Monthly Archives: July 2008

Best Summer Blockbusters of all Time

I fully expect that when The Dark Knight tallies its opening weekend haul on Sunday, it will rank among the highest grossing summer blockbuster openings of all time. Sadly it will join the company of lots of blockbuster bilge—such $75M+ openers like The Da Vinci Code and Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. But there have been a number of certified summer blockbusters that have also been really, really good films. In honor of them, here is my top ten list of the best summer blockbusters of all time.

10) Braveheart (5/24/95): The grandaddy of three hour historical epics, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart was the rare summer blockbuster that went on to win oodles of Academy Awards.

9) Superman Returns (6/28/06): Though Brian Singer’s superhero film underperformed at the box office, I think it hit all the right notes. There is a somber beauty to this film that is revealed upon each subsequent viewing.

8) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (5/24/89): This third installment in the Indy franchise may not have made as much money as this year’s Crystal Skull already has, but in terms of summer blockbuster qualifications, I think The Last Crusade fits the mold most.

7) Forrest Gump (7/6/94): Another rare example of a summer film that beat the odds and won awards six months later. Tom Hanks’ iconic role made for a perfect summer film: a chronicle of postwar Americana, complete with war, love, and comedy.

6) Back to the Future (7/3/85): The awesome first installment in the Back to the Future franchise was a stunning sci-fi adventure like no other. Crispin Glover steals the show.

5) The Sixth Sense (8/6/99): This late summer sleeper hit gave birth to the “shocking ending” trend in contemporary cinema, as well as introducing the world to M. Night Shyamalan. I still remember the thrill of seeing this movie for the first time in the theater, having no idea what was coming.

4) Jaws (6/20/75): Jaws invented the summer blockbuster. It was the first film to use a simultaneous nationwide release (in hundreds of theaters) and saturation marketing. It also caused millions of beachgoers everywhere to think twice about getting in the water.

3) Jurassic Park (6/11/93): This film ushered in the CGI/Digital era of blockbuster filmmaking with a thundering roar. I still remember seeing this epic adventure film twice in the movie theater that summer, and being utterly terrified as a 5th grader.

2) Independence Day (7/2/96): This is the ultimate summer movie: a combination of star power (Will Smith), aliens, doomsday destruction, and patriotism. And the special effects were pretty great for the time.

1) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (7/3/91): The ultimate white-knuckle summer thriller. Every minute of this action-packed film is adrenaline-fueled. It also introduced never-before-seen digital effects that made that liquid metal villain all the more menacing. Here’s hoping next summer’s Terminator: Salvation will take its place high on this list as well.

Best of the Blog’s First Year: Part Two

Last week—in honor of my upcoming one year blog anniversary (July 18)—I highlighted some of my personal favorite posts from the last year on my blog. Today I am listing some of the most provocative and most discussed posts, as well as those with the most total page views. This will conclude my anniversary week postings… Now we can move on to year two!

Top posts by number of comments:

10) The Christian Hipster Revisited (13)
9) Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk) (14)
8) 100 Greatest Worship Songs of all Time (16)
7) Buzzword R.I.P.: Emerging (17)
6) Christianity: More Harm Than Good? (18)
5) Kitschiest Christian Songs Ever (20)
4) Christianity 101: Exclusivity (34)
3) The Tragedy of (Most) Modern Worship Music (56)
2) No Discussion Allowed (67)
1) Best “Christian” Albums of All Time (85)

Top posts by total page views:

10) Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk)
9) Top Twenty Defining Films of the 00s
8) Types of Hipsters: Part Two
7) Types of Hipsters: Part Three
6) Types of Hipsters: Part One
5) Review: David Cook, Analog Heart
4) No Discussion Allowed
3) 100 Greatest Worship Songs of All Time
2) The Tragedy of (Most) Modern Worship Music
1) Best “Christian” Albums of All Time

Letting the Youth Be Our Guide

A lot has been made of the “youth appeal” of Barack Obama in this election. It’s true: he is strikingly popular among most young people, college students, yuppies, etc. It’s not a surprise; he’s a pretty cool guy. He speaks intelligently, eloquently, even poetically, with rapturous visions of a “change we can believe in.” He has that cool, “something different” appeal, with an attractive (if not totally believable) platform of anti-politics politics. He also has the coolest campaign posters ever (see above).

