times (C.Soul in 1999 on the Dosage tour and twice in 2005, and Skillet in 2002 on Alien Youth and in 2006 after Collide), and I have kept track of both bands throughout their careers, which have included various ups and downs and band member changes and comeback albums and shifts from independent to mainstream and back. These two artists are linked in my mind, which makes it all the more interesting that their most recent releases came out on the same day. Skillet's Awake debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200, whereas Collective Soul's second self-titled album hit number 24 in their first non-independent release since 2000. But how do they actually rate?
Collective Soul's new album sounds like vintage Soul. Their last album, 2007's Afterwords, stumbled somewhat, but their Roadrunner debut recaptures their almost-lost glory. They have a simple yet effective formula: pick a guitar riff, match a bass groove and standard rock beat to it, and let Ed do his rock star thing on the vocals. It's not complicated, but it works. Songs like "Dig", "Understanding", opening track "Welcome All Again", and "Staring Down" would be welcome on any Soul effort, and Ed is allowed, as in the past, to explore a more tender side in songs like "You" and "Hymn for My Father." There are a song or two that do not quite work, but on the whole, this album is a great and necessary addition to any fans of Collective Soul - even casual ones - and it demonstrates that there is a lot of life left in the band.
Skillet's Awake is their most commercially successful effort to date, and arguably their worst album. As they have increased in popularity, they have become more bland and unidentifiable as distinct musicians, and much of what made them such a great band a decade ago has been lost. They have moved to the "modern rock" standard of groups like Evanescence and Flyleaf, complete with female vocals, which might not be a bad thing if they preserved any of their musical or lyrical integrity. Almost all hints of who they were on their early albums are gone, which is evident from their performance catalog, which includes only one song from their first four albums (Invincible's "Best Kept Secret". They have continually progressed further away from clarity and distinctiveness in their sound and lyrics. Cooper's lyrics used to be directly related to his relationship with God, and while I do not believe that bands need to be "Christian" or not, at least they need to say something. These lyrics are bland and uninspired, and many lines are cringe-worthy; even the song titles, which include such lifeless titles as "Hero", "Monster", and "Forgiven", and two of the worst song titles in recent memory: "It's Not Me, It's You" and "Should've When You Could've". Sure, their foray into symphonic integration is at times intriguing, and the album is not devoid of talent or vision and there are one or two songs worth paying attention to, but this is not Skillet as a former Panhead (the moniker for fans of the band) like me knew them. I suppose that, no longer being an adolescent male, that I am not the target audience for their current brand of modern rock, and that I have progressed beyond much of that style of music in my growth as a listener, but I had still hoped that they would offer something that would make me want to listen to Awake. Instead, this is the first Skillet album that I will not buy and that I will not recommend to others. So to Skillet I say: you should've done better and you could've, and remember that it's not me as a listener - it's you.

Back to the sackbut

My wife and I have talked about joining a community band, and last night was the first rehearsal we attended. So yesterday, for the first time in nine years, I played the trombone. I had picked it up once, very briefly, in my first year of university, but not since then. I was moderately concerned about what would happen if I went in cold, so I took about half an hour to review a slide positions chart and go over my embouchres ahead of time. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly it all came back to me. It was like speaking a language I had once been fluent in but had left dormant - it came back as soon as I had a chance to speak it again. And so I played at the rehearsal, entirely sight-reading, and actually succeeded in following and playing through several songs over the two hours. I am excited to be reviving an old hobby and to bring it in to who I am now - I currently play trombone, rather than saying I played it in high school. So I am again a trombone player, and I am happy to let things slide.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

