Sunday, March 31, 2013

Life & Theft Sunday (#535)

rise and rise again
or so the story goes

once is never enough
you need to say and say it again

every moment is stolen
from the past or the future

you only know where you got it
in hindsight which is the same

the story goes on
and becomes a memory

it ripples through history
back and there again

Friday, March 29, 2013

Direct Current Friday (#534)

  • I think Wednesday's post kind of proved why I don't talk about religion too much.  It just isn't relevant to a general discussion.  Although of course most of what I blog about isn't relevant to general discussions.  Still, happy to have done it.
  • Starting Monday is the 2013 A-to-Z Challenge, and I've finished mapping out my April.  Like last year I'll be doubling up.  Each day will feature two topics, in this instance both from my own fiction.  One will be from the Space Corps saga, and the other from the Yoshimi Trilogy, so hopefully theoretically interested readers will get a better understanding of both!
  • The icky buttermilk I mentioned last week?  I dumped some grape mix into it and will hopefully be able to finish the stuff.  
  • Icky Buttermilk would make a great name for a rock band.
  • One of my many spin-off blogs is called Hub City.  The title may not make it apparent, but it's my reader's blog.  The title comes from comic book character The Question's base of operations, and was at one point going to be the name of a bookstore I hoped to open.  (Incidentally, Austen Paradise is my underperforming attempt to still possibly finance such a dream, because I have no idea how else to do it.)  Anyway, one book that I just finished reading that I won't be talking about there is The Friedkin Connection, which is the memoir of director William Friedkin, who made The French Connection and The Exorcist among other films.  I generally only talk about the books from my Reading List, which is something I started talking about here at Scouring Monk and then used as the basis for Hub City, which is why I didn't talk about Pat Dilloway's A Hero's Journey or another such literature when I read it earlier this year (although every book I read is chronicled in the link that follows).  Generally there's a post about the book I'm about to read, and then a follow-up one about what I actually thought about it.  The preview more or less explains why I'm reading the book in the first place, why it ended up in my extensive backlog of books.  Anyway, The Friedkin Collection came from Good Reads, where I've been actively seeking out free books from its regular giveaways (mostly so I can get some free comics, but that hasn't worked out yet).  It reminds me of when I was working at Borders, which being a bookstore received lots of advance readers from publishers.  I still haven't read the majority of the books I picked up in those days, mostly because of that extensive backlog, which is the reason I have a Reading List.  
  • Getting back to April, as you may or may not have noticed, I have theme days here at Scouring Monk now, and at the moment I'm thinking I'll continue those throughout next month in addition to the Challenge, in separate posts.  Life & Theft Sunday naturally will be unaffected, since everyone gets that day off anyway.  And still no one will be reading my poetry!  Yay!
  • After Wednesday's episode of Modern Family, I think I'm officially Hooked For Life.  You know how it is.  Sometimes you watch a TV show and you figure out you'll be watching it forever.  Also, the unintended new catchphrase "Factor!" will be something I'll be saying from now on, too...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Greatest Story Ever Told

For most people, this Sunday is Easter, and that's all they need to know.  For me, it's the celebration for the end of Lent.  I'm a Catholic.  What can I say?

I have no idea what most people think about Easter.  It's the same with all the pseudo-intellectual debates about the historical authenticity for the existence of Jesus.  It's like the pissants who try to say Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written his plays.  It's one thing to accept that Homer was part of a vast tradition and that's how we got The Iliad and The Odyssey, quite another to say that because there aren't any contemporary depictions of Jesus's life and that the Gospels were composed decades after his death, that we can't trust a word the say.  One of the methods to prove that he lived is to acknowledge that no one would willingly base a religion around someone who died like that.  If you still don't believe that, you clearly weren't paying attention when The Passion of the Christ was released a decade ago.

Anyway, I believe in Jesus.  I'm a Catholic.  I titled this post "Greatest Story Ever Told" in part because that's the name of one of the many movies Hollywood made about Jesus half a century ago, and I absolutely believe that the statement is true.  I believe because I believe the story.  I don't believe fiction is true, and I don't believe that Jesus is fiction.

I've just watched The Gospel of John, a pretty straight cinematic adaptation starring Henry Ian Cusick, narrated by Christopher Plummer.  The Gospel of John itself has always been my favorite, the most distinctive and literary of the Gospels, and in fact is probably my first real taste of great literature.  Whoever wrote it was the last of the evangelists to complete a Gospel, and as such completed it long after the Crucifixion, which we commemorate in two days on Good Friday.  Watching John, I couldn't help but be reminded that Jesus had to exist because no one would have made up such a contradictory personality, someone who did the water-into-wine as his first miracle, who was smart enough to engender himself to mass crowds but not to the point where they worshiped him, because he could only confront and provoke authorities so much.  He had a schedule to keep, points to emphasize, an impression that was crucial to making sure his life meant something when he was finally executed.  Above all else, he was just someone telling the establishment that it was doing everything wrong.

