Category Archives: Art

2015 Books of the Year

Each year for the past ten or so years (since I was inspired by my friend/book-pal Elizabeth), I’ve kept track of all the books I read and come up with a list of my favorites. In 2015, I read 83 books. Whew! And here they all are:

Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness

Sing Sing Nights (Harry Stephen Keeler), The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (Sax Rohmer), Here’s the Situation (Chris Millis)

Ah, good old Harry S. Keeler, the Ed Wood of books. He’s here joined by a mindlessly racist old adventure novel and the shameless ghostwritten memoir of Jersey Shore‘s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, in which actual author Chris Millis takes every opportunity to mock his subject.

Irredeemably Bad

The Overton Window (Glenn Beck), Daughter of the Blood (Anne Bishop), The Art of the Deal (Donald Trump & Tony Schwartz), Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice)

This was all for Hate Book Club. Daughter of the Blood was the worst. There were parts of The Overton Window that were actually kind of funny, and a couple were on purpose.

Just Kind of Okay (or So Forgettable I Forgot Them Already)

The People’s Platform (Astra Taylor), Twentysomething (Robin & Samantha Henig), The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother, & Me (Sofka Zinovieff), The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)

The first two books in this category had really interesting topics and ideas, but I forget the authors’ conclusions already. Oops.

Disappointing but with Some Merit

Jazz (Toni Morrison), The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (William Brashler), The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison), Operation Nemesis (Eric Bogosian), The Summer Book (Tove Jansson), A House and Its Head (Ivy Compton-Burnett)

A lot of these share the problem of “incorrect expectations.” For instance, I foolishly thought Jazz would have jazz in it. The Summer Book actually has a lot in common with The House on Mango Street: it’s a series of short-story postcards from a little girl’s summer with her grandmother. It even includes little drawings. Continue reading

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Top Ten 2014 Movies I Saw

I saw 26 Oscar-eligible movies in 2014. Part I of this ranking covered #26 through #11, but now here are the Top Ten and my awards choices!

A reminder:

1. All ten of these movies are extremely good and highly recommended. At least 4 are new personal favorites. How crazy is that?

2. Noteworthy movies I did not see: American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Under the Skin, Mr. Turner

The Really, Really, Really Good Movies

10. 22 Jump Street. How did Phil Lord and Chris Miller make not one, but two movies, in a single year, that turned trash ideas into comedy treasure? First they made that Lego commercial fun, and then they made a great sequel to a remake. 22 Jump Street has Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill solving crime Naked Gun-style, with help from Ice Cube and his beautiful daughter.

Ice Cube

Ice Cube, knowing how to wear a hat.

A lot of comedies these days don’t know how to use visuals or sound effects to get laughs. But 22 Jump Street has all sorts of inspired moments, like when Channing Tatum is too dumb to realize something until way too late–and while he’s figuring it out, an egg timer counts down and dings. By the way, how is Channing Tatum so funny? Somebody that muscular and stupid-looking shouldn’t be a gifted comedian, right? Life is unfair.

The end credits sequence is one of the funniest scenes from a movie this year, along with Keaton and Norton wrestling in Birdman, Eminem’s cameo in The Interview, and Josh Brolin eating a banana in Inherent Vice.

9. Interstellar. If you didn’t see this on IMAX, maybe don’t bother. The immersive visual spectacle is a huge element of this movie, as spaceships launch and crash, giant tidal waves bear down on you, and a dust bowl sweeps across the earth. The word “docking” will never mean the same thing to you after you see the thrilling docking sequence. And Interstellar brilliantly uses the laws of physics in outer space to prove that an explosion is even scarier when it’s silent.

The McConaissance continues full-blast, as the gifted comedian from Bernie and the frail, bitter survivor from Dallas Buyers Club turn into the proud father of Interstellar. For all the explosions, eerie landscapes, and shocking twists (and Interstellar is a movie, like The Homesman, where you really have no idea what will happen next), the best scene is still the one where McConaughey watches messages his children have beamed up to the spaceship.

Christopher Nolan is famous for making “puzzle movies” where all the pieces come together at the end, and I have to admit I did not like how they came together in this one. But I can forgive.

