Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Dead Man Walking (1995)

Years ago, I worked at a video store...back when people had to lead barbaric lives and actually leave their homes to get their entertainment.  One of my co-workers was a young college-age woman who worked at the store during the summers when she wasn't attending a strict Christian college.  I say "strict" because she told me the college made incoming freshmen sign pledges that they wouldn't watch any films rated 'R' or beyond.

Nevermind the fact that the college had no reasonable way to enforce this policy, and should a student be caught watching these evil 'R' movies, I'm sure no one was expelled as that would mean the loss of tuition.  Still, this co-worker, being a devout, obedient Christian, took the pledge seriously and would not watch any rated-R movies.  This obviously made working with her very interesting as she was limited in her film knowledge - a serious detriment when working at a video store.  And, forget about even touching the porno tapes, not even to simply put them back on the shelves when returned to the store.

Of course, this begs the question why she was working at a video store in the first place, but that's another issue altogether.

After closing one night, we got into a discussion along with another co-worker about her college's ban on R-rated films.  She firmly held that it was a Christian's duty to avoid sin and temptation, which included the avoidance of hearing the foul language and seeing the excessive violence and nudity in films.

"That's all well and good," I remember saying to her.  "But, staying away from R-rated films alone isn't going to help with that."

Our discussion then veered into how the rating system worked and how the arbitrary and political nature of the rating process made a film's designation as PG, PG-13, etc. barely a reliable suggestion of its content let alone provide a viable guideline on which to base any belief or policy.  I advocated for an analytical approach via research to educate oneself on a movie's content, rather than dismiss it outright due to the rating that some unknown group of individuals had assigned it.  And, offending her a little, I called her college's No R-movies policy a prime example of "bureaucratic lazy-mindedness" that "stifled critical thinking in an effort to spur mindless adherence to a prescribed dogma rather than a true exploration of spirituality and faith."

Yeah, I wasn't very diplomatic as a young man.

The movie I brought up as support for my ideas was Dead Man Walking.  Rated R due to a brief scene of violence, which included rape and murder, the film takes a long, hard look at the death penalty through the eyes of Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun in Louisiana.  Although the film does ultimately side against the death penalty, it does so by unflinchingly and respectfully considering the nature of violent crime and the effects it has on the families of the victims.  It also provides one of the most positive and compelling portraits of a Christian I have ever seen on film.

In Sister Helen, I got to experience a rare film first: at the height of the conflict, as she stands in a prison just hours before the execution of the young man she is counseling and facing the coldly calculated process of government-sponsored killing, she goes to the bathroom and prays.  No big speech.  No scenes of her barging into some room to confront her adversaries.  She simply finds some privacy and quietly prays for strength to get through the experience and do what is right.

This scene is the culmination of Sister Helen's journey through a minefield of conflict among political ideologies, religious beliefs, and genuine suffering with only her faith and desire to follow the example of Jesus to guide her.  Sister Helen never has a huge epiphany or validation of her faith, but she does find the strength she asks for and is rewarded by being able to see the humanity in an individual whose past actions would label him as a soulless animal.

More importantly, through Sister Helen, the film shows that love doesn't take sides or withhold itself from one in favor of another.  Sister Helen is able to have genuine love for Matthew Poncelet, the young man sentenced to die for his violent actions, as well for the families suffering tremendous pain from the loss of their children.  And, through her, a small glimmer of hope emerges, at least for one of the fathers, of possibly finding a way through the hatred and finally to some peace.

Dead Man Walking accomplishes all this without offering tidy answers to very complicated questions or simple resolutions to dire problems.  The film doesn't merely say that killing is wrong.  Instead, it examines the real causes and ramifications of violence.  And, it suggests that spiritual healing is possible in time through love and support.

The idea that a college would bar its students from seeing such a powerful film that embraces some core Christian values simply because of its rating baffles me to no end.  The point I tried to make to my co-worker was that Dead Man Walking could inspire rich discussion among Christian college students about what it means to live by Christian ideals in the modern world, a major theme explored in the movie.  And, I expressed my dismay that a college, an institution for learning, would deny its students that opportunity.

It was all to no avail.  At least at that time.  She was more interested in an easy road of mindless obedience with no expectation of rational thought or critical thinking.  No doubt the simple and empty platitudes offered by films like God's Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real would be more appealing to her and those like her.  Those movies provide quick, nice little answers to questions about the existence of God and the afterlife.  They don't require any deep thought and certainly don't leave room for the messiness of discussion and debate.  And, above all, they don't suggest that living the principles of a faith, particularly the Christian faith, requires diligence and hard work and sometimes risks.

But, those two movies are rated PG.  So that must make them good films.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Quiz Show (1994)

There is a moment in Robert Redford's Quiz Show when after listening to the stumbling confession and rationalizations of his son, a man finally says, "Your name is mine," with such stern conviction that it brings silence to the scene as well as to anyone watching it.

The man is famed poet and literary scholar, Mark Van Doren (as played by Paul Scofield), and the son is Charles Van Doren (as played by Ralph Fiennes), a key figure in the infamous scandal surrounding the 1950s game show "Twenty One."  The scene is the moment Charles finally admits to his father that he was complicit in rigging the game show and begins to ramble on nervously.  He quotes a line from Shakespeare: "An ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own," in an effort to clarify and maybe justify his choices.  But, the elder Van Doren's response crushingly dismantles any self-delusion Charles still clings to and in that moment completely defeats his son in a way only a parent could - with disappointment and shame.

Moments like this one are what elevate this historical drama into an emotionally powerful story about morality and the price of innocence.  The film depicts Charles Van Doren as a young man seeking to step out of the long shadow of his gifted father and find a way to cast his own.  He is seduced by the producers of "Twenty One" with the promise of fame and fortune, and ultimately he pays a high price for his part in the deception.  However, the film only seeks to make Van Doren sympathetic, not exonerate him from his guilt.  In fact, Quiz Show makes a point of showing everyone's culpability in the scandal: Van Doren, the producers, previous contestants, the government, and even the American public.  It is an indictment of not only television and those who control it but the audience who so willingly accepts what they see on it.

That's a very grand notion for which the film aspires.  And, Quiz Show, under Redford's assured direction, makes all its points admirably.  But, the real power of the film are those moments of quiet interaction between various characters, particularly those between Charles, who can't quite bring himself to tell the whole truth, and his father, a man who wants to believe the best about his son.  There is such real pain and heartbreak in those scenes that the statement, "It's only television," a phrase uttered repeatedly throughout the film, seems empty and almost vile when it is finally said for the last time.

When watching these quiet moments in the film, I think of those who wax nostalgic about the good old days while lamenting the current state of affairs.  I am reminded that things like the Red Scare as well as the quiz show scandal still happened in the 1950s, that the decade was in reality just a huge, shiny stone covering a slimy underneath.  Things weren't better back than - they just looked better and no one talked about anything else.  Redford knows this and makes sure it is the foundation on which the film builds.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What-to-Watch-Wednesday - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

A while back, I wrote a blog about the nature of memory and its affect on us over time,  I'm still uncertain if I had anything worthwhile to say on the topic, but I continue to be fascinated by it just the same.  I suppose that's why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind resonates with me so strongly.  Memory is the central focus of the film, which explores the pain of heartbreak sustained through memories and the lengths to which people might go to be rid of them.

