Year: 2009

Best Films of the 2000s

The Lives of Others (2006) – A German film about a surveillance expert who spies on a playwright in Communist Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign film at the Oscars and for good reason. Unbearably suspenseful and surprisingly moving, The Lives of Others shows that the best films don’t always come from Hollywood.

Memento (2000) – The woefully underrated and underused Guy Pearce stars as a detective who searches for his wife’s killer after losing his short-term memory. The film plays out in reverse, revealing the story piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle. Gimmicky to some, the premise demands your attention the more you watch this masterfully chaotic film. Repeated viewings required.

WALL-E (2008) – Of all the post-apocalyptic films I’ve seen, WALL-E is by far the cutest. Two robots—a clunky trash-compactor and a sleek land-rover—meet by chance and fall in robot love? It’s a match made in Pixar heaven. From the skillfully rendered 20-minute wordless opening sequence to WALL-E and Eve’s beautiful ballet in space, WALL-E is animation at its best.

Once (2007) – Boy meets girl. The concept has been overdone, but in Once it’s taken back to basics with two Irish musicians who meet and make beautiful music together and become companions fighting against loneliness. A musical in the most unorthodox way, the deceptively simple songs anchor what is one of the most uplifting and honest love stories I’ve ever seen.

Unbreakable (2000) – Most people prefer writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 mega-hit The Sixth Sense but Unbreakable is surely the superior work, if only for its restrained pace and fascinating characters. Subtly structured in the classic comic book superhero frame, everything in the film from the color palette to the redemptive love story makes Unbreakable perhaps the most underrated film of the decade.

Zodiac (2007) – Paranoia and dread permeate this noir thriller from director David Finch about the Zodiac killer of 1970s San Francisco. Based on the book by a cartoonist who tried to solve the murders, Zodiac represents the best in boiler-plate drama with its slow-building tension, superb ensemble acting, and stunning camera work. There’s no happy ending, but there’s no film like it.

In America (2002) – An overlooked film from director Jim Sheridan, In America features an Irish family newly immigrated to New York City drudging through the trials and tribulations of living in near-poverty. Told through the 10-year-old daughter’s point of view, In America shows a family fighting against tragedy and heartache and sticking together throughout it all.

High Fidelity (2000) – John Cusask is Rob Gordon, music snob and man in crisis. After his latest relationship ends, Rob catalogs his five biggest break-ups and the music that guided him through them. Underscored by a top-notch soundtrack, High Fidelity spotlights the vulnerability that stews beneath masculine hubris. Bonus points for the Bruce Springsteen cameo.

Children of Men (2006) – In a not-so-far-fetched future, the terror-wracked world in Children of Men is in chaos after women become completely infertile. Clive Owen plays a world-weary has-been who reluctantly escorts the only pregnant girl on Earth to safety. Featuring groundbreaking cinematography, Children of Men manages to inspire a ray of hope in the darkest of places.

Almost Famous (2000) – A semiautobiographical work from writer-director Cameron Crowe, this 1970s coming of age tale of a teen rock writer who goes on the road with an up-and-coming rock band is funny and serious, nostalgic and brutally honest. Patrick Fugit shines as the boyish protagonist who enters a world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll and comes out the other end a new person.

The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – While Return of the King proved a satisfying conclusion to a grand trilogy, Fellowship of the Ring remains the stand-out installment for its sweeping scope and emotional core. A game-changer in every way, everything from its breathtaking locales to the expertly created creatures makes Fellowship the new standard for the cinematic epic.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Sorry, Crash; Brokeback Mountain was the best film of 2005 and one of the best of the decade. Against stunning Western vistas and an elegant score, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger help turn the “gay cowboy movie” cliché into a tragic and somber requiem of a dream deferred. Forget the Joker; Ledger as Ennis del Mar is the best performance of his short career.

A History of Violence (2005) – The only think more enigmatic than the title is the film itself, a profound meditation on violence disguised as a family drama and gangster movie. Viggo Mortensen proves a wonderfully complex character struggling to maintain his identity in spite of himself, while Maria Bello plays the supportive wife stuck in the middle of it all.

