Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas Eve Bonfires

            The French, Spanish, German, Haitian, West African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups that have settled Louisiana in the past three hundred plus years have fused together to create cultural traditions unique to Louisiana. In the past we’ve covered Mardi Gras, the history of king cakes, the Natchitoches meat pie, and crawfish boils. In honor of the Christmas season, we’d like to introduce another Louisiana tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires. 

The bonfires in their full glory

             On Christmas Eve, and more generally in the month of December, residents of Louisiana who live along the Mississippi river, especially between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, construct bonfires on the earthen levees that surround the river. These levees protect the surrounding areas from flood waters. These areas of high ground also make them prime locations for the construction of bonfires. Tradition holds that the bonfires are intended to help Santa Claus—or as the Cajuns call him Papa Noel, because of course the Cajuns have their own name—find his way to the homes of residents of Southern Louisiana. Louisianans construct wooden pyramid like structures, with smaller support logs that give them the appearance of fences. This is the typical appearance for one of these structures, but over the years people have become more artistic in their creations. Many pay homage to Louisiana’s culture, taking the shape of famous plantation homes, paddleboats, or even the ubiquitous crawfish. St. James Parish, located about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans, has the heaviest concentration of bonfires, especially in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. Lutcher even hosts the annual Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park where they feature live entertainment, food, local crafts, and of course, bonfires. 

            The origins of the Christmas Eve bonfires are not entirely clear. French and German immigrants settled in St. James Parish in the early 18th century. One theory holds that these settlers continued European traditions of holding bonfires on or around the winter and summer solstices after they established themselves in Louisiana. These original pagan practices were incorporated into Christian beliefs as a way of smoothing the way for conversion. The historical record, however, does not support the claim of a widespread practice of bonfires until the 1920s and 1930s. Groups of young men formed bonfire clubs, where they cut down trees, stripped them of their branches, and dragged them to the levees. After constructing the pyramid-like structures, people filled with rubber tires and other flammable materials. After World War 2, the bonfires grew in popularity due to the development of St. James and the surrounding river parishes. And in a rare victory for environmentalism in Louisiana, local governments banned the burning of rubber tires and other toxins—recognizing that they were bad for people’s health. Now these events serve as important cultural and communal events. As with many of Louisiana’s great traditions, they provide an opportunity to listen to music, eat delicious food, and for people to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season.  

Of course there's a Saints one
            The tradition of Christmas Eve bonfires reflects the unique cultural forces that have shaped Louisiana’s colorful history.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


            In Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a dozen spaceships land at seemingly random spots across the world—triggering a crisis of international proportions. As world governments—each with their own fears and motivations—scramble to make contact with the aliens, a shadowy military officer (Forest Whitaker) recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a linguist and a theoretical physicist, to figure out why the aliens are here and what they want. Villenueve crafts a remarkably grounded and intellectual film that explores the power of language in shaping identity and how we understand the world around us. Within these events he also offers a heartbreaking story of familial loss.

            The film embraces an intimate and procedural approach to first contact. As Banks and Donnelly (Adams and Renner) approach the alien spacecraft, Villenueve embeds the viewer in the minutiae of donning radiation suits, driving out to the site, and slowly ascending a gigantic scissor lift to reach the alien spacecraft. After dealing with some shifting gravity, the two approach the seven legged aliens—known as heptapods—who are mostly shrouded in a white fog. After their visit, Banks’ hands shake and Donnelly throws up, revealing the stress that would underline such a monumental undertaking. Donnelly names the two aliens—Abbot and Costello, seemingly a reference to the famous “Who’s on first?” sketch and highlighting the difficulties inherent in any form of communication, let alone one where neither come from the same species. The film follows Banks and Donnelly’s grueling work of decoding the alien language, which the aliens create by shooting black ink out of their tentacles. The language, circular and gaseous and without easily discernible characters, occupies much of the pair’s work.

