Sunday, June 27, 2010

Redeeming the Week in Entertainment: 6/20 - 6/27

The second entry into this feature again is going to cover some pretty wide territory from USA World Cup failures to Jason Derulo's breathy stylings. For those who didn't catch the first entry and have no idea what this weekly feature is about, here is a re-cap of the mission this feature sets out to be.

Instead of just simply looking to kill time or 'veg out', I'll be looking deeper into the entertainment I take in and try and glean something of value from it. This will probably manifest itself in a quick paragraph or two on a few of the things I watched the previous week. You might get an articulate discourse on deep philosophical themes, or just a quick unsupported opinion or two. Some of the items included may seem 'unredeemable', but certainly I feel the act of thinking critically about it and recognizing its' faults and weaknesses, can itself be a redeeming act. It's ultimately an exercise for me to continue thinking deeper about the entertainment I consume, as well as a way to kind of share a 'week in review' with anyone who cares to read. So lets get to it.

USA vs. Ghana
World Cup Soccer: Round of 16


College World Series

Both the Florida State Seminoles (I am a FSU grad) and the US World Cup Soccer Team were recent causes that I've taken up. It's not that I didn't like either (I've been to several FSU games and watched the last World Cup), but both recently made it to the final stages of their respective playoffs and cheering on the team not only became easier, but it quickly became a thing of passion. Of course, winning makes it easier, but with such a full schedule, I've just now gotten a chance to follow with any detail.

As fast as I became a passionate fan, FSU and the U.S. were knocked out of the tournament. FSU took a 7-2 lead into the late innings and ultimately collapsed. The U.S. allowed early goals in regulation and then overtime, only to succumb to a Ghana team that could've been beaten. Immediately after the losses my (as well as most people I presume) initial reaction was to be angry with the teams themselves. They blew it, they stunk it up, they choked, they were outclassed, and on and on the thoughts ran through my head.

That's when I really felt like I had to put it into the correct perspective. Certainly, there is criticism for each team and for the individual errors committed, but it's also so easy to lose sight of the accomplishments that brought me to watch the team to begin with. How easy is it to believe that the USA's loss just confirms what the world wants to believe, the US will never be good at soccer. What a minute though, we went to the round of 16 out of all the soccer powerhouses in the world. On top of that, we were one or two mistakes away from making the quarterfinals, a place we had gotten to in 2002. Perennial big dogs like France and Italy couldn't even make it out of their groups, leaving with disappointed teams. The world of soccer is competitive and tough, yet the USA has competed and been a force to reckon with for at least a decade.

What FSU and the USA has taught me is to strive to put my efforts and the efforts of others in the correct perspective. Remember how great the last inning strikeout was to get us into the College World Series? Remember the excitement that came with Donovan's wining goal in the 91st minute against Slovenia? We aren't owed these memories, and we should recognize them when they come around. Thank you USA and FSU for your passion and drive to win. It was a pleasure to get a chance to cheer you on.

Jason Derulo
Singer of "In My Head", "Watcha Say", & "Ridin Solo"
(Video is not suitable for all ages, and NSFW)

Right now it seems that top 40 radio is just dominated by the same breathy young R&B star in every song. Between Jason Derulo, Taio Cruz's "Break Your Heart", Travie Mccoy's "Billionaire", Drake's "Find Your Love", and the return of Usher & Kanye West, I don't know if we ever get a break from it (except for Gaga or Keisha it seems). I single out Derulo's "In My Head" because I think it's the worst example of the entire genre of r&b mixed with dance club beats that Usher and Kanye have pioneered.

The fact that the song begins with his own name as self-promotion is reason enough to turn it off, but listen to all the extra little things he seems to add to every line, with extra breaths and 'oohs' an 'ahhs'. In the tradition of Simon Fuller's critical eye, this song is so indulgent it takes on a self-parody flavor and has to represent the maturation and fall for this genre. Perhaps he can be cut some slack by just saying he was trying to do his best homage (more like impression) to Michael Jackson. In fact, the video in a way comes off like Michael's "The Way You Make Me Feel" video. That being said, this whole trend annoys me for it's emphasis on style (really an over-indulgent style) that only points inwards. Do I even need to mention the quality of the lyrics?

