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Monthly Archives: July 2013

The AFI Top 100 Films: E.T. (#25)

Entertainment 150E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore
Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Steven Spielberg

This movie was a surprise. When it was released it was an instant classic, and growing up in the 80s and early 90s it was impossible to miss all the spoofs and parodies that abounded afterwards. Over time, the cultural kruft starts to collect on your memory instead of the movie itself. I remember it being a little hokey, an example of Spielberg’s worst sentimental excesses that worked at the time but probably didn’t age too well.

I’m quite happy I was so wrong. E.T. is sentimental, sure, and it plays a few of its scenes with an inflated sense of how cute it’s being. But it’s also a really great movie about what it was like to be a child in the 80s, where it was becoming increasingly common for your parents to have checked out on your upbringing for a bit. What’s most impressive to me is how Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison present a broken home without any accusations; each of its characters, from Elliot’s mom (Wallace) to his sister (Barrymore) to his brother and his friends, are treated compassionately. You understand what it’s like to be each of them, and why they react the way they do.

Elliot is the middle child in a recently-broken home. His mother is working hard to keep the family afloat and mourning the death of her marriage. His older brother is being a bratty teenager, while his younger sister is…well, she’s his younger sister. Elliot himself doesn’t have many friends, and he tags along with his brother’s friends, taking mild abuse just to be a part of some sort of social order. He’s lonely, but there’s not much to be done about it. He is where he is, until he discovers the alien hiding in the tool shed of his backyard.

The friendship that’s forged is painstaking; Elliot and the alien (dubbed E.T.) have to overcome vast language and cultural barriers. But, through patience and persistence, it happens. All the while, E.T. is trying to find his way back to his home planet and he’s being tracked by government agents. Along the way, sister Gertie and brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) are let in on the secret, and the experience of befriending and helping this visitor brings them closer as a family.

It sounds hokey, and maybe it is; but it’s also surprisingly effective. The performances by the mostly young cast are so natural you completely forget that these are children acting in a movie. Even the modern-day wunderkinds on screen these days carry a bit of artifice with them; they’re just little adults playing a role. The establishing scenes in E.T. — of Elliot and Michael playing and fighting during a game of Dungeons and Dragons — are loud, chaotic, effortless. When I stop to think about it, it blows me away how quickly I identify with the world and these characters.

What’s interesting about the movie to me is how it takes Elliot and makes him such an unlikely hero; in so many ways he’s just a regular kid, but his ability to befriend (and even love) a creature as ugly and formless as this alien propels him to defy just about everyone he comes across to do what he believes is right. The stakes are small here, even though we’re dealing with history-making stuff; this is the story of first contact with another sentient species, framed as a children’s buddy movie, where the ultimate conflict is how far someone would go to save someone they care for.

E.T. takes this fantastic premise and rather quietly turns it into a very relatable story, infusing the movie with wonder and mundanity that works really well together. The score by John Williams captures the tone of every scene quite well, and Spielberg’s direction is warm and unobtrusive. Given the demands of making sure the puppetry and special effects work as well as they do here, it’s a small miracle that everything looks as smooth as it does. Spielberg works almost exclusively with the most finicky things you could in a movie, and pulls it off almost flawlessly.

He made his name on this, and for very good reason. This is a director’s movie, to be sure, but you can’t discount the great work here by Henry Thomas as Elliot or Drew Barrymore as Gertie. Thomas is unassuming but kind, curious, likable, and Barrymore is disarmingly cute without being cloying about it. If it’s been a while, I’d recommend seeing E.T. again; even though there are a few things that date it, it’s a welcome surprise to see just how well it holds up.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (#26)

Entertainment 150Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern (screenplay) and Peter George (novel)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

The 60’s were a pretty scary time. There was an unhealthy obsession with awful colors in our clothing and furniture, and pop culture started to wake up from the sleepy, naive optimism of the previous decade. Our scientists were starting to learn more about how atomic power worked, and what really happened with the after-effects of the atomic weapon we had created. But by the time we knew about fallout and cancers and the insane, destructive power we wielded the Cold War was in full swing and both the US and Russia were stockpiling an arsenal so large surely it could destroy pretty much everybody. And in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was terrifyingly feasible that we would push the button.