When the film expands its focus, some weaknesses begin to appear. Backed by largely unnamed teams, Banks and Donnelly work while the world outside deteriorates rapidly.  There’s looting, panic, military escalation, a hysterical media, and growing impatience when the aliens seem to be offering mankind weapons for some unclear purpose. There’s a distrustful CIA agent floating around, seemingly there to remind them of the need for answers while barely acknowledging the Herculean task at hand. There’s an easily manipulated army officer who after a phone call with his panicked wife and a pep talk from a Trump-ish radio host decides to send the heptapods a message about the strength and power of humanity in the way that only the profoundly stupid can—with a bomb. This clumsily introduced plot line vanishes almost as quickly as it appeared. Then there’s the menacing Chinese general, set to blow everything up at seemingly every available opportunity. These peripheral stories, however, remain largely in the background to the nitty-gritty of communication with the heptapods.

            Yet Villenueve has done something incredibly clever with this high-sci-fi premise, he’s placed inside of it an emotionally affecting familial story.  Adams, a generally talented actress, plays Banks as a buttoned up professional trying to keep her work separated from a heartbreaking loss. Villenueve shines as he plays with the audience’s assumptions about this loss and cleverly parallels her personal experience with the efforts to communicate with the heptapods. As a result, Arrival is a movie with both a brain and a heart.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Revenant

            The Revenant seemed tailor made for the Oscars. Fresh off his Academy Award win for Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu telling a story of revenge set in the early American West? Leonardo DiCaprio left for dead and hunting down Tom Hardy across the snow covered plains? A troubled production that had to decamp for South America when Canada failed to provide the appropriate weather for the film’s finale? Despite all the effort striving for cinematic achievement, The Revenant doesn’t actually achieve anything.

            For all the acting talent assembled for the movie, no one plays anything resembling an actual human being. DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, a seasoned trapper, gets mauled by a bear, survives, watches his son get murdered in front of him, is rescued and chased by various groups of Native Americans, kills an evil Frenchman, and finally tracks down and kills Tom Hardy. His ostensible motivation is revenge, spurred by the memory of his dead wife, but Glass spends much of the film crawling, limping, and slowly walking towards revenge. He wears the grueling pain of every moment on his frost covered face. DiCaprio makes you feel every last bit of Glass’s pain. As he drags himself across the frozen landscape, Glass is a less a person and more a relentless survival machine.

Tom Hardy plays Fitzgerald, the child killing, Glass abandoning trapper, who similarly just wants to make it out of this frozen hell alive. His motivations are the easiest to understand as he articulates a “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” philosophy in leaving a crippled Glass for dead. Every one of us had an ancestor like Fitzgerald and that’s why we’re here today. The problem is he’s the villain of the film and we’re supposed to root for Glass to kill him. Fitzgerald may be greedy and self-interested, but at least he’s something. The rest of the film is populated by unscrupulous French traders, an idealistic trapping company captain (Domhall Gleason), who unsurprisingly gets himself killed, and an Indian chief on a reverse The Searchers. The film also has two female characters. Glass’s wife appears in flashbacks and spurs him to live. The other is the Indian chief’s daughter who gets raped. 
            Knowing that Iñárritu filmed The Revenant solely in natural light to accomplish to capture the brutal nature of the American West is an impressive technical achievement. This devotion to the technique has to be in service of something greater than itself. It’s like a chef who has fallen in love with technical gimmickry over things like flavor. Technique is all well and fine, but the food has to taste good. In The Revenant, there’s graphic violence, a bear attack, snow, ice, cold, suffering, and Leonardo DiCaprio Han Soloing on a horse. And it’s all very impressive, but the film’s relentless devotion to this realism devolves into boredom. At the two hour mark, I checked my watch and leaned over to see if my wife was asleep.  

