Sunday, December 30, 2007

Favorite Movies of 2007

Some of my favorite movies from the year 2007 appear below. Occasionally, my reasons for choosing these movies appear ideosyncratic although I attempt to achieve objectivity in my comments about these movies. My choices are limited to those movies that have appeared at area multi-plexes. If I were living in a larger city or a university town, I would have access to both European releases and independent productions created in this country.

Best Comedy: Mr. Bean’s Holiday
A genuinely funny movie in which Mr. Bean, without his knowledge, becomes responsible for so many problems. The scene of Mr. Bean dropping the oysters he ordered in a Paris restaurant into a woman’s purse cannot easily be forgotten.

Best Animated Feature: The Simpsons Movie
Nearly every moment contains another gag. It will take several viewings just to discover all of the humor.

Best Computer Animation: Beowulf
This depiction of the old English poem contains a lot of good things. At one point, a bard in the mead hall is reading from Beowulf in Old English. Most fascinating of all is the music that only appears when Grendal’s mother is interacting with Beowulf. The alteration of the poem’s plot creates a convincing argument.

Best Action/Adventure: Live Free or Die Hard
John McClane returns for another adventure in which computers play a large role. Justin Long’s character offers exposition and comic relief. The action remains intense as McClane and Matt Farrell (Justin Long) piece together those clues that will prevent the economic collapse of this country.

Best Drama: 3:10 to Yuma
This update of an earlier western develops the story in more detail by adding more characters and giving Ben Wade and Dan Evans (the two main characters) more human characteristics while framing the movie around the violence in the opening and closing scenes.

Best Musical: Across the Universe
The director manages to weave together the music of the Beatles so as to create a story of two lovers. The cinematography is often surreal and recreates the allusions to LSD in some of the music. Look for the hand of Uncle Sam reaching out of a poster to grab young men for the war in Vietnam.

Best Family/Children’s Movie: The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
The character development in this story, combined with the mythic elements and the Scottish setting, sustains one’s interest throughout the movie and prevents this movie from simply being another one in which the characters talk to imaginary creatures.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

One of my favorite movies from 2007 is 3:10 to Yuma. Not having seen the 1957 movie with Van Heflin and Glenn Ford, and not having that frame of reference in which to compare the two movies initially, I was attracted to this movie because of the trailers on TV. The trailers reminded me of how much I liked some of the other recent westerns, a genre that has been reinvigorated by the scholarship of western historians like Patricia Limerick and Anne Butler.

I can now say, having seen both versions of 3:10 to Yuma, that the current version is much better. This new version’s plot is more detailed and presents more opportunities for what in literature is referred to as a complication/crisis in the midst of the plot's rising action. Whereas the climax in the earlier version was anti-climactic (precisely because the most action occurs at the hotel instead of when Dan Evans escorts Ben Wade to the train), that problem no longer exists in the updated version.

Most of all, the current version of 3:10 to Yuma contains more character development and the addition of more characters who add to the story, such as the doctor, the Pinkerton (Peter Fonda), and the teenaged boy whose fascination with pulp fiction alters his perception of Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and causes him to underestimate his father. Both Ben Wade and Dan Evans (Christian Bale) become round characters; the viewer comes to learn of Dan Evans’ motivation for getting Ben Wade to the train, despite all odds, and learns of Ben Wade’s reason for pursuing a life of crime. It wasn't revealed in the previous version exactly why Dan Evans thought it was so important to do what no one else would do. Even Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), Ben Wade’s senior accomplice, plays a larger role in the updated version of the story and appears more menacing.

I recommend seeing 3:10 to Yuma at a movie theater, preferable one with a good sound system. The music and sound effects add to the suspense and the events leading up to the climax and make the climatic scenes that much more spectacular.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

End-of-the-Year Rituals

These holidays at the end of the year seem to me as end-of-the year rituals. Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday because it involves the least amount of fuss, is a time of giving thanks for those good things that occurred throughout the year, such as maintaining one’s job and continuing to have the health of one's family and one’s own health. Christmas is the giving of presents to friends and family as a way of acknowledging their importance. New Year’s is a time to reflect on what occurred during the previous year and to consider what one wants to have happen during the upcoming year.

When I was single, I often used to write in my journal on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t always have someone significant in my life and didn’t seek out many friends, so I celebrated the end of the previous year and the start of the upcoming one by writing about what happened and what actions I planned to put into play. I eventually ended up watching one or two late movies on TV before going to bed.

Of all of the holidays, Christmas is my least favorite. Too much importance is placed on it in American culture. My wife and I, during the past few years, have been setting limits on what we spend on each other. We have also been buying a llama, for example, through Heifer International instead of giving our relatives individual presents. This year we also bought a Christmas basket for a family through the Southwestern Indian Foundation and bought what a 12-year-old girl in the community had asked for on the tag she filled out and placed on an Angel tree sponsored by the Salvation Army. There were many tags that hadn’t been taken off of the tree by December 23. We would have done more if we could. As someone who puts together a full-time teaching schedule by teaching part-time for two institutions, I won’t be paid again until mid-February and have to anticipate the continuing collapse of our economy.

