Monthly Archives: February 2013

The AFI Top 100 Films: North by Northwest (#40)

Entertainment 150North by Northwest (1959)
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive who has no problem with lying. During a dinner with “friends,” he’s abducted by two thugs and driven to a grand house in the countryside. He’s met by a gentleman (Mason) who insists he’s a man named George Kaplan, beaten up and interrogated. When he refuses to give up any information, Thornhill is given a bottle of whiskey and put inside a stolen car, then pushed towards the cliff of a winding oceanside road. He barely escapes. He does, though, and when the police won’t believe his story he takes it upon himself to figure out just what the hell is going on.

That investigation takes him from New York to Mt. Rushmore, meeting a host of shadowy characters along the way. Despite the dizzy confusion Thornhill suffers and the incredibly high stakes at play here, he never loses the ability to crack a joke with his traveling partner Eve Kendall (Saint) or basically lie his way deeper into trouble. This humble Mad. man actually turns out perfectly suited for the adventure, right down to the sudden, cheeky epilogue.

North by Northwest is a much lighter film than most of Hitchcock’s work, and I’d like to think that’s mostly due to the whip-crack writing of Ernest Lehman and the wry, sharp delivery of Cary Grant. Hitchcock’s direction is as sure as ever, and he keeps things moving along at a nice, brisk pace. The movie is over two hours long, but it really doesn’t feel like it — you’re hooked from the moment that Thornhill is taken until that climactic chase and battle on the top of Mount Rushmore. It’s a small feat to make a movie that long pass the time so quickly.

What I love about the film is how comfortably Grant falls into the role of action hero. He looks about as old as Roger Moore does during his Bond run, but it doesn’t slow him down. There are a ton of crazy setpieces he has to navigate, from that first drunken car escape, to the iconic biplane attack, to running through the woods from thugs sent to kill him. He manages to keep the tone wonderfully light, so that his Thornhill is up to any challenge thrown at him. A career of lying and being forced to think fast on your feet is all he needs to get out of most jams, along with a bit of luck or two.

The story is twisty enough that you’re never quite sure of your footing, even though the plot is laid out for you in an exposition-heavy scene right after our introduction to the hero. I won’t go into details here, but I will have to say it’s just a bit disappointing — the first thirty minutes have that amazing “What the hell?” feeling, where you have no idea how this situation could have developed but an incredible curiosity about it. To have everything explained by a bunch of men in a room lets the air out of the premise just a bit, but you don’t have much time to cling to your expectation of a more measured revelation. You’re given the information and then they’re off to the races once again.

Eva Marie Saint makes an excellent foil and companion to Grant’s Thornhill. She’s smart, mysterious, elegant, delicate and a bit vulgar all in one package. It’s fascinating to watch them play off each other, and it really brings home the value of having two leads with undeniable chemistry. Even though they spend a lot of time sniping each other, you just know that they’re really having a blast. That sense of fun infuses the entire movie.

It’s quite a fun piece of popular art, and a perfect template for the Bond movies that would come three years later. I enjoyed it from top to bottom — with just a small disappointment near the beginning — and it’s made me a fan of Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint and Hitchcock himself. The more I read about his movies, the more fascinated I become.

Rating: 7/10.

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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized


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My Whole30 – Week 3

Self Improvement 150It’s hard to believe that I’ve just finished my third week of Whole30 eating. Day 21 passed on Monday, and today I’m looking at the home stretch — in just 8 days, I’ll have completed one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done. I’ll have been living on meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts and oils for a whole 30 days as part of a dietary reset.

Now that we’ve settled into the habit of Whole30 eating and beaten the cravings that we have (and we still have those), we’re looking at what our lives will be like after this whole experiment has ended. Ryan is worried that we’ll go back to the same old unhealthy habits — stuffing our faces with candy and cookies, eating fast food, getting right back into the things that we’ve worked hard to stop doing. And I have to admit, it’s a legitimate fear. I’ve often thought that it would be pretty amazing to just go nuts for a week after the Whole30, eating anything and everything I want to, indulging in all the things my brain has been screaming at me to have.

Part of me thinks that I would be so overwhelmed by the fat and sugar and carbs that I’ve been missing out on this whole time, and that it would be proof that my body had changed. I would cringe away from the foods that are bad for me, and embrace my new healthy-eating lifestyle — within moderation, of course. But another part of me knows better. The siren’s call of tasty but nutritionless food is always going to seduce me, and falling into that temptation would be undermining everything I’ve built this month. It’s best to gain a bit of closure with my worst habits now, and walk away for good while their hold on me has weakened.

But that’s a post for another time, closer to the end. For now, I’d like to talk about the friends we have who’ve made this whole thing a lot more pleasant than it would have been otherwise, and what I’ve learned through them.

The silver-tongued devil who encouraged me to sign up for the Whole30 in the first place has been the most interested in really stretching out with it. We’ve been over to his house a few times in the past three weeks, and each time he’s made food that was *really* good and totally Whole30-compliant. We’ve had “shepherd’s pie,” with wild boar, mushrooms and (I think?) carrots under a ‘crust’ of mashed yams. There was dry-rubbed pork chops with unsweetened apple sauce, and a really great breakfast scramble with over-medium eggs, shredded yam, zucchini and onion with wilted spinach. Of course, he and his husband are much more used to cooking than Ryan and I are, but it kind of gave me a look at a different way of doing the Whole30. If you know what you’re doing and willing to put in the prep time, there’s a pretty great set of recipes that you can totally rock the house with.

