Category Archives: Movies

Art as Problem Solving

This speech by Director Steven Soderbergh has been making the rounds. It’s a long, but I would argue, necessary read over the state of cinema.

What really interested me was his take on art as problem solving:

Art is also about problem solving, and it’s obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.

I don’t quite agree with what he’s saying here, but our sentiments are very similar: art is important because it explains things that may be unexplainable with plain language.

Our minds are constantly looking for connections between things and sometimes the best way to make those connections is by relating it to something that’s conceptually the same, but practically different. In the Bible, Christ did this with parables. With movies, it’s done by putting a similar story in a different setting. Science Fiction arose from this concept: it commented on modern problems by placing the story in a futuristic setting or an alternate reality. Doing so helped us get a fresh look on modern problems by eliminating biases that may have resulted come from personal feelings rather than the facts of the problem.

It may sound obvious, but art solves problems by helping us think creatively. Creative thinking isn’t a skill that most people just have; it’s something that needs to be developed, cultivated and maintained. This is why it’s so scary that we consistently see the arts cut out of schooling due to budget issues. Science, rational thinking, mathematics: they all require various levels of creativity. Not because they’re "soft" or because they’re inexact, but because they require a mind that’s willing to bend in order to fully comprehend.

We may be able to teach our kids the concepts of chemistry, but how are they supposed to expand the discipline if we’re not teaching them to think creatively?

Favorite 2012 Movies #5-1

2012 left with me so much to say that I had to divide it up into three parts. Today is the top 5. You can also check out 20-11 and 10-6.




As always, this is a list of my favorite movies of the year, not the best. If you want to tell me how wrong I am, that’s what Twitter is for.

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild

There are two distinct ways to tell a kid: by their age and by their actions. Age is linear, it moves in one direction; I turn three, then four, then five. Actions are most decidedly not a linear thing; I suppress lashing out at someone today, but not tomorrow. Because they aren’t linear, actions that we associate with kids occur in people of all ages. (think of the term, “he’s acting childish”, which doesn’t usually describe actual children and is never used positively)

So when does someone stop being a kid? Age may be relatively easy to determine (13? 16? 18?), but what about actions? When do we stop acting like a kid? When does someone calling us childish turn into an insult?

Could it be the first time we are forced to accept reality? The first time we are faced with inarguable evidence that’s contrary to the way we think?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is about the things we know to be true as children that we forget when we grow up. It’s about all of us having our place in the world. It’s about knowing what is right and staying to watch it happen. It’s about staring a harsh reality in the face and saying no, thank you.

In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.

4. Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths may not have the whimsy of Moonrise Kingdom, the deep-seated emotion of Amour or the faith-based issues of Life of Pi, but screw those guys. Nihilistic to its core, razor sharp and bitterly funny, Seven Psychopaths is the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year. Well, assuming you agree that everyone knows that Ghandi was wrong, but nobody’s got the balls to come out and say it.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

It’s interesting to me the lack of comparison between this film and Beasts of the Southern Wild; both have similar themes with inexperienced child stars, yet one is hailed as a masterpiece of cinema and the other has Edward Norton in short shorts.

But where Beasts deals with staying resilient in the harshness of reality, Moonrise Kingdom is more concerned with the clinging to the last gasp of a fantasy world where everything turns out OK. Sometimes that means running away to the wilderness, sometimes that means an affair, sometimes that means leading the local scout troop. This world is harsh, you find respite wherever you can, even if it’s not real.

You may not be able to outrun reality, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying.

2. Django Unchained

People who dislike Quentin Tarantino say that he merely repackages old movies, but that’s a criticism that could be directed at everyone. This paragraph is merely reordering and repackaging words that someone else created. The Mona Lisa was painted with colors that other people had discovered. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was composed with notes that were already in existence. Quentin Tarantino crafts movies out of movies that have already been crafted. This ability is why critics call him a genius.

But why do non-critics do the same? Why does most everyone coming out of a Tarantino movie rave about it?Because he understands why most people go to the movies.

Film Crit Hulk put it the best:


Most people aren’t looking to go to a movie to change their life. They think Amour is depressing or the Master is about nothing. Tarantino knows that if a movie is going to be loved by the general public, it better damn well be entertaining.

Entertainment is just as essential to a Tarantino film as sound or picture is to films in general. Pair that with a filmmaker who is willing to do whatever it takes to comment on a subject (sometimes to his detriment) and you have why Tarantino has a claim on the title of the greatest living filmmaker.

1. Zero Dark Thirty

Everything in our lives have costs and benefits. If I pay $20 for dinner, I have the benefit of dinner, but the cost was $20. If I work out five days a week, I have the benefit of health, but the cost is time and pain. If I spend time with my friends instead of studying, the benefit is the good time I had, the cost is that I do poorly on my next test. Our lives are filled with an almost infinite amount of choices that shape the very being of who we are.