8. Two Days, One Night. This is one of the best, truest stories about depression and its effects that I have ever seen, read, or experienced. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, or seen a loved one suffer from it, this movie will speak to you. Continue reading

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Every 2014 Movie I Saw, Ranked (#26-11)

Growing up, and through teenage years, I saw maybe two movies a year, tops. My family wasn’t too crazy about most movies, and half the movies we wanted to see, we missed because they were out of the theatre in a week. But in college I got a stint writing reviews for the Rice newspaper, and now my friend Lindsay is aiding, abetting, and deepening my movie habit by insisting we go watch everything.

So here’s part I of my ranking of every 2014 movie I saw. Part II will have my top 10 and my personal choices for the Oscars, disregarding whether or not they actually got nominated.

Three prefatory notes.

1. 2014 was an amazing, amazing year for movies. There are 15+ very good movies on this list, and at least 4 new personal favorites. How crazy is that?

2. Noteworthy movies I did not see: American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Under the Skin, Mr. Turner

3. If something’s on Netflix, I’ll tell you.

The Bad Movies

The Imitation Game, the worst movie I saw in 2014

26. The Imitation Game. Imagine The King’s Speech without the fun lively performance of the speech teacher, or the inspirational uplift, or the awesome soundtrack, and you pretty much have The Imitation Game. It’s a long, slow, boring movie where Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Sherlock but with a different hair cut and more pronounced autism, deals with corny made-up Hollywood villains who want to stop him, corny made-up Hollywood surprise twist traitors, a corny Hollywood Token Female Character, corny Hollywood montage sequences, corny Hollywood CGI battle scenes, and corny Hollywood dialogue. The whole plot is Turing telling his life story to a police officer for literally no reason, thereby betraying state secrets and committing treason. And it’s all buried in the dull, lifeless directing by Morten “Tedium” Tyldum.

To give you an idea how bad The Imitation Game is, consider two facts. One: the real Alan Turing’s cryptography unit employed four women, and the Bletchley Park camp was staffed 75-80% by women. Here, all the ladies are represented by Keira Knightley. 3 of the 27 credited cast members are female, so there are fewer women in this entire movie than there were in Turing’s actual group.

Second fact: there is a line of dialogue that goes, “Sometimes the people no one imagines anything of, do the things no one can imagine.” Corny, right? Clunky and awkward, right? Obvious, shameless attempt to coin a stupid inspirational phrase, right? It gets said in the movie three times. By three people. Including a teenager who dies tragically. And it’s the last line of the movie. Ugh. That stupid cornball nonsense is way more offensive than the fact that they made up almost every part of the plot and Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing is wildly inaccurate.

25. The Theory of Everything. Boy, was it a bad year for Prestigious British Biography Movies About Famous 20th Century Scientists with Tragic Personal Lives. Continue reading

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2014 Books of the Year

In 2014 I read 80 books, just shy of last year’s 85. Here’s a quick list of all but the top ten, sorted. Afterward we’ll cover my ten favorites.

Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness

The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman (Harry Stephen Keeler); I, Chameleon (Harry Stephen Keeler); Mad Men on the Couch (Stephanie Newman); Fancy Pants (Susan Elizabeth Phillips)

For the first time ever, Harry Stephen Keeler isn’t the only author in the so-bad-it’s-good category! He’s joined by Stephanie Newman, a Freudian psychoanalyst whose entertaining book marries unsurprising, fluffy analysis of the Mad Men characters’ mental issues to a constant and unrelenting insistence that everybody would benefit from Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s just fun enough you can forgive how shamelessly self-promoting it is. Also: most book adaptations are movies, but this book has been turned into a cake.

Mad Men cake

The book is not really that thick.

The other so-bad-it’s-good book is the most entertaining entry so far in the ongoing Hate Book Club series, where my friend Patricia and I read terrible books so you don’t have to. And speaking of Hate Book Club…

Continue reading

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The Next Big Movie Franchise

Marvel Comics is in the middle of making approx. 35 movies about Marvel cartoon superheroes, like Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. DC Comics and Sony have recently joined the party; the J.R.R. Tolkein universe has somehow spawned a trilogy based on one book, The Hobbit; there will be a trilogy of Harry Potter spinoffs; and apparently there will now be a Lego movie franchise, based on the success of Lego Movie. Oh, and Avatar is currently being turned into a million sequels.

Forget all that crap. We all know what movie series America truly needs.

Theodore Roosevelt: the Movie Universe.

Theodore Roosevelt

“I think I’ll have the Incredible Hulk for lunch.”