A ton of novels about the threat of all-out nuclear holocaust sprung up in the late 50s, once the honeymoon was over with the bomb. One of them was Red Alert by Peter George, the tale of an Air Force general deciding to launch a unilateral nuclear strike against the USSR. The novel was fairly heavy and tense, hoping to illustrate the absurd ease with which nuclear war could be triggered. Kubrick adapted the novel for Dr. Strangelove, and in doing so actually improved on its source material. By actually highlighting the absurdity of the situation and contrasting it against the stakes (nothing less than the end of the world), Kubrick manages to make nuclear war all the more terrifying.

The basic set-up is the same. Col. Jack D. Ripper (Hayden), who swears that the fluoridation of the US water supply is a Communist plot, launches a pre-emptive strike on several USSR targets, hoping to knock out the Soviet strike-back capability in order to minimize losses. Using a fairly obscure fail-safe in the US nuclear command, he actually makes it next to impossible to call back the planes making their way into Soviet airspace. A panic ensues in the upper echelons of American power, bringing the President Muffley (Sellers) together with Gen. Buck Turgidson (Scott) in the War Room to avert a worldwide catastrophe.

We flip between three concurrent stories from here — the struggle between Ripper and British exchange officer Capt. Lionel Mandrake (also Sellers) to call off the bombers; the President, Russian ambassador (Peter Bull) and various military leaders scrambling to find a way to call off the attack themselves; and the crew of one of those bombers, determined through hell or high water to carry out their mission. There’s a running theme between the three stories, of a breakdown in communication. No one knows what any of the other groups is doing, and any attempts to reach them are stymied. So much of the story involves characters just trying to reach one another — sometimes in the same room. Even though Ripper and Mandrake are in the exact same room, for example, their point of view makes it almost impossible for them to communicate effectively.

It feels a little weird to deconstruct the movie like this, but there’s a lot going on here. Beyond that, it’s funny as hell — George C. Scott is incredible as Gen. Turgidson, and Col. Ripper is masterfully, wonderfully insane. Just about every scene in the War Room is packed with quotable lines (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here — this is the War Room!”), and everyone with the power to do anything is hamstrung by the system that they put in place. It’s fascinating to watch them trying to navigate out of a trap of their own design.

When the movie premiered, Congress actually took notice — they began to have serious discussions about their nuclear policy and installed additional safeguards (uh oh) to make sure that a Ripper situation could never actually happen. It’s pretty neat that a satire of a movie actually drove us to realize how silly we were being before. Dr. Strangelove showed us to exercise a little restraint during a time where brinkmanship was a matter of national policy. For that alone, it deserves its spot on the list.

But it’s also a very interesting anomaly in Kubrick’s filmography. It’s his only outright comedy, and the messy chaos of the plot seems to fly right in the face of his very tight, controlled directorial style. The way he coaxed such over-the-top performances from Scott and Slim Pickens is nigh-legendary, and the making of the film is just as interesting as the final product. It’s an incredibly potent piece of filmmaking in its own right, and quite probably the most successful satire ever put to celluloid. It makes you wish Kubrick had tried his hand at comedy a bit more often after this.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Bonnie and Clyde (#27)

Entertainment 150Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons
Written by David Newman and Robert Benton
Directed by Arthur Penn

Bonnie and Clyde feels like a quintessential 70s movie. It has a complicated, somewhat unlikable set of anti-heroes in Clyde Barrow (Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Dunaway). It features them doing bad things that can’t be condoned even though you’re nominally rooting for them to succeed, as in, say, American Cowboy or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They get into an idea of what they’re going to do with big dreams but no clear plans, and for a while it works. Then, inevitably, things begin to go south. As the stresses pile up, relationships fray and alliances shift, and the war against the world becomes one of attrition. We know from history that things don’t end so well for Bonnie and Clyde, so the interesting part of the movie becomes how they face their end and what we can take from it.

