Turtles New and Old










It was summer of 1988 when my brother and I finally mustered up the courage to ask our dad the question.  We were staying with my aunt, and we decided this was serious enough to pull dad into a private room to inquire; the question wasn’t just for anyone’s ears.

“Dad, we were, um, wondering, um, if we could get Ninja Turtles figures…”

The answer was bound to be no. Just a year before, my brother had received Masters of the Universe figures as a gift, but was not allowed to keep them. I still don’t know how to play video games, because we were never allowed to get a Nintendo.

“Yeah, I don’t see why not.”

We could hardly believe it. Had dad just said yes? Not only that, but he took us to the nearest Kay-Bee toys, and bought them for us! I got Raphael, and my older brother, the natural leader, got Leonardo.

Twenty-six years later, I seem to be living in a golden age of nostalgia, where what I loved as a child is given back to me as an adult, repackaged and re-mastered with updated talking points and culture nods. The world remakes itself for me to buy it once again, both for myself and for my kids. This is a kind of fountain of eternal youth, where I may drink and drink, each sip remixed, the base flavor always the same… Okay. Enough metaphors and exalted diction. I’m talking about the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or TMNT) movie which came out this weekend. But don’t worry, this post isn’t going to hate on reboots as much as meditate on them.

I’m a literature professor, so I don’t have the luxury of being able to treat the reboot as some evil invention of post-modern pop culture. Many of the greatest works of narrative art in world history are reboots: Virgil’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Nolan’s Dark Knight. The good of any story, it turns out, is much more in the quality of telling than the novelty of the concept.

I tried to keep all this in mind this weekend as I prepared to watch the new movie. But the prospects weren’t promising. Michael Bay, the producer, hasn’t made a decent movie since Bad Boys 2, and the director, Jonathan Leibesman, seems not to have ever made a decent flick. Nevertheless, I showed up opening day with my classic TMNT shirt on (sans sais, which turn out to be illegal to carry in Texas).

The opening day matinee was sparsely attended. As far as I could tell there were a dozen or so twenty- and thirty-something guys with expectations as liberally drizzled with skepticism as their popcorn was with butter. There were a couple kids, but not as many as I expected. On the whole it was my peers and I, who had played with the action figures of the late 80s and watched the cartoons and movies of the early 90s, and were looking, not too expectantly, for a possible jolt to the awe buried somewhere in our souls.

II. (Spoilers Ahead)

Though the movie was not completely awesome, there were things that I really enjoyed about it; first, the turtles themselves were true to their characters, especially Michelangelo, whose jokes, more often then not, are actually funny. Given that it’s a 100-minute movie, we don’t get a lot of time for the turtles to interact, but what we get is energetic and honoring to the source material.

It turns out that this is April’s movie just as much as it is the turtles’ movie. Whereas in previous incarnations, the main back-story and conflict center around shredder and splinter in Japan, in this one, the backstory belongs to April. In her girlhood, she befriended her scientist-father’s lab animals, and saved them from he fire that destroyed her father’s lab and claimed her father’s life. Present day April, a young reporter forced to jump on trampolines to be the eye candy in Today Show-style puff pieces, longs to be a serious journalist, only to be held back by those who want to relegate her to the trampoline forever. That this version of April is played by Megan Fox – relegated to brainless eye-candy roles as the actress often is – is sly on the movie-maker’s parts. April gets reunited with her past when she meets both the turtles she saved (now grown) as well as the evil businessman responsible for that fateful fire. This backstory connection gives April and the turtles a sentimental, even nostalgic connection. As they tumble across Manhattan, I got the sense that this is a story about a girl and her pets in some fantasy that is, in the end, less experienced by adults than it is imagined by that little girl. Though adult April gives off flashes of Louis Lane, her real pop culture analogue is Nancy Drew. (I have learned that this backstory was loosely based on the IDW comics backstory, in which April was a lab assistant who named the turtles. I like the 2014 version of this better.)

But placing the central conflict between April and her father’s killer, and thus writing out the Splinter-Shredder backstory, makes the obligatory showdowns between the turtles, Splinter and Shredder largely meaningless. Shredder is no longer the age-old enemy who must be stopped to avenge Splinter’s honor (and, in some versions, Splinter’s murdered wife), but simply some really big mean guy who happens to work with April’s dad’s killer. The sentiment of jealous resentment and generations-long grudge (a sort of negative nostalgia) that hangs over the Shredder of yesteryear is gone. He is simply a video game boss, whose most interesting feature is his magnetic, boomerang knives. This problem also applies to Karai, Shredder’s right-hand woman, who is less than disposable in the new movie, but downright likable and even fascinating in the current TMNT TV show.

I think these uninspired versions of Shredder and Karai are due to a lack of interest on the filmmaker’s parts that this franchise has been, until now, about ninja, and is thus rooted in the world of martial arts, of pop-Japanese-mysticism, and the incarnation of both in badly dubbed, spectacularly choreographed Bruce lee flicks. Further, ours is a post-Matrix world, where fans know that slow-motion, explosion heavy, American action film tropes can be elegantly wed to those earlier, kung-fu import tropes. Sadly, nowhere in the film do we get a fight scene as enjoyable or beautiful as anything in the Matrix movies, let alone anything in the recent Ip Man movies. Though the director said the action was inspired by The Raid, he seems to have learned nothing from that film except that actions scenes should be loud and fast-paced. If I had my way, I’d recommend Leibesman remake the film using the excellent and under-appreciated Attack the Block – a film that understands both teenage goof-offs and samurai swords – as his inspiration.

At a deeper level, Leibesman does not seem to understand or portray ninjutsu as the tradition that grounds the culture and morality of the main characters. Instead, ninjutsu is Splinter’s arbitrary choice for a method of self-defense to teach his adopted turtle sons (if you couldn’t tell already, family is a big, not very well explored, theme in this movie). Further, the foot soldiers are not ninjas – as they are in the source material – but rather burly mercenaries who fight mostly with automatic weapon and tasers. This gives our heroes little chance for the sort of martial-arts based sparring that fills many an enjoyable fight scene in earlier incarnations. Instead, there is a generic smashing and thrashing that takes up most of the action scenes. The welcome exception to this is the snow chase and the Splinter/Shredder fight scene, but the balletics of both are marred by truncations in narrative and blocking.


If the new movie has a source material, or a closest iteration, it would be the 1990 movie of the same name. Though there have been three movies since then, none of them have been reboots as much as “further adventures of” type stories. I was seven in 1990 and remember what a big deal the movie was. I was not allowed to watch it when it came out, as my careful parents were worried it would make my brothers and I more pugilistic than we already were.

But we – who still faithfully toted our action figures wherever we went – found a loophole: some friends of my parents had bought the VHS of the movie soon after it was released, and one night when we were over at their house for dinner, while our parents were talking, we slipped into the living room and found the movie. I still remember the feeling of transgressive fun that the glossy black slipcase stirred in me. We watched as much of it as we could before my parents found us. Realizing they had been outwitted, they let us finish it.

