Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Original Feel Good Movies

My mother raised me on old movies. Grey movies, as my sister calls them, enchanted me from a young age. Period pieces, glamorous films of the 1930’s and 40’s, Lawrence Olivier, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, you name it.

This evening I turned on one such film, Mr. Deeds goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur and directed by Frank Capra. Capra, as most Americans know or ought to know, is a forefather of the “feel good” movie genre, as evidenced by It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the film I’m watching now. If you have not seen all of these movies, I highly recommend each of them. I also recommend particular timing for each movie. The first two need to be watched at Christmas time, most advantageously on Christmas Eve.
We have a tradition in our house to watch Mr. Smith on July 3rd, just in time for Independence Day. It Happened One Night should be watched when you lose your faith in love, and Mr. Deeds really helps when you lose your faith in humanity.

I guess the last description was a bit of a stretch. I turned this movie on out of joy and not of disappointment in the state of humanity. I suppose both incentives work. But the thing is that this movie positively charms. All of the Capra films do, but this one is so light hearted and full of quirky insights into human nature it stimulates the viewers’ imagination. As far as I am concerned, entertainment is really at its best when it manages to truly engage my attention, especially when it continues to do so no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie. Mr. Deeds succeeds where so many other films fail in terms of really capturing stories about real people, quirks and all.

In the story, Mr. Deeds lives in a small town and is getting along quite happily until some lawyers show up saying he has just inherited $20 million. Despite not wanting anything to do with the money, he is soon sucked up in a whirlwind of New York City responsibilities all tied to his inherited wealth. Since his story constitutes news, all the reporters in town want a piece of him, especially Jean Arthur’s character, Babe Bennet, who fakes an ingénue well enough to get close enough to Deeds to write nasty, insider stories. The film reaches its pivotal moment when the lawyers have Deeds arrested for insanity when he tries to give his money away.

On a side note, this story was remade recently with Adam Sandler and Winona Rider. I did not see this fake Mr. Deeds. It was an idiotic Hollywood movie to try to remake this film. Who in their right mind could ever think of redoing a Capra piece? What’s the point when the original is worth its weight in gold? Not to mention, why would anyone entertain any thought of casting Adam Sandler in a Gary Cooper role? I mean, seriously, look at this face.

The intriguing plot of the movie is greatly strengthened by the quirky characters. Deeds himself is a great character, full of heart and charm, and well, he is Gary Cooper after all. Deeds plays the tuba to think and writes greeting card poetry for a living. He says that people in New York are so busy living they forget how to live. The best example of this idea happens at about half way through the movie when Deeds has his three servants all sing to create a chord in his echoing stairwell, telling them all, “Let that be a lesson to you.” Corny Cobb, Deeds’ press management, has the most wonderful, nasally New Yorker voice you’ve ever heard coming out of a movie of this era. Sarcastic and biting, Cobb’s one liners make you giggle throughout the movie. I’d quote these lines, but it is really his delivery that makes them funny. Another two couple of characters would be the photographers who follow Arthur’s character Bennet around. At one point, Bennet starts singing Swannee River along with Deeds singing humoresque. When they hear this, the photographers chime in, again with a fast-talking, nasally New York dated accent, “Hey, maybe they wanna make it a quartet!” During the insanity trial, the lawyers invite two of Deeds’ neighbors from his small town to testify against him. They say he is pixilated, and I would be giving away too much of the movie to explain what that means.

If you watch this movie, watch carefully. Think about what it took for the writer to build this screenplay. Think about what a detailed observer of human nature Capra had to be in order to create something like this. If I were an editor, I would be tempted to remove so much of this movie, thinking it detracted from the plot. To have Jean Arthur play with a piece of string at her character’s introduction, or to have Corny Cobb read a poem about Mandrake Falls aloud in that voice of his, or to have Cooper chase his butler down the stairs just for the fun of it—all these things individually don’t add to the plot directly, but when the movie ends and you find yourself rather choked up, you realize that all of these tiny nuances added so much to the audience’s ability to feel connected to these characters and therefore it is precisely those little things wherein lies the genius.

My pastor in Chicago made a tangent once in his sermon about entertainment. He said that we need to be careful that we don’t seek entertainment passively, else we find ourselves zoning out and losing touch with reality. Instead, we should read books, watch films, and listen to music with an active mind, trying to learn from what we see and hear so as to better understand the real world around us. I think about this a good deal whenever I have a tough day and all I want to do is resume couch potato status in front of a series of sitcoms. Doing this, however, never makes me feel better, no matter how much I expect it will. To be passive is really just to waste time participating in unhealthy behavior. It would be much more restful to watch something good, something that captivates you, inspires and moves you. That may be a tall order, but it happens more often than you may think. Sometimes you find these forms of entertainment without even trying. This Capra film left me feeling so uplifted, revitalized and mentally energized that I stayed up late writing this blog post. This film leaves you with no option but to pay attention and actively engage. Now that’s a feel good movie.