Ryan and I are still padawans when it comes to cooking; I don’t think he’s much interested in doing much inside the kitchen, and that’s fine. His priorities are on his writing, where they should be. But now that I’ve gotten a taste for cooking — and seen what my friends are being motivated to do inside the kitchen — I’m definitely into the idea of doing it more. I’m really excited by the idea of being able to make a cheeseburger and fries at home that’s way healthier and skewed to my tastes then something I could get at a fast-food (or even gourmet) burger joint. Now that I have a basic idea of how cooking meat and combining spices works, I’m a bit more comfortable with experimentation, and I think I can start expanding my horizons a little more all the time. Getting quicker and more comfortable in the kitchen is one of those things that I’ve been inspired to do — not only by the necessities of the Whole30 — but by the folks who’re doing it with me.

We had a friend of ours hold the very first test-run of her new business idea in our kitchen, and ate most of her dishes for dinner over the week. The idea is that she sits down with you, talks about your likes, dislikes and dietary restrictions, then comes up with a number of entrees and side dishes to choose from. Once the final menu has been decided (five entrees, five sides), she comes over to your house to cook them and stores them in your fridge and/or freezer so you can have it whenever you’d like. It’s a really neat idea for busy working households, and since she’s a professional chef you just know you’re going to get your money’s worth.

We had Salmon A L’Afrique du Nord with cauliflower Confetti “Rice,” Cinnamon Beef Stew with Jicama Home Fries, Pineapple Red Curry Duck with Cumin-Roasted Carrots, Macadamia Chicken with Tangerine-Ginger Sauce with Curried Onion and Ginger Soup, and Moroccan Lamb Meatballs with Creamy Spice Market Kale. I think the dishes turned out to be a bit more complicated than any of us realized; she was cooking for 14 hours straight, and I felt terrible about it. It turns out choosing five different meats for entrees makes things more complex than they need to be. Who knew?

At any rate, they were all very good, and a good number of the dishes were big enough that we ended up with leftovers the next day. The duck and the lamb were my favorites, and I usually don’t break for those two. In fact, much of my Whole30 experience has been filled with taking second looks at things I decided I hadn’t liked a long time ago. I’ve tried new seafood dishes, egg dishes, vegetables that I just thought looked funny at the store. Being driven into the arms of different foods is a great thing; my palate is expanding, even though it doesn’t want to be, and I can appreciate a great deal more than I could before.

As far as the physical effects, my energy is still lower in general and it’s hard to get exercise in a lot of the time. But it’s a lot easier to wake up in the mornings, and for that I’m grateful. I haven’t really experienced the boundless energy and wellspring of joy that’s been advertised, but that’s fine. I’m generating a different sort of contentment from the things that I’ve accomplished so far this month.

That’s all for now. I’ll look forward next week, to see what lessons I’ll be taking with me after my Whole30 has ended.

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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection


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My Wildly Inaccurate Oscar Predictions 2013

Entertainment 150As almost every cinephile knows, the Academy Awards will be held this Sunday, capping off a few months of hype and speculation about which movie will be crowned the best movie Hollywood made all year. Whichever film takes the honor will have quite esteemed company, joining the ranks of Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lamb, and others. We’ll honor the actors, actresses, directors, technical wizards and other behind-the-scenes guys who worked tirelessly to bring us stories that entertained, provoked and amazed us. I love this time of year. It’s the movie lover’s Super Bowl.

And just as sports writers prognosticate on which teams will hoist the Lombardi Trophy and why, movie buffs make their guesses about who’ll be carrying home those Oscar statues at the end of the evening. It’s fun to test your knowledge of not only the movies being nominated, but the political game behind Oscar — it’s a curious, fizzy mixture of sheer talent, personal perception and industry buzz. To me, the perception of the nominees is almost as fascinating as the work they’ve done to get to the big dance.

I thought I’d take a moment to write down who I think will win and who I think should win in the major categories this year. Keep in mind that these guesses aren’t based on any sort of expertise or insider’s knowledge. I haven’t even seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and much of my perception is based on picking up what’s in the echo chamber and throwing it back out there. Don’t use me for your office Oscar pool, whatever you do.

Should Win Life of Pi. Though it wasn’t perfect, Life of Pi was certainly the most ambitious of all this year’s nominees. It told a spiritual fable in a way that was accessible, engaging and beautiful, and hit all of the right notes at the right time. The story was long thought to be unfilmable, and three different directors gave it a shot and passed before Ang Lee hammered it into shape with extraordinary patience. While most of the other nominees this year have a bit of emotional distance built into them (with the exception, perhaps, of Django Unchained) Life of Pi encouraging engagement as well as a more intellectual pondering. It’s the perfect blend of storytelling, and a worthy entrant into the ‘time capsule’ of movies that have won Best Picture. It tackles age-old themes in a thoroughly modern way, creating a snapshot of the way we think and feel in this day and age.

Will WinArgo. It’s been riding a wave of good will ever since the perceived snub of Ben Affleck for Best Director, and I see no reason why it won’t ride it all the way to the end of the evening. It looks like it’s shaping up to be a two-way race between Argo and Lincoln, and people just seem more passionate about this movie. And that’s fine, I guess — it’s engaging and very competently directed. Affleck has come a long way from his string of flops, but I think The Town and Gone Baby Gone were both more gripping.

