Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Predator vs. Predators

Director: Nimrod Antal
Stars: Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace

In his 2010 film Predators, Nimrod Antal makes a couple of good choices right off the bat.  First he decides to completely eschew the mythology that sprang up following the release of the 1987 classic Predator.  A second film, Predator 2 (1990), a couple of Alien vs. Predator movies (2004 and 2007), and several series of comics greatly expanded the franchise, but left some fans of the original wishing for a return to simpler times.  Predators is advertised as a "direct" sequel to Predator.

Antal's second smart move is to hire good (or at least known) actors.  Brody, Braga, and Grace and joined by Laurence Fishburne, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins, and Oleg Taktarov, who will all be recognized from many other films.  These are not your standard cardboard-cut-outs-picked-off-one-at-a-time people.  We can expect more from them.

Third, the movie has a pretty killer hook:  the first shot of the film is Brody waking up in free fall, plummeting to what he can only assume is earth.  We find out, though, that he is one of eight ruthless killers (including black-ops military, yakuza, a death row inmate, an RUF fighter from Sierra Leone, etc) brought to a planet-sized game preserve to be hunted by Predators for sport.  Get it?  The Predators have gathered Earth's predators.  Potentially cool, right?

But then...that's it.  These actors who are capable of giving characters some depth and shading don't.  They become the thing that should have been avoiding most of all: cardboard cut-outs, picked off one by one.  Predators becomes a generic monster movie.  The "good" actors in Predators fail to do what the lesser actors in Predator did so well: be fun.  Predator's cast includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, Sonny Landham, and Shane Black.  No standout thespians in that list, but a lot of scenery-chewing fun.  Note the different expressions on Brody's and Ventura's faces.

Predators makes the cardinal mistake of a campy action movie: it forgets that watching a campy action movie is supposed to be FUN!  I want to laugh at Jesse Ventura saying that he "ain't got time to bleed."  I want to laugh at Arnold Schwarzenegger pinning a bad guy to a pole with a thrown machete and cracking wise:  "Stick around."  Predators is ridiculously...serious.  An oxymoron, perhaps, but nonetheless a death-knell for an action movie.

Final Analysis:
Predators:  1.5 self-serious stars out of 5
Predator: 4.5 self-aware stars out of 5

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Wildcats are Rich!

Yesterday, my alma mater, the University of Arizona, hired Rich Rodriguez (formerly of West Virginia and formerly and ingloriously of Michigan) as head football coach.  The Wildcats fired Mike Stoops (who they hired hoping for some of that Stoops-brothers magic to float over from Oklahoma) during the year.  This is, to my mind, an unassailably good hire.

Arizona is a basketball school, and always will be.  Even the year we had our "desert swarm" defense, starring the likes of Tedy Bruschi, and won the PAC-10, the Wildcats were a non-story nationwide.  Now that the PAC-10 is the PAC 12 and schools like Oregon and Stanford have risen to national prominence (and USC has maintained its national prominence), Arizona seems to get crowded out of the national narrative even more.

Let me make one thing clear:  I don't watch college football.  I went to games when I was a student, and even painted my body red for one ASU rivalry game, but a passion for college football does not flow through my veins.  I don't even follow college basketball very closely: other than highlights on SportsCenter during the season, I only watch the NCAA Tournament.  Those are the only full games I watch all year.  I watch no college football games except perhaps the BCS National Championship Game.

Here's why:  Two years ago, I tuned in for an Arizona-Oregon game in which both teams were ranked in the top 20.  My wife grew up in Oregon but went to Arizona, so we were interested.  The game was close -- double overtime -- but the quality of play was frightful: dropped passes, fluttering passes, fumbles, no defense.  Neither of the two quarterbacks (Jeremiah Masoli for Oregon and Nick Foles for Arizona), though starters on top 20 college teams, had any prayer of playing in the NFL.

Ultimately, it's the same reason I basically can't watch NCAA basketball anymore, either.  The quality is just so deficient when compared to the pro game.  I used to argue harder than anyone that "no one plays any defense in the NBA" and that "the players just care so much more in college."  But a sea change happened in the NBA several years ago.  12 teams in the Western Conference were in range of playoff qualification coming down the stretch, and had to play hard for most of the season to make it.  That season triggered a switch, and the NBA has been great every since...throwing the talent gulf into even sharper relief.