There are a lot of words that can describe Quentin Tarantino's latest venture into cinema: audacious; revisionist; hyper-violent; fantastic (in the true sense of the word, meaning "not real"); adolescent; juvenile; unfulfilling. QT's much-hyped foray into revisioning World War II history is, at best, a moderately entertaining movie that leaves a lot of promise unfulfilled; at worst, it is an overly simplistic, juvenile, unfortunate mess of a movie that makes the audience wonder if he is going to make another real movie again. Allow me to explain.
QT is famous for hyper-violence, rapid-fire dialogue, unique characters, and cinematic awareness; all of these characteristics are present in IB. It is almost immediately identifiable as a Tarantino movie from the opening credits, which are presented in the form of a spaghetti western - an intriguing choice for framing a WWII flick. But although the movie is undoubtedly Tarantino - that much was evident from the trailers - it is a mishmash beyond that. QT dabbles in conventions of war satire, war epic, spaghetti western, drama, farce, camp, and romance without doing any of them very well but doing them all enough that it is confusing what he is trying to do. Perhaps that is the biggest problem of this movie: its point is unclear other than it is a QT movie starring Brad Pitt about a group of hyper-violent American soldiers in Nazi-occupied France. Call it Reservoir War Dogs, if you will. It does not present anything very compelling or even new for fans of QT. Sure, it has the trademark quotable dialogue - Lt. Aldo Raine is easily one of the most quotable characters in recent movie history, even if he is completely undeveloped and one-dimensional - but it offers little more than rehashes of themes and scenes Tarantino has already explored in a better way.
There is something to be said for the performances of Christoph Waltz as SS Col. Hans Landa, Mélanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jewish girl who escapes Landa only to be given an opportunity for revenge later on, and Daniel Bruhl as Private Fredrick Zoller, a young Nazi war hero who struggles with his image. They are nuanced and compelling, and their collective story arc far exceeds the scenes with the Basterds in terms of cinematic interest. The fact that their characters are mistreated by the director is not their fault; nor is their fault that their performances are balanced by scene-chewing from Brad Pitt, Mike Myers, and Eli Roth - yes, the director Eli Roth - who by all accounts should leave acting to actors like his doppelganger Zachary Quinto. But I digress. The pacing of the film is such that for every significant cinematic scene shown, the audience is subjected to a scene that seems like QT and his buddies wrote it on napkins the night before filming, with characters about as thinly drawn.
This movie could have - and arguably should have - been so much more. By the time it reaches its predictably unpredictable (or is that unpredictably predictable?) conclusion, it has used all of the grace given by the audience and more. Basterds has inspired moments, but that's all they are: moments. And from QT, we expect more. I don't care what he has his characters say: this is not Tarantino's masterpiece. It is a valiant attempt at something - I don't know that even QT knows exactly what - and an ultimately unfulfilling film. I may need to go watch Dr. Strangelove soon to get some real satire.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Mutemath - Armistice

I think it's often an indulgent practice when music reviewers say more than 200 words about a disc, but I think I can make an exception for Armistice, the most recent entry from the New Orleans-based band Mutemath, my second-most anticipated album of the year after U2's No Line on the Horizon. I have followed Mutemath since their inception after the demise of Earthsuit, the band that two of the members were previously part of. Their first release, 2004's Reset EP set a high standard, and their self-titled follow-up album in 2006 raised the bar further. Since then, I have seen them live twice and eagerly anticipated new material such as their take on the Transformers theme and "Spotlight", their contribution to the Twilight soundtrack. Suffice it to say that Mutemath is one of my favourite artists, and that anything less than an amazing album would have been a disappointment. Lead singer Paul Meany has said that they sought to embarrass their last album with Armistice, and I am pleased to report that, though they had nothing of which to be ashamed before, this album is demonstrates a continued pattern of creative growth and development that only serves to make me more excited for their next album. But on to the actual review.... Mutemath has an energy and a verve that most artists lack, and that comes across through the album. Much of that energy comes from drummer Darren King, who seems to not know or care what a rock beat is, eschewing the tedium for creative and original beats. Uptempo tracks like opener "The Nerve", "Spotlight", "Goodbye", and the jazzy-rock-fusion titular track are rife with that energy, as should be expected, but the real test are the laid-back tracks. "No Response" and "Pins and Needles" provide a welcome repose from the enthusiastic musical onslaught, but still demonstrate a swagger that belies an inherent energy and flow. Perhaps the best song on the album is the closer, "Burden", a 9-minute long reflection on human nature and place in the world, which includes an instrumental section that will almost undoubtedly be adapted into a much more active interlude when performed live. Of course, that will be the true test of the album - how it comes across live - but judging from this album, it will not be a problem. I just hope the tour comes to the Island sooner rather than later. Armistice is a must buy for even a casual fan of the band, and one of the best albums of the year.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The 700 Club