Lady Antebellum
"Need You Now"
(Click the Picture to watch the Video)

It's a song that has been in circulation for quite some time now, and I keep playing it over and over myself. I don't highlight this song because of the genre contrast with the R&B above (I like both genres equally), but because I think there is an honesty and simplicity contrast. From a Christian perspective, this song features two hurting people whom probably shouldn't be turning to alcohol to drown sorrows. However, what the song nails is the honesty of what it's like to hurt in needing someone. The music and vocal styling accentuate the melancholy and pain present in the lyrics and I think it's something everyone (even those not in that particular position) can really relate to and 'feel'. Besides the musical aspect of it, I think thats what makes this a successful cross over into pop radio. People always respond to an honest and sincere plea. It's the same kind (although spiritual in nature) of honest and heartfelt pleas that David makes in the Psalms. Something about human interaction finds it necessary, important, and healthy to share these feelings, and Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" is a good example of it.

The Mythbusters
Television Show airing on Discovery Channel

I absolutely love The Mythbusters! I took a vacation last week and as part of winding down, ending up watching show after show (including one of their countdown specials). Mythbusters is a rare show that is always educating, while always entertaining. While they always do a great job in attempting to explain the science behind their projects, I think the shows major appeal lies elsewhere. The best thing the show puts forward is the amazing chemistry between their leads as well as the highs and lows of the projects they take on.

Like most of the best sitcoms, they feature casts that you would want to hang out with; people who love life, enjoy it in the moment, while also sharing their feelings and thoughts. For anyone who has watched multiple episodes of the show, you know there are plenty of inside moments, one-liners, and character on display, that we feel like part of the crew. The difference being that this essentially isn't a scripted 'fake' show. For the most part, the responses and relationships in the show are all genuine, and enjoyable to watch.

However, happiness and chemistry alone doesn't a great show make. It's the ability of Mythbusters to put that joy and chemistry at the service of their 'work' that makes it even more redeeming. What a great example to see such unity in a team, such drive and critical thought on a project, and great joy at a result well deserved. I think what makes it most appealing to this Christian man, is that they are enjoying and flourishing at the gifts of God. Unity, creativity, and productivity are a few of the qualities this show demonstrates. We all could take a few lessons from the Mythbusters.

Jackie Chan

I've begun a new featured list and it's Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes. It's required me to spend a lot of time reviewing Chan's films and sequences. For my thoughts on Chan and what he has to offer us, check out my Introduction to the List or the first few ones I've released below.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 90-81


90. Chan Takes On Iron Head the Thief
Drunken Master (1978)
Category: Fight - One on One
(The fight begins at 2:20)

This comical fight scene comes from Chan's breakthrough film Drunken Master. Although I feel the film is a bit overrated, this sequence displays some of Chan's burgeoning skills. Lots of fast foot and hand work along with a 'Bruce Lee' moment with a hammer.

89. Drunken Master vs. The Bamboo King
Drunken Master (1978)
Category: Weapon Fight

Another fight from Drunken Master see's our arrogant Chan in a beautifully staged fight featuring bo sticks and a wooden stool. In retrospect, this could be lower on the list, if it wasn't for how much I hate Chan's personality in this film. It makes the fart and poop jokes that much more distateful and just doesn't find the right tone. This is great one on one work though that would make Lau Kar-Lueng proud.

88. Draggd Behind a Hovercraft & Stopping it in the City
Rumble in the Bronx (1996)
Category: Chase/Stunt

Just an absolute stunt fest and the first action clip that really shows the difference between Chan and all his action counterparts. From huge jumps (jumping onto the hovercraft broke Chan's ankle), to skiing behind the craft, to all the ridiculous hanging on, this is just one beautiful stunt after another. I particularly love the bit where Chan gets crushed by the hovercraft and rises out fo the sand in it's aftermath, I couldn't imagine Keaton with a straighter face.

