Jan 29, 2010


I have seen a few articles popping up lately about James Cameron, director and creator of the mega-huge blockbuster Avatar.  One of them in particular took the stance that James Cameron is the greatest director of all time - as evidenced by the fact that he has the two biggest movies of all time.  I know where this is coming from.  In our current journalistic landscape, writing well is not nearly as important as writing wild articles that pose wild hypotheses to get people's blood boiling.  So we have tons of "Best of" lists and "Greatest of All Time" articles.  Personally, I do not think Cameron is the greatest director of all time.  First, let me just give a brief rundown of what old King of the World brings to the table.

  • Avatar - the highest grossing movie of all time (worldwide, soon to be U.S. also).  That means $600 million in US, $1.8 billion plus worldwide.  Award winning and nominated.  Technically light years beyond anything out there.  
  • Titanic - until Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time.  Same numbers.  $600 million in U.S. and $1.8 billion global.  Oscar winner.  Technological marvel.  Launched Leo and Kate's careers.
  • Terminator and Terminator 2 - The first movie only made $38 million.  The second made $204 (in 1991 money).  But Cameron created the entire story, the characters, everything.  That means the four movies, one television show, numerous video games, and amusement park experiences were all from his initial idea.  And the morphing technology in T2 still is dang impressive - changed movie effects forever.
  • True Lies - fun Arnold movie - made about $140 million.  Yawn.
  • The Abyss - Made $54 million.  But it was the first movie to ever be able to create realistic special effect, computer generated water.  And this was 1989.  Actually a great movie, too.
  • Aliens - the second in the Alien series.  And just an unbelievable movie.  One of the best sequels of all time.  
  • Random weird stuff like the tv series Dark Angel, two documentaries (Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep).
  • Piranha Part 2.  Of course, who could forget that.
Not a bad list.  Over $4 billion in worldwide gross.  Tons of technologically advanced movies.  Oscars for special effects and technical stuff.  Two movies that were real Best Picture players - one won and we'll see what happens with the other.  And, of course, Piranha Part 2.

So, even though the list is small, it is also impressive.  To his credit, Cameron has been at the helm of five movies that had a large effect on Hollywood (Aliens, Abyss, T2, Titanic, Avatar).  And three of those movies were of the type that would earn the label "they changed everything."  Certain movies undeniably change everything.  Either their technology makes it possible to do something that never had been done before.  Or their style is so cool that it inspires dozens of movies after it.  Or their cultural impact can't be measured - as in culture is never the same again.  Some examples of this type of movie is Star Wars, The Matrix, Pulp Fiction, Toy Story, Cinderella, The Godfather, Independence Day.  Well, Cameron contributed THREE movies to this type - T2 (which revolutionized special effects), Titanic (special effects, movie scope, approach to movies), and Avatar (technology, 3D incorporation).

Cameron also was responsible for creating the Terminator series - completely creating it.  There are movies that grow to be much bigger than themselves.  They create an entire universe of media - they basically take on a life of their own.  Some of them (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Godfather) are based on other materials.  Others (Star Wars, Matrix, Indiana Jones, Stargate) are built from the ground up by an individual - Lucas, Spielberg.  I'm not talking about generating a ton of sequels.  I'm talking about creating a universe of characters that become their own entity and seem to exist in some parallel universe.  Terminator would be one of those characters - and it was Cameron's brain child.  These phenomena are rare.  So to have one to your credit is impressive.  To have two?  EXTREMELY rare.  George Lucas has two - Star Wars and Indiana Jones (he wrote Indy) - but Indy wouldn't have been anything without Spielberg's directing.  Look at the struggle that people like the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) have had coming up with something else to do.  They have never replicated the success or scope of their first movie.  You could even argue that Spielberg has only had one franchise like this - the Indiana Jones.  Lucas had one.  Coppola had one.  Well, Cameron has the potential to have two.  Avatar was created as a franchise - not a movie.  That is why it took fifteen years to come out.  He was building the universe - complete with sequels and video game concepts.  There are tons of spin off capabilities.  That's impressive.