But since when is being loved by the vast majority of young people a good thing? Here are other things that the vast majority of young people currently love: Miley Cyrus, texting while driving, The Hills, binge drinking, MTV, frivolous spending, credit card debt, and instant gratification. Do we really want to put much stock into “what the kids are in to?”

Sadly, because our culture is so utterly youth-focused these days, it is the case that the youth vote (however ignorant, fickle, and unwise it may be) is highly respected. As such, many older people I know (most of them erstwhile Republicans) are going to vote for Obama, largely because their kids and/or grandkids are. This same story has been reported by many of my friends, who are finding it exceptionally easy to convince their parents to vote for Obama because, well, the kids are all doing it. In former eras the kids followed the lead of their parents in politics; It’s pretty much the opposite today.

It’s the same reason why we have an explosion of “cool moms” these days (see Amy Poehler in Mean Girls), overly-botoxed housewives, and cougars. I suspect it’s why middle-aged men love to wear those techy ear gadgets everywhere. Young people hold the cultural (and increasingly political) currency, and everyone else wants to buy in. Voting for Obama is the new plastic surgery or Porsche-buying. It’s a way for older people to feel relevant again.

I know it sounds weird for me (a twenty-something) to be bashing my own people (young people), but I would be the first to admit that I am not nearly as wise as my parents or grandparents. It is simply the fact of aging that one gains wisdom and knowledge of the world the older one gets. So why are we putting our trust in the under-40s? Shouldn’t we look to the older generations for guidance?

I know it’s a “new Internet age” and all that, and it’s true that holding on to the past too hard can be horribly ill-advised; but it is also ill-advised to look desperately into the future, holding only to some nebulous “hope” and “change” that recklessly shuns any recourse to experience, learned wisdom, and prudent practicality.

“A little child will lead them” is a nice idea, but I’m not sure it the best course for deciding who will lead the free world.

Best of the Blog’s First Year: Part One

My one-year anniversary of being a blogger happens next week, and in honor of that fact (and the fact that blogging is by nature a very self-indulgent act) I’m going to spend the next week revisiting some of my most controversial and popular posts, as well as my own personal favorites.

It’s great that blogs can archive all posts, comments, etc, but the truth is that most blog posts have relatively short life spans. The blogosphere—like the Internet in general—thrives on new content, new posts, and bite-sized pontificating. If there’s a downside to blogging, it is that sometimes I feel like the things I want to say can’t properly be said in this format, and that the energy I spend writing it down isn’t worthwhile when in a matter of days it might fade into the digital graveyard of well-intentioned ideas.

Nevertheless, I’ve found it all a very worthwhile endeavor, and when I look back to the second post that I wrote, entitled “The Search” (July 19), I find that the principles and motivations with which I started this blog have more or less carried through and sustained me over the past year.

In any case, the following is an annotated list of fifteen of my personal favorite blog posts from my first twelve months of blogging. Next week I will post a list of the top ten most-viewed posts and top ten by number-of-comments posts, just in case you missed them the first time.

Harry Potter and the Christian Fear of Imagination: A post from last summer when the final book came out, and a treatise against the ridiculous Christian antagonism towards our beloved Harry Potter.

Memories of a Recent October: This was a therapeutic one to write, and captured numerous of my autumnal thoughts and feelings. Plus it was a chance to plug the White Sox!

No Country For Old Men: My thoughts on the Academy Award-winning film, from when it came out back in November. The Miramax website actually linked to this post in their “for your consideration” Oscar campaign site.

The Commodification of Experience: Inspired by The Darjeeling Limited, this post allowed me to articulate some things I’d been thinking about and writing about at UCLA the past year.

Mii, Myself, and My Online Identity: Inspired by a paper I wrote for a Videogame Theory class at UCLA, this post was one of many semi-meta examinations of online/blog identity.

The Case for Criticism: Not a Lee Strobel book! Rather, this is my attempt to legitimate the art of true, productive criticism at a time when everyone seems to be adopting the “critic” title.

Quarterlife Crisis: My thoughts upon turning 25; one of the rare times I wrote about myself and my thoughts in any sort of transparent way.