After his death, Jesus didn't just go away.  Catholics celebrate Palm Sunday the week before Easter, his greatest moment of triumph, a perfectly giddy experience in which he allowed himself to be paraded through the streets, which would be duplicated on the way to Golgotha under much different circumstances.  If such a moment was possible, and for his enemies to still have a relatively easy time seeing him die, then the truth would always be a difficult thing to celebrate.  His disciples managed to keep the faith.  They spread the word.  They endured persecution.

If all that we know today were simply because Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, that would still leave several centuries to account for, and an odd way to exist for early converts.  It's true that most religions exist in this way, but Jesus was an essentially selfless individual preaching a selfless message.  Being the Son of God, he had a unique image, and the Resurrection was an equally sensational act.  Yet in the letters of Paul, it's not the life of Jesus that is the thrust of the argument but rather the message.  Paul is the earliest surviving record of early Christian devotion, and in point of fact wrote his letters because he was simply trying to get the message across to people who often had a hard time getting it.

Plenty of people condemn Christianity for the things it's done over the years, and plenty of people have apologized for it by saying the Church is run by imperfect humans.  That's neither here nor there.  I'm not here to talk about the Church.  I'm here to talk about Jesus.  The reason I'm a Catholic is because I think it's silly to worry about the details.  If you worry about the details, you might as well admit that you don't care about what you profess to believe.  This is a matter of faith not because Jesus is a work of elaborate fiction, but because I still believe that we can embody his ideals, his message.

If you want to worry about details, worry about the message, not because you're condemned to Hell if you reject it but that you're probably not a very good person if you do.  I'm not debating matters of morality here.  I'm not debating current social topics.  I'm talking basic human decency.  Jesus went around talking about these things.  He was called the Messiah because there was a deep belief that humanity needed rescuing, and we still do.  Except the difference before and after Jesus is that the whole point of his sacrifice was that we were forgiven.  That's the act of an omniscient being.  That's the act of someone who has seen everything, even lived it for some three decades, and by "everything" I mean everything, what happened and what's happening and what will happen.  Compassion is an act of love.  So's sacrifice.

The idea that God came down here with the rest of us, what he did with that time, and what he accomplished, it destroys all cynicism.  It's a tangible sign that whatever we're here to accomplish, no matter how random and meaningless it can sometimes seem, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that nature exists in perfect balance.  Balance is achieved through delicate design, an intelligent design.

To me, religion is a way to focus the lens of science, and the only religion I know is Catholicism.  Two thousand years later, Jesus still has vital meaning.  It's the greatest story ever told.  That's what I'll be thinking on Sunday.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fan Tango Tuesday (#532)

subject: Colin Farrell

overview: Here is one of my favorite actors ever since discovering him on an Irish soap opera called Ballykissangel.  It was the summer of 2000, and I had just completed a year at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA.  One of the perks I enjoyed there was an international film series, which led me to watch PBS more regularly than at any other point in my life since childhood, which in addition to Farrell also meant that I discovered the Moody Blues.

Farrell was already transitioning into film, and his starring role in Tigerland got him noticed by Hollywood in a big way.  Everyone wanted to work with him.  Movies like Spielberg's Minority Report and American Outlaws proved that it would be a little more difficult to figure out exactly where Farrell fit in the landscape than first supposed, while he was the lead character in Hart's War, which was otherwise assumed to be a Bruce Willis vehicle.

Farrell's biggest challenge was 2003, in which he starred in a glut of movies, and remains to this day his most successful year.  It was also when I realized that I had become a big fan, because I tried to catch as many of them in theaters as I could, and succeeded with Daredevil (the first time Farrell goes for the comedic).  I don't know know which of Phone Booth, The Recruit, or S.W.A.T. (I'm pretty sure the last one) I also caught in original release, but this was also the year I began my home video collection in earnest, and Farrell became an immediate and enduring centerpiece.  Intermission was another movie Farrell saw released that year, as well as Veronica Guerin, both of which proved early on that he wasn't interested in leaving smaller films behind.  Since he was always a movie star created by filmmakers rather than audiences, his lack of significant popular success shouldn't be so surprising.

It was Alexander that probably prevented Farrell from finally breaking out.  It was Oliver Stone's big historical epic, but one that focused on character rather than spectacle, though it had plenty of both, and dared to suggest a famous figure was bisexual.  Anyone could tell what the reaction would be when the film's whole reputation continues to be "You can see his balls in the one scene!"  I will point out that Rosario Dawson is nude.  Right next to him.  In that very scene.  Talk about some screwy priorities!  Really, people?  This remains my favorite film of all-time.  Stone has released three different versions.  For what it's worth, Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut is probably the best.

