Monday, February 28, 2011
I wanted to get to Groundhog Day on Groundhog Day, but that didn't work out. Then I figured I'd just settle for getting to this film during the month of February. Here you go.
I heard of Groundhog Day shortly after the film's release in 1993, when I saw my neighbor, Chris, wearing a "Groundhog Day -- the movie, not the holiday" t-shirt (or was that a hat?). I don't remember when I ended up seeing the movie for the first time, but for some reason, I remember that shirt/hat. Okay, it was some kind of article of clothing. Or maybe a coffee mug. Okay, it had the name Groundhog Day on it somewhere.
Anyway, the point isn't when I saw the movie, but that I saw the movie.
After maybe 15 or 20 viewings now, I can't hear Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" without laughing. I can't hear the name Ned without following with "Ned the Head." I can't hear the name Punxsutawney Phil without affecting a Brian Doyle Murray voice.
Like all great American comedies, Groundhog Day stands up well to repeat viewings mostly because of great dialogue and brilliant comic moments. Every Groundhog Day brings out this DVD in homes across the country, including ours.
My wife and I watch Groundhog Day every year on Feb. 2 -- like many people, we like our little traditions, even if this one has an annoying moment or two. (Every year, at the 29:00 mark, I see David Pasquesi and tell my wife that I once took a class with him at The Second City in Chicago. The first few times, I didn't remember saying as much the year before. Now I just do it to annoy her.)
At least one part doesn't work at all — when Larry and Rita identify Phil's body in the morgue. Phil kills himself multiple times, only to wake up instantly at 6 a.m. to repeat the day. To spend time with his dead body indicates that the rest of the day goes on without him, and that's a little plot inconsistency that's always bothered me. Then again, maybe the whole day goes on without him and resets at the same time each night regardless of whether Phil is alive. I've never really understood this part. The older I get, the more thought I give this movie.
A couple great articles contemplate how many days Bill Murray spends living the same day over again. Here's one, and here's the other. Even Harold Ramis responded at one point. Great reading while it's still February.
There's even a film now with a Groundhog Day-inspired title. This is one of those films, like so many of Bill Murray's, that gets a little better every year, as nostalgia and anticipation play their part to make this film a classic.
I wonder if tonight is the last time I will watch Groundhog Day on DVD. I picked up a copy on Blu-Ray this year, and obviously the picture and sound quality are so much better. Knowing that, I nearly sold off my DVD copy this month, but I just couldn't skip blogging about Groundhog Day in February.
Friday, February 25, 2011
"I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How've you been?"
Grosse Pointe Blank is one of my all-time favorite films, and I assure you that's not faint praise from a guy who owns 600ish DVDs. I love this film in a way I can't explain without incurring a substantial amount of paperwork.
But before I get to that, a moment of disclosure: I'm trying something a little different tonight. I come to you from my boss's basement, where he has a giant projection screen and a fancy schmancy sound system. I haven't seen Grosse Pointe Blank on a screen this big since...well...
I saw this film in a theater in 1997 in Muncie, Indiana, on a date with my Second Ever Serious Girlfriend, a girl I flipped for, who broke my heart in half, won me over again, and then we just didn't work out, and then we sort of tried again, years later, and that didn't work either.
We both loved the film the first time, and every subsequent time we watched on glorious VHS, and really, to this day. We let the film wash over us like a big wave of Gen-X goodness, which is what I hear from quite a few people around my age. What can I say? Grosse Pointe Blank spoke to us, captured the ennui of the '90s or something, validating our view of the world and of ourselves.
I don't remember laughing much at the film the first time, though. I was too young, at 22, to enjoy a good dark comedy in the way I do now, after so many viewings (100?) and 14 years. Now, after much more life experience, I understand the anxieties of rekindling old relationships, of returning to your hometown after years of growth and change, and dear lord, the high school reunion.
I actually thought my high school reunion would be like Grosse Pointe Blank, except I never really dated much then. A few blips on the radar but no real flames. My class didn't have a 10-year reunion, so I spent 10 years wondering, and then another 5 before we finally got our acts (and ourselves) together.