The basic plot is simple enough: Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) meet, fall in love, start a relationship, and break up.  Clementine seeks out the services of Lacuna, a business run by a Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who has developed a procedure through which people can have memories erased.  When Joel finds out Clementine has erased him from her memory, he is devastated and decides to have the same procedure done.

Having no memory of the other person, Joel and Clementine eventually meet each other again and re-discover the things they loved about one another.  However, the film isn't about the reconciliation of a great love affair - that would be too simplistic and trite.  Instead, the movie, via the characters, ponders greater philosophical ideas, like how much do our memories make us who we are?  Or, if we lose our memories, are we given a fresh start or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?  And, given full knowledge about a person, would you still enter into a relationship with him/her?

None of these are simple questions to answer, but they are extremely interesting to ponder as the narrative of the film weaves in and out of Joel's past, present, and eventually his memories.  The most exciting moments of the film take place in Joel's mind as he realizes, while dreaming, that he is undergoing the Lacuna procedure, regrets it, and fights desperately to retain his memories of Clementine - sometimes to comical effect, sometimes to tragic.

When I re-watched the film last night, something else struck me.  For those of us who don't have the Lacuna procedure, what should we do with our memories of past relationships?  Should we focus on the good so as not to breed resentment?  Should we focus on the bad so as not to repeat the same mistakes?  Or, should we just concentrate on the things we can change and try to move on as best we can, however feebly?  None of those are particularly attractive choices, but they seem to be the only choices we have.  At least until someone actually comes up with a real-life Lacuna procedure.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - How One Should Read This Controversial Book and Why Comic Book Readers Might Get It

I don't normally write book reviews.  I don't know why as I feel just as strongly about the books I read and form as clear opinions on them as I do films.  I have just never felt the need to add my voice to the countless others offering thoughts and opinions about whichever book they've just read.  Oh, I do have an account with Goodreads, and I update it with some frequency.  But, a starred-rating and a quick blurb hardly amount to more than fleeting impressions.  

Maybe I'd rather discuss a novel than write about it.  As paradoxical as that seems.

Anyway, here I am writing away about Harper Lee's newly published Go Set a Watchman.  I just finished it the other day, and I am set to discuss it at a book club meeting at the end of the month.  Still, I feel compelled to write down some thoughts about it and put them out there in the internet ether.

Before I begin though, let me say that this isn't going to be a discussion on whether or not the novel should have been published.  In case you've been living under a rock for the last year, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the publication of this "new" work by Lee.  Accusations of opportunistic greed, elder abuse, and media manipulation have come to the foreground following the announcement of the novel's release.  

All of it, part of it, or none of it may be true, although the State of Alabama found no evidence of elder abuse and stated that Harper Lee appears able to make coherent decisions about her written works.  Regardless, the events surrounding the novel's publication shouldn't be a factor when reviewing the work because there are too many unknown variables to form any sort of rational opinion.  

Besides, since when did publication become a key ingredient in how good or bad a work of literature is other than to simply offer a means through which the work can be read?  If we are to start down that track, then I take great offense at the publishers who decided to subject us to the Twilight books and that Fifty Shades of Grey tripe.  Now they were just out for the money, all by exploiting the desires and daydreams of bored housewives and silly teenage girls.

So, for me, the only question that remains is whether or not GSaW is a worthwhile read.  And, the best answer I can come up with is that it depends on how you approach the book.

If you're caught up in the publication controversy, don't read it.  Not because the book pales in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird, but because you wouldn't be satisfied with GSaW even if it blew TKaM out of the literary water.  As it turns out, GSaW is nowhere near the equal of TKaM, and its flaws would only turn your skepticism into bitter resentment.

If you're set to read a direct sequel to TKaM, I would strongly caution you to put that notion out of your mind.  This is not a sequel, although GSaW does feature a grown-up Scout Finch as well as older versions of familiar TKaM characters.  It does take place chronologically after the time TKaM was set.  But, it isn't a sequel.  There are too many factual differences to call it such.  For instance, in GSaW, it is mentioned briefly that Atticus once defended a young black man from rape charges...and won.  That alone should tell you that GSaW isn't meant as a follow-up.

However, most of you probably already know that GSaW is actually the first draft that Lee wrote.  What you may not know is that the manuscript was read by editor, Tay Hohoff, who guided Lee over the course of three years in fashioning GSaW into what would become one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the 20th Century.  The differences between the two books stem from Lee making numerous revisions over a few years with Hohoff's guidance.  Those years of hard work resulted in the novel most of us have cherished for a long time.

So, what to make of Go Set a Watchman.

The way I see it, there are only two ways to view the novel.  The first is through the lens of an academic by treating the novel for what it is: a first draft.  In that sense, GSaW takes on a greater significance in that one can see the burgeoning elements of a great novel in it and can do a direct comparison to the final result.  Indeed, the best portions of GSaW are the flashback sequences from Scout's youth, and it is easy to see why that nostalgic look back became the focus of TKaM.

Personally, I am fascinated that when she sat down to write the novel, this story of disillusionment set in the then present day of the Civil Rights movement was the one Lee originally wanted to tell.  The flashbacks were meant to simply supply the background to help explain the turmoil felt by the adult Jean Louise as she gradually becomes disconnected from her father, her family, and the community in which she grew up.  The childhood scenes are clear and precise and ring with a sense of universal truth.  The present day scenes are muddled and confused.  It feels as though Lee was conflicted, like her main character, as she wrote them and yet had an inspired clarity when crafting the flashbacks.

Why that is, who can say?  Although Lee has stated that elements of TKaM are taken from her own life, I'm not interested in doing a biographical analysis of it or GSaW.  It's enough for me to know that Lee seemed to struggle with writing the adult Jean Louise while the childhood of young Scout seemed to come more easily to her.  Hohoff recognized this apparently and wisely pushed Lee in that direction.

The other way one can read this book is to view the events of GSaW as taking place in an alternate reality or parallel universe, a concept that any long-time comic book reader can easily understand.  If you read comics for more than a decade or so, you become well acquainted with differing versions of favorite characters, alternate histories, and a variety of interpretations as new writers and artists take over a series.  As confusing and convoluted as it can become, you just have to go with it if you are going to get any lasting enjoyment out of your reading.

What it forces both creators and fans to do though is recognize essential traits that long-time characters possess that are immutable and have sustained the appeal of the characters.  And, once those traits are recognized, the remaining space is open for development, change, or interpretation.  You need only look at a brief history of Superman to know that the Superman from 1938 is not the same Superman from 2015 - he doesn't even look the same - but many traits have persisted through the years.

So I reread portions of GSaW with this mindset, concentrating on the characterization of Atticus, which has been a focal point for much of the controversy surrounding GSaW since its publication for its alleged depiction of Atticus as a racist.  So, I have to ask myself, is this first-draft version of Atticus so different from the TKaM version?  What essential qualities make Atticus recognizable and endearing to readers?  Of course, the cultural view of Atticus is also greatly influenced by the movie adaptation and, more specifically, Gregory Peck's performance, but even the film version carries over certain character traits with some sentimental altruism thrown in for good measure.