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Where I Live

Some high school friends and I bonded the other day when we realized we all have the same reaction to cower and hide when we saw someone we recognized in town. Even if we liked the person growing up, those questions all pointing towards “What are you doing with your life?” will inevitably emerge in any conversation struck with an old acquaintance. Every time it happens, it conjures a sickening feeling both in the pit of the stomach and the back of the mind, making us feel horrible and lazy for not having yet found “a real job.” Because of this, our instinct to run away grows stronger the longer we stay in town. I have written about these ideas before in a blog entry called, “The Snarky Recent Graduate.”

Thing is, though I stand by my comments in that old blog post, this small discomfort that occurs each time I come home doesn’t deter me from coming home in the first place. Home, that is, Sleepy Hollow, especially in the summertime, is really a strikingly gorgeous place. My brother and I agreed recently that going away really makes us appreciate how much we had growing up. Sleepy Hollow sits at the Hudson River’s edge, overlooking the three mile expanse of water and the Palisade hills on the opposite shore. In the summer, all kinds of boats take to the water, making it a kind of watery playground for river folk like me. We have a kayak and a windsurfer, so in the months between May and October, I am very likely to be found out in the water. We grew up just a half mile from a little beach club, the place where I learned to swim and had a job lifeguarding for six years. Significant percentages of each summer growing up were spent underwater. Many summer nights were spent watching the sun set beyond the Nyack hills.

In addition to the river, Sleepy Hollow has another significant pull for a nature lover like me. Most of Sleepy Hollow is actually state preserve, thanks to the Rockefellers donating their enormous piece of property to the Nature Conservancy. Nowadays the estate is a huge stretch of woods complete with lovely carriage trails, Swan Lake, the occasional grassy field, and the meandering rapids of the Pochantico River. It provides a perfect place to go running, walking, or cross country skiing. The Rockefeller Preserve is an enchanted forest, as far as I am concerned. This is true even on a cloudy day, though the best times are just before dusk in the summer. At these times the sun comes in at a low angle, illuminating some of the leaves while casting deep shadows on others. The contrast of light and dark at such times stuns me. The golden haze surrounding this scene, paired with the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze makes for such a mystical mood such that I never regret venturing into these woods. They are quick to remind you how beautiful the world can be. I am so thankful to call this natural refuge home.

Though I don’t usually crave a metropolitan setting, the occasional urge to join the city folk is easily satisfied by just jumping on the train to New York. The train picks up right next to the beach club and heads directly to Grand Central station in midtown. From there, you can take the subway to get just about anywhere you want in Manhattan. This comes in really handy when we want to go to a museum or a show or take visiting relatives or friends down for a day of NYC tourism. The ease of the commute is really spectacular.

So despite the occasional need to duck and cover when some old teacher or neighbor wants to see what’s become of me, being home is actually really quite a nice setup for summer days. I am very aware of how blessed I am. I hope never to take this place for granted or forget that even my very home was sculpted by God himself. Sometimes, it is easy to get so comfortable that we forget our dependence on God. It is for this reason that whenever we want to return home to rest, wherever home may be, we should remember that it is through God we find our rest, and we should praise Him when we have homes in which to find it.

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Triathlon Training

On June 28th Sleepy Hollow will have its first sprint triathlon, a trek of a half mile swim, a ten mile bike and a three mile run. It is a small triathlon, but just the right size for me. What with being unemployed and having plenty of time, a desire to be super duper fit, and a soft spot for bragging rights, I’ve signed up and begun to train.

The triathlon is actually a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. You can check out the fundraiser and donate money if you wish by visiting this site.

The training is really good for me, I am sure of it. I have the wobbling legs to prove it. At my stage of athleticism, each of the sections is totally manageable, and I could do two on a good day. All three poses a challenge, one which I am sure I can tackle, especially with my fancy shmancy expensive new shoes.

Some friends recommended a couple of different training tools. They look pretty cool so I thought I would share them with you. The first is One Hundred Pushups—a website that swears anyone can train him or herself to do one hundred consecutive pushups. I haven’t tried this yet, because I just got this tip today, but man, one hundred would certainly be badass! Check it out!

The second is Total Immersion swimming—a different technique for freestyle that saves energy. As soon as you see this video, you will understand why. The dude barely moves his legs at all! It is a very exciting prospect for the long distance swimmer. I have tried this one, and I think it will work, though I haven’t mastered the timing yet. There are a whole bunch of videos of this on Youtube, so if you are interested, just search for Total Immersion. I got a kick out of this video’s soundtrack.

Pray for the race!