            The film is also unrelentingly masculine in its themes. Strength and the purity of spirit and character win out. The Indian chief in search of his daughter finishes Fitzgerald off after stumbling upon Fitzgerald and Glass in the last stages of their fight to the death. The film, however, is such a slog to get to that point that it’s nearly impossible to recommend actually watching it. For all of the effort put into The Revenant to make an award winning movie, you just wish Iñárritu had tried to make a good one. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

December Movie Preview

            As the calendar gets ready to turn from November to December, it’s time for the next installment in our Fall movie preview series. Some of the big winners of November included Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which unsurprisingly made Warner Brothers a boatload of money; Arrival, the thinking person’s sci-fi movie starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner; and Moana, the latest Disney princess movie that featured Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. This week we’ll be looking at all the movies that will come out in December. This includes perhaps the biggest release of the year: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

December 2
Jackie: If this isn’t Oscar bait, then I don’t know what is. Let’s run down the list shall we? Oscar winner Natalie Portman (check—want to win an Oscar? It helps if you’ve already won one) plays Jackie Kennedy (famous historical figure—check) in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination (historical event meant to appeal to the Academy voters who tend to be old and white—check). The film details Jackie Kennedy’s efforts to deal with the aftermath of her husband’s death, define his legacy, and raise her young family. The question is how much will director Pablo Larrain interrogate the legend of the Kennedy White House. Will it be a nostalgic look back or will the film reveal what lay just beneath the myth of the Kennedy Camelot?  

December 9
La La Land: The trailers to La La Land suggest that the movie is an old-fashioned throwback to the big-time Hollywood blockbuster musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (both of whom would have fit right into that era) play a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress trying to get their big breaks in Hollywood whilst in love. The film has an upbeat score and energy from director Damien Chazelle who previously directed Whiplash, a movie about an aspiring jazz drummer and his brutally harsh mentor. The curiosity factor alone is worth the price of admission.

December 16
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out. Only this one isn’t telling the story of the Skywalker family, instead it’s about the group of rebels who steal the plans to original Death Star. Set just prior to the events of A New Hope, Rogue One is a bit of a risk for Disney. Will movie goers turn out for a standalone Stars Wars movie? Will it have the same cultural staying power as the adventures of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy? Did all those much rumored about re-shoots transform Rogue One from a war movie into a more family friendly adventure? We’ll see on December 16.

December 23
Passengers: Passengers seems to be flying under the radar a little bit despite the fact that it stars two of the biggest names in movies right now: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Taking a break from their franchise related duties, Lawrence (X-Men, Hunger Games) and Pratt (Marvel) play two passengers on a space ship on a 90 year journey to a distant colony who wake up early. While Passengers is a sci-fi drama, the buddy comedy potential of Lawrence and Pratt cannot be underestimated. Both have serious comedic chops—Pratt from his time on Parks and Rec and Lawrence in movies like American Hustle. Passengers is worth seeing just for the pairing of these two supremely talented actors.  

Assassins Creed: This Michael Fassbender staring vehicle is based on a series of video games about a man who discovers that his ancestor was the member of a secret society of assassins and through some fancy time travelling mumbo-jumbo goes back and relives their experiences. The best parts of the game involved traipsing around on rooftops of medieval cities and jumping off of church spires and other heights into conveniently located piles of hay. Why anyone thought this would be a good movie is beyond me.  

Patriots Day: Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg reteam for their second based on a true story movie of 2016 (following September’s Deepwater Horizon). In their third collaboration where Mark Walhberg plays a competent everyman (the first was Lone Survivor), Walhberg plays a Boston cop caught up in the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. Using his natural Boston accent, Walhberg offers sterling bits of dialogue like, “We gotta find these guys before they do this to someone else.”  The film follows the FBI investigation of the bombing and the manhunt that followed. The manhunt material in the trailer suggests that there might be a good movie somewhere in Patriots Day, but the film’s focus on wringing every last bit of emotion out of a domestic terrorism attack threatens to undermine it.  