There are just too many teams in the NCAA.  The talent is spread too thinly.  I'm a pro sports fan now, and I'm not sure I can ever go back.  But for my school to get a coach of national prominence is exciting.  I hope Rich Rodriguez can turn Arizona football around.  I think it's a great hire.  Arizona football has been part of the national conversation this week, and under his leadership, might be more often.  He'll have to do a lot more than turn them around, though, to get me to watch.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Alan Parsons Project: I, On the Other Hand, Wouldn't Want to Be Like ME

Now THIS song has, as they say, a stone groove, man...

This awesome Alan Parsons Project song is from their album I, Robot, and is called "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You."  It could well serve as a rallying cry for disaffected youth everywhere, be they Occupy-ers, Alex P. Keaton-ers, or anything in between.  We won't make the mistakes of the 1%, right?  Or of the current or previous administrations?  Or of our parents?

In "The Land of Confusion," Phil Collins claims that his generation "will put it right. [They're] not just making promises that [they] know [they'll] never keep."  The problem, of course, is that EVERY generation has claimed this.  Every son swears they won't turn into their father.

I watched Field of Dreams the other night, and was touched at the end, as I am every time, when Kevin Costner and his cornfield-ghost dad "have a catch."  But one of the other things I always remember from that movie (besides "Step outside you Nazi cow") is the fear Costner feels at the possibility of his turning into his father.  To avoid that fate, he obeys a mysterious voice, plows under his crops, and puts his livelihood and family at risk.  Through the meeting of other ghost-like characters and an almost magical sage (James Earl Jones), Costner realizes that the problem lies, not with his father, but with him.  He says he "never forgave" his dad "for getting old."

Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons (the braintrust behind "The Project") write a catchy tune, but miss the point entirely.  "If I was high class / I wouldn't need a buck to pass.  And if I was a fall guy / I wouldn't need no alibi."  In other words, if I were in your position, I wouldn't make the mistakes you are making.  The basic problems of the world are attributable to others, but not to me.

It's not until we can admit that the core of us is not who we'd like to be, that we are culpable, too, that we can ever have that catch with our father that makes everything ok.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Analysts are Killing Good News

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll have heard about the allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.  To keep a long and sordid story relatively short, Sandusky is accused of sexually assaulting boys participating in football camps run by his charity, Second Mile.  The alleged incidents occurred after his retirement from Penn State, but did occur on campus.  A then-graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, witnessed an incident, and told head football coach Joe Paterno about it.  Paterno notified the Athletic Director.  The facts aren't all in yet, but it seems relatively agreed upon that no one called the police, although McQueary is now claiming that he spoke to police at some point.  The upshot of everyone's "turning a blind eye" to the incident was that Sandusky remained free and allegedly abused several more children before finally being arrested two weeks ago.

In the aftermath, the Athletic Director and the President of the University lost their jobs, as did coach Paterno.  All of these things have been talked about in details elsewhere...indeed, EVERYWHERE else.  I'd like to take a moment to look at the media's reaction to the story, and especially the nature of our news media itself, and then relate the "news" we want from our newspeople to the "news" we get from Christianity.

In a recent post, ESPN ombudsman The Poynter Institute questioned the nature of ESPN's reporting immediately following the publication of the grand jury summons.  In sum, Poynter seems to be disappointed that ESPN didn't focus immediately on the moral outrage of the story on all its platforms, saving its praise for Howard Bryant, who it said wrote "a scathing column," and Jeff MacGregor, who it said "called out Paterno."  In Poynter's analysis, "the indictment [of Sandusky] paints a picture of a moral failure of epic proportions at PSU, the kind of systemic blindness caused by misplaced loyalties, abject power and unwavering devotion to the wrong values," and ESPN should have been "steering the story, rather than simply reacting to it."

This post put me in mind of FOX News' oft-touted tagline, "We report, you decide."  Whatever you might think of FOX's ability to abide by its slogan, isn't it a noble goal for a news organization?  Should a news organization tell you what to think about an event (You should be outraged that Joe Paterno didn't call police) or simply tell you what happened, and allow you to decide for yourself what to do with that information?  Has "analysis" trumped "news?"  Bill O'Reilly, when challenged about the unbalanced nature of his show, often reminds critics that's he's an "analyst" and that FOX's "hard news people" aren't biased.  In watching ESPN throughout the Paterno/Penn State coverage, I realized that the number of analysts outweighs the number of "hard news people" by a huge factor.