Thanks largely to the film, Atticus has become a bastion of racial equality, but the novel doesn't necessarily highlight that notion so much as it does Atticus' ability to understand people, all people, and his willingness to treat everyone with respect and dignity.  These qualities are certainly companions to racial equality, but they are most definitely not the same thing.  If you reduce Atticus to those two essential traits (his ability to understand people and a desire to treat them with respect), then the Atticus of GSaW is not so far removed from the one in TKaM.  It's just that you have two similar men living in very different times, and their reactions to those times are vastly different as a result.

The GSaW Atticus offers a complex view of race relations in the 1950s south.  It isn't really fair to call him a racist as the connotation implies that he is running around in a sheet and hood, burning crosses.  He does take issue with the actions of the NAACP, and he does patiently sit through a speech given about white supremacy and inherent negro inferiority.  But, those aren't really out of step with Atticus' essential traits.  His issues with the NAACP's pushing its political agenda stem from his understanding that people need to experience social change in a slow, steady fashion in order for it to be real and lasting, and his patience with a racist speech is in line with his belief about respecting all people.

That isn't to say that the GSaW Atticus is completely correct.  His beliefs are at best racially one-sided and even condescending.  But, I would argue this depiction to be more realistic of what a southern man of his education and social standing would have believed, and it would stand to reason that the next generation, as represented by Jean Louise, would rail against those ingrained racist beliefs.  If TKaM is about how two children get to witness their father's nobility in the face of great evil, GSaW is about how Jean Louise finally sees her father as human and fallible.

However, I don't wish to make this blog entry about my literary analysis of both versions of Atticus Finch.  What I do want to get across is that by viewing GSaW as a new interpretation or alternate version of the character, one is forced to find the connective tissue between the two versions and, in doing so, perhaps a deeper understanding of what Lee was trying to do with the character.  One doesn't have to devalue the other, and they can in fact enhance each other.

I certainly wouldn't call reading Go Set a Watchman a powerful experience, at least not compared to the experience I had reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, but I am glad I finally got to read it if just for the further light it sheds on the novel that ultimately resulted from it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)

Mr. Holland's Opus is the Rocky for teachers, and it skirts just this side of being too saccharine, too precious.  And, it works.  Even when it seems to be veering towards melodramatic schlock, it manages to sidestep becoming a weepy, cloying mess.  So, at the risk of having to turn in my Man Card, I must admit to having some genuine emotional reactions to key scenes in this film, reactions that have evolved over the years as I've been able to experience some of those moments in my own life as a teacher.

There's the joy of reaching a seemingly lost student and the heartbreak when his life takes a sudden, tragic turn.  There's the emerging radiance of a student who finally accomplishes a difficult task through hard work, perseverance, and the right amount of encouragement.  And there is the suffocating constriction of politics and bureaucracy that threaten to choke those moments of real joy.  All of these are part and parcel in the long-time career of a dedicated teacher.

The movie knows this and wisely incorporates these events, investing them with deep feeling but with no melodrama.  And, Mr. Holland's life as a teacher rings true from beginning to end.

As contrast, we are also shown Holland's personal life, which begins to languish as his professional one picks up steam.  His marriage becomes strained when he is at a loss on how to relate to his deaf son since music is such a vital part of his own life.  But, these problems become entwined in the fabric of Holland's existence as he makes choices that close doors while opening others.

All the elements work in this movie.  The lead performances are superb, and the supporting cast is topnotch with a few early performances by actors who went on to notable careers.  And, I could talk more extensively about my favorite moments in this movie, but it would spoil the journey of seeing how those moments come about.

I will say that Mr. Holland's Opus does have a happy ending.  That isn't a spoiler because the real joy of this film is how Mr. Holland earns and finally reaches it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

For the PJs Cast and Crew...

To the Cast and Crew of Bye Bye Birdie:

As I sit here typing away just a few hours before opening night, I have a lot of emotions surrounding the journey we all have been on together for the last few months.  There are many things I want you guys to know, and rather than take up time in circle and since I express myself better in the written word anyway, I'm going to say what I need to say here.

First and foremost, I am so immensely proud of each and every one of you.  From the onset of this production, each of you has brought something special to this endeavor and has helped to further realize the overall vision I've had for Possum Juniors ever since I volunteered to take it over three years ago.

You see, I want the Possum Junior productions to be completely and totally the PJs' in every way possible and in every aspect.  It hasn't always been an easy thing for me to know when to step in and when to be hands off - my instincts as a teacher tell me to create a highly structured and controlled environment.  And I can't say I am always able to strike that balance between maintaining that structure with still allowing you room to flourish and explore the possibilities of theater.  But, I am forever enamored at how much you all stepped up to the plate to make Birdie the best production it can be.  And, when all is said and done, I hope you can look back and say, "This was ours.  This is what we accomplished working so hard together."

Now as for the special thank-yous I want to send out:

I personally am grateful for your parents/guardians who made sure you got to rehearsal, who helped out in any way that they could, and who are supporting the PJs by coming to the show.  If you haven't already expressed gratitude to the adults who have supported you through this process, I want to share the following video with you:

Corny, I know.  But, Mr, Rogers' words ring very true.  I thank your parents and family for their support through this process.  And, so should you.

Special mention goes to Deana Lynch and Jill Lewandowski, who have been godsends to me and the rest of the PJs.  I cannot even begin to list the ways in which they've been a help to the PJs, but I want to them to know how grateful I am for everything they have done.

Also, what some of you are probably not aware of is how much the greater community of Possum Point Players has been supporting our efforts.  You may have seen the well wishes posted on the Facebook page and other places, but it was their faith and support at the very beginning that got the show approved in the first place and opened the door for us to have this wonderful experience.  And, we owe a debt of thanks to them for that.

Of course, I cannot forget our music maestros, Liz Messick and Stacey Hartman.  Liz guided you at the beginning and did an awesome job preparing you guys musically.  Stacey took the helm and has led you the rest of the way to opening night.  Many of you have known Liz and how fantastic she is for a long time, and she totally deserves all the praise we can heap on her.  But, I am especially grateful you all have had the opportunity to get to know Stacey and learn something I've known for ten years: Stacey is just plain awesome.

She has done something that to my knowledge has never been done with a PJs show before: assembled a music pit comprised almost entirely of young people like yourselves, adding another dimension to Possum Juniors being centered around young people.  This has not been an easy process for her, and she has been out of her comfort zone in a variety of ways (a feeling with which I can well empathize), yet she came through for us in big way.  I know I tease her about being an evil, soul-sucking redhead (one of the many jokes we have with one another), but she has brought a great deal of heart to this production, and I am forever grateful to call her my colleague and, most importantly, my friend.

Lastly, I have to mention our illustrious director, Logan Lynch.  From the moment he came to me with this grand idea of directing Bye Bye Birdie, I knew we were in for an interesting and exciting ride.  And, he never disappointed.  I have been in awe watching him realize his vision, and I have enjoyed our discussions as he tried to figure out ways to bring about that vision.  I am grateful for his hard work and perseverance.  Logan, working with you hasn't always been easy, but it has always been worth it.  But, please, remember this advice: restraint and subtlety can be GOOD things, too.  Try them sometime.  Ha!