I haven’t watched it again since the early 90s, and I’m a little afraid to. The impression that I got from it was that being a teenager was a life of danger and difficult choices. This was highlighted most not by the turtles themselves but by the runway kid who is lured into the foot clan by the evil Shredder. Would I be able to resist the lures of ninja-gang rebellion when it came down to it, I wondered? I got another sobering dose of reality when it turned out that Raphael – my prized action figure – was not a role model; hotheaded and independent, he tries to take on the foot clan alone and gets beat up, captured and humiliated. The most affecting shot of the film for me is when the foot soldiers drop a bound, gagged, and beaten Raphael through a skylight into a bathtub for his brothers to find. Grim stuff for a seven-year-old. But I think I learned a little about which activities and attitudes to avoid if I wanted to be a good brother.


Back then I believed that movies were the highest form of storytelling; If a story was made into a movie, it had reached the pinnacle of its existence. And could only get better if it was made into a trilogy. The last 20 years have complicated this belief, as I’ve written about on this blog before. TV now rivals film as the ultimate visual story-telling medium. Part of this is the rise of the character as the supreme component of screen-based storytelling. We want to see the many adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Walter White, Batman, The Doctor, etc. If they do make a Doctor Who movie now, it won’t feel like a peak and an ending point as much as an olive branch to the not-yet-initiated, as many of the Marvel movies feel. Further, it could be argued that what has made Marvel’s recent successes – especially Avengers and Captain America 2 – so beloved is that they felt like the season finales to their previous movie episodes. And it’s only in 2014 that Batman movies become so popular that TV execs decide to make a Gotham TV show. In the Star Trek world of the 60s and 70s, it was the other way around.

All of this is a long is introduction to a simple point: the 2012 TV show is the best of the TMNT screen incarnations. While there is still some retro charm here and there in the 1987 TV series, the new series benefits from being made in an era of cartoon storytelling that has learned from and incorporated the great animation styles of the intervening decades, most especially  those of Pixar and anime. And it has learned from the long-form genre TV storytelling tropes of Buffy, X-Files, and Veronica Mars. It is not as good a show as these, but it has learned from them. The character exploration and development of the turtles is especially good, and the weekly themes/moral lessons are reminiscent of the recent Clone Wars show at its didactic best.








In fact, I’m tempted to say that if TMNT has an important cultural function beyond mere entertainment, it is in its main conceit, which is essentially set up for moral lessons: four teenagers with differing dispositions and talents learn to work together and overcome relational and physical obstacles under the guidance of their master/father/teacher. TMNT, like Harry Potter, is a school story, albeit not in a Scottish boarding school. I don’t know that any incarnation of TMNT has capitalized on this as much as the new show; one of the ways it does this is making April not a young professional, but a girl in high school, who deals with parental issues and troubles in her studies alongside the turtles. Placing April as the turtles’ peer also allows for teenage relational drama that isn’t quite possible in the many incarnations in which April is the adult sister/unattainable crush of the turtles. The tv show has just finished its second season and shows no sign of stopping; for well organized ninja battles, long-form character development and teenage insight, I’d recommend the show, not the new movie, as the thing to watch.


And yet, TMNT may just not be as suited for the screen as it is for the page. Many think the turtles started in the 1987 TV show and toy franchise, but this itself was a reboot of the 1984 black and white, independent comic. To go back and read this book – which I’ve done over the last month – is nothing short of a revelation. The first happy revelation is that TMNT began as a melodrama parody of gritty 80s marvel comics like daredevil. Peter laird and Kevin Eastman, already well established on the Indy comics world of the early 80s, decided, as a joke, to write a violent ninja noir starring turtles. What they thought would be a hilarious one-off sold well, however, and they continued for ten more issues before hiring more new writers to help with the now quite popular series. Since 84, TMNT comics has continued, off and on, sometimes jumping publishers, until the present day. Eastman and laird still return from time to time to begin new story arcs or write the finales for others.









The second revelation is that the black and white art of the original arc is fantastic. What the pages lack in color they make up for in sheer plentitude of detail. At least once per issue, there are marvelous two and sometimes three page spreads, usually depicting epic standoffs between the turtles and their foes in lushly particularized scenes: trash filled alleys, dark department stores, alien wastelands, the New England countryside, and lots and lots of rooftops overlooking monstrous Manhattan cityscapes. The most visually interesting part of the new movie is the opening credits, which are animated in the Eastman and Laird style, but with less care and grubby detail.

In a way, I’m glad that the new movie is innovative in some ways and deficient in many others. It shows that there are still new things to be done with an old franchise, but also that it’s not easy to match the lasting quality that has popped up from time to time in earlier incarnations. TMNT will never be a wholly serious story, nor has it ever been very idea-driven. At its best it meditates on the condition of the American teenager as he relates to the expectations and lasting mistakes of previous generations. The formation of adult identity out of the storm and wealth of adolescence is a story we’re nowhere near done telling. And sometimes it can be well told using turtles. Teenage turtles. Yes, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.



Pound and Privacy: a Response to R.

Dear R.Ezra_Pound_by_EO_Hoppe_1920

Thanks for your response to my brief, admittedly self-contradictory essay last week. I like your reimagining of the blog as a form of literary correspondence. What resonates with me especially about your idea is the linking of literary correspondence as practice to the writing of a blog as practice. I’ve often thought of the blog posts I’ve written as a sort of writing exercise—practice essays, practice reviews, etc. If indeed that’s something that literary correspondence has been used for—and I think there’s a good argument that it is—then it makes sense to approach the blog post in the same way. Further, I think you’re right that the blog post shares with literary correspondence the quality of intentional address. We write both the letter and the blog post to a specific audience. While the audience of a blog post is larger than that of an average personal letter, it’s probably not actually that much bigger. Unless we’re famous bloggers, we write our posts not for the eyes of all, but the eyes of an interested dozen—give or take a few.

But here’s where I begin to become uncomfortable with the whole thing: I may write a blog post for a favored dozen, but, as you mentioned, I’m making it available to all. When Ezra Pound wrote letters to Harriet Monroe complaining about Amy Lowell, he did so with the knowledge that only Ms. Monroe (and perhaps her close confidants), would read them. They wouldn’t get back to Ms. Lowell, and even if they did, they certainly wouldn’t be printed in the Sunday Times for all of London to read. Every essay I post to my blog is readable by all. Not all will read it, but all could, with a careful Google search—great Aunt Mildred, potential employers, casual acquaintances, the DEA. Now, most of our blog posts will not be read by anyone but our friends and family, but the point is, they could be. Our practice, our dashed off, private correspondence, is no longer private.

Perhaps this isn’t that big of a deal. At the very least it’s a significant change. And I ask myself why I would want my practice or correspondence to be public. What’s the benefit? Will it mean I’ll spend more time on my public blog than my private correspondence or daily writing practice? If so, then it’s not quite the same thing as either of those. It’s closer to something I’d publish in a magazine or newspaper. If not—if, in fact, my public blog is no more polished than my emails—I’m not sure why I wouldn’t, for the sake of care and tact and privacy, turn my posts into emails and send privately them to my friends over Gmail or Facebook. Perhaps, though, I’m missing some benefit that the public nature of the blog bestows upon the post.

Of course, in the long run, if any of us do turn out to be an Ezra Pound or Amy Lowell, then sooner or later fans and scholars will want to churn up our private correspondence for public consumption. Just yesterday I did in fact read Ezra Pound’s private letters to Harriet Monroe complaining about Amy Lowell. But I only did this because I think the editorial and published work of these three worth reading. Thus, I dig backward to those writings of theirs that might, in and of themselves, not be worth reading. But these days we seem to do things backward. We offer first our practice to the public, and if we are deemed worthy, we then get paid to publish our best work.

