Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wednesday Comics: Thor God of Thunder

I have never been much of a Thor fan.  I have nothing against the character, but in comics I could never connect to him.  The movie version was highly entertaining, but he always seemed distant and pompous.

With the new Marvel NOW, they've relaunched his book with a new creative team.  I missed the original premiere, but I caught a reprint of issues one and two.

And I have to say, it is pretty awesome.

Writer Jason Aaron has set up a very intriguing story as well as a novel way to tell it.

Aaron's conceit is that he is telling three stories about Thor at 3 different times in his life with one thread connecting them all.

STORY A:  A brash and arogant thunder god, not yet worthy of his mystical hammer Mjolnir, fights and lives among the Vikings of a millenia ago.  He is shocked, however, when the floating head of a Native American god washes up on Viking shores.

STORY B:  The super-hero Thor of today is on a distant planet and is angered that the gods of that world have not heard its peoples prayers.  He goes to investigate and finds the gods have been killed.

STORY C:  Far off in the future, Thor is the only god left and decides to make one last stand against the god-killer.

Aaron does a very fine job of weaving all three narratives together in the first issue.

The second issue focuses mostly on STORY A.  It is upsetting to see Thor as immature and violent as he is in this light, but Aaron does not present that side of him in a flattering way.  It makes me very curious to see how he becomes the Thor in STORY B.

Issue 2 finds young Thor meeting the deadly god-killer in battle.  Not only is the art and action beautifully rendered by Esad Ribic is very good.  And while the action goes on, Thor narrates a chilling story about a mad Norse god he once encountered.  Even though the action presented was exciting, the story Thor narrates has stuck with me longer.  It was a very satisfying combination of visual and literary storytelling interwoven.

This all seems to point to some dark conclusion in STORY C.  I don't know where the story is going next.  Maybe time travel is going to be involved.  Maybe it is all some kind of dream or prophecy.  Or maybe the dark conclusion is set in stone for Thor as his own personal Ragnarok

 Issues 3 and 4 are out, but I have not read them.

But I will.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Monday Poetry: Songs of Experience Introduction

The flip side to Blake's Songs of Innocence is his Songs of Experience.  It is fascinating to note the change in tone and topic from one to the other.  Here is his introduction, much more pensive and looking towards life's end rather than its beginning.

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past & Future sees,
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew,
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

'O Earth, O Earth return!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.

'Turn away no more.
Why wilt thou turn away?

The starry floor,
The wat'ry shore,
Is giv'n thee till the break of day.'

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #13 - Ron Howard

photo by Marco

-Apollo 13
-A Beautiful Mind
-Cinderella Man

-The Paper
-Far and Away
-Gung Ho

-How the Grinch Stole Christmas
-The Dilemma

Ron Howard learned the art of making movies from the Roger Corman Studios.  There, movies were made fast and cheap.  A lot of his earlier movies have that feel, and it is only over time that we get the sense of maturity that we find in his later films.  But even in his earlier ones, he has moments of inspiration.

Take, for example, Backdraft.  The story is a bit convoluted, but he does a fantastic job of putting you in the place of the bravest firemen as they run into the inferno.  Or you can look at Cocoon, which also has a bunch of thematic problems (the old people are essentially vampires), but he captures the vigor and sadness very well.  Even in a movie like Splash, we find elements of maturity in a silly comedy.  Who wasn't a little moved and saddened by that ending?

His first really excellent movie is Willow.  It was a movie Lord of the Rings before there was a film version.  I remember being a child and getting taken in by the wonderful vistas and heart-bounding adventure.  Madmardigan's defense of Tir Asleen is one of my favorite action sequences in a movie.

His skills in visual storytelling took another leap with Far and Away.  Again, the story was a bit longer than it needed to be, but he infused it with a rich beauty that made it fun to watch.  And Ransom showed off his ability to create a smart, tense thriller.  You felt the stress of the characters so strongly, that I remember leaving the theater with a bit of a knot in my stomach.