I'd never really paid attention to the Violent Femmes, or The Specials, or The Clash, or any of those great songs that comprised not one, but two solid soundtrack CDs, until I caught this film. Hearing this soundtrack was sort of like walking into a great independent record shop for the first time on a day when the employees were just on fire. Although I didn't understand all the humor of the film when I was 22, I still had the presence of mind to pick up both soundtrack CDs and hang on to them ever since.
Only with time can you really see how much a film has influenced you. Sure, I knew immediately when certain lines stuck in my lexicon, but I didn't realize until years later how much this film influenced my writing, my taste in music, and really, my world view. I tend to write quirky little scenes with characters who see the world with a self-awareness and wry sensibility like the characters here. Actually, that's pretty much Generation X.
This film is Generation X's Harold & Maude. You get a dark comedy about a character who has a bizarre connection to death, featuring a compelling but messed up main character who has an unlikely romance, set to a kickass soundtrack.
But you also get a film that captures a generation's sensibility, sort of a mile marker for where we were then, all the while sort of hinting at where we were going...or maybe hinting at the fact that we had no idea where we were going and we were just trying to survive the world and not get any on us.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
When I heard Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were teaming up to make a double feature of B-movies as a tribute to the grindhouse films of the 1970s, I understood.
I'll admit, I'm a Tarantino/Rodriguez fanboy (Spy Kids and Sharkboy movies excepted — and yes, I even like The Faculty). But this is something different.
Anyone who grew up in Indiana throughout the 1970s and '80s should remember Sammy Terry, the late-night, B-grade horror movie host from channel 4:
I saw so many bad movies because of Sammy Terry, who might be the most compelling and interesting local celebrity around these parts. I used to hide behind the couch when his show started. That laugh, oh, that laugh used to scare the living shit out of me.
To understand the caliber of films he showed, you only need the titles: Invasion of the Bee Girls, The Swarm, and The Face of Fu Manchu.
Despite the awfulness of the films, I still stayed up late on many a weekend to catch Sammy Terry's show. Most of the films were awful, but Sammy's drop-ins were great. He'd provide these wicked little puns while talking to a plastic spider named George, who hung from the ceiling and sort of chirped at him.
I see the Grindhouse films as a tribute not only to an era, but to the campy, late-night hosts like Elvira, Count Floyd, and Sammy Terry himself. To me, there was nobody better.
Several years ago, I decided to dress up as Sammy Terry for Halloween. Long story short:
I bring all this up to show how much I was looking forward to the Grindhouse films. This wasn't just another outing from Tarantino/Rodriguez. This was a tribute.
They even pulled out vintage between-film reels ("Prevues of Coming Attractions") and used special effects and color correction to make these films look like shit. Add some purposely bad acting and writing and here you go. They still probably put more effort into making these films than any real B-movie director not named Sam Raimi.
I can see why the films don't work for modern audiences, though. Not everyone has a strong sense of nostalgia for the period. Not everyone was even old enough (or born enough) to remember how films looked in theaters of the time.
I grew up a mile from a drive-in movie theater. Talk about films looking and sounding bad. But we're talking about an era when audiophile sound and cinephile print quality were not an issue. Most people just wanted to go see a movie. Half the time, it didn't matter what was playing.
That said, when it comes to the Grindhouse films, I don't give a crap what these films are about or how "good" they are because I'm a sucker for nostalgia.
For me, the Grindhouse films are necessary. They get at a part of our country's history that nobody really thinks about (and many would just as soon forget). For a time, this kind of film is how Americans found entertainment at the movies. That should be celebrated, preferably with grande nachos and a Shiner Bock.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
[Note: I ordered a copy of Greenberg just so I could watch the film and write something. Then I forgot I ordered the thing, and went ahead with the Grindhouse movies. So now I have to back-date this and admit my folly. Enjoy.]
Noah Baumbach's films aren't always easy to take. He gets at the quirks of real people, and sometimes terrible people, and sometimes incredibly boring, messed-up people, and he does so with aplomb every single time.