Perhaps we’re stuck with this strange set-up for now. If so, I think your recommendations for re-thinking our posts are helpful, and I’ll keep considering them as I struggle to come to terms with blogging.



Can we go back to the part where blogs are ruining public discourse?


Twice in the last week I’ve had this experience: I’m on facebook, and see that a friend has linked to an article about a topic I care about, often with some variation of: “THIS!” or “Can you believe some people?!” I read the article, then the comments, and am about to add my fired-up two cents when I stop and think: “Wow, that article was bland.” Then I have another thought: “I wish we could discuss an actually GOOD essay on this topic, but I’m stuck with this shoddily written article that stumblingly regurgitates the better ideas of real writers and thinkers.” This thought is an exaggeration, but my guess is it’s quite common. With the reign of wordpress, Huffington Post, Patheos, even Slate, we find ourselves discussing the important topics of our day in response to subpar pieces of writing. Why are we doing this? How can we stop?

In mulling this over, I’ve come up with 4 questions to ask next time I find myself about to click on yet another link to yet another online article that may or may not waste my time with mediocre writing about mediocre thoughts:

1. Has this essay been edited/curated?

One of the big differences between an essay on Slate and an essay on randomdeconstuctionistmustings33.wordpress.com is that the former essay was published only after someone other than the author had a look at it. Further, essays on non-personal-blog sites have not just been edited for content and style, but have been curated to fit with and relate to the other content on the site. When you read an edited, curated article, you’re reading something that has passed the test of at least one other pair of (hopefully knowlegable) eyes. As a poet, I have sworn to never post my poetry on facebook, or my blog. I’ve spent too much time on it to not place it in the careful hands of an editor. Websites like aldaily.com exist solely to pick the best, free, professionally written literary and critical writing on the web and put it in one place. Finding essays that have been so considered is a good start. Next, we should ask:

2. Is this the best way to read this writer?

A couple years back one of my favorite contemporary poets posted a surprise piece on Huffington Post’s religion blog, clarifying statements about ecclesiology that he had made in person the day before. Judging by the online conversation that followed, his clarification didn’t work. He was misunderstood and maligned by Huffington Post’s readers. What most of the readers and commenters didn’t know, however, is that he’s one of the most gifted poets of his generation in the english speaking world, and his poetry and critical lectures and essays articulate a much more powerful ecclesiology that his 500-word blog post seemed to indicate.

These days many writers who publish pieces in books, newspapers, and journals are often called upon to write short posts for blogs. As someone who does publish in books and journals, I can say, hands down, that my worst published writing has been my blog pieces. And I’m tempted to say that most other writers who publish in multiple mediums will say that same. A theologian’s guest post on a Patheos blog will, almost without a doubt, be more hastily written, poorly crafted, and quickly edited than their essay on the same subject that they present at an academic conference or publish in Theology journal, or in their book. And the trouble is that it’s in the books and peer-reviewed journals that the best, most careful arguments for most reasonable positions on most topics are being published.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could imagine a world where free-access personal blogs are valued as the premier literary and critical work of the highest caliber. But the fact is, we don’t. Our expectations for blogs and online content is low, especially compared to our expectations for printed, bound material. Yet many spend their most valuable reading time online, and more and more we demand that our favorite writers meet us there. I’d wager Neil Gaiman’s blog is read more often than Sandman, even though no one’s confused about which contains his best work. Eminent postmodern theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s post about Reformation Day last week was probably read by more people than will ever touch one of his books. The more we ask our best writers and thinkers to write off the cuff, the more we waste their time and ours. Why? In part, because we’re ceasing to ask:

3. Is this the best argument for this position?

It’s fun to post links to articles by poor thinkers arguing for ridiculous positions. It’s also, as you’ll learn in any Logic 101 class, a classic case of the Straw Man fallacy, wherein we dismiss an intellectual position after attacking the weakest version of it. You will do a great service to your facebook friends or twitter followers if, instead of linking to the first random essay you find on a subject of mutual interest, you spend another 5-10 minutes tracking down the best thing you can find written by this particular author and/or on this particular subject. Too often we poison discourse by plucking the lowest hanging argumentative apples. We need to, instead, ask ourselves:

4. If I truly care about this conversation, am I willing to do more research?

This research is, at the very least, learning more about the writer and the topic in question. Hopefully, if the issue truly matters, it will lead to real, sustained learning over time. Find a sloppy article about the dangers of vaccination? Why not take it as an opportunity to research the history and biology of vaccination, competing schools of thought over time, and key figures in vaccination advances? It would be sad if we let a bad essay about a good subject deaden our desire for further conversation/knowledge.

Best of all, such questions and investigations could lead us to leave our computers, walk out our doors, and talk to our friends about the questions that drive us, far from dashed-off blog posts on uncurated, personal blogs by amateur essayists – which is, after all, a good description of this thing I’ve been writing and you’ve been reading.

Buffy from Worst to Best: An Approach to Rating Each Season

Spoiler Alert, obviously

buffy spike hands flameRating seasons of your favorite TV shows is a wonderful, if indulgent, pastime. With some shows it’s easy: when it comes to The Wire, Season 3 is just clearly the best. But with a show like Buffy, it’s more difficult. Some seasons are just clearly great, like season 5, and some more than a little embarrassing, like season 1. But with a show as good and as beloved as Buffy, it’s hard to pick the best season, and to give coherent reasons why. I personally find Glory insufferable as a villain, and Warren Meers genuinely frightening. But many feel just the opposite. Further, a lot goes into making a season work well, more than whether the finale contains a surprising twist, or whether that couple you like finally gets together.

Actually, when it comes to Joss Whedon shows, the finale never involves a major twist, nor a final, romantic “get together.” Twists happen near the middle of season, like Angel’s turn to Angelus in Season 2, or Faith’s and Willow’s defections to the Dark Side in seasons 3 and 6 respectively. Further, sometimes seasons with a weaker villain or season arc (like season 4), contain some of the best episodes, and vice versa (season 2, one of Buffy’s undisputedly best season arcs, contains the famously bad episode “Ted,” after all).

All this is to say: it’s hard to rate seasons of Buffy, and discussions about the seasons dissolve quickly into which of Buffy’s boyfriends we like best (Scott Hope, anyone?). So, I decided to see if math and categorization could be our friend. I rated each season based on five major criteria: How scary/interesting/dangerous to Buffy is the Villain (?/10); How heart-warming/-wrenching is Buffy’s romantic life? (?/5); How heart-warming/-wrenching are Xander/Willow’s romantic lives? (?/10); How strong is the main season arc from premier through to finale? (?/10); and how many characters are indispensably awesome? This last criteria was especially fun, as some characters, like Angel, Cordelia, Joyce, and Tara really come into their own after having been in the show for a couple seasons; this newly added awesomeness boosts some seasons’ quality, even when the principle cast is roughly the same.

But that didn’t seem enough, especially given the good-season-arc-with-bad-episodes / bad-season-arc-with-good-episodes dilemma, I’ve also made a list of the ten “best of the best” episodes, the five funniest episodes, and the five worst episodes. For each best and funniest episode that a season has, I’ve added a point, for each worst episode, I’ve subtracted a point. This shook up the standings a little.