But his first truly excellent movie did not happen until Apollo 13.  He captured the majesty and wonder of the lunar missions and all that they represent.  The sequence where Tom Hanks' Jim Lovell runs his fingers through the moon's thick soil is so potent that I can almost feel it.  It was also Howard's insight that led them to create the unique zero-gravity set.  Instead of having his actors dangle on wire or float through green screen, he had them build the set of the rocket inside of a plane that would do 30-second zero gravity dives.  So throughout the movie, you will find no clip on the spacecraft longer than 30-seconds.  This added a level of realism not simply as spectacle, but it drew the viewer into the reality of the astronauts on that fateful voyage.  And through all of the claustrophobia and crisis, he latched onto the human story of love and perseverance.

And that brings us to the movie for which he won his only Oscar: A Beautiful Mind.  A lot of the credit for that film goes not only to Russell Crowe's Amazing performance and Akiva Goldsmiths imaginative script.  But Howard did something very, very difficult: he showed you visually the thoughts of a broken genius.  As complex as the mathematics was, Howard knew that he needed to convey raw intelligence and emotional poverty.  He also fills the movie with plenty of visual clues as to the big twist so that you can be rewarded on further viewing.  A Beautiful Mind showcases all of Ron Howard's skills in taking us through Dr. Nash's journey and more importantly seeing the world through his eyes.  Every film-maker strives for that.  But when entering a mind so intellectually complex, Howard made us feel as if we took a step out of ourselves and into another.  That is the mark of a great storyteller.

Friday, January 25, 2013

JJ Abrams Directing Star Wars

I waited for a little while before I posted on this to see if this was just another internet rumor or if it was the real deal.  And since so far no one from Disney or Abrams has rushed to deny it, that tells me that it is fairly certain.

So here are my thoughts on hiring JJ Abrams to direct Star Wars Episode VII.

I think that Abrams is a fantastic choice to launch a new era in this franchise.  Everyone has already pointed out what he has done for Star Trek, and rightly so.  That property had be slowly spiraling out of prominence.  But he take on the movie was important in that it wasn't made for Star Trek fans.  Sure, there were lots of nods and inside gags for the initiated, but it was primarily made for people who had very little familiarity with characters beyond their names.  This was the right decision, because as fun as it is revel in the secret club of nerd-dom, it is more important to share the greatness of these stories with as many people as possible.

Abrams can do the same thing with Star Wars.  He can push the series forward in a bold new direction. And unlike the last trilogy, this will not be a prequel where he will be locked in to a solid conclusion.  He can play around a lot more with our expectations.  Just like in Star Trek, he felt the freedom to hook up Uhura with Spock or turn Pike into Kirk's mentor, Abrams can move away from what has already been done to do something that feels fresh while keeping within the tradition.

I've always found Abrams directing more akin to Spielberg than Lucas, so I feel like his movie will be the closest we will get to seeing a Spielberg Star Wars.  I hope he brings back the sense of wonder that we all had as kids when we saw first saw that galaxy far, far away.  I don't simply want impressive effects or cool visual sequences.  I want something to take my breath away.  I think Abrams has it in him to bring that to Star Wars.

I am a bit cautious.  His last film, Super 8, had some horrible problems in the 3rd act.  It had some truly heart-warming moments, but they were surrounded by massive story problems.  I wonder how much influence he will have in the story development or if Disney will come down with heavy mandates.  I also need to see the next Star Trek to see if his success in epic science fiction are consistent or if it is a fluke.

But overall I am happy with the choice.  Abrams even looks like a young, beardless George Lucas.  He seems to understand that science fiction and fantasy can not only transport us to distant parts of the cosmos, but also deeper into the mystery of the human soul.

Love Aquinasly

Over the holidays I watched one of my favorite romance movies, Love Actually.  I've always felt that it was very well written, directed and acted, with one of the best editing jobs I've seen in a movie.