Should Win — Daniel Day-Lewis. Hands down, one of the finest actors working today, if not the very best. He makes Lincoln seem alive, to use the cliche — there’s humor, anger, wit and weariness all written across that craggy make-up of his. A lot of the movies best moments come down to Day-Lewis’ delivery; he knows when he really needs to sell a scene and when he needs to pull back. All in all, it makes for the most accessible, humanized Lincoln I’ve ever seen. Joaquin Phoenix comes close for his role in The Master, but Daniel Day-Lewis quite simply stands head and shoulders above even that.

Will Win — Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m not sure there’s even room for a “dark horse” candidate. In a weaker year, Bradley Cooper could have charmed his way to the award for Silver Linings Playbook, and again Phoenix can’t be ignored for The Master. But no one expects them to upset. Day-Lewis has got this locked.

Should Win — I’ve only seen two out of five Best Actress nominees, so this is the major category I know the least about. Of the two, I can only imagine Jennifer Lawrence being a serious contender; Quvenzhane Wallis is just happy to show up. And everything I’ve read says that Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts and Emanuelle Riva all turned in incredible work. I probably won’t have much of an opinion on who should win until I catch up on Zero Dark Thirty and Amour this weekend. Sorry to cop out on this one, guys!

Will Win — Emanuelle Riva. I have a hunch. People really feel like this one goes to Chastain or Lawrence, but there’s a very strong undercurrent of praise for Riva’s work in Amour. Both of the other front-runners are great actresses with long careers ahead of them, so I believe they’ll get another shot. Riva is my pick for the “surprise” of the evening.

Should Win — Tommy Lee Jones. He was having such an obvious blast in Lincoln, he nearly walked away with the movie. He anchors the scenes in Congress, serving as a fiery, wonderfully crotchety senator that’s Lincoln’s best worst ally. The nomination field is full of similar roles this year, and this one worked best.

Will Win — Robert De Niro. As good as Jones was, it feels like the wind is blowing De Niro’s way. He’s been getting a lot of buzz for his role as a dad with OCD (maybe?) in Silver Linings Playbook, and many people see it as a welcome return to form after a decade of paycheck movies.

Should Win — Anne Hathaway. Have you seen her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”? It feels like Les Miserables was building up to that moment early on in the film and the rest was just interminably long denouement. It was a searing performance that came out of nowhere to basically rip your heart out, much like Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar-winning turn in Dreamgirls. Amy Adams was excellent as a severe, zealous wife in The Master, and Sally Field was quite good in Lincoln, but no performance this year was as indelible as Hathaway’s. I was crying every time she appeared on screen. The look on her face when Valjean tells her he’ll take care of her daughter? Her return at the end of the movie, radiating love and peace for an elderly Valjean? Forget about it.

Will Win — Anne Hathaway. Almost as much a lock as Day-Lewis; she’s pretty much swept every award she’s been up for until now, though that might mean that Field could sweep in and take the award. She has plenty of respect and admiration, and people love to root for the underdog.

Should Win — Ang Lee. While I definitely admire the work all of the nominees did this year, I don’t think anyone’s had it harder than Ang Lee. The production of the Life of Pi had to have been a circus, and he was a dedicated, extraordinarily patient ringmaster. Dealing with the complexities of the metaphysical story, a cast of unknown actors, an incredible amount of CGI while making sure everything was not only understood but connected on an instinctive, emotional level is no small feat. It’s a minor miracle that Pi is as good as it is, and it’s all thanks to Lee.

Will Win — Steven Spielberg. This is another ambitious production, and there’s a lot of admiration for what Spielberg has done with Lincoln. I’m thinking they’ll split the prizes this year and give Lincoln the Best Director statue as a consolation prize for losing to Argo.

Should WinWreck-It Ralph. Why are we even having this conversation? It was everything you could want in a cartoon — sly, sweet, with a fan’s knowledge of the video game world created around the story. It’s so good, it’s hard to believe it didn’t come from Pixar.

Will WinWreck-It Ralph. Brave was good, but it didn’t have the heart, joy and je ne sais quoi of Ralph. It has a lot of things going for it — it’s from Pixar, there’s a lot to like about the heroine, the other three films aren’t quite as Oscar-worthy — but unless people just vote for the Pixar movie out of habit, it’s hard to imagine it winning.

Should Win — I have to say, I really have no idea in this category. I’ve only seen one of the nominees, and I think it’s the one that will win. Hopefully I can see two more by the weekend!

Will WinDjango Unchained. Tarantino’s latest film wasn’t nominated for very much, and the dialogue is his usual mix of snap, crackle and pop. (Whatever that means.) It might be too vulgar for the Academy voters, though, in which case it might go to Zero Dark Thirty instead.

Should WinBeasts of the Southern Wild. This is an indie darling that garnered a few nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) but will more than likely go home empty-handed, which is a shame. But if Beasts of the Southern Wild takes home any trophy on Oscar night, it should be this one. The movie is a strange mix of mythic folk, near-future dystopia and downright fairy tale, and its initial inscrutability dissolves into a complex, breathing story with plenty to say. Ryan and I had a great time discussing it after we saw it, and Life of Pi was the only other movie we could have that kind of conversation about among this year’s nominees. I really admire David Magee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, but in my dream world, this would win.

Will WinLincoln. Tony Kushner cobbled together letters, accounts of the time and passages from Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin to create a fascinating account of the passage of the 13th Amendment. It makes politics seem as messy and muddled back then as it was today, which is somewhat relieving if you ask me. Still, it’s great work that deserves to be recognized, and I think it’ll be one of the statues Lincoln takes home on Sunday.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how wrong I am on Sunday evening. In the meantime, have a good weekend folks!

