Archives for the Month of August 2009 on Cereal Monogamist

Julie and Julia, and the Lure of the Self-Imposed Challenge


Just recently I saw the movie Julie and Julia, and the similarity of Julie’s self-challenge to my own (recently, my Summer Movie Watch and more broadly, my 30 before 30 list) prompted me to think about the impulse towards self-improvement.

I think age—Julie was in her late twenties when she embarked on her project, just as I am now—was a crucial component of both projects. There’s a certain amount of stasis associated with being a grown-up. At 14, I thought I might grow up to be a travel writer—why not? At 14, you can do anything. At 18, I effectively crossed that off the possibility list by being too chicken to major in writing, choosing instead to major in literature and spending the next four years passively reading instead of actively writing. No idea at that point what I thought I would do when I graduated—that’s part of the dodge of college, that you have four years to put off thinking about that.

Fast forwarding a bit, I’m in the waning days of my 20s and on what might be called a career track. (Early on the track, way early. But on it.) I’m in a stable relationship. Conceivably, my life will not change except by small margins over the next five to ten years. It would be easy in that case for me not to change for the next five to ten years. For a compulsive self-improver, that is not OK.

Julie and Julia, and my summer of movies, after the jump.

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Message from the Lovely Winner

A blog sent me to this site, where you input your name and the site generates a humorous anagram. Give it a try!

My name, including first, last and middle, anagrams to:


Jeremy's name, including first, last and middle:


Skylar (our dog)'s name, including all our last names:


The AFI's 100 Greatest Movies (Pts. 1 and 2) Summed Up

AFI logo.jpg

Earlier, I wrote a sum-up of my experience with Entertainment Weekly's 100 New Classics list. I'm finally following up with a sum-up of the AFI lists!

Here's how I felt about the AFI lists:

Least enjoyed: A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, MASH, Mutiny on the Bounty, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Platoon, Shane, Sunrise, Swing Time

Most enjoyed: 12 Angry Men, City Lights, Doctor Zhivago, Giant, High Noon, King Kong, Midnight Cowboy, Modern Times, Spartacus, Sullivan’s Travels, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Deer Hunter, The Godfather

Pre-list favorites: All About Eve, American Graffiti, Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove, Fargo, Jaws, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, The Graduate, The Maltese Falcon, The Manchurian Candidate, The Philadelphia Story

Other than the movies themselves, which of course were all new to me, I saw some interesting actors for the first time, notably Van Heflin, John Cazale, Omar Sharif, and Fay Wray. This was also my first exposure to directors David Lynch, George Stevens, D.W. Griffith and Sam Peckinpah. The Summer Movie Watch necessitated my first (and last) two Marx brothers movie viewings.

It’s harder for me to name all the movies I think should have been on the AFI list and that weren’t than it is for me to say what should have been on the EW list. This is simply because I have seen fewer films from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s than from the 80s, the 90s and the 00s. I can’t help when I was born, after all. But I have seen enough that I put together this short list of notable omissions: Roman Holiday, The Palm Beach Story, Notorious, His Girl Friday, Charade, Born Yesterday, It Should Happen to You, Advise and Consent, Brief Encounter, Gilda, The Shop Around the Corner, In a Lonely Place, and Reds. As far as I know, all of these films were eligible for inclusion with the possible exception of Brief Encounter, which is officially a British film (but then so is Lawrence of Arabia, River Kwai, and several others that the AFI didn’t mind taking credit for, so…).

Other list factoids: The AFI list presented me with the three shortest and the two longest movies I viewed: Lawrence of Arabia at 216 minutes and Ben-Hur at 212 minutes were the longest (the next longest was a tie, with Giant and EW’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King at 201 minutes each, and no, that’s not even the extended edition of LOTR). The shortest movie I watched was Duck Soup at just 68 minutes (68 long minutes, because Marx brothers sheesh), then Frankenstein at 70 minutes and The General at 75. The dates on those movies—1933, 1931, and 1926 respectively—are telling. Movies were shorter back then both because of the technology (innovations in film production made filmmaking basics easier and quicker, for example) and because movies were frequently shown in double and triple features. People spent a lot more time at the movies before they had TVs in their homes.

The most represented director on both versions of the AFI list is Steven Spielberg with 5 films. The second list swaps out Close Encounters for Saving Private Ryan (which was made the same year as the first list was released). I had already seen 4 of the first 5 and 3 of the second 5, so I actually only watched 2 Spielberg movies throughout the movie watch.