Casino Royale (2006) – For the last few Bond movies, James Bond was a joke. But with Casino Royale, nobody’s laughing at him anymore. Daniel Craig, the best Bond ever, turned him back into a fist-wielding badass with class, and Eva Green’ Vesper Lynd proves a sultry Bond girl who won Bond’s heart against his better judgment. Add to that exciting chases and poker games and you’ve got a Bond movie worth watching.

Into Great Silence (2005) – This is a film nobody saw but should. A German documentary about the monks who live at the Blank Monastery in France, there is hardly any talking at all for the almost 3-hour run time  instead, we get to watch what the monks do every day, which is, for 6 days a week, live simple lives in complete silence. It’s an exercise in patience, but very rewarding and immensely gratifying to the soul.

The Best of the Rest

No Country for Old Men (2007), Finding Nemo (2003), Grizzly Man (2005), United 93 (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Minority Report (2002), Stranger than Fiction (2006), Half Nelson (2006), Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), The Squid and the Whale (2007)

Breaking News: Jesus Christ Registers As A Republican

BREAKING NEWS: Jesus Christ registers as a Republican

GOP officially God’s Own Party

In a move sure to spark endless debate, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world, has declared himself a Republican.

“I’ve been a moderate for most of eternity,” said Christ, speaking at a press conference. “But lately, Barack Obama’s choices regarding the economy, the wars, and health care reform have disappointed me. I had to take a stand. So I’m registering as a Republican.”

When asked which specific policies most attracted him to the Republican Party, Christ was clear.

“The GOP’s stand against abortion and gay marriage is fine, I guess,” He said, “but I’m more interested in their support for trickle-down economics. It’s important to have an economic policy that benefits only the superrich and keeps disenfranchised people from escaping the perpetual downward spiral that poverty creates.”
Christ expressed support for reinstating the Bush tax cuts and making the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy permanent.

“I don’t care much for the gays, OK?” He said. “I just don’t want to deal with them.”

He also vocalized opposition to the Obama-led health care reform.

“The fact that the Democrats want to provide health insurance for everyone and not just those who can afford the sinfully high premiums…that just makes me sick,” said Christ. “Free, unregulated markets should decide if people live or die and not liberal bureaucrats.”

Christ also argued for continued U.S. presence in the Middle East.

“Clearly preemptive war is necessarily,” He said. “I thank God for Dick Cheney and George W. Bush for pushing the country into unnecessary war and keeping us there.”

The Lamb of God’s choice to align himself with Republican principles was met with praise from the nation’s conservative leaders.

“The fact that Jesus Christ is now officially a Republican shows us that God is definitely on our side,” said Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Listen up, Democrats: God does not want you to pass health care reform. Seriously, just ask him.”

“Hallelujah!” proclaimed James Dobson, founder of the Christian group Focus on the Family, on his radio show. “Jesus Christ is a shoe-in for Republican nominee for president in 2012. Jesus Christ and Sarah Palin. Now that’s a dynamic ticket.”

Asked about sharing a presidential ticket with the King of Kings, the former governor of Alaska was enthusiastic.

“Gosh, you betcha I’d like Jesus on my ticket,” Palin said. “He’d make a heckuva vice-president, that’s for sure.”

Not all conservatives welcomed Christ’s move to the GOP. Glenn Beck, a FOX News commentator, expressed concern about the Lord’s background.

“Look at the people he hangs out with,” said Beck. “Prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers—I don’t want my Savior or my president palling around with such seedy people.”

“He may be the Son of God,” said Rush Limbaugh, a popular radio host, “but he’s an illegitimate child, he’s from the Middle East, and preaches against free-market capitalism. If he isn’t a terrorist spreading communist propaganda, I don’t know who is.”

Limbaugh added: “Barack Obama, maybe.”

Sources inside Christ’s inner circle claim he will soon form an exploratory committee for a possible run for president. What would the Son of Man’s platform look like?

“Definitely cuts in welfare for the poor,” said Christ. “It’s a wasteful program. I’d also like to see increased spending on nuclear weapons and relaxed regulation of Wall Street banks. But none of those things will happen with that Obama in the White House.