If you've seen a Noah Baumbach film, you probably got awkward characters behaving awkwardly in awkward situations. He's good at getting at people. He's getting much better at films about deeply damaged people. I wish I could write more insightful stuff about this film, but I haven't seen this one enough times to really study all the nuances.
Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a former mental patient who housesits for his brother and basically spends the entire film trying to find a delicate balance between being a dick being an even bigger dick. He spends his free time writing complaint letters to various businesses and trying very hard to do nothing with his life.
Unlike a lot of films that take a selfish, loner misanthrope type and turn him (always a him) around in the span of 90-120 minutes, Baumbach makes no such attempt here. Roger Greenberg behaves in much the same way that a real misanthrope would behave, and doesn't get much better. He has a kind of existential revelation toward the end, but rather than going all saccharine or sentimental, we're left with this "new" Greenberg who isn't transformed so much as just slightly nudged forward.
My wife and I rented this one a few months ago, and she hated it. This thing is billed as a comedy of sorts, but really isn't. That's not why she didn't like the film. This is a super dry character piece about a total misanthropic asshole. In a way, I sort of identified with Greenberg, and in other ways I loathed him. I know there's a lot more here, though. I just need to look harder.
There are funny moments and some good lines, but the film doesn't seem stuck in genre conventions. There's a three-act structure at work, but again, the film doesn't seem bogged down in any kind of formula. I feel like I'm letting you down here, because I don't have anything revelatory to say that either 1) doesn't make me sound like a pretentious asshat and 2) hasn't already been written in any of the millions of reviews on this film.
Baumbach's films make me a little indignant. I write these little character pieces and have the toughest time getting anybody outside of friends and family to read anything. But this isn't about some self-loathing, staring-at-my-hands thing. If I let that take over, I turn into just another asshole like Greenberg, and the world has enough of those. I just have to keep nudging myself forward and letting my friends and family do the same.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
I love David Lean films, but I'd never seen his version of Great Expectations before tonight, when I found this in a bin at my local Half Price Books.
I'm not one to "blind buy" movies anymore, but I always keep an eye out for used copies of Criterion releases. Even if I've never seen the film, I trust that most Criterion DVDs won't let me down. I'm usually right.
There are misfires. For some reason, there's a Criterion edition of Armageddon AND The Rock. When people question the judgment of Criterion, they usually refer to these two releases, one of which is pure shit and the other is just okay. After these two, there aren't many bad films with the Criterion name attached.
Add to that, this film has David Lean's name attached as well. Before he directed Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean made a couple of films based on Charles Dickens classics: this one and Oliver Twist.
While watching this, I noticed something about Alec Guinness, who plays Herbert Pocket here. In short, for the first time, Alec Guinness set off my gaydar. Thoughts whipped through my head: Was Alec Guinness gay? Obi-Wan Kenobi? Couldn't be. Well, maybe. Doesn't matter, but...okay, let's do some research.
A quick Google search revealed several articles, including one that reported Guinness was arrested in 1946 for a homosexual act. However, when he was arrested, he had the quickness of thought to give a false name. That false name? Herbert Pocket.
So, the role Guinness was playing when he tripped my gaydar is, in fact, the same name he used to try to throw authorities off his real identity and keep his homosexuality a secret. For years!
None of this matters, really. I mostly think the trivia is interesting, not the orientation. I never knew this stuff about him, mostly because I just don't care (until there's movie trivia to be had -- then I'm awake).
What's most interesting about this story, for me, is all the social class stuff. You get this boy who grew up a commoner and because of the generosity of others, got an opportunity to live a different life -- one that he grasped tightly. He learned to be one of another crust, a refined gentleman, though he was destined to be a blacksmith.
Sort of reminds me of my own journey. I grew up in a middle class home, the son of a factory worker and the grandson of coal miners. We were not poor, but we weren't rich. We were not "white trash." We were just working class folks, and we still are, and there's nothing wrong with it. Great Expectations seems to imply that there is, but whatever.