Also, you could legitimately argue the The Abyss should be in the movies with a game changing effect on Hollywood.  I think it had an impact on movies, but I didn't include it in the list.  My reason is that it was more of a reaction to the impact that Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind that revolutionary on its own.  It almost was like Close Encounters underwater.  So its originality wasn't so much the point as it was its special effects.  That's why we haven't had anything other than the original movie in that franchise.  So how is it any different than numerous other FX movies that had an impact, but not a huge earthquake-level (Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump).  Also, Cameron's impact on the Alien franchise is enormous.  He didn't create the series.  But without Aliens, it wouldn't be what it is.  That's just a fact.  His involvement on the sequel turned the movie into a franchise.  But I can't credit him for generating it on its own.  He just had a vision for how to turn it into something so much more - and succeeded spectacularly.

So, is directing three game-changing movies enough?  Is creating two complete media universes (and strongly helping a third) sufficient to lay claim to a "greatest director" claim?  Is generating $4 billion after just nine movies get the title?  I would have to argue no.  It is impressive - not denying that.  But there are some problems.  First of all, look at that list again.  While all of those movies stand out as exciting and entertaining films. do any of them stand out as truly great movies?  The dialogue, character development, big issues that usually define great movies is lacking.  They are wildly fun to watch, but they don't leave you thinking about much of anything except for, "Man, I can't believe he was able to do that."  Sure, Titanic won Best Picture, but it was more due to its scope and epic quality.  The acting wasn't that great.  The main character was the boat.  The second half of the movie basically consisted of people running around and screaming.  His movies will be studied for years to come - largely to teach how to create an epic and utilize technology.  But it isn't going to be for storytelling.  The story is a distant element compared to the visuals.

Second, Cameron has proven he can do one type of movie.  He can do the visual effect epic.  He does it extremely well - probably better than anyone.  Much of his hype is due to the money.  Money makes the world go around, as they say.  And he bring in ridonkulous money.  (He also spends it - his movies costs TONS of money to make.)  But I would like to see someone take away his computer tricks and see how he does on a small, story and character driven film before we had him the laurel.  Other great directors have shown they can work on any scale with any amount of technology.  Peter Jackson doesn't have to have thousands of stampeding orcs to have a quality film.  Spielberg has worked equally well in special effect world and in character heavy world.  Even Tarantino has done small scale and epic.  Same with Scorcese.  Cameron's work all has been big budget, big scope, effects heavy.  This also explains why his work on television shows (Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dark Angel) had trouble catching on with a large group of people.  It is hard to translate epic scope to the small screen if you don't have strong characters and story telling.  The reason Lost and Star Trek have been able to do that is because they have unbelievable characters and stories.

The third strike against Cameron is more of a personal one.  He is an unbelievably arrogant and egotistical person.  I'm sure that most people in the entertainment world could be saddled with these titles.  But the thing about Cameron is that he is considered that BY those other arrogant people.  It takes a huge amount of arrogance to be called arrogant by the most arrogant people on the planet.  That's like me commenting on someone being fat or my wife saying someone is super smart.  Cameron has this reputation.  His actors always seems to love him - so he can't be a jerk to work with.  Arnold worked with him three times.  Bill Paxton has worked with him four times (he was in the first Terminator movie - betcha didn't know that).  But he does things that just grate on people - like his Titanic acceptance speech, culminating in his "I'm King of the World" exclamation.  Or his accepting the Golden Globe by addressing his actors in the fake language he had written himself for the movie.  There is this kind of "I'm better than everyone and I know it" approach he has.  It is like he makes these big movies just to show everyone how awesome he is.  I remember how people kept saying Titanic could never be beaten in revenue.  The Dark Knight came closer than anyone, but still missed by like $75 million.  Then Avatar came out.  And the whole time, there was this aura that Cameron had where it seemed he was saying, "Titanic can be beat - by ME!"  He's the type of person who, when he got the award for Best Director of All Time, he would respond with, "I know."