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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Movies, Politics, Pop Culture, Television


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The AFI Top 100 Films: West Side Story (#41)

Entertainment 150West Side Story (1961)
Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno
Written by Ernest Lehman (screenplay), Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)
Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

This movie comes with the weight of all its baggage. Granted, a lot of classic movies do, but this one a bit more than most. It’s been parodied a lot, and the basic premise (hey, it’s a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet!) has been done so often that it’s easy to lose touch with what makes this movie special. I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about it going in besides that the Montagues and Capulets were now rival gangs called the Sharks and the Jets, and that there was a LOT of dance-fighting. Both of these things are true, but there’s also a lot more going on than it looks at first glance.

Maria (Wood) is the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris). They’re a Puerto Rican street gang encroaching on the traditional territory of the Jets, their Polish rivals. Tony (Beymer), best friend of the Jets’ leader and former member himself, falls in love with her right when the turf war between the gangs heats up past its boiling point. Right when both sides are planning an all-out rumble to determine who owns the streets once and for all, Tony and Maria have to try and make their budding romance work while untangling their duty to family and heritage.

This is no straight-up retread. The story is surprisingly and deeply enriched by the change of setting. Maria is caught between two worlds — the promise of a life in the land of opportunity with someone who genuinely loves her, fulfilling her dream of America; or the close-knit community she has with her family and friends, the small Puerto Rican neighborhood that feels it can’t catch an equal break in this country. Maria’s choice reflects the basic decision that so many minorities have to make here — do you follow your optimism and try to blend into the great melting pot of mainstream society, or do you stay with your community and make that stronger, better, livelier? Re-framing Maria’s choice as one of honoring the individual vs. honoring the society that individual is born into makes her decision much more complex and difficult.

The plight of the country’s inner-city minorities wasn’t exactly a huge topic of conversation in 1961; I’m impressed that West Side Story (and the musical it was made from) had the stones to make it the crux of the story. Both the Polish Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks feel like they’re protecting the only space carved out just for them — the wider world (represented by the authority figure Krupke) is hostile and unyielding, and there’s only so much space to go around. It’s understandable that each group would want to own it; if they’re not going to get a fair shake anywhere else, at least they have this small strip of the neighborhood where they can be who they are, make the rules.

It’s the possibility of making over a small part of America in their image that resonates so strongly with these two factions. In the song “America”, Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Moreno) sings about how crappy things are in Puerto Rico, how the possibilities are endless here. Bernardo replies with tales of a wall of discrimination between his people and the outside world. If they’re going to embrace the American dream, it has to be here and now. They’ll have to take the opportunity they dreamed of; no one else is going to give it to them.

The movie’s influences extend beyond Shakespeare; a lot of shots were made to duplicate paintings of New York from famous contemporary artists of the day, and co-director Robert Wise fought to shoot within the city. He chose condemned buildings and rough neighborhoods for his sequences to really sell the small, claustrophobic world these two packs of youngsters are roiling in. It’s as much Shakespeare as it is New York, a love letter to two disparate things that actually work in surprising harmony.

The songs are breezy and fun, with lyrics that fall off the tongue of the actors so well. That’s a specialty of Sondheim, who I happen to like. The actors work insanely hard to create a world where the rough life of gang members can be expressed through something as contrary as choreographed dance, and for the most part it works. I felt myself resisting the conceit with the iconic opening number of the movie before checking myself, and you might need to do the same sort of mental adjustment. This is the world of the movie, this the conceit of the story. If you buy this one thing, accept the story in its own language, it opens up to be quite effective.

So forget what you know about West Side Story; yeah, it’s a song-and-dance-infused retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s also a mature and complex postcard of life amongst minorities in 1950’s New York that’s surprisingly intelligent. You can’t ask for more from your pop art, really.

Rating: 4/5.

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Posted by on February 21, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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My Whole 30 – Week 2

Self Improvement 150I’ve been on the Whole30 adventure for two weeks. I’m really hesitant to call it a “diet,” because that comes with all kinds of baggage I don’t want. A diet is something you’re on for a brief amount of time, drop a bunch of weight, and then gain it all back again when you hop off of it. Labelling this a diet feels like dooming myself to an express ride right back up to 190 pounds by May, and I’d like to use this as a springboard for healthier eating, a better relationship with food, and a strong exercise regimen as well.

Anyway, the worst of the adjustment period is over — the second week was MUCH easier than the first. Now that I’ve moved past the horrific cravings for sugar and baked goods I find them a lot easier to resist. There was one day last week where a flood of cookies rolled through the office, with a Girl Scout selling her wares in its wake. Besides a five-minute spazz-out with coworkers about our favorite kinds of cookies, I was pretty cool about it. Yeah, of course I wanted them. But it was easy to make the choice not to have them and put it out of my mind.

That’s really been the theme of the week in general; I’ll see someone eating a cheeseburger or a pastry in a movie or commercial and thing “God, I want that. It looks AMAZING.” But that’s about where it ends. I can let myself have the thought, feel the desire rise up in my heart…and let it pass. I don’t have to act on it. And when I DON’T act on it…nothing happens. My life isn’t any worse, I’m not any less happy, I’m not driven to distraction.

