February, 2014 Archives

My Favorite Movies of 2013

February 28th, 2014

One day maybe, they’ll actually let me vote.

I’m not exactly sure why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated nine movies again this year. Sure, all the films and performances are decent, but there weren’t any head and shoulder standouts in 2013 like The King’s Speech in 2011 or Forrest Gump in 1995. If I ran the Oscars, I’d pare things down for sure and definitely include other movies in the mix. (My first order of business would be swapping in August: Osage County for Gravity.) But so far, my Academy invitation must still be lost in the mail. For now, it’s telling and a bit surprising that there were only twelve movies out of more than twelve hundred spread out thin amongst the nine major categories: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Directing, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay.

But since there are a few people out there who seem to care what movies I like and ask me my opinion throughout the year, I’ve compiled another list of my favorites. I’ve surprised myself by including some silly movies and omitting others that received critical acclaim. Maybe this group of movies explains why I’m roundly ignored by the Academy.

About Time:
Sometimes you’re smitten with a movie because of the actors, writers, directors, or all three. That’s the case with About Time. Richard Curtis — who wrote some of my favorite films: Love Actually, Notting Hill, The Girl in the Cafe’, etc. — wrote and directed this wonderful movie. Before I tell you what it’s about, it also stars Bill Nighy, whom my whole family has a soft spot for. Rachel McAdams, whom I myself have a soft spot for, turns in a rather nice performance as well, (no I don’t like her because of The Notebook, either). Okay, I’ve kind of liked Rachel McAdams ever since The Notebook. The star of the show is the relatively unknown Domhnall Gleeson, (he was the oldest of the Weasley brothers in Harry Potter, but he also played the best sounding character name of all time, Rodney, in Never Let Me Go). So I haven’t mentioned what the movie is about. Well, it’s a bit silly maybe, but it depicts a family that can time travel within their own lifetimes. They can’t go other places or do other things, but they can travel back in their own lives and change or relive whatever happened beforehand. Actually, only the men in the family can do it once they turn 21. It’s tough to describe what makes this so appealing and I’ll fully admit, it might be just because of Richard Curtis (the best sounding last name of all time). Imagine it’s sort of like Groundhog Day meets Safety Not Guaranteed meets Hot Tub Time Machine. Sort of. It’s a sweet, fun movie and not like much of what you see out there today. Every time I think back about what movies I really enjoyed sitting through in 2013 and wishing they wouldn’t end, this one keeps popping into my brain.


Short Term 12:
Adoration is a strong word, but I absolutely adored Short Term 12. Set in a residential youth treatment facility, the movie dramatizes the interactions between the 20-something staff members and their at-risk charges. It was beautiful, real, quiet and I felt like I was actually sitting with the staff and “patients.” You’ve maybe seen Brie Larson in other movies this year like Don Jon and The Spectacular Now. And she’ll be featured prominently in the upcoming Basmati Blues (written and directed by Danny Baron and a few of my other high school buddies — that sounds SO cool to say.) Her ability to morph into any role is stunning; she is definitely someone to watch. The very independent, low budget film barely grossed a million dollars and that’s a real shame. Maybe this speaks to Hollywood needing to find better ways to either bankroll or promote non-blockbuster movies. Crowd funding like Zach Braff did with his 2014 film Wish I Was Here may be one answer. You should rent this movie. It’s only an hour and a half long and you’ll feel better about the world when it’s finished.


Enough Said:
I’ve spoken with several people about Enough Said, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini movie. It seems everyone agrees that the dialogue is, above all other things, real. It’s what real people would say if you overheard them talking at a party, in their bedroom or just sitting outside on their porch. Gandolfini died last year after making this film and it’s sad because his performance showed he was much more than “just” The Sopranos actor. His character was as vulnerable as he was schlubby. Watching him and Louis-Dreyfus playing two divorced people navigating the plot twists and life twists of the short 93 minutes felt as though we were a third member of their little love party. I know, I know, that sounds a bit weird, but real, true intimacy is tough to honestly portray on the silver screen. Catherine Keener turns in yet another in a long list of stellar performances, this time as Gandolfini’s ex-wife. Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener (who seems to work exclusively with Catherine Keener movies) made it magical.


Before Midnight:
I’m beginning to notice a trend here. Even with films that completely bend reality, I’m gravitating toward the ones that have real people dealing with real things. It’s great to see yourself in the actors, or to see people you think you know. Movies with real life conversations or dialogue that last a few minutes always make me happy. In Before Midnight, the conversation lasted the entire film. The setting and plot were almost secondary, really, to the discussion between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Like the other two movies in this franchise — Before Sunrise and Before Sunset — writer/director Richard Linklater likes to use exotic backgrounds kind of as an artist’s palette. Beautiful Greece, France and Vienna are there just to be walked through as Delpy and Hawke carry on new conversations every nine years. I can’t think of a better trilogy out there that just focuses a soft spotlight on the relationship between two people as they go from young travelers to disenfranchised 30-somethings to a married with children couple grappling with what’s important to themselves and their relationship. I envy anyone who hasn’t seen these movies yet. Rent them and watch them in order. They are such a fantastic (fictional) look into real life.


