Categories
Music

The Best Albums Of 2008

There was a lot of music released in 2008. I didn’t listen to most of it because I was too busy listening to the following albums to listen to much of anything else. I don’t expect to see any of these albums honored at the Grammys, but I still love them like my own hypothetical children. So here are the five albums that had me rapt in 2008.

copleand_yams-296x3001. You Are My Sunshine by Copeland

I didn’t think Copeland could top their 2006 release Eat, Sleep, Repeat-one of my all-time favorites-but sure enough, with a change of labels and general disposition, they drop You Are My Sunshine, their sunniest project yet. It’s rife with glorious choruses, delectable pop rock invention, though-provoking lyrics and angelic falsetto from lead singer/guitarist/pianist Aaron Marsh. Marsh has iterated that the band has no agenda for their music other than art. In this, they pass with flying colors. —– Standout track: “On the Safest Ledge”

61mljyjsk5l_sl500_aa240_2. Canopy Glow by Anathallo

This Chicago-based octet has been making music for awhile now, but Canopy Glow is their crowning achievement. It’s a Monet in musical form-full of nuance and lush color with a huge canvas of tools in use from the concert bass drum to hand bells. It’s also much more focused than previous works; no track runs longer than six minutes and, in spite of unconventional song structures and jarring time signatures, the album as a whole is far more accessible. The complex storytelling and musical technique leaves much to be discovered in Canopy Glow. —– Standout track: “All the First Pages”

51qrwqxpurl_sl500_aa240_3. Volume One by She & Him

Normally, I’d say stay the hell away from a CD made by an actress or non-musical celebrity (case in point: Paris Hilton). But for Volume One, Elf actress Zooey Deschanel teams up with alt-folk rocker M. Ward and actually creates something good. Something really good, actually. Deschanel’s voice, nasally but sexy, is the cornerstone of this folksy album-a mixture of sultry ballads, string-fueled anthems, and straight-up bubblegum pop. It’s pop music with gravitas and I’m loving every minute of it. —– Standout track: “Sentimental Heart”

611o6extubl_sl500_aa240_4. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends by Coldplay

I know I’m just another hitchhiker on the “Coldplay is good now!” bandwagon that revved up after the release of their latest album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, but I can’t help it; it’s just a great album from what was once a tolerable band. I like it when bands who get stuck in a boring funk decide to spice things up and take some chances-Chris Martin and Co. have done just that and have a beautiful epic to show for it. The title track may have been overplayed on the radio, but it’s still the best track of the year, hands down. —– Standout track: “Viva la Vida”

512fqtv0d8l_sl500_aa240_5. That Lucky Old Sun by Brian Wilson

For a long time I appreciated the Beach Boys just as much as the other guy, but it wasn’t until I dug into Brian Wilson’s solo stuff when I realized his musical genius. There isn’t a better melody writer out there than Wilson, and his newest album That Lucky Old Sun gives a familiar yet welcome taste of classic surf rock in the form of a narrative ode to his native southern California. This album will fit snugly beside the immortal Beach Boys tracks of old, but it still deserves its own love. —– Standout track: “Live Let Live”

Honorable Mentions:

Harps and Angels by Randy Newman; Stop Heartbeat by The Foxglove Hunt; Be OK by Ingrid Michaelson

Categories
Film Review

The Sting

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle in October 2008 as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

Welcome back to “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.” I was catching up on more recent films over the summer but I’m excited to start a new year of discovering the new in films of old. This year’s first installment examines the 1973 flick The Sting in honor of the death of its star-screen legend and cool customer Paul Newman. Newman stars along with Robert Redford as two Depression-era grafters in Joliet, Illinois, who team up to con a ruthless mob boss.

The Sting starts by doing what every crime caper seems to do by showing the main characters pull a small but clever job, just to set the stage and show us they’re good at what they do. And they are good at what they do. Johnny Hooker (Redford) and his friends scam others partly out of desperation and partly because they enjoy it. They’re like the crew from the “Ocean” movies; they don’t know, or want to know, a life without a gamble and the risk of high reward.

Especially Hooker. He is so anxious to gamble the money he conned from another hapless bystander that he blows it all on a rigged game of craps. His elder and wiser partner-in-crime Luther calls him on it: “You’re a con man and you blew it like a pimp!” With Hooker on the run from a crooked cop, he finds Henry Gondorff (Newman) to enlist in a big con per Luther’s advice. Hooker finds Gondorff snoozing between his bed and the wall after a long night drinking. When Gondorff is sober, Hooker convinces him to try a big con on a big-time mobster.