87. General Fights His Own Army to the End
The Myth (2005)
Category: Fight - Weapons Fight

The Myth was Chan's attempt at an epic period piece (like Hero) mixed with an Indiana Jones adventure story. While its clearly in the 'superhuman' realm of fighting, I think Chan is able here to pull off this one man vs. hundreds feel he is going for. Again, it's a different style of fight than Chan is exploring and his creativity comes through here as well, see how he uses his spear to send rock projectiles into the oncoming calvary. It's not perfect, but I find it inventive and effective.

86. Exploding Tanker Truck Finale
The Accidental Spy (2002)
Category: Action/Stunt/Car Chase
(It doesn't really begin until 0:15 in)

Few people could blend the different categories of action scenes like Chan can. In this epic scene here we have elements of a car chase, fight scene, and thrilling disaster piece. There's ample practical stunts, practical destruction, and it's filmed pretty well to boot. The only real negative are the clearly CGI flames on the tanker. In the end, its forgiveable for such a great real explosion in the end though.

85. Final Fight in the Museum
Rush Hour (1998)
Category: Fight - Multiple People / Stunt
(The scene begins at 7:31)

Another great hybrid action sequence from Chan. What starts out as a shootout becomes a fight and ends with parkour (not seen in the clip) and one incredible stunt. What helps this scene is that it fits really well as the finale of the film. While there are plenty of problems with the film, this finale does a good job in brining it all together and wrapping it up with action. Chan uses a gag here that he exploits in several of his fights, watch how an enemy will discover a soft spot of Chan's (in this case, the fact they don't want the vases broken) and exploits it for laughs. A very clever gag.

84. Circular Door and the Police
Shanghai Knights (2003)
Category: Fight - Multiple People
(Unable to embed compatible video but LINK is here. Video starts at 8:00)

It's such a frivolous little action beat that you may not think twice about the creativity and cleverness on display. It's only a minute and twenty seconds long, but there is a grace to every step Chan takes here; notice he slides out the door at the last second getting his hat stuck, something he finishes the scene by putting on. He would keep the same theme in the next action scene that see's him lose his jacket in the beginning and then put it on at the end. Who else puts together such a sublime piece of wackiness, grace, and wit? I think the music just underscores it perfectly.

83. Snowmobile and Helicopter Shootout
Police Story IV: First Strike (1997)
Category: Action/Chase
(All 3 videos combined only equal a little over 5 min.)

James Bond gets the Jackie treatment here in another one of Chan's shootout/fight/chase/stunt hybrid scenes. Leave it to Chan to take what is essentially a Bond ripoff (the skiing henchmen) and turn it into a self-deprecating (the silly hat is from a souvenir shop) scene of humor. See for instance Chan's ungloved hands, which remain ungloved the whole sequence, even after he takes an icy dip. Add snowboarding to his resume alongside skiing behind a hovercraft.

82. Lu Yan and Jason fight Soldiers in the Restaurant
The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)
Category: Fight - Multiple People
(Unable to embed compatible video, but LINK is here)

Essentially The Forgotten Kingdom was written off because it was directed at a family audience. It's a shame because two of Chan's best action sequences came from that film, including this scene that allows Chan a few moments to really shine with a wooden bo. You get the feeling here that Chan was able to use the young boy in much the same way he integrated Tucker in his Rush Hour sequences. It's too bad it's the forgotten film, because this sequence here deserves to be remembered.

81. Chinese Village Fight w/ Sammo Hung
Around the World in 80 Days (2004)
Category: Weapons Fight - Muliple People
(Unable to embed compatible video, but LINK is here. Video starts at 4 min.)

Another forgotten and overlooked film in Chan's career, features a couple imaginative sequences by Chan. While the film is suspect, at the very least Chan was able to demonstrate a couple of exemplary scenes like the one above.

Behind on the List?
Use the Links Below to Re-Cap

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: 100-91


100. Fighting together for the first time
Rush Hour (1998)
Category: Fight - Multiple People
(fight begins at minute 6)

Although I didn't intend this to be, I'm delighted that the first Jackie Chan film I saw lands the first action sequence on the list. It's kinda short and features several gags he's done better in other sequences, but it's still a fun sequence thats different because Chan is attempting to work Chris Tucker into the fighting, including a memorable moment when they finally click and score parallel jump-kicks. Notice how Chan uses the chairs and rugs in this scene. Very creative. In a scene that didn't make the list, Chan uses this rug gag to hilarious results in Operation Condor.