I could have left things there, but I realized I was leaving out one major element of a great Buffy season: the Halloween episode. If there was a tie to be broken (or created), I decided it would be up to the Halloween Episode Adjustment (HEA) to shake things up even further. I had some predictions going in: season four would rate higher than expected; season five would rate lower than expected; and season six would be a wild card. Without further ado, here are the results:

6. Season 1


Villains: 5/10

Buffy Romance: 3/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 4/10

Season Arc: 5/10

Cast Strength: 4

Worst Episodes: -1 (“Puppet Show”)

 Total: 20

First off, why is this rated #6 when there are seven seasons, you ask? Well, because it turned out there was a tie. We all knew season 1 was the least great Buffy season. The spectacle (Aristotle’s word) is underwhelming, we’re just getting to know the characters, and The Master is an average villain. Still, you can’t blame a show for working with the effects of its day, the characters are charming and interesting right off the bat, and the Master isn’t a less than average villain: he’s evil, dangerous (he’s one of the only two villains to actually kill Buffy, after all), and actually kinda funny. But overall, this season is like the throat clearing before the awesome that is season 2. Some people recommend skipping season 1 if you’re new to Buffy. But I don’t think that one needs to. Season 1 has a great premier episode, and some real treats along the way, including “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” and “Angel.” Then again, there’s “The Puppet Show”…


5. Season 6


Villains: 8.5/10

Buffy Romance: 4/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 7/10

Season Arc: 8/10

Cast Strength: 6

Best of Best Episodes: 1 (“Once More With Feeling”)

HEA: 0.5 (“All the Way”)

 Total: 35

I had predicted that Season 6 would be the wild card, and it was. I expected it to rate a whole lot higher, but alas. One of the criteria that kills this season, despite a decent season arc and, in Warren and Dark Willow, more than decent villains, is the Cast Strength. Two of the strongest cast members from previous seasons, Giles and Joyce, are mostly absent this season, and except for Tara’s growth, there’s no new cast strength to replace them. A word about Tara; it’s been said that Tara really comes into her own when she’s finally not dating Willow, and I think that’s true; the Tara and Spike dynamic in “Older and Far Away” is one of the little treats of season 6. This season gets a little bump from its Halloween episode, but given that “All the Way” is the weakest of the Halloween episodes, the bump isn’t enough to move it higher than fifth place.


4. Season 7


Villains: 8/10

Buffy Romance: 2/5

Xander / Willow Romance:  6/10

Season Arc: 8.5/10

Cast Strength: 9

Best of Best Episodes: 1 (“Conversations With Dead People”)

Funniest Episodes: 1 (“Storyteller”)

Total: 35.5

Okay, so season 6 barely lost out to season 7. And that’s largely because of Cast Strength. In S7 Giles is back, Faith is back, Andrew is great (I know, I know, this is probably a matter of taste), and Principal Wood even carves out a niche for himself as an interesting (read “troubled”) character. Still, S7 has its drawbacks. Buffy’s arc holds only a little romantic interest, especially compared to S6, and the Willow/Kennedy relationship is at best ho hum and at worst annoying. Xander and Anya are actually the most interesting couple for most of the season, and they’re not even a couple. The exceptions to the dull/non-existent romance in S7 is, of course, the dazzling, brief Buffy/Spike moments that remain among the best in the series: Spike embracing the cross, Spike’s “Hell of a Woman” speech, and the flaming interlocked fingers of the Slayer and the Vampire—these are the reasons we watch and love Buffy.

A word about season arc and villains: I rated both rather high, but it wasn’t enough to boost S7 any higher. While in the second half of the season the episode divisions almost fade away, into one continuous super-season, the villains, while scary and dangerous, remain scattered and unclear: is it the bringers, the Ubervamps, the First, or Caleb that is the main villain? The answer is sort of all four, though once Caleb and the Ubervamps are gone, the First is… what, gone? Ineffective? While S7 holds the most danger and death for our heroes, the center of the threat remains scattered and unclear. Also, the fact that the First manifests as so many different people is by turns effective and confusing.

Oh, and some people think the potentials are annoying…


4. Season 4


Villains: 6/10

Buffy Romance: 3/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 8/10

Season Arc: 7.5/10

Cast Strength: 7

Best of Best Episodes: 2 (“Hush,” “Restless”)

Funniest Episodes: 1 (“Superstar”)

Worst Episodes: -1 (“Where the Wild Things Are”)

HEA: 2 (“Fear Itself”)

 Total: 35.5

What? Season 4 is better than both S6 and S7? No, look at the numbering again. Season 4 is tied with Season 7. Season four gets the biggest boost from Best episodes and HEA. “Hush” and “Restless” are undisputed Whedon classics, and “Fear Itself” is, to me at least, the epitome of the Buffy Halloween episode: funny, ridiculous, and actually a little scary. Also, the episode “Superstar” is not only quite clever and chuckle-inducing, but also sets up major plot points of seasons 5 (Dawn and the altering of memory and reality), and 6 (Jonathan’s rise to some sort of power).

Buffy’s romance in this season gets an average 3/5 (while Riley is, in Buffy’s words, “a dope,” his pursuit of Buffy is the quintessence of TV romantic comedy). But Willow’s tumultuous and heart-wrenching dual Oz-Veruka / Oz-Tara love triangles, which contain some of Allison Hannigan’s best acting to date, gives a boost to the romance scores. But alas for “Where the Wild Things Are.” A haunted house activated by too much sex? Really, Joss? Luckily, my DVD copy of this episode is scratched and refuses to play.


3. Season 5


Villains: 7/10

Buffy Romance: 3/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 6/10

Season Arc: 10/10

Cast Strength: 8

Best of Best Episodes: 3 (“Fool for Love,” “The Body,” “The Gift”)

Total: 37

Even with the Halloween and Best Episode boosts, S4, S7, and S6 just couldn’t touch the brilliance of S5. It’s the tightest and most consistent season of Buffy. The tone, while it dips and peaks, is unified, and it contains the highest concentration of classic Buffy Episodes. The cast is better than ever, especially because Joyce rises from charming minor character status to a vital and beloved main character.

But there are drawbacks. Buffy’s still-not-as-interesting-as-Angel romantic drama with Riley doesn’t help the score any, and Willow and Xander remain mostly in holding patterns with their significant others. And while Glory is a deadly villain, she’s an incredibly annoying one, in part, I think, because Clare Kramer overplays her. Charisma Carpenter should have worked with Kramer to help her hit the “believably petty and self absorbed” note that Carpenter has down by S3.


2. Season 2


Villains: 9.5/10

Buffy Romance: 5/5


Romance: 7/10

Season Arc: 9/10

Cast Strength: 8

Best of Best Episodes: 2 (“Innocence,” “Becoming, 2”)

Funniest: 1 (“Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered”)

Worst Episodes: – 2 (“Ted,” “Bad Eggs”)

HEA: 1 (“Halloween”)

Total: 40.5

Oh the glories of season 2: Angelus and Spike are the main villains. Angel and Buffy have the main romantic plotline. Love blossoms between Willow and Oz. Even Giles gets a honey, followed by a truly devastating heartbreak. And Xander and Cordelia make out a lot in closets. Okay, maybe that last one’s not a plus. Neither are “Ted” and “Bad Eggs,” two very dumb episodes.

