What to Watch this Week: Survivor

If you are a Survivor fan, then you probably already know that the new season premieres tonight at 8 on CBS. If, on the other hand, Survivor is only something you have heard about vaguely or seen the odd time on TV, then perhaps you are feeling surprised as you read this, wondering at the fact that the show is still on.

Your surprise would be, in a sense, warranted. Survivor is about to embark on its 32nd season (that is, though the castaways have long been back from their island adventure, the results of said adventure will appear on television, starting tonight). What is it about Survivor that has allowed it to endure for over 15 years? Part of it certainly has to do with the numerous twists producers have thrown into the franchise over the seasons. In order for a concept to resist becoming tired and “unoriginal,” it needs to be supplanted with new ideas so that the thing as a whole feels new. Survivor has maintained this constant revitalization process with impressive success. For example, last season brought back twenty former players (voted on by viewers) for a “second chance,” something that had never been done before. Hidden immunity idols and cast divisions based on specific personality traits (this upcoming season will, for the second time, split players up based on whether they possess “brain,” “beauty,” or “brawn”) have breathed new life into what otherwise might become a familiar formula.

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Brooklyn is a beautiful film, and the more I think about it the more this word seems the best and most appropriate to describe the movie: beautiful. It is a real film, authentic and honest, compassionate and perfectly paced.

What is Brooklyn about? It is set in the early 1950’s and follows a young woman named Eilis (played by Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her small hometown in Ireland for the better opportunity of Brooklyn, New York. As time passes, Eilis grows in confidence, pursues her aspirations of becoming a bookkeeper, and falls in love. However, when she returns to Ireland, she is torn again between two worlds, and a love triangle develops as well, throwing into confusion all that once seemed certain and forcing her to decide how she wants her future to unfold.

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The Revenant

The Revenant is not a film that is always easy to watch. But this, for me, is one of the reasons why it is such a great and momentous movie.

If you know anything about The Revenant (which is nominated for a total of twelve Academy Awards), you are probably aware that poor Leonardo DiCaprio (playing the American explorer, Hugh Glass) is left for dead by his compatriots and then must embark on an epic quest for survival. The highlight of the movie’s trailer (and certainly one of the highlights of the movie itself) consists of Glass rasping out this memorable line: “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.”

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The movie “Casablanca” is a classic well deserving of its rank among the giants of film. It is imbued with a sense of timelessness, although fixed in a very specific place in time: that is, during the Second World War. Released in 1942, the film is set in a city by the name of (you guessed it) Casablanca, where masses of refugees seek the proper papers to flee the Nazi regime for the safety of America. The historical context of Casablanca is especially interesting because, as you can note from the film’s date above, the makers of this movie are not taking a retrospective look at the war. Rather, they are creating the movie in the midst of political turmoil and without knowledge of how the war would come to completion.

Against this historical background is the very personal, very intimate arc of the two main characters, the past and perhaps present lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. This relationship between Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Bergman) is what detaches the movie from the limits of one particular standpoint in history and allows it to transcend its own time, reaching into our own with still relevant truths of love, desire and sacrifice.

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The Martian

The Martian is not the type of movie in which I would normally be interested. I feel like a lot of my reviews are prefaced in this manner, with a full disclosure of my hesitant feelings towards a film before seeing it and having my expectations subverted (see my reflections on Inside Out). This is just another reminder that the realm of art calls for an open mind. Art- good art- should always involve an element of surprise. I want to be very careful here in using the word ‘surprise.’ There is an important distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘shock.’ Even if the plot of a movie is entirely predictable, its aesthetic style and exploration of issues and themes can still surprise the viewer and suggest new truths. Similarly, a movie can surprise us without having to rely on shock tactics or shock value.

In this particular case, I was wary (and am still) of the genre of science fiction before walking into the theatre. This is not to say that the movie awakened in me an enduring passion for science fiction, but that art and beauty are capable of transcending the bounds of genre and holding truths for viewers of diverse predilections.

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War and Peace

What comes to mind when you think of “War and Peace?”