The next two most represented directors are Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, each with the same four films appearing on both lists. These are two of my absolute favorite directors, and I had seen all four of both sets of films. In fact, I believe I once watched three of Wilder’s (Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, and Some Like it Hot) all in a row one rainy Sunday afternoon. I had also seen all three of the Frank Capra movies on the lists, and all three of the John Huston films.

The most represented director on my movie watch was George Stevens, who had four movies on the two lists, none of which I had seen, and then Robert Altman and David Lean, each with three movies I hadn't seen.

One thing I noticed is that only one director (James Cameron) had 3 or more films on the EW list, compared to the several who had 3 and 4 on the AFI lists—and, of course, Senor Spielbergo with 5. I can draw the conclusion that the EW list is more deliberately diverse than the AFI lists, or just reflect that the film industry has grown exponentially in every direction in the last twenty-five years and there was just more for EW to choose from. Probably both are somewhat true.

The EW list skewed my decade stats; I saw the most movies from the 80s and 90s simply because the EW list added an extra hundred of them to the total. For the AFI list, I watched films mostly from the 1970s, the 1960s and the 1930s. I needed to watch only two movies from the 1940s, considered by many to be the Golden Age of Hollywood, and well-represented on the list, because I had seen the majority of them already (Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca: already familiar).

Popular genres on the AFI lists are war movies and musicals, with a handful of westerns and mob movies. A lot of my favorites are the more unclassifiable ones: The Apartment. Fargo. All About Eve. The Philadelphia Story. Are these dramas? Comedies? I classify my absolute favorite genre of film as “the poignant comedy.” I wish it occurred more often in nature.

"Future events such as these will affect the future!"


Tonight I saw Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space in a live Rifftrax event. (Once upon a time, I wrote about Rifftrax here.) The famous riffers were in Nashville commenting on a live viewing of the film, and it was aired via satellite in hundreds of movie theaters nationwide. In addition to the famously awful Plan 9, the show included a 60s-era short about the glamorous life of air stewardesses, and a live performance from a guy who did novelty songs about zombies (which zombie aficionado Jeremy really liked). All I can say is, I hope the event makes money so that they can do it again and again.

The entire show was hilarious, but the movie (plus riffs) really delivered. The MST3K guys poked fun not just at Wood’s indifferent production values, not just at the amateur actors with whom he populated his films (although a great deal of hilarity was generated over the actor who played the police chief and his obvious unfamiliarity with how people handle guns—seriously, he scratched his face with it at one point) but also over the sloppiness of the narrative itself. “Do any of these characters have any connection with each other?” the riffers asked at one point. “Where are they in relation to one another?” Wood’s notions of night and day were clearly fluid as well, not tending to remain consistent throughout the longer scenes. (For example, a chase scene would begin at night, the characters would race through a sunlit glade, and then inexplicably stumble back into nighttime.)

I loved the movie Ed Wood, which I watched as part of my Summer Movie Watch, and I will admit that the obvious affection Tim Burton showed Wood, Bela Lugosi and Plan 9 itself sort of colored my viewing of the film. It wasn’t hard to laugh at, thanks to the MST3K guys, but I found myself trying to ferret out what was good about Plan 9, as though I could have a psychic conversation with Wood and say reassuringly, “I can see what you were trying to do. That line might have been really chilling delivered by a gifted actor. And I bet those costumes were way scarier in your sketches!”

Regardless of this minor guilt factor, it was supremely entertaining. Jeremy and I quoted lines to each other all the way home.

Mad Men: It Returns!


Mad Men is coming back with its third season premiere on Sunday night. I can't wait!

The second season of the show sold me in a way the first season did not manage to do. The show increased in depth and breadth exponentially, I think. The episodes were always textured--they had really careful writing and directing, and they looked great. I read something this week which suggested that the show is setting a new standard for visual quality on television. In the second season, the quality of the drama caught up with the quality of the product.

I've come around on Betty Draper. Betty, chain-smoking, tippling and unwashed, Betty off the rails, Betty fights cheating with cheating! Betty wants an abortion, the second saddest "doctor won't do an abortion" scene I watched this summer (the worst is in A Place in the Sun). I can't believe that January Jones didn't manage to get an Emmy nomination with the emotional gymnastics Betty turned out this season.