But, to put it bluntly, if it wasn’t for the Buffy/Angel plot of S2, Buffy as we know it wouldn’t exist. The love between Buffy and Angel and the enmity between Buffy and Angelus is the beating heart of the whole series, where the deepest emotional resonances are to be found. It could be argued that Spike loves Buffy because Angel first loved her, and that Buffy is enabled, in the end, to love Spike, because she learned to so love through knowing Angel. I sound like the hugest nerd right now.


1. Season 3


Villains: 9/10

Buffy Romance: 4/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 8/10

Season Arc: 9/10

Cast Strength: 9

Best of Best Episodes: 1 (“Amends”)

Funniest: 2 (“Dopplegangland,” “The Zeppo”)

Worst: -1 (“Gingerbread”)

HEA: 1.5 (“Band Candy”)

 Total: 42.5

….aaand Season 3 is the best season of Buffy. I had a suspicion that this would happen. Season 3 includes everything that’s good about the show, and little of what isn’t (except for “Gingerbread.” Does anyone else loathe this episode as much as I do?). It’s got Buffy and Angel, Oz and Willow, Xander and Willow, Good Faith, Bad Faith, the advent of Wesley, and even a little Spike thrown in for good measure. It has a best episode of the series in “Amends” (which also counts as the only real Christmas episode in Buffy), and what are perhaps the two funniest episodes of the series in “Dopplegangland” and “The Zeppo.” All this plus Cordelia finally becomes an interesting character.

Some might squabble that “Band Candy” isn’t actually a Halloween episode, but I think it counts. It aired only 10 days after Halloween, and it’s about candy, and Giles and Buffy’s Mom… well, you know. (On the hood of a police car. Twice.) Plus, even without the points that it gets from “Band Candy,” this season still comes out on top.

Simply put, Buffy season 3 is a sweet spot of recent television history, where writing, acting, and story arcs came together wonderfully. There was enough darkness to keep it interesting, but enough self-parody and fun to keep it bearable. The Mayor is a serviceable villain made nearly the best in the series by the addition of Faith as his protégé/daughter figure. And if David Boreanaz hadn’t shown he deserved his own show at by the end of season 2, he certainly does in season 3. But in the end, it is Buffy that makes this season as good as it is. It sees her step beyond the relatable heartbreak of season 2 to the supererogatory heroism that dominates the rest of the series, and renders Buffy, beyond all her foibles, a model of true womanhood, and true human-hood, for us all.

My Favorite Movies

Whenever I create social network profiles or fill out surveys, I always come up against that hardest of questions: what’s your favorite movie? For me, as for many, this question is simply too difficult to answer. Sometimes, when I should be doing something productive, I daydream about strategic approaches to answering this question. The problem I often run into is that making such a list doesn’t actually teach me or anyone else much about me. As a child of the 80s and 90s, my preferences resemble most of my generation; Lucas and Spielberg dominate my imagination, and maybe Hitchcock if I’m feeling snooty and arty.

Today I came up with a simple approach that yielded interesting results. I just listed the movies that I never don’t want to watch, the movies that at any time of day and any time of year I would drop what I’m doing to watch, and not only not regret it, but also not grow any more weary of the movie. I came up with 3 easily, then 5, then 10. As I made my list, a few more criteria became necessary. First, I realized that there are some movies that I’m always up for watching, but don’t actually consider good movies (Case in point: She’s The Man. For some reason, I’m always game for that flick).  Second, there are a host of movies, mostly holiday themed, that only work at certain times of year (sadly, Die Hard counts as a Christmas movie in my book, so no, it won’t be on my list, even though I LOVE it). Third, and I didn’t expect this, I kept wanting to put TV episodes on my list (What’s better, Return of the Jedi, or the last episode of Battlestar season 3?) I came to the realization that I may very well like TV more than film, which is a weird realization. So I banned TV from the list as well.

Here, then, are my ten favorite films:

10. Jurassic Park: I decided to love Jurassic Park before I ever watched it. In 1994, my eleven-year-old self got wind of a movie that sounded like heaven-on-screen due to two all important words: Spielberg. Dinosaurs. I longed to see it in the theatre, but wasn’t allowed to. I drooled over the VHS at K-Mart, so much so that my dad bought it. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and probably will watch it dozens more times with my kids. It’s not Spielberg’s best, but… dinosaurs! DINOSAURS!! Also, the first scene of this movie taught me something about filmmaking at an early age, namely that physical logsitics can be sacrificed for the sake of mood and expression. Go watch that first scene with Robert Muldoon, the cage, and the raptor again. His body positioning from shot to shot makes little sense. It doesn’t matter. Spielberg’s already got us eating out of his hand.

9. Hot Fuzz: Many might say Shaun of the Dead, but I think Hot Fuzz is Edgar Wright’s best film to date. This is the only R-rated movie on the list, and its juvenile humor and potty-mouth are part of its appeal. A friend once told me this might be the best action movie he’s ever seen, which is weird, because it’s also a dedicated screwball comedy. But it’s a comedy for action film lovers, of which I am one, and it manages to both lampoon and outdo most action tropes of the last 30 years. Another thing I love about this film is that it gets more funny the more films I watch. I’ve been into Cantonese-language cop thrillers lately, and have been surprised at how much Hot Fuzz puts itself in dialogue with these Chinese films. Though Apatow has dominated the english-language comedy scene for nearly the last decade, I think Edgar Wright has made funnier and better edited films; Wright’s quick, sequential cuts summarizing daily routines are especially memorable, and have seeped into the common language and logic of both British and American filmmaking.

8.Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Most agree that this is the best of the HP films. Alfonso Curon really nails the weird beauty of the climactic scenes, one of which, involving a silver stag, still brings tears to my eyes. Not the most original or “important” film on this list, but it’s a well wrought ride from Macbeth canticle to werewolf howl. And do the cut scenes involving the whomping willow remind anyone else of Return of the Jedi scenes with the frog creature outside Jabba’s palace?

7. King Kong: When it comes to Peter Jackson films, I prefer King Kong to LOTR. I want to watch King Kong on a weekly basis, at least. The first 2 hours contain some of the most downright fun I’ve ever had in a movie. Jack Black is gleefully over the top,  soft focus was invented for Naomi Watts face, and James Newton Howard’s score is pure and perfect melodrama. Yes, the last hour lags, and no, I don’t like the ice skating scene either. This is the only movie on my list that I don’t enjoy pretty much every minute of. But for its dinosaur scenes alone, (which rival and sometimes top Jurassic Park) it deserves to be on this list.

6. RatatouilleOther Pixar flicks are more timely (Wall-E) or more touching (Toy Story 3), but Ratatouille is a serious meditation on art and criticism, and for that I love it. The critic is a fascinating character, and I still remember his speech about negative reviews whenever I sit down to write my own. When I’m sick on the couch, I often have a hard time deciding between Ratatouille and King Kong as my ultimate comfort movie.