Incomprehensible Incarnation (Merry Christmas): My attempt to be as poetic as Linford Detweiler in describing what Christmas actually means. (Note that I quote Linford extensively in the article).

Does Jesse James Know Who He Is?: This is another article about—you guessed it—identity. This time it was inspired by the beautiful Assassination of Jesse James film from last fall.

Top-Down Populism: This one got me into some trouble with colleagues at UCLA, or at least sparked a discussion with them. But I stand by what I wrote, and I think it reveals a lot of my foundational political ideology.

In lieu of a real posting: An attempt at a free-written blog post; a thoroughly refreshing, existential exercise that may or may not reveal anything significant about life.

The Hills Are Alive With Confused Identity: There’s that “i” word again… This time it’s with respect to the MTV show, The Hills.

Paranoid Park: My favorite film of the year so far, and one of the most pleasurable reviews to write. I also like this one because I think there was some exceptionally productive dialogue in the comments section.

Saturday Art: In many ways this post captures my fundamental approach to the arts and to beauty.

Flight of the Red Balloon: A gorgeous film and another review I really loved writing. Films like this afford a critic the best opportunities to sound off on the things about cinema they really love: in my case, transcendental aesthetics.

Best Movie Marketing Ever?

My prediction for The Dark Knight is that it will break the all time opening weekend box office numbers when it releases on July 18. If not that, then it will at least take the prize for the summer and the year. And why? Three reasons: 1) It’s a sequel, 2) It’s a comic book movie, and 3) It’s had the coolest marketing of any movie ever. Everytime I drive down Hollywood Blvd and see the latest 10 story spectacular ad (most recently the image on the left below), I’m just in awe of how sick this movie looks.

In addition to having a crazy good poster and billboard campaign, Knight has also broken new ground in post-Cloverfield viral marketing. The viral network of websites associated with Knight is substantial—almost mind-boggling. And the more you go digging around on one site, the deeper the rabbit hole goes. For example, this spring Warner Brothers unveiled the site IBelieveinHarveyDent.com, which consisted solely of a campaign ad for the politician character Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). A few days later came the follow-up: IBelieveinHarveyDentToo.com. This site featured a scribbled-out version of the same campaign ad, apparently the defacing work of the Joker himself. At the bottom of this page you could input your e-mail address, and those who did received a message apparently from the Joker himself which read: “I always say, you never know what a man is truly made of until you peel the skin off his face one piece at a time.” It gave a unique X and Y coordinate, and if you followed a link that took you back to the site, you could “peel off” one pixel of the Harvey Dent campaign ad. Behind all the pixels was this horrifyingly scary countenance:

And apparently if you then sent an e-mail back to the e-mail that was sent to you, you immediately got this extremely cryptic reply back from the joker: “People always ask me about my charming boyish smile. Jessica used to love it. She was the loneliest girl in high school, and my first big kiss…”

But this is just one example of the massive, intricate marketing web Warner Brothers has woven. I’m sure there are many more than this, but I was able to track down ten unique urls associated with the marketing of the film: some associated with the Joker (here and here), some with Harvey Dent and Harvey Dent’s rival DA candidates (here and here), and countless sites about Gotham city newspapers, news channels, infrastructure, churches, etc.

Like all great marketing campaigns, the one for Knight proceeded in stages. Last year it started with a focus on the Joker, and then this spring it transitioned to a focus on Harvey Dent. Fittingly for an election year—and perhaps as a parody of American electoral politics—the Harvey Dent campaign has consisted of faux political rallies, campaign ads, downloadable widgets and banners, and various “I Believe in Harvey Dent” paraphernalia.

The websites have also been remarkable in their ability to tap in to that most crucial of all 21st-century marketing techniques: user-generated content. Websites allow fans to make their own videos or create their own “Batman sighting” photographs, for example. The viral nature of the whole operation also gives privileged status to those “most active users” who spend the time decoding riddles, finding easter eggs, etc. But it also builds intrigue for the casual users who just happen to see a “Why So Serious?” or “I Believe in Harvey Dent” poster.

With such an entertaining and beautiful marketing campaign, the actual release of the film threatens to be a letdown. But somehow I don’t think it will be. Not at all.