At the end of July, I celebrated a milestone for this blog: five years online. And now I am writing my 700th post on Life of Turner. I'm not sure if I expected it to get this far; then again, I'm not very good at quitting things before they're finished. Although I have vacillated over the years about the professionality and viability of maintaining this site, and at times have become an absentee blogger not unlike many of my way-fallen comrades, I have kept coming back to it, and here it is, still active and vibrant after five years. As I thought about it, I realized that this is the only period of my life in which I have kept a journal; in any other period, I have made half-hearted attempts to chronicle the events in my life that have not rooted themselves in habit or become meaningful - but somehow this has. And here I have a track of the mundane events of my life - some of the everyday events and pop culture reviews and random websites I liked - alongside the meaningful. "Life of Turner" has existed for the duration of my engagement(s), my wedding, my graduating from university, and my first job, and I have written of them all, to varying degrees of disclosure. I was 21 when I began; I am now 26, and my world - the world - seems a lot different, even if it really isn't. And I guess that's the point - life is life, and that's what I sought to do here: to live part of my life. This place has helped me, healed me, frustrated me, annoyed me, inspired me, distracted me, and provoked me; it has been valuable as a means to an end, but also as a means to experiencing my life. After all, Turner is not just a lifestyle; it's a way of life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taking stock

Since we have returned from Taiwan, I have been on a cleaning binge. We are continually working on projects in our storage room to attempt to reduce the amount of stuff we have and making sure that what we have is organized. I did a lot of it before the move to Victoria, but things get out of order if you do not deal with them for a year. Anyway, it has been very valuable to have some time in which I could do that cleaning out and do it well. I have also been working on managing as many "to do" tasks as I can before school starts; I know I've had this rant before, but little things can be such a drag. But this morning I took it to another level: e-cleaning. I finally took the time to clean out my e-mail and Facebook account. I had messages from when I joined two years ago that I had not erased, and a host of small adjustments to make to my account. It was good to finally get it done, and it does feel very good to have all of these things done and out of the way. At the same time, I am tired of little things and need something more meaningful to do with my time - like resuming my job. Yes, oddly enough, with still two weeks to go until staff meetings start, I am now looking forward to going back to school and resuming regular life in the school year. I've still got some work to do around the house over the next couple of weeks - particularly preparing for a garage sale - but my focus has now again shifted to the upcoming challenges in September. It was a strange and sudden shift, but I think I'm okay with it. And even if I'm not, I still have a couple of weeks to get used to the idea and waste some time on the Wii.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Taipei: recapping the first chapter

We landed a week ago, and jet lag has finally passed me by. It has been an interesting week as we have started to reintegrate into our life in Victoria. I feel like we have hit the ground running, even though we are still in the midst of our summer vacation. Since we got in last Wednesday night, we have spent several days sorting through our house in a belated spring cleaning push, played a lot of Wii, gone to a wedding, hosted friends from Saskatchewan for three days, and I have been ill for a couple of days. And while our lives here have been busy, we still have this sense of needing to deal with everything that happened in Taiwan so that it does not stay part of our past. I don't think our experience was long enough to really cause me to undergo "reverse culture shock", but Ari has has more difficulty in returning. Still, I thought I should take stock of what happened to us in Taiwan before it is too far removed from memory, so here's a short list of what I experienced in Taiwan.