Bonnie and Clyde travel through the mid-South, robbing banks along with their sidekicks — brother Buck Barrow (Hackman), his wife Blanche (Parsons) and gas station attendant-come-getaway driver C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard). They’re a pretty motley crew, all things told. Clyde is a temperamental man who somehow manages to keep people at a distance, while Bonnie is a wild woman attracted to just the wrong kind of man. Buck is exceedingly gregarious and good-natured, while his wife Blanche is almost the exact opposite — a worried woman who tends to voice those worries whenever possible. Meanwhile, C.W. is young and slow, ill-suited for his role in the operation. Still, they manage to make it work for a while; they pull off daring jobs in broad daylight, survive chases and shoot-outs with the cops and become the subject of breathless news articles in the papers.

But as their reputation grows, so does the persistence of the cops. Eventually they find themselves faced with night-time raids and relentless pursuers. This takes a toll, as you can imagine. The end of the gang is something of a surprise; it’s at once inevitable and sudden. It’s also one of the most violent scenes I’ve seen in cinema from that era; it’s hard not to feel for the titular pair once the last gunshot has been fired.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway give the criminal heroes a life beyond the screen. When Clyde meets Bonnie outside of her home, we take it for granted that we’re catching these two people in the middle of their own stories, and their pasts continue to influence them in the middle of this one. It’s interesting that they rarely talk about what’s shaped them before, even when it causes them problems with each other. Most of the time you simply wonder what made them what they are, why they make the choices they do.

The movie, however, doesn’t really concern itself with those questions. They make their choices, and that’s enough. Instead we watch them travel through a quasi-mythic version of small-town America in decay, where bankers are making money by breaking the backs of farmers and other salt-of-the-earth types. We’re shown that Bonnie and Clyde take great care to target their anti-social behavior on authority figures only; when they meet “regular folks” they’re more likely to encourage them to rebel against the system giving them such a raw deal too. This is how they give the Barrow gang a bit of a purpose beyond being a bunch of dumb kids doing whatever’s fun and dangerous.

Both Bonnie and Clyde love each other as well, in their own way. We’re shown that even though they argue there’s an acceptance of each other that’s generous, compassionate. This, I found, was their most endearing trait — the ability to recognize the flaws that each of them has and accept them. It’s rare that you see a couple in such a fast-moving relationship have such a deep commitment. They both have places where their partner can’t follow; when they go there, there’s little choice but for them but to wait patiently for their return. And they do.

Still, for all their good points they’re still a gang of people who robbed banks and killed a whole lot of police officers. While there are a lot of folks who find that admirable, I couldn’t help but find that a bit distancing for me. Maybe that’s a sign of my aging sensibilities, but it’s hard to have much sympathy for people who have such little regard for human life. For Bonnie and Clyde, cops were symbols of authority to be destroyed — not living, thinking human beings. It feels like director Arthur Penn wants us to play along with the conceit to really get the full enjoyment out of the movie, but that’s not something I felt comfortable with.

Reading up on the movie, it seems that its inclusion in the list is largely due to what it did for American cinema at the time. The Hollywood studio system was in serious trouble, and this was the first movie in a while to come out of it that mimicked the European sensibility that was catching on at the time. Bonnie and Clyde came out of practically nowhere to be a tremendous hit for Warner Bros. It introduced a slew of innovations for the movies that came after it, and set the stage for a more naturalistic style that seemed to be the hallmark of the 70s, at least to me. Not bad for a movie that was released in the late 60s.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Apocalypse Now (#28)

Entertainment 150Apocalypse Now (1979)
Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall
Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Most war movies take great care to show you how disorienting it is to be in the middle of battle, and a lot of these set pieces end up being some of the greatest examples of cinema we have. There are the fiery jungles of Platoon, or the assault of the senses that made up the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. The underrated Letters From Iwo Jima offered up a distinct view of what it was like in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and another movie on the list, All Quiet on the Western Front, offered a stark difference between civilian perception of a war and the horror of actually being a soldier in it.

They all effectively show us the insanity of conflict, in their own way. I’ve walked away from each movie with a better understanding of how things must have felt to the people who fought through World War I, World War II, Vietnam. Apocalypse Now is something different entirely. More than any other war film I’ve ever seen, it shows us how war drives good men insane, and how that insanity spreads through the rest of the company, the troupe, through the whole system. It presents armed conflict as a gentlemen’s agreement to go absolutely nuts for a while. Soldiers who are sent to fight go crazy in their own ways, and it’s quietly accepted as long as they direct their issues at the enemy. When that stops happening, the machinery stops and the corrupting influence must be expunged.