What happens when we get to committed to making a series of choices? If I pay $20 for dinner every night, I may not have money to pay my rent. If I work out five days a week, my body may break down under the load. If I go out with my friends and never study, there goes my chances to get a good job and have a happy life full of hard work.

This is the space that Zero Dark Thirty lives in.

Was the search for Osama bin Laden worth it? We have the benefit of the man who ensured that 2,753 people still aren’t coming home to their families being dead, but are we sure we understand the cost? Did there come a point that we were so committed to the choice to search for bin Laden, that the costs didn’t matter to us anymore?

Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about giving answers to these questions; it’s about setting us up to search ourselves for the answers. It’s the seminal work of 2012.

Great movies inform people of where they are. Zero Dark Thirty allows us to inform ourselves.

Apologies to:

Cloud Atlas, The Queen of Versailles,The Impossible, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Killer Joe

Yet to see:

End of Watch, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the Loneliest Planet

List of what I’ve seen in 2012.

Favorite 2012 Movies #10-6

2012 left with me so much to say that I had to divide it up into three parts. Today is 6-10. You can can check out 20-11 and set an alarm for tomorrow’s top five.




As always, this is a list of my favorite movies of the year, not the best. If you want to tell me how wrong I am, that’s what Twitter is for.

10. ParaNorman

I joked on Twitter that ParaNorman (and it’s predecessor, Coraline) have been tricking kids into seeing scary movies and making them deal with heavy issues for a while now. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if ParaNorman and Coraline weren’t designed to trick adults into dealing with heavy issues.

One of the best scenes in Team America: World Police is its opener, which basically asks if the solution (Team America destroying Paris to kill terrorists) is better than the problem (terrorists destroying Paris). ParaNorman grapples with these same issues. What if our reaction to what we’re scared of is worse than what’s scary? Sometimes we as humans get so caught up doing what we think is right, that we completely miss that it’s hurting the very people we’re supposed to help. (cough Congress cough). Those are heavy and complex issues for any movie, let alone one that’s (ostensibly) meant for children.

9. Looper

If you have working ears or eyes (or both) and are in the U.S., you may have heard or seen something about a gun debate. Some people think we need more guns; some people think we need fewer. But, isn’t this debate kind of missing the point? Is the goal to increase/decrease guns or is the goal to stop gun violence? Sure one (or both) could cause a decrease in gun violence, but we as humans tend to latch onto solutions our gut tells us are correct, despite a frightening lack of evidence.

Is Looper anti- or pro-gun? Of course not. It’s anti- killing the symptom to a problem and assuming the problem is solved. Old Joe assumes that going back to kill Cid stops both the problem of his wife dying and the Rainmaker’s reign of terror. Instinctually, that makes sense: if Cid becomes the Rainmaker, then killing Cid stops it. But what if just the threat of killing Cid causes the reign of terror? Even if Cid was killed, what if threatening him causes someone else to become the Rainmaker?

If you are truly anti-gun, the reaction to the Newtown shootings must have you horrified: an increase in gun sales amid fears of crackdown. If you think that more guns equals more gun violence, it turns out that merely the suggestion of laws that decrease the amount of guns has actually increased the number of them.

In both our country and the world of Looper, things are out of balance. Looper tells us that it’s important do something, but it’s also important to make sure that doing something doesn’t make the problem worse. It’s a message we could all take to heart.

8. Skyfall

Do they still do spelling tests in high school? Does taking (at least) an hour of instructional time a week to teach people how to spell things makes sense? Especially when 20% of students will have vocational occupations and the other 80% will work on a computer? Shouldn’t we use that time to teach them something like computer programming?

If you agree to all of that, surely you also agree that some people need to learn how to spell things. Say…maybe the people who create the spell checkers?

It didn’t have to be this way, but through years and years of franchise neglect, James Bond became a lot like a spelling test: a relic of a bygone era that still has its place, but its worth is greatly diminished. So, how do you bring one of the greatest franchises of all time into the modern era?

By acknowledging that James Bond is a relic. He’s a landline in the smart phone era.

Skyfall is so successful because it shows what happens when the cell towers go down. No matter where we get to as a society, no matter how marginalized certain skills become, some of those skills will still be necessary. We’ll always need spelling because without it, language loses meaning. We’ll always need landlines, because sometimes cell towers go out. We’ll always need agents on the ground, because sometimes our cyber tools are not enough.

Time marginalizes everything that isn’t willing or able to change. But, you know what? Not even time can rob the worth of even the most marginalized.

7. Amour

How do we know what is good? Is it by the actual acts we perform or is it relative to the bad we’ve experienced?

Think about the very emblem of what we call good– our heroes. Do we call the guy who rides the train to work a hero? Or do we call the woman who rescues the boy from the well one? The soldier who sacrifices himself for his company? The baseball star who hits a come-from-behind home run? We base the good off the bad we experience. Most things we consider good adhere to this.