The great thing about the TR-verse is, every single movie could be a true story. Here’s my chronological list of possible Theodore Roosevelt franchise films:

  • A comedy of difference/acceptance where a spoiled young Harvard brat moves to the backwoods of Maine and wins the trust of the locals
  • Drama centered on the single day when both his mother and his wife died
  • A classic-style Western about a cattle rancher capturing two hardened bandits and taking them on an epic journey to justice across the North Dakota Badlands
  • A tough new police commissioner of New York deciding to reform corrupt cops by going undercover himself on the city’s nighttime streets
  • The Spanish-American War: Rough Riders, invasion of Cuba, and heroic charge up San Juan Hill
  • December 1902: the hardball American president enters a showdown against Germany, the UK, and Italy, and narrowly avoids starting a World War where the Kaiser and England were united against the USA
  • Year-in-the-life movie about daughter Alice Roosevelt, who spent TR’s presidency romancing congressmen, jumping into swimming pools in front of foreign dignitaries, scandalizing Washington, and handing out medals at the 1904 Olympic marathon
  • Hell, what about an entire movie for the 1904 Olympic marathon, which was won by a guy who rode a car half the distance, and included a guy who poisoned himself with strychnine by mistake, plus a random mailman who stole fruit from orchards on the route and stopped to chat with fans–but still finished fourth
  • A courtroom drama about the Brownsville Incident, a shameful episode in American race relations
  • The wild, tense 1912 presidential election campaign, and the toll it took on all three candidates, two of whom were previously friends
  • The night when TR got shot in the chest and still gave a campaign speech, saying, “I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”
  • A harrowing adventure thriller about the fatal trip down the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle

Reminder: all those things are true. Theodore Roosevelt really was a crime-fighting cattle rancher. Theodore Roosevelt really did explore an uncharted Amazon tributary called the River of Doubt, with three crew members dying on the trip (and TR nearly dying, too). He really dodged starting World War I early. And a random mailman with a snack habit really did place fourth in the Olympic marathon.

Now, look. That’s twelve amazing-sounding movies, and I didn’t mention the Panama Canal. Or any of TR’s domestic policies. Or his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Or the fact that he forced his cabinet members to go skinny-dipping.

Theodore Roosevelt shooting an elephant

“I think I’ll have the Incredible Hulk for lunch.”

Theodore Roosevelt is the greatest character in American history. He’s one of our most complex, multi-sided, conflicted, and fascinating heroes. He’s a legendary badass, but also a severely flawed man who earned the hatred of Mark Twain. At times, he was even an antihero. The real challenge is not finding material: the challenge is finding an actor who can play Theodore Roosevelt.

John Alexander

Without yelling CHAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGE! in every scene and digging a canal in his mother’s basement.

And if you can even find such an actor, then you have to convince him to play the part for thirty years, so he can be young TR and old TR.

It will probably never happen. Which is too bad, because forget about comic book characters. Forget about Legos. Forget about blue aliens. Hell, forget about lightsabers. America has a glorious national epic, and that national epic is Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt shooting Bigfoot

At least this artist understands me.

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Mad Scientist Mr. Sax

Adolphe Sax is the most important musician in Belgian history, because he invented this:

Cannonball Adderley. He invented Cannonball Adderley.

The saxophone became a bonus instrument in classical orchestras, serving as garnish. But it took off in America and the rest of the world as the iconic jazz instrument.

But you know all that stuff. What you maybe don’t know is that Adolphe Sax also invented these:

Mr. Sax's Magical Emporium

Mr. Sax’s Magical Emporium

Sax was a sort of mad scientist, inventing all sorts of crazy new stuff to see if it worked. And here’s the thing: they mostly sounded pretty darn good!

I was lucky enough to arrive in Brussels during the Musical Instrument Museum’s Sax exhibition, containing hundreds of original instruments. The MIM paired select instruments with recordings, and your audio guide (a little tablet thing) could play all of them into your headphones. The results were fascinating, and often bizarre. An early “slide saxophone,” for instance, built the same way as a trombone, sounds grotesque. On the other hand, a non-sliding trombone sounded pretty terrific.

I'm kind of amazed this is not a more popular trombone today.

I’m surprised this is not a more popular trombone today. Aside from that it looks silly.

Sax is, in some ways, a creative artist the likes of which we no longer have. In response to requests from performers and opera houses, he would frequently invent new musical instruments. Composers would work with Sax to create new sounds that only existed, up until then, in their imaginations.