I can’t tell you how huge this is for me. For most of my life I’ve been a creature of appetite. I’ve learned to deal with a lot of things by indulging in the things I want. I’m a huge stress-eater with a very large sweet tooth. Cookies and candy were my way of dealing with a stressful day, or celebrating a good one. I feel like I can actually deal with not having them when things get hairy for the first time in a long time.

The next two weeks of the Whole30 experience is when everything is supposed to fall into place; the cravings subside, and you’re left with clarity and energy. I’m not sure how much I buy into that whole thing, but I have noticed that it’s easier to get up in the mornings now and my energy is steadier throughout the day. It’s easier for me to deal with hunger pangs when I have them, and I have a much better sense of when I really need to eat. My palate has adjusted to the point where fruit is sweet *and* satisfying, which is pretty awesome. I’m rediscovering my great love for apples, raspberries and grapes.

Ryan and I have settled a bit into a good cooking groove, though we don’t do anything particularly fancy. I’ve settled on season turkey burger patties and grape/cherry tomatoes for breakfast, tuna salad and a light salad for lunch, and a big hunk of meat and yam for dinner. It’s not the most exciting or creative of diets, but it works for us. When we need a snack, we break for apples or mixed nuts. The friends who’ve roped us into doing this are far more daring, trying and swapping Whole30 recipes they’ve found on the internet. We don’t quite have the materials for it, though — no food processor, slow cooker, coconut oil, that sort of thing. Procuring them would take a pretty big trip, and to be honest we’ve, uh, prioritized our time and energy elsewhere.

The next two weeks we’ll be focusing a bit more on exercise — we’ve gotten our dinners taken care of pretty much until next weekend. That feels pretty nice, I must say.

Long story short, it’s really wonderful leaving bad habits behind, feeling like I have a measure of control over previously automatic processes, and working to develop better habits later on down the line. We’ll see if I’m still holding the line on this next week!

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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection


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The AFI Top 100 Films: Rear Window (#42)

Entertainment 150Rear Window (1954)
Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes (screenplay) and Cornell Woolrich (short story)

There is so much that impressed me about this movie that it’s difficult to know where to begin. This was the second of four collaborations between director Alfred Hitchcock and star James Stewart, and if they’re all this good I definitely can’t wait to see the others. Hitchcock directs the movie with a wonderfully deft hand, effortlessly gliding between the inner lives of photographer L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) and the half-dozen subplots woven amongst the neighbors that Jeffries is spying on. The main plot that intersects Jeffries, Lisa and one of the neighbors is tense in all the right places, and shows off a great skill in building tension, subverting expectations and keeping the audience guessing. Still, while it’s technically impressive from a storytelling standpoint, emotionally it’s actually the least engrossing.

Jeffries is a globe-trotting news reporter who’s been confined to his apartment with an injury sustained from one of his assignments. Hitchcock spends the first minute or so of the film pausing at significant portions of his apartment, giving us a quick and efficient character study in seconds. The pictures that are lingered on tell us who Jeffries is and how he got the injury; then we see that he has a girlfriend, a high-society girl that he met on a photo shoot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie get to the heart of its main characters so quickly; it’s simply masterful.

To pass the time while he’s nursing his broken leg, Jeffries spies on his neighbors with one of his cameras. He has names for just about all of them — there’s Miss Torso, a dancer who entertains a few men in her apartment every night; Miss Lonelyhearts, a middle-aged woman whose solitude radiates through her entire apartment; Miss Hearing Aid, an older woman whose meddling in the affairs of others is often thwarted by her inability to hear. There’s a newlywed couple, a songwriter prone to fits of depression, a strange couple obviously comfortable with each other who sleeps out on the fire escape. The people who gains most of Jeffries’ attention is a man and his invalid wife — they’re clearly unhappy, and it’s quite possible that the husband is involved in an affair.

A few friends visit to break up these bouts of spying. There’s Lisa, who brings him dinner and argues with him about their very different lifestyles. There’s Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), a good friend of Jeffries who provides him with affectionate, breezily mean banter. And there’s Stella (Thelma Ritter), his nurse, a wisely crude woman who provides him advice whether he wants it or not. Jeffries’ relationship and conversations with each of these people are remarkably distinct, bringing out different aspects of his personality and demanding different tones in his mood. The character work here is exquisite, each exchange revealing something significant about their moods, their reaction to the plot, the way they think or feel about each other.

The story of the husband and his invalid wife takes a turn after the basic premise is establish, and Hitchcock manages to juggle five or six different subplots while letting that take up the bulk of the time. At just under two hours, the film has a lot to do in a short amount of time, and both John Hayes (the writer) and Hitchcock keep things moving along without sacrificing space to let moments breathe when they need to.

The set is just as impressive, and vital to making the whole thing work. The entire movie is shot within the confines of Jeffries’ apartment, so all of the subplots and moving pieces we see through the course of the film have to be seen from a rather limited view. Hitchcock works well within these confines, having his actors use those windows and the spaces between them to tell their stories as efficiently as possible. He uses the voyeur’s angle to ratchet up wonderfully thick tension, like when something huge goes down in the apartment of Miss Lonelyhearts and the unfaithful husband at the same time. And he gets a wonderfully creepy effect out of simply having the adulterer turn off the light and smoke a cigar alone in the dark.

Stewart, Kelly, the main supporting actors and all of the neighbors do quite well. Raymond Burr plays the adulterer in a role that flies right in the face of our image of him, and Ross Bagdasarian (the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks) does surprisingly well as our bipolar songwriter. The scenes run like clockwork, all guided by the hand of a master watchmaker.