Farrell's next film was another exceptional historical epic, this time from enigmatic genius Terrence Malick.  It was The New World, in which Farrell portrays John Smith in an impressionistic reimagining of the Pocahontas story.  In 2006 he made another bid for popular favor with Miami Vice, costarring Jamie Foxx in the wake of the latter's Oscar for Ray.  It was a modest success.

Farrell has since plunged directly into indy work.  His Woody Allen movie, Cassandra's Dream, is a remarkable companion piece to In Bruges, which won him a Golden Globe and new support from critics.  He appears unbilled in Jeff Bridges' Crazy Heart, and was one of three actors to fill in for the late Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, just one of the many things I love about that movie.

2011 was another bid to reclaim a mainstream presence, which worked in the comedy Horrible Bosses, less so in Fright Night, which foreshadowed the difficulty of selling a remake of Total Recall to the public last year.  Apparently people love them some Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Well, sometimes.  But Farrell also appeared in Seven Psychopaths, which was another smaller effort.

Earlier this month he was seen in Dead Man Down, which was pretty much ignored by everyone, but Farrell is again poised to look for wide acclaim in such upcoming movies as Winter's Tale, an ensemble with Russell Crowe and Will Smith; Saving Mr. Banks, a film about the making of Mary Poppins with Tom Hanks; and Epic, his first animated feature.

Regardless of how many vocal fans he has, Colin Farrell remains my favorite actor.  He's the most soulful presence in film I've ever seen, and is able to project that vibe into a wide variety of roles, with continually rewarding experiences to be found.  And I guess that I started to mature as a movie watcher at the same time as his rise, so that doesn't hurt my appreciation of his career, either.  I catch all his films, which is certainly something very few people can say, so I get to watch his transformations and patterns emerge in a terrifically organic way.  The best part is, he's still young!


Tigerland (2000) Farrell debuts in his quintessential role, a rebellious, charismatic loner, in this instance an army recruit who endures basic training under his own rules.

Hart's War (2002) Featuring Bruce Willis and Terrence Howard, this is the same character archetype being pushed to its limits, in a WWII prison camp.

Phone Booth (2003) Brilliant character study of a different kind entirely, with Farrell initially a despicable individual who doesn't care how his actions affect others (although I guess the embodiment of how he's viewed in those other movies), forced in a Twilight Zone kind of way to reconsider his life.

Alexander (2004) As I said, my favorite movie, with an embarrassment of riches in terms of a supporting cast, and a fully realized vision of another maverick, this time someone anyone will at least think they know.  From this point onward, Farrell seems to be deconstructing his basic archetype, and I guess it only figures.

The New World (2005) The reverse of the above role is a famous historical figure whose ideas of conquest are quite different, especially from those around him.  Although it's pretty much the same role, without anyone believing in him.

In Bruges (2008) A hit man who accidentally kills a child and is haunted by guilt, this may be Farrell's most complete performance.

London Boulevard (2010) Seeking redemption again, this time trying to walk deliberately away from a life of crime and being dragged back in.  One of his much smaller films, but increasingly one of my favorites.

Seven Psychopaths (2012) Trying very hard to keep his cool when everything spins increasingly out of control around him.  Very fun.

Dead Man Down (2013) I'm putting this one on the list even though I'm only a week removed from seeing it for the first time.  It feels like the first step in the next evolution of his career.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Frog Splash Monday (#531)

After tricking many people into caring about the launch of this particular new feature, now I'll get to see how little any of my readers really care...Of course, the point of blogging isn't to cater to an audience, but kindle one.  I've been blogging too long to think that's really possible, but I just don't see the point in faking something that's completely under my control.  So here we go:

  • I've written about wrestling here at Scouring Monk countless times in the past, on whatever topic was relevant at the time.  I also dedicated a previous incarnation of the Fan Companion blog to wrestling, which is archived here.  Because it's now officially and forever the Star Trek Companion, anything I've since done there about wrestling (or any other topic, including film, which was pretty popular for a while, although the actual Film Fan blog hasn't been so far) has been given a separate page.  I have a rundown of WWE champions, the year 2003, and a history of WrestleMania.
  • Speaking of WWE's biggest card, WrestleMania 29 is coming up in a few weeks, April 7th.  One of the things I've traditionally done here at Scouring Monk is provide a preview of the card.  The match everyone knows is The Rock vs. John Cena, the second consecutive year, this time over the WWE championship.  Dwayne Johnson came back on a fairly limited basis, but has wrestled at the 2011 Survivor Series, last year's WrestleMania (in which he beat Cena), this year's Royal Rumble (in which he beat CM Punk for the title), and last month's Elimination Chamber (in which he beat Punk again to retain).  Everyone expects Cena to win the rematch, although it doesn't matter either way.  Rock's comeback has been unique, and I'm sure it'll be debated for years (wrestling fans have a hard time letting anything go, and they're incredibly passionate about everything).  Punk, meanwhile, is scheduled to wrestle The Undertaker, famously holding a winning streak at WrestleMania sitting at 20-0.  Undertaker is a warhorse, but he only competes these days at WrestleMania.  Every single time he competes on the card, the question is always whether or not this will be the year he finally loses.  Triple H, who was the last guy to lose in consecutive years to Undertaker (following "Mr. WrestleMania" Shawn Michaels), is putting his career on the line against Brock Lesnar, whose WWE comeback is very similar to Rock's.  In all likelihood Lesnar will win this one.  The media is gobbling up Jack Swagger's bid to defeat world champion Alberto Del Rio, thanks to an angle that sees the challenger presenting his entire strategy as a screed about the immigration issue.  It's very similar to Sgt. Slaughter becoming an Iraqi sympathizer in the buildup to WrestleMania VII, which took place in 1991, just after the conclusion of the Gulf War.  That was the last time Hulk Hogan got to play a traditional face, by the way.  Heel faction The Shield, meanwhile, is getting ready to battle Sheamus, Randy Orton, and Big Show.  The Shield is composed of new stars like Dean Ambrose, whom fans were clamoring to see make his WWE debut throughout last year.  He's expected to be a big star.  Ryback, meanwhile, spent a good amount of time in the company's developmental system before becoming an overnight sensation, WWE's own Goldberg, and will be facing Mark Henry, who also went through a torturous developmental process that took years.  He was at his most successful in 2011, when he dominated the last half of the year as world champion, before injuries kept him out of action for much of 2012.  Team Hell No, composed of Daniel Bryan and company mainstay Kane, will be defending the tag team championship against Big E. Langston and Dolph Ziggler, who may also cash in his Money in the Bank contract won last summer guaranteeing him a title shot at either the world or WWE title. Ziggler is basically the new Mr. Perfect.  The card may still have a few matches added in the coming weeks.
  • TNA, currently WWE's only real competition for fans of American wrestling, is on the road for the first time, having finally vacated its spot at Universal Studios in Orlando, the second such home the company's had after the Asylum in Tennessee in its earliest years.  TNA is hoping to build momentum with the help of Aces & Eights, a gang that has been terrorizing the company for the past nine months, recently revealed to be headed by new champion Bully Ray, whom fans might know from his days in the Dudley Boys.  For most of its existence TNA has been compared to WCW, but it's always been more of an ECW, and a more successful version at that.  I'd assume most fans don't make that connection because they remain fanatically devoted to ECW, which has been out of business for more than a decade.  
  • I've begun a new serialized story over at Sigild V, the first regular instance of deviating from the strictly genre (mostly sci-fi) material that's been featured there since I began the writing blog in 2011.  It's called Monkey Flip, and the reason I'm talking about it today is because it follows the career of a professional wrestler.  For those interested in the blog but not this story, rest assured that there will still be material more inline with what I've traditionally presented there.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Life & Theft Sunday (#530)

I'm always one step away
from declaring myself
a misanthrope

filling my days
with how miserably
we treat each other

the casual dismissals
and petty assumptions
of social interactions

sometimes I'm guilty
and I rationalize
that they earned it

but there's always
a chance
that I was wrong

how do you know
when to tell
the difference?

when is a decision
and not forgettable?

life is answered
not best by death
but theft

it's the moments
we take and believe
we can get away with

do you know
the effect you have
on other people?

this is what
it's all about
so get used to it

Friday, March 22, 2013

Direct Current Friday (#529)

Here's the kind of week I've had:

  • I tend to agree with Arturo Bandini about buttermilk, or so I discovered.  It's horrible!  Why is this even a thing???
  • Rise of the Guardians may be the best animated movie released last year.  
  • The Last Starfighter is an excellent sci-fi adventure.  I'm sorry I didn't discover it sooner.
  • Dune may after all be a story about a member of the elite discovering that the common folk aren't so bad.
  • Dead Man Down is an excellent movie, and ranks well in the canon of Colin Farrell movies.
  • In addition to some blogfests I participated in this week, I also began a new series of themed blogs I hope to maintain.  This one's a version of something I was doing at the start of the year.
  • I released a new book!  Yoshimi and the Shadow Clan (in paperback and ebook).  This would of course be the biggest personal bit of news.  It's the first in a trilogy about a teenage girl who has bounced around the foster care system for most of her life, only to discover that the man she thought was just a social worker and her de facto best friend has been hiding the truth about the death of her parents.  She then sets out to learn the way of the warrior, earning the Scimitar blade and hurtling toward Bill, who may be the pupil of the man who killed her parents, her lover, or both!  It's my best shot at writing a young adult adventure, and is the first time I've released a novel since 2007's The Cloak of Shrouded Men, which was also a trilogy.  (In fact, basically all my books are written in three acts.)  If you don't follow my writer's blog, now would be a good time, because I'll still be talking about the book there, as the series will hopefully be released on a monthly basis through May, so there'll be plenty to say.  Anyone who wants a PDF preview edition can request one in the comments, on condition that you provide me a review on Amazon, listed in both versions of the book.
  • I finished writing Seven Thunders, meanwhile, which is why I've started blogging a little more regularly.  This is the first in the Space Corps series, and a book I've been planning since 1998.  
  • Part of the blogging blitzkrieg was definitely felt at Comics Reader, where I unleashed a torrent of "quick hits" on new comics, some from as far back as last December.
  • The new season of Survivor, Caramoan, which is also known as Fans vs. Favorites II, got some love at Your Torch Will Be Snuffed, in which I caught up on a bunch of episodes, including Brandon's recent flame-out.  If you don't know who Brandon is, consider yourself lucky.  But he's been one of the personalities who've definitely kept this season interesting.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Everyday Hero Blogfest!