“Stupid Obama,” he added.

Disney, Pixar, And The Golden Age of Animation

Published in the North Central Chronicle in  September 2009.

Everyone has a favorite animated movie. I’m a Toy Story man myself. But no matter which film you prefer, it’s clear that our generation—the Millennials, born between 1983 and 2000—has been the most spoiled in history in terms of the animated films we’ve grown up watching.

The first phase of the most recent golden age of animation began unofficially in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. The film was Disney’s reentry into relevance after decades of forgettable material. It was a box-office smash, spawning merchandise like nobody’s business and charming young girls worldwide, making them Disney customers for life.

After The Little Mermaid came Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin the next year—two more cash cows and critical darlings. Beauty and the Beast even earned a nomination for Best Picture, the only animated film to date to do so. From there we were awed by The Lion King and Pocahontas. The former remains the Lord of the Rings of kids’ movies with its epic scope and affecting story.

Perhaps the most appealing part of these movies is the music. The composer Alan Menken created the music for all of those films and all of it is fantastic. I marvel every time I listen to “A Whole New World” at how perfect a pop song it is. “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”—each song is so flawlessly constructed in melody and tone.

These songs compose the soundtrack of our lives, whether you admit it or not. The stories and characters are fun, sure, but when you’re driving with your friends, only a Disney song will get the whole car singing. In 40 years we’ll be singing these songs along with our kids as they discover these films for the first time, just as we watched Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs six decades after they were made and were nevertheless enchanted.

The release of The Lion King in 1995 was the apex of Disney domination. But that year also became the springboard for the second phase of the golden age of animation: the Pixar era.

I often think about how lucky I am to be growing up in the age of Pixar. Their films are renowned for their universal appeal, but there’s nothing like having watched Toy Story as an eight-year-old boy and being fascinated by the notion that all your toys could actually come alive. On the other hand, as an adult I’m equally entertained by the complexity of The Incredibles and the pure joy of WALL-E and the surprising tenderness of Up.

I’m also struck by how Pixar’s most recent projects—the triple whammy of RatatouilleWall-E and Up—showed something important. All three were predicted to fail to earn as much money as their most successful predecessors. Yet all three dominated the box office and won over audiences and critics with equal admiration. This proves the staying power of Pixar’s pictures lies not in the breadth of their merchandising but in their smart and sophisticated storytelling.

I’m not sure how long this gilded age will last. After all, not all the animated films of the last two decades were good (anyone remember The Road to El Dorado? Didn’t think so). But looking forward a few years may give us a few clues. Next summer Pixar will release Toy Story 3 and Disney will release The Princess and the Frog, which will be a return to the classic 2-D animation style and feature Disney’s first African-American princess. Those two films alone make me confident that this current age of awe-inspiring animation will take us to infinity and beyond.

The Ten Commandments Of Watching ‘LOST’ In A Group

1. Thou shalt be caught up.

2. Thou shalt hold all questions until commercial breaks.

3. Thou shalt not bring a friend who hath not seen Lost or hath not been caught up.

4. Thou shalt offer theories upon the conclusion of the episode.

5. Thou shalt not use the bathroom during the show and then ask thine friends what hath ocurreth.

6. Thou shalt not answer thy phone during the show.

7. Thou shalt make a claim as to thy favorite character and defend thy choice.

8. Thou shalt never attendeth a “Dress As Thy Favorite Lost Character” party. Thou art not a Harry Potter fan and therefore hath some self-respect.

9. Thou shalt pick between Sawyer and Jack.

10. Thou shalt have no other shows before Lost.

A Tasty Dish

I’ve started reading the blog of Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for The Atlantic. What’s great about it is he updates as many as 20 times a day with fascinating items, links to interesting stories, and bits of commentary that can’t be pinned down to one specific ideology.

One of the items today was on the continuing violence that is erupting at the health care forums around the country and how it has a lot to do not with the debate over health care, but with the larger issue of the ever-shrinking Republican Party and how a lot of it’s farther right followers are reacting to Obama being president. The “Birther” movement has a lot to do with this, and if it continues to be an issue that Republicans in the House of Representatives and CNN anchors and extreme right-wing commentators continue to pursue, things will only get worse for the Republicans, no matter how health care reform turns out.