And the magical fourth strike is that he's Canadian.  I mean, how can the best director ever be from Canada?  Know what I'm talking abooot, yeh hoser?

My personal vote for Best Director of All Time is Steven Spielberg.  I know that some of my more critical movie loving friends will scoff at that.  He usually pops up in the top 20 of these arguments by "real movie critics."  I don't understand that.  The greatest movie I ever saw was Schindler's List.  You were just numb at the end, sitting silent through the credits because it took you that long to get enough strength to walk out.  The second greatest movies I ever saw was Saving Private Ryan.  That one, you weren't just numb.  You hurt all over.  You just sat there through the credits, trying to wrap your mind around what you just went through.  And in both of those films, everyone, I mean EVERYONE, in the theater did that.  No one got up - they just sat there trying to process.  At the same time, he also directed some of the most entertaining movies every made.  Look at his list:

  • Jaws (DGA nomination)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Oscar nominated for Best Director)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director)
  • E.T. (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director)
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • The Color Purple (Oscar nominated for Best Picture - robbed on Best Director nomination)
  • Empire of the Sun
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Jurassic Park
  • Schindler's List (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director - won both)
  • Amistad (DGA nomination)
  • Saving Private Ryan (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director - won director, got robbed on picture)
  • Minority Report
  • Catch Me if You Can
  • The Terminal
  • War of the Worlds
  • Munich (Oscar nominated for Best Picture & Best Director)
  • A whole bunch of other ones that seem beneath him, but would be the best thing most average directors would ever come up with (Jurassic Park 2, AI, Duel, Hook, Always, Indy 4)
  • And none of that includes the movies, tv shows, or documentaries he produced.  Like Letters from Iwo Jima, Men in Black, Amazing Stories, Transformers, Band of Brothers, Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Shrek, Twister, American Tail, Young Sherlock Holmes.
Six Best Oscar for directing nominations (should have been nine), two wins, and NINE best director nominations by the Director's Guild of America (three wins).  He helped bring one epic franchise to life (Indy).  He made several game changing movies.  And has about fifteen movies that had a major impact on other films.  He can do anything with any source material.  Best example of that was 2005, when he released War of the Worlds (major sci fi epic) AND Munich (up for Best Pic and Director - smaller character and story driven story).  And, when it comes to money, movies he directed have generated $4 billion in the US alone.  If you look at his producing efforts, as well as the global take, his movies have generated closer to $10 billion.  So, for me, that is what makes the best director ever.  Cameron can enter the talk when he replicates his success two and half times over.

Jan 19, 2010

Live Together; Die Alone

The wife and I were watching the Golden Globes the other night. (Don't you hate it when people use the phrase "the wife." It seems so calloused and insensitive. Like she's just an object in the house. "I was sitting The Couch with The Wife and The Dog watching The Television and eating The Dinner." I'm going to start over.)

My wife - my beloved gift from God and object of my affection - and I were watching the Golden Globes the other night. Well, we were fast forwarding through them and catching snippets. We didn't do to well when it came to rooting for our favorites. Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Emerson got robbed by John Lithgow. Arrogant genius James Cameron won twice. Meryl Streep won - I just get tired of her winning everything. Lost got shut out. (How does this show not even get nominated?!?) But there was one bright moment before we ditched the show. Glee won best comedy show. I'm sure there were people all over the country who were up in arms that 30 Rock didn't win . . . AGAIN. But we were thrilled.