The theme is that love is all around us.  And the movie does an excellent job of showing us all the different kinds of love that permeate our lives.   It also shows us how complicated these relationships can be when they interact.  The character David finds that his love for Natalie helps him re-discover his love for his country.  But sometimes the loves can be opposed.  We see this in Mark's conflicted feelings for his best friend's wife or Sarah's care for his family interfering with her attraction to Karl.

The movie is not without flaws.  It too much equates love with sex, to the point where one character finds complete fulfillment in meaningless, consequence free hook-ups.  And the sacrificial nature of love is often downplayed in favor of the exhilaration of the passions.

But the biggest problem I have with the movie is what it leaves out.  It is meant to be an exploration of all the different forms and objects of love.  We have romantic love, parental love, love of country, love of friends, etc.  But it strikes me more and more each time I watch it that it leaves out the most important love of all:

The love of God.

Love comes from God.  1 John says that we should love one another because God is love.  It seems strange that the Being whose very nature is Love Itself should be missing in a movie that claims to explore every kind of love.  This would be like doing a book about the Star Wars movies, but never mentioning Luke Skywalker.

This led me to think of St. Augustine.  After St. Paul, there is probably no one else more influential in shaping our understanding of the Christian faith.  His influence on theology and culture is enormous.  Augustine lived a very dramatic life, much of it away from God in darkness and sin.  When he finally converted, he looked to much of the pleasures of the world as vile temptations and distractions away from God.

If what I am doing does not directly relate to my journey closer to God, then Augustine thinks that we should probably avoid it.  There are so many things that I could be doing for the good of my soul and the souls of others.  But I engage in things that don't do that.  I watch a lot of tv.  I just started playing Mass Effect.  I go weekly to the comic book store.

But couldn't I be using that time to do something positive for my soul like prayer, Bible meditation, acts of charity?  If I am not, then Augustine would suggest that I am letting the things of this world distract me.

Bringing it back to Love Actually, I think that Augustine would hate the movie.  People "fall in love" but all it does is draw them more to other fallen creatures rather than elevate them to the high love with the Divine.  In fact, he would probably say that things like romantic love are bad if they aren't directly drawing us towards God.  We become so enamored of amor that we miss out on agape.

But then I think of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Thomas come to prominence many centuries after Augustine. He agreed with the vast majority of what Augustine believed.  But every once and a while he parted company with the great Church Father.  And on this point, he has a different perspective.

It must be remembered that Thomas loved stuff.  By "stuff" I mean the things of this world.  He was a priest in a begging order.  But you don't have to own things in order to appreciate them.  He loved having copies of books.  He liked learning about technology (on his deathbed he asked someone to read to him a file on aqueducts).  He loved food.  He was said to be so fat that they had to cut a hole in the dining table to fit is stomach.

Thomas loved this world of stuff.  He did so because God made stuff.  Thomas concluded that God must like stuff.  He agreed with Augustine that our ultimate destiny is God.  But he disagreed that the primary way we should look at the physical world is as potential distractions.  Instead, he saw the natural world as full of wondrous insights into the Divine.

Take ice cream.  It tastes so delicious.  Augustine might say indulging in ice cream might lead one to the sin of gluttony.  Thomas would say that the intense pleasure of the taste can remind us of the intense pleasure of Heaven.  "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord."

I know that I am oversimplifying.  Augustine did not say that the material world was bad.  And Thomas did not say that material things would never be distractions from God.  But the difference in emphasis is something that we've seen play out throughout the history of western culture.  Do we take the Augustinian view against the frivolous fascinations of our days or do we follow Thomas who said that in those silly things we can find God?

I tend to agree with Thomas.  While I know my life is too full of distractions, I also know that these things which seem silly can bond us closer together.  The things of nature can open the highway to heaven.  How many of us know people who had no real interest in religion until a spouse encouraged them or the birth of a child moved them?  How often do bonds that form of sports and movies and shared lunch times lead to friendships that make us better people.