The Wolf of Wall Street:
The crazy scenes of debauchery, alone, are enough for me to recommend this movie. Martin Scorsese took the autobiography of convicted notorious investment kingpin Jordan Belfort and shed some insane light on what happens when money trumps everything else including ethics, family and the law. A lot of people don’t like what the movie depicts and neither do I. But boy, is it funny. You’d think that would only be natural with a cast that includes Rob Reiner and Jonah Hill. But Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio do their part to bring laughs to the mayhem. I’m not sure if it’s true, but supposedly a lot of the film is improvised. I get that. There are scenes around a restaurant table that reminded me of Goodfellas meets Superbad. And I was transfixed by a longer-than-needed shot of DiCaprio attempting to get in his car while high. Basically, even though this film glorifies Greed with a capital G, it’s really telling a narrative of anti-greed. Going so overwhelmingly overboard, it shocks and cajoles us into realizing that enormous yachts, orgies, insane mansions and heaps of money aren’t really the things of joy or happiness. I didn’t think the message was that hidden, but apparently its been lost on a lot of people. My cousin kept turning to me during the three hour movie saying, “this is NOT an academy award film.” I understand his assertion, but respectfully disagree. I love it sometimes when movies are spectacles unto themselves. When they go all out and put themselves on the line to make a point, they need to be commended, even if you completely disagree with their message. Interestingly, McConaughey shows up in two Academy Award nominated films this year (this and Dallas Buyers Club). He was also in the critically acclaimed — though not necessarily by me — Mud.


I haven’t spoken with a woman yet who has liked Her. It must be that whole thing where a female partner is replaced by a computer. Nah, couldn’t be. Obviously it says different things to different people. If you’ve seen the ads you know the story, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. But again, as with The Wolf of Wall Street, even though much of the movie is spent extolling the “beautiful” relationship between the two, that’s not the point at all. As a matter of fact, I think it comes off very much as a cautionary tale. Along the way, though, there are great commentaries about the human condition, albeit a bit removed by this being set in the not-too-distant future. It contains a lot of wisdom and poignancy. That Spike Jonze could be the writer/director for this lovely, quiet movie and also be one of the writers for the horrible Bad Grandpa movie is beyond my comprehension. He did Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation; how he helped create the Jackass series still boggles me. Amy Adams’s looks are dramatically downplayed in Her, yet glamorous and amazing in American Hustle. It’s fun to see her, one of my favorite stars, in two Oscar nominated films.


Lighthearted comedies don’t generally stand a chance in the Academy Awards. Movies have to be big, carry a strong message and feel weighty in order to be considered. Unfortunately, there many a Friday or Saturday night where all you want to do is plop on the couch and unwind. Along those lines, I respectfully submit these next three films. Spend a buck or two at Red Box or add them to your Netflix queue. They’re fun and certainly not boring.

The Internship:
Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson team up in a surprisingly good flick about older guys trying to get jobs in the new technologically challenging workforce. They find themselves interning at Google and competing with a younger, digital-savvy crowd. Their patter is classic Vince Vaughn. And truthfully, I could relate to their message, being an older guy looking at jobs in a different world than the one in which I grew up in.

You have to give any movie with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd a second look. Having two daughters who have gone through the college admissions game, it’s great to see it dramatized and humanized/humorized. Suspend a little disbelief and you’ll enjoy two of the best entertainers in today’s market.

We’re the Millers:
Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis anchor this silly road movie about a fake family fabricated in order to smuggle pot into the country. Don’t look for anything redeeming in this film, or any real hidden message. Just enjoy the “dopey” fun along the way.

The World’s End / This Is the End:
The first movie (The World’s End) is about five Brits — including Simon Pegg and Dr. Watson/Bilbo Baggins himself, Martin Freeman — who try to relive their glory years by taking on a pub crawl they attempted decades earlier. But all is not as it seems and the group may or may not be trying to save the world. Similarly, Seth Rogen and crew in This Is the End get really, really wasted. Then in a mostly ad-libbed script, a cast packed with A-list celebrities lampoon themselves as Armageddon ensues. Neither one of these movies will make you ponder the deeper meanings of life. But then again, when the world’s falling apart, all you can do, really, is just laugh about it.

So now we’re well into 2014 and a thousand new movies are beginning to appear. I’m heading back into the theaters and over to my couch to enjoy/endure the latest crop. Next up, a riveting DVD that came packaged with my slow juicer explaining how to extract the most out of kale. Now THAT’S entertainment!

