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Shrinky Dinks

Remember Shrinky-Dinks? Reminiscing about them has inspired my creative side. I've been trying to devise an activity for young children involving more hazards than using a hot oven to make brightly-colored plastic pieces that come out looking just like hard candy, sized to lodge snugly in a toddler's throat.

So far, all I've got is a variation of Laser Tag, called Taser Tag. I don't think it can beat Shrinky Dinks though. The bar is just too high.

Sweet Tea vs. Green Tea

who would win in a fight?

Yes, it's the long awaited return of "Who would win in a fight?" This time it's Sweet Tea, hailing from America's deep south, squaring off against Green Tea, the Asian sensation. Green Tea ought to be a little scared going into this one, as Sweet Tea obviously has considerable hatred toward anyone who is not white. Sweet Tea would probably start out pummeling Green Tea in a sugar-fueled, racist rage, but then find himself baffled by Green Tea's mystical ability to self-heal. Green Tea would take advantage of Sweet Tea's confusion, executing a series of fierce martial arts moves that would leave Sweet Tea all dried up.

Lower your confederate flags to half-mast, because Green Tea wins!

Ran

I will admit right up front that I know very little about Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa is virtually the only Japanese director that I've been reasonably exposed to, but what an exposure it has been! Over the last few years he has easily become one of my favorite filmmakers from anywhere. His films are generally considered to have the most "western" (hemisphere, not film genre) feel of the major Japanese directors, contributing largely to his international appeal. For awhile, I wondered if I might get kicked out of the film geek club because I latched onto the easiest of Japanese filmmakers for a westerner to appreciate, but I've since overcome that silly spark of shame. Great cinema is great cinema and Kurosawa has created some of the best I've ever experienced.

In Ran, Kurosawa reinterprets Shakespeare's King Lear in a feudal Japanese setting. Tatsuya Nakadai gives a memorable performance as Hidetora, a Japanese lord who misjudges the loyalties of his three sons and unwisely abdicates his kingdom to the eldest. His decision sets off a tragic storm of infighting, betrayal, revenge, and war, leading to his own descent into madness and grave regret.

Kurosawa paints an ugly, but poignant picture of humanity, expressed most powerfully in a striking sequence near the middle of the film. Hidetora, banished from his own kindgom, is holed up in one of his former castles. The armies of Hidetora's two oldest sons attack the stronghold in order to push their father out completely. Kurosawa depicts the battle with an extended montage showing the bloody deaths of Hidetora's personal guard while Hidetora retreats to the top of the main tower, slowly losing all hope. The only sound throughout the entire montage is the orchestral swelling of sorrowful, yet militant strings. Kurosawa's use of color here is powerful, as the dark and hazy battlefield is splashed with the bright yellow and red banners worn by each attacking soldier. The juxtaposition of beautifully sad music and splashes of bright color set against violently extreme imagery reflects what is in every human's heart: goodness and beauty, horribly distorted by utter depravity.

Unfortunately, Kurosawa's Ran offers little redemption in this tragic vision of human existence. Near the end of the film, two characters share an exchange that is as thematically explicit as dialogue can be. One cries out to the gods, questioning their existence and cursing them for their cruelty. The other replies, "Stop it! Do not curse the gods! It is they who weep. In every age they've watched us tread the path of evil, unable to live without killing each other. They can't save us from ourselves." This is certainly a grim conclusion, but thankfully, one that falls just short of the truth. What Ran does not depict is the hope that does exist for salvation from ourselves: a God who does indeed weep watching us tread the path of evil, but offers another path full of grace and light. In all of its epic, cinematic poetry, Ran gives us the bad news, but ends before giving us the good news. Even so, it remains a gripping, powerful film and is certainly the masterwork of the late period in Kurosawa's long career.

Inflatable

Some brightly-colored images from the Great Balloon Race.







Black Snake Moan

Generally, I only end up commenting on movies that I really enjoy. Sometimes though, it's fun to analyze what makes a less-than-stellar film ineffective. Black Snake Moan is one such movie that just didn't work for me. I really wanted to like it. It had many things going for it that should have made it a personal favorite: Samuel L. Jackson, a blues music motif, and a redemptive theme. Yet none of those elements were able to redeem this film's poor execution.

Black Snake Moan takes place in a small-town farming community. Christina Ricci plays Ray, a young woman afflicted with severe nymphomania that causes her to cheat on her boyfriend and be used by men all over town. Ray's boyfriend, Ronnie, played surprisingly well by Justin Timberlake, carries his own affliction: clinical anxiety. While he is away on duty for the National Guard, Ray goes on a drug and sex binge, ending up scantilly-clad and beaten within an inch of her life on the side of road. She is found by a local farmer and blues musician, Lazarus, played by Sammy J. He takes her in to help heal her physical wounds and eventually makes it his mission to cure her of her psychological sickness as well.