That's about all I have to say, guys.  I won't be speaking during the circle because I want that time to be yours and I am too filled with emotion to say anything worth hearing anyway.  Just know that I am proud of you and love you all dearly.  Now, let's go break legs!  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

With love,

Monday, July 6, 2015

Living With a Tattoo - Sensei (先生) Vs. Kyoushi (教師)

As of this writing, I have had my first tattoo for a few days.  No itching or peeling yet, but I've already started the regimen of moisturization suggested by the tattoo parlor I visited.  And, there hasn't been any pain, only a slight sensitivity, like a very mild sunburn.  Indeed, there was hardly any pain while I was having it done.  The real test for me will be the itching.  I have a tolerable threshold for pain, but an incessant itch will drive me to distraction.

But, now that I've had a few days with the permanent (for all intents and purposes) addition of color to my body, pangs of worry have begun to rear their annoying little heads, and I have found myself reflecting on the years of thought and months of research I put into getting a tattoo in an effort to recapture the certainty I had about getting inked.  Specifically, I've begun to worry if the Japanese kanji for sensei ("teacher") was appropriate for me to get tattooed on my body.  And, I started to doubt my rationale for getting that particular tattoo and felt the assuredness I had when I walked into the parlor wane ever so slightly.

I knew I wanted to get Japanese kanji characters in a tattoo.  Not for some phony-baloney spiritual reason, but simply because I love the aesthetics of Japanese kanji and how they make language look like art (at least to the eyes of a westerner) even if it doesn't always sound like it or have a very artful meaning.  And, I knew I wanted something that would reflect a truth about myself that would always be true in some form or another, so I chose to represent my love of teaching.  Those things are immutable certainties for me.

Still, some doubts persist.

When I first announced that I would be getting a tattoo, I got the predictable deluge of questions:  What are you getting? Are you afraid it's going to hurt? Does your mother know?  Then one person asked me why I felt the need to get one.  I kind of sidestepped the question because it was a little personal and one that had a complicated answer.  Why did I feel the need to make a permanent change to my body?  Why does anyone feel that way?

As I've already implied, the idea of getting a tattoo has been with me for a very long time.  The desire to get one started when I was finally able to feel that becoming a teacher was actually going to happen for me.  In a story too long to recount here, my path to becoming a teacher wasn't straight at all, and there were times when it looked like it wasn't going to happen.  I had people in my life who supported me through this journey, and I also had people essentially telling me to give it up and find some other path.  Both sides offered love and support, even the naysayers were coming from a place of love, and both gave me the strength and determination to follow the path I knew was right for me.  Becoming a teacher was one of the seminal moments in my life, a moment in which a large piece of me finally came back to the whole, and so commemorating that in a tangible way on my body seems right and proper.

Getting a tattoo isn't the worry for me.  And, "worry" really isn't the right word for what I'm feeling.  It's more concern because I have appropriated a word from a foreign language, and I wish to be reasonably respectful to the word's proper usage in its home language while still signifying the concepts and ideas I want to convey within my own culture and language.  That's why it took me months to arrive at the decision to use "sensei", and why I still continue to have doubts about it.

In my initial research, I found several Japanese terms and references for the concept of "teacher."  Each of them have varying degrees of meaning and different connotations in which they are used, but the two that became sticking points for me were "sensei" and "kyoushi".  Both are terms used to refer to a teacher, but I had to decide which one best fit my own sense of self without bastardizing how the word is actually used.

"Sensei" is an honorific, a term of respect one uses when referring to a teacher (among other types of professionals) and is often added to a surname.  According to several sources, one should never refer to oneself as "sensei" as it would be considered arrogant and ostentatious.  If someone asked me what I did for a living, the proper term for me to use would be "kyoushi" as the word connotes a position (classroom teacher) without the additional sense of honor and respect.  I must admit I found that to be rather appealing in its simplicity and directness.

However, I also had to consider the fact that "sensei" is a term assimilated into American English, usually in the context of martial arts instruction, and carries with it a certain connotation and familiarity within my own culture.  In short, since my tattoo would most often be viewed within the context of English-speaking America, I felt it should carry at least some significance I wouldn't have to spend 10 - 15 minutes explaining, thereby risking the irony of coming across as a pompous ass by explaining how using "sensei" might make me look like a pompous ass.

And, some of you are probably wondering, "Steve, why are you even bothered by what others think?  It's your tattoo, so what?"

To that I would reply that tattoos by their very nature are forms of communication, meant to express meaning and elicit conversation.  Tattoos are meant to be seen in some situation, and so considering that others will view it and derive meaning from it should very much be part of the process.

With that in mind, the final deciding factor for me was that in Japan "sensei" is invariably the term used when a specific teacher, particularly one's own teacher, is addressed directly or referred to in the third person, as in "He is my teacher."  And, students use the term in any situation, and so sensei connotes the student/teacher relationship in way that kyoushi does not, at least to my understanding.

Since this is the reference a student would use exclusively, I am intrigued by how it shifts focus from the teacher to the student and what a teacher means in that context.  To my students, I am sensei, one who is respected and knowledgeable and seeking to impart that knowledge, even if I would never directly refer to myself as such.  And, the word that focuses on the student/teacher relationship is very appealing to me as it fits best with my own philosophy of student-centered instruction.

I also like how sensei, although having a much more complex meaning, is expressed in much simpler and more elegant kanji characters than kyoushi.

And, so that's my rationale, why I decided to get a tattoo and specifically get the Japanese kanji for sensei.  Putting it all out there in this blog has helped me regain some of my certainty.  If anything, I've been able to express that there was at least careful consideration in the process and no disrespect was intended.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Man On Fire (2004)

Tony Scott's Man On Fire (2004) is, I believe, the most poorly reviewed film I've included in my W2W Wednesday series.  For the life of me I can't think why it received such a poor critical reception.  It certainly isn't a brilliant film, but there are many good qualities that make it entertaining and well worth watching.

The main criticism I've found is that the ultra-violent second half doesn't mesh with the gentler, character-driven first half.  Personally, I think you need the first half to understand why Denzel Washington's character, John Creasy, takes such brutally violent actions later on.  The two halves compliment each other by providing an understandable motive for why Creasy does what he does.

However, I've gotten ahead of myself.

For those of you who don't know, Man On Fire (2004) is about John Creasy, a former CIA operative who is troubled by his violent past.  He is directionless, emotionally distant, and an alcoholic.  With the help of an old friend (Christopher Walken), he gets a job bodyguarding Pita Ramos, the young daughter of a wealthy Mexican business man.

The daughter, as played by Dakota Fanning, is both precocious and determined to break through Creasy's gruff exterior.  She eventually does, and Creasy slowly allows himself to care for another human being and be cared for in return.

It goes without saying that Pita gets kidnapped.  And that event is what sets Creasy off on his violent rampage, partly for revenge and partly to find out who is behind the kidnapping.

Does it get pretty violent?  Yes, the film certainly does earn its "R" rating.  But, I never did feel the disconnect that so many critics felt the need to point out.  That is because, for me, the real power in this piece is the relationship that builds between Creasy and Pita.  A father/daughter, mentor/mentee connection forms between the two, and it is deftly and believably portrayed by Washington and Fanning.  It's the belief in their deep affection that makes the second half palatable.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Timmons Collection - a List of Movies For the Reluctant Movie Watcher, Or Don't Listen To Reamer Because Her Ideas Are Wack

First off, an explanation of the title.  A colleague of mine, Helen Timmons, is unusually deficient in the movies she has watched over the course of her lifetime.  Most notably, she has never seen Forrest Gump, a fact that makes me tilt my head from side-to-side like the dog listening to his master's voice for the first time over a phonograph.  The concept is so foreign to me that I can barely fathom the condition.