Rockin’ Guat 2009: Episode 12


Hello again! Day 46 of the trip. We’ve been in Guatemala City for the last week hanging out with Jeanette and Juan Carlos and enjoying the much cooler temperatures. Some good news: the sunburn on my back has finally gone away! There was some major peeling going on, but thanks to Elise it’s pretty much cleared out. She was grossed out by it all, but I love the sensation of dead skin peeling off the back. Sorry if you’re eating right now.

On Wednesday we visited Pastor Alevino and helped out with a lunch-feeding program he does every day. He lives in a very dangerous part of the city, so we were extra aware of our surroundings. Elise reported seeing a random man with a shotgun enter a house very near to the church we were at. To do what, who knows.

Jeanette teaching a lesson.

Jeanette teaching a lesson.

The lunch program, though, was thoroughly enjoyable. Elise and I played a few worship songs in Spanish, and on the second day we led the silly game we did a lot in Chiquimulilla. It was a hit again. I especially love when the moms in the back are entertained at us funny looking Gringos shaking around in compromising positions.

After the game and a short lesson from Jeanette, we helped serve the food to the kids. It would be the only meal they would receive that day. Each child and parent had a Tupperware container and cup with them which we filled with rice, beans, tortillas, and a local corn drink. It was pretty humbling to serve these kids the only thing they would be eating that whole day.

There was a tense moment during the serving, though. A woman, upset at a kid who was strangling her child despite repeatedly being told to stop, hit the kid with a plastic foot stool/chair and broke it over his head. Elise and I were concentrating on the food serving at the moment, and because our Spanish isn’t good enough we didn’t get the gist of the situation until Jeanette told us later. Apparently the kid who was doing the strangling ignored the mom and kept choking the boy, which is why the mom lashed out.

The strangler was probably regularly abused at home, which is why he was so cavalier about abusing other children. Unfortunately, abuse of all kinds–child, spousal, sexual–is pretty rampant and unchecked in Guatemala. It is also woefully underreported and even if it is reported, there is no accountability. There is no Social Services or anything like that to intervene in the event of child abuse, so it just perpetuates. The social worker part of Elise, then, upon seeing this incident, felt helpless because she couldn’t do the things she would do in the United States, like call the police and make a report.

The local kids gave us a hand.

The local kids gave us a hand.

It wasn’t all bad though. We did some painting while we were there and had a bunch of kids hand-paint the wall. They were really excited to do this. There was even a newborn baby that did it, though it was a challenge to get her to stretch her hand out enough to make a clear hand print. It was aborable nonetheless.

This will probably be my final post from Guatemala. I’m leaving on Monday at 12:30pm from Guatemala City for a connection in Ft. Lauderdale, then arrival at O’Hare at 10:30pm. Then it’s a bus home to end a very long day. It’s been a great time here, my second trip to Guatemala. I can’t say my Spanish is any better, but I’ve enjoyed being immersed as much as possible. I’m also proud that, for the most part, Elise and I didn’t play the stereotypical Gringo tourists, though we do look the part with our pasty white skin and red hair. No fanny packs, though, or cameras dangling from our necks. If you ever plan on traveling abroad, especially to more imporverished areas, please don’t be the Ugly American. It does no one any good.

While Elise won’t be updating from this blog, she’s still on Facebook and Skype and all that. I know she’d love to hear from you. She will be here indefinitely, which is a daunting thought for her. My parents will be visiting in October, so she’ll have to keep herself busy until then. But for my part, I thank you for staying with us this summer. I hope we were entertaining and interesting enough.

Adios, y Dios les bendiga!

Rockin’ Guat 2009: Episode 11


Hello hello! Sorry for the space between posts. We’ve been in Chiquimulilla for the last two weeks with no Internet connection, but now we’re back in Guatemala City with Jeanette and JuanCarlos and have lots to share!

Denis and Alvira in front of a typical crowd.

Denis and Alvira in front of a typical crowd.