From there the movie unfolds like a play neatly divided into four acts: the Set-Up, the Hook, the Tale, and the Sting. Each act even has its own title card. If you see The Sting after seeing a lot of modern crime flicks like Matchstick Men and Ocean’s Eleven it will seem predictable. But the truth is to the contrary. Modern-day crime capers owe their existence to the ingenuity of movies like The Sting. The story moves along so fluidly, adding the twists and covers required for a decent crime movie, that the audience doesn’t feel cheated with any new revelation.

But you don’t have to worry about being out of the loop until the very last scene like you are in some mystery films. The Sting lets us know about the con, but doesn’t give out details, so we can watch the bad guys squirm. Once the con is laid out, we can just sit back and enjoy. And enjoyable it is. For winning seven Academy Awards in 1973 (which by all accounts was a light year for film) including Best Picture, The Sting is a lightweight fare. Newman especially seems to just be enjoying himself. He has a few scenes playing drunk which will make you smile.

The mood changes throughout; sometimes there is tragedy, suspense, or drama, but underneath it all there is always comedy. And most of the time it’s not laugh-out-loud. It’s like the entire movie is a joke but the joke-teller never smiles. The merry-go-round in the indoor amusement park Gondorff lives in does all the laughing; when it’s turned on it disguises the fact that the amusement park doubles as a tavern and a brothel.

In many ways, The Sting is the unofficial sequel to the equally funny and thrilling 1969 flick Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both movies share the same leading men, playing similar characters, and director (George Roy Hill) and pull off the same light-mixed-with-heavy dynamic that so many movies today try to duplicate. The characters in both films are criminals, but criminals we want to be friends with.

This wouldn’t be possible without Newman and Redford as the leads. With Newman’s trademark blue eyes and devilish smile and Redford’s con-man good looks, we believe them in their roles and root for them too. Even when the movie runs flat-a rare occurrence-we never give up on it simply because it’s so entertaining. Entertaining like the soundtrack, anchored by Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and other ragtime songs like it. The upbeat music screams irony when it plays over scenes with such bleak surroundings.

The Sting isn’t on any of the American Film Institute Top 100 lists; no matter, it’s still fun, and good. You don’t see that combination too often these days. That’s why, sometimes, you have to dip into the past. There is plenty to see. The Sting is one of many golden oldies sitting on the shelf at Blockbuster that deserve much more attention than the underwhelming bunch of movies in theaters now are getting, so rent it now and give it some love.

Categories
Film

1.21 Gigawatts!?

November 12, 1955.

Know the date?

Hill Valley, California. The Clock Tower. Struck by lightning. At 10:04 p.m.

53 years today.

Oh, yeah.

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In honor of this historic day in the BTTF world, here is an appreciation I wrote for the school paper:

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If I were asked to name what I think are the greatest films of all time, I might throw out a few high-brow titles like Rear Window or Casablanca or Taxi Driver. But if I had to name my favorite film, one that makes me love movies and makes me love being alive, it would be Back to the Future.

A silly overstatement, right? Not in the least. I first saw Back to the Future in middle school. Since then it has become my comfort movie. Everyone has one. Everyone has a movie they watch because it reminds them of their childhood or makes them feel happy. My sister watches Seven Brides for Seven Brothers because it got her through the grieving process after our grandma died. I watch Back to the Future because, like all those classic Disney movies, it reminds me of the goodness of my youth. Plus, it is simply a good movie.

You don’t realize it the first few times you watch it, but Back to the Future is an incredibly well-written movie. There are so many subtle things you don’t notice until you reach the BTTF-nerd status as I have. For instance, the mall is named “Twin Pines Mall” in the beginning. Then, after Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, comes back from the future, it is named “Lone Pine Mall.” This is because he ran over one of the two pine trees in Mr. Peabody’s front yard. (Remember when I mentioned the nerd status? I wasn’t kidding.)

The writing, especially the dialogue, is exceptionally smart, given that the movie was a big-budget blockbuster when it was released in 1985. The Doc Brown character, played by Christopher Lloyd, has many of the funniest one-liners as the eccentric scientist from the 1950s. He wonders what Marty’s strange suit is and Marty tells him it’s a radiation suit. He responds, “A radiation suit? Of course! Because of all the fallout from the atomic wars.” Later, Marty says his catchphrase “This is heavy” again and Doc wonders why: “There’s that word again: ‘heavy.’ Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth’s gravitational pull?”