My newfound interest in Betty came about just around the time I grew increasingly tired of her husband Don's journey. It looks as though he may have made a turning point after his annoying detour through Southern California. I did love the fleshing out of his backstory, the way he draws support from the other Mrs. Draper. I could not have foreseen that.

I continue to be fascinated by Pete: fighting every losing battle, fighting against his wife's needs, fighting his compulsion to be liked with his compulsion to be a smarmy ass. I did not expect him, in the season finale, to lay his heart out there to Peggy--he doesn't deserve her, and he really didn't expect to get leveled by her, either. I don't love him, I don't hate him, I don't even love to hate him--this guy has to be one of the most ambiguous characters on television, ever. He may be more like a Michael Scott figure--you loathe and pity him in equal amounts, and often at the same time.

Speaking of Peggy, I am desperate for Peggy to succeed, insanely invested in her story. The end of the episode called "Maidenform" when she appeared at the strip club to celebrate with the guys (because she was tired of being left out, and that's where they were celebrating)--I both cheered and cringed for her, while she looked equally proud and humiliated. I like what they've done bringing her Catholic faith into the story, as well; she's really struggling, inwardly, as Don is. Beautiful.

I've also been enjoying savvy secretary Joan, frustrated middleman Harry, and wheeling-dealing dog abandoner Duck.

It'll be great to see them all again (10pm on Sunday, on AMC!) and hope others tune in as well.

Movie Reviews: The Boxer as Everyman

See my previous entry on Hoop Dreams, about how sports narratives, despite their inherent strength, are virtually lost on me, and this entry will all make a lot more sense.



Raging Bull

It fascinates me, honestly, that two extremely iconic American movies are centered around boxing, which seems to me to be such a marginalized sport. You don’t see it on TV that often. You don’t see celebrities made of boxers the way you see celebrities made of football players, baseball players and basketball players. (With some exceptions, i.e., boxers I have heard of: Mike Tyson, Muhammed Ali, and the guy Russell Crowe played in Cinderella Man. That is all.)

Watching two boxing movies because the AFI made me was an interesting experience, then. As I watched and mused on how gross boxing is, I questioned why people (men mostly, probably) find the story of the boxer so universal. Part of it is primal, I’m sure: the urge to blot out the competition of another male of the species by pummeling him, injuring him, shaming him. Rocky in particular positioned the sport as being uniquely blue collar, a sport for working class schlubs, which seems appropriate for the 70s, which I always imagine was a very scrappy decade. Scorsese, with Raging Bull, seemed to find something very poetic about De Niro destroying himself in the ring while he unraveled outside of it. Hit him with a metaphorical punch in the street and then drive it home with a literal punch in the ring, basically. Again, narratively effective.

But I won’t explore that too much. For my own part, I find it hard to remove my own feminine experience from movie watching. That’s why you’ll never hear me say that Rocky or Raging Bull (or Saving Private Ryan, or Platoon) is my favorite movie; I’m going to name a movie with some incredible actress like Katharine Hepburn in it, that has themes that I can relate to intimately. That’s what makes a movie a favorite, as opposed to great. All critics agree on this, incidentally; the best movie in the world is not necessarily one’s favorite.

Raging Bull had, to put it bluntly, nothing to offer a woman. The culture of this movie was patriarchal Italian life, where women were for making sons, or to be hit when they said something disagreeable. Where when something important had to be discussed, it was demanded that they left the room. I respect Martin Scorsese as a director—and not just because he made the incredibly woman-friendly The Age of Innocence, but also for Goodfellas and The Departed, both of which I loved—but the environment that was so vividly portrayed in Raging Bull was rather offensive to me. There’s really no other way to put it. I’m glad that people and critics have connected with the movie as much as they have, that they find something universal in its message. It was utterly lost on me, I’m afraid.

On the other hand, I didn’t mind the experience of watching Rocky at all. The underdog story kind of got to me—the first time I saw him try to run up those steps, and he didn’t make it, I thought, “Oh, you’ll do it eventually! I’ve seen that.” Rocky’s fumbly little romance with plain Jane Adrian was really quite sweet.

The thing I did not like about the movie was that Stallone sold himself out to such an extent later. There’s a moment in Rocky, where Burgess Meredith the old trainer offers to coach Rocky since Rocky has been challenged by Apollo and suddenly has earning potential. Rocky shouts that the guy should have coached him when he was younger and could have made something of himself because now he’s all broken down. He’s approaching 30 and he’s not in top shape for the game anymore. It’s a poignant moment.