If you had a person who did not understand what love was, how would you describe it to him? Is it even possible to describe?

Is love something you instinctually know or is it something you learn how to do? Is it something you show with actions, emotions or words? Does love have to develop over time? Does it have to be tested in both good and bad situations?

Amour is the answer to those questions. But in order for those answers to have meaning, it must show the cruelest of the cruel. Great loss can show great love.

6. The Cabin in the Woods

Southerners don’t love violence. Americans don’t love violence. Westerners don’t love violence. People love violence. It’s pervasive in everything we do. From the big hits in football, to the nightly news, to Animal Planet documentaries, to, yes, video games, people have a macabre interest in watching things get hurt. Some have learned to repress it better than others, but it’s there in the very meaning of being human. We’re just lucky that people only love violence and not committing violence.

But there’s the question. If we love violence so much, why do we not want to commit violence? Could it have something to do with the aforementioned violent activities? Could it be that football or video games assuage those violent tendencies?

I don’t like to usually come out and say what I think movies are about. But it seems to me that the Cabin in the Woods is so fundamentally misunderstood, that it needs to be said. In addition to being a straight-up horror film, in addition to being a spoof of some of the tropes we’ve come to expect in horror films, it’s a literal interpretation of what we discussed above. Bradley Whittaker and Richard Jenkins’ characters have to satisfy the old gods with violence. They don’t do it to be sick, they don’t do it for enjoyment; it’s done because not doing it leads to the end of the human race. Those characters literally embody the writer/directors of movies, video game programmers, football coaches that create this violence for us to consume. Without them, could the violence committed in our society be ever worse than it already is?

Favorite 2012 Movies #20-11

2012 left with me so much to say that I had to divide it up into three parts. Today are my top 11-20 movies, tomorrow will be 6-10 and we’ll finish up on Thursday with my top five of the year.




As always, this is a list of my favorite movies of the year, not the best. If you want to tell me how wrong I am, that’s what Twitter is for.

20. The Avengers

If nothing else, the Avengers shows us that to be a really good superhero movie, you don’t have to be really dark. Also it shows us that they don’t have to be really dark to make a billion dollars. Now if only Joss Whedon would use that money for good. (i.e. getting Firefly back on the air)

19. Lincoln

What drew people to this movie? Was it the subject matter? (Abraham Lincoln) The director? (Steven Spielberg) The marketing? (it’s your patriotic duty to watch this!) It’s something I’ve puzzled over since seeing it. These are the kind of dramas that most people try to avoid (rightfully so, I might add).

This movie did a lot right (limiting the scope to the 13th amendment, all the casting) and did some other things wrong (too much talking about taking action and too little actually taking action). I love the way that this film portrayed Lincoln as a master politician and the way it actually showed him making those deals, but man, is that for the most part, really, really dull. I realize the Catch-22 this puts the film in (hooray for portraying boring things, boo for those things being boring!), but even if the fundamental point of your picture is really good, it may need to be tweaked to be palatable.

18. The Dark Knight Rises

This was a spectacular ending to arguably one of the greatest trilogies of all time, but I can’t help fighting the feeling that not only did it not need to be made, but also that Nolan didn’t want to make it. The Dark Knight concluded with what felt like the end of Batman’s arc; that truly being a hero is doing what needs to be done, no matter the personal cost.

Where was the Dark Knight Rises supposed to go from there? Not only did it subvert the themes of the first two movies (Batman sacrificing himself for the greater good), it actually ended up right back where the Dark Knight ended. Only this time it only appeared that he sacrificed himself because, boom, he’d fixed the auto-pilot on the Batplane and escaped unharmed. If Batman Begins and the Dark Knight told us that sacrifice is necessary to evoke real and meaningful change, what did the Dark Knight Rises tell us?

This doesn’t make the Dark Knight Rises a bad movie; on the contrary, it’s an incredibly good movie. But, it does mean that it’s not a great movie. Great movies have something to say that sets them apart from their piers and predecessors.

17. The Master

You ever have something that you can’t quite figure out and you’re not quite sure whether or not you like it, but months or maybe even years later, it clicks with you?

I think this movie is about father/son relationships. Or it may be about masculinity and the way we treat our post-war troops. Or maybe it’s about God and how we as humans do our best to subvert Him every chance we get. It may be about something that Paul Thomas Anderson had for breakfast ten months ago.

I can’t quite figure the Master out. I’m not sure whether or not I like it. What I do know is that it created this visceral feeling that I can’t quite put into words. Sometimes with art we worry too much about understanding it or trying to figure out what it’s trying to say. Maybe instead of trying to say something, art is trying to get you to feel something. Something you don’t quite understand. And maybe that’s the point.