That’s precisely what happens to Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), a decorated war veteran who throws away a promising career to return to the Vietnamese jungle. There he disappears, only to resurface as a legend amongst the populace and the military alike. He’s gone AWOL along with a few other soldiers, and reigns over a small group of people he’s molded into believers. Capt. Ben Willard (Sheen) is sent to find him and bring him back if he can. If he can’t, then Kurtz is to be eliminated by any means necessary.

When we meet Willard, we immediately know he’s not in a good place. His hotel room is a mess and for a military man he seems keenly disinterested in changing that. When the Army comes for him he greets them in nothing but his underwear, clearly under the influence of some mighty powerful drugs. He’s cleaned up, shipped out and sent after Kurtz in short order, only getting himself together once someone’s given him a direction. It makes me wonder if the obsessive routine and discipline instilled in military men is meant as a psychological defense against the chaos of war. Once the battle starts, there’s no guarantee of anything at all — maybe it’s best to focus on the few things you can control, like your movement, the combat readiness of your gun, reflexes that you’ve trained to be automatic.

Willard meets a crew who takes him down the river to the border between Vietnam and Laos, and what he finds on his journey to Kurtz is a long line of people desperately holding on to a center in a situation where none exists. Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Duvall) is obsessed with surfing; it’s a good thing that a member of Willard’s crew just so happens to be a world-famous surfer in civilian life. This gets their crew a little closer to their destination, but only if they ride along with the company on the raid of a nearby village. This sets up the first of so many set pieces that illustrate the hopeless confusion, fear, anger and paranoia that rolled through the Vietnamese jungle like so much dense fog.

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

First stop on the Insanity Express.

 

Through his travels Willard meets more and more people who are lost, unable to cope with the death all around them or the immediacy of it staring them right in the face. There’s one particularly haunting sequence where the men on the boat drop acid and marijuana, then come upon another group of Army guys holding a bridge across the river. It really feels like everyone around him is mad, staring into the night where gunshots fire from places they have no hope of pinpointing. Their only choice is to shoot back, to rail against the darkness, to try keeping it together when everyone around them is falling apart. Willard asks one of them, “Who’s in charge?” A man replies “I don’t know” between bursts of gunfire.

If this is what the civilized world leads to, then madness sounds oddly alluring. Willard begins to think that maybe Kurtz has gone through the other side of it and found something, and his thoughts become more open to the idea the deeper into the jungle he goes. When we finally meet Kurtz, of course he’s not what we expect — Brando was nowhere near what Coppola expected when he showed up, vastly overweight and hideously underprepared. But they found a way to make it work, and what was committed to film was incredibly memorable all the same.

Kurtz is more interesting as a legend than a man. It’s fascinating watching the society he’s gathered, how they interact with one another, their environment, the few outsiders who drift into their orbit. And the ultimate end to Willard’s journey is less interesting than the things he uncovers along the way.

Coppola plays Willard’s journey as a fever-dream, with long dissolves and the droning of helicopters and gunfire constant in your ears. It’s very easy to get lulled into the atmosphere of war, to feel it sticking to you; the desperation and insanity waiting for those soldiers out there is palpable. All it would take is one thing to set things off, for everything to go wrong.

That intense, moody feel is what makes Apocalypse Now so great and so hard to watch. There’s a lot of unpleasantness there; not just the terrible things that Willard does and witnesses, but the quiet where he has to reflect upon it. The movie wallows in its mood and invites you to sink into it as well. I’ve never seen a war movie that so deeply involves you in its emotional heart; most of them work on a more immediate level, all adrenaline and horror. Apocalypse Now slows down to force you to live with not only the long, loud battles but the longer silences in between. It’s there that the really awful stuff lurks.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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About Meditation

Buddhism 150I found a really great site for trying to track new healthy habits or break bad ones, and after a short break I’ve rejoined the community there. I’m not sure if you guys have heard of Health Month or not, but it’s a pretty fun way to get into track what it is you’re trying to do (or not to do, as the case may be). At the beginning of the month you set a list of goals — for free, you can list up to three but any more after that requires a payment of around $5 per month. You get 10 “life points” for the month, and every time you miss your goal you lose one. At the end of the month, if you have at least one life point left, you win the game! Then you get to do the awesome thing you set for yourself at the beginning of the month. If you end up with no life points at the end of the month, you do the thing you said you would do at the beginning of the month.