Denis and Alvira, our friends in Chiquimulilla, essentially became our Guatemalan aunt and uncle. They travel around to local schools and do programs with the kids with a Bible lesson, songs, dramas, etc. Elise and I tagged along with them for the last two weeks. My first responsibility was leading the kids in a silly game in Spanish. That was always a hit. Then Alvira would teach “The Bible Song” in Spanish and then Elise would teach it in English. Elise has said many times how her fear of both speaking in front of groups and singing in public were challenged these last few weeks.



After that, in the drama I played the part of the Devil, inhabiting three forms: Fear, Doubt, and Sickness. I would come out from around a corner and lurk about the kids before going up to Alvira and saying in Spanish “You’re very afraid!” and “You’re going to die!” And each time I would come out, I would hold a balloon that Alvira would pop with her Bible that was specially rigged with a needle, representing the destruction of fear, doubt, and sickness.

Most of the time, the kids would think my act was rather amusing. But at one school, I came around the corner and half the kids started screaming and ran to their teachers while a few stood up and were about to attack me. Needless to say, it was entertaining all around. We would do the whole program at 2-3 schools per day, and in the hot hot muggy heat of Chiquimulilla, it became a trek. But it was fun hanging out with kids, especially when they would just surround Elise and I as we sat down and just stare at us. Once again Elise’s mild claustrophobia was put to the test.

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

Last weekend, the four of us and the family of Eric, mom’s driver while she’s down here, took a trip to Lake Atitlan in the mountains. It was a nice break from the heat and we got some good pictures of the view. There were crowds of gringos there walking the streets–something you don’t see in Chiquimulilla.

And this last week we went to Denis and Alvira’s church four times. Going to church in Guatemala is quite the adventure. First off, you’re guaranteed to be the only white people there. Once the music starts, you’ll notice that an average song can last 15-20 minutes. After that, the pastor does some announcements and welcomes the new visitors. In America, at most churches, you can get away with blending in with the crowd as a newcomer. Not here. They blantantly pointed us out every time we went. Elise and I have concluded that our patience for being stared at non-stop is wearing thin.

After we finished touring the schools we helped clean and paint a large room that is attached to Denis and Alvira’s home. Then on Friday we went to the Pacific Ocean to enjoy the black sand beaches and forceful waves. I was an idiot and got sunburned, mostly on my back, so right now I’m suffering through the feeling of having little pinpricks all over my back. It really sucks. But the beach was still fun and we got some cool pictures.

Awaiting the surf.

Awaiting the surf.


And now we’re in the city. The next couple days we’ll be helping Jeanette with her photography work, working with a pastor on a lunch-service program, and other things. More on that later. Until then, Dios les bendiga!

Rockin’ Guat 2009: Episode 10.5

So yesterday Elise and I got the chance to visit As Green As It Gets, an independent Guatemala cooperative that works with local farmers to produce all kinds of products, coffee being it’s primary bread and butter. We talked with Franklin, the founder (who is originally from Wisconsin), and he gave us a tour of the place. This guy was so full of facts, statistics, and lots of interesting anecdotes about everything from coffee production to the chemical make-up of hazelnut oil.

Not your average workspace.

Not your average workspace.

We got to talking about the world of non-profits and he explain how the industry is hopelessly corrupt, especially in Guatemala but also in the States. We found it interesting that, according to Franklin, fraud among Christian mission organizations is perhaps the most profound. He also had little good to say about Fair Trade coffee, other than that their very good marketing campaign disguising what is otherwise a very profit driven company that doesn’t actually help the local coffee farmers in the least.

It wasn’t a totally depressing afternoon though. We took some spades and went a’weeding in the coffee fields for a good hour and a half and Franklin told us a lot about the world of social entrepreneurship and how it can work well and how it can often not. Elise was especially interested in these issues from the social worker’s perspective. A few times Franklin jokingly asked if he had turned us into cynics yet.

On a happy note, I tasted my first official coffee there. Franklin said the brew that we tasted wasn’t the best of the best, but even the worst coffee in Guatemala beats anything offered in the States. Having tasted fresh Guatemalan coffee straight from the source, I don’t know if I can lower myself to go to Starbucks.