- Saw a full solar eclipse
- Experienced my first earthquake
- Ate hot pot (shabu shabu) for the first time
- Learned to read Pinyin (romanization of Chinese characters)
- Viewed Chinese historical artifacts that were up to 5,000 years old
- Taught Taiwanese students from Grade 3 to 10
- Worked within the context of an international camp
- Discussed different facets of Canadian history with Taiwanese, Americans and South Africans (particularly our treatment of First Nations peoples and the relationships between English and French Canadians)
- Explored a large portion of Taipei via high-speed transit, bus, taxi, and foot
- Ate a lot of great food for cheap
- Had numerous encounters with God through Oasis church
- Experienced life overseas with my wife

I think it's safe to say that I am a different person after those 40 days (seemingly a significant number), and it will take a while to sort out all of the ways in which I am different. It might take years for everything that happened there to shake out, but that seems to be what could be expected from this kind of adventure. I'm sure this isn't the last of my tales from Taipei, either - it's just the first chapter of a much longer story.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


A couple of days ago, I had another life experience that would (will?) make a great sermon illustration someday. I was walking from my father-in-law's house to the house of the pastor of our church, and I got lost. Utterly and completely lost. For an hour and a half. I had no idea where I was, and I didn't understand the language, and I did not know where to go. It has been a long time since I was so far beyond any sense of direction, and I think I handled it surprisingly well. I did not panic, but I rested on a park bench for a while to regain my strength. I also happened to be carrying several bags of clothes and kitchenwares belonging to my wife and mother-in-law, which complicated the situation. But I kept my composure, pursued the most logical route, and within a few minutes of starting up again I encountered my wife and pastor, who had begun to wonder where I might be. I had several observations which struck me at the time regarding how this experience was reminiscent of my faith. Sometimes we get completely lost, and we have no idea where to turn or which way to go. Sometimes we are carrying baggage - either or own or that of others - and it makes things harder. Sometimes we even think we know where we are, and it looks like where we should be, but it's not quite right. In this case, I knew his apartment was by a playground, and there just happened to be a second playground east of the one by his house. But although it seemed familiar, I was lost, and part of the reason I continued to be lost was because I had difficulty getting past my own mindset and ideas. Once I gave those up and walked where I had not really thought of - along the river - people were waiting to rescue me from my lostness. And sometimes, we just need to be reminded of what it is like to be truly and absolutely lost so that our dependence on God (and others) increases. So, oddly enough, I'm glad that I got lost and remembered what it felt like, and not only because it will make a killer story in a church sooner or later.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Returning from the Oasis

Camp is now over, and we find ourselves in an interesting place: not quite ready to leave and ready to come home. We are trying to make sure that we finish our time well in Taipei, and that we are ready to return. It's a mix of going places one last time, seeing people, and a few errands - kind of the same as what it was when we left for Taipei, but with more of a sense of significance, as we will not likely be returning to Taipei soon. In the same way, we are in an interesting place in life. This has been a valuable place of transition, and as I predicted a month ago, I am not the same person I was before I came - but I'm not sure how I've changed, and I'm not sure I can fully know until I am back in Canada. A lot of things have been spoken over us while we have been here, and we know that life will be different; the challenge for us is making the things we have learned and prayed here into reality as we return and take up new positions of ministry and authority in our communities (school, church, life) in Victoria. I think it might be prophetic that this trip is 40 days in length, as 40 (days) is a length of time that repeatedly represents a time of preparation in the Scriptures (Jesus' temptation, the Israelites in the desert, etc.). So we will return from our Oasis (in the metaphorical sense of refreshing and the name of the church we attended here) refreshed and renewed and ready to re-engage our Canadian life in a new way; we just don't know what way that is. I'm glad that school does not start for a month so that we have some time to work out our salvation with fear and trembling in the meantime.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How To Be Good

I don't wish to be melodramatic: I know I have not lived a bad life. But nor do I think that this crime sheet amounts to nothing: believe me, it amounts to something. Look at it. Adultery. The casual exploitation of friends. Disrespect for parents who have done nothing apart from attempt to stay close to me. I mean, that's two of the ten commandments broken already, and given that – what, three, four? - of the ten are all about Sunday working hours and graven images, stuff that no longer applies in early-twenty-first-century Holloway, I'm looking at a thirty-three percent strike rate, and that, to me, is too high...When I look at my sins (and if I think they're sins, then they are sins), I can see the appeal of born-again Christianity. I suspect that it's not the Christianity that is so alluring; it's the rebirth. Because who wouldn't wish to start all over again?