In reaction to all the shootings, if not just the recent ones then, well, all of them, this latest blogfest is a challenge to compose a 500 word story reaction.  The host is none other than Pat Dilloway.  Here's my contribution:

Gun Shot

Jack was running through the halls.  He was already in the halls when the announcement was broadcast for everyone to remain calm and inside their classrooms.  He'd been alone then and was alone now, and he had no idea what to do, maybe duck into a bathroom. 
He was running before he realized what he was doing.  He was running toward the sound of the shooting.  The shots were coming in rhythmic waves through the high school, steady as Jack's heartbeat, just a step or two behind.  Whoever was doing it had planned to go all out. 
The closer he got the more Jack had to keep reminding himself that at some point it had become a conscious decision.  The gunshots were becoming mingled with loud wailing, so there were at least a few of them still alive.  It was the art room.  Jack was a lousy artist.  For some reason, that's exactly what he began to think. 
The door, of course, was wide open, but there was someone standing directly in the frame, Willow Bilson he realized.  He had a crush on Willow.  He tapped her shoulder, hoping that she wouldn't overreact.  She didn't, and stepped aside just as he hoped she would.  He was already looking inside the room when he realized what he was doing. 
The shooting had stopped.  When had that happened?  He looked around.  There were bodies all over the floor, but thankfully most of them were cowering under the long tables that still had sheets of paper strewn about them.  He saw the body right away, the shooter, still clutching two semiautomatics.  It was Simon Cave.  Jack saw his whole experience with Simon flash before his eyes, and the hindsight explained everything.  It only made sense. 
"So, the coward shot himself," he said to no one in particular. 
"No," a voice said behind him.  It was Willow.  Jack looked around.  He saw the gun in her hand for the first time, and the pink handbag in the other.  "It wasn't going to stop.  He wouldn't stop, Jack." 
She was trembling.  The gun fell from her hand.  Jack threw his arms around her, but struggled to find something to say.  For the first time in his life, he saw her for something other than her beauty, and he wondered if he would ever see that again...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fan Tango Tuesday: Jim Carrey

subject: Jim Carrey

overview: Most people don't know this, but Jim Carrey started acting in the early 1980s.  Of course, like everyone else I didn't notice him until 1994's Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in which he mugged his way through an entire movie while sometimes talking through his butt (it remained a signature image for years, even though he pretty much retired it with that film, by the way).  Everyone was talking about Ace Ventura that year.  My family finally got around to watching it, and it became another of our obsessions (we tended to obsess over movies), and for some reason, like Star Trek, I took the obsession deeper than the rest of my siblings.  I made a commitment.

Of course, Carrey helped everyone else become pretty obsessed with him that year, also having massive success with The Mask and Dumb and Dumber, which amounted to such an odd confluence of events, given as I said that he'd been making movies for years and never come close to popularity before.  Famously, he got into the funny business because his parents were poor and he'd come up with routines to try and make them smile.  This led him to Hollywood and early efforts like 1981's Rubberface (rereleased like it was a big deal after he finally broke out) and the short-lived TV series The Duck Factory.  Once Bitten was probably his first major movie, while Peggy Sue Got Married and Earth Girls Are Easy were equally unlikely attempts to associate him with romantic material.  Carrey was a regular on In Living Color (he was the white guy), which probably gave him greater exposure than everything he'd done in his first decade of acting combined.

He began to stretch himself earlier than most people would retroactively suspect, appearing in the final Dirty Harry movie, 1988's The Dead Pool (and thus the origin of a Clint Eastwood impression he'd bring to Bruce Almighty years later), and a dramatic TV movie called Doing Time on Maple Drive, which I would actually watch in a science class (it's about addiction and general family depression).