The acting, as well, is spot-on. But did you know that Michael J. Fox was not originally cast as Marty? Eric Stoltz, who played the drug dealer in Pulp Fiction, was cast first and even filmed a few scenes, but the director Robert Zemeckis fired him (thank God) once Fox found room in his filming schedule for his popular sitcom “Family Ties.” Christopher Lloyd as Doc and Crispin Glover as George McFly were perfectly peculiar in their roles and Tom Wilson as Biff Tannen created one of the all-time greatest movie bullies.

But any movie can have clever writing and good casting. What makes me love it so? Honestly, I don’t know. The original music score is wildly fun and the 1950s sets are great bits of nostalgia, but they are just parts of the whole. It just has that X-factor that won’t let me forget how much I love to sit in a darkened room and watch a story unfold. This particular story just happens to zip around the space-time continuum with a slightly insecure, “Johnny B. Goode”-playing teenager and his lovably loquacious scientist friend.

If I can’t explain why I love the Back to the Future trilogy so much, I can simply show you. In addition to the posters from all three movies hanging on my wall, I have three different DeLorean die-cast, 1:18 scale model cars (one from each movie) and a pen and a key chain I bought from Universal Studios after taking the now-defunct BTTF ride. Yet my nerdness runs deeper: I also have a copy of the letter Marty writes to Doc which I made myself in junior high pinned to my bulletin board at home. Yeah, that’s right.

But the most amazing experience I’ve had with Back to the Future had nothing to do with the movie. When I was in eighth grade, my dad met a guy who owned a real DeLorean and asked him to dress up like Doc Brown, crazy wig and all, and cruise down my street and into my driveway. He leaped out of the car and yelled, “Chad, you’ve got to come back with me! Back to the future!” I jumped in the car and we drove around the city like crazy time-travelers. It was an otherworldly experience. (I now realize I never thanked my dad for. Thanks, Dad!)

To me, Back to the Future represents the incredible power of cinema. I feel like I take in the world through my senses when I watch it. I know that sounds crazy, but I can’t describe it any other way. I know that every one of us has a book or a movie or a song that has an invisible hold on our hearts and souls. Mine just happens to rock along to “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Categories
God Religion

A Summer Camp Counselor’s Guide To Good Character

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on October 10, 2008.

This summer I worked at a Bible camp for the third straight year. (Don’t worry, we didn’t praise a likeness of George W. Bush like those crazies did in Jesus Camp did.) The theme for the summer was character. We studied the Book of James because each of its five chapters gives clear and direct advice on how to live a life with Christ-like character. I realized that even though Scripture is instruction for Christians, its lessons apply to everyone. The character qualities James lays out, if followed, make Christian teachings relevant to every person, religious or not.

Here are a few things I learned this summer that inform my character and broaden my understanding and appreciation of Jesus and of Christianity. It’s Spark Notes, Jesus-style.

Don’t play favorites. It’s what James, the brother of Jesus, calls the “Royal Law”: love your neighbor as yourself. The Law hammered in the importance of hospitality and loving your neighbors, but James, following Jesus’ lead, extended it further: you should love not only the neighbors you like or those who are well-off, but those who might not deserve love or get it very often.

This lesson relates directly to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus, after telling the story, points out the contradiction of the two religious men who passed by the mugging victim on the road; he says they really didn’t love God if they didn’t help that man in need. The Good Samaritan, however, stopped and helped the man, quite possibly saving his life. This Samaritan, who to the Israelites back then would have been viewed as a second-class citizen, did right by God because he loved his neighbor even though he was considered an enemy. He didn’t play favorites.

The easiest place to play favorites is at home with family. Sibling rivalries and family turmoil can create the deepest divisions between people, but learning to love even the most self-centered or immature family member just as much as the others is the best way to live by the Royal Law.

Watch your mouth. “The tongue is a small part of the body,” writes James, “but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” Working with kids reveals just how true this is. In a heated moment, words can fly out uncontrollably and cause all sorts of lasting damage.

But James insists that you can’t build a person up with your words one day and then tear him down the next: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing,” he writes. “This should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” If you allow yourself the selfish indulgence of cursing someone out or spreading malicious gossip, you’ve already lost the battle.

Holding your tongue is not easy, but it is simple. When you come upon a situation that inspires in you a creative comeback or pointed slur, don’t say it. Just don’t. Stop, think, then don’t say a word. You may think the other person deserves what was coming to them, but chances are they don’t. If you forgive them and let it go, you win.