I think Thomas would very much like the themes of Love Actually (of course not counting the clearly immoral parts mentioned above).  We have several natural loves in us.  All humans naturally gravitate toward love of family, love of friends, romantic love, etc.  And all of these basic natural loves are placed there by God.  Now these loves can be warped and perverted.  But when they work according to their nature, they can help us truly understand the love of God.

The First Letter of John asks how we can love the God whom we have not seen if we hate the brother whom we have seen?  How can we raise our hearts to the supernatural love if we reject natural love?  Thomas would say that things like romance and friendship can give us a concrete foreshadowing of the Divine.  I know that is true in my life.  The joy I take from the love I experience with my family, my friends, and my wife make me desperately desire this delight to continue forever with them in Heaven.

That is why I choose to look at Love Aquinasly.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wednesday Comics (on Thursday): The #1's That Got Away

I think anyone who is an avid collector is generally disatisfied in some way.  There is a desire for completion of sets and scooping up great deals.  As a collector of comics, I have bought a number of comics speculating that they would be either very good reads or very valuable one day.

Of course the latter led to the burst of the comic book bubble in the '90s.  People thought that the #1 issue of anything would one day have value.  It is an understandable mistake for someone who knows nothing about comic books. 

"I heard that Superman #1 sold for, like, a million dollars."
"Look!  There's an X-Men #1 for sale!"
"Then let's buy 40 copies!"

The comic book companies milked that cow until it ran dry and keeled over.  And many of those number one issues are next to worthless (I'm looking at you Youngblood #1).

And yet there is something inside most comic book collectors that innately pulled to the #1's.  I know that a lot of people get annoyed when a book they like, The Amazing Spider-Man for instance, gets cancelled and rebooted with a new #1.  It feels like a cynical marketing ploy.  It is, but it works.

That is why DC started all of their books over with #1's, even the ones that didn't reboot their stories, like Green Lantern.  That is why Marvel NOW is rolling out new #1 issues each month.  Because it comes down to this simple truth:  People buy #1 issues.

It feels good to get in on the ground floor of a story.  There are a lot of books that I missed out on because I did not start it from the beginning and jumping on seemed too difficult.  That is the major problem with serialized storytelling.  The richer and more complex you make it, the more difficult it becomes for new readers to jump on.  I always wanted to read Marc Andreyko's Manhunter, but I could never find a good time to jump on.  I read Starman from the beginning, but I couldn't imagine trying to understand it if I started half-way in.

But beyond that, there is also the thrill of finding that buried treasure.  You pick up a book that suddenly becomes rare.  I remember that after Kevin Smith left Green Arrow, they hired an interim writer to take a few issues before the new regular writer took over.  After Smith left, sales for the book plummeted.  I stuck with the interim writer because the story had a character I liked in it.

That writer was Brad Meltzer, who many people in comics know, has become one of the most critically acclaimed comic scribes in the last decade.  After word spread about the quality of his stories, demand for the book went back up, but they needed to go to reprints.  But I had my original and it felt like treasure.  A small treasure to be sure, but a treasure nonetheless.

And yet, I don't remember many of the number ones that I have like that.  I do remember very clearly all of the number ones that I could have had and then let go.  I know a lot of collectors who remember the #1 that got away.  It is the bad decision that makes you want to kick yourself for.

I remember back in the '90's Image comics had flooded the market with #1 issues of silly, young superheroes.  So when an equally silly-looking comic from Image came out called Gen 13, I didn't think much of it.  I picked up the comic, looked at it, and decided not to buy it.  It would, of course, go on to be one of the most sought after Image books.

I also remember being in a comic book story and seeing the #1 issue for a new book called Ultimate Spider-Man.  I distinctly remember thinking: that is SO stupid!  Like we needed a hip, young reboot of Marvel's flagship character.  I thought it would be a flash in the pan and then fade quickly.  So I didn't buy it.  And as we all know, that book not only became worth a mint, but it kicked off one of the best runs on Spider-Man ever.