Another mark of distinction in my family's experience with Carrey was the semester my brother spent watching Liar Liar over and over again (yes, obsessively).  Liar Liar is the movie Carrey did so everyone would forget about The Cable Guy, his first early relative flop since the Ace Ventura breakthrough.

Still, it was me who took on the reins of Jim Carrey fandom.  He was basically responsible for making me a semi-regular patron of movie theaters, starting with 1995's Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.  If he starred in it, I needed to see it, and he's someone who still has a hard time disappointing me.  I even enjoyed his Capra flick The Majestic, which was the first time a dramatic effort failed to impress critics.  Of course, everyone loved The Truman Show, because The Truman Show is easy to love, and it's not only one of Carrey's best, but one of the best movies ever, period.  Man on the Moon, the last great bit of Andy Kaufman sleight-of-hand, is one of Carrey's most inspired moments.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another not-just-great-Jim-Carrey-film.

Right around the time he reached a decade from the start of his popular career, Carrey found himself easy to be taken for granted again, and yet he's been rolling right along, just as interested as ever in finding the offbeat slice of humanity in every role Hollywood has to offer him.  He's a true original.


Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) Ridiculously quotable (and the reason anyone will remember Dan Marino decades from now) and an instant classic character, this movie also has Courtney Cox's last notable appearance before Friends.

The Mask (1994) For some reason, one of the first movies to employ CGI on a more regular basis used it to enhance Carrey's comic performance, as if he needed the help.  But it's oversized fun and introduces Cameron Diaz.  What more do you need to know?

Batman Forever (1995) It might be argued that it was Joel Schumacher who ruined this era of Batman flicks, but Jim Carrey, who turned the entire third movie into another personal spotlight.  How could the Dark Knight possibly hope to keep up with him?

The Cable Guy (1996) Much better than its reputation suggests.

Liar Liar (1997) The first movie where it's obvious everyone knows just how huge a star Carrey really is.  Also fun to see Maura Tierney and Cary Elwes in supporting roles, and please stick around for the credits, because the outtakes are as hilarious as the movie.

The Truman Show (1998) For years my absolute favorite movie, and has remaining in contention ever since.  Practically perfect in every way.

Man on the Moon (1999) In case there was any doubt that Truman Show was a fluke, Carrey does this as a follow-up.  He's the only actor who could possibly have done Andy Kaufman justice.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) A huge hit at the time, although you'd never guess it now, probably because people finally realized that it was a little odd that it wasn't Seuss who left the lasting impression, but Jim Carrey.  So pretty much Batman Forever all over again.

The Majestic (2001) Funny fact: Laurie Holden, who's currently starring in The Walking Dead, is Carrey's love interest in this (I'd previously enjoyed her in the short-lived Magnificent Seven TV series).  I actually unabashedly love this one, just as memorable as any Frank Darabont movie, and still a darkhorse contender for Carrey's best.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Then again, so is this one.  This is how you keep your rabid fans, folks.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) Carrey steals this the same way he stole Batman Forever and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  If it's a franchise, he will be bigger than the franchise.  So, look out Kick Ass 2.

Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) Possibly his last great outright comedy, a recession movie well before the recession actually hit.

Yes Man (2008) A classic Jim Carrey comedy, which is something he does every now and then.  This one co-stars Zooey Deschanel!

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) Blending drama and comedy in another movie that defies expectations.

A Christmas Carol (2009) The most unlikely Scrooge ever does it animated.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Frog Splash Monday: Top Ten Movie Countdown

Anyone who's been to Scouring Monk before knows that I love movies, and especially love ranking them (last year I was obsessed with Flickchart, for instance).  I've been working on yet another spin-off blog entirely about movies, Film Fan, which has been, like most of my blogs, on a hiatus in recent weeks, but that'll start up again soon.

So given all that, I couldn't just talk about any movies, my favorites or what have you, and considering that I'm starting a new set of formats for regular posts today, I really couldn't be random, because Frog Splash Monday means I'll be talking about professional wrestling every Monday.  I know, I know, everyone loves wrestling!  (Sarcasm sign in the air, folks.)  But it's a long tradition here at Monk that hasn't been done on any kind of regular basis for far too long.  I've always loved wrestling, and we're just weeks away from WrestleMania XXIX, WWE's Super Bowl, that will see company stalwart John Cena battle Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for the second straight year, this time over the heavyweight title.

This is pretty exciting, since The Rock was a huge star for the company a decade ago, and his return was one of those things that seemed like it would never happen, like Bret Hart's reconciliation with WWE or Bruno Sammartino's agreement to enter the company's Hall of Fame, which I talked about earlier this year.