The character arcs mostly intersect through the main story, and a brief epilogue touches on what’s happening to the residents of the apartment complex once order is restored. A lot of things have changed, so many things remain the same, and in many cases it’s a genuine surprise what’s stuck and what hasn’t. When we last see Jeffries and Lisa, they’ve come to a much better understanding of each other and have grown closer as a result, but of course there’s still just enough tension in the relationship to keep things interesting.

Rear Window is a simply great movie. If you’re a fan of great character studies, superbly efficient use of space and time, and a mystery that may keep you guessing for a little bit, you simply can’t miss it.

Rating: 4.5/5


Posted by on February 19, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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All I Can Eat

Exercise 150It was Super Bowl Sunday, and I was riding the high of a dominant performance by the Ravens. I admit that I may have had a rather heavy Baltimore Bang or two, and I was in that state of mind where you’re friends with the world, and you can do anything. Our host brings up this new diet he’s starting with a friend called the Whole30. I ask him about it, and the more he talks the more intrigued I am. Sensing my interest, he goes in for the kill.

“You should do it,” he says. And I respond with how hard it would be, how I couldn’t live without everything I’d have to give up, and the usual things you do when someone tells you to join their diet. Because he’s efficient and evil, he quickly pushes past those defenses and before I know it, I’m saying yes to this. A couple days later, Ryan decides he’ll join me as a show of solidarity. And on Tuesday, February 5th we ditched processed foods, grains, dairy, legumes and added sugars for 30 days.

When my head hits the pillow tonight, I’ll have quit all of the above for a full week. This was a very difficult thing to do, but (without trying to sound too cheesy) it was made infinitely better with Ryan by my side. We suffered through sugar and caffeine withdrawals together, learned about how our bodies regulate according to our fuel sources together, and are discovering how to make simple but healthy food together. If he hadn’t had my back in this, I’m almost positive I would have quit — even with the built-in support network of friends going through the same thing. It’s way too easy to run back to the things that give you comfort, even when they’re bad for you. On Tuesday I was fuzzy-headed and weird, and on Wednesday I was depressed, exhausted, and aching. Without Ryan to tell me to eat that apple, or finish my fish, or actually TRY the yam, I would have run screaming towards the nearest McDonald’s well before now.

A supportive spouse can get you through some incredibly difficult times. So thank you, Ryan. You’ve made the unbearable bearable enough that I can take interest in this. I love you.

The first week, according to the Whole30 website, is probably going to be the roughest as your body tries to adjust to the complete cessation of a certain type of fuel and the sudden shift to a rather different type of fuel. There’s no question in my mind now that my body processes grains and sugars differently from meat and vegetables, though I’m not sure I buy that this is the absolute best way to be eating. According to the Whole30 guys, food should:

A. Promote a healthy physiological response.
B. Promote a healthy psychological response.
C. Promote a healthy gut, and
D. Not encourage inflammation/irritation of your digestive system or suppress the immune system.

If food fails in even one category, it’s out. And according to them, that pretty much leaves meats, eggs, certain nuts, vegetables and fruits. Protein should be from animals that live as close to their natural lifestyle as possible (wild-caught seafood that’s sustainably fished, organic and pasture-fed beef, natural-fed chicken, etc.). Vegetables and fruits should be local, organic if possible, and nutrient-dense. Whole30 comes across as a cousin to the Paleo Diet, more or less, but what immediately grabbed me was its focus on quality foods and attention to detail. A lot of the staples of the Whole30 diet — especially cooking fats, like coconut oil and clarified butter or ghee — is hard to find inside your neighborhood grocery store, but we’ve been making do with olive oil when we need something like that.

True to their word, the first week was really difficult. Ryan and I aren’t used to cooking in, so there was a bit of culture shock as we moved away from TV dinners and restaurants to fresh produce and lean meats. I think it was this double-whammy of a severe lifestyle change and body re-adjustment that nearly killed us this first week. We scrambled a LOT of the time, and a lot of the food we made was just what could be thrown together quickly and would relieve that constant, gnawing hunger in our stomachs. We’re still figuring out our dietary needs, how much food we should eat, and how to make food that we like and is tasty. Fear has kept us from trying a lot of spices, especially after we found out that most of our Celestial Seasonings teas were out because of the soy lecithin additive.

If I had to ding the diet for anything, it would be the black-and-white tone of it. I appreciate what Whole30 aims to do, and I dig the radical ‘reset’ of what you eat. But it’s so ridiculously restrictive that it’s very difficult to adhere to it unless you prepare all three meals a day yourself, and that takes a large amount of time and money to pull off. I’m away from home 12 hours a day during the week, so my time is fairly precious. Devoting even an hour a night to making dinner, eating it and cleaning the dishes when I’m done is a pretty big investment, but there it is.

Most of my time this past week has been taken up with food; researching what’s OK, figuring out how to prepare dishes without sauces that include sugar or butter, how to make things that can be reheated at work or keeps well cold. Most of my willpower has been taken up with trying to build this new habit — usually when I get a craving, I feed it. Having to check that impulse, directly confront and deny it isn’t something I’m used to doing, and it takes a good bit of brain power to do so.

Because of the time, mental and financial commitment, Whole30 has pretty much squeezed out my ability to do most other things. I haven’t written significantly yet this month, and what I have written has all been dedicated to my Pathfinder game. I haven’t exercised yet, either; between my mood and my energy levels, there’s no way I’m hitting the gym. In fact, I think the only thing in our house that’s been given significant attention is the kitchen, which has been better stocked and cleaner than it’s been in years.

