About Me

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I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Top Films of the Decade: Part II

And here we go with Part II....

2004 – Sideways

This is a great “buddy” movie set in California’s gorgeous Napa Valley. I saw the film with one of my oldest friends and it hit home for both of us because there were so many incidents in the film which resembled our experiences over the years. My friend felt that he was Miles and I was Jack. Although, other friends of mine tell me that I have a little in common with both the main characters (Miles is also a writer). There is a serious thematic underdone to this story combined with a lot of great humor. The wine flows and the jazz soundtrack really compliments the characters and the story (not everyone liked the musical score, my friend DePalma sneeringly refers to the jazz soundtrack as “that f&%#ing Pink Panther music”). One of the stronger messages in the film deals with how our lives turn out differently than we expect. Nothing in life ever goes according to plan and we can never accurately predict how our plans will develop. In the case of this story, Miles had been saving a special wine for his tenth wedding anniversary. Instead of sharing the wine with his wife, he is divorced, and drinks the wine alone out of a Styrofoam cup at a burger joint. Anyone who has had their expectations in life dashed can relate.

If you are under the age of twenty-five you probably will not “get it” when you watch Sideways. When I was eighteen I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and I thought, “This is it? Really?” You see, I didn’t “get it.” I understood the story on an intellectual level, but not an emotional one because I simply did not have enough life experience. I returned to The Old Man and the Sea ten years later and now I think it is absolute brilliance. The story had not changed ... I had. I’m glad I was old enough to appreciate Sideways when it was released.

2003 – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This is an extremely underappreciated film. I went to see it in the theatre thinking I was about to watch an action flick. I was dead wrong. It is so much more. First, the story is a vivid portrait of what life on a naval vessel in the early 1800s would have been like – the griminess, the close quarters, the class divisions, the call of duty, the superstitions, and the subculture of a ship at sea. Second, it demonstrates how advances in sea navigation made exploration and discovery possible in the early modern era. I really enjoyed how a portion the tale mimicked Darwin’s first trip to the Galapagos.

But the heart of Master and Commander is built around a lasting friendship and a passion for music. Even though Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin have decidedly different ideals and their personalities clash, it is their mutual love of music that truly binds them together. While watching the scenes when Jack and Stephen play songs together I couldn’t help but think of all the jam sessions I’ve had with good friends in the past. There is a special bond that musicians share with one another. An unspoken conversation takes place. If you do not play, then you cannot possibly comprehend. Music represents a spark of Divinity in all of us. If you are lucky enough to have the gift of music within you, don’t ever let it go.

The use of Vivaldi and Bach in the film is really wonderful as well. I’ve attached a link to one of my favorite songs used in the film, Corelli’s, “Adagio from Concerto Grosso.” Check it out. If you don’t find it moving, then you must not have a pulse.


2002 – Road to Perdition

“Natural Law: Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.”

This is an extraordinary movie. I think I’ve watched it about a dozen times and if I were to make a list of my top twenty-five films of all time, Road to Perdition would be on it. This is a father/son story combined with a revenge tale. One thing holds true with nearly all revenge tales: if you seek vengeance, it may be granted, but the price you pay is your own life. This tale is no different. I’m not certain, but I believe the revenge motif began with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To be or not to be. If you seek revenge, apparently that is the question. The combination of acting, visuals, and music when Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) takes out John Rooney (Paul Newman) is perfection. This is also a film with strong moral message and the ending is stunningly powerful.

2001 – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I admit it. I am a Lord of the Rings geek. It was very tempting to put each of these three films in my list, but I decided to go with only one. I own the extended version of this film. A friend wanted to borrow it but I would not let him because it is mine. My own. My precious. When I first read the books over ten years ago, I thought that it would be impossible for anyone to ever make a film that would do the story justice. Peter Jackson proved me wrong. Although the film trilogy still does not compare to Tolkien’s masterpiece, they accomplished much more than I ever thought possible. This is partly due to the fact that they use most of Tolkien’s own dialogue in the script, the cinematography of New Zealand is stunning, and the musical score is absolutely fantastic. Perhaps I’ll write a more detailed blog on Tolkien’s work some other time. This tiny commentary will have to do for now. Even though the high fantasy aspect of the film is not for everyone, The Lord of the Rings is indisputably one of the best trilogies in motion picture history.