But what I like most about the show is the realism. I know some people (like my brother in law Mike) will laugh at that - saying that no musical show or movie can ever be realistic since it is a musical. I am, however, talking about the story lines. It shows teens, teachers, and parents alike trying to make it in the world. The teen stories are very close to what I have seen in working with students: overly concerned about sex and relationships, social standing issues, dreams to "escape" their hometown. And the show itself is pretty uplifting in its messages and atmosphere - even thought I certainly don't agree with all the statements and positions offered up.Glee has quickly become one of our favorite shows. We have been watching the first set of episodes again, since new ones won't show up until March. And we have both CDs from the cast. For those of you who don't know, Glee is a show about a glee club in a high school in Ohio. As you would expect, the glee club is not the hippest spot on campus. It is mocked and kicked around by both the nationally ranked cheerleading squad and the abysmal football team. Things begin to change when the star quarterback joins glee club, eventually causing several cheerleaders and football players to follow suit. The music is fun. The acting and performing are top notch (unlike ABC Family's lame teen shows like Secret Life of an American Teenager).

One of the biggest story arcs is the quest to belong - to have a place where you can be yourself and to have friends who will love you no matter what. It drives just about every episode. The first group to sign up for glee club were, as you might expect, like the Island of Misfit Toys. They wanted somewhere that they could feel special - somewhere that their disabilities and weight and sexuality wouldn't doom them to a life of getting tossed in dumpsters, locked in port a pottys, and doused with slushees. And as the season went on, these kids provided this safe place to each other - for the most part.

Does this struggle ever really end? In Glee, we even see the adults searching for acceptance and love and a place to belong. Everyone in the show totes some level of insecurity or scarring - just like in real life. And, just like in real life, the people who seem the most confident and put together are often the most messed up. In one very well shot scene, one teen girl puts her own agenda first and shuns those students who had helped her. In her moment of greatest success, a teacher tells her, "Congratulations. You have gotten everything you ever wanted. Enjoy." And we are left looking at the girl as she has a devastated look on her face, more miserable than she ever had been.

It is amazing what a social creature mankind is. We hear people say they want to be loners. "I am a rock. I am an island." But I have not really met too many people that wear that too well. We all want people to love and accept us. We need that. Why has Facebook exploded so rapidly? People love being able to connect and interact. They love being a part of something. Companies that are succeeded are ones that foster this mindset. I worked for Apple for nine months last year. I honestly think that Apple's most brilliant innovation was not the iPhone or the iPod. It was creating a sense of community. Look at how people describe Apple and the people who love the company. The call it the Mac Cult. There is a definite culture fostered by Apple for its customers. For those people, it becomes something they are proud of being a member of. Think that is crazy? Look around at how many Apple logos you see on cars. Do you see Microsoft stickers around? People are proud of their Apple gear and their affiliation with the company. (The fact that Apple actually is just that much better is beside the point.) And you know? That same exact mentality is generated for employees of the company. It is one of the most attractive things about working there. You belong. You are special. You are accepted just the way you are. Trust me, it is an amazing place to work. It isn't perfect - name a place that is. But it certainly works very hard to make its workers and customers feel special.

We all desire that kind of camaraderie. People need it. We need to know that someone will miss us, that someone wants us to be around. It is essential for us to survive and thrive. Eventually, it has to be more than swapping status updates and wall posts. We want to be able to truly open our hearts and know that someone else will still see all the crazy spill out and not run screaming. Finding a true friend, a true place to belong is a lifelong quest. Stockpiling Facebook friends won't cut it. There are many times that I would gladly trade the 600+ "friends" on my Facebook account for one person to go to a movie with or have a good chat with at Bagelheads.

The title of this post comes from Lost - another of our favorite shows. On the surface, it is about survivors of a bizarre plane crash on a very special island. You can dive into the many different stands of mythology and philosophy and the like. But even the creators have said that the heart of the show is relationships. They are all broken people who are struggling to fix themselves and find how to interact with those around them. It doesn't matter who they are and when they got there, each character has to learn how to relate to the people and world around them. They aren't just faces getting eaten by a smoke monster, like so many sci-fi offerings. They feel like real people with real struggles. It doesn't matter if you are trying to open hidden hatches, fight off tropical polar bears, or survive tenth grade - we can't do it alone. At least not very well. We need to have others to help us on our way. And if you find people that you can harmonize a kicking choral version of "Bust Your Windows," even better.