5. SerenityI watched Serenity before I’d ever heard of Firefly, or of that Joss Whedon guy. I found it to be an enthralling, serious, inspiring, funny, thoughtful and well shot film (Mal’s backlit “I aim to misbehave” speech convinced me of the well-shot part). Then I watched all of Whedon’s other stuff, and realized I shouldn’t have been surprised. But now when I return to Serenity, it hasn’t lost any of its excellence; it’s still Joss’s best film, way better than Avengers (which I liked a lot). On my last watch, I noticed the stirring score for the first time. How had I missed it? One early review of Serenity had it right: Watching Serenity on the big screen is the closest kids these days will get to the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time back in ’77. But Serenity is a better film than Star Wars. There. I said it.

4. Beauty and the Beast : Pixar has Toy Story, Ratatouille and Wall-E, but Beauty and the Beast is the best American animated film ever made (notice I said American. If I had better taste, Miyazaki would dominate this list. Come to think of it, why is Spirited Away not on here?). What’s there left to say about Beauty and the Beast? Most of us have it memorized and still can’t get enough of it. I even like the new, extended version with the “Human Again” song, which I find to be quite Patristic in its anthropology even if it’s middling in its composition. I often want to watch this movie on my birthday. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it reminds me how much I love being alive, finding I can change, and, even, learning I was wrong.

3. As You Like It: I had to slip Shakespeare onto this list, and what better play (and adaptation) than this one? Olivier invented the modern Shakespeare film, and Branagh took it to surprising, hubristic heights in Henry V and the barely bearable Hamlet, but settled into a lyrical groove with As You Like It. It’s hard to praise As You Like It without just gushing about the Bard himself, but I think this film as a film is just really well put together. Bryce Dallas Howard is playful and arresting, Kevin Kline and Brian Blessed are good as ever, and the delicacy of editing and pastoral patience and attentiveness of the cinematography are unparalleled in any other Shakespeare film. Also, Branagh puts some of the opening credits in haiku form, which is, I think, a first.

2. Seven Samurai: From time to time this has actually been called the greatest film ever made, so I’m proud to say I love it (as opposed to Citizen Cane, Late Spring, and Army of Shadows, three “great films” I’d love to love, but, in fact, only very highly respect).  Seven Samurai, like Beauty and the Beast, makes me glad to be alive, and illustrates in its breadth of characters and its depth of characterization the spectrum of human emotion, morality, and ideals. Kurosawa is a grand humanist, perhaps the grandest to ever make films, and Seven Samurai is his grandest vision, an epic that contains within it true tragedy, high comedy, light lyric, and everything in between…. oh, did I also mention it has swordfights? It has TONS of swordfights. That’s really the reason I like it.

1. The Empire Strikes Back: I was tempted to put Seven Samurai at the top of this list, and even for a moment considered Jurassic Park. But it has to be Empire. Not A New Hope, which gets by more on youthful enthusiasm than quality, and not Return of the Jedi, which is just a little decadent compared the first two films. No, my favorite film, and the most beloved sci-fi film (if not the best) of all time, is Empire. Go watch it again. Listen to the dialogue spark and snap. Revel in the elaborate sets. Remember that you’re not supposed to know who Vader is yet, and forget you’ve seen yoda wield a lightsaber in Clones and Sith. Empire is an almost perfect adventure, despite its being the middle of a trilogy, despite the fact that its director, Irving Kishner, didn’t go on to do much else. He didn’t need to do much else. He made The Empire Strikes Back. My favorite movie. And probably yours.

10 Favorite Buffy Episodes

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that I keep revisiting; a flawed show, a funny show, a beautiful show, a show very tied to its context (the turn of the millennium), and a show that, in some respects, promotes the mistaken ideologies of our post-Christian culture. But it discusses so many of the important issues of our time with flair, creativity, and “emotional resonance” (Joss Whedon’s stated goal) that even when I disagree with the conclusions it promotes (“Religion [is] creepy”, Christians “can’t begin to understand” supernatural forces, There’s “nothing conclusive” in the evidence for God’s existence), I love that it made me think about the issues and questions it explored.

In honor of the fact that this week Logo (some random cable channel) is airing Joss Whedon’s 10 favorite Buffy Episodes,* I thought I’d write about my 10 favorite Buffy episodes, not letting myself include any of Joss’s favorites. I also didn’t include any season finales, in part because, with the exception of “Restless”, they’re seldom work as stand alone episodes. Nor, sadly, did I include any Halloween episodes, which I love and watch on October 31 every year, but would have made the list too long. Finally, I’ve tried to rank them in order of which episodes I like best, not  in chronological order.

10. “The Freshman” (Season 4): This is an easily forgotten episode in which Joss, as writer and director, does average work. The plot is predictable and episodic; the villain, Friday, is nothing special, easily overcome, and does no lasting damage to anything, really. But its average-ness is what I like so much about this episode. As the first episode of Buffy beyond high school, it’s also risky in its conventionality – Can the old formula still work? Can Xander still fit in? The answer is yes, wonderfully. The lightness and joy of Xander’s and Buffy’s friendship, wherein Xander’s love empowers Buffy, is perfectly shown, so much so that whenever I feel lonely and out of place, I want to watch the final scenes again. Finally, I think it might be one of those episodes that introduces the show quite well. Next time someone asks “what’s that Buffy show all about?” show them “The Freshman.”

9. “Angel” (Season 1): This is the episode that reveals Angel as a vampire, and in a very real way begins the plot arcs that will dominate all of Buffy and Angel. I once had a theory that this episode is all of the series Angel presented in 43 minutes. Though I quickly dismissed this idea, I still think this episode is one of the most enjoyable and surprising to watch after one has watched Angel the series. It is in this episode that both David Boreanaz and Julie Benz foreshadow, in their acting and chemistry, the painful aesthetic that will dominate Angel seasons 2 and 3, and in which Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar finally prove to the audience that Buffy’s and Angel’s romance can be interesting.

8. “Life Serial” (Season 6): Though “Grave” includes the most grace-filled and downright Christ-like scene in season 6 (Xander and Willow on the bluff), I’ve always found it a clunky episode. That’s why I choose “Life Serial” as my favorite in Season 6. Gellar gets into full “I love Lucy” mode with the mummy-hand, and the Trio show their best side, which is to say, utter farce. The Star Wars van with the flawed death star design and the imperial-march-playing horn are golden. And kitten poker. We can’t forget kitten poker.

7. “The Initiative” (Season 4): I like Riley. He’s so… nice? (Plus, as Buffy says, “have you seen his arms? Those are good arms to have.”) This episode lets Mark Blucas show us what he has to offer, both as an actor, and as a character. He may not be Spike or Angel (those cheekbones and forehead aren’t a dime a dozen), but he’s something Buffy both wants and needs for a time and one of Joss’s more interesting explorations of American manhood. The problem is that Joss is just more interested, and puts more creative energy, into the question of what it means to be a British man (see Giles, Angel, Wesley, and Spike). Speaking of Spike, this episode also includes the by-turns-disturbing-and-hilarious Spike and Willow on Willow’s bed scene, which is one of the best in the series.

6. “Storyteller” (Season 7): Like “The Zeppo,” this is a unique episode, in that it is mostly seen from a supporting character’s perspective, and also it epitomizes its season. Andrew is ridiculously comic and thoroughly entertaining, so much so that we are affronted when Buffy steps in and asks us to be dour and take sin seriously; but the redemption through tears at the end of the episode reveals Buffy’s love and lightness in a new and refreshing way—she is becoming, we see, the leader we need her to be.