99. Helping Panther Escape from Prison
Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)
Category: Chase - Fight/Action
(sequence begins right away and ends at 5:40)

Not exactly a stunner sequence, but Jackie presents some really quick and crisp fighting that is typical of his eighties and early nineties output. Jackie is playing a cop undercover attempting to win the trust of an inmate by helping him breakout. There is a hilarious beat where after a beautiful display of kung fu Jackie remembers he has to look non-police like and hams it up with a weird pose. The sequence is topped off by an incredible slide down the side of a mountain on a rope. The stunt is great and no doubt incredibly dangerous.

98. Speed Boat Chase in Hong Kong
Twin Dragons (1992)
Category: Chase - Boat

How many great speed boat chases are there in film? Okay, I hear you John Woo and Michael Mann fans. Besides Face/Off and the Miami Vice series, Chan pulls off a fun and believable boat chase here. What separates it from your typical boat chase is that twice, the opposing boat literally comes on top of Jackie's boat, WHILE Jackie is driving and in shot! Incredible.

97. Raiding a Money Laundering Outfit
Crime Story (1993)
Category: Action/Fight
(Scene covers two videos, but only lasts about 3 min.)

Crime Story was Jackie Chan's attempt to do a 'gritty' police drama rather than the more light-hearted affairs he was doing. The results were mixed overall, but this was the best sequence to come out of the film. Chan's emphasis on 'gritty' comes across as things are less acrobatic and comedy filled than they are high-wire and brutal. The real heroes of this sequence is the Jackie Chan stunt team that takes numerous 15 foot falls that look very real and very painful.

96. Mr. Han Takes on a Gang of Kids
The Karate Kid (2010)
Category: Fight - Multiple People
(there is no video available yet for this one)

Probably the single best sequence Chan has put out since 2008's Forbidden Kingdom. It's a tricky sequence because it essentially boils down to a grown man beating up a gang of kids. They are aggressive and mean, but they are still kids. Chan gets around this by cleverly crafting the fight to where he only redirects the attacks of the kids to where they attack themselves; Chan essentially never attacks the kids himself. Very clever and creative, a small example of what is to come later in the list.

95. Cop Team is Ambushed and Strung Up
New Police Story (2004)
Category: Action - Shootout
(There is no video available)

Another attempt by Chan to return to a 'grittier' and more grounded police drama. The arrogant Jackie leads a young SWAT team into a trap set by young bank robbers. Essentially it's an ambush that features a good shootout sequence followed by some decent fighting. It's different for Jackie because the sequence see's Jackie lose his whole team as well as lose the fight with the young kung fu expert. Few action stars would take risks like this.

94. Showing Off by Fighting a Gang Member in a Temple
Dragon Lord (1982)
Category: Fight - Multiple People
(Fight begins at minute 4)

Dragon Lord (1982) came after Chan's big breakthroughs in 1978, but before he really established himself as THE superstar with 1983's Project A. Dragon Lord was a bit of a let down, as it featured most of Chan's unfortunate indulgences and little comedy or creativity. Still, it produced two scenes on the list. He's an arrogant punk in this scene trying to show off his kung fu skills in front of the ladies. It's unfortunate his character has little skills, but its a fun sequence to watch him try and take on and outwit clearly better opponents. Chan's quickness and overall flexibility really come across well in this scene.

93. Swinging a Good Horshoe
Shanghai Noon (2000)
Category: Weapon Fight
(I couldn't embed the right size video, here is the LINK to view it)

Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan are an infinitely better pairing than Chan and Tucker in the Rush Hour series in my opinion. From their first pairing comes this creative sequence where Chan creates a rope dart out of a horseshoe and a length of rope. You might argue that it's not the most incredible sequence or even that long of a sequence (I've seen much better technical use of the rope dart before), but there is just something so memorable about the way Chan uses it here.