I think I would enjoy Christmas more if I had more family living nearby. Even after twenty years, I’m not close to my wife’s family. Although they seem to have accepted me, we don’t have much to say to each other. My wife would say that I’m not a talker; actually, I am when I have something to say and when we share something that we can make conversation about. Several of her relatives are fanatical Christians and seek to convert everyone else they come into contact with. My own belief system is not something that I openly practice in front of others. Poetry, music, and nature are what give my life meaning and what sustain me during the dark times. The equivalent of a pagan, I find meaning in these yearly holidays in some ways similar and in some ways different from others.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Stressed and Exhausted

My classes this semester have come to an end. As I was napping in front of the TV today, I was dreaming that I had to stay awake for yet another night to slog through a set of essays and to compile the final grades for one more class. That dream is a sure sign you’re stressed, my wife says. Earlier in the morning, she told me that I had only recently started to notice things around me again, after having been consumed by my classes since Thanksgiving.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ice Storm Photos

I'll be adding text to this entry when I can. Grading essays is consuming my life at the moment. Losing electricity earlier in the week because of the ice storm put my grading on hold temporarily, and now I'm desperately trying to get through stacks and stacks of essays.

Despite how pretty the ice storm appears in these pictures, it caused a lot of damage in northeastern Kansas, starting a few miles north of Kansas City. Many of the trees in my area were damaged. One large tree fell on a neighbor’s detached garage, splitting the roof in half and destroying the garage.

I had been typing up grading comments for my students’ essays early that Tuesday morning. Between essays, I checked the weather and news on the Internet and after learning of the power outages to the south, I decided to shut down my desktop and switch to the laptop that my wife had handed down to me when she upgraded to a newer model last summer. Soon after, I began hearing the electrical transformers to the north exploding. A couple of transformers to the east exploded next, causing the lights to blacken before the power returned. After the third explosion, the lights went out and remained out, only briefly returning again a couple of hours later for about thirty minutes. Afterwards, we remained in the dark for the next fourteen hours. We were lucky because some people were without power for a lot longer. Our gas fireplace kept a portion of our house warm. My wife even managed to heat water for coffee in the fireplace and grilled ham sandwiches for dinner. Our lights were out a lot longer a few summers ago after a severe thunderstorm, and the accompanying high winds in what seemed like a gust front, snapped some of the telephone poles in half.

When the tree trimmers were in the area last summer and working to reduce the number of limbs threatening the electrical lines, I mentioned to one of them how I think the electrical lines need to be buried. The kind of weather here merits burying the lines.

I think the weather in this part of the country also necessitates altering how houses are constructed. When several tornadoes cut a path through Wyandotte County in Kansas and Platte County and Clay County in Missouri, parts of the Kansas City metro area, in 2003, it was the brick houses that remained intact. The houses made of plywood were easily demolished by winds reaching speeds of 260 mph. Just as construction of single-family homes and office space must meet certain building codes in earthquake prone areas like San Francisco, the houses made in areas threatened by tornadoes and severe thunderstorms need to adhere to building codes, too.

If were in the position to build my own home, I would not only use those building materials that would make the house less prone to damage during our storm seasons but would also add a room made of steel in the basement just in case the house were ever in the path of a tornado. This room would serve as a place of refuge if we ever had to seek shelter during a storm.

Similarly, I think every new house made in this area should come equipped with the means to generate electrical energy so that this energy can be stored in batteries for when the power companies experience outages. Each house would be the equivalent of a diesel submarine that is able to remain submerged while running on its own batteries. Maybe solar panels could be added to the roof, for example, for those kinds of occasions. Perhaps, eventually, it would be possible for every new house to be self-sufficient and never need to pay for electricity again.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Squaw Creek

On Buy Nothing Day, what is otherwise known as Black Friday to the merchants, I drove about an hour north to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge . The refuge reported in its weekly count that about 130,000 snow geese were laying over in their migration south. This week, however, the population of snow geese has swollen to 470,000. At least forty-three trumpeter swans have been observed, too.

This past Tuesday would have been a perfect day to spend at the refuge. Unlike my earlier visit in November, when most of the water was frozen and when the wind required that we wear four or more layers of clothing in an attempt to repel its gusts, this past Tuesday was much warmer, with the temperature reaching 58 degrees Fahrenheit; in fact, it will prove to have been our last warm day in what is supposed to be a warmer than normal winter.

Many people I talk to think that teaching online means it is possible to go anywhere. There are usually so many essays to grade that the prospect of getting away from them seems remote indeed. I would have loved spending last Tuesday outside with the birds.

Two artifacts from my last visit appear below:

Saving Books

Wednesday night, after a dinner partially made up of rice concoction, a recipe calling for brown rice, fried potatoes, eggs, and cheese and one that I acquired during my first semester of college so many years ago, I started watching TV with my wife. As I was watching the characters in The Day After Tomorrow keep themselves warm by burning books in the New York Public Library, I realized that the first book I would attempt to save, if I were in a similar situation, would be Elizabeth Bishop's The Complete Poems . My second choice, if it were possible to have a second choice, would be Robert Lowell's Life Studies . These books wouldn’t have to be first editions. What book or books would someone reading this blog want to save in a similar situation?