The Rock left, of course, because he realized that his magnetic charisma would work well in the movies.  He hasn't been the most consistently successful of actors, but he's been pretty great.  (After all, he is The Great One.)  So I figured my list would be:

The Top Ten Movies Starring The Rock

  1. The Rundown (2003) One of his earliest movies, and thus a lot of fun because not only is Hollywood really figuring out what to do with him, he's surrounded by a really great supporting cast, including Christopher Walken, Rosario Dawson, and Seann William Scott, who's just great in everything.
  2. Southland Tales (2007) Rock reteams with Scott in Richard Kelly's follow-up to Donnie Darko, also featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake, another crossover artist trying to make a transition (though his best moment is an impromptu music video to a Killers song).  This is so good, and both Rock and Scott are completely different than you'd expect either to be.
  3. Be Cool (2005) This was Rock completely blowing away any assumptions about what he was willing to do, going straight for comedy, which wrestling fans would have expected but mainstream audiences would never have seen coming.  It's also a highly underrated sequel to Get Shorty, and features John Travolta and Uma Thurman together for the first time since Pulp Fiction, plus features Vince Vaughn in a typically show-stealing role, probably the one that helped make him a leading man.
  4. The Mummy Returns (2001) I love the first two Mummy movies (doesn't hurt that they star Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, who have too hard a time getting people to appreciate them in anything else).  The third one isn't too bad, but it doesn't feature Arnold Vosloo, even if bringing him back again would have been incredibly convoluted.  His comeback this time is fantastic, however, and really, this is better than the first one.  And it features The Rock in his first movie role, even if it's barely a speaking role and led to The Scorpion King, his first starring role, which you can probably skip.
  5. Fast Five (2011) I love the Fast series, how it evolved in such a crazy way but eventually got everything back on track and got better.  This is the first one to feature The Rock, as possibly the only rival Vin Diesel could ever hope to have in the movies.
  6. Race to Witch Mountain (2009) Growing up my family watched every conceivable Disney movie, including the originals in this rebooted series that saw Rock successfully combine his action and family-friendly modes.
  7. Get Smart (2008) Since it can sometimes be hard to figure out what to do with him in an era that's not always friendly to the action movies most people will expect from him, Rock tends to appear in a lot of ensemble movies, or sometimes strictly in a supporting role, where if you don't know he's in it you could just as easily enjoy the movie for its other stars, the ones you know definitely star in it.  This one features Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, and it's a good mainstream flick for both of them.  Rock appears as one of those secretly villainous roles he could just as easily split with Matthew Fox.
  8. The Game Plan (2007) The most successful of his family films, Rock draws on his other athletic background in football as a big star who discovers he has a daughter, and hilarity ensues!
  9. Walking Tall (2004) A remake of a movie based on real events, with Rock getting to play the thoroughly Hollywood version of the story as a guy who single-handedly cleans up the corruption in a small town.  Also notable for co-starring Neal McDonough, who's so awesome that most movies can only contain him in villainous roles.  Do yourself a favor, though, and enjoy his best work in the short-lived TV series Boomtown, one of the best ever.
  10. Planet 51 (2009) This one's animated, so if you really can't get behind the concept of supporting an actor who is also a professional wrestler, you can totally pretend you're not watching him at all!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

#525. The Observer Effect

I've tried for years to figure out where Heroes went wrong.

Heroes is a TV series that ran from 2006-2010, becoming a massive breakout hit in its first season mostly because it seemed like it was the antidote to Lost, an arc-heavy drama that provided answers rather than provide more questions.  The second season was truncated by the Writers Guild strike, and by the time the third season rolled around, a backlash had set in that completely turned around the show's reputation.  It had, essentially, become the new Lost, and unlike Lost never had a shot at redemption.

Now, obviously the popular opinion of what went wrong with Heroes is that it simply stopped being awesome.  That's all well and good, but I'm going to attempt once again to contradict popular belief.  I'm here to argue that it wasn't the quality of the series but rather the observer effect that affected the show's fortunes.

What's the observer effect?  It's the ability of the audience to believe it has an effect on what it's enjoying.  Sometimes it's manifested in a surrogate presence, sometimes it's simply the characters or situation being open-ended and self-reflective.  At least in the first season of Heroes, for instance, the characters were engaged in an escalation of events that seemed to be headed in one particular direction.  By the third season, those expectations were proven to be categorically inaccurate.  Where viewers expected the series to continue expanding on its mythology, Heroes instead dug in and explored what had already been established, so that the first half of the third season was devoted to a character who had only existed previous to the start of the series, and thus the deeper mythology that the second season had touched on prior to the truncated effects of the strike.

What bothered these viewers even more was the use of one particular character, who had always appeared to be a villain, but whose increasing prominence felt like a contradiction of everything they had decided long ago.

In our modern social media age we can sometimes believe that it's the obligation of creators to take advice and opinions from those who are meant to enjoy a product rather than follow through with a vision that may have been set long ago, or one that evolved over time.  Lost proved exasperating because it ignored every convention, and finally when that theme went in truly exaggerated directions, viewers became interested again, until they discovered that the conclusions didn't return to the simplicities they'd been hoping for all along.  With Heroes, it was a mortal sin to scale back from the perceived elements of the first season, even though everything that followed was a organic continuation from them.