So, one week down, three and some change to go. This weekend I prepared a lot of food ahead and developed a plan to make sure breakfast and lunch could be made as automatically as possible. Hopefully that will make it easier on us through the week so that cooking in isn’t quite as big a time commitment. Now that the worst of our body adjustments are behind us, hopefully we’ll have more energy to do other things as well.

A few things I’ve learned already is that I have the capacity to make a plan and stick to it, and just knowing that gives me more motivation to do so elsewhere. Life really is a series of choices, and you have to train yourself to make the right ones consistently. I’ve also learned the simple pleasure of making a meal that tastes good; I’ve always liked to cook and even though I’ve bitched about how much time it takes before I’m enjoying the time I spend in the kitchen for the most part. Even after the Whole30 diet ends and I can eat grains and cheeses again, I’ll try to keep that momentum for cooking in. And this might finally be the thing that breaks me of my sweet tooth. I’ll always have cravings for sugar, but it’s nice to know that I can steer away from it most of the time if I really set my mind to it.

Week two awaits: according to the Whole30 timeline, your energy stabilizes but the cravings kick in big time. By filling our time with a bit more exercise and other productive pursuits, I’m hoping we’ll nip those in the bud. We’ll see.

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Posted by on February 11, 2013 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection


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Thursday Prompt: The Future

Writing 150(Author’s Note: This little bit of fiction doesn’t really fit within any of the worlds that I regularly write about, but I have to admit that the main character feels an awful lot like Robert, the main character for Bird. I wanted to capture a sense of frustrated pessimism, but built on a pragmatic basis. I also wanted this to work mostly through dialogue and ‘stage direction’ as it were, but as it’s told from a first-person perspective there’s a little bit of ‘telling’ that shines through.)

“What do you suppose our future is going to look like?” Sarah was lying next to me in our backyard, looking up at the stars. They were much easier to see now that the electricity had gone out.

I sighed and tried not to look at the one star, bigger than the others, twinkling with erratic, angry life. I didn’t want to play this game with her, not now. “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”

She turned, and I could feel her looking at me. “I think it’ll be better than what we have now. Not right away, but eventually. We’ll build new farms and towns, and we’ll go into the cities only to salvage stuff we need.”

I nodded, and couldn’t stop myself from saying: “Where you’ll have to wade through the bones of the dead and can’t do anything about the infections you’ll get, because there’ll be no medicine.” I kept staring up. My eyes kept getting drawn to that star. It was the brightest thing in the sky now, maybe half the size of the moon.

She was quiet after that, for about a minute. I could feel her frowning at me, too. After a while she spoke. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that. You don’t have to ruin everything.”

“I’m not ruining everything. That is.” I pointed to the asteroid, now, forced myself to look at it. She did, too. I heard her gasp slightly and immediately regretted it. Then I felt angry at her for making me feel bad. “I’m just reminding you what’s going to happen.”

“I already know what’s going to happen.” She turned away, then. Away from me, away from the stars. She was staring at Rodney’s doghouse now, I knew. I tried not to think about how he disappeared a week ago, or wonder where he was. People were getting hungry these days. They were trying to stockpile. They were well past the point of being picky.

“No you don’t. You have this pie-in-the-sky idea of what’s going to happen, but you don’t know what’s really going to happen. That thing is going to smash into the planet, Sarah. And when it does, that’s it. The end. Done. You might think that you can climb out of whatever shelter your family has and just start over, but it’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be months before anybody even sees the sun again. If you survive — and that’s a pretty big if — you’re going to come out to a world that’s died. Completely. All the plants, all the animals. Just gone. You won’t go into the city to salvage anything, because the cities will have melted. The ash will have choked the oceans. The earth will have been scorched away. You can’t grow anything. You can’t build anything. All you can do is eat what you’ve got until it’s gone, and then you’re going to starve to death. That’s what the future is going to look like. And I sure as fuck don’t want to see it.”

There was a voice in my head telling me to stop. I think I heard her gasp, then whimper, then start to cry. But I kept going. I heard my voice getting higher and shriller, carrying through the quiet of the neighborhood, my panic exciting a dog whose family had left him days ago. He barked four times before he went quiet again. He didn’t have much fight left in him.

But neither did I. Our family had decided not to survive what was coming. We knew better. If we made it through the impact, we were not equipped in mind or body to handle what would come afterwards. What kind of life would that be? Sarah, sweet and naive, always tried to make things into a fairy tale no matter how bad they were. I think she understood that things would be scary for a little while, but thought it would get better really soon. I knew better. There was no getting better from this. The sooner she understood that, the better off she would be. There would be no more fairy tales. The asteroid would scorch all of that away.

“I don’t want to die,” she said through her tears. Her voice sounded small, afraid. The way it should be.

I turned to her and held her, scooting closer to her warmth. This would be the last time I’d get to do this, I told myself, and I started to cry too.

“I know you don’t,” I said. I kissed her hair, put my arms around her. “But if that thing does what we’re pretty sure it’s going to do, I don’t want to live through that.”

She cried harder, and so did I. I held her and she backed up against me. What else could we do? Far above us, but getting closer all the time, the asteroid brightened the night sky in its unnatural, malevolent way.