Florida, a State of Mind

February 21st, 2014

Some thoughts and pictures about a last-minute trip to Florida

I think it was right about the time when the cat jumped through the flaming fire hoop that I realized this place wasn’t quite like any other. We were closer to Cuba than we were to the mainland US of A, but it didn’t feel any more like Cuba than it did our own country. Welcome to Key West.

We heard on the radio that 49 states had experienced snow this winter. All of ’em except Florida. “That’s where I wanna go,” I said to my wife, time and time again. Eventually she relinquished and pretended to accept the trip as a birthday present, when really it was a gift from me to me. We made cheap, last-minute reservations because we’re cheap, last-minute people.

So as snow was falling yet again all over Detroit, we drove to the airport. Along the way, we saw the most amazing sight, sun peeking from behind the snow squall along I-696. It was a premonition of what was coming. It looked like a giant flaming fire hoop in the sky (not really).

Once we got to The Sunshine State, we high-tailed it as far south as we could get, stopping only when the green mile marker hit ZERO. Nowhere left to go, except the pier.

We weren’t alone. Crowds gathered, mobs even. They wandered down the debaucherous boulevard where Ernest Hemingway used to drink, err, write. All of us were headed toward the setting sun, to watch it dip below the Gulf of Mexico. Once it bowed out, the picture snapping crowd erupted in applause. Well done, sun. Bravo. Author, author! Besides the setting sun, entertainers busked the crowd, telling jokes, playing flugelhorns, making their owners set hoops on fire so they could jump through them. I gave the musicians money; I gave the cat meOWWW mix.

There’s something about escaping Winter, if even for a brief moment, that makes you a lot less likely to pull your hair out as it drags into late February, March, July. You can tell by looking at my scalp that I’ve seen A LOT of winters.


° Some of the most expensive places to stay were also the least impressive. The hotel by the airport on our very first night had, far and away, the best accommodations and was the cheapest. Its large pool had a wonderful waterfall that pounded your back and shoulders like an angry masseuse and we slept like babies wrapped in winter’s summer warmth. We renamed the B&B down on Key West, Bed and Yogurt, since their “breakfast” was basically just a pile of Dannon containers and overripe bananas.

° One of the finer meals we ate, though, was ropa vieja. It’s a tasty Cuban dish that, translated, means either old clothes or dirty laundry. I’m not exactly sure why it’s called that; there was no stale underwear undercurrent infusing my meat. On a completely different note, due to Spirit Airline’s strict baggage rules, we mailed back our own ropa laundry to Michigan so souvenirs, shells and everything else would fit in our compacted suitcases. I don’t wanna be the unlucky one to open the package; surely it won’t smell nearly as nice as that fancy Cuban dinner we ate.

° They’re digging up a long trench from Miami across the Keys in order to connect a new water supply to the islands. Since all of the Keys are basically made up of dead corral, it kicks up a ton of corral dust into the air. My sensitive eyes were bullied by the corral particles which, I’m told, are toxic. The harried pharmacist explained that I’m one of a long string of visitors to come in seeking eye drops and antihistamines.

° You lose track of time when you’re suddenly thrust from winter’s bone to humid brightness. Walking into a whirly gig shop, I saw pennants saying Happy St. Patty’s Day and Welcome Easter. I laughed thinking how outdated they were; this was summer after all. Those fools think people will buy that crap THIS out of season?! (Authors note: I don’t much go in for whirly gigs; I’m much more of a thingamagigs guy.)

° It’s been 25 years since I worked on Cape Cod for the summer and fall, but since The Keys are so much like The Cape, swinging out into the sea, I constantly catch myself saying The Cape instead of The Keys. It’s important that I tell you that for some reason. Maybe it holds a cape to understanding me.

° Supposedly Florida law prohibits you from walking in front of a turtle. I thought that was a joke, but apparently it has something to do with interrupting their natural migratory or nesting instincts. They even turn off the streetlights at certain times of the year so as not to bother the turtles. Hey maybe THAT’S what’s happening in Detroit with all the outages at night. If the tortoise raced the hare here, the hare’d be booked for harassment.

° Ziplock baggies were washing up everywhere on the beaches. Turns out, it wasn’t SC Johnson polluting the Florida shores, but Portuguese Man O’ Wars storming the beaches. They looked other worldly, positively Devonian. I couldn’t get enough of their odd, plasticky look and was tempted numerous times to help them back into the water. But they were already dead and, besides, have a vicious sting. With my eyes already messed up, I figured I could leave the heroics to someone with more immunity built up, or wearing gloves . . or plastic baggies.