Until the sequels. Then he wins. He wins all the time. And by the fourth movie he’s pulling a damn bobsled and felling ancient trees. And then it’s thirty years later and he’s still fighting! Too bad Stallone didn’t have the guts to let the first Rocky speak for itself; he might’ve had a very different career if he’d made a different choice. But whatever, he didn’t consult me about it.

My favorite kind of boxer:

Movie Reviews: Epic Wednesday Ghetto Life


Menace II Society

I’m more Gilmore Girls than ghetto, of course, and so I can’t say that the realism of the movie really struck me or that I felt a spiritual connection with the characters or anything like that. Yeah, good stories are universal, but there’s a certain wall between me and this kind of life that sort of absents me from having anything real to say about it.

I know narratives, though, and this was a good one. The threads of the story were woven quite skillfully together, what seemed to be isolated incidences reverberating later, until they all came together in one explosive tangle. (Does that work?) There was also a nice parallelism with Caine’s childhood and Anthony’s, including the nearly-identical scenes on the stoops. The guy who will eventually be Anthony’s father teaches Caine how to be a thug; years later he finds himself in the same situation in the opposite role, with a kid at his feet. I don’t know what to make of the fact that he didn’t speak at all, and waited for Ronnie, Anthony’s mom, to come out and rescue him.

It is a bit puzzling—though moments in the film were clearly telegraphed from the get-go (I’m at home saying, “Someone’s gonna die right about now, I don’t know who, but…”), other moments were more careful and ambiguous. The character of Ronnie (Jada Pinkett later Smith) was the biggest puzzle, for me. In fact, she seemed to exist in a different movie altogether. She complained that Caine had become hardened, but how was she living in this environment without being hardened herself? How was she not filled with the rage that was fueling everybody else? “Do cops hate us?” her kid asks her and she says, “no, of course not, it was a misunderstanding.” That’s an extremely generous view to take of things—where is she drawing that strength from? Caine’s grandparents are explicitly drawing their optimism from their religious faith; Ronnie didn’t seem to have devoted herself to anything in that way.

Maybe we were supposed to understand that she had devoted her energy to Caine himself, who was a pretty questionable idol, seeing as he became more and more of an ass throughout the film. Was it for his benefit that she invited all those thug guys to her house for her going-away party? She couldn’t be friends with them if all she does is hassle them about their lifestyles and what they’re smoking and the kind of role models they are for her son. Just don’t invite them, Ronnie.

Spike Lee, and Michael Jordan wannabes, after the jump.

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Ride On! as they say


As the cap to a pretty stressful summer, Jeremy and I decided to do something completely impractical and fun, and so today we went to Cedar Point. People who know me know that I get motion sickness on like, bicycles, so historically I have not enjoyed Cedar Point to an extreme degree. However, Jeremy is a "coaster enthusiast" and his delight is contagious.

We decided to proceed with our plans this morning despite some light rain. The rain increased in severity for the first few hours we were there, but we had dressed appropriately and were mostly content, as the majority of the rides were still operating. By two or three o'clock, the precipitation had cleared up completely.

I wouldn't set foot on anything other than the medium-strength Iron Dragon. Jeremy rode that with me, as well as more advanced coasters the Millenium Force and the Wicked Twister (which we kept mistakenly calling the Twisted Sister). The rest of the time we were there was taken up, unfortunately, by standing in line. Still, we had a great time escaping the daily grind of grown-up living for an afternoon. Highly recommended!

Click ahead for Cedar Point stories.

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Movie Review: The Westing Game

A made-for-TV movie based on one of the best children’s books ever written. I saw it playing on Showtime and decided to watch. A mistake, always. Very few movies retain the charm of the books on which they are based—and even fewer manage this feat when they are packaged to be ultra-palatable for even the dumbest of children. Just look at the DVD cover art for this movie.

westing game.jpg

I know, yuck.

The book, in comparison, does not pull its punches; I read it for the first time in the third grade, and damn if I understood what had happened when it was finished. I had to read it another time or two to grasp how the mystery came together, but eventually I did, admiring its cleverness along with its indelible characters, its funny non sequiturs and its strange, disaffected tone.