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I had never been to Medieval Times. I told Josh I had been to the Renaissance Faire a couple times, to which he responded, “Oh, this is so much more.” If you say so…

One of many battles

For those of you unfamiliar with Medieval Times, it is basically a Renaissance-themed dinner theater. There are chicken dinners, princesses, knights, serfs, wenches, horses, weapons, chivalry and a falconer, oh and a dungeon, but only if you pay more. A really good introduction to Medieval Times is the This American Life episode on simulated worlds: In this episode, they visit Civil War Reenactments, the fake coal mine in the Museum of Science and industry, a dinosaur museum, and Medieval Times. Though the whole episode is good, the part about Medieval Times is the last section, in case you only want to hear about this. For their trip to Medieval Times, Ira Glass and staff take along a medieval history professor from the University of Chicago to see his take on it. Much to their surprise, the professor had a ball.

Josh’s friend Kevin had extra tickets to the Times a few weeks ago, so we went along. I fell asleep in the car ride to Schaumburg, and when I awoke we were pulling off the highway to a castle complete with crenellated turrets and a parking lot moat. I think I would have been pretty disoriented anyway, even without being groggy from my nap. Disorientation at Medieval Times, mind you, does not come from feeling like you have been transported to another time, but rather because the anachronisms evident from the very doorway make your eyebrows wrinkle in confusion. The exposed plumbing and the electric lights in the hallway candles were a dead giveaway, I thought. Nice touch with the hanging, crested flags, though.

After passing through a series of faux wood doors, we reached a series of check-in desks where, at each of them, we were greeted as Lord and Lady and invited to proceed on to the next desk. The first check-in desk confirmed our reservation, the second crowned us with cardboard black and white crowns, very similar the crowns we used to get at Burger King with a kids meal, and the third desk gave us our table number in the Black and White Kingdom section. From there, the nice employees in tunics, tights and sneakers bid us nobles hence through another door where we were practically pushed up against the wall, turned around, and photographed with a lady who, we assumed, was the princess considering her crushed velvet flowing garb. The princess then told us we had just been immortalized and could purchase the captured moment for a small fee of $25.

Through yet another door, we ran in to Kevin and two of his friends, all of whom greeted us with hearty Huzzahs! and were already decked out with crowns, Black and White banners to wave, and bright red alcoholic beverages in souvenir cups which I assumed were purchased a the Budweiser-packing tavern behind them. Crests of different kingdoms hung on the walls, along with calligraphied signs to the toilets, horse display and dungeon. Along The Great Hall, as I soon learned this room was called, was merely a holding place where guests were tempted to buy souvenirs and alcohol. The entirety of the front wall stood gift shops ranging in merchandise from pink princess conical crowns, dragon miniatures, magic wands that glowed in the dark, a hat with light up dreadlocks (I still don’t know what this has anything whatsoever to do with medieval anything), and life size weaponry of different varieties. Josh purchased a couple of banners for us from a very surly looking wench at the cash register.

Two trumpeters in tunics appeared played a triumphant welcoming riff, ushering in the King and the royal family who all floated across the room, noses held high. An announcer got up on a balcony and explained to the crowd that the King would be available in the throne area to knight any guests who had paid the extra fee. Josh made an interesting note about this in that it would actually have been a demotion to go from a Lord to a knight, but I gathered most of the crowd didn’t think too hard about this. After the knighting ceremony, the announcer, an older gent with crimped, silver hair flowing down to his colorful shoulders, explained that the colors of our crowns corresponded to a kingdom to which we owed our allegiance. Our black and white crowns apparently allied us with the kingdom of Santiago de Compostela. Sure, why not? The announcer also made sure to tell us, “Thou shalt not use thy cell phones during the entirety of the performance, nor shalt thy bang and clang your metal plates, as these activities distract and disorient the horses making it dangerous for the riders, of which I am one.” Then, with a flourish and the most robust, manly man voice he could muster, the announcer threw up his hand and bid a toast to chivalry, to which all the congregation responded in unison, “Chivalry forever! Huzzah!”

The announcer, perched

On a side note, Ira Glass says in his account of Medieval Times that he began subconsciously to speak without using contractions. He is right. It does not fail to happen.

As our kingdom was called into the dining hall, we proceeded past the king knighting people and through a set of large doors into an enormous arena surrounded by seats and bar-like tables. Multi-colored lights flashed and flickered around the dining area and the enormous sand pit at its center. A series of serfs and wenches guided us to table 8, where we were seated at places set with tin cups and plates. No cutlery at Medieval Times. Pepsi, yes, but forks, no. The menu for the evening was typed on the back of our napkin: Roast chicken, Ribs, garlic bread, spiced potatoes, and a pastry. The chicken turned out to be an entire half of a very large chicken—everyone got this, by the way, kids and adults alike. That’s a lot of chickens. Our serf’s name was Mike.

This is a wench.

This is a wench.