Shortly before school ended, she asked for suggestions on what movies she should watch in an effort to get caught up.  Immediately, the junior member of our team, Melissa Reamer, started spouting off a list of the most ridiculous tripe, selections that ranged from the banal to the oh-my-God-that's-awful category.  It was at that moment that I knew I had to step in and save my colleague and the brain cells she was about to lose simply by listening to that list.

I could simply provide links to a list.  I mean, the AFI has compiled numerous lists of the best movies in various genres.  All I need do is make the links.  And, I think I will do just that, but I thought a more personalized approach was in order.  To that end, I decided for no specific reason to go by decade, starting with the 1950s, and list five movies I think Helen will enjoy or at least should have seen at this point in her life.

So here goes...

The Timmons Collection

Sunset Boulevard
12 Angry Men
The Bridge On the River Kwai
On the Water Front
Roman Holiday

The Apartment
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Graduate
Breakfast At Tiffany's
To Kill a Mockingbird

The French Connection
The Exorcist
The Godfather

The Color Purple
Raging Bull

Forrest Gump
Pulp Fiction
Schindler's List
L.A. Confidential

Million Dollar Baby
No Country For Old Men
Little Miss Sunshine

2010s (so far...)
Life of Pi
The Help
Silver Linings Playbook

Many of these are available on Netflix streaming and all are available on DVD.  Helen, suck it up and add DVD delivery to your Netflix account.

Also, check out these AFI lists:
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies
AFI's 10 Top 10 (per genre)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Copycat (1995)

When Copycat was first released in theaters, I was in college at the University of Delaware.  I remember going to see it with some college friends and most of us thinking it was pretty good.  Then I saw it reviewed on the campus TV network by some pseudo-intellectual, elitist student "critics" who were more concerned about nitpicking the film to prove their superiority and coming up with yet another sarcastic quip.

One of the reviewers pointed out a scene in which it appears Holly Hunter's character, Inspector Monahan, picks a hair from her partner's jacket and seemingly drops it into a crime scene, hopelessly contaminating it, according to the reviewer.  This was pointed out in an effort to show how ridiculous the movie was since it didn't adhere to the strict CSI guidelines with which this reviewer was apparently well acquainted.

Never mind the obvious detail that it was a dead crime scene, that the CSI had already worked on the scene and were obviously packing up their equipment.  Never mind that Monahan let the hair fly off in the wind away from the crime scene.  And, never mind that this was a movie making larger points than the minuscule details with which this reviewer appeared to be so obsessed.

No, the movie was trash because of one flying hair.

Although I am not a film critic, I have learned something about film criticism from years of reading film reviews: if you don't attempt to hold a movie accountable by the standards it sets for itself, you will always be disappointed and miss something crucial about the film in the process.

For instance, this reviewer failed to see that Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver are interestingly cast against type in this film.  Holly Hunter as the tough, no-nonsense detective with crackshot aim, and Sigourney Weaver as the reserved and intellectual psychologist, Dr. Helen Hudson, who suffers from agoraphobia.  There was also no mention of how their characters' strengths and weaknesses are craftily accentuated in their scenes together: Weaver is always sitting while Hunter is often standing, poised and composed - the two are never shot together standing side-by-side, mainly because Weaver (at six feet tall) towers over the diminutive Hunter, and the physical difference would have ruined the effect.

There is also the fact that in casting women as the protagonists trying to take down a depraved serial killer, the film in effect is empowering the typical victims of serial killers to fight back against those who would prey upon them.  Instead of some macho male cop charging in at the last minute to save his ladylove, Copycat gives us two vastly different female characters working together to outsmart a lunatic and stop his killing spree.

Of particular note is Holly Hunter's performance as Inspector Monahan.  In a movie that is basically a crime procedural, Hunter finds moments to flesh out Monahan and suggest a long history for the character.  Take her first major scene.  Monahan is walking through a house in which a murder has been committed, taking in the details of the scene, all while putting on a chipper smile and speaking with a gentle mother-like whisper whenever she comes across one of her fellow officers.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent that her gentle demeanor masks a tough interior as she gently interrogates the officer who first arrived on the scene.  She picks up on the fact that he is withholding information through his subtle word choice and keeps questioning him until she finds out what she wants to know.

I don't know if this moment was part of the script or something Hunter came up with while developing the character, but what is apparent is that it is a choice made by the character for a reason.  Maybe as a female detective she has learned that this is the best approach for coaxing information out of people.  Maybe as a confident individual who has earned the respect of her peers, she doesn't feel the need to waltz into a crime scene and start busting balls.

Both of these could be true along with a few other possibilities.  The important thing is that a scene that could have been just a routine exercise in exposition becomes a small character study.  It is moments like these that make Copycat a cut above the rest.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Hugo (2011)

The recent news about Asa Butterfield being a lead contender for the role of Spider-man got me thinking about the first movie I noticed him in: Martin Scorsese's Hugo.  He plays the title character, a young orphan living in the clockworks of a Paris train station.  As he maintains the station's clocks, pilfering food where he can, Hugo searches for mechanical pieces to repair an automaton he and his father had been working on at the time of his father's death.  Notes made about the automaton by Hugo's father were kept in a notebook, which Hugo protects like a precious heirloom.

Most of the pieces he needs he steals from a crotchety toymaker, who has a booth in the station.  When Hugo is inevitably caught by the toymaker, he loses his notebook to him and is forced into servitude to pay for the stolen pieces and hopefully have his father's notebook returned.

Of course, Hugo and the toymaker begin to bond.  And, of course, this leads to Hugo gaining a new family through various trials and tribulations.  The plot of the film offers nothing new for the audience, but few film plots do.  What it does offer is a lot of charm, visual imagination, and a great love for the history of cinema.

The theatrical release of the film offered showings in 3D.  And, unlike most movies in which 3D is a cheap gimmick, Scorsese uses it to advance the story and accentuate the experiences of the characters.  When I first saw it in the theater, I marvelled at the visual feast I was taking in and got completely lost in this re-imagined Paris landscape.

Hugo is a wonderful family film in the truest sense of the term.  It has something for every member of the family from the youngest to the oldest.  You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Housebound (2014)

There has always been an unlikely marriage between comedy and horror.  Some people experience the same level of hilarity watching a horror film as they do a comedy.  And most horror films do employ comedic devices to ease tension and set the audience up for a scare.  But, I've never really seen one that blends horror and comedy evenly throughout.  It is that delicate balance which elevates Housebound beyond a standard horror film.

The film follows the experiences of Kylie, a drug addict, who isn't above seriously breaking the law to get her next fix.  The opening scene sets the comedic tone as she and a partner attempt to rob an ATM machine.  Kylie is caught and sentenced to 8-months house arrest at the home of her estranged family.

When she begins her house arrest, Kylie has to deal with her negative feelings towards her mother, an incessantly cheery woman who seems to have no idea how to deal with her addict daughter.  Soon Kylie learns that her mother believes the house is haunted.  Kylie wastes no time in letting her mother know how ridiculous she thinks the idea is.