Be humble. James quotes a proverb when he writes: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Believing in God isn’t essential when it comes to humility. Sooner or later those who let pride be their guide will meet crash and burn, sometimes painfully. That’s why I love humility. It forces you to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t do things on your own, that you need to come to a place of spiritual, emotional, or physical brokenness before you can build yourself up again even better than before.

Humility is not putting yourself below others; it’s putting others above yourself. Jesus did this well. It’s a little harder, though, for the rest of us to get right. We all kind of suck at it, so there’s always room for improvement. Families are, again, a perfect practice field for this. Be willing to be a humble servant when you visit home: do chores without being asked or give a little sibling a ride somewhere without grumbling. It can be painful sometimes to elevate others above our own swollen egos, but doing so will be rewarding for you and appreciated by others.

Be patient. Along with humility, patience can be the hardest thing to learn and do well. But it is so very important to be patient. James explains: “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm.” James equates patience with standing firm, enduring hardship for the promise of something good.

In the original Greek, to “stand firm” is sterizo kardia, or “strengthen the heart.” So by persevering through the most obnoxious, maddening, kill-me-now-God moments, you are strengthening your heart and your resolve, allowing yourself more patience for the next time you need it.

I learned this first-hand every day at camp. Answering the same obvious question for the seventeenth time can wear on your very being, but by having patience and being kind in each response, I was strengthening my heart and modeling what good patience looks like. Sometimes I wasn’t very patient and wanted to wring the kids’ necks, but I got better. And that’s all it takes-the willingness to get better.

Let’s be real: this all sounds great, but we’re not saints. It would be much easier to not do these things, honestly. But I challenge you to challenge yourself, to check if your words and your actions are right. Not correct, but right. That’s the kind of reality check we all need.

Categories
Film

All Animated Films Are Not Created Equal

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle in October 2008.

Are all movies created equal? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) doesn’t think so. With the creation of the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards, animated movies that deserve to be nominated for Best Picture are unfairly pigeon-holed into this marginalized category.

Only one animated movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture. It was Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Though the AMPAS rules don’t prevent a film to be nominated for both categories, the chances of an animated movie being nominated for Best Picture are greatly reduced because of the animated feature category.

Take last year’s Ratatouille for example. It was one of the best reviewed films of 2007. It currently has a 95% certified fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than There Will Be Blood. So why wasn’t it nominated for Best Picture? Because an animated movie aimed at kids does not meet the same high-brow expectations as art-house flicks like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men and so Disney would never try to lobby for a Best Picture nod, even if every member of the Academy loved it.

That’s understandable, I guess, but the real problem is how animated movies as a whole are regarded. Critics and audiences as well as the Academy ooh and ahh over the good ones but never even think Best Picture is in the cards. The Pixar animation studio has put out an unprecedented string of commercial and critical hits since Toy Story in 1995, its first feature film. Three of their films have won the Best Animated Feature award, deservedly so. But the fact that such acclaimed work does not get a fair shot at the biggest possible award for filmmaking shows an implicit condescension and under-appreciation for the animated genre in general.

Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, put it bluntly: “People keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’ It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre; animation is an art form, and it can do any genre.” Using animation is simply one way of telling a story. To box it in as a separate entity is to belittle the work writers and animators do to create an entire fictional world from scratch in order to tell a story.

And animated movies may not just be for kids. Look at last year’s Persepolis or Beowulf or the Japanese films Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Even the more commercial Shrek and all of the Pixar movies appeal to young adults and parents because of the subtle (and not so subtle) pop culture references. I love Ratatouille and the other Pixar movies not just for their artistic shimmer and sly wit, but for their solid storytelling. That, above all, should be the litmus test for Best Picture nominees, which is how Beauty and the Beast earned a nod a decade and a half ago.

The animated feature category may do a good service by acknowledging excellence in that medium, but it does harm by allowing poor movies to be nominated. Because there are only so many feature-length animated films that wouldn’t embarrass the Academy by being nominated (I’m looking at you, Space Chimps), movies that don’t deserve the recognition sneak in beneath the far superior works. Shark Tale and Ice Age have been nominated, as well as Happy Feet, which won unjustly in 2006. The Academy needs to fill the void somehow, so they have to nominate non-Pixar movies to try to make the category relevant.