16. The Hunger Games

How far away is our society from putting children on TV to do things that we know are bad for them and then watch it under the guise of entertainment?

15. Frankenweenie

Adapted from an (excellent) short film by Burton in the 80s, Frankenweenie feels like the logical realization of the story. How do you encourage people to push the limits while simultaneously warning them of where that may lead? You’ll hear a lot of people say that our modern society has an aversion to science, but is it science we have the aversion to or is it fear of what we may find with science? If Frankenweenie stopped there it would have been an interesting exercise in the question. But what elevates it is its core belief in meaningful relationships and the distance we go to sustain them.

14. Life of Pi

Faith and science get bad raps because people often misconstrue both. Faith is believing something to be true without evidence; science is a method for proving things to be true. Both have their places, but they’re not mutually exclusive: things I have faith in can potentially be proven by science. This isn’t controversial stuff.

What is controversial is when we get into stuff that science can’t prove. People equate science with truth. That’s wrong. Science is a method for proving something true, not truth in and of itself. Faith and science aren’t at odds; they’re two different ways of coming to truth.

It’s fairly evident where science is more useful than faith, but where does faith become more useful than science? When truth is subjective or unknowable.

Which of Pi’s two stories is true? Neither. They’re fictional stories within a fictional narrative. They’re subjective and unknowable; which is true isn’t important to the point. What’s important is the lesson you learn from them. Do you choose to believe that a boy could survive for 200 days on the ocean? Or do you choose to believe otherwise?

Does neither of them being true lessen their impact? Of course not. Stories aren’t there to convince us they’re true, they’re there to offer us insight into the way our own lives work.

We as humans do what we need to survive. If surviving means believing in something good in which there’s no evidence, don’t let anyone tell you to believe differently. Just as you can’t prove it, no one can disprove it.

13. Holy Motors

Sometimes you watch the movie and sometimes the movie watches you.

12. Silver Linings Playbook

If you’ve seen this movie, before reading on, come up with a sentence synopsis in your head.

What did you come up with?

Is it about two people falling in love? Or is it about two mentally-ill people learning to cope with their diseases? There’s strong cases for either (or both), but only one of those stories is resolved. This is often the case with romantic comedies; we’re left to believe that a happy ending cures all the ills that have been set up in the previous hour and a half. That’s more than fine for films that aren’t trying to realistically portray things, but it’s not for films that are.

All of that being said, I enjoyed it. The performances were great; the directing was great; and while it may not make thematic sense, it sure as hell made emotional sense.

11. Argo

The biggest achievement here is that Affleck realized the sensationalized story (CIA hires Hollywood to make a fake movie to save hostages!) would tell itself, and that his focus can be on the actual and emotional situation of the hostages. Looking back at this, it’s obviously the way to go. But, I’m not sure lesser filmmakers could have resisted the allure of such an original story, which would have come at the expense of the human situation. If that had happened, Argo would have still been a good movie, but instead it’s a great one.

Check back tomorrow for my top 10-6 films of the year!

How Much Credit Do Adapted Screenplays Deserve?

As I’m preparing for my best of 2012 movie list, I had something quick I wanted to discuss: I can never figure out how much credit to give adapted screenplays. I understand that adapting the source material for a medium it wasn’t intended for is an artisitic endeavor in and of itself, but how much credit does a filmmaker deserve if the plot, character and themes are established before the first word of the script is written?

Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is the poster child for this problem. While it’s rarely subtle, I love Cosette as the literal emodiment of freedom, fought for and won by the old generation (Jean Valjean) only to realize that sometimes freedom has to be incubated, fought for, then protected (Cosette’s marriage to Marius). But the movie itsefl? I could take it or leave it.

So when reviewing Les Mis, do I give credit to Hooper for his portrayal of what it takes to achieve freedom, even though I’m fairly sure it’s more prominent in the book (though, probably not the musical). Or should I just judge Hooper based on his technical skill at adapting the source material? How much credit does Hooper deserve for retelling a two-hundred year old story?

Where I’ve come down (though, I can definitely be swayed) is that if I truly view movies as separate works of art from their source material, I have to judge them as separate works of art. Sure, most of what I like about Les Miserables should be credited to Victor Hugo and not Tom Hooper, but I’m reviewing Hooper’s work of art, not Hugo’s.

The Tie Between Horror and Comedy

Jason Zinoman on the ties between comedy and horror:

…the line between horror and comedy has long been blurry. Alfred Hitchcock called “Psycho” a comedy. Tobe Hooper expected people to laugh at “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In a similar fashion, comedians are famously dark and obsessed with death.

This is a tie that I’ve been wondering about for a long time. Why do we laugh (after jumping) when the little girl comes out of the TV in the Ring? Why do we cover our eyes when Michael Scott gives one of his cringeworthy speeches in the Office?

My guess is because fear and finding something funny come from the same place: the unexpected.