I, for one, am a little leery of a news organization that relies too heavily on analysts.  I like "we report, you decide."  When a news organization starts tell you what to do and what to think, I say be suspicious.

Even if it's the church.

Because that's what the church is: a news organization. We've been given an announcement, a press release, if you will.  "The Gospel," as you may have heard once or twice, means "Good News."  It's NEWS!  The church needs only to announce it, again and again.  It shouldn't steer the story.  It shouldn't tell people what to do with the news.  Just as ESPN, The New York Times, and other news organizations need to trust people to do with the news what they will, the church needs to trust people, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to live their lives with the knowledge of the News.

People turn off a church that tells them what to do for the same reason they turn off FOX News or MSNBC for telling them what to think.  It's oppressive.  It's judgmental.  Churches ought to be true news outlets, announcing their press release for all the world to hear:  Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners!

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Stewardship" Revisited

A new (or old!) kind of stewardship letter:

As you may know, we are in the throes of our “not-a-stewardship-campaign campaign.”  I wanted to take an opportunity to write to you, in addition to the communication we’ve been doing in the Sunday service, to talk about our campaign. 

Our central text for this year is Mark 10:17-27, the story of Jesus’ interaction with a rich young man.  The man asks Jesus what he must do to be saved; a question that we all ask ourselves with regularity!  But far from talking about faith in God or dependence on Jesus, Jesus talks to the man about his money.  The man who wants to know how to be saved says he’s been keeping the commandments (you shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud…and you shall honor your father and your mother) since his youth.  He’s basically telling Jesus that those things are easy!  Child’s play!

So Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Mark says that the man was shocked to hear this, “and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Often, churches want to talk about stewardship during this time of year, and suggest ways in which you, the member, can be a good steward.  Many churches use the “tithe,” or 10% of income, as the standard of “good” stewardship.

What is important for us is that Jesus doesn’t ask this rich young man for 10%.  He doesn’t ask him for 25%.  He doesn’t even ask him for 50%.  He asks him for everything!  Apparently, for Jesus, the standard for “good” stewardship is nothing less than every stitch of clothing on your back and every stick of furniture in your house.  You can’t claim to be a good steward until you’ve given everything away to follow Christ.

We might well echo the disciples, who, upon hearing this, whispered to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  Who can be good enough?  Who can be a good steward?  Jesus’ response contains some of the most comforting words in all of scripture:  “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

As you look at your pledge form and think and pray about your support for your church, remember that it’s not about maintaining your good standing with God.  If it was, the only acceptable pledge would be 100%!  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to come up short of that standard.  It is impossible for us to be good stewards! 

That’s why we’re calling this a “not-a-stewardship-campaign campaign.”  We’re not trying to be good stewards.  The standard is too high.  So with the pressure to be good removed, think about what you actually want to give.  Think about the programs of your parish that excite you.  Think about the proclamation of the Gospel and the great things that the Good News can do for your community.  Think about the support your friends and family there provide.  Pray about God’s leading in this area.  Just know, as you consider your giving of your time, talent, and your treasure, that your relationship with God is secure in the gift of Jesus Christ, not in the size of your pledge. 

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Adjusting to Free Will: Thoughts on The Adjustment Bureau

The preview for The Adjustment Bureau was a provacative one.  Or, it was a provacative preview if you are suspicious about the existence of "free will."  The trailer simply assumes that everyone believes in free will and that an organization (like, say, an Adjustment Bureau) that would try to curtail it would be the embodiment of evil.  After all, isn't our free will what makes us...well, us?

In the film, Matt Damon plays a congressman who accidentally sees "behind the curtain," and is made aware of a team of agents whose job it is to keep human beings "on plan."  A plan has been written by "The Chairman" and is unquestioned by his minions in fedoras.  Well, except by enlightened Anthony Mackie, who eventually helps Damon get the better of the whole Bureau and forces The Chairman to change his/her plan.