Film should serve the story. It shouldn’t matter if the film is computer-generated. The stories in Ratatouille and Toy Story 2, another animated film that got short-changed, deserve the recognition that lesser live-action movies often times receive. Pixar’s latest, WALL-E, will no doubt receive the same treatment as its predecessors, even though it was the most daring and exquisite film of the year. It will win Best Animated Feature, but it’s not just that. The level of praise it has garnered from critics and audiences is bested only by The Dark Knight which already has a better chance of scoring on Oscar night because it stars real human beings.

The best films of the year should be recognized as such. Period. Hollywood politics get in the way of this too often, which is how lesser pictures win. But because I’m not an Academy member, I can only sit back and hope the best of best get a shot at the big prize. One can only hope.

Categories
Film Review

Iron Man

I think us moviegoers have caught on to the whole Superhero Movie thing. We’ve learned that comic book superheroes are born out of a freak radioactive experiment gone wrong, or out of childhood anger, yadda yadda yadda. We know that evil villains will eventually be outsmarted and killed due to excessive monologuing. We’ve caught on to the formula, which is why the summer Superhero Movie blockbuster was in danger of extinction.

Was. Was in danger of extinction. Thanks to Iron Man, the Superhero Movie has returned to glory. And I say, welcome back.

Robert Downey Jr. plays the billionaire engineer, genius, and playboy Tony Stark who runs Stark Industries, a weapons manufacturer and military contractor. After a demonstration of his highly destructive state-of-the-art missile called the “Jericho”, Stark is attacked and captured by terrorists in Afghanistan. He gets hit with shrapnel in the attack, but avoids death by creating a device that keeps the shrapnel away from his heart using electro-magnetics.

Stark’s captors force him to build a new Jericho missile inside a cave completely from scratch, but he instead builds an armored iron suit equipped with guns and missiles a plenty and escapes his captivity. But after seeing his own company’s weapons being used by the enemy against American forces, Stark returns home with a new mindset. He decides to no longer manufacture weapons. This moral transformation is the key to the entire film.

Stark secretly rebuilds the armored iron suit he created with new hi-tech features, intent on using it to destroy the enemy forces from which he escaped and the weapons they were using. The scenes where Stark perfects the design are full of slapstick and wit between Stark and his robotic lab assistants. The final product, the Iron Man, looks something like the Tin Man from the year 3000, outfitted with hyper-intelligent technology and a slick paint job.

Stark’s conversion from being a cocky showboat to a morally-conflicted superhero is what makes these kinds of films interesting to watch. He is tremendously flawed, even with his intelligence, but we still like him and want him to succeed.

Only a few people close to Stark see the transformation: his assistant Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), who tries to balance her strong independence and her increasing attraction to Stark; his business partner Obadiah (Jeff Bridges), who tries to hide shady business deals from the newly-idealistic Stark; and Rhodes, Stark’s Air Force Colonel friend who is wary of Stark’s new crime-fighting methods.

Ultimately, Robert Downey Jr. is this movie. He’s funny, quirky, and a terrific actor. He’s also a unique casting choice for a superhero, which is why the film works so well. His troubled real-life back story helps his character seem all the more real. Story-wise, Iron Man isn’t revolutionary, but that doesn’t really matter. The characters are strong and relatable, so the story simply falls into place around them.

Downey and the director Jon Favreau, who also directed Elf and Zathura, allow the film to stretch beyond the normal guidelines of the typical summer action movie. There are the usual high-octane action sequences, of course, but the talented supporting cast makes each character vital and interesting. The last superhero film to accomplish that was Batman Begins.

I’ve already heard Oscar buzz for this film, and rightly so. I would fully endorse a Best Actor nomination for Downey. The Academy has snubbed summer superhero movies in the past, and for good reason. They are produced solely to make a profit, so sometimes a quality cast and story are lost between the ridiculous special effects sequences. But not with this film. I was fully engaged with Stark’s moral debate, but I also thoroughly enjoyed Stark-as-Iron Man battling his nemesis at Mach-speed in the Los Angeles night sky.

Iron Man is just about the best movie to kick off the summer season. After last year’s lackluster threequels failed to inspire, Downey and Co. have given us something to fully enjoy without sacrificing the crucial elements that make a good film. Two sequels have already been planned—the first is set to release on April 30, 2010—so it looks like we’ll be seeing much more of Stark and Iron Man. And I say, bring it on.

Categories
Film Love Review

Macho, Macho Men: Vulnerability In ‘Casino Royale’ And ‘The Bourne Identity’

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on April 25, 2008.