Sax wasn’t always a success. He was sued twice by rival instrument-makers hoping to kill his patents, and he went bankrupt twice. And then there’s the fact that a man who invented dozens, maybe hundreds of new designs, prototypes, and sounds is remembered nowadays for only one. A great one, though, which received an early celebrity endorsement from the composer Hector Berlioz.

Brussels is not a city loaded with tourist attractions, unless you’re a big fan of the European Union. But the Musical Instrument Museum, with its audio guide taking you through the sounds of history, is a huge plus, especially housed as it is in a gorgeous century-old art deco department store. And the Adolphe Sax special exhibition, on now through October 2015, is a marvel. The man may have struck gold only once, but that doesn’t mean he only created one instrument the world needed. It’s more like he only created one instrument the world was ready for. We could use more people like Adolphe Sax.

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Robin Williams, the Lost Clown

Robin Williams was one of our most gifted character actors. His best roles revealed a nervous sadness that was too close, maybe, to the truth.

The best of Williams’ characters were broken people, trying to find ways to heal themselves. In Awakenings, Dr. Sayer is a loner and a timid man who seems to have no life outside his work. The next year he played another doctor, in Dead Again, who lost his license and went adrift: “OK, I slept with a patient or two. It’s not like I didn’t care about them. I loved being a doctor.” Late in his career, Williams specialized in overt melancholics, like the mourning professor in Good Will Hunting, the stalking, creepy Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo, or a father wracked with grief in World’s Greatest Dad. Even when he was funny, Williams suggested something darker underneath. His performance in The Birdcage is notable for the way it’s so out-of-place. Everyone else in the film is outrageous, over-the-top, absurd, cheeky: Williams, known as the most over-the-top comedian of his era, barely cracks a smile.

From “The Birdcage”

Of course, Williams was known for being funny. He was manic, a comedian, a clown, who started in the world of stand-up and made a cocaine-fueled transition to showbiz with the nutty sitcom Mork and Mindy. When I look around the internet, most of the obituaries I see refer to the hits, movies like Patch Adams, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I loved those as a kid, but not as an adult. His worst comedies always revealed a desperate need to entertain, to be liked, to draw laughs. When you watch the parade of impersonations in Doubtfire, Williams seems like the class clown in school, who just craves popularity.

That’s close to true. Williams craved something deeper. His best comic roles acknowledge this: they show the loneliness, the need to connect. Can there be any doubt that Good Morning Vietnam stars Robin Williams playing a depressive? Adrian Cronauer, radio personality: a manic improviser, spinning joke after joke without even pausing to breathe, entertaining everybody he comes across. I’ve known people who hate the movie because they think that’s all there is to it; they think it’s a crass Vietnam comedy. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are also people who believe that, because Louis Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World” over a montage of destruction, Good Morning Vietnam is a straightforward anti-war movie. That’s closer to the truth.

From “Good Morning Vietnam”

Adrian Cronauer (in Williams’ portrayal) is another lonely man, trying to escape a shell he built around himself. He desperately, even creepily, pursues a love affair. He befriends a local boy and is betrayed when the boy turns out to be Viet Cong: but the betrayal he feels is not patriotic. It’s personal. You can see it at the end of the film, when he seems to have lost something dear.

The movie reveals its hero’s manic comedy as a cover, a facade, for deeper needs. It’s a deconstruction of Robin Williams’ entire career.

Initial word is that Williams committed suicide, at the end of a life troubled by depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. It’s deeply sad–and it’s even sadder because we can see so much of his struggle on-screen. Williams’ career was defined by the weird split between performances that buried his pain in silliness and spastic joking, and performances which were as emotionally naked as anything by De Niro. They shared a screen in Awakenings, when De Niro played a medical patient revived from a vegetative state by Williams. It’s an underrated movie: both actors are at their most intimate and truthful.

At the end of World’s Greatest Dad, Williams strips literally naked. That’s something we don’t really need to see. But so many of his performances are things we need to see: they speak to human insecurities about belonging, about loneliness, about connecting with other people. The performances speak for that kind of person who finds seemingly simple things like love and trust more difficult than the rest of us do. They remind us of the way we too often let our public persona drift away from our true selves.

Robin Williams was an essential artist. He was a study in defense mechanisms–and in removing them to face the truth.

From “World’s Greatest Dad”

P.S. In 2013, Robin Williams did an “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit. One user asked: “i’m going through a bad time at the moment. Any advice for people out there like me who may be going through bad times themselves, for whatever reason?”

Williams answered: “Reach out to friends. They’re out there. And know that you are loved.”

Please remember that.

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