Nick Hornby, How To Be Good, 226-227

I grew up as a Christian, and sometimes it is difficult for me to understand the mindset of people outside an upbringing in church. It's not for lack of trying – it's just that a non-Christ-centric worldview is outside of my experience, and it requires me to shift paradigms to be able to comprehend what that life is like. This is not meant to be elitist – it's an honest admission of a difficulty I face. But I am glad that I have authors and musicians and artists who can help me understand that perspective through their work. One of the recent examples I read was Nick Hornby's novel How To Be Good, which is written from the perspective of a woman, Katie Carr, who has a failing marriage and increasing dissatisfaction with life while her husband undergoes a spiritual – not Christian – awakening and attempts to drastically alter his lifestyle. Part of what I really appreciated about this novel is that Katie, after much frustration, does turn to the church as a possibility, and she does so in a way that I can imagine many non-churchgoers would – with some skepticism, some earnestness, and a lot of confusion. I think that people who are in the church – whether they have grown up with the culture or not, and whether they have deconstructed church in an emergent environment or whatever – often do not realize how distinctly foreign most of the church experience is to a majority of people. And I think a lot of people outside of the church, like Katie, actually want to like Christianity; they just don't know how. Just like I don't quite understand the mindset of people outside the church, they don't fully understand my mindset, and how even being “good” is not enough. I guess I'm just glad for authors like Hornby who can help give voice to one of these points of view, and that I can get at least some idea of what people think about how to be good.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The paradigms of Taipei museums

One of the more interesting parts of our visit to Taipei has been seeing the way in which history is handled here. Taipei (and all of Taiwan) have pride in their identity and their history, and many of the city's landmarks are historical in nature. We have visited four different museums, all of which emphasize different elements of Taiwan's history. The National Palace Museum is not Taiwanese, per se, as it houses artifacts from China's history that were brought over when the nationalists fled when the communists took over China after WWII. It's quite something to be in the presence of artifacts that are up to 7,000 years old and to see a nation's history like that. It is a matter of pride for the Taiwanese that they have many of the dearest treasures of Chinese culture, and the museum attracts many visitors from the mainland who want to see these parts of their history. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall commemorates the life of the father of the Republic of China, a political and diplomatic figure who travelled the world and helped directly contribute to the overturning of the dynastic system and the establishment of the republic in 1911 (meaning that many Taiwanese still write the year as 98, since it is 98 years since the republic was established). Dr. Sun's hall is very deliberately couched with intellectual language, and attempts to place him in an upper echelon of thinkers (ie French, German, American philosophers during times of revolution). Then, in what is perhaps the most telling juxtaposition of museums, there are the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and 2-28 Peace Park and Museum. CKS was the military leader of the nationalist party on the mainland, and was the leader of the nationalist party when Mao Tse-Tung and the communists took over Taiwan. He was recognized by many countries for his efforts in China in WWII, and in establishing Taiwan as the Republic of China afterward (Taiwan actually represented China in the UN until 1971). What is really interesting is the way in which language is (ab)used in his hall, and the images that are used. The words are very decisive and clearly indicate a belief in the inherent goodness of CKS' actions, and they are patriotic in a way that might embarrass even staunch Republicans. There are pictures of CKS with many world leaders - Gandhi, Eisenhower, LBJ, Truman - and he is presented in a very positive light. What is very interesting is that, in recent years, the public opinion of CKS has plummeted with the revelation of his disregard for many people and some of his actions, which were not respectful of human rights. So though the language still lionizes him, the public perception is not the same. That museum is geographically very close to the 2-28 Museum, which was built in 1987 to inform Taiwanese about a rebellion that occurred in 1947 against the nationalist party from the mainland. Over 20,000 Taiwanese were supposedly killed in the uprisings, which included many senseless killings from the nationalist forces - the party of CKS. This history was only recently acknowledged because Taiwan was under martial law for 40 years, and it was forbidden to speak of the events by the nationalist government (see why CKS has fallen out of favour?). It has been very interesting to see how each of these museums has brought their perspective forward, and how they are all used to uphold patriotism in Taiwan, despite four very different ideological paradigms. Now what will be really interesting is when I get to compare these museums to museums on the mainland someday...that will be an exercise in deconstructing propaganda and deciphering truth if ever there was one.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