And there are other stories like this.  It is sad, but I think often fear moves me to buy a new #1: fear of missing a story or losing a tiny treasure.  But buying those #1s has opened up stories to me that I never would have read before, but I'm very glad I did.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Evangelizers Post: Why Are We Still Waiting?

I have another post on

Last month there was all of that end of the world hype about the Mayan calendar.  But it does pose an interesting question:  why hasn't the world ended?

Jesus said He was coming back soon.  Why the delay?

This article is my attempt to answer that question.

You can read the whole thing here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Oscar Game 2013

photo by Alan Light


OBJECT: Get the most points!

HOW TO PLAY: Fill out a score sheet for each category with your choice (who you want to win) and your prediction (who you think WILL win).

On the night of the Oscars, give yourself a point for each correct guess in MY PREDICTIONS. If you get a prediction wrong, subtract 1 point. Give yourself 3 points each correct guess in MY CHOICE. There is no penalty for incorrect guesses for MY CHOICE.

For example:



If Ang Lee wins Best Director, gain 1 point for a correct guess in MY PREDICTIONS, but no points for an incorrect MY CHOICE (total points = 1)

If Hugh Jackman wins Best Actor, gain 3 points, for a correct MY CHOICE, but subtract 1 point for an incorrect MY PREDICTION (total points = 2)

If Jennifer Lawrence wins Best Actress, gain 3 points for correct MY CHOICE and 1 correct MY PREDICTION. (total points =4)

You may NOT make a guess for a MY CHOICE in a category if you have not seen any of the films in the category. You may, however, make a blind guess for the MY PREDICTION section even if you have not seen any of the nominees.

Some have asked about the purpose of the point system.  The game is designed to be enjoyed by anyone who likes movies.  Some of us follow the inner politics of the movie industry, but many of us do not.  I did not want to give too much of an advantage to those who study the inside of the industry.  Also, by giving more points to the movie you WANT to win, it makes the joy at their victory greater and gives you more incentive to root for them.


Get a group of friends who love movies and the oscars and pass out the below ballot.  

Figure out a nominal prize to give out to the one with the most points.

Choose one person to be the ballot keeper.

Add up the points on Oscar night and crown a winner.

I hope you all enjoy!



























Here is a complete list of the nominees:

Best Picture
Best Actor in a Leading Role
Daniel Day-Lewis -- "Lincoln"
Bradley Cooper -- "Silver Linings Playbook"
Joaquin Phoenix -- "The Master"
Denzel Washington -- "Flight"
Hugh Jackman -- "Les Miserables"
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Jessica Chastain -- "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jennifer Lawrence -- "Silver Linings Playbook"
Emmanuelle Riva -- "Amour"
Quvenzhane Wallis -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Naomi Watts -- "The Impossible"
Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Philip Seymour Hoffman -- "The Master"
Tommy Lee Jones -- "Lincoln"
Robert De Niro -- "Silver Linings Playbook"
Alan Arkin -- "Argo"
Christoph Waltz -- "Django Unchained"
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams -- "The Master"
Anne Hathaway -- "Les Miserables"
Sally Field -- "Lincoln"
Helen Hunt -- "The Sessions"
Jacki Weaver -- "Silver Linings Playbook"
Best Director
Michael Haneke -- "Amour"
Steven Spielberg -- "Lincoln"
David O. Russell -- "Silver Linings Playbook"
Ang Lee -- "Life of Pi"
Benh Zeitlin -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Best Animated Feature