92. Massage Parlor Scuffle
Rush Hour 2 (2001)
Category: Fight - Multiple People

It's essentially a re-mix of my #100 fight scene, but this one is definitely better. Chan gets a bigger chance to shine here, combining some great acrobatics with a couple great sequences where he fights two at a time. Chan is also able to integrate Tucker better here, it seems as though he finally was getting the hang of how to use him. I think Tucker's "You all look alike" line after punching Chan is great as well.

91. Military Hospital Fight
The Accidental Spy (2002)
Category: Prop Fight
(I couldn't embed the right size video, here is the LINK to view it)

In what was otherwise one of Chan's most forgettable films (still scored 3 scenes on this list though), this funny prop fight ranks in at 91. It starts out as an interesting, "What's he going to use next" kinda prop fight that ends in one of Chan's most hilarious bits, making genius use of a defibrillator. Again, what other action star would allow himself to be the butt of an excellent joke like that? Chan's influence by Keaton and Chaplin is evident in that joke there.

Behind on the list? Click the Link below to Re-Cap

Jackie Chan's Top 100 Action Scenes: Introduction


Without question, Jackie Chan is one of the greatest action stars, directors, and minds to ever try their hand in film-making. He first had a film role in 1962, made his big break in 1978 (with Snake in Eagles Shadow as well as Drunken Master) and has created countless classic action films and sequences since. I first encountered Jackie in 1998 with Rush Hour (which I thought was incredible at the time), and was amazed at how he constructed quick, elaborate, fight sequences with daring stunts and intricate hand and footwork. Here was something completely different than the standard kick and punch of Jean Claude Van-Damme (or kick, punch, & toss if you're Steven Seagal).

As I began to watch more of Chan's work, I realized that it just wasn't something different, it was in a class of its own. The next works I discovered were Rumble in the Bronx and Police Story IV: First Strike. This was some of his first imports (not even his best) into America (I only got them in late 1998 and 1999), but I thought they were incredible. Add on to that, my mother enjoyed Chan's brand of action, which featured intricacy over brutality, comedy over seriousness, and cleverness over obviousness. We began to watch the films together and we both got a kick out of them (no pun intended there).

I know what you must be saying, "You haven't even finished your 100 Favorite Films of All-Time, why tackle another?". The simple answer is, "Because I want to do this one right now!" Sorry, there's no way around it, I stalled out on #41 of my Favorite film list. I do expect to get back to that soon, but I've been waiting to do this Jackie Chan list for ages now. About five months ago I was able to finish off all the major films in Jackie's filmography, and I recently had a week vacation to begin and finish the actual ordering from over 200 Jackie Chan action sequences, no simple task (I had to go back and watch over 90% of the 100 action scenes).

My mindset in crafting the list was to not order the list in the sense of 'objective quality' only. Much like I do with my yearly best pictures and my personal top 100, the list is a balance of quality and personal enjoyment. One sequence might be technically more impressive than others, but if I just don't enjoy watching it as much, then it will probably rank lower than a scene that might scene less impressive that I just find more enjoyable. Most action stars would have a list of 100 shootouts or 100 fights, Jackie's list is a compilation of impressive fights, mind-blowing stunt fests, hilarious set pieces, bold car chases, outlandish foot chases, scuba tank fights, and on and on. No other star has the creative wit and diversity to pull off a list like the one I'm about to post; there is none like Jackie Chan. No other action star could say he was influenced as much by Bruce Lee as he was Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

This list is also meant as a research tool and advertisement for all current fans of Chan and future fans of Chan. There might be those who only know his recent output, perhaps only seeing him in things like The Spy Next Door or The Karate Kid. I hope that this list will let you see the glory, contributions to cinema, and (lets be frank) art that he has left behind. For those interested in Chan already, I hope this is a guide to further delve into the myriad of pleasures that his films have to offer. I look forward to your thoughts on my judgments, placings, and commentary. As much as any good film, some of Chan's sequences inspire debate, thought, and mixed feelings.