December 30

Live By Night: Ben Affleck’s first directorial effort since 2012’s Argo is a prohibition era story about a gangster and his efforts to rise to the top of Boston’s criminal underworld. While Affleck stars in the movie, he has populated Live by Night with a stable of strong character actors including: Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleason, Titus Welliver, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, and Elle Fanning. Affleck also penned the screenplay based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. Lehane  also wrote the novel Gone, Baby, Gone that was Affleck’s first film as a director. Other Lehane novels that have become films include Mystic River and Shutter Island, he also wrote several episodes of the HBO series The Wire. All of this talent is just enough to pique our curiosity. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Saints Special Teams in Review

            The New Orleans Saints special teams have had some spectacular disasters this year. They have had three kicks blocked that have resulted in points for opposing teams. These have included a field goal returned for a touchdown against the New York Giants, a blocked extra point that the Denver Broncos returned for 2 points, and another field goal that resulted in a touchdown by the Carolina Panthers. And in last Thursday’s game against the Panthers, the Saints fumbled a kickoff return out of bounds at their own 1 yard line. In light of these noteworthy failures, we decided to take a look at the history of the Saints special teams in the Sean Payton era. The results are not pretty. 

            Below is a chart detailing the Saints special teams since 2006 by Football Outsiders DVOA (defense adjusted value over average), a metric that compares the result of every single play to the league average result of that play. Special teams DVOA is then broken down into five different components representing the five different areas of special teams play. Those values are expressed based on an expected points model (based on field position and game situation).    

DVOA (Rank)
Kick Return
Punt Return
0.6% (14)
-4.3% (25)
-0.9% (22)
-3.4% (28)
-1.5% (21)
1.0% (12)
-2.3% (24)
-2.5% (24)
1.6% (11)
-3.2% (26)
-3.3% (24)

            A few things immediately stand out.  First, the Saints have never finished in the top 10 in special teams DVOA since 2006.  Their average finish is 21st. In only three seasons, New Orleans has finished with a positive special teams DVOA: 2006, 2011, and 2014, but those positive years were just barely above league average at 0.6%, 1.0% and 1.6%. The one area of special teams where the Saints seem to consistently excel is punting. Since 2010, the Saints have added between a field goal and two touchdowns worth of value based on their punting alone. That success is attributable to punter Thomas Morstead,, who apart from a difficult rookie season, has been the Saints standout special teams player. Morstead also handles the team’s kickoffs and while the kickoff ratings have not been as good as the punting ones, some of that is attributable to the play of the Saints coverage team. The other thing that stands out is the woeful performance by the Saints kickers. Since 2006, the Saints have had 10 different kickers. Their performances are listed below.
Saints Kickers Since 2006
John Carney
2006, 2009-2010
85.4 %
Olindo Mare
Martin Gramatica
Taylor Hehlaff
Garrett Hartley
John Kasay
Shayne Graham
Zach Hocker
69.2 %
Kai Forbath
Wil Lutz
*FGM=Field Goals Made. FGA=Field Goals Attempted
^XPM=Extra Points Made. XPA=Extra Points Attempted

            The Saints have alternated between average and horrendous play by their kickers.  After allowing John Carney to leave after the 2006 season, New Orleans shuffled through a serious of terrible kickers until they settled on Garrett Hartley in 2008.  Hartley made some decisive kicks in the Saints Superbowl run in 2009, but also dealt with injuries, suspensions, and bouts of inconsistency. The Saints finally replaced him in 2013 with veteran Shane Graham, a competent but unspectacular place kicker.  New Orleans let Graham leave as a free agent, hoping to get younger at the position, signing kicker Zach Hocker.  The Saints released Hocker mid-way through 2015 and signed Kai Forbath who did no better.  Wil Lutz, Forbath’s replacement in 2016, has similarly struggled.

            In contrast to the constant turnover at the defensive coordinator position—5 coordinators in 11 seasons—the Saints have only had two special teams coordinators since 2006.  John Bonamego coordinated the special teams from 2006-2007 and his former assistant Greg McMahon has been the coordinator since 2008.  Although McMahon’s history suggests he’s worthy of scrutiny, head coach Sean Payton has refused to blame him for this season’s struggles. These special teams failures cannot be laid solely at the feet of the players.  After so many seasons of mediocrity, it’s time to shift the focus to those evaluating and coaching those players. And maybe that means replacing the people making the decisions in the first place.