The problem, I say again, is the observer effect.  We love to be a part of the story.  The more we feel a part of it, the more we're willing to invest ourselves in it.  The Twilight Saga cleverly figured that out by becoming one of the first to engage fans in a campaign to support two potential romantic options even though the author likely had the outcome set long ago.

Okay, let's give some examples you'll be able to follow easily: with superhero movies it's always better to give context for a character's adventures.  Sam Raimi's Spider-Man flicks carefully cultivated his lead character's relationship with New York City, which was successful in part because they came directly after 9/11.  Yet the same is true for Christopher Nolan's Batman, whose relationship with Gotham is an equally central element to his story in all three films.  Tim Burton's Batman was the same way, while Joel Schumacher's was not.  The more Batman became a celebrity, in Schumacher's films, the less fans could see him function properly as a vigilante, because otherwise the villains behaved the same in all four Batman movies prior to Nolan's.  The Superman movies are the same.  In the first two, Superman's relationship with Metropolis is key.  The isolated he becomes in the later three, including Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, the less fans have a chance to identify with the experience.

Need further proof?  The Avengers cycle has been using this all along.  Superhero movies are never a sure-bet at the box office, but these films have consistently performed, and The Avengers itself was a massive success, mostly because viewers found their surrogates in the characters themselves.

Star Trek is the same way.  It was massively popular, at least within a limited cult audience, for two decades, and yet the more insular it became the more fragmented the fans became, the more it drew only on itself the less the fans thought they were essential, even though the material being generated was meant exactly for them.  It's not about limiting the audience, but telling the audience that you need to pay attention.

Paying attention is more often than not a popular kiss of death.  To reach a mass audience you need to assure the viewer that they don't need to pay attention, they only need to feel as if they're somehow a part of the experience.  Draw them in and they'll tune in.

Wrestling is exactly about this.  Hulk Hogan was a giant star because he encouraged participation from his fans, and they felt involved in his quests to subdue rivals in the ring.  Steve Austin succeeded him because he did the same thing, as much in what he did but by engaging viewer surrogate Jim Ross, who had never before and was never again as passionate about a wrestler as he was "Stone Cold."  Hearing Good Ol' J.R. cheer on his hero was enough to motivate fans to cheer right along.

I've been trying to figure this out for years.  I've been trying to figure out what makes something succeed or not succeed, because it's not always quality.  I'm not going to be one of those people who assume something with mass success cannot be good and popular at the same time.  But there is plenty of good material that isn't popular, and I wonder why.  It's because the material is self-reflective, doesn't demand audience participation.  Memento was Christopher Nolan's first critical success, and it launched his popular career, but is itself not a popular success.  It was at one point my favorite film, but to most people it's been completely lost in the shuffle since its release at the start of the millennium.  To me, it was an instant and timeless new classic, and I'm not talking simply in the way many critics do, latching onto something and keeping it on these lists without ever reconsidering or considering it in the first place, but rather as it exists and ages on its own merits.

I suspect that for most people, Memento is just a clever little film, ultimately disposable, not even to the merit of The Usual Suspects, which eternally engages the viewer in the discovery of how the central villain was hiding in plain sight for the entire movie.  Memento is like that, but it appears to hide this fact in a gimmick, much as how M. Night Shyamalan has been reduced to a director who appears to rely on gimmicks.  The Sixth Sense engaged viewers in the same observer effect as The Usual Suspects.  His subsequent films have never had that same effect, because Shyamalan has tended to focus them on one rather than two characters.  Bruce Willis is the observer in The Sixth Sense.  You might call Samuel L. Jackson the observer in Unbreakable, but the entire movie is about Willis being forced to discover something about himself, a deconstruction of Shyamalan's own Sixth Sense.  And to explain the other films would be to justify their existence in the face of criticism that misses the point.

You don't like The Village because it contradicts the observer effect.  It doesn't involve the viewer at all.  This is not a bad thing.  A painting like the "Mona Lisa" or "The Scream" involve the viewer, "Nude Descending a Staircase" involves the viewer.  Jackson Pollack does not involve the viewer.

The observer effect is something of how certain bloggers have massive success.  Alex J. Cavanaugh is a legend because he understands the observer effect perfectly.  He's built his whole Internet presence around it.  It's not simply interacting in a community, but an immersion.  Cavanaugh represents one such way this can be achieved.

Ironically, Heroes ended on the very note its fans expected two seasons earlier, when the public was finally admitted into the secret community of superheroes.  Viewers love to be acknowledged.  You can provide the most clever content in the world, but in the end you need to remember that if you don't engage those who ultimately consume it, the material is bound to meet a limited and compromised appreciation.


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