Best Animated Short Film
Best Live Action Short Film
"Buzkashi Boys"
"Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)"
Best Cinematography
Seamus McGarvey -- "Anna Karenina"
Claudio Miranda -- "Life of Pi"
Roger Deakins -- "Skyfall"
Robert Richardson -- "Django Unchained"
Janusz Kaminski -- "Lincoln"
Best Costume Design
Jacqueline Durran -- "Anna Karenina"
Paco Delgado -- "Les Miserables"
Joanna Johnston -- "Lincoln"
Eiko Ishioka -- "Mirror Mirror"
Colleen Atwood -- "Snow White and the Huntsman"
Best Documentary Feature
Best Documentary Short
Best Film Editing
William Goldberg -- "Argo"
Michael Kahn -- "Lincoln"
Tim Squyres -- "Life of Pi"
Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg -- "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers -- "Silver Linings Playbook"
Best Foreign Language Film
"A Royal Affair" 
"War Witch"
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
"Les Miserables"
Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat -- "Argo"
Dario Marianelli -- "Anna Karenina"
Mychael Danna -- "Life of Pi"
John Williams-- "Lincoln"
Thomas Newman -- "Skyfall"
Best Original Song
"Before My Time" from "Chasing Ice" --  Music and Lyric by J. Ralph
"Suddenly" from "Les Miserables" -- Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil
"Skyfall" from "Skyfall" -- Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
"Pi's Lullaby" from "Life of Pi" -- Music by Mychael Danna; Lyric by Bombay Jayashri
"Everybody Needs a Best Friend" from "Ted" -- Music by Walter Murphy; Lyric by Seth MacFarlane
Best Production Design
Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer -- "Anna Karenina"
David Gropman and Anna Pinnock -- "Life of Pi"
Rick CarterJim Erickson and Peter T. Frank -- "Lincoln"
Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson -- "Les Miserables"
Dan HennahRa Vincent and Simon Bright -- "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Best Sound Editing
"Life of Pi"
"Django Unchained"
"Zero Dark Thirty"
Best Sound Mixing
"Les Miserables"
"Life of Pi"
Best Visual Effects
"Marvel's The Avengers"
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
"Life of Pi"
"Snow White and the Huntsman"
Best Adapted Screenplay
Tony Kushner -- "Lincoln"
Chris Terrio -- "Argo"
David O. Russell -- "Silver Linings Playbook"
David Magee -- "Life of Pi"
Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar -- "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Best Original Screenplay
Mark Boal -- "Zero Dark Thirty"
Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola -- "Moonrise Kingdom"
Michael Hakeke -- "Amour"
Quentin Tarentino -- "Django Unchained"
John Gatins -- "Flight"


BEST DIRECTOR Steven Spielberg - LINCOLN Steven Spielberg - LINCOLN

Quentin Tarantino – DJANGO UNCHAINED





Thoughts on MLK Day

I just have a few random thoughts on the secular feast of Martin Luther King.

As cliche as it sounds, I still marvel at his I Have A Dream speech.  It is a marvel of rhetoric and too many people have tried to imitate with its lofty rhetoric and his echoing voice.

I have always held his principle of a Color Blind Society as the true end goal of the Civil Rights Movement.  Anything which seeks to sub-divide us by race is antithetical to the American Dream.

My father began working with American doctors at Clarke Air Base in the Philippines.  I once asked him at dinner if he ever experienced racism from the white doctors there.  He he gave a little shrug and said "Sure," and then continued eating.  When I asked him how he handled it, he said, "I worked harder than anyone to be the best doctor there so that they knew to respect me."

To me, that is best way to fight back against racial bigots.  Success is the best victory.  But that only comes with hard work and perseverance.  My dad had no chip on his shoulder over ill treatment.  He figured you're going to get stupid people in life.  The only thing to do is be excellent.

On a lighter note, there is a reason beyond his importance that MLK is revered today as a secular saint. Ask any school child about him, and they will say that he is a great man.  How do children know this intuitively?  Because they get the day off of school because of him.

Ask them who the greatest presidents are and they will say Washington and Lincoln?  They get a day off of school because of them too.

You can imagine how important Jesus is: you get 3 weeks off because of Him.  He must have been great!

Monday Poetry: The Divine Image

Keeping with last week's entry from William Blake's Songs of Innocence, here is his poem about the Divine image in all of us.