° We received a sad text from our 18-year-old daughter stuck back in Michigan, “It’s hailing here and it’s heavy!” Not to be outdone, her older sister in Minnesota texted saying, “We have a blizzard — and maybe also a tornado warning — so we may have a SNOWNADO today!” To show what fantastic parents we are, I wrote back, “We totally hear you. The clouds come out sometimes for a minute or two, even. This 81 degree weather completely blows.” And we included a picture of their mom and me smiling on the beach.

° Flying home, the pilot pointed out a cool sight. A rocket was being launched from Cape Canaveral. We got the rare treat of seeing something zoom into space, though in truth, it just looked like a really bright airplane from where we sat in the air, comfortably miles away. I’m told its payload was a satellite built to improve accuracy for GPS navigation on earth. Thank goodness, because just a day earlier, our own GPS had us inexplicably get off I-95, travel two blocks east, then make a U-turn and get the heck back on 95 going the same direction. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize those directions bombed.

As we came in low over Detroit, I was amazed to see all the vast expanse of white sand beaches, stretching out across the horizon. Beautiful bright white sand covered roads, parking lots, trees, everything. Kids had even made white sand men and white sand angels in their front yards. How wonderful. Ahhhh, paradise.

We’re back in the Motor City now and we’ve been told the weather’s been heating up a smidge. Heck, it’s been a couple degrees above freezing!! We’re having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave. Now I can face the rest of winter with a little knowing smile that eventually the sun will come out and start to warm things up a bit. Til then, I’ll remember the cat on the hot thin loop and wistfully yearn for my few days in the sun, at least until our dirty clothes arrive in the mail.

In My Grandmother’s Attic

February 5th, 2014

The things we accumulate

When our kids were younger, we used to play a memory game in the car to occupy their time. We’d start out by saying, “In my grandmother’s attic I found …” then each person would go around thinking of something new, in alphabetical order, repeating all the previous items. You’ve probably played versions of it yourself. It’s silly, but it went something like, “In my grandmother’s attic I found; an Arthur, a bongo board, chopsticks, a Democratic canvasser, etc.”

Strangely enough, all those things have actually been found in my grandmother’s attic. Though to be fair, it wasn’t an attic per say, but a cupboard or closet of her senior living facility out in Arizona.

My grandfather got married three times, so his three sets of kids range in age from 80 down to their mid 50s. Two of my aunts are pretty close to my own age, whereas my mom and her twin are 30 years older. Those younger aunts are moving my grandma (grandfather’s third wife — the only one I’ve ever known as “grandma”) from one assisted living facility to another. In the process, they’re cleaning out her closets. Us kids, grandkids and great grandkids have been getting emails and phone calls about various accumulated items from the past, asking if we’d be interested in acquiring them.

There was etched glassware, linens from their days in Korea, paintings from when they lived in the Middle East and many odd, assorted things like an old sewing machine or pristine, fur-lined Alaskan slippers (size 7). One of my aunts referred to the process as “sorting through the detritus.” For those of you who scored under 36 on your ACTs (and still remember what your ACT scores were), detritus means pieces, fragments, remains. Yes, I had to look it up too.

My brother and cousin went out to help with the task. I thanked everyone for their endeavors and sent along this note:

It can’t be easy whittling down Grandma and Granddad’s life to their bare, tangible possessions. As we all know, our lives are worth far more — mean so much more — than just the sum of its material parts. Sure, a napkin set from Hong Kong or some slippers from Alaska had meaning for their original gatherers, collectors traveling across the globe. But to us, their descendants, it’s the stories that we’ll accept, keep and display from time to time.

I wonder about that a lot with our own accumulated acquisitions. Will Skye and Taylor’s grandkids care one whit about a Johnny Bench rookie card, a camera I used to photograph the president, a group of moldering paperback books their great grandfather what’s-his-name wrote? Hopefully though, the love that we shared with our kids will pass down across the generations, just like the joy of politics, discussion, helping others and travel was passed down from Grandma and Granddad to us.

Just because we may not have an immediate need for etched water glasses or Aunt Helen’s sewing machine, doesn’t at all mitigate the deeper, far richer hand-me-downs we’ve all received, genetically, intellectually and emotionally.

Here, I paused and had to think about the last bit. There’s a long-standing family story that Granddad was always just near the fringes of world events from the 1940s all the way through the 1970s. Logically — those of us with nothing better to do deduced — our grandfather was a spy. So I added this last, little part.

We all appreciate the work you are doing with Grandma’s stuff. It can’t be easy, rewarding or enjoyable. So thank you for doing this. And let me add as a final note, please disregard my above treatise if you stumble across any of Granddad’s hidden silver or gold doubloons from his days as a foreign operative. I want in!

The note I received back from my aunt just kept to the task at hand and didn’t at all break Granddad’s cover. Though ever since then, there’s been a dark, nondescript van occasionally parked out in our driveway. Is it our old one that my daughter occasionally uses, or does it have a far more secretive …