It’s essentially gamification of habit-building/breaking. There’s also a strong social aspect that I really enjoy. You can join a group of people who are playing the game based on common interests — I’m currently in the Book Lovers’ Group — and you offer encouragement and sympathy for folks as they move through the month. If they’re out of life points, you can heal them with fruit you earn along the way by keeping up with your goals. I like the supportive aspect, combined with the public accountability. If you fail for whatever reason, you can go back and look at what caused you to slip up, then plan around it for the next month. And so on.

Before this becomes any more of a commercial for Health Month (which is a great thing that you should try) I should get to the point I was trying to make. For my first month back to Health Month, I wanted to take the time to get back to the three things that I really want to make room for more in my life about anything else — meditation, writing and running. I thought I’d take a little time to explain in a few paragraphs what each one means to me. And we’ll start with the one thing that I’m trying to get into the habit of doing every day: meditation.

Besides fluoxetine, the thing that’s helped me most with managing my depression is a regular meditation practice. It’s a little difficult to explain exactly how it works so well, but the effects are pretty clear to me. When I meditate regularly, my focus is better, I have a larger reservoir of patience, and I’m a lot more difficult to rattle. It’s a lot easier to take things in stride. When I’m depressed, small things become indicators of really huge things that are overwhelming to think about. A request from a coworker to do something they could have done easily expands to become a chronic disrespect of my finite time to get things done, that sort of thing. With medication and meditation, it’s easier to simply take that as it comes and find a graceful way to deal with the situation. Given its effects, I should absolutely consider it as necessary as taking my pill every day.

And yet it isn’t. Like most things that are good for us, it’s easy to find reasons not to do it when I don’t feel like it. I don’t have time, or I’d rather spend those fifteen minutes sleeping, or I just don’t have the willpower to make myself. It’s difficult at the time I choose not to do it to remember that meditation is actually an enormous help to me, and it will make everything that comes through the rest of the day so much easier to deal with.

That’s the reason for my re-focusing. I’d like to make sure that I’m doing everything I need to do so I’m enabled to do the things I want to do. Meditation is a practice that forms the foundation of my productivity, and it should be given its proper importance.

Since I’m practicing Zen Buddhism, my meditation is, well, what I know of zazen. I sit upon a seiza bench and focus on my breathing for 15 minutes. I haven’t progressed to the point where I’m able to simply focus on thoughts and sensations as they arise, so I count to ten. Inhale, exhale, one. Inhale, exhale, two. And so on. When I notice that I’ve stopped counting I address whatever else I had been thinking about, set the thought down, and return to the breath.

On good days, there’s eventually the feeling of a fog lifting from my brain. Thoughts become clearer, observances are sharper, I become aware of the energy that runs through me for lack of a better term. Other times, especially when I’m tired, I’ll feel disconnected from my body, like I’m actually observing things from a point above my head. The ground feels farther away, and I can feel my chest expanding and contracting with my breath. Sometimes both of these things happen in one session. I’m not sure if this is a common experience — the vague feeling that I’m floating out of my body — but it is mine.

Of course, meditation is only a means to an end, and I try to remember to bring the same focus and attention to the present through the rest of my day. I find it’s quite helpful to view meditation as “practice”, in more ways than one. It’s something that you work on, day after day, with the intention of getting more familiar with it. It’s also something you do that prepares you for more complicated situations. Practicing paying attention to the things that arise, learning that I don’t have to act on moods or sensations in order to address them, helps me with my temper, or the impulse to avoid working on something I don’t feel like doing. And that’s incredibly valuable to me.

I’m really curious if people use meditation for more practical purposes as opposed to spiritual ones. Are there any other meditators out there? If so, let us talk shop!

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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