This is particularly important for me since, I begin many of my classes by asking my students, "Tu es quid?" ("What are you?")  to which they respond "Factus sum in imagionem Dei."  ("I am made in the image of God.")

And while the last stanza may sound a bit politically incorrect, it is actually a wonderful call for charity in his day.

The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
An to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every dime
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew;
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #14 - Rob Reiner

photo by Franz Richter

-The Princess Bride
-A Few Good Men
-When Harry Met Sally
-This is Spinal Tap
-Stand By Me
-Alex and Emma

-The American President
-The Bucket List

The thing that surprises me about Rob Reiner is how many excellent movies he has made.  Not only that, but they are so varied in type and tone.  It amazes me that the maker of the Misery also made The Princess Bride.

Reiner is not known to be showy in his approach to directing.  He takes what I would call the invisible approach, where he uses his skill to wrap you so much in the story that you don't realize the effect the directing is having on your emotions.

He deserves a lot of credit with making the comedy mockumentary what it is today with This is Spinal Tap.  Every movie and TV show that uses this format owes a lot to the pioneering vision of Reiner, who figured out how to make everything in the film feel like a documentary while giving it the intense absurdity of a screwball comedy.  He gets his actors to take the amazingly self serious tone that people who are subjects of documentaries have.  Look at how he gets Christopher Guest to look almost offended when asked why is 11 amp is different than other amps.

In Stand By Me, Reiner captures those last days of innocence before high school, when you are still a kid.  He got his actors to walk that fine line between childishness and the onset of maturity.  All the while he makes this woodland trek, with its horrible destination, filled with visual wonder and nostalgia.  Very few movies capture so well that very specific time of life with those types of friendships.

When Harry Met Sally gets a lot of its acclaim from Nora Ephron's witty script and the chemistry between leads Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.  But he takes this R-Rated story (for those who don't remember, the dialogue gets pretty raunchy), and makes it feel lighter than it actually is.  The movie deals with a lot of dark subjects: depression, divorce, infidelity, etc.  But in the last magical moments, he lets us feel Harry's desperation as he races to let his life begin.

One of his best directing efforts, though, was A Few Good Men.  Aaron Sorkin's script is so powerful, but Reiner really brought his A-game to this court room drama.  Go back and watch his subtle manipulation of the camera in that final confrontation with Col. Jessup.  As he walks in, the low angles make him feel like a giant, untouchable and fearsome.  And on the witness stand Reiner makes him still feel imposing on the entire room (not an easy thing to do with someone sitting in a chair for 10 minutes).  But then watch the visual tables turn until the very end of the interrogation and watch how he has been diminished visually.  It is powerful and, again, invisible.

But his boldest accomplishment is The Princess Bride.  I have read the original novel, and it is cynical and snarky book.  Reiner could have easily taken that route with the story, doing a satire of fairy tales.  But he instead wanted to unlock the secret of the stories we tell children.  The framing of the story of a grandfather reading the book to his grandson is not incidental to the movie; it is the whole point of the movie.  The stories we heard as a child are a bit silly, but never cynical.  And the ones that were shared with us by those who love us are the most important.  Reiner fully commits to the odd tone of the film, part swashbuckling adventure, part slapstick comedy, part revenge epic, part true romance.  And it all fits together perfectly because Reiner understood that the common thread through all the stories was sincerity.  It is hard to depict that kind of earnestness without appearing unintelligent.  But Reiner wove a magical story together perfectly.

Invisible directing can often lead to directors being overlooked for their craft.  But by looking at the sheer number of good films he's made, Reiner has shown that he knows how to make good art.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

DVD Review: Liberal Arts

There are some movies that restore your faith in independent films.  Liberal Arts is one of them.

This is the sophomore effort of writer, director, and star Josh Radnor (best known for his role as Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother).  His first film, Happythankyoumoreplease, was fine but forgettable.  But whatever mistakes he made there he learned from to make his next movie.