John McClane, Rambo, the Terminator. They are the American Action Hero: muscular, terse, a killing machine. They favor spouting clever catchphrases and blowing stuff up over expressing emotion. To them, women are hors d’oeuvres best enjoyed while they serve cold dishes of revenge to bad guys. In recent years, Hollywood has deconstructed this action hero archetype and rebuilt it into the more complicated and affected man.

Two such characters, Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity (2002) and James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), inhabit the stereotypical macho man role but confront emotional walls typical in males and discover the pain that can come with true vulnerability. These men, however, are not just movie characters. They share the same struggle with identity and masculinity with males in the real world.

The James Bond movie lovers have come to know is a suave, martini-drinking womanizer who effortlessly shoots bad guys and jets around in sports cars. But the Bond in Casino Royaleis different. He’s still rough around the edges, an arrogant thug who cannot control his emotions or his actions. When he meets Vesper Lynd, the ravishing femme fatale, she sees through him easily: “You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits,” she says.

After Bond realizes his transparency, he treats Lynd as a meaningful pursuit rather than a disposable pleasure. He begins to trust her. Eventually, he gives in to her. “I have no armor left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I’m yours,” says Bond. He finally drops his emotional armor and allows a woman in, becoming vulnerable for the first time.

But his vulnerability did not serve him well. He learns that she was using him all along for money. The one person for whom he opened his heart carves it up, so he closes it again and takes up the armor. “You don’t trust anyone, do you?” asks his boss. “No,” he says. “Then you’ve learned your lesson,” she replies.

Jason Bourne fights a different battle. When we first meet him he floats unconscious on the ocean with bullets in his back and a tracking device in his hip. When he comes to, he doesn’t know who he is or remember anything until that point, but does know several languages and hand-to-hand combat. He slowly learns that he is a killing machine that only functions because it cannot do anything else.

Then he meets a woman. She drives him on his journey to self-discovery, first by payment, then on her own accord. She helps him as he follows his animalistic instincts to find his identity and his purpose. Bourne finds the man who knows the answers and he tells Bourne the truth: “I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.” After a death-defying search, he finds out that he is only a shell of a man, a blunt instrument of death.

Bourne’s confrontation with the mysterious man triggers a flashback to right before he was found floating in the ocean. He was ordered to assassinate a dictator but couldn’t pull the trigger because the target’s children were lying next to him. The one time compassion creeps into his heart, he is shot in the back and left for dead in the open sea. That is quite a lesson to learn.

Bond and Bourne experience the same challenges to their masculinity, yet they end up in different places. Bond starts as an emotionless brute, becomes softened by a woman, then is betrayed by said woman and shuts himself off from emotion again. Bourne goes through the same process, except at the end he remains open to Marie and at peace with his existence.

Through both stories run two constants: women and killing. These constants represent two big fears that men have: that if he opens himself up to a woman, she will rip his heart out; and that if he doesn’t fulfill the male stereotype of being tough and emotionless, he will be thought of as less than a man. Not necessarily by women, but by their fellow man.

These fears, at their full effect, can cripple a man’s masculinity and trust in women. They turn them into chauvinistic playboys, forever caught in a perpetual state of arrested development. They are the reason why so many single women claim that ‘there are no more decent guys’—they’ve been taken captive by the fear of being vulnerable.

James Bond and Jason Bourne may be fictional characters, but they have the same dilemma as real men. Not all men are lost causes, however. In fact, none really are. Modern males have a simple choice: remain shadows of men destined for empty relationships and guarded hearts, or fight the temptation to run from intimacy.

Categories
Life Sports

Favre’s Retirement Ends Golden Age Of Quarterbacks

Published in the North Central Chronicle on March 28, 2008.

February 3, 1997. My first Super Bowl. It was so exciting; the first game I remember seeing on television and my team was playing. It was my Green Bay Packers. And it was my Brett Favre.

My family hosted the party. I was decked out in my No. 4 jersey and brand new Cheesehead as I watched Favre throw touchdown after touchdown against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. He even managed a rare quarterback sneak for a score. He helped bring the Lombardi Trophy back where it belongs to Lombardi’s home sweet home; the legendary Lambeau Field. I felt so proud that the Packers were my team and that Brett Favre was my quarterback.

Unfortunately, as every football fan knows, good times like these never last long. Injury, free agency, or retirement always snatches our heroes away from us. Sometimes they make their exit after a tragic injury in the twilight of their career or after a triumphant Super Bowl victory. Brett Favre did neither; he left on his own terms.