2000 – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

What can be more wonderful than watching a Homeric Epic set in the American South during the Great Depression? Whatever it is, it must have R-U-N-N- O-F-T. I love the idea of taking classical myth and putting it in a modern setting so much that I did the same with my first novel, To Live Again. Aside from the mythological references, there are so many great quotes from this film. I’m a Dapper Dan man… This place is a geographical oddity, two weeks from everywhere… I’m the paterfamilias… So long boys, see you in the funny papers… You made a deal with the devil and these boys just got saved, I’m the only one at present unaffiliated… We thought you was a toad.

Once again, the music helps move the story. One also has to love the scene with the sirens and John Goodman as the Bible-selling Cyclops. But despite the music and the clever, quirky humor, my favorite part is after the TVA flood. Clooney’s character, Everitt, states that they are entering an age of reason right before seeing the blind man’s prophecy (a cow on the roof of a shack) come true.

This is one of my two favorite Coen Brothers’ films. This other, of course, is The Big Lebowski. The Dude abides. The Dude abides.

Honorable Mention

The Two Towers/Return of the King – See the above explanation for details.

Gladiator – Russell Crowe, Ridley Scott, and Rome. You can’t go wrong with this one. Gladiator is another story that follows the revenge motif mentioned above.

Black Hawk Down – Another Ridley Scott film. I remember the anger and frustration I felt when this actually happened in 1993. This is the best combat film of the decade.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – “I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I have many leather bound books. My apartment smells of rich mahogany.” This movie is made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – A complex tale about the purpose of memory in our lives. This is Jim Carrey’s finest work.

The Dark Knight – The confrontation between the Joker and Batman in the prison is one of the most iconic film scenes of the decade.

Iron Man/The Incredible Hulk – When I was a little kid I read comic books all the time. I love the fact that Marvel is trying to recreate the Marvel Universe with these new films and I can’t wait to see how they take Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and the Avengers, and tie them all together. If they can pull it off, it will be fantastic.

Open Range - I am a sucker for good westerns and I think this is the best one of the decade. This is Kevin Costner's most solid work in a long time. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have Robert Duvall as your costar.

Team America: World Police - From the twisted, clever minds of the creators of South Park. You just have to see this movie to believe it.

Until next time. Cheers and Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Top Films of the Decade: Part I

Right now the internet is riddled with everyone’s top ten films of the decade. So, being bored while sitting around between semesters, I decided to throw my own hat in the ring. Instead of giving a one through ten list, I’ve decided to pick a favorite film from each of the last ten years. I’ll start with this year and go back to 2000. Here it goes….

2009 – Inglourious Basterds

This movie is, without a doubt, Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction. Even though it is an “alternative history” it maintains a feel of historical authenticity. Tarantino did his homework with this one. The references to Karl May (a turn of the century German novelist who became famous for writing stories about the American frontier – Hitler was a huge fan and even recommended that his soldiers read the books) and to Weimar film culture in the 1920s demonstrate that Tarantino knows his subject well. Even though the average film buff will not catch all of the references, for someone like me, it makes the story all the more enjoyable. There is also a really interesting interpretation on the symbollic meaning of King Kong to be found in the drinking game scene.

As with nearly all fiction, characters make the story. The “Jew Hunter” is one of the most manipulative and creepy villains I’ve seen on the screen in years. You have the young theatre owner (Shosanna) on a quest for revenge. Ironically, she gets her chance for vengeance because the “German Sergeant York” (Fredrick Zoller) falls in love with her. The undercover British lieutenant who is an expert on the German film industry is wonderful, but all too brief in the story. Brad Pitt’s character (Lt. Aldo Raine) is great. The fact that he’s a gun toting redneck from Appalachia makes it even better. One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Brad and two of the other Basterds try to sneak into the premier for Nation’s Pride posing as Italians (being typical Americans they are the only characters in the movie who can only speak one language). Listening to Pitt trying to speak Italian with a hillbilly accent is hilarious.

In some ways, the film feels like World War II meets the western genre. The opening sequence looks and feels like it happens on the American frontier, even though it takes place in Nazi occupied France. The music adds to the “western” flavor. The Basterds are, of course, portrayed as American, gun-slinging cowboys. You even have the saloon gunfight (in this case in a basement, much to the chagrin of Lt. Aldo Raine). In the end, however, this movie is Tarantino’s revisionist Nuremburg Trial. Tarantino shows the Nazis no mercy. In fact, one of the main characters dies as a result of showing sympathy for a German soldier. But Tarantino never gets in a hurry in this tale, allowing the rich dialogue to move the action and fully develop every character. Even though the film is two and a half hours long, I wanted to see more of each character. Personally, I think everyone could use a little more Hugo Stiglitz.