I have always been a goal-oriented person. When I was young, my goals were simple: finish a book, or beat a video game. But when I was 12, I started having more significant goals; when I entered Grade 9, I set a goal of winning the main award for participation in our school in Grade 12 - and I did. I set goals for academic and social achievement, and I met them. In fact, I have always had goals, and any times in my life when I have not succeeded have been a result of not having goals. I was teaching the students about goal-setting the other day, and so I started to count up my current goals. So here are some of the goals I have currently (including some of my "media projects"), and compiled the list. It's kind of intimidating how many goals I try to meet on a regular basis.

- Experience one new album a week (3-4 listens)
- Read 1/2 hour each day for an average of a book a week, or around 10,000 pages per year
- Of the books I read, I try to read one that informs and uplifts my faith, and one that is considered a classic that I really should have already read
- I have started to try to read one Shakespeare play each month (I'm nearly through King Lear
- I try to blog three times a week
- I like to talk to one person from home each day (about 1/2 hour)
- I am reading the Bible in one year (hopefully each year)
- I try to watch one movie a week, and about 1 out of every 3 movies from the AFI Top 100 List

I also have some bigger goals in life that are not everyday-type goals, such as:
- I want to have a book written and tendered for publication by the time I am 30
- I want to join Mensa
- I want to become fluent in French, brush up on my Greek, and learn Latin, Mandarin, and another language
- I want all but my large student loan debt paid off within five years

So I have a lot of goals - probably too many to actually achieve. But I think the process of setting goals and striving to meet them makes me a better person, and I am happier even when I don't meet a goal then when I don't set goals at all. Every so often, I need to evaluate my goals, but it's a healthy process to go through. That's real goal-tending.

Brain buddies

When I meet new people, I am reminded of the type of people who are attracted to me, and the type of person I am. Apparently, I am cerebral, and I appreciate the company of intelligent people. As I thought about most of my good friends, I realized how smart, on the whole, our community of friends is, and how much we value intelligent pursuits. Granted, I have spent most of my last decade in university and teaching, two places where smart people are easy to find, but some of my friendships with intelligent people go back to when I was ten years old and I earned the nickname "Professor" within ten minutes of my first time at camp from one of my more erudite and well-read colleagues. And I appreciate how intelligent - not just well-educated, which can be a different entity entirely - most of my good friends are, and how they can help me sharpen my mind. With this in mind (pun intended), I have been reminded of a goal I have had since I was ten years old: I have wanted to know my IQ and join Mensa, the High IQ society. I don't want to do it out of ego or a desire to look better on my resume, but I genuinely want to know where I would fit in that community. So I am making it a goal for this year to take the IQ test and see how I fit into that world. And maybe I'll make some new brain buddies along the way.

"Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind!" - Charlie Meadows, Barton Fink (1991)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Close to the chess

In the past two weeks, I have had the privilege (?) of teaching chess to Taiwanese students at the camp. It has been a long time since I learned how to play the game (close to twenty years), and I was surprised at how difficult of a game it is. There are six different pieces, all of which move uniquely, and approximately a dozen additional rules to know in order to play. But even teaching card games like Go Fish or Crazy Eights is surprisingly difficult - you have to teach the cards, and basic conventions of the cards, and then you can teach the rules of the game. Of course, there is a language barrier with these students as well, but even without that difficulty they are not as easy to learn without understanding a number of hidden terms and conventions. As a result of teaching these simpler games as realizing how complex they are, I have begun to think about how amazing it is that our brain can remember the rules to so many different games. We own over 100 board games, and I can pick most of them up and play them without a refresher of the rules, plus I could probably do that with many other popular games we do not own. I imagine that most people have at least twenty games that they could play and not have to relearn the rules. It is also pretty amazing how quickly we can learn rules of new games and apply existing contexts to new situations; once we have played one trump card game, it is easier to learn new trump card games, even with variations. I wonder whether there is a limit to how many games we can know how to play, but I suppose that varies with how much time is spent playing board games. Just an interesting thought for the day.