Kylie's attitude about the unusual occurrences around the house is what brings a lot of the humor into the film.  She is tough-as-nails and world-weary and has no time for creaky floors and sudden chills.  Her response to a door that repeatedly opens all by itself: take the door off the hinges.

However, the strange occurrences keep happening, and slowly Kylie begins to realize that she is trapped in a house with something that appears to be out to get her.  No one believes her, and attempts to leave are met with derision and incredulity by the authorities.  The only person who does believe her is her mother.

There is a mystery about the house that Kylie begins to uncover.  What she finds out is, at first, pretty routine ghost-story stuff: the house has a secret past that might predispose it to being haunting.  However, in undertaking the investigation as a way of saving herself and her family, Kylie finds renewed purpose and a feeling of self worth, and she's finally able to use her considerable wiliness for something positive.

And, all along, there are moments of inexplicable humor, which lends a charm to the characters and makes their situation seem more dire.  I don't know how the director, Gerard Johnstone, managed to pull off this tug-o-war between humor and horror, but I do know it works and had me invested in the characters and the story.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Firestar's Lasso of Flame - Imagination and Memory

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” --- William Faulkner, A Light In August

"Memories are meant to fade. They're designed that way for a reason." --- James Cameron, Strange Days

I have a memory in my head that feels so real. It was present in my childhood, and I would have sworn up and down that it actually happened, that I actually experienced it. But, now I am not so sure it happened, particularly since the context in which I place the memory doesn't fit. And, if I concentrate on it too hard, it becomes a thorny, pervasive itch in my brain.

The memory goes like this: I am a small child and watching television, a cartoon. In the cartoon, a skeletal figure in a top hat rises comically into the air from a pumpkin patch and starts to dance and float around in the night sky.

That's the whole memory.

Now the context I place it in may surprise (or even amuse) some of you. When I was a child, I was certain that that was the first scene in which the Great Pumpkin appears in the Charlie Brown Halloween special. One year it came on, I remember watching the special, eagerly anticipating the scene in which the dancing figure appears and Linus finally sees the Great Pumpkin. I just knew it was going to happen.

Obviously, it didn't happen. And so, to this day, I still have no idea from where that single memory originated.

Flash forward to the present day, and I am perusing Netflix, looking for nothing in particular to watch. I find the entire series of Spider-man and His Amazing Friends available for streaming, and so I begin watching a few episodes for nostalgia's sake

As I re-watch this rather inane Saturday morning cartoon, in the back of my head I have an image I'm expecting to see. A scene in which Firestar, the female main character of the show, uses her heat-based powers to create a lasso of flame in order to subdue an opponent. It's an image that has stuck with for over thirty years because I remember thinking even as a dull-minded kid just how ludicrous and impractical it was to make a lasso out of flame. How could it hold someone without severely burning them? Assuming, of course, that the fire is solid enough to even sustain the shape of a lasso, which it isn't and something that hadn't been seen in the series up to that point.
But, as I watch episode after episode, I see no scene with Firestar's lasso of flame. I didn't see it in the episode I was expecting it to be in: "The Quest of the Red Skull." And, so my casual viewing becomes an obsessive hunt to find this scene because I KNOW it exists. It is NOT going to be like the dancing skeleton memory and taunt me for the rest of my days.

I conduct a few internet searches. Nothing. I quickly scan through all twenty-four episodes of the series. No flaming lasso. Finally, I e-mail the caretaker of a now-defunct website ( and ask him for his help. He, the alleged expert on the series, doesn't recall the scene and even says that Standards and Practices for cartoon series of that time probably wouldn't have allowed for such a scene anyway.

He even tries to Scully me with an overly rationalized explanation that another scene from the series inspired my memory.

Lying bastard!

I want to write back to him and say: "Don't try that crap with me, you lazy piece of filth!" Because I know the memory is real and not some confused manifestation of a child's imagination. I mean, my childhood imagination wasn't so lame as to come up with a hero who can do long distance assaults in the form of intense, fiery blasts but chooses to use a flaming lasso to fight an adversary. This image was foisted on me by hack writing. It had to be.

My vigor renewed to keep searching, I go back to the episode in which my memory places that scene.  And, I watch it again, sound off, carefully examining every moment to make sure I didn't miss a second.

Proof I am not crazy
And, suddenly, somewhere in the mid-section of the episode, I see it. Firestar uses a flame lasso to stop Hiawatha Smith, a character created for the series who was only slightly less a racial stereotype than Apache Chief. Smith uses his natural acrobatic skills to easily flip out of the lasso's reach, although he could have just put it out by spitting on it - it was that feeble looking.

How could I have missed it before? Was I expecting it to be more obvious? Did I simply blink? Turn away at that moment? Or, go to the bathroom?

Regardless, I found and thus saved myself from yet another brain-scratching memory to obsess over from time to time. I had remembered it correctly, and it did exist. Mystery solved.

On a more serious note, this mental exercise/obsession did cause me to ponder the substance of memory. I have nothing profound or even particularly new to say on the matter, but I am fascinated with how memories develop and change over time, how we polish and freshen the happy memories and tarnish the bad ones. A great concert you attend was never as good as how you remember it. And a moment of devastating hurt was never as bad as when you replay it in your mind. Our imaginations always mingle with the remembered facts of an experience, adding and subtracting to the emotional strength of the memory.

Time and new experiences dull the effect of most past memories. I believe that is how we are able to move through grief and loss. Maybe we don't actually heal from our past hurts and regrets - we simply gather new material to process, and past pain becomes blurrier, like a boat moving away towards the horizon.

If that is the case, that is all the more reason to get up and get out into life whenever you're facing a new pain. Allow yourself some new happiness to start counteracting the anger or sadness or depression. Give your mind some new memories to start processing, making them richer and better.
I know. Not exactly an innovative thought. And one that perhaps oversimplifies the process we need to go through when dealing with a loss. But, I do feel this is an important component in escaping the renewed pain brought on by memories and the sadistic way our minds will obsess over them. Like that dancing skeleton from my childhood memories, remembered pain can mock us with its insistence and lack of closure. And, the only thing I've ever known to help is the building of new memories of happiness, something to not only make us feel better but free us from the obsessive chains of hurt and grief.

I mean, did I really need to obsess over and waste time searching for validation of my memory regarding Starfire's lasso? Not in the slightest. Perhaps the time would have been better spent finishing the book I'm reading or doing laundry or talking to a friend. Looking back, the moment of satisfaction at finding the scene was so brief and even now, new memories of laughing with my co-workers, of an energizing cardio workout this morning, of the pretty view of the harbor I have as I sit at the hotel desk, make the memory of satisfaction seem remote and unimportant. Maybe it wasn't worth it after all. Then again, maybe I wouldn't have come to that realization had I not gone through that momentary spurt of insanity.

Still...I was right - Firestar did use a flame lasso.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Undertow (2004)

I have a true love for southern gothic literature.  A genre of storytelling that makes poetic and lyrical individuals and circumstances that would seem the least likely to possess such traits.   It's why I dig on Faulkner and O'Connor and (in certain ways) Morrison.  And that love has transferred to films, although rarely does a film capture those qualities the way prose does.

As such I marvel at the films of David Gordon Green because one after the other is straight-up pure southern gothic at its grittiest and most melodramatic (obvious exceptions, like his mainstream ventures, excluded, of course).