I probably would not have watched this if I had seen that DVD cover art first (and known what kind of movie this was going to be), but I did, so, with all apologies for bashing something too pathetic to defend itself, here are my complaints.

The trimming of the potential heirs down to ten (or was it twelve?) from sixteen was probably done for character economy. However, it laid waste to the thematic tie-in to chess, and the way Sam Westing plays the characters as pawns against each other. Presumably Flora Baumbach, Theo Theodorakis, and Mrs. Hoo were considered too boring to be included. The actor who played high school track star Doug Hoo had the worst running form I have ever seen (all plodding and floppy) and I’m convinced it was because he was disappointed that Doug was written out of the inheritance plot and thus served little to no purpose in the movie at all.

The one character I wish had been excised was our fair protagonist, Tabitha Ruth “Turtle” Wexler. The character is a preteen oddball with a prickly temper, a curious nature and a gift for playing the stock market. The girl in the movie was a full-fledged movie moppet, all perky enunciations and side ponytail. When she got emotional her voice quavered unconvincingly. The actress grew up to be a scenester who gets made fun of regularly on Go Fug Yourself, which seems about right.

Turtle’s sister Angela occupied a strange position in the movie, too. There is a bunch of invented BS about the girls’ father having lost their house to gambling debts and needing to regain his position in the finance world (in the book he’s a podiatrist). This is all meant to explain why her fiance from the book was relegated to a tertiary character and a tertiary character from the book was promoted to fiance status. This actress was not terrible, incidentally, but the character was pitched so bitterly she was unrecognizable from the Angela of the book, who is described as being too timid to have ever learned how to drive.

How about Chris Theodorakis? Well, besides handling the struggle of being a combination of himself and his brother Theo from the book, the character dealt with a completely nonsensical medical condition. The character in the book has an unnamed illness which was probably supposed to be cerebral palsy. The actor in the movie was in a wheelchair and spoke haltingly. When asked about his condition, he replied that he “thinks fast but speaks slow,” and that was that. For some reason, the character to whom he gave this response did not say, “…and the wheelchair is for what?”

They kept the chess game that Chris Theodorakis (actually Theo) plays with a mystery opponent, but wedged it uncomfortably into the 90s by making it an Internet chess game (like octogenarian Westing would hop onto Pogo to play a game—whatever). Turtle and Chris also figured out the key to the clues by plugging them all into a search engine and seeing what came up. WEAK! But I guess in ’97 the Internet was still exotic.

Ray Walston plays Sam Westing as well as his various alter egos in bad wigs. Diane Ladd, too good for this movie, plays Mrs. Crow. The settings and locations were actually the only thing I really liked about it; the city as well as the apartment building where the majority of the action takes place seemed old, musty, bleached-out and run-down, which is the perfect atmosphere for the story. I wish as much thought as went into picking those locations had been expended adapting the script. And that the little girl who played Turtle had been unceremoniously fired.

The movie predates the Harry Potter movies and all of the Pixar films except for the first Toy Story, a time when standards for kids' movies were a little lower. Even keeping that in mind, this was still a weak effort.


New couch!.JPG
(Not pictured: two exhausted people who had to remove or partially remove three different doors to get this thing into the house.)

New arrangement.JPG

And so it ends...

It's over! The Summer Movie Watch has been completed!

The celebration was marked by cake. (Yes, it was store-bought.)

Here's the moment of triumph: the end credits on the last movie of the day, and the last movie of the list, which was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Squint really hard and you'll see Jack Nicholson's name in there.
Me with credits.JPG

I guess tomorrow I go back to books? Who knows? I'm not yet used to my freedom.

Epic Wednesday: Here Comes the Counterculture

Tomorrow's Epic Wednesday viewing looks at hippies, sleazebags and antiheroes:

9am: Easy Rider
11am: Midnight Cowboy
1pm: Taxi Driver
4pm: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

And that's the end of the road! I'm looking forward to getting the privilege of movie choice back (returning to the Netflix queue already in progress) but I couldn't be happier to have finally seen for myself all these old classics that I've been hearing about my whole life. I recommend the experience to anyone.

Movie Review: Funny People

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Being major Judd Apatow fans, Jeremy and I saw this Friday night. We were pretty shocked at how empty the theater was, actually (it was maybe a third full) and wondered if maybe the "Adam Sandler plays serious, has cancer" thing was scaring off comedy fans. The film ended up pulling off a paradox, hitting number one at the box office this weekend, but still playing way below expectations. More on that from the Los Angeles Times here.