2008 – Gran Torino

No one has been more influential in shaping the perception of masculinity in American pop culture in the second half of the twentieth century than John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (the first half of the century belonged to Hemingway). Even though it is a new century, Eastwood still has what it takes. In many ways Gran Torino is to Eastwood what The Shootist was to Wayne. In both films, the main characters are dying of cancer, both of them befriend and become a mentor to a younger man, both of them stick with old fashioned values in a society that views them as relics, and both Eastwood and Wayne refuse to go quietly, going out in a blaze of glory. Eastwood’s commentary on race, ethnicity, and the changing face of America is both funny and enlightening. One of my favorite scenes is when Eastwood takes Thao to the barber shop to teach him how “men talk” to one another. It really reminds me of the way some of my friends and I spoke to one another in the office at WVU. The film is touching without being overly sentimental and smart without being preachy.

2007 – There Will Be Blood

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better fable on film about the self-consuming power of ambitious greed. This is how the industrialists made their cash. Daniel Day Lewis gives a performance that is every bit as iconic as George C. Scott’s Patton. The score is really good as well, provided by Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist from Radiohead. This is not a film for those of you who like sentimental, happy fluff. It is not even a piece of entertainment. It is a deep resonating, artistic piece. Even though the story strays far from Upton Sinclair’s novel, I think he would be pleased with the result. The final showdown between the Capitalist Baron and the False Prophet is chilling.

2006 – The Departed

The more I see this film, the more I like it. This story is a tragedy, pure and simple. Usually, I can tell you nearly everything that will happen in a film within the first five minutes, but The Departed contained twists that even I did not see coming. The cast is superb. DiCaprio, as Billy Costigan, gives his finest performance. Costigan is one of my favourite film characters in a long time. You can't help but feel sympathy for him and I absolutely hated to see him get killed. On the other hand, I loved watching the slimy, rat Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon's character) getting axed. That is what a great story does. You want certain characters to be happy and you want others to get what they deserve. A perfect example is Madolyn. I wanted her to be with Costigan (even though it could have never worked in the long term) and get as far away from Sullivan as possible. I really loved the scene where Costigan hooks up with Madolyn while Van Morrison is singing his cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” in the background. Great scene. Baldwin, Sheen, and Walberg round out a very solid cast and Jack is, of course, still money. It ranks in my top five mafia/crime films of all time.

2005 –Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut)

Talk of religion often makes people squirm, but this film does so in a very smart way. If you watch this film, get the Director’s Cut and only the Director’s Cut. Some people may complain about the running time of the extended version, but to those folks I say, “It’s called an attention span. Get one.” A number of academics have gotten their panties in a bunch over the numerous historical inaccuracies in the film, but as it so often happens with overly anal scholars, they get bogged down on details and miss the overall point. Ridley Scott was trying to give us a discussion of contemporary religious issues and conflicts in a medieval setting. In that, he succeeds while simultaneously telling a really gritty and engaging story. While the message of religious and multicultural toleration juxtaposed with the true meaning of spirituality pervades the film there is also an element of Divine Providence found in the tale of Godfrey’s son, Balian. He is a man who believes that God has abandoned him, only to be guided to greatness. There are also poignant moments that reflect on the advantages of class mobility over a stagnant caste society. Interestingly, Godfrey refers to the Holy Land as the "New World" where a man can become whatever it is within himself to be as opposed to Europe where a person's station in life is based entirely on birthright. I liked all of the characters, both Muslim and Christian, both heroes and villains. And one can’t help but love Edward Norton’s portrayal of the leper King. The audience never sees his face, but the performance is wonderful. There is also some very powerful symbolic imagery when Muslim and Christian armies face one another outside the stronghold of Reynald de Chatillon. The story also does a good job in demonstrating the importance of leadership in making peace and starting war. Kingdom of Heaven is a good example of how fiction can entertain and still tackle important social issues. This how I believe stories should be told.

That is all for Part I. The next part will cover 2004 back to 2000. Cheers.