That set-up sounds pretty good, doesn't it? The concept seems to provide ample opportunity for interesting relationships to develop and grow: a strong paternal relationship between Sammy J. and Ray as well as a repaired relationship between Ray and her boyfriend, highlighted by open, mutual support for each other's psychological challenges. In fact, the movie attempts to develop those exact relationships, but unfortunately, it comes off forced and off-center, rather than natural and convincing. I can only blame this on the direction (and perhaps partially on the writing), because the performances in the film are all pretty strong.

The major flaw of the film, for me, was that the character development was far too weak. I never felt especially connected to any of the characters and was never drawn into the supposed relationships between them. In a film that deals with heavy issues such as sexual abuse, anxiety, and infidelity, character development and emotional involvement of the audience are essential. While I was impacted by a couple of well-crafted scenes, the film as a whole lacked a strong emotional arc and simply fell flat. The heavily-marketed scenario of a barely-clothed white girl chained to an older black man's radiator, came off as a cheap gimmick, rather than a genuine, plot-advancing element. The use of the blues in the film also seemed tacked on, when it could have had a much more meaningful juxtaposition against the lives of the main characters.

I applaud the filmmakers for attempting to tell a story of restoration and grace, but many films have done so much more convincingly than Black Snake Moan. This one will just frustrate you with its unrealized potential and leave you with a case of the bad film blues.

Things You Might See...

...on a winery tour.



Once

Near the end of Willa Cather's book, My Antonia, the title character says to her old friend, "Ain't it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?" That same sentiment is brilliantly celebrated in Once, the latest film from director John Carney.

Once has a fairly uncomplicated premise: an Irish street musician meets a young, Czech woman and we experience the development of their unique and moving relationship over the course of one week in Dublin. Many aspects of the movie are notably simple - the monosyllabic title, the unnamed main characters referred to in the credits only as Guy and Girl, the cinema verité style, and the rather brief running time, to name just a few. And yet, in all of its simplicity, Once manages to achieve more depth and emotional significance than considerably more ambitious movies have been able to muster.

Once is a musical unlike any other musical I have seen. The characters do not sing lines of dialog to each other. Instead, when Guy and Girl play and sing in Once, they do so simply as musicians creating music, much as you might see in a biopic of a famous crooner. But through the lyrics, melodies, harmonies, and physical expressions in their songs, Guy and Girl subtly reveal much about themselves and the story that the movie tells. The songs are another layer woven into the fabric of the film, with words that dance in and out of each character's past experiences and present emotions. This music is much more than a mere aesthetic element to enhance the movie. It is the very heart of the film and the affect is pitch perfect.

Once is also a romance unlike the traditional romantic stories that so often make it to the big screen. The connection that develops between Guy and Girl is achingly meaningful and yet it transcends our expectations and typical romantic notions. Some might find it bittersweet, but I found it to be both genuine and inspiringly hopeful. Sometimes connections develop between people that are as profound as they are brief. These connections are rich with unforgettable moments, overwhelming emotions, and sincere beauty, but they are not intended to be lasting. Instead, they are intended to move each person in the direction that they are supposed to go. The first time that Guy and Girl sing together, they harmonize beautifully and poignantly in the chorus, singing, "Take this sinking boat and point it home..."

Those simple words describe perfectly the romance of Once. Ain't it wonderful how much people can mean to each other?

Su·pre·mi·um

i can't believe it's not a real word...

su·pre·mi·um
adj.
1. better than of the best of the greatest ever

usage example:
If your dad is the best, then my dad is supremium.

Strangers on a Train

Forgive me if I gush for moment over Alfred Hitchcock. Objectively, it's pretty safe to say that he is one of the most prolific and talented filmmakers in the (relatively short) history of cinema. He was the definition of a visionary with an incredible ability to see an entire movie in his head before ever shooting a thing. Personally, he is simply one of my favorite directors, because his films almost always make for a captivating and memorable experience.

Strangers on a Train
is the first in a string of exceptional releases from Hitchcock in the 1950s. I place it in the second-tier of his canon, not quite at the masterpiece level of films like Vertigo and Shadow of a Doubt, but still very, very good. The premise is fairly simple: two men, Guy and Bruno, have a chance meeting on a train. In the course of their conversation, Bruno playfully suggests a murder-swapping plot to get rid of an expendable person in each of their lives - the father Bruno hates and Guy's manipulative, unfaithful wife. Since they are strangers with no connection, there would be no reason to suspect either of them in the respective murders. Guy patronizes Bruno's idea and laughs it off, assuming that he can't be serious. But Guy soon learns that his assumption was very wrong, when his wife turns up dead and Bruno comes calling for Guy to hold up his end of the "agreement."