I was one of the only family members to go to college, to embrace the arts, to try to make money from my imagination, and to take a "white collar" job as a teacher. My life turned out very different from the way I might've been destined. I might've ended up working as a grocery store manager, or I'd have gone into the military, or I might've ended up in a factory. I don't know. All of those things were plausible options given my working class upbringing.
I'm not saying those things are wrong or bad or worse or anything of the sort. I could've been happy doing any of those things...maybe. I never felt as though I fit into those roles, and I'm amazed at how things turned out.
It's strange because I never expected to be where I am, and yet, here I am. It's as if someone were looking out for me.
My parents rented The Goonies in March or April 1986. That weekend, we watched the film three times on glorious VHS. We never re-watched anything like that.
I grew up across the street from a corn field, several miles north of Muncie, Indiana. When Muncie is the nearest city, you know you're in trouble. We were like a bunch of hobbits out there — we never went on any adventures.
My family didn't have much money to travel or provide us kids with extravagant toys. My siblings and I just had each other, our imaginations, and a few neighborhood kids to keep us company. And our imaginations went wild when we saw The Goonies.
I saw The Goonies at the perfect time — our time, as the Goonies say. I was 11 years old — just the age when independence was new, and we could run around the back yard looking for buried treasure without our parents hovering around so much.
Parents aren't really like that anymore.
Anyway, around that time, I found this engraved medallion in a box of my parents' junk. I pretended the medallion was sort of like the headpiece of the staff of Ra. Tonight, I did my own little treasure hunt. Look what I found:
Of course, that piece is only part of the full survival set, if you're an 11-year-old growing up in my neighborhood. Here's the rest:
You need at least two knives(!), one of which is full of other gadgets such as a spoon, a fork, and a serrated blade(?), as well as a flower ring that sprays water(?), and a Falls City Beer bottle opener. You can't hunt for treasure without this stuff. At least, I never did.
Nearly 25 years later, all that stuff was in a box in my closet, packed away for no good reason except to take out now and then and remember. This is my buried treasure.
The Goonies captured everything awesome about being a kid. I never had to look for buried treasure to save my town. I never had to run from criminal families. But if I wanted to imagine all that stuff, I could (and sometimes did).
The Goonies was (I think) the second DVD that I ever purchased. At the time, most of the cast came back for a commentary track, which quickly devolves into people talking over each other, sort of like you threw a party and invited them all over. All the Goonies are around 40 years old now, some with kids of their own, and yeah, Kerri Green is still hot.
I love watching this film, even after all these years. I know there's no buried treasure, but try telling my imagination. I still have my medallion, Astoria is still in Oregon, and those rocks still rise out of the sea.
Monday, February 7, 2011
There once was a little film about a car salesman. That film garnered a bunch of crappy reviews and was out of theaters within seven weeks. That was this film.
Despite a cast that included Jeremy Piven as a loudmouth salesman (typecast much?) and a parade of other character actors and comedians, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard mostly just flopped hard — at least with critics.
Blame the base humor — everything from racism to homophobia to sexism to the simply puerile are here. Blame Will Ferrell for not having a large enough role. Blame Jeremy Piven's wig. Blame whatever you want — to me, this film is pretty funny despite the flaws.
I've seen films that fancied themselves comedies, but weren't funny — Scary Movie sequels for example, or maybe latter-day Leslie Nielsen spoofs. I don't even consider Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights all that worthwhile.
The Goods works for me, though. This is a low-budget comedy with low-brow humor and low aspirations, but a lot of gusto. I'm fine with that.
This film was budgeted at $10 million and grossed $15 million. I might not understand the particulars of accounting or budgeting for a major motion picture or how to balance my own checkbook, but by gum, even without balancing my checkbook, I know $5 million is more money than I have in the bank, and probably more than you have in the bank, so there.
The Goods doesn't aspire to bring in the teen audience that would pay to see something like Epic Movie (or pretty much any other comedy with "Movie" in the title). This film is smarter than that.