The paradox is sort of apt, because the movie in general was both brilliant and disappointing. It doesn’t have the same ring as The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, the sort of guys-sitting-around-talking-about-ridiculous-things-foul-mouthedly-and-hilariously thing. It’s really quite different; it’s a more mature film, and I don’t say that just because it’s more serious, which it also is. Those movies were like specific gags revolving around a premise; this movie puts more of the focus on the premise, and the gags that do appear are only incidental. What I mean is, how do you make a movie about a handful of people (and cancer) funny? Well, make the lot of them comedians, and then you’ll have to show them doing their acts from time to time, and it will lighten the mood.

This seemed to be the thought process, and it somewhat works. For the first hour and a half, though, I wasn’t really concerned that it wasn’t that funny because it was so good. The movie settles itself amongst the inner tensions of these three roommates who are aspiring comedians and actors (Seth Rogen, Jason Schwartzman, and Jonah Hill), how they pretend to support each other but secretly compete with each other, and how the dynamic shifts when one guy (Rogen) becomes apprenticed to the most famous funny guy in the movies, played by Adam Sandler. Also, the famous guy has terminal cancer.

Let’s get it out of the way right here: Adam Sandler is actually terrific in the role; he’s both playing himself and not playing himself. (Several reviewers have felt the need to point out in their reviews that Sandler is, in fact, married with children. I guess because they were afraid that people at home would be worrying about him.) He has the career of Sandler (he’s a huge star who can’t even walk through the vestibule of the hospital where he’s received his diagnosis of untreatable cancer without being asked to pose for pictures taken via iPhone) but his personal life is in shambles because he’s a huge jerk who has alienated everyone. David Denby at The New Yorker described Sandler’s character as “frighteningly intelligent,” and yeah, it seems right, only in the sense that the character zeroes in on people’s weaknesses and exploits them. It’s this quality that made him a great comedian and a terrible friend, and the movie shows all that without having to say it explicitly, and it’s really quite wonderful.

And then… well, the movie takes a turn about halfway through, when Sandler’s situation changes. He picks up the movie and takes it with him on a journey that is not nearly as fun as the stuff that came before it. Seth Rogen had a very important role in the first half--he bridges the gap between Sandler’s world of fame and paying gigs and his friends’ world of amateur night and good faith loans, as well as playing the guy on the precipice, the guy who could sell out if he wanted to, but isn’t yet sure that he wants to. Again, bridging a gap, this one between cool Hollywood ruthlessness and old-fashioned affability. Unfortunately, Rogen becomes a pointless hanger-on in the second half. The movie coasts to what seems like it will be a very bleak, cynical ending, and then it chickens out and closes on a scene that is both hackneyed and implausible. And we walk out of the theater, Sad People.

A writer I really like, Linda Holmes at NPR’s Monkey See blog, had a really different perspective on the movie: she connects the first half and the second thematically and declares the film a success. I think she’s right about theme, but I think that the changes of both tone and focus are too egregious to declare the movie a success. Still, as they say on the Internet, your mileage may vary.

For what it's worth, I will watch Funny People again for that first movie; I will probably turn it off when it hits the second. Overall, it’s worth seeing, provided you can deal with major tonal shifts, the two-and-a-half hour running time, and newfound respect for Adam Sandler.

Edited to add: see also Sling Blog's Editors' Recap of Funny People

Entertainment Weekly's 100 New Classics: Summed Up

EW new classics.jpg

I’m coming closer and closer to finishing up the AFI lists—with the most minimal effort it will happen this week—but before that happens I thought I would sum up the EW list with my two favorite things, opinions and statistics.

Here’s how I felt about the list:

Least enjoyed: Blue Velvet, Drugstore Cowboy, Evil Dead 2, Fatal Attraction, Natural Born Killers

Most enjoyed: A Room with a View, Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Ed Wood, Glory, Hannah and Her Sisters, In the Mood for Love, Schindler’s List, The Incredibles, The Lives of Others

Most enjoyed (pre-list favorites): Back to the Future, Clueless, Donnie Brasco, Edward Scissorhands, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fargo, Ghostbusters, L.A. Confidential, Lost in Translation, Memento, Men in Black, Moulin Rouge, Office Space, Rushmore, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Naked Gun, The Silence of the Lambs, The Truman Show, Thelma and Louise, Witness

Additionally, I’ve been compiling a list of Notable Omissions--movies which were released between ’83 and ’07, and thus eligible for the list, but which are unaccountably absent. The list will appear in a future entry (or, if it keeps expanding, in two of them).