Anyway, you really should check out As Green As It Gets. It’s the real deal. They rely solely on word of mouth to get business, and 100% of their profits goes straight back to the farmers, the people who actually need it. They sell a lot more than just coffee too. Necklaces, shampoo, soap, purses, castor oil, and much more. So order a pound or a hundred for you and your friends.

Rockin’ Guat 2009: Episode 10


So we’ve been in Antigua now for about two weeks. Today we walked over to Santo Domingo, a super super nice hotel and villa. We just walked right in and explored the ridiculously beautiful scenery. There were hanging gardens and fountains at every corner and tropical birds nesting. We wondered what the ratio of gringo guests versus native Guatemalan guests was. Probably pretty high in the gringos’ favor.

This week we’ve been at a language school, learning the intricacies of the imperfect subjunctive and conditional clauses and the like. We have class from 8am-12 every morning. There are lots of people at the school. It’s really cool because each person gets their own teacher. The one-on-one attention really helps in comprehension. We’re only here a week, but it definitely has helped.

As anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows, verbal gaffes are pretty much to be expected. A few days ago, I was telling my teacher what I would be doing that afternoon. First I said, “I will be meeting a man…” and paused to think about how to say the next part. But she looked at me funny and chuckled until I figured out what I said. I was going to say “my sister and I will be meeting a man who is a friend of my mother.” But saying things in a different language always takes time to figure out, so I ended up sounding like a very strange man.

Elise had her moment too, though it had nothing to do with Spanish. We were trying to find an ATM, and she wondered what ATM stood for. “Automatic Time Machine?” she asked.

No, Elise, we’re not looking for a time machine.

I guess all the exhaust fumes are messing with our heads. Luckily we will be going to Chiquimulilla starting Monday for two weeks, helping our friends Denis and Alvira with their kids ministry. They don’t speak any English, so Elise and I will have ample time to try out our very mangled Spanish.

This weekend, though, Elise will give a presentation on PTSD to some locals with the help of a doctor here. She has been working really hard to make the presentation and advice applicable to these mostly poor people. We’ll see how it goes.

I don’t think there will be in Internet access in Chiquimulillia, so I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to update for the next two weeks. But until next time, hasta luego!

Next time: surviving the Chiquimulillan heat, and working with kids again!

Rockin’ Guat 2009: Episode 9


Hey all, we’ve been in Antigua for the week helping Hector and wandering the town. We connected with Gerber, mom’s friend down here whom I will hopefully be accompanying to the jungle in northern Guatemala sometime during this trip.

Yesterday we visited a school where Gerber’s sister is the principal. Elise and I sat in on a math class for a few minutes. We were both brought back to the good ol’ days of learning how to add fractions. Well, for Elise it was more like reliving a nightmare…in Spanish. It was cool, though, because we met a team from California there who was painting and building stuff for the school.

That meeting turned out to be a great thing because we were able to tag along with them today to the Pacaya Volcano. The first part of the climb was a pretty leisurely incline, but once we hit the lava part, it became more interesting. It’s an active volcano, but the ground we were walking on was all old, crumbly lava. Elise and I enjoyed the fact that we were pretty much the only ones in the group who were not huffing and puffing and opting for horses that were provided for weary hikers. We trekked the whole way up and down. Take that, Californians!

Some John Denver would have been appropriate right about then.

Some John Denver would have been appropriate right about then.

The view was spectacular. We weren’t allowed to go to the very top of the volcano, but we stopped at the next highest portion where the rocks were hot from the active insides of the volcano. The mountains in the background are also volcanoes–some active and some not.

Mmm, lava marshmallows...

Mmm, lava marshmallows...

People were roasting marshmallows over some pits that exuded some very hot air. They roasted crisp in a few seconds. It was very windy up there, but I wholly enjoyed the stunning view once the clouds cleared. And since today is Independence Day, Elise and I sang our own a capella version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” when we reached the peak. Here’s to you, America.


We were thoroughly nuked but refreshed from the hike, so afterward we did some laundry and visited a cool little bookstore/cafe called the Cafe Rainbow. Tomorrow hopefully we’ll be going to church with Irma, another one of mom’s Guatemalan friends. After that, who knows what will happen…