My dad called me to tell me the news. “Favre retired.” I should have been somewhat prepared for this; sports writers and non-Packer fans have been calling for his retirement for years, but I was shocked. I felt empty. I have not known life without Brett Favre as the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.

I spent the next couple of days disheartened. I watched every highlight reel I could find of his top plays and memorable moments. I even got teary with him as he formally announced his retirement (not kidding). I pushed through all of the stages of grief, albeit superficially. I probably won’t reach full acceptance until the season opener when, for the first time in my memory, Brett Favre will not be there to take the snap.

I know this all seems melodramatic. After all, football is just a game and Favre is just a man. But I grew up with a legendary quarterback who started every game and made big plays when they mattered. I realize now how special and rare it is to have such a gift. I’ve never had to constantly shift my trust to the next fifth-round draft pick who would just let me down again. I’ve been able to turn on the television on Sundays during football season and know that, win or lose, the Packers would be okay.

I felt that way because Favre was more than a quarterback. He was the anchor and the image of the Packers organization and of the entire state of Wisconsin. Politicians cycled in and out while Favre kept driving down the Frozen Tundra looking for a score. But even more than that; he was a constant in my life in which I could find solace and inspiration as I trekked through the rockiness of childhood and adolescence. I felt safe knowing that Favre would remain, no matter how good or bad the Packers performed.

What Favre brought to the game was his playground antics, his improvisational skills, his grit, and his pure joy for the game. He was no cookie cutter quarterback. Even Vikings and Bears fans, the Packers’ true nemeses, fell victim of his charm every time he flashed that toothy grin after making a ridiculous play. He threw off of his heels constantly and scrambled in the pocket like a decapitated chicken. He threw the most touchdowns as well as the most interceptions. He was a true gunslinger, a rugged man’s man; the John Wayne of the gridiron.

Still, as hard as it is for me to say, it was a good time for him to go. He broke nearly every major NFL record a quarterback can break and had fun doing it. Even though he didn’t get the second Super Bowl win he wanted, he is leaving on top after arguably the best year of his career, Super Bowl ring or not. (I’m planning on repressing the memory of his last pass; an interception that cost a Super Bowl bid.)

With Favre hanging up his cleats, a golden age of quarterbacks has ended. Steve Young, Dan Marino, John Elway, Troy Aikman, and Brett Favre all epitomized what was great about football and the everyday heroes it can give us. The Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings are talented of course, but they don’t have the spark that made Favre football fun to watch.

Outside of the realm of football, Favre is leaving behind a legacy decorated with not just wins and losses, but also the fond memories of a scrawny redhead who loved to run routes with his dad and imagine he was catching the winning pass in Lambeau Field from one of the game’s greats. That is a bond that time cannot erode.

The march to football season is going to be strange for me and my fellow Packers fans. We will be out of step for the first time in a long time. The sparkle we’ve grown to know and love has faded from the Packers franchise and from the NFL. But once we move on, we’ll be able to get back to beating the Bears and winning the Super Bowl. It is what Favre would have wanted.

Categories
Film Review

12 Angry Men

Published in the North Central Chronicle on Feb. 22, 2008, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

I was about 7 years old when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. I’ve seen the highlights—the slow-speed chase, O.J. struggling with the glove—but I don’t remember the sensational media coverage or the racial debates regarding the verdict. I can only assume the jury felt tremendous pressure to get it right; a guilty verdict would have sent Simpson to death row, while ruling him not guilty would set him free.

The question of guilty versus innocent and right versus wrong has captivated rational minds for centuries. In our justice system, the final judgment of wrongdoers is laid on the conscience and common sense of their peers. But when fallible and differing human beings must unite under one clear, unanimous decision, there is bound to be conflict. And conflict is exactly what happens in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957).

A young ruffian has been accused of premeditated murder. The judge sends the jury into deliberation of what appears to be an open-and-shut case. The twelve jurors file into a cramped back room to debate the case, but 11 of them have already assumed the defendant’s guilt. The twelfth one, however, is not so sure. He, juror number 8 (Henry Fonda) is the only one who leaves room for reasonable doubt.

So they are forced to endure the stifling heat and convince Juror Number 8 to change his vote. As the tension builds with the humidity, the jurors sweat the details of the case and each man’s faults and prejudices surface. One man sees the defendant as a stereotypical child of the slums and makes his judgments accordingly. Another cares more about making it to a baseball game that night than deciding the fate of a man.