I mean, they reference Thoreau's line about lives of quiet desperation, which is something I've referenced here a few times. The music is solid. There's a Bandit car. This isn't a movie for the teenage crowd. This is a film for adults who just want to watch a silly comedy and let go.
Sure, they could've handled this scene differently, but for the most part, The Goods features characters and situations that I'd want to write. Stupid comedy comes easily.
I once heard this guy say that that "life is too short to write stupid comedies." As a writer, I couldn't disagree more.
My buddy Brian and I have a weakness for stupid comedies. The Goods is exactly the kind of film we'll watch over and over. We're not alone.
Why shouldn't I aspire to write a film that people want to watch over and over? Nobody's saying this is an Oscar contender. Stupid comedies have an audience, and they're not all stupid people.
Sometimes even smart people want to watch a film and laugh a bit and forget about life for a while, as the song goes. The Goods is the kind of film that would make my family laugh. Who wouldn't want to make his/her family laugh? Who doesn't enjoy laughing at the same jokes that make your parents and siblings laugh?
I grew up in the country. We didn't have cable or a dish. Mom or Dad would rent a stack of movies on the weekends, and that was our entertainment. We couldn't go to theaters or theme parks or museums or do much traveling.
Instead, we watched a lot of movies. I kept a list of the titles for a while, but gave up after the first several hundred. We rented damn near everything in our local video store. We saw our share of crappy movies, but we also rented quite a few comedies that we all could laugh at together.
You've got to understand, for me, sitting down with family and laughing at the same movies was pretty much the extent of how I could relate to them. We weren't joiners. We didn't sit and play board games. For the most part, we led a crushingly boring existence.
But we loved watching movies, and I loved watching movies with them. Still do. Of course, The Goods isn't exactly a family film, but family films mostly suck. I don't want to write family films.
I want to write stuff for other families who are as screwed up as mine, so other people can laugh and connect in the best way they can find, when functional conversation at the dinner table isn't an option, and when love and support look quite a bit different than what you see on television.
I want to write stuff that can help. To me, that's a humble, honorable aspiration.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Morbid curiosity brings me back to GoodFellas. This is no life I would want to live.
Despite the money, power, respect, connections, privileges, etc., you take one wrong step and someone shoots you in the back, and none of that stuff matters. Obviously, right?
Since Mom died, I've had a pretty strange relationship with materialism. As my siblings and I sort through what she left behind, we have choices to make and conversations to have about her belongings. Who gets what? What are these things worth? Sentimental value vs. monetary value? Everything seems to have a story, a significance, to one or more of us, and we have these conversations that must end in a compromise.
Is any of this stuff worth a fight? Not really. I just want everything to be settled fairly and in a way that would honor Mom and keep from blowing my family apart. This is harder than you think. When siblings start talking about money and wants and entitlement and so on, a lot of old stuff can surface — stuff that isn't worth the fight in my view.
Maybe that makes me a pushover. If the choice is a fight or taking something I don't want anyway, just take the damned thing. I never bought any of this stuff. I'm not attached to much. You can't take any of this stuff with you.
So the materialism depicted in gangster pictures doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Fine clothes, jewelry, houses — I wouldn't be able to enjoy any of that if I didn't come by the stuff honestly, and you can only fit so much into a casket.
Blame that viewpoint on a blue-collar upbringing — the same life that Ray Liotta's character decries in this film, as though anybody who works hard for a living must be a sucker. Maybe all blue-collar workers are suckers. I don't mind.
Having said all that, I've been going on some "retail therapy binges" that have left my credit card smoldering. Mom lived like a pauper for years and always "meant to" do things and "get around to" this or that, and she never did. She wished she could have certain things that she never got to have. She did without for years.
I think about all that stuff when I pass a record shop or an electronics store and catch myself saying, "Nah, you don't need that," or "You can't afford that," or any other "responsible" saying that, were this any other time in my life, would work to keep me from acquiring more and more stuff. Maybe this makes the pain go away for a little while — the feeling of power I get when I can just say, "Screw it. I'm buying it."