Here’s some stats that interested me:

The breakdown of the list by decade is 30 films from the 1980s, 45 from the 1990s and 25 from the 2000s. Even so, the majority of the films I watched were from the 1980s, which is easily enough explained: while my movie coverage has been adequate in the ‘90s and ‘00s, I’m still playing catch-up to movies that came out when I was a child.

The directors whose films I watched the most of were Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuaron, Sam Raimi and James Cameron, at 2 films each. Cameron actually had 3 films on the list, but I had already seen Titanic (January 1997, the afternoon after I took my SATs, in case anyone cares). Other twice-appearing directors were Tim Burton, Rob Reiner, and Paul Thomas Anderson--each of whom had one movie I had seen previously and one movie which I watched this summer for the list--and Martin Scorsese, Peter Weir, Ridley Scott and the Coen brothers, each of whom had two films I had already seen.

One benefit of the EW list which I have mentioned previously is that its horizons extended beyond American-made movies. Another feature of the list, which I didn’t notice until I began compiling these stats yesterday, is that the EW list includes female directors--only five of them, but that still trounces either AFI list at zero and zero, respectively. Three of the female-helmed movies were massive hits: Shrek (co-directed by Vicky Jenson and Andrew Adamson), Clueless (Amy Heckerling) and Big (Penny Marshall). I had seen all of those movies, multiple times on multiple occasions.

The other two were critical darlings, and represent the only two Oscar nominations for Best Director that have ever happened to women. Ever. [Edited to add: I have since checked IMDb and realized that I misread Jane Campion's biography. One other woman received a Best Director Oscar nomination, Lina Wertmuller in 1975. My indignance is, I think, still warranted.] Those movies are The Piano (Jane Campion, in 1994—this was a list movie) and Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, in 2004, already seen). Though neither woman won the directing award, both took home the same consolation prize: Best Original Screenplay. At this rate, another woman should be due to lose Best Director in another five years. That’s not a fault of the list, of course, but of Hollywood standards in general.

One final observation: the Entertainment Weekly list feels, in general, darker and more gothic than the AFI lists. It seems densely populated with drug movies, mob movies, serial killer movies, sci-fi creature-on-the-loose movies. I don’t think this is necessarily because those darker genres are being made more of today. Look again at my Ed Wood entry and all those movies Bela Lugosi made.

The difference is that genre movies are becoming increasingly more respected; probably Francis Ford Coppola started things off by making operatic mob movies (popular since the 1930s) which so effectively utilized the concept of the American dream that the Corleones became a part of our cultural fabric. These days, any serious director can make a critically-acclaimed crime movie (see last summer’s The Dark Knight, or, from two summers ago, Zodiac). On the flip side, so-called “feelgood” movies are losing respect. Too many brainless romantic comedies which force two patently unlikeable characters to kiss in the rain and get married as the end credits roll, too many of those disposable kids’ movies where the kid discovers his dog can fly and that helps him stand up against a bully, or whatever.

Basically, it’s hard to scrounge up the sincerity that elevates a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life above its Hallmark-y premise, and they just don’t do it that much anymore.

Movie Reviews: Hollywood Satires

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Ed Wood

I loved this movie, in no small part because of Johnny Depp’s performance. I don’t know who first decided that Ed’s main character trait would be unflappable optimism--whether it was the screenwriter, whether it was director Tim Burton, or whether Depp brought that to the performance himself (I wouldn’t be surprised, honestly)--but damn if it didn’t elevate a pretty standard biopic to something unusual and sparkling. Depp did the same in his Oscar-nominated (remember?) performance in the first of the truly silly Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He said, “Pirate? Only if I can play it drunk and gay.”

Just a note on Johnny Depp: this guy is such a fascinating creature, honestly. You just don’t often find a character actor with a face as perfect as his. He is quite beautiful. Jeremy and I saw Public Enemies a few weeks ago and I couldn’t get over it then, either.