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is at the top of his game this year. Catapulted by the unexpected success of Grizzly Man a few years ago, Herzog has regained some of the filmmaking prestige he had back in the 80s with films like Fitzcarraldo. Last summer’s Rescue Dawn was one of my favorite films of the year (I gave it four stars in my CT review) and featured a stunning and grievously underrated performance by Christian Bale. Then a few months ago, Herzog showed up as an actor (playing an eccentric priest) in Harmony Korine’s gorgeous Mister Lonely. But his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, might take the cake. It’s certainly the best documentary I’ve seen this year.

Like many of Herzog’s films, Encounters is a thing of spellbinding beauty, intrigue, and wonderment. Commissioned by the Discovery Channel, Herzog’s film is unlike most other documentaries about Antarctica. First of all, it’s not about penguins (though “deranged penguins” do make a cameo). Rather than focusing solely on the natural environment or breathtaking photography (though it certainly has its fair share of these things), Encounters is a sort of travelogue that examines the humans who inhabit the seventh continent. More specifically, it asks the typical Herzogian questions: what draws man to live among such a harsh environment? Who are humans in the face of such awesome natural forces?

Herzog interviews a motley crew of scientists, engineers, wayfaring travelers, and otherwise eccentrics from all over the world, who inhabit the “town” of McMurdo Station during Antarctica’s summer months. Herzog’s sardonic voiceovers (in his memorable German accent) frame each interview with editorial commentaries, and as usual his personality adds much flavor to the tonally rich film.

For the scientific junkies among us, there is plenty of amazing stuff here: volcanoes, icebergs, microbiology, otherworldly underwater footage, speculation about the nature of neutrinos, and more. And Herzog manages to make it all utterly compelling, almost holy. Indeed, Herzog is never too afraid to insinuate spirituality into his examinations of nature. He frequently inserts language like “other-worldly,” “cathedral,” and “god” in his reckonings with a nature he continues to be utterly drawn in to and baffled by.

Herzog’s prevailing cinematic conflict is that of man vs. nature, and that is certainly the case in Encounters—a film that concludes rather nonchalantly that human life is reaching its inevitable conclusion on planet earth. He addresses global warming but treats it almost as a convenient sheet over our eyes—blinding us from the obvious truth that nature is winning, will win, and humanity’s days are numbered. Nevertheless, Herzog’s film is not in the least a somber or apocalyptic polemic (like An Inconvenient Truth or something), but rather a jubilant, child-like exploration of a totally fascinating topic.

There are moments in this film that are so beautiful, so true, that one doesn’t mind that the point of the film is to show us how tiny and powerless and, well, stupid we humans are. But I’ve always thought it a valuable thing to be reminded of: that the creation we are a part of is utterly beyond our comprehension and, to an extent, control. Sure, we are changing the climate with our massive pollutants, but there are bigger things going on in nature that we cannot account for.

In this way, Herzog’s analysis of the natural world is both eco-friendly and eco-ambivalent. His relationship to nature is similar to many Christians’ relationship to God: he fears it, loves it, and is totally dependent on it. Indeed, nature is Herzog’s god, and the passion and reverence with which he artfully approaches it is something we all might learn from.

Emmy Finalists Revealed

Last week the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences revealed the top ten vote-getters for outstanding drama series and outstanding comedy series, which will be whittled down to the final five in each category when Emmy nominations are announced later this month. They are:

Comedy: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Family Guy, Flight of the Conchords, The Office, Pushing Daisies, 30 Rock, Two and a Half Men, Ugly Betty, & Weeds.

Drama: Boston Legal, Damages, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Lost, Mad Men, The Tudors, & The Wire.

Three words: Friday. Night. Lights. It simply HAS to be one of the final five nominees this year, making up for its unconscionable snub last year.

If I had my way, the chips will fall this way come July 17:

Outstanding Comedy Series nominees: Entourage, Flight of the Conchords, 30 Rock, The Office, Pushing Daisies.

Outstanding Drama Series nominees: Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Lost, The Wire.

But honestly, all I really care about is FNL getting a nomination. Emmy voters, if you’re reading this: give the show some love!!!