We learn of the case piece by piece through the jury’s deliberation, and slowly we see our own perceptions of the defendant’s alleged crime, and of the jurors themselves, change. Juror Number 8 is meant to be the hero of the film, but he represents more; he is willing to stand up for an unpopular belief amidst heavy and vocal opposition, and his voice of reason and empathy starts to convince other jurors to take change their vote. But I could see a part of myself in each one of the jurors; the reasonable, the indifferent, the stubborn, and the intolerant.

12 Angry Men is similar to Rear Window in that all but about three minutes of the film takes place in one room, creating a heightened sense of claustrophobia for the viewer and for the jurors. In a pressure-filled situation like that, the worst in a person spills out, resulting in ad hominem attacks and irrational behavior. It’s like The Real World, except well-made.

This film should not have worked. Watching twelve men sit in a room and just talk for an hour and a half does not sound very fun, but the actors inhabit their characters and make us believe we’re in that stuffy room with them. We are drawn into solving the murder mystery with the jurors, and we soon start to make our own conclusions, however unsubstantiated or unfair they are.

12 Angry Men succeeds were a good dramatic film should: it entertains us, with colorful characters waging a war of words in a stress-filled environment; and it also makes us think, about the concept of right and wrong and about our own prejudices. With a one-two punch like that, 12 Angry Men deserves no less than top billing on your Netflix queue.

Categories
America Politics Presidents Religion

War Is Hell

Published in the North Central Chronicle on February 8, 2008.

John Edwards is out of the race. I think he would have made a fine president. His fight against poverty and corruption did not jive well with mainstream media narratives, though they were well-publicized cornerstones of Edwards’ stump speech. But his other equally important message also failed to catch on. After voting to authorize the Iraq War in 2002, Edwards soon reversed his position on the war, and last year created a movement called “Support the Troops. End the War.”

Today, the country’s attention has become fixed on the state of the economy more than the war in Iraq. Of course, as a capitalist nation we like to know how our dollar is doing (for those less interested in current events: it’s not doing so well), but our collective mammonism has diverted our attention away from the war, where men, women, and children are being killed.

Killed. Every single day.

It is hard to fully grasp this concept. Unlike previous American wars, those holding down the home front don’t have to sacrifice anything to keep the war going. During the Civil War, families lost their only income when men served and died on bloody battlefields. During World War II, Americans rationed food and supplies, worked in munitions factories, and were drafted to topple tyranny.

But for this war, there is no draft or call to service by the president, so all we have to do is watch B-roll of chaotic Iraqi marketplaces and argue broad talking points from the comfort and safety of our computer chairs.

That is why, I would argue, the war has not been ended yet. We remain complacent and unaware of what it means to fight a war. I’ve become so desensitized to war images that it seems like no big deal, like it is a video game. I suppose we should ask the family of Spc. Richard Burress, who died two weeks ago from a roadside bomb, if his death was no big deal.

The truth is that war is hell. Soldiers know this, and politicians know how to prevent us from knowing this. They ban images of Americans being killed from appearing in media because, as we found out after the Abu Ghraib scandal, that would cause the public to realize what is actually happening and demand that something be done to stop it.

Regardless of what pundits say, it is possible to support the troops yet not support their mission. President Bush seems to do the opposite. He sends insufficient and ill-equipped troops into a situation even Vice President Cheney knew would become a “quagmire,” then fails to remedy the horrific conditions at Walter Reed hospital and others like it. Yet he said, and kept saying, that we all should support the troops, and implied that anyone who did not was a terrorist-sympathizer. So much for being the “uniter.”

Still, I support the troops. I don’t support their mission, whatever that is (the president has yet to make it clear), but I absolutely, resolutely will support the troops. I don’t have bumper stickers or American flag lapel pins to prove it, but since when did a flimsy piece of plastic indicate one’s amount of patriotism? These men and women volunteer to serve at the high risk of injury, maimedness, or death. They leave their families for weeks, months, even years, to secure and maintain order in a disorderly country while trying to avoid getting a bullet in the brain or shrapnel in the eye. They inspire me – and relieve me from fighting a war we have no business fighting.

I trust you, the (hopefully) well-informed and sensible voter, have been able to see through the malarkey the candidates have been feeding us and decide who will better determine our future in Iraq. I’m living on a prayer that our next president will at least have the gumption, like Edwards did, to support the troops and end the war.