Perhaps in the end, as much as I am making this list for others, I'm making it for myself. For Chan's ability to bring myself to awe and wonder & for his ability to go beyond and consistently challenge himself, and me in the process. Like many at the top of their fields, their drive & determination to be the best and present their best, challenges all those who watch them in the process. Most of all though, I am making this list for the way Chan's films were able to bring my mother and I together; to just enjoy his films and all they entail. They are fond memories and I always know that when I go home, we can pop one in and just sit and enjoy them. As much as this list is about measuring things, that's something that just can't be measured.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Redeeming the Week in Entertainment: 6/12 - 6/19

This will be the first entry into what I hope will eventually become a weekly one. I watch a variety of different television shows, films, youtube videos, DVDs, and sporting events, in the span of any given week, and this weekly feature will aim to 'redeem' them. In other words, was their something redeeming about that Seinfeld episode I watched earlier in the week, what about the NBA Finals game, and how about that video that got e-mailed to me?

What exactly do I mean by redeeming? Instead of just simply looking to kill time or 'veg out', I'll be looking deeper into the entertainment I take in and try and glean something of value from it. This will probably manifest itself in a quick paragraph or two on a few of the things I watched the previous week. You might get an articulate discourse on deep philosophical themes, or just a quick unsupported opinion or two. Some of the items included may seem 'unredeemable', but certainly I feel the act of thinking critically about it and recognizing its' faults and weaknesses, can itself be a redeeming act. It's ultimately an exercise for me to continue thinking deeper about the entertainment I consume, as well as a way to kind of share a 'week in review' with anyone who cares to read. All in all, we'll see how it turns out.

"California Gurls" by Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg
Youtube Music Video
**Video is not suitable for Work or for All Ages. Watch at your own discretion

I heard the song on the radio a couple weeks ago, then kept hearing it. It eventually got stuck in my head and I began to get curious about a few of the lyrics so I then looked up the video. Beyond being an extremely catchy tune, this song and video are horrendous. It certainly follows the current trend of kitschy and over the top music videos, but ultimately also follows the trend of women allowing themselves to be exploited simply as objects of sexual satisfaction. The video ultimately features a lineup of women dancing in suggestive (and terribly unimaginative) costumes, while singing lyrics about how California women are openly promiscuous. Snoop Dogg comes off as the 'pimp' in the video, a role he clearly seems comfortable with.

I include this video because it's so easy to just listen to this song and sing along with it, without actually considering what it's lyrics and video are presenting. I'm not saying its wrong to listen to it (darnit for being so catchy), but that once one knows fully well the underlying messages and video portrayals it just becomes harder to overlook them. I'm just tired of women portraying themselves as objectified sex objects for the pleasure of men. It's one thing to sing your own praises, but a complete other to obviously pander to men's basest desires. Perhaps it doesn't help matters that Snoop Dogg is a peddler of his own pornography line, this continues to give the impression that Perry (whose career this is) is just a girl in Snoop's own lineup.

"I Can't Be Tamed" by Miley Cyrus
**Video is not suitable for Work or for All Ages. Watch at your own discretion

It really is an unfortunate turn for the career of Miley. It seems as though every young female artist has to have some type of "coming out" song that declares they aren't the young pop princess they used to be, and as much as this song wants to claim that Miley can't be tamed, she certainly is following a predictable, bankable, and artistically empty course. How is this video and song any different than what Britney, Christina, or Lady Gaga have done? Songs like "The Climb" and "Party in the USA" for all their cheesiness or pop ballad machine cut feel, were different than the field of dance club fetish songs out there right now. There's nothing more tame and predictable than for Miley to re-envision herself as a fetishistic, brooding, and 'un-tameable' woman. No one needs to tame something thats already lame.

Celtics vs. Lakers
Game 7 of the NBA Finals

The last couple of years I've enjoyed watching the NBA playoffs. I typically don't follow the regular season (just don't have the time), but the playoffs have always made me clear my nightly schedule. Now there are certainly exceptions to the rule here, but NBA playoff basketball is filled with redeeming storylines, players, and performances. In particular, the two teams that made it to the finals this year really captured my attention. The team play of the Boston Celtics was incredible to watch and follow. In fact, when the Celt's played the team defense they were capable of playing it was beautiful to watch their team make defensive rotations, double teams, blocks, and steals, then run down the court in transition and put it in the basket.