This film has much to appreciate - from the shadowy cinematography to the well-crafted tension for which Hitchcock is so well-known. But when I watched the film again recently, I was struck by something else entirely that I had never really considered before. Whether intentional or not, Strangers on a Train makes an interesting comment on manhood through the character of Guy.

From the beginning of the film, Guy is portrayed as passive and weak. This is established in his interaction with Bruno on the train. Though he clearly is not interested in engaging Bruno for very long, he allows Bruno to monopolize the entire train ride. At the end of their encounter, when Bruno asks him what he thinks of the murder-swapping idea, Guy gives only a patronizing, non-confrontational response. The whole mess that follows is a direct result of Guy's inability to cut their conversation short and to make a definitive, genuine response to Bruno's question about swapping murders.

Guy's weakness is further highlighted in the relationship with his wife. We learn that she cheats on him frequently, has been impregnated by another man, and intends to stay married to Guy only for the money that he is bringing in as a pro tennis player. Guy has apparently allowed her to manipulate and emasculate him time and again. Rather than facing these issues with his wife and addressing them directly, he ran to another woman for comfort and validation. His response to the final conversation with his wife, in which she reveals that she is not going to file for divorce, is to call his mistress and pitch an angry, childish fit.

Throughout the second act of the film, Guy continues his passivity, doing his best to avoid Bruno and hide the reality of the situation from himself and those around him. Only when he reveals the truth to his mistress, Ann, do we begin to see signs of a transformation that is fully realized in the tennis match in the third act. At the start of the match, the tennis announcers state what has been shown to us throughout the film - that Guy's typical approach is to lay back and be passive. But in this match, he becomes uncharacteristically aggressive, not allowing his opponent to dictate the play. It is the starting point of a thrilling final sequence in which Guy finally shows initiative, risking his freedom and safety in an effort to expose the truth and prove his innocence. In the midst of fighting for his life and his freedom, Guy saves a young boy from severe injury and possibly death. No doubt this is intended to amplify the tension of the scene and draw a clear line between Guy's character and that of Bruno. However, this sacrificial act is also the culmination of his growth as a man into a strong initiator who is willing to take necessary risks for the sake of truth and the good of others.

Did Hitchcock or the screenwriters really set out to make a film in which the main character is an exploration of what it means to be a man? I doubt it. I believe most of what I wrote about was intended primarily for dramatic effect rather than thematic expression, but the theme is a natural byproduct that peaks out from behind the shadows. Guy's turn toward being a man of initiative and strength certainly wasn't entirely pure. It was motivated primarily by self-preservation, but then, my own personal growth often begins in self-interest and so it does for most of us. Somewhere in the process though, I find myself moving beyond self-interest into shades of a masculine identity that is good for more than myself, just as Guy did on the carousel. His unselfish act to save the boy showed a glimmer of the masculine identity that men have been created to fulfill, typified by selfless sacrifice and confident initiative.

The Double Life of Veronique

i will openly admit that i really didn't know what to think when the closing credits started to roll on krysztof kieslowski's the double life of veronique. this is a gorgeously-shot, completely immersive film that unapologetically leaves the viewer with many unanswered questions.

the storyline follows two women, played by the same actress, who share a mysterious mental and emotional connection, despite having never met. the most apparent aspect of their subconscious connection is that veronique, the young french woman, seems to make decisions based on the parallel experiences of her polish counterpart, weronika, without consciously knowing why. the first act of the film follows weronika almost exclusively as she begins her singing career. After a dramatic and significant event in weronika's life, the film turns to veronique for the final two acts, focusing primarily on her uniquely developing romantic relationship with a children's author.

the double life of veronique is so rich and densely-woven that i found myself getting lost in all of the sensory and thematic layers. the cinematography is striking, with many memorable shots exhibiting a surreal and beautifully disorienting quality. the camera exposes a number of fascinating visual motifs as the film progresses - windows, reflections, and certain color associations, just to name a few. music plays a signficant role as well in the surreal connection between weronika and veronique. many musical cues throughout the film provide potential clues in unlocking the mystery of this film's meaning.

and it is, most definitely, a mystery - at least it is to me after seeing the film only once. kieslowski is known for creating films that ask questions, rather than make statements and the double life of veronique is no exception. (in fact, it is perhaps the strongest example). he gives the viewer so much to process in this film and yet maintains almost complete ambiguity, leaving it open to any number of interpretations. as i continue to ponder and even revisit the film, i'm sure that my own interpretations will begin to take shape. in the meantime, i am haunted by its questions and anxious to sink back into the double life of veronique.