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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Thursday Prompt, Writing


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The AFI Top 100 Films: King Kong (#43)

Entertainment 150King Kong (1933)
Starring Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose (screenplay), Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace (story)
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

I think most people from my generation know all about King Kong but haven’t actually seen it. We know about the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, or the huge eye looking through the window followed by a giant hand grabbing at a shrieking woman. We know about Kong fighting giant dinosaurs, and Fay Wray tied up on the pillar and screaming her head off. And really, that’s all you need to know, right?

Well, somewhat. Most people from my generation got their first exposure to the full King Kong experience through Peter Jackson’s loving 2005 remake. And I have to say, most of the time I watched the original I was comparing it to that film. I’m not sure that really helped my appreciation of the 1933 classic, really, but I couldn’t quite help it.

Here’s the story: filmmaker extraordinaire Carl Denham (Armstrong) has an incredible idea for his next project, but needs to find a leading lady for it. He eventually finds down-on-her-luck actress (Ann Darrow), and just like that he’s sailing through the South Pacific to his top-secret location. Both Ann and the ship’s crew get more than they bargained for when she’s offered up to the mysterious island god Kong, a giant ape who falls for her exquisite beauty. The ship’s crew go after her and encounters the jungle’s oversized prehistoric wildlife, falling to horrible deaths. The ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot) manages to save Ann, and Denham manages to bring Kong down after the ape smashes through the village of the local tribe. Kong is brought to New York, where…things work out about as well as you expect them to.

The special effects get most of the attention here, and a surprising number of retrospectives claim that King Kong was the first true effects-driven blockbuster. I could totally see that, come to think of it. Moviemaking was still in its relative infancy, and these guys were trying things that had never been done before. The models and effects were extensively detailed, and the soundtrack was the most advanced in all of movies at the time. The writing wasn’t very subtle, but I don’t think that’s the fault of its age; there are tons of movies from that period capable of playing soft notes or letting moments land. But I think that the dialogue was crafted to be as big and overwrought as the monsters in it. There’s a lot of hammering home the motif they’re working with, and the foreshadowing comes across a little ham-fisted. I’m sure it only seems that way because we know the beats that follow so well.

Still, what impresses me is how brutal the movie is. It takes a little while to get going (Kong doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in), but when it does the film more than makes up for lost time. The dinosaurs are as impressive as Kong, and the sheer immensity and power of them come across very well. The crew’s search for Ann is a litany of horrors as they encounter monster after monster, losing men every step of the way. They can’t even stop to wonder at what they’re seeing because they’re far too busy trying to stay alive.

Kong is at its most graphic when innocents are involved. The scenes where the big ape trashes the jungle village and rampages through New York in search of Ann are surprising in just how careless and cruel he can be, stomping, biting and throwing people without even slowing down. I think this is the biggest change between the 1933 original and the 2005 remake. Jackson takes great care to make Kong a lot more sympathetic, and the affection between him and Darrow is actually there. But in the original, their relationship is a lot simpler — Kong desires Ann, but not in a way that anthropomorphizes him. She’s a prize, a toy, and there’s nothing in his actions to indicate something deeper than that. Ann, for her part, is horrified and traumatized by the ordeal. It comes across much more as Kong being a force of nature, and his brief reign of terror is a reminder of what happens when mankind tries to harness forces it cannot control or understand.

It may be just a little dated, and it comes across as a bit melodramatic (even considering its age), but King Kong is still an enormously impressive movie on its own. When you consider just how much it influenced movies of its time and going forward, it’s definitely earned its place in the annals of film history. I think these days it’s more to be enjoyed as a cinematic cultural touchstone than anything, a pivot point in the history of moving pictures.

Rating: 8/10.

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Posted by on February 6, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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February 2013 – The Plan

Writing 150One of the things I learned last month is that my writing practice hasn’t developed enough that I can simply write through unusual circumstances. I’ll need to plan around stretches of time where I know I’ll have company or will need to travel. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll never learn to write when there’s something else going on; it just means that I can’t count on it right now.

Thankfully, there’ll be fewer ‘interruptions’ of that nature this month. We’ve got the honor of having our last bit of Further Confusion 2013 company coming later this week, and Ryan and I will be cooking for each other and watching a movie for Valentine’s Day. But beyond that, things should finally start to settle down.

I only managed to complete one short story last month, so even though this is a shorter month I’m going to try for completing three of them. I’ve already started short story #2 (The Tough Fit), and hopefully I can knock that out in a few more days. The other short story I was using to test my commission model has been moved to this month as well, and once I’m done with #2, I’ll get in touch with my friend to see what he would like to do. Finally, I’d like to get an earlier jump on my short story for Megamorphics, so short story #4 will be the third part of “The Bite” for that.

In addition to those short stories, I’ll definitely be trying to update my notes from the writing desk three times a week — one AFI top 100 movie review, one Thursday Prompt short fiction, and one “general” post about writing, reading, spirituality, or life. I’m curious about which entries people find the most interesting, actually — is there anything you’d like to see me writing more about here? Ask, and you shall receive!

Finally, I’ll be running my Pathfinder game once or twice this month, and that will take a certain measure of preparation. I have a great bunch of guys playing with me, and they demand me to bring my A game. I haven’t spoken much about that, but it’s hard to articulate the naked fear I have before every game and the relief and elation over what they’re doing afterwards.

So that’s that. The plan is: short stories #2 – #4 by the end of the month, the Writing Desk updated three times a week, and my Pathfinder game twice this month. It’ll definitely be a full month and a good stretch to pull it off, but it’s less ambitious than January. Wish me luck, folks; I’m going in.

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Posted by on February 4, 2013 in Self-Reflection, Writing