On the flip side, the Lakers were a case study in steady and determined reliance and trust in their system and strategy. It seemed as long as the Lakers were able to remain consistent to their strategy while the Celtics made their bursts of inspired play, they were able to outlast and overcome the Celtics. Overall, the effort, determination, mental adjustments and restraint displayed by both teams is something to walk away from inspired. It has certainly gotten me back into playing basketball, as well as considering how those qualities and values can be adapted to a ministry team.

Toy Story 3

For a detailed look into "The Hidden Story Behind Toy Story 3", check out my previously posted essay here.

USA vs. Slovenia
World Cup Soccer

The first time I've found myself completely engrossed in a soccer match. It was great to see a deflated US team come back during the second half and rally to tie. It was frustrating to watch a poorly officiated call rob the US of a much needed win. What to take away from this?

It's easy for non-soccer fans to make fun of the sport. It certainly isn't as schematic driven as football or basketball, and several elements are easy to pick on. However, I'm glad that I haven't given up on the sport when my first few viewings were not enjoyable. There is an interesting ebb and flow to a well played soccer match that can be just as entertaining as any sport I've watched. Between penalty kicks, corner kicks, crossing kicks and breakaways, there is little lack of tension and suspense.

As an American I would love to see instant-replay, less ties, and less emphasis on taking a dive, but for all those faults, there is plenty here to like. I'm glad I've stuck with the sport and didn't just close off to it. For those still not convinced, watch the games with other soccer fans, or if possible, soccer players. Ask them questions about what is going on, why certain players reacted in the way they did and so forth. There is a lot going on that I didn't know about, and if there is anything redeeming to take out of all the time I've spent trying to enjoy soccer, it's that we sometimes have to put forth a considerable effort to understand things we initially don't enjoy or understand. In the end, it was really worth it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Hidden Story Behind Toy Story 3

After watching Toy Story 3, hearing reviews from friends, and reading several critical reviews of the film, I am stunned that much of the real story in Toy Story 3 has gone unnoticed. Underneath the bright colors, the funny lines, and the tear-jerking moments lies an existential tension that ultimately upholds a biting and deceptive nihilism that most audiences don't pick up on and if they did, would probably sour on the film. What am I talking about you ask? Lets dig a bit deeper.


Let's first get this out of the way; Toy Story 3 is a good film. The love from the writers and animators is clearly on display here, leading to a film that is equally parts funny, engrossing, and touching. Add on top of that continued great voice work, some fun new characters, and how could this film not be a success? While Toy Story 3 is clearly a winning film, there are a few issues that serve to limit this film (in many ways the series of films as well) for me, and it surprises me that many other critics and moviegoers don't seem to notice these issues as well.

The drama of the Toy Story Universe depends on its ability to create relatable situations between the toy subjects and the audience members. While there certainly are emotional points the audience can relate to within Toy Story 3, the overall dramatic issues are a failure as they fail to offer appropriately translatable situations for us, the audience. Toy Story 3's primary dramatic tension comes from Andy's growing older and no longer playing with his toys; he'll be going off to college by the end of the film. As such, the whole cast of toys has been getting neglected, thrown out, or donated. Our remaining cast of toys has to struggle with no longer being useful to their owner and eventually getting thrown into the trash, tossed in the attic, or donated to a daycare center. While it's a very relatable feeling to no longer feel wanted or used and indeed presents the audience with a similar existential crises, I don't think it becomes an appropriate tension for an audience to relate to.

Woody makes the argument early in the film that a toy's purpose is to be "there for Andy, whenever he needs them", basically saying that the purpose of life (for a toy) is to fulfill their role (being available to give joy to the kid) regardless of the circumstances (his seeming apathy and neglect). This makes things difficult for the audience because our purposes in life are very different. While Woody makes the argument that a toy's value comes in it's usefulness and acceptance by it's owner, that's a diametrically opposed value to what we feel humans have.