A standout among his films in this vein is Undertow.  It tells the story of a poor, backwoods family (a widower and two sons) living a secluded life somewhere in rural Georgia.  The father, John, crippled from the heartbreak of losing his wife years earlier, struggles to raise his sons.  The oldest one, Chris, is in constant trouble with the law, and the youngest, Tim, apparently suffers from pica, a disorder that makes him want to ingest non-food items, like paint and dirt.

The tenuous family structure is shaken up by the arrival of Deel, John's estranged brother.  Deel has just been released from prison for committing some unspecified crime, and he brings with him old rivalries and resentments.  The tension between the adult brothers grows and culminates in an act of violence that sends the two boys running away on a cross-country trek with Deel in hot pursuit.

The hows and whys of what happens while the boys are on the run are the magical moments that really make this film something remarkable.  The deep southern setting, under Green's keen eye, becomes an enchanting locale filled with wonder and creeping danger.  The characters, limited and at times pathetic, are given a dignity through this mythical quality that their lives don't provide.  When all is said and done, the viewer feels a strange kinship to these characters, characters who wouldn't normally elicit a second glance in real life.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dear Mrs. _____ - An Open Letter About Love and Hate

Dear Mrs. _____,

I am distressed today because I read the diatribe you posted on Facebook lambasting the high school graduation.  Yes, even though you and I are not friends in any social media network and even though you apparently took the posting down, I still got to read your hateful words.  And, as a result, there are a few things I would like you to know.

The first thing is that I absolutely and positively back your right to post whatever message you wish to convey on your social media pages.  I am a huge supporter of freedom of expression, and I welcome any and all to contribute to the community of social discourse created by the internet.  The main reason I feel so strongly about it is that I also wholeheartedly believe a person's words will ultimately reveal who he/she truly is.  I wonder if you realize what your words say about you.

In your statements, you complained about the speeches given by the guest speaker and one of the students at the graduation.  Admittedly, I wasn't there and didn't hear the speeches, so I have no way of judging the overall quality of any of them, but I am concerned that your additional comments on the matter only addressed one statement from the guest-speaker's speech and, most alarmingly, actually attacked the graduating student for something completely unrelated to what he had to say.

And that brings me to the second thing I wish to say to you: as a Christian and an educator, I am dismayed that you felt the need to verbally attack a teenage boy, a student who, by all accounts, is a credit to the high school, all for something as trivial as wearing eye make-up.  Yes, you got in a dig about his bringing up a particularly sensitive issue (and perhaps made a valid point about it being inappropriate for a graduation speech), but you seemed more offended that he was wearing glitter eye make-up and that school officials did nothing to stop him.

I have to say, Mrs. _____, that your statements do not reflect anything that I've ever learned and experienced about Christian love and understanding.  I don't know what in your life has caused you to take such a stance of judgment and disapproval against your fellow human beings, but I pray that you find peace and love in your life so that you will no longer feel the need to attack and condemn those around you, especially young people.

So, the last thing I want you to know, Mrs. _____, is that you will be in my prayers.  I pray for your peace, your health, and your prosperity.  I also pray that your hateful, bullying words (words, I hope, you will prove to be better than) did not unduly reach impressionable ears.  We've had enough teen suicides resulting from hate speech, and I'm sure we can both agree that we don't need anymore.  And, finally, I pray that those attacked by the hateful words of others find the love and support they need to carry on and bring something special into this world and that they help stamp out ignorance and intolerance wherever they find them.

Steve Givens

What-to-Watch Wednesday - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Why watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Well, the cast alone is reason enough to give it a once over:

Jack Nicholson, one of the most devilishly gifted screen actors of all time, as Randle McMurphy, one of the most subversive, counter-cultural characters in literature.

Louise Fletcher, a terrifically under-utilized actress, as the icy, porcelain-featured Nurse Ratched, arguably the vilest villain in cinematic history.

And the inmates of the psychiatric ward played by the best character actors working in film.  Will Sampson, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, and Brad Dourif to name a few.

There's also the score.  The movie opens and closes with the sounds of a musical saw, creating an eerie, yet playful tone that perfectly captures what the audience experiences as the story unfolds.

Oh, yes, the story!  Funny and allegorical.  Sad but uplifting.  A power struggle between freewill and submission.  Between male and female.  That offers a subjective view on sanity and dares to question the imposition of societal norms.  And an ending that will inspire debate even among the most dull-minded of movie goers.  Who wins in the end?  Is there even a way to tell?

Sweeping the top five Oscar categories and taking in a tremendous box office for the time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is hardly an overlooked movie, the kind I try to highlight in this series.  And, I would venture to say most people who would be inclined to read this blog and pay any attention to my ramblings have already seen the movie and/or read the book.  But, good movies (and books, too) age like fine wine and need to be savored over and over throughout the years.  This is one such film and should be brought out once in a while for yet another viewing.

Released the year I was born, this gem is among my favorite movies of all time, but not for that reason.  It is nothing short of a masterpiece in filmmaking that remains every bit as compelling and powerful forty years later.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker (2000)

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker (2000)

This is the first animated film in my W2W series and the first one not to have a theatrical release.  Not that that matters a fig to any of you, but I thought I'd mention it.

Something else you may not know (or care about) is that I try to re-watch the films I recommend in effort to have something fresh and unique to say about them.  When I re-watched Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker, I found nothing new to think or feel about it, other than it remains a solid entertainment fifteen years after its release.  And, it stands strong among the multitude of DC Comics animated movies, most of which have been consistent in their high quality.

Like the best adaptations of super-hero comics, RotJ grounds itself in its source material and uses that to spring forward with a compelling story of its own.  That in and of itself is what we comic book nerds really want in the film adaptations featuring our beloved characters: connection to the old while bursting towards something new.  And, for some reason, Batman and his mythology seems especially capable of maintaining a solid core while allowing for some exciting change.

Batman Beyond is a prime example of this.  It started out as a follow-up series to Batman: the Animated Series, set approximately fifty years in the future of the DC Animated Universe as created by Bruce Timm.  A new, younger Batman is now protecting Gotham while an elderly Bruce Wayne acts as mentor and guide.  The new Batman is Terry McGuinness, and he is less grim, more humorous than his predecessor.  He also has a suit equipped with all the latest technological advances one would expect to find on a Batman suit fifty years in the future.  It was a fun series that carried on the tradition and standard of quality begun in Batman: TAS.

As a feature length film, RotJ does the nifty trick of fitting in smoothly within the continuity of the series, which was still airing when the movie came out, while presenting a complete, self-contained story so non-fans or casual fans (like me) could appreciate it.  The story is indeed about the return of Batman's ultimate arch-nemesis, and that mystery fuels the action, particularly since it had already been established in the series that the Joker was long since dead.

The answer behind the Joker's return is a great reveal and satisfying in how it ties together the past and present of the Batman Beyond continuity.  Plus, fans once again get to hear Mark Hamill's legendary portrayal of the Joker alongside Kevin Conroy's wonderful voice characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne.

But, that is just the icing on the cake of a very well-made animated film that pleases fans of the TV show while being solid entertainment for those who just want to see a good Batman movie.  Fans and non-fans alike will enjoy what Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker has to offer.