Maybe a word like “masterpiece” is springing forth, or perhaps even a grandiose claim calling it “the greatest novel ever written.” Then again, you might think of that famous quote from Henry James, who described Tolstoy’s tome as a “large loose baggy monster.”

So while there is no denying the value of War and Peace, or its place among the esteemed works of fiction, maybe it is more something to be feared than enjoyed. Admired from afar but not actually attempted, not when the idea of reading it is so daunting a prospect. War and Peace is certainly a gargantuan novel: in my edition, it surpasses 1200 pages (this edition is, by the way, the much-lauded translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the dynamic duo who have also translated works by Russian authors Dostoevsky and Chekhov). Is War and Peace really a monster?

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What to Read this Week: First Things

Why am I wary about reading the news?

The crux of this issue is the overwhelming focus on entertainment in our current age. This is something I discussed in my review of Neil Postman’s brilliant book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” With the advent of the television and more recently, digital media, the image reigns supreme, and along with this shift from word to image comes the overabundance of visual stimuli. When we are constantly flooded by images, there is no longer the same focus on logic and permanence implied in the written word. Instead, with the image, transience is key. The image is not designed to last. But it is certainly designed to distract. And it is absolutely designed to amuse.

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Becoming Human

vanierJean Vanier’s book, Becoming Human, emerged from the CBC Massey lectures that he delivered in 1998. As such, Vanier’s writing has a very conversational tone: it is easy to imagine he is speaking right to you, person to person. This stems from the original oral form of “Becoming Human,” but also, I think, from Vanier’s particular style of writing and of sharing deep truths in a clear and compassionate voice.

Jean Vanier is the founder of l’Arche, which began when Vanier opened his home (in 1964) to men with intellectual disabilities. Now there are l’Arche communities found worldwide, all committed to providing a home for the disabled where they can experience love, growth and meaningful communion with others. In “Becoming Human,” he relates numerous personal experiences he has had with residents of l’Arche communities, often individuals who came from very rough or unloving backgrounds and seemed themselves unlovable. Yet with love and support these individuals grew; indeed, they blossomed with love, finding the freedom to openly express their true selves.

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The Return of the King


Even now that some time has passed between my viewing of the third and final Lord of the Rings film and my sitting down to write this review, that word is still the foremost in my mind: Wow. More than anything, this movie really felt like a journey: a complete, captivating, thrilling and deeply moving journey from beginning to end (nearly four hours that could have been years yet also that lacked the sensation of dragging). The way that the film was visually conceptualized, scripted, and above all the incredibly detailed nature of Tolkien’s fantastical world create a truly immersive experience, one that allows the viewer to experience the emotional landscape of the characters in a very real way.

There is far too much going on in “The Return of the King” for me to attempt to dabble in every plotline, and so I will restrict myself to a few that loom the largest in my mind. The first has been a consistent thread running through my reviews of the first two movies: the journeys of Merry and Pippin. I find myself extraordinarily fond of these two hobbits, and for reasons quite different from those I would have predicted. Rather than being confined to roles as the “comic relief,” Merry and Pippin quickly become vital to the story and to the quest to save Middle Earth, and this is only more evident in the third instalment.

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A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities is the third Dickens novel I have read (after Oliver Twist and Great Expectations). The “bookends” of the novel are two of the most iconic lines in English literature: the lengthy opening sentence about the best and worst of times, and the final words that prophecy “a far better rest.” Yet these were pretty much the extent of my knowledge, and seeing as they were merely decontextualized quotes- famous lines to spout in a suitable situation- they did not tell me much.

Perhaps there is a fair number of people for whom A Tale of Two Cities was assigned reading in high school. For me, this was not the case; part of me wishes that it was, but then again, it’s very possible I would not have been able to adequately appreciate this great work at that time. Either way, I don’t think that this novel (or any Dickens’ novel) can be exhausted on a single reading. As with all Dickensian creations, A Tale of Two Cities is a feat of storytelling. Dicken’s voice is so unique- so lively and delightful (if I may call it that), such that it is always a joy to delve into his world.

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