Maybe there's a portion of that rationalization in all of us — not just the gangsters in the film, but everyone who seizes what he or she wants. We tell ourselves we deserve something, that we've worked hard, that our relatives did without and now we refuse to do the same, etc.
I understand that point of view, now that I've seen how quickly life fades away.
There's really not much else to say about GoodFellas. This film neither motivates me to write nor begs for frequent re-watching.
At this point in my life, the film isn't even a distraction from everything else. After morbid curiosity, all you have left is this shot.
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
When I saw Good Will Hunting in 1997, I walked away feeling that I could write what I wanted. The problem was finding when. I'm still looking.
Good Will Hunting came along when I was in my senior year of college with the world spread out in front of me. I won a scholarship for a screenplay I wrote — and stayed in college an extra semester so I could keep writing.
While my friends were graduating, getting jobs and wives, buying houses and cars, and having children, I stayed in school. I don't regret grad school one bit, but I do get annoyed when people bring up the fact that I was in school a while. I know. I was there.
Although other people's lives passed me by, I don't think that way about my own. Yes, I grew apart from most of my friends, but growing apart is a two-person process.
Grad school forced me to think in ways I'd never even attempted, and to do work I never knew how to attempt. I ran on four hours of sleep or less, read and re-read books that made no sense until they made sense, and wrote papers using words I didn't even know how to pronounce yet. I found myself surrounded by people who were just as masochistic, but also just as inquisitive, competitive, and fascinated.
Finally, I got a job as a technical writer, which is the most bastardized form of "writing" ever invented. I didn't last. Within three months, I'd been offered a job teaching writing at a university. That led me to a full-time gig where I am now.
This was never the plan. This is just how things worked out. For most people, you don't get your dream job. You don't get your dream anything. You get what you get. You take it, count yourself lucky, and (try to) shut up. This is a blue-collar upbringing talking, I think.
Sean asks Will a simple question: "What do you want to do?"
First, that question is bullshit. Wanting to do something and actually getting to do something are different concepts, and only someone who has failed repeatedly can understand that sometimes you don't get what you want.
Sometimes, you take what you can get.
The only thing I've ever really wanted to do is write. Everything else I've done was a means to get to do that, because writing doesn't pay any better than any other kind of art, and all artists have to eat.
Knowing that kept me from moving to Los Angeles to try to be a screenwriter there. I could've gone out there and waited tables like all the other creatives. Instead, I chose to stay here. Like Sean in the film, I chose a path for myself.
Did I end up where I expected? No. Am I doing what I foresaw 20 years ago? Hardly. But you take what you can get and struggle to do a little better each day.
I type this from my couch on a snowy, icy Tuesday in the middle of Indiana. I do not have to be in Los Angeles to write. Some say you can't get into the industry unless you're out there. I wonder if these people have heard of the Internet.
Sure, there are days when I wish I lived in Southern California, but not necessarily for the industry. I mostly just don't like being cold.
Many people are tormented by the struggle to balance work and life. A few fortunate folks find a hobby to which they devote some free time: model airplanes or comics or something. Writing isn't a hobby. Hobbies wait for the weekend. Writing doesn't wait well.
When I don't want to write, I don't write. A lot of writers will say you should just write through that. To me, that sounds like a good way to crank out a bunch of shitty writing.
I got into teaching with the assumption that I would have the free time to write. Turns out, teaching is just as time-consuming as any other full-time gig, if not more. I'm not the first writing teacher to come to this realization, and I won't be the last.
Most of us are just living our lives of quiet desperation, like Thoreau said.
Good Will Hunting spends a lot of time on the symbolism of tickets — lottery tickets and the odds of winning, a World Series ticket that Sean gave away so he could "see about a girl," and the metaphorical "ticket outta here" that Will possesses.
Not everyone gets the perfect ticket. Some people don't get a ticket at all, and others play the lottery every day. As for me, most days I'm content to sit back and watch others try to use the ticket(s) they've been given, and I am thankful.