(Side note: RotJ has also become just as famous for the many edits it had to undergo in order to get a pass to air on television.  The blu-ray disc has both versions, and I think either is acceptable as complete, fully-realized movies, but neither version is suitable for children under the age of ten in my opinion.  The unedited version is rated PG-13.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Grizzly Man (2005)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Grizzly Man (2005)

What is the line between life-fullfilling passion and life-threatening insanity?  Can a man be too passionate about his beliefs or way of life?  And, what are the consequences when our perceptions don't match reality?

These are the questions Werner Herzog wants us to ponder about Timothy Treadwell, the naturalist and bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers camping in the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska living with and filming the indigenous bear population.  Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were eventually attacked and killed by one of those bears.  The documentary attempts to recount the events in Treadwell's life that led to his unusual lifestyle and death.

For me, the film isn't about any of those questions though.  Instead, it paints a portrait of a man who very egotistically disregarded the savage indifference of nature because he romanticized the existence of wild animals.  And, he did all this at the expense of authentic human relationships.  Grizzly Man is in many ways a tragedy about hubris and its destructive effects.

Through personal interviews and various video clips, Treadwell slowly emerges as someone very arrogant and exceedingly attention-starved.  He bemoans his lack of a satisfying love life by spilling his guts to a bear, which seems almost comically indifferent to everything Treadwell says.  We learn that he is a failed actor who lied about his background and even affected an Australian accent for a period in his life.  And, we learn of his contentious relationship with the park service workers, many of whom felt Treadwell ended up doing more harm than good for the bears he purported to protect.

As a film, Treadwell's story is engrossing as we view clips of the hours and hours of video footage he took of his time out in the wilderness.  Some of the images he captures have a grandeur and beauty that can only be found in the wild.  But, there are moments, particularly when he interacts with the bears, in which you want to yell at the screen for him to move away or hide.  In those moments, we are seeing a man almost delusional in his belief that these creatures are kindred spirits and that he can connect with them on a spiritual level.

So Grizzly Man works mainly as a cautionary tale about the dangers of inappropriate human interaction with nature and wild animals.  It shows us a man who was largely disconnected from his fellow human beings and sought love and understanding in a world that could not offer them.  Although Treadwell is someone to be pitied, the film wisely doesn't take an overly sympathetic view towards him and, in exchange, it offers us something to ponder about the realities of our own lives.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

"It's Bavarian pasta, it doesn't need sauce. The Italians need sauce. The Italians were weak!"

You ever hear a movie line that struck your funny bone in such a way that no matter how many times you hear it, it makes you chuckle?  The one I quoted above from Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You is such a line, spoken by the German cook of a wealthy Manhattanite family.  The line's humor is derived from its historical resonance and the situational irony of a domestic talking back to her employer.

But, I don't want to bore you with my dime-store literary analysis.  The real joy of Everyone Says I Love You is the whimsy it brings to the characters and their situations.  The movie just refuses to take the troubles of these affluent people seriously, and the songs serve to punch up their melodramatic ridiculousness.

The songs are the real stars anyway.  Allen chose to use old standards rather than brand new material, and the result is a soundtrack you can hum along to while you watch the characters and their situations become more and more absurd.

As with many Woody Allen films, there are multiple storylines with characters and plot events weaving in and out of each other.  All of the stories in Everyone Says I Love You deal with love and its various foibles.  And, occasionally, the characters sing about what they are feeling and experiencing.  These moments take the form of boisterous ensemble numbers ("My Baby Just Cares For Me") to intimate moments in which characters seem to be singing privately to themselves ("I'm Through With Love").  

For the most part, both the singing and the dancing are characterized by how average they are.  Allen shied away from using authentic dancers and singers and instead had good actors just sing and dance as an extension of what is going on with their characters.  Many of them could already hold a tune (Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn), but most of them are just good actors with no particular vocal talent (Edward Norton and Julia Roberts).  

The result is paradoxically charming.  Edward Norton's unpolished voice really accentuates his character's goofy love for his fiancee.  Julia Roberts' pitch problems introduce a vulnerability to her character as she is being wooed by Woody Allen.  To describe this film is risk the idea of turning people away - a musical featuring actors who can't really sing or dance - but, to watch it is to be pulled into a silly world of people sometimes acting foolishly.  And, somehow, it all works.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Primary Colors (1998)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Primary Colors (1998)

The best satires are thinly veiled reflections of true life events and figures.  Anyone who remembers the 1990s will know in an instant that Primary Colors is not only a send-up of Bill and Hillary Clinton but also the political climate of that decade.  And, like truly great satires, Primary Colors is funny but offers a biting commentary on very serious subjects.

Directed by the late, great Mike Nichols, Primary Colors is based on the novel of the same name and purports to provide a fictionalized behind-the-scenes account of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign.  John Travolta plays Jack Stanton, a Clinton-esque governor from an unnamed southern state.  Emma Thompson plays Susan Stanton, his tough-as-nails wife, who is in many ways smarter and more qualified than her husband for the job of president.

I mention that last bit because Hillary Clinton (the basis for Susan Stanton) has just recently announced her second run for the Democratic presidential nomination.  The last time she ran, I remember how many of the criticisms she faced during that campaign were explored nearly ten years earlier in this film while she was still First Lady.  Again, the power in good satire is how it holds up a critical mirror to what we are and why we are that way.

As for the movie, one thing I've come to appreciate about it over the years whenever I re-watch it is how we aren't given easy answers about the Stantons.  Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the film that there are never any scenes of the Stantons alone interacting just with each other.  Because, really, how could any film seek to understand what a political couple like the Stantons (or the Clintons for that matter) are truly like with each other?  How does a wife deal with her husband's infidelities when seemingly larger issues are at stake?  What compromises and concessions would the two have had to have made in order to get as far as they did together?  Primary Colors implies these things are unknowable unless you are one of the people in the pairing.

What we do get is a glimpse of the effects such a couple has on the people around them.  We are introduced to the Stantons through Henry Burton, an idealistic campaign manager and grandson of a Civil Rights leader, who has become disillusioned with his current political work.  The Stantons recruit him for their campaign, and Henry begins an emotional tug-of-war of genuine admiration for the Stantons and disgust at the tactics they use to get ahead.

We also meet the strange, sometimes very eccentric staff with whom the Stantons surround themselves.  One that stands out is Libby Holden, played with great energy by Kathy Bates.  Libby is a staunch supporter of the Stantons and will go to extreme lengths to protect them.  Like Henry, she idolizes the Stantons although she appears to be aware but less deterred by their flaws.  After one heartbreaking revelation, Libby holds the Stantons accountable for the people they once were and still pretend to be.  This scene provides Primary Colors with a rare moment of deep sincerity and pathos.

Also deserving mention is the performance of Larry Hagman as Fred Picker, a former governor who comes on the scene and steals attention and political mojo from Jack Stanton.  His scenes provide an emotional weight to the movie and ask the question about what we have the right to expect out of our political leaders.  Hagman is truly magnificent in this role, and I've always felt he (as well as the rest of the film) should have gotten more attention during the movie award season.

Be that as it may, the satire and political commentary of Primary Colors hold up nearly twenty years later.  Next time you come across it and have an opportunity to watch it, give it a chance.

A Note For the Cast & Crew of Driving Miss Daisy

So, the run of Driving Miss Daisy at Possum Point Players has been finished for almost two weeks now.  My sense is that it was a success ...