In the below scene, the always wonderful Terence Stamp responds to Damon's question about "free will:"

Now, don't get too bogged down in Stamp's historical games here.  I'm only really interested in his last sentence, because it strikes me as profoundly true.  "You don't have free will.  You have the illusion of free will."  In fact, just after this clip, Damon protests that he makes thousands of decisions every day, about clothes, coffee, etc.  Stamp suggests that he has free will in the unimportant things but lacks it in the vital things of life.  This sentiment is echoed by Martin Luther, who suggested that we have free will in "things below us" (e.g. what to eat for lunch, who to ask to the prom) but lack it in "things above us" (e.g. being in a right relationship with God).  The movie, though giving Stamp its best speech, comes down on the side of free will. the Bureau can only attempt to keep people "on plan."  They have some limited supernatural powers, but are ultimately hamstrung by the will of their charges.

Funnily enough, though, the most persuasive argument in the film is in an early scene, and it argues against the film's point, and even against Stamp's.  If Luther (and Stamp) said that we have free will in the things below us but not in the things above us, what are we to make of this?

Now, in the film, this scene is used to illustrate Matt Damon's decision not to be bound by market research anymore, i.e. to make use of his free will.  But aren't we all bound by the sort of forces he mentions in his speech?  We want to be perceived in a certain way, and so dress accordingly.  Even those among us (hippies, punks, goths, etc) who claim to be rebelling against "society's rules" find themselves constrained to think, act, and dress a certain way.  I submit that the evidence of our lives suggests that we don't even have free will in those things "below" us.  We imagine that our choices of clothing, coffee, and career are free.  But think about all the sources (parents, society, friends, goals, etc) of pressure that push us one way or another.  Suddenly, our "freedom" begins to reveal what it actually is: an illusion.

The final nail in The Adjustment Bureau's coffin is an ironic one.  It is his love for Emily Blunt that compels Damon to continue bucking the Bureau and attempting to make his own way.  The Bureau keeps trying to bump him back on plan, and the reason he's so resistant is that he wants to be with Blunt.  But he hasn't made a rational free will decision to desire Blunt!  No one does!  We call it "falling" in love for a reason!  It happens to us; it's not chosen by us.  And thank goodness it does.  As Terrence Stamp's speech illustrates, our track record of rational decision-making isn't great.  Perhaps the illusion of free will is preferable to the real thing after all.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Works

That video was put together, as you saw, by Joel Walden, and is awesome.  He's made "The Works" montages from some of the works of the greatest modern American directors, including Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Darren Aronofsky.  He threw in Stanley Kubrick for good measure.  His entire playlist can be found HERE, and I highly recommend them.  Then, go watch some movies!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gospel Television Criticism

I spend a lot of time reading the A.V. Club.  It's a site that reviews movies, music, comics, video games, and TV, and produces features related to those media as well.  Check it out.  The writers swear sometimes, and are a little hoity-toity (they tend to favor artsy fare), so caveat emptor.

I read their recaps/reviews of all the shows and movies that I watch.  I recently read the review of the third season premiere of Community, and found a lot of Gospel truth in it.  Here are some quotes:

"Every character is longing to find a place where they’ll be accepted, where they’ll be taken in without being judged and loved unconditionally. But at the same time, not a one of these characters trusts that space because who does, really? The second you realize you’re loved is also the second that you start doubting that love and start wondering when things are going to fall apart." 
"At some point, you have to move from being someone who’s alone in the world, a person out on your own, to someone who is capable of being loved. And I’m not saying this is about becoming a better person. No. This is about knowing that you exist in a space where someone could love you no matter what you did, that you can exist in a space where forgiveness is always possible with enough time and healing."

The whole review is HERE, and is written by Todd VanDerWerff, to give credit where credit's due.  What do you think of those quotes?  Isn't it true that we desperately want unconditional love, but when we are faced with something that looks like it, we are immediately suspicious?  Isn't it because we know that WE'RE not capable of unconditional love, and therefore suspect that no other human is, either?  Aren't we suspicious of people who have appeared to become a better person?

Jesus, of course, breaks through all this doubt and suspicion.  Unconditionality is only possible through a perfect man who died for us.  That we'll believe.  A death in our place, too, is what makes forgiveness possible, not personal improvement or "time and healing."  The trend continues...messianic themes always break apart in the absence of the actual Messiah.
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