For instance, if something only has value because something outside of it finds it useful, attractive, fun, or whatever, then it has extrinsic value. Yet, most religions and the predominant culture of the day would argue that humans have intrinsic value. Meaning that we are valuable simply because of who we are and not based on anything outside us, say our family's love or our boyfriend's value of us. I would argue that this is the mindset the audience comes in with. It surprises me that the audience never picks up on the idea that the movie doesn't agree with that viewpoint. Woody makes this extrinsic argument in the beginning of the film (and in a way, the whole film series has been making it.)

You might say that this is just a beginning point for the film and that the theory undergoes change. Well, does it? By the end of the film, we find that the theme has gone from, "We are here for Andy" to "We are here for each other". This is told poignantly in a moment where our cast of toys embraces their seemingly inevitable fate of death (in a tear-jerking scene that would on its own stand as one of the best dramatic scenes of the year). However, has it changed our main issue of extrinsic versus intrinsic value? Unfortunately not, it's only multiplied it. Instead of finding one's value in the acceptance of the joy of it's owner, it's now about finding value in the acceptance of community. While it's true that genuine satisfaction comes from pleasing others and finding acceptance by others, should we be so comfortable with a film that makes it not a side-truth of our world, but 'the truth' of our world?

Ultimately what it comes down to is that Toy Story 3 is a nihilistic story at its heart, making it more akin to The Road, Up in the Air and No Country For Old Men than people would think. It's a story about beings who realize their ultimate purposelessness (Andy's growing indifference, toddler's mayhem, their fate being out of their hands, their ultimate fate at the dump), and must come to terms with creating value out of that world, where none exists. In this case, the value is family and staying together. There is nothing wrong with having a movie with this theme, however, it does strike me as odd that most people don't see it, or even know that it's going on.

I don't mind a nihilistic theme in a major release, but what I do mind are inconsistent themes of nihilism, which Toy Story 3 has in spades. As our film progresses, our characters ultimately catch onto tha "finding joy and purpose in their owner" is meaningless and changes their value to "finding joy and purpose in community". However, through some clever work by Woody (read writer manipulation), they are able to find a warm and caring owner again by the end. In essence, they are able to find a new Andy, one who takes care of them and looks after them. This is a lazy way to reward our characters and resolve a major worldview issue. Instead of our toys actually embracing and finding their fates as temporary passing objects of other's affections, they are rescued and sent into the hands of a new loving owner and community of toys.

One reviewer called this as close to 'religion' as a secular film gets, in remarking that there is an acceptance of mortality & purposelessness, but through the building of values they kind of find 're-birth' into a new world. I disagree. I think it's half-hearted nihilism. Here is the rub, if Andy can grow indifferent than so can their new owner. If Andy and the new owner can grow indifferent, then so can the other toys in their acceptance of each other. This is what the toys and the audience, after our experiences in this film should have learned. We shouldn't feel like the toys find a 'happily ever after', they have simply prolonged their fate, and allowed their value to come from community and the acceptance of an owner. What happens when this new owner tires of them? The film doesn't really want to embrace a nihilistic view of the world to it's end. It's more interested in a happy ending and a friendly loving community.

While the Toy Story 3 Universe may admit that these toys are just a piece of plastic meant to be thrown away when it's outlasted its usefulness, it ultimately doesn't treat them that way, because the audience wouldn't accept that. A brave film would've followed our heroes to their demise and to the triumph of its dramatic themes. Instead, the film stutters and panders not just to the audience, but more than likely to the half-hearted existential nihilism of the writers. It only makes me appreciate more the fully committed nihilism of a Charlie Kaufman, Cormac McCarthy, or Werner Herzog. They stare into the face of the abyss and come out changed, scared, and scarred. Our brave Toy Story characters stare into the face of the abyss and come out with smiles, hugs, laughs, and the welcoming arms of a re-born owner who lavishes attention, care, and love upon them. Something doesn't seem right here and I hope that audiences would take notice.

Sidenote: Does anyone else find it a little sad that rather than say goodbye to friends and family, Andy has to say goodbye to his 'good' friends Buzz and Woody? It's as if the film says that the best friend a boy could have are his toys. I'm all for creative play with toys, but shouldn't there be some balance with human interaction there? I just find the emphasis on the importance of toys (and the ungodly amount of toys) in a child's life to be a little scary.