5. “I only have eyes for you” (Season 2): This episode encapsulates season 2 for me. More than most episodes in the series it weaves its episode plot (a seemingly forgettable ghost story) into the season plot (Buffy’s crippling grief at Angel’s transformation into Angelus) so perfectly, and with such redemptive force, that I almost wish it were the season finale. It also comes in the middle of a batch of strong episodes, including “Passion” and “Phases” that may very well be the strongest run of episodes in the series.

4. “Who are you?” (Season 4): Did I really choose three episodes from season 4? I did. I like season 4. So sue me. The overall plot of the season is weak, but there are so many good, single episodes, especially “Restless” which I would have included too, if Joss hadn’t already picked it. Why “Who are you”? Well, I love watching Eliza Dushku play Buffy. Somehow Dushku playing Buffy makes me love and care for Faith in a new way. I’ve sometimes thought Faith was my favorite character in Buffy and Angel, and this episode is a big part of that. It lets us see, as Joss uniquely can show, how characters are not so much tied to actors as we think they are – Gellar can be Faith. Dushku can be Buffy. And when they switch back, some transformation has taken place, in which our love for Buffy has transferred onto Faith in such a way that Faith can, at last, be saved… by Angel… but that’s in another episode.

3. “Amends” (Season 3): I’m ambivalent about the first 2/3 of this episode. The First is kind-of an annoying villain. Angel’s guilt and torment gets boring and redundant real fast. But then the last two scenes kick in, and… lets just say I’ve never not cried at Angel’s “Am I a righteous man?” speech. Joss achieves a level of writing, and Boreanaz and Gellar achieve a level of acting, that is both Shakespearean and, strangely, Pauline. If there is an episode in which Joss gets closest to Tolkienean Eucatastrophe, it’s in this episode, where the Universe reveals itself to be personal and loving in its mercy toward Angel, and snow falls in Southern California, which is the most incredible miracle of all.

2. “The Zeppo” (Season 3): In this episode, Nicholas Brendon so perfectly captures Xander’s journey from cowardice and insecurity to masculinity and heroism that one almost wishes the show could turn into Xander the Regular Guy for a while. Xander’s escapades (while the main characters save the world in the background) take him through so many of the Western rites of manhood that I often forget that this is not a multi-episode arc. In the end, I love Xander’s achievement of a zen-like serenity in the face of death: “Me? I like the quiet.” Whedon thinks he’s a champion of the “strong female character” and perhaps he is, but Whedon’s male characters often reveal themselves to be his real masterpieces of contemporary television writing. Speaking of male characters, let’s not forget the important part that Oz plays in this episode, conveniently eating the bad guy (while a werewolf) and retaining no memory of it other that his “strangely full” feeling the next day.

1. “Fool for Love” (Season 5): I can’t believe Joss didn’t include this one on his list. Season 5, and all of Buffy would be much poorer, even incomplete, without this episode, as would every fan of Spike/Buffy. This is the episode wherein Spike becomes both much more human and much more of a threat to Buffy than ever before. His inability to know whether he wants to kiss Buffy or to kill her is so tangible, so visceral, that we think, as an audience, that Joss has just shown us love at its most raw, its most real. But silly us. If we think this is the be-all-and-end-all of love, we are the fools mentioned in the episode’s title; though Buffy lures us in with the promise of dark and twisted romances of pain, this it not the show’s deepest revelation. True love begins to be revealed only in the final scene of the episode, where Spike literally lays down his weapons, so lately taken up to kill the slayer, and sits silent beside the weeping Buffy, a foretaste of that most beautiful love that will not come for another two seasons, in the abandoned house where Spike delivers his “Hell of a woman” speech to Buffy, the other moment wherein Joss always brings me to tears, and the most romantic, empowering, and true moment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

*Joss’s 10 favorite are: Prophecy Girl, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, Restless, The Body, Once more with feeling, and Conversations with Dead People.

Criterion Top Ten

I’ve been falling in love with it all week.  Criterion.com, that is.  I’ve been buying their films for a few years now, but I’ve only just begun in the last few days to explore the fantastic resources found on the website of the Criterion Collection, (“a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films on home video”).  Aside from illuminating essays on each of the 562 films and counting that Criterion has released, the website also features dozens of top 10 lists written by diverse people in the entertainment industry (from Wes Anderson to Patton Oswalt to Guerillmo Del Toro).  Each contributor lists her top 10 criterion films and why.  It’s a little self serving of them, but when you’re remastering, perfecting, and releasing the most important films ever made, I think you deserve act like you’re, well, doing just that.   I’m far from having watched all 562 films, but I thought I’d list my top 10 Criterion Collection films, as an exercise in learning more about some of the films that I’m falling in love with.


1)   Seven Samurai – It’s almost a cliché to list this film in your top 10, as it’s never far from the top in any honest list.  But it’s that good, in part because it’s so many things—a black comedy of manners, an epic adventure, a tragic love story, a complex fable of traditional morality and agnostic doubt, and swordfights, swordfights, swordfights.  One could easily fill a top ten list with Kurosawa films, but to pick only Seven Samurai is to choose a work that encapsulates all of what he does best.  If I was on a desert island, and could only bring one movie (and a DVD player), this would, in all likelihood, be it.

One of the great things about the Criterion Collection is the packaging, and Seven Samurai has the best of any film I’ve seen.  The black and white outer case is luminous, and possesses the almost transparent feeling of the finest Japanese Sumi-e painting, though it’s just ink on cardboard.  There’s a short book (book!) inside the case with essays about the film in addition to a 3 disc set.  Criterion really knows how to package.


2)   Stagecoach – What Seven Samurai did for the period-set epic, Stagecoach did for the Western action film. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kurosawa himself was thinking of John Ford as he directed his Samurai films.  In Stagecoach, a formula is both created and perfected: A handful of travelers of various ages, social stations, and philosophies are stranded in uncomfortably close physical proximity on an increasingly dangerous journey.  One man with a dark past and an uncertain future must keep them all alive, even as he falls in love with one of them.  This could, of course, describe any number of films, from Daylight to Speed to Die Hard.  But, of course, when the man of the hour is a young John Wayne, the film ascends from predictable cliché to indelible archetype.   This is also the first film I know of to employ the “send in the cavalry” trope, so ubiquitous in action movies, and it’s the literal cavalry in this one.



3)   Hard Boiled – I’m realizing that my top three criterion films are all basically action films; I’m not sure what that says about me.  John Woo’s Hard Boiled, however, is the father (or foreign uncle?) of contemporary action films, wherein a young Woo pretty much perfects the slow motion gun-fight.  The story, like Seven Samurai and Stagecoach, is so familiar it almost seems cliché—the cop (played by Chow-Yung-Fat and named, inexplicably, Tequila) who will stop at nothing to bring down the criminals terrorizing his city, the police chief who thinks he’s reckless, the other cop (a melancholy Tony Leung) who’s deep undercover, morally confused, and at the end of his rope, and a ruthless gang of Triad baddies who enjoy public bombings and shooting up hospitals.  All of this crescendos in one of the most epic sequences I’ve seen, topping the climax of Die Hard (is that possible?) for best action climax ever.  Let’s just say that one aspect of the scene is that Tequila has to shoot his way out of a hospital under siege while the hospital is on fire/exploding, while protecting an infant (don’t worry, Tequila puts cotton in his ears so he won’t hear the shotgun blasts).  Subtlety?  A long way away.  Action Perfection?  Bingo.  Sadly, this film is not currently available from Criterion, though I hope that will change eventually.  I bought the “Dragon Dynasty” version, which will have to do for now.