Midway through our meal, the announcer man came back, riding an enormous horse into the center of the arena. He announced, one by one, each of the riders of the different kingdoms, and with each new name and their corresponding colors, a different section of the atrium erupted in raucous hurrahs. Our black and white knight was a smug-looking feller, with curly, shoulder-length hair and very shiny pants which I suppose were supposed to create the illusion of chainmail. He had pouty lips and a pompous air about him. I decided I didn’t like him. He died first, anyway, the creepy bugger. It is all rigged of course, which is ironic in and of itself considering this would make it the third time Josh has gone to Medieval Times just to see his knight die first.

Mid joust, spear bits aflight

The fight, I should mention, was wrapped up in a fairly complicated plot. The king of Castilla had sent his son as envoy to Leon in attempts to secure peace with this long-time rival nation. Along the way, the prince was captured. Worries of the prince’s welfare loomed in the air back home, especially considering that the prince was to play master of ceremonies at the king’s jousting tournament and he still had not returned. Despite the prince’s absence, the tournament goes according to schedule. At the event, we are introduced to the Green Knight of Leon, a glowering, greasy-haired, portly fellow absolutely born to play the bad guy. Putting on a voice as husky and threatening (and I would wager throat-damaging) as Christian Bale’s Batman, the Green Knight threatens the king in front of his guests and challenges all of the knights to battles to the death. The king, unable to lose face in front of the crowd, concedes to the challenge, and his knights proceed to vanquish each other. The final battle came down to a contest between the Red and Green Knights, and at first it seems that the Green Knight wins. To top off the moment, the Green Knight produces the missing prince, bound and guarded, a move to which the entire crowd produces gasps, hisses and boos. As the Green Knight laughs a laugh as heartily malicious as would be appropriate, the Red Knight, filled with patriotic rage (I assume), found miraculously enough a second, third, fourth, and fifth wind, eventually defeating the Green Knight in a fantastic display of flying sparks, dramatic lighting, and one heck of an epic soundtrack.

Sparks fly, the soundtrack's appropriate

As the show ended, most of us had been so transfixed we didn’t realize how much Pepsi we had been drinking. “To the Royal Urinals!” yelled Kevin. The girl’s bathroom was kind of a disappointment, a wasted opportunity for more medieval creativity. Don’t know about the boy’s potty. Oh well. It was a good day anyway.

You can't quite see it, but this is a photo of a poor soul shoveling horse dung...Now how's that for a resume zinger!

You can't quite see it, but this is a photo of a poor soul shoveling horse dung...Now how's that for a resume zinger!

Full of greasy food, delight in anachronism, and a new found knowledge of yet another strange facet of American culture, we left for home, still crowned in cardboard.

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Absolutely UPlifted!

Pixar never fails to amaze me. You really gotta hand it to them: they have big shoes to fill—their own, and they keep getting bigger all the time.

I saw Up, Pixar’s latest creation, the night it came out. I couldn’t wait an additional second, although now I wish I had because my siblings and I completely forgot that we could have seen it in 3D. If you go, do not make this same mistake, but find a 3D theater. After WallE, anticipation overwhelmed me for the next magnificent explosion of Pixar creativity. Up most certainly did not disappoint.

I feel hesitant, actually, to say most anything about Up, due to concerns that I would give something away. In a way, it is a fairly different kind of story for Pixar because it deals primarily with human characters who neither are endowed with super powers nor enter a world full of monsters. Carl, the main character, brings Pixar to unexplored territory in the sense that he is a crotchety, old man, subject to gravity and changing times around him, or in other words, reality. Up, I feel, deals with many more aspects of real life than any of the previous films have done. This is not to say that the other films lacked morals or failed to touch upon recognizable human emotions in the midst of conflict. I think Finding Nemo terrifies you with the tale of a father losing his only child. In The Incredibles, a family has to learn to face challenges as a team, just as all of our own families must do. Pixar relates messages and tells stories extremely well, and I am not debating this. The difference with Up, however is that there are fewer plot twists than in many if not all of the other films. Because of this, your attention and focus are drawn instead to the conflicts in Carl’s life, the delightfulness of the jokes, and, never to forget, the stunning animation. As a result, you may not walk out of Up with the same flabbergasted reaction as with WallE or Nemo, movies that actually tired me out with overstimulation, but you leave the theater extremely pleased, feeling good about life and the wonderful places it make take you.

That is as much as I will say about this new film, except of course that I recommend it highly.

Man, what I would give to be a writer in that Pixar storyboard room…

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Ok, so I still don’t exactly know who of you out there actually reads this thing, but I wanted apologize to all (approximating) three of you for my despicable laziness that has ensued for the past month or so.  Now that I am back with my own computer and plenty of time as I am no longer on the road, I really have no excuse.  I have every intention of writing more frequently and I would like to request that you hold me to it.

Thanks for your support!


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