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

[Note: Possible spoiler alert!] Since this is the sixth film, the progression of the film should be familiar. There's trouble at Hogwarts yet again, and as usual, Harry and his pals are presented with some mysterious elements that they have to figure out by the end of the school year. There is a new professor, and Harry, Hermione, Ron, and company have to navigate the perils of puberty while they delve deeper into the untapped reality of dark wizardly and deal with the ever-growing threat of Lord Voldemort. In this case, the gang is entering their sixth year, Harry is captain of the Gryffindor quidditch team, and the Death Eaters are wreaking havoc throughout the wizard and muggle worlds. Voldemort had just revealed himself in the Ministry of Magic, and Dumbledore is embarking on strange unknown missions.
Director David Yates (Order of the Phoenix) returns for this film, and his familiarity with the material shows in the improvement over the previous installment. This film is sharper, more intentional, and uses cinematography and colour much more than its predecessor. He knows the style, and he does it well this time. It bodes well for the final films, as he is staying on board. He was also aided by a tighter script this time around. The scriptwriters did not have as much work as in Phoenix, as the plot of Half-Blood Prince is more direct and straightforward in setting everything up for the conclusion. Still, the film is paced well, and it drags very little in the exposition. As always, there could be a few disagreements with the vision of the film, but it is a much-improved effort.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the series has been the casting, and how the cast has stayed together for all of the films (save for the replacement of the original Dumbledore, Richard Harris, after he passed away). The casting of erstwhile professor Horace Slughorn is no different, with Jim Broadbent bringing the perfect mix of wistful weariness and brash bravado to the newest addition to staff. Most of the other professors receive very little screen time, save for Dumbledore and Snape, so Broadbent bears the brunt of time on screen, and he does it well. It is hardly surprising that he does so well, given the pedigree of the actors portraying professors at Hogwarts, but Broadbent's performance is more nuanced and less obvious. The main trio can almost act now, but there are some laughably poorly-acted moments even in this film on the part of Rupert Grint, Ron Weasley. At the same time, he steals the movie in at least two scenes, so he has learned something.
This is the second-best Harry Potter movie - the best still being Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban. It translates the book well, it sets up for the finale well, and it is a strong film, both visually and compositionally. But it's just about time to wrap it up - too bad the final finale is still two years away from theatrical release.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Point A to Point B via Point G-O-D

I love how often the Lord uses events in my life as metaphorical representations of deeper truths in my life. It seems like it happens so often that I'm bound to become a pastor at some point and use these as sermon illustrations someday, but for now I'll file them under "metaphor". Tonight's experience was illuminating. We went to a worship night at the church led by a family from International House of Prayer, and as always, my experience was a mixed blessing. While I did know the presence of God, and He did some work in my heart, I wasn't sure if I had the full experience - if I had missed out on something the Spirit was to do in my life because I was too scared or too worried or too self-conscious or too whatever. I was apprehensive about leaving, even though my wife was very tired, because I didn't want to miss that blessing, so we left too late to catch the bus back to our house (a 40-minute bus ride away). I prayed that we would catch the bus, and shortly thereafter, the bus drove by...but we were a block away from the stop. When we arrived at the stop, we discovered that the bus was long gone, and that it was supposed to have stopped almost half an hour earlier - it shouldn't have been there at all. After some grumbling - why did we miss that bus after we prayed, after all? - we took a taxi to the MRT (rapid transit), which would also take us home. And then, in the midst of my grumpiness, I realized something - although the deviations in our journey because we missed the bus cost us about 140 NT (5 Canadian dollars), we got home much quicker. In fact, we were home, showered, and in bed by the time we would have made it home on the bus. And I realized what God taught me through this experience - sometimes we think we know the best way to do things in our lives, and we pray that way. God knows better, and sometimes he even shows us what we missed to give us perspective, but He has a different and better plan for us. We might have ended up in the same place, but His way is a much better way of getting there, and if we listen to Him, He'll take us on the right path. We often do not understand in whole until the journey is finished, but we don't need to - we just need to have faith that He is leading us on the right journey. So that's how taking the MRT instead of the bus becomes a sermon illustration someday.


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