4)   Chasing Amy – At last, a non-action film.  Chasing Amy is arguably director Kevin Smith’s best film, and is most representative of what he does best: frank, scathing conversations about romantic relationships and sexuality.  His characters are, not a one, likable.  But you grow to love them.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  This iteration of the “Kevin Smith movie” focuses on two recurring characters, Banky—a fast talking, crude-but-pitiable Jason Lee—and Holden—a nice if romantically naïve Ben Affleck—both  of whom write comics.  The story picks up when Holden meets a fellow comic book writer, Alyssa, played with spit and verve by Joey Laurel Adams, who seems like the perfect girl (she likes comics, she can joke around with the guys, etc).  But it turns out she’s a lesbian.  For the rest of the movie, we watch Holden struggle with his uneasiness (and often repulsion) at her past, even as he tries to establish a heterosexual relationship with her.   Because Smith is Smith, he doesn’t pull punches (the film is a hard R, and that’s all for language), and lets his characters struggle and fail with humbling and heartbreaking results.  While the rest of the actors are capable (even Ben Affleck!), it’s Joey Laurel Adams who really shines as a homosexual woman who has to “come out” to her lesbian friends and attempts to rearrange her life around a man.


5)   Henry V – I have a funny relationship with movie adaptations of Shakespeare.  On one hand, I never want to watch them as much as I want to watch most other films.  On the other hand, I usually want to watch them more frequently than anyone else I know.  Thus it’s probably beneficial to us both that I put this on my list.  While Kenneth Brannagh has ruled the Shakespearean screen for the last 30 years, he learned most of what he knows about making Shakespeare films from Laurence Olivier.   Criterion has released three of Olivier’s Shakespeare films, of which this is the first.  Of course, this is Shakespeare’s famous and beloved history about Henry V’s contest with France, but Olivier also makes it a meditation on the boundary between mediums of theatre and film.  The first few scenes are shot as if from the back of a theatre—the stage, the curtain, and the audience are all visible and even prominent.  But by the end of the film, the camera has moved forward, and the wooden stage has given way to the hills and battlefields of France.  Still the clothes retain the feeling of costumes, and even the large chambers of the French castle have a stage-like simplicity.   Branagh may have made a Braveheart era Henry V, replete with a soaring soundtrack and blood-spattered camera, but Olivier’s, while cleaner and dated-feeling, is about the uneasy medium of Shakespearean film itself.


6)   Rashomon –  If anyone, Kurosawa is the one who deserves two spots on this list.  Framed by a torrential rainstorm, Rashomon is the yang to Seven Samurai’s yin.  The former is as messy, fragmented, and disturbing as the latter is ordered, formal, and illuminating.  Rashomon is ostensibly a film about perspective; instead of, like Olivier, telling one story once while changing angles and frames as the story progresses, here Kurosawa tells one story five times with only the story-teller changing.  The story is a short one—a samurai and his wife are attacked by a robber in the forest; the robber kills the samurai and rapes his wife.  On my initial watching, after the first story is told, I knew that four more tellings would wear my heart and mind thin and brittle.  They did.  As the story is turned over and over, each character changes hue from hero to villain to victim to coward and back again.  And it soon becomes clear that the film is more truly about the worth of existence than knowledge or perspective.  Some of the tellings are a better argument for nihilism and pure despair than any I’ve ever found on film.  And yet a deep, joyful humanism, more simple and clear than on any other film on this list, rises like a reflection in a puddle, and cleanses like spring rain.


7)   Army of Shadows – France deserves its due on this list, and this film is a pinnacle of worthiness.  It’s the most unique, and possibly the best, film about WWII I’ve seen, told from the perspective of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France.   It’s also by Jean-Pierre Melville, maker of such beautiful and brutal gangster films as Le Samourai and Le Circle Rouge.   Refreshingly, the hero of Army of Shadows is neither a James Bond nor a Schindler, but a pot-bellied civil engineer named Gerbier, who, along with a group of civilian rebels, go on truly thrilling adventures in their increasingly desperate resistance of Hitler’s soldiers.  The film is as sad and morally frustrating as Saving Private Ryan, yet the fact that it is not about soldiers, but regular citizens, intensifies the significance of the violence to an almost unbearable pitch, and raises the few, small victories to the level of bright, fragile miracles.


8)   Life Aquatic – Wes Anderson has made a name for himself directing films that fit together like large, colorful schematics.  He started with a film about friends (Bottle Rocket), then rivals (Rushmore), then a family (Royal Tenenbaums), and finally in Life Aquatic, about shipmates, some of which are family, some friends, some rivals and even enemies.  The ship and its crew are ostensibly on a revenge mission (Moby Dick lurks in the subtext, though this time its a shark), but it wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson film without some bittersweet family dysfunction.  Also, there’s some thrilling swashbuckling that creeps up out of nowhere, and many passages of lyrical beauty.  At the heart of the film is Bill Murray, playing what he plays best: a man older and more vice-ridden than he wants to be, but scruffy and lovable despite it, which works perfectly for the role of a postmodern Ahab, crippled less by hate and revenge than by boredom and fear of responsibility.  Also delightful is a turn by Cate Blanchette as a pregnant reporter along for the ride, whose mannerisms and expressions are some of the most natural and interesting I’ve seen in a comic character.


9)   Kind Heart and Coronets – This old gem is one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a dark comedy to end all dark comedies about a young man, Louis, who is cheated out of his father’s inheritance by a judgmental extended family.  With wit, slink, and even swagger, Louis gleefully kills off everyone standing between he and his title in increasingly absurd ways (exploding photography and hot air balloon disasters are involved).  In a spirit of high farce, the indomitable Alec Guinness plays most of the members of Louis’ doomed family, including several women.   Class warfare, social injustice, and family loyalty loom large as themes through the veneer of amoral fun, and by the end of the film, one has been presented with one of the most incisive and bleak portraits of Edwardian British society found on film.


10)   The Last Emperor – One of the reasons I watch foreign films is to be transported.  “There is no frigate like a book”, Emily Dickinson wrote, and I think “film” can be easily substituted as the last word in her famous line.  In this film, Bernardo Bertolucci recreates the late Ching Dynasty, as its last emperor comes to power as a youth, and watches his empire crumble in the rising tensions of the 20th century.  By turns a lavish period piece, a bleak concentration camp tale, and a portrait of a crumbling marriage, this film is nothing less than a story about the 20th century.   What makes this film special is partly that Bertolucci is careful to be realistic about the period’s complexity: the young emperor longs to be modern in his dress and possessions, but resents the Chinese embracing of modern political ideas; though the communists run a brutal and deeply unjust concentration camp, one guard is kind and empathetic, even wise).  For the three, colorful hours of this film, I no longer lived in California—I was an inhabitant of the Forbidden City, a freedom fighter, a tortured monarch, as in all great movies, a tourist of time and space.