Jan 12, 2010


I am cold. I have been cold for a while now. To be exact, I believe it has been cold for a sold month now. This is quite a strange things for me. I have lived all of my 35 and 3/4 years in the Florida. The Sunshine State. Land of oranges and beaches and powerful college footballs teams. i used to joke that in Florida, we have two seasons. There is Summer, which lasts for nine months. Then there is Fallintering. This lasts for three months - if you're lucky. So I am not quite sure what to do with myself.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have gone on record for most of my life that I prefer being cold to being hot. When you are cold, you can always put on another blanket or jacket or hat or dog. But when you are hot, at some point, you cannot take off any more clothes without causing vomiting or rioting or police action. You can die of the cold or of the heat. I don't think either way is better, since the end result is, you know, being dead. So I am not hating this cold snap. It is just strange. I am used to a cold front, as pictured by a blue curvy line with triangles on it, racing through Florida. Temperatures may drop a few degrees - or even get chilly for a couple days. But within a few days things would be back to normal.

Living in Orlando for a long time, we had a few more chilly days - especially in the mornings. By afternoons you are wondering why exactly you wore the jacket, because now you have to carry it home. Here is how my wardrobe looked (and still looks). I own two long sleeve t-shirts (one a former Apple Store teal shirt), three casual sweater type shirts, and a handful of long sleeve dress shirts (mostly with Defender Ministries logo on them). I always considered this glut of long sleeve options frivolous. I would look for opportunities to wear them - convincing myself that I wouldn't sweat to death wearing a sweater when it was 72. My kids were similarly prepared. They had some long sleeve shirts, but not too many chances to wear them. I would put a long sleeve t-shirt under Josiah's uniform polo in the morning and he would gripe the whole way home about how hot he was. His "jacket" was a zip up hoodie. We had to get him a real jacket last month so he didn't freeze.

Well, now these frivolous and excessive stores of "winter clothes" have proven to be woefully inadequate. You get creative, trying to figure out how to make your short sleeve shirts work. But the fact is that we had no idea what to expect with a real winter. This has been downright cold. We had several days in a row with lows in the teens. One morning it was 15. That's just silly. I remember one day that I was in Montreal, the temperature was 9. I never NEVER would have expected a day in Florida to even be in that realm. We've been lighting fires in our fireplace, which is nice and cozy. We've actually had to use the heater in our van. Jackets are now needed every day. Quite a change for us.

To those of you up North, I have so much more respect for you. It is a real struggle to get the whole family together in the morning when it is cold. On a normal day, I just toss some combo of pants and a shirt on the kids. As long as it matches and doesn't have chocolate stains on it, we're all good. But now I have to find something that will keep them warm for the morning, but won't bake them in the afternoon. Gabe is especially challenging. He hates jackets. He hates shoes and socks. He takes his shoes off the second he gets in the car. So when the icy wind blows through the doors, his little toes get all cold. Natalie is always cold anyway, so this isn't anything new for her. She had the most warmer clothes, since she likes blankets and such year round. Josiah will wear whatever you give him to wear all day. I had him in a t-shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket the other day. When it was 19 in the morning, that was smart. When it was 55 in the afternoon, I was surprised he didn't pass out.

Of course, this being Florida, I full expect this to pass pretty soon. And then we'll be back to running the A/C and wearing shorts. That's how it is down here. This may, in fact, be the only really cold weather we get all year. We'll go back to looking for chances to wear long sleeve shirts and set fires legally. The jackets will get stuck into the closet for another eight months. And we'll go back to being hot a lot. But, for now, I need to go get my blanket.