Martin Landau was terrific, too, of course, as Bela Lugosi—he won an Oscar, and for a comedy, which almost never happens. His one-sided rivalry with Boris Karloff made me feel somewhat uncomfortable watching Frankenstein the next day (like I maybe should have thrown Lugosi’s Dracula into the mix, too, just to be fair). Incidentally, Lugosi has the most insanely entertaining IMDB page ever. Just read the titles of some of the movies he graced with his presence! (Ghosts on the Loose, The Ape Man, Night Monster, The Corpse Vanishes, Black Dragons, The Wolf Man, Spooks Run Wild, The Black Cat, Invisible Ghost, The Devil Bat, Black Friday, The Dark Eyes of London, The Phantom Creeps ETC.)

Anyway, the movie has plenty to recommend it besides Depp and Landau. It shines a light on the motley crew of actors and producers and Baptist financiers who helped Wood to realize his cracked visions and shape them for the big screen; it does it in that special Burtonian way where viewers feel the need to align ourselves with the outsiders, cheer them on. It’s shot gorgeously in black and white and it even piqued my interest in seeing some of Wood’s notorious flops; so much so that, in a few weeks, when a theater in the area plays a Rifftrax version of Plan 9 From Outer Space, I’ll be there.

More satires from Preston Sturges and Robert Altman after the jump.

Continue reading "Movie Reviews: Hollywood Satires"

Movie Reviews: Drug Addicts and Their Inspiring Stories edition

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Sid and Nancy

The story of Sid Vicious, chronically unstable bassist for the Sex Pistols, and Nancy, his girlfriend and/or wife (the movie was contradictory about whether they were actually married). Nancy introduces Sid to hard drugs (if the movie can be believed) and they both gradually implode until Sid accidentally-on purpose kills Nancy. It’s all a disturbing, unbelievable-but-true story.

Of course, as the page I linked above will attest, no one knows what really happened, including Sid himself, who was too incapacitated to remember (or too guilty to admit). The movie has to make a choice about the events leading up to Nancy’s death, and it actually presents, I think, a plausible one. The movie represents Nancy as becoming increasingly suicidal as Sid’s career flounders, their money runs out, and their lives become unmanageable. She asks Sid on several occasions to kill her; on one fateful night, barely in control of his own faculties, he stabs her once, in the stomach. The situation rid of all tension, both of them relieved, they fall asleep on the bed together. And then she bleeds to death, because they are both too out of their minds to realize that a stab wound needs to be attended to.

Basically, the death reinforces the idea that Sid and Nancy’s relationship was violent but committed, that their love for each other destroyed them in a way that’s sort of ironically touching. They are portrayed as being kind of a nicely-matched pair, honestly. There’s one scene where they’re holed up in his mom’s house and they’re talking about cartoons or something, the cartoons they watched when they were children, and they are flipping out laughing, and seem utterly in sync. In fact, I wish a few more movie romances would show a scene where the characters are joking and bantering, chattering about nothing, and not in that stupid, fake When Harry Met Sally way, in the way that couples actually do it.

Gary Oldman gives an incredible performance as Sid, the music is great, the London and New York locations are very cool. I liked it, but it should go without saying that those with weak stomachs or no appreciation for irony need not apply. Maybe I sugar-coated it in my own mind, because I will admit to flashing constantly back to the episode of The Simpsons which spoofs this movie, where Lisa plays Nancy to Nelson’s Sid and they derail his career with their addiction to candy.


Drugstore Cowboy

First of all, this is officially the most drug-less drug movie I have ever seen.

The movie’s about a quartet of drug addicts who engage in highly choreographed heists of pharmacies and drugstores and hospitals. They are the Ocean’s 11 of junkies. What I want to know is, why are they so much more interested in robbing drugstores and pharmacies and hospitals than they are in taking the drugs? They get a huge haul and they can’t stop talking about their next theft long enough to actually smoke or inject (or whatever) what they’ve got. Compared to Sid and Nancy--compared to certain characters from behind-the-scenes-of-the-meth-industry opus Breaking Bad--God, it seemed like these characters were never actually stoned.

And then when Matt Dillon decides to go clean, all we see is a lot of shots of him looking out the damn window! I didn’t realize narcotics withdrawal was so pensive, so tedious. The guy got a job operating a drill press, for crying out loud. Pretty steady hand for a recovering junkie. The movie became quite philosophical at that point, too, in the most navel-gazing, junior high way possible. This life, this life; it’s all so meaningless. Life as a law-abiding citizen is such a soul-crushing bore and drugs are the only way to experience love or passion; what a painful choice.