Liberal Arts centers around Jesse Fisher (Radnor).  He works in college admissions for a NYC university.  He is bored in his job, has been dumped by his girlfriend, and has lost his affection for the Big Apple.  But then his old college professor Peter (Richard Jenkins) invites him to his retirement party.  Eager to get out of the city, he goes to an idyllic college campus to see is friend.  But there he meets Zibby (an amazing Elizabeth Olson), a 19-year-old Sophomore with the 35-year-old Jesse.  Their friendship is clearly filled with mutual attraction and the rest of the film explores the possibility of romance filling this 16-year gap.

This movie could have easily been a silly comedy about aging hipsters finding hot young chicks.  But Radnor wisely doesn't do that.  The script works so well because it understands bot Jesse's and Zibby's worlds.  Jesse has been beaten down by life and Zibby brings him a sense of rejuvenation, even in how he looks at music and NYC.  She lives life by her Improv Class ethic: say yes to everything.  And Zibby sees in Jesse an emotional maturity and worldly experience that she finds lacking in all other boys her age.

And yet that is also the main obstacle to their closeness.  Jesse is young enough and Zibby is mature enough for the potential romance to not come off as too creepy, so that is not the problem.  The issue is life experience.  Zibby looks at the world the way she does because she has only experienced college life and not "the real world."  And this is a bigger problem than you might think.

Radnor's script is an excellent mediation on college life from someone who has moved on.  At first it seems like he idealizes it.  He moves you from the drab and claustrophobic city to the clean, green lawns of college.  He talks about how awesome this time of life is: "You can read books because you want to...  You can tell people you're a poet and they won't punch you in the face."

But the more time he spends there, Radnor reminds us that college is like a bridge: it is a place to pass through, not a place to stay.  A liberal arts education has stunted some of his masculinity and given him a "gooey heart."  He lacks a lot of forward direction and assertiveness, which comes from the fact that college is not the real world.  Peter, once retired, has no idea how to function well because he spent all his time in academia.

A script in an independent movie like this often tries to make itself stand out by attempting dialogue that is profound and insightful.  And surprisingly, Radnor succeeds.  When Peter finds out about Jesse's amorous intentions towards Zibby, the old retiring professor says that "You know how old I feel?  19. But I'm not 19.  That's life's dirty little secret: no one feels like an adult."  When confronted with a difficult moral choice, someone tells Jesse that he's just letting guilt get in the way.  He responds "If you feel guilt before you do something, it's called 'morality.'"

And I do have to say that when the issue of sex comes up, it is handled with more maturity and care than most Hollywood movies around (of course later in the movie, this point is trampled on).  But in the scene where the characters have to talk about sex and its emotional consequences, it does so with some insight I did not expect.

The performances are also fantastic.  Elizabeth Olsen should have been nominated for something.  One of the reasons the chemistry between the 2 main characters works so well is that she speaks like an old soul in a young frame.  She stands out from her peers.  But she never lets you forget the shortcomings of her youth.  Every scene she is in is filled with her charisma.  And Radnor ups his game by working with her.  There is a scene at the exact center of the movie between the two of them that made me laugh so hard, I had to stop the DVD.  And it worked so well because of how each of them played off of each other.  Jenkins is also very good in his achingly lonely Peter whose closest friend is a former student who graduated years ago.  Allison Janey also does a nice turn as a heartless professor of the Romantic poetry and Zac Effron as a mysterious stranger.

The film does veer into some unnecessary sub-plots that feel a little forced.  I did check out the deleted scenes and Radnor was very smart to cut out an entire supporting character from the movie in order to streamline the story.  And at the beginning of the movie, when Peter begins to idealize his early days and semi-communist leanings, I was prepared for class warfare diatribe that never manifested.  Liberal Arts never gets preachy.  It lets you spend time with this 3-dimensional characters and lets you decide if they made the right decisions about life.

When the movie was finished I found myself moved and delighted.  It sounds condescending to say that it was "nice" movie.  But how pleasant it is to spend 90